Early Christian Missions History

I am being asked to teach a course in Missions History. I haven’t done that in a few years.

I will be using the 2004 Edition of “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya” by Ruth Tucker. I like the book because it is a light but informative read. Because it is primarily biographical, people can often connect to it better (people tend to be more interested in people and stories, than events and facts). Tucker is willing to show missionaries, warts and all. Those who write biographies about missionaries that are almost hagiographic really do a disservice to the reader… AND the missionary. I also appreciate that she spends time on missions in a wide variety of its flavors— old and new, men and women, Catholic and Protestant, First World and Majority World, etc. The only major complaint I have with the book is not even a complaint about the book itself, but the risk associated with the strategy. When missions history of the church is built on biographies of missionaries, there is the risk that people will think it is all about a few limited missionaries. Carlyle’s “Great Man” Theory of World History has, sadly, soaked into Christian Church and Missions history. That being said, I don’t believe the book ever suggests an embracing of this perspective.

I do wish that Missions History books would focus more on First Millennium Missions. There are few good books on this, as far as I can see. Stephen Neill’s book on Christian Missions (a good book over all) only spends 50 pages on the first 15 centuries (around 3 pages per century). Here are a couple I would recommend.

  1. Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, by Adolf Harnack. This is a relatively old book (1908), but the scholarship is excellent. It is available for free at CCEL (https://www.ccel.org/ccel/harnack/mission.html). Sadly, the CCEL editor for the book’s page writes seemingly with the goal of steering people away from the book. The editor notes Harnack’s preference of the Synoptic Gospels over the Gospel of John. This has little relevance to the book. However, Harnack’s concern of Greek philosophical influence on early Christian writings is a quite valid concern and should be considered. Anyway, I strongly recommend reading the book, and it is FREE. Also, Harnack’s book devotes more than 100 pages per century.
  2. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. by Philip Jenkins. This book is exactly 100 years more recent— 2008. It looks at church and missions history outside of the drift to the Northeast from Jerusalem. This is actually a huge part of Christian history. And for comparison, it devotes approximately 30 pages per century. It is very much still in print, so recommend you search for it— such as in Amazon.

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