American Foreign Mission Movement, c. 1870–1920s
- Tracy Neal LeavelleTracy Neal LeavelleCreighton University
The American foreign mission movement at the turn of the 20th century adopted as its watchword “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” The rapid expansion of missionary boards and the enthusiasm of volunteers and supporters corresponded with European and US colonial expansion around the world. For many evangelical observers, the opening of the world seemed to offer the greatest opportunity yet to share the gospel with all. “The crisis of missions,” as one prominent author put it, required that Christians recognize the spiritual importance of this moment. Divine providence appeared to be removing obstacles to evangelization. Failure to act decisively would be a form of apostasy, an abandonment of responsibility toward God and the world.
Inspired by a revivalistic spirit, women and men joined a growing list of missionary and moral reform organizations. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions continued the work it had started in the early 19th century. New organizations like the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and the World Student Christian Federation created networks that linked Christian evangelists and communities around the world. They published magazines, books, and pamphlets and sent inspectors, organizers, and speakers on tours of the United States and Great Britain and on grand transoceanic voyages. In 1910 the movement celebrated progress and planned for next steps at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Steeped in a sense of moral and racial superiority, attendees promised to transform the world.
Women found an increasingly important place in the US foreign missionary movement, especially as evangelical work diversified to include the establishment of schools and medical missions. American women labored in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere and eventually made up the majority of workers in the field. Women brought with them an ideology of domesticity that they hoped to share with their sisters abroad. Women from the US viewed local women in the missions as socially degraded and in desperate need of moral uplift. The moral authority that came with female standing in the home seemed to explain the elevated status and Christian liberty enjoyed by American women. At the same time, as more highly educated single women entered the field, the movement created space for new models of womanhood. These “New Women” lived independent lives out in the world, apart from the confines of the home.
American missionaries at the turn of the century became deeply entangled in the imperial connections of the United States and the world. While it would be a mistake to reduce their work simply to a particular strand of imperialism, it is important to understand their connections to American expansion. Missionaries took advantage of openings created by colonial activity and contributed to the spread of American cultural, political, and economic influence at a critical moment in the development of national power in the international arena.