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"It is our bounden duty": theological contours of New Zealand's missionary movement, 1890-1930.

Up to 1930, at least 750 New Zealanders went overseas as Protestant missionaries, 60 percent of them women. Drawn from a broad spectrum of Protestant denominations (with Presbyterians, Brethren, Baptists, Methodists, and Anglicans in the majority), they went to a variety of destinations, particularly India, the Southwest Pacific, China, and South America. They were supported by a growing network of churches, organizations, and individual supporters. Women and children were especially involved and enthusiastic supporters. By the 1920s missions occupied a central position in the priorities, rhetoric, and self-identity of many New Zealand churches and denominations. Mission theology in this period, framed within a broadly evangelical construction, varied in both definition and conception. In this article I outline these theological contours and their changing nature, focusing particularly on the language and imagery employed by men and women across the denominational spectrum between 1890 and 1930. (1)

Theological Construction of Foreign Missions

Analysis of a wide range of documentary material indicates that New Zealanders employed an astonishingly wide range of words, images, and concepts in their approach to and understanding of foreign missions. These concepts, as well as the importance given to them in different time periods, are indicated in table 1. These different ways in which people understood the purpose and essence of mission were by no means discrete or mutually exclusive. Some of the categories mentioned in table 1 increased in perceived importance; others decreased. One (establishing an indigenous church as the goal of missions) was not mentioned before 1919.

A number of antithetical word pairs appeared in discussion of these descriptors and became defining images in the theological construction of missions (table 2). Underlying these antithetical word pairs was a dualistic view of the world that differentiated sharply between Christendom and heathen non-Christendom.

Additionally, the data show that a variety of biblical texts were appealed to in missionary sermons and addresses. From 1890 onward, use of the Psalms and Isaiah was noticeable, although most texts cited were from the New Testament, particularly the Synoptic Gospels. The two most popular passages were Matthew 28:19-20 and Mark 16:15. By the 1920s these two passages were commonly conflated into one command by God to go and preach the Gospel worldwide, and they became the defining texts for both the New Zealand and international missionary movements as they developed in the 1900s. (2)

Missions as Conversion and Evangelization

Foreign missions were theologically understood in predominantly conversionist terms. The concept of conversion was broadly defined and consistently understood across lines of gender and denomination. The focus on conversion encompassed a fundamental concern for both the spiritual state of non-Christians and the moral and societal transformation of non-Christian societies. Conversion was variously understood to be an act of enlightenment, liberation, and spiritual or social transformation, as well as a metaphysical shift of individuals or societies from the sphere of heathenism into the new and progressive sphere of Christendom. Both the philosophy and the methods of conversion were broadly defined and conceived, encompassing the conversion alike of souls, bodies, and minds, as well as of geographic, cultural, and social space.

There was a similar breadth of understanding of the term "evangelization," which is best understood within its context in the 1890s and early 1900s. Historically, the use of the word in the New Zealand context was most directly affected by the American Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (established in Australasia in 1896) and by this movement's slogan, "the evangelization of the world in this generation." (3) While early international formulations of the watchword were originally premillennial in tone (reflecting a popular concern to hasten the return of Christ), from around 1900 the American missionary statesman John R. Mott helped to broaden its focus, arguing that "the evangelization of the world in this generation ... means the preaching of the Gospel to those who are now living." (4) The emphasis here lay on proclamation rather than conversion.

In the New Zealand literature the term "evangelization," though still ambiguous, was understood as referring more to missionary proclamation than to conversion. The Church Missionary Society Gleaners' Union, for example, sought to unite "all who are interested in the cause [the CMS] represents, viz. the Evangelisation of the world; all who desire to take, in any way, a personal share in its work of preaching the Gospel to the Heathen and Mohammedan nations." (5) Yet "evangelization" was also occasionally used as a synonym for the act of conversion. George Allan (founder of the Bolivian Indian Mission) used it in the 1890s in the context of observing that South American people were ready for Christian conversion. (6) Evangelization received further definition after 1900. A Baptist leader argued that "the purpose of God" found its "best, and indeed only adequate expression, in [the phrase] the Evangelisation of the World." Here evangelization incorporated both the means by which the Christian message could be communicated and its intended outcome of conversion. A Presbyterian missionary suggested more explicitly that "a country is evangelised when every man, woman and child has had an adequate opportunity of hearing carefully