Wednesday, April 24, 2024

19th Century American Presbyterian Missionaries

In my Sunday school series on American Presbyterian history, I recently gave a lesson on American Presbyterian foreign missions (with a focus on the 1800s and early 1900s). You can listen to it here. In this post, I thought I would introduce a few of the missionaries from this time. 

Justin Perkins (Iran/Persia)

Presbyterian missionaries went to many Middle Eastern peoples, such as the Syrians, Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Egyptians, Jews, Assyrians, and Persians. Rev. Justin Perkins was the first Presbyterian missionary to Persia (modern-day Iran). He was from Massachusetts and a graduate of Andover Seminary. In 1833 he received a commission from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (mostly composed of Congregationalists and Presbyterians) and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. After a long and perilous journey, he arrived on the field in 1834. In 1835, Perkins established his headquarters at Urmia (northwest Iran), founding a church, a school, and a printing house. 

The plan was to disciple the Assyrian Christians and equip them to carry the Christian message to their Muslim neighbors. The Assyrians were known as “Nestorians,” members of the Church of the East that had been cut off during the Nestorian controversy of the 5th century, although they did not necessarily hold to Nestorianism. Perkins found them to be more simple and scriptural than other Eastern denominations, with a respect for Scripture, despite only have a vague and meager understanding of it. He was able to work with the Nestorian church leaders. He and other missionaries were invited to preach in their churches and to help teach their ministers. You can read his accounts and writings, as well as his biography written by his son, on the Log College Press website: Justin Perkins (1805-1869)

In 1869, Rev. Perkins died and “The Mission to Nestorians” was renamed “The Mission to Persia.” More efforts were given to evangelize Muslims directly, although this was difficult. At some point, they also began establishing Presbyterian churches. Not only did some Assyrians and Armenians became members of Presbyterian churches, but also some converts from Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. In 1871, the work was transferred from the American Board to the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church. In 1934, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Iran became an independent denomination, having previously been a synod of the PCUSA.

Archibald Alexander Hodge (India) 

A.A. Hodge is better known as a theological and seminary professor at Western and Princeton seminaries. But before that, he went to India as a missionary. Named after the first professor of Princeton Seminary and the son of another professor, he grew up in Princeton, NJ in an environment in which missions were often discussed and promoted. At Princeton Seminary, there was a monthly meeting for prayer and an address on foreign missions, a brotherhood of those who had committed themselves to missionary work and who recruited others, and a “Society of Inquiry on Missions and the General State of Religion.” This interest was also supported by their Postmillennial eschatology, believing that it was God’s plan to bless the church’s labors in such a way that the nations would come to Christ and be brought under the sanctifying influence of the gospel. For example, take professor Samuel Miller's 1835 address before the American Board, "The Earth Filled with the Glory of the Lord." 

As David Calhoun recounts in history, Princeton Seminary, vol. 1 (p. 193), A.A. Hodge adopted these convictions and took an interest in missions from an early age. 
“Ten-year-old Archibald and his [younger] sister Mary Elizabeth gave a letter on June 23, 1833, to Princeton Seminary graduate James R. Eckard, who was soon to sail for Ceylon. Addressed to the ‘heathen,’ it read:

‘Dear heathen: The Lord Jesus Christ hath promised that the time shall come when all the ends of the earth shall be His kingdom. And God is not a man that He should lie nor the son of man that He should repent. And if this was promised by a Being who cannot lie, why do you not help it to come sooner by reading the Bible, and attending to the words of your teachers, and loving God, and, renouncing your idols, take Christianity into your temples? And soon there will be not a Nation, no, not a space of ground as large as a footstep, that will want a missionary. My sister and myself have, by small self-denials, procured two dollars which are enclosed in this letter to buy tracts and Bibles to teach you. Archibald Alexander Hodge and Mary Eliz. Hodge, Friends of the Heathen.’” 
After he graduated from the seminary in 1846, he and his wife set off to Allahabad (modern-day Prayagraj) in northern India where he served as a missionary evangelist. Three years later, they were forced by health problems to return to the USA. As Barry Waugh explains, 
Even though his service had been only a few years, he had provided significant guidance to the mission at Allahabad by harmonizing disagreeing elements and providing a unifying force through his leadership and congeniality. But what was more important, his experience in the mission field enhanced his zeal for the mission cause, gave him a grasp of missionary problems, and began a life-long interest in overseas work that made him a trusted counsellor for all those among his pupils contemplating a missionary career.
The same century saw the rise of a different eschatology, that of Premillennial Dispensationalism, which took a less optimistic view of the future. It believed that history is marked by a series of dispensations that end in apostasy; that Israel and the church are very distinct; that we live at the end of “church age” in progressive apostasy; that Christians will be raptured before a seven year tribulation which ends in Christ’s coming and a millennial kingdom in which Israel would enjoy its promises, followed by the eternal state. One of its founders, J.N. Darby, said in 1840, 
What we are about to consider will tend to shew that, instead of permitting ourselves to hope for a continued progress of good, we must expect a progress of evil; and that the hope of the earth being filled with the knowledge of the Lord before the exercise of his judgment, and the consummation of this judgment on the earth, is delusive … Truly Christendom has become completely corrupted; the dispensation of the Gentiles has been found unfaithful: can it be restored? No! Impossible.
While Premillennial Dispensationalists would continue sending missionaries, the expectations and strategies would shift in accordance with their shift in doctrine, as Iain Murray recounts in his book The Puritan Hope. A.A. Hodge noticed this shift and continued to uphold the older long-term vision of the Postmillennial hope. Commenting on Premillennial ("Millenarian") missionaries, he said, 
Millenarian missionaries have a style of their own. Their theory affects their work in the way of making them seek exclusively, or chiefly, the conversion of individual souls. The true and efficient missionary method is, to aim directly, indeed, at soul winning, but at the same time to plant Christian institutions in heathen lands, which will, in time, develop according to the genius of the nationalities. English missionaries can never hope to convert the world directly by units. (Quoted in Murray, p. 215)
Hunter Corbett (China)

