Changes in American Protestant Missions, 1910 to the Present

Saving the World? The Changing Terrain of American Protestant Missions aimed to provide a better understanding of the changes that have taken place in Protestant missions in the years following the landmark Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910.



In 1910 over a thousand Protestant missionaries, theologians and church leaders from around the world gathered in Edinburgh, Scotland for an unprecedented World Missionary Conference. Saving the World? chronicles the assumptions and expectations that Protestants carried into the 20th century and highlights some of the major -- and unexpected -- developments in the hundred years since that meeting in Scotland.  

The ISAE Project: Resources

DVD cover for Missions Conference at Duke Divinity SchoolA 30-minute “Ken Burns”-style video highlighting the themes of the conference is available to the public from Vision Video >>

An edited volume of the conference proceedings, featuring an introduction by Dr. Mark Noll, was published by University of Alabama Press.

Other papers from the conference are featured in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research July 2012 "Faith, Flags, and Identities" issue. The IBMR is a quarterly publication of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, CT. The featured papers in this issue include:

  • Janel Kragt Bakker’s examination of “sister church” relationships between congregations in the United States and the Global South
  • Heather Curtis’ analysis of the impact of early Pentecostal missions on global Christianity
  • Peter Bush’s look at Canadian Presbyterian missions to Canada’s native peoples
  • Mark Ellingsen’s appraisal of changes in African American missions in the 20th century
  • An examination of the role of Wesley hagiography in Methodist missions around the world by Jason Vickers

View the IBMR issue >>


Saving the World? The Changing Terrain of American Protestant Missions, 1910 to the Present

The Edinburgh Conference: Western Missionary Assumptions of 1910

The Edinburgh conference planned the evangelization of the world, but fewer than 20 delegates came from outside the West. Delegates assumed that their “errand into the world” required Western leadership. They knew where the mission field was, whom they needed to proselytize, and why they needed to do it. Certain that Christianity and civilization were divinely ordained to proceed from the West to the world, they approached their task with enormous resolve in their message and its transforming potential for human history and eternal destiny.

A Diverse, Less Western-Centered Missionary Reality

Despite its claims, Edinburgh marked both a high point in Protestant missions and the end of an era. Missions historian Andrew Walls noted recently that in the century since Edinburgh, all of the Conference’s assumptions about Christianity were proved wrong. The evangelization of the world proceeded, but in other hands than Edinburgh delegates imagined, making clear that the vigor of global Christian expansion did not depend on the West. Robust forms of popular Christianity (like Pentecostalism) that were not on mainline Protestant radar screens in 1910 have become unstoppable as they have moved around the world. In 1910, no one imagined that Christians outside the West could perceive the West as a mission field. Rapid Protestant growth in Africa, Asia, and South America makes it evident that Christianity will thrive with or without American missionaries or resources. How could Edinburgh—where people who devoted their lives to evangelism sought to map its future—have been so wrong about the future course of Western missions?

Pentecostals in AfricaHow do congregations relate to the new Christian diversity in the United States—the vast non-denominational sector, much of which embraces a charismatic style; and the growing Pentecostal movement, especially among Latino, African, and Asian immigrants? How does the presence of large groups of non-Western students interacting with American faculty influence discourse on missions in seminaries and congregations? Obviously, some of the changes in American Protestant conceptions of missions are profound. A comparison between 1910 and 2010 allows shifts to become clearer.

The ISAE Project: Events

The ISAE sought to explore these important issues through a grant competition as well as a series of commissioned research projects. Many project participants fanned out across the nation to present their findings at specially-convened seminars held at seminaries including Fuller Evangelical Theological Seminar in Pasadena, CA (May 2010), Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY (September 2010), Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary in New York City (September 2010), and the University of Chicago Divinity School (October 2010).

Poster for Missions Conference at Duke Divinity SchoolThe culminating project event was hosted by Duke Divinity School on March 24-25, 2011. Through lectures and panel discussion, over 100 scholars and attendees examined the American mission enterprise over the last century and discussed the extent to which America continues to play a role in the shaping of global Christianity.

Plenary addresses were given by Brian Stanley (Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh), Dana Robert (Center for Global Christianity and Mission, Boston University), Kathryn Long (Wheaton College), and Jonathan Ebel (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

Presentations were given by Douglas Carl Abrams (Bob Jones University), Alvyn Austin (Toronto, Ontario), Janel Kragt Bakker (Candler School of Theology, Emory University), Peter Bush (Westwood Presbyterian Church, Winnipeg, Manitoba), Rachel Cope (Brigham Young University), Heather Curtis (Tufts University), Mark Ellingsen (Interdenominational Theological Center), Leighton Ford (Leighton Ford Ministries), Marsha Snulligan Haney (Interdenominational Theological Center), Thomas Kidd (Baylor University), David King (Emory University), David Komline (University of Notre Dame), Xi Lian (Hanover College), Robert Priest (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Mark Rogers (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Sarah Ruble (Gustavus Adolphus College), and Kyle Welty (Baylor University).

At the conclusion of the event, the implications of the conference’s subject were explored by a panel of scholars: Jonathan Bonk (Overseas Ministries Study Center), Angelyn Dries (Saint Louis University), Mark Noll (University of Notre Dame), Dana Robert (Boston University), and Brian Stanley (University of Edinburgh).


Lilly Endowment, Inc.


This project was funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment >>

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