Christianity, Modernity, and Missions in the Nineteenth Century – an Excerpt from The Unexpected Christian Century

The following is an excerpt from The Unexpected Christian Century, by Scott Sunquist.

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Christianity in the nineteenth century was closely wedded to the advancing Christian kingdoms in the world. Throughout the nineteenth century, when Chinese saw British boats unload kegs of opium followed by missionary families, it was difficult not to see that this was all part of the same foreign invasion. Chinese culture was being attacked through the body and the soul.

When missionaries in East and West Africa brought in pianos and organs and taught against polygamy, dancing, and the use of drums, it was hard not to assume that this was all an attempt to erase African cultures.

Cover ArtProtestants in the late nineteenth century, unlike those of the early nineteenth century, were more sophisticated and had the modern ideology of progressivism and social Darwinism. Missionaries often saw themselves as helping lower civilizations rise to become more civilized like them. The missionary calling was confused with the civilizing effort of Western nations. Jesus’s mission was to make people like Jesus; civilizing meant to make people like us. The two became confused in the late nineteenth century.

Modernity is in part a movement led by rational application of the mind to understand and even quantify the natural world. The modern or Enlightenment world studied the universe in all its great expanse and all its microscopic detail. This movement did not find God. God became an unnecessary presupposition for the modern person. Christianity dwelled in an uneasy alliance in this new world. As a result Christians struggled to make sense of how to appropriate this new knowledge.

All Christians had to deal with the new reality. Some adapted the new teachings and saw that in the Bible and Jesus’s teachings there is also development and progress. However, in the original teachings of Jesus, as these Christians read them, the real Jesus was not the miraculous atoning savior; he was a model and example of what it means to be fully human. Jesus was more like a perfect human than a God-man. These teachings emphasized the humanity of Jesus and the goodness of humanity. People and societies would be nurtured and slowly evolve or develop to greater peace and harmony. The era was an optimistic and progressive one, and this version of Christianity became known as liberal or modern Christianity.

Other Christians responded by confronting the new teachings, holding on to the past and affirming a scientifically verifiable Bible. They used the word “inerrant” to describe the Bible and began to defend literal (can we say scientific?) interpretations of the Bible. In an effort to fend off newer theologies that treated the Bible as any other history book and Jesus as any other man, these Christians circled the wagons and established fundamental teachings about Jesus and the Bible that must be believed.

Some of this group remained evangelical (focused on the evangelistic message and the need for conversion); others turned fundamentalist (more concerned with hard scientific facts to prove the Bible and creation). Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, was being divided from within. Without any outside persecution, Western Christianity began subdividing and rapidly declining. Missionaries in the early twentieth century carried these tensions and convictions with them throughout the world.

©2015 by Scott W. Sunquist. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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