Presbyterian missions in China began in 1843, and twenty years later, in 1863, Hunter Corbett graduated from Princeton Seminary, was ordained, and sailed to China. He nearly died on the six month voyage to China, and he arrived during the Tai-ping rebellion. Despite receiving advice to return, he stayed there and began by opening a school. In 1866, he became pastor of a church in Chefoo (Tantai), in northeastern China, between Beijing and Shanghai. 

Corbett continued as the pastor at that church for the rest of his life and also traveled throughout that province as an itinerant preacher. He died at the age of 84 in 1920. In 1913, the mission in that province had 69 organized churches and 12,411 communicant members. 

In 1905, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA published, Counsel to New Missionaries from Older Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church. Corbett contributed a chapter "The Spirit and Methods of Evangelization." He opened his chapter by saying, 
The supreme aim of every missionary should be to preach Christ so that every one must hear, and that souls will be won for Christ and believers established in the faith.

“Do the work of an evangelist,” testifying to everyone “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ,” should be ever heard as God's voice from heaven, constraining everyone to labor with untiring zeal, in the confident hope that by the blessing of God the entire land will be soon filled with self-propagating and self-governing Christian churches.
In that chapter, he went on to promote the use of well-placed street chapels, in addition to regular churches, for daily preaching, perhaps with an attached museum and reading room. He also promoted and gave advice for itinerant circuit preaching, Bible classes, raising up native evangelists, Christian schools, medical work accompanied by evangelism, and the continued discipleship of converts. You can find this chapter and his other writings on the Log College Press website: Hunter Corbett (1835-1920)

Ashbel Green Simonton (Brazil) 

The first Presbyterian missionary to Brazil was Rev. Ashbel Green Simonton. He was inspired to missionary work while studying at Princeton Seminary by a sermon by one of his professors, Charles Hodge. In his journal, he wrote,
I have listened today to a very interesting sermon from Dr. Hodge on the duty of the church as a teacher. He spoke of the absolute necessity of instructing the heathen before success in the spread of the Gospel could be expected, and showed that any hopes of their conversion based upon the extraordinary agency of the Holy Spirit directly communicating truth were unscriptural. This sermon has had the effect of leading me to think seriously of the foreign mission field. The little success apparently attending missionary operations has tended to dissuade me from thinking of going. But I see I have been wrong. That the heathen are to be converted to God is clearly revealed in the Scriptures and I am convinced that day is coming rapidly. Those who are now laboring are preparing the way and God will not suffer their labor to be in vain. He who lays the foundation will receive an equal reward with those who perfect the building. I have never before seriously considered the question as to my duty to go abroad, always taking for granted that my sphere of labor would be somewhere in our great and rapidly growing country. It is, however, I feel convinced, a matter to be taken into deep consideration whether since most prefer to remain it is not my duty to go.
In 1859, he graduated from seminary, was ordained, and arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He came with a plan and got to work in earnest. He organized a church (1862), a newspaper (1864), a presbytery (1865), and a seminary (1867), before dying of malaria or yellow fever in 1867 at the age of 34. As his biography states, "He was not content merely to proclaim the Gospel as widely as possible, nor to set up a 'mission' which would do the job of evangelism. His supreme purpose was to lay the foundations for a Church that would be the instrument of evangelistic penetration throughout Brazil." You can find his writings and biographies at the Log College Press website: Ashbel Green Simonton (1833-1867)

Other missionaries from the southern Presbyterian church (the PCUS) came to Brazil as well. The Presbyterian Church of Brazil held its first synod in 1888 and at that point had 20 missionaries, 12 native ministers, and about 60 churches. In 2021, it reported having 5,420 churches and 702,947 members. It remains a confessional Presbyterian denomination and has fraternal relations with my denomination, the OPC.

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