Religioscope – First, could you tell us something about the background of evangelical missions?
Mark Noll – Protestant mission begins with German pietists at the end of the 17th century and then is continued further by the Moravians in the 18th century, about a century before English-speaking Protestants are involved in missionary work. Carey from Britain is the first recognized cross-cultural English-speaking Protestant missionary. William Carey goes out to India in 1792.
In America there is mission interest in the first decade of the 19th century. Adoniram Judson early in the 1810s goes out to Burma and all of this missionary activity, whether German, British or American, is related to revival, related to the Great Awakening, the pietistic revivals – they all are missions of evangelisation by people who themselves have been quickened in their own personal faith and now have come to the conclusion that the gospel message pertains to all people and that they have some kind of responsibility to share that message.
Religioscope – At the very beginning, which were the denominations most involved in those endeavours? And when did the first non-denominational agencies appear?
Mark Noll – The early British missionaries are Anglican and Baptist, but almost from the start there is interdenominational cooperation. The first major American mission agency is the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and that is a society dominated by Congregationalists, but it has other groups. The most powerful mission agency in the early years of the 19th century is the Methodist Church, but its missionary work is aimed mostly at the non-churched population of the United States and United Kingdom.
The important interdenominational societies begin after the formation of the Evangelical Alliance in the 1840s. A major interdenominational society would be the China Inland mission which I believe begins in the 1870s-1880s.
Most missionary work, I think, would be denominational or closely related to denominations before the 20th century. It would be towards the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century particularly that we would get many more interdenominational and nondenominational mission societies.
Religioscope – Were there originally some clear target areas and how did that evolve over the years?
Mark Noll – Target areas for Protestant missions, as I understand it, followed the pattern of earlier Catholic missions. So where strong Protestant nation states were present around the world, these were the places Protestant missionaries either went to or close to. So William Carey (1761-1834) went to India, Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) went to Burma and these were places where either Britain or America or both had some kind of a reasonable interest.
There is mission to the Far East, to China early on, to India early on, not to Africa which comes later as a mission venture, even though there is a British presence in West Africa, Sierra Leone in the 1790s. The idea there was that evangelised Africans, actually freed slaves, would be the potent missionaries.
Japan is not a mission field until after the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century. Africa becomes a very important mission field when the scramble for Africa takes place, when the European states colonize in Africa. So the way to see where English-speaking Protestant missionaries were active is to have some awareness of where first Britain and then the United States would exert some kind of an international presence either through colonization or through trade.
Religioscope – But this is significant for the first period. Or does it still play a role later?
Mark Noll – It does in the sense that China remains a very important mission field until it is lost to the colonizing powers. Africa remains an important mission field in conjunction with European colonization. American colonization is usually more informal through trade and political influence rather than direct colonization. Africa as a whole, China in particular, India were strong places to which Protestant missionaries were sent until about 1950 and then world events, of course, have opened up some places and closed some places since the middle of the 20th century.
Religioscope – We have some people considering Europe as a mission field too. When does it begin and do people relate differently to Europe as to so-called “pagan” countries?
Mark Noll – This is a very important question. Much of Europe early on is considered to be a mission field. In those terms as I understand it, it’s the old Protestant-Catholic division. The Protestants would have highlighted Catholic countries of Europe as mission field. I think maybe, speaking from the American point of view, it’s the experience of the two world wars that raised the idea that so-called Christian Europe might actually be a mission field for evangelisation. I’m a little shaky on the details, but I think most of what would be considered American Christian mission ventures to Europe for Protestants would come after World War II.
Religioscope – In relating to Europe as a mission field, do you notice a different way and a different kind of approach?
Mark Noll – Yes, indeed, coming out of Britain especially but used by Americans have been world surveys that try to enumerate general Christian adherence but then for evangelical constituencies try to give some estimates for the number of practicing evangelicals in a country and given the relatively low rates of church attendance in most of Western Europe, apart from Ireland, most of Eastern Europe, apart from Poland, these numbers often look fairly low, which then translates in evangelical constituencies in thinking of these countries as mission countries. The interesting thing about these surveys is that today they show many African countries as much more actively evangelical than most European countries and so that plays upon mission strategising and mission thinking.
Religioscope – A turning point in recent years has been the fall of the Soviet Empire and the opening of a new mission field. Did you notice that this really boosted missionary activities and gave them a new impetus?
Mark Noll – After 1989, there has been a tremendous surge of missionaries into the former Soviet Union, particularly by American missionaries, but interestingly enough also by South Korean. A colleague, Mark Elliott, who examined these things really long before the fall of the Iron Curtain, estimated that by the mid-1990s there were about thirty-five hundred new evangelical Protestant missionaries in the former Soviet Union, not just in Russia but Ukraine, Belarus, Eastern Europe. Those were overwhelmingly Protestant and evangelical.
Of course the surge of evangelical Protestant missionaries has led to a lot of resentment from the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe. Some of that resentment has been translated into positive dialogue, but some of it just remains nasty resentment.
Religioscope – We see today indeed that several tense religious situations around the world derive from what could be described as “conflicts of proselytism”. How far is the awareness of cultural and religious sensitivities in missionary areas? Do American evangelical circles think about the possible consequences of proselytism when people are not aware of local sensitivities?
Mark Noll – Again, that is a very important question and the full answer would have to be very complicated and differentiated. Within American mission circles, you can find the most crass, ugly American cultural insensitivity, and a remarkably up-to-date, well-educated cultural adaptation. I think the general missionary American awareness of the world is improving. After World War II and for a few decades there might have been less cultural sensitivity from American missionaries. I think by and large the American missionaries are improving in their training, in their cultural awareness. But it is the case that wherever there are strong hereditary religious traditions into which evangelical Protestant missionaries come, there is religious tension. So it can be sometimes Protestant-Orthodox tension in Eastern Europe, Protestant-Muslim tension in Nigeria, Indonesia, some parts of the Middle East where there are actually Protestant missionaries. But also wherever there is a strong local religious tradition would be the general conclusion.
The American circumstance itself makes it harder for Americans to realize the cultural effects of personal religious change, because we live in a society where change in your religion has about as much cultural impact as change in your political affiliation or maybe changing where you live. These are major changes, but they don’t disorient life in a sense that a conversion would lead to the cutting off from family relationships, from accusations that you weren’t really truly now a Romanian, Chinese or Indian person . That is a hard reality for Americans to understand, because of the nature of American religious circumstances.
Religioscope – Quite often there have been suspicions against US evangelists in different parts of the world. There have been claims that missionaries were being used as tools of “American imperialism”. There is obviously a lot of myth-making around it, but according to our historical knowledge, how far did American foreign policy seriously consider the possible influence of evangelical missionaries for promoting American interests?
Mark Noll – Without pretending to be an expert in these areas, my own sense is that there have been, and may in fact continue to be, instances where missionaries cooperate with the US State Department , with the US Central Intelligence Agency, to provide information about circumstances around the world. This certainly took place in the early years of the Vietnam conflict, in Angola during the East-West conflict there in the 70s and 80s, it certainly took place in some areas of Latin America.
My own sense however is that most Protestant missionaries, even those with a pretty strong anti-communist conviction, were pretty thoroughly pietistic and were much more likely to offend by a kind of general cultural insensitivity than they were by becoming a tool of the State Department or US foreign policy. I’m not trying to whitewash situations by saying there was never any collusion between missionaries and the government, because there was. But I think, if I can speak as a bumptious American to Europeans, European nervousness about American power in general translates into magnifying those few cases where this kind of instrumental, utilitarian usage actually took place.
Religioscope – Your research shows evidence of a growing number of non-US personnel employed by US missionary agencies in the recent years. Could you please briefly elaborate about that trend?
Mark Noll – Certainly one of the strongest trends in world Protestant missionary service are the number of non-Western missionaries in general, first of all. Second, the number of non-Western missionaries that work in cooperation with Western centered mission agencies. So, almost all of the major interdenominational Protestant evangelical mission agencies would have a large component of non-Western workers.
Such is the case with Campus Crusade for Christ International, Youth with a Mission, the SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics), and there are several others more. Campus Crusade for Christ, for example, would have maybe a forth of its international mission force as American. Youth with a Mission would have perhaps a sixth of its international force.
This can look like a situation of US proxies and in probably some cases it is, but it is also a case of recruiting local people who know local situations and who are able to adjust more rapidly to local cultures. Certainly, the US is unbelievably wealthy by world standards and I think that wealth does in fact influence things, change people.
Maybe I am too optimistic, too sanguine but I think we are seeing a lot more missionary cooperation now than ever before. From countries like South Korea, Brazil, South Africa, the Christian states in the Eastern part of India, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland there are very large non-Western missionary forces sponsored by non-Western agencies. With most of the money not coming from the West.
Religioscope – Funding for Campus Crusade would still come heavily from the US.
Mark Noll – World Vision, which I did check, has a tremendous budget for mostly aid-related projects They do a little bit of evangelistic proselytism . Their last figures I saw on the web site was a staggering $950 million raised in one year and 55% of that came from the US which means 45% came from elsewhere, although most of that would have been Canada or Western Europe.
Religioscope – Finally, what are the recent trends do you observe in US foreign missions over the recent decades? For instance, do you see some specific churches tending to play a leading role, and especially what is currently the role of non-denominational agencies?
Mark Noll – The Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, the network of the Churches of Christ are denominational agencies in the United States that have large missionary forces. But the ones with the most missionaries, the most money, active in the most countries are Campus Crusade, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, Youth with a Mission, Operation Mobilization: they are all interdenominational mission societies.
What this means for the future is hard to say, because all of these groups are aimed at forming churches in mission receiving countries, and it’s not entirely clear to me what sort of churches are being formed. I think in some cases these American sponsored and cooperative missions are in fact working with churches already on the ground, in some cases there are new churches being founded.
The raising of funds and the recruiting of volunteers in recent American history has moved very strongly in the direction of non-denominational, evangelical agencies, with denominational evangelical agencies coming next and then mainline Protestant agencies coming far behind.
The interview with Prof. Noll took place in Paris on 15th March 2002. He was interviewed by Jean-François Mayer. The tape recording was transcribed by Nancy Grivel-Burke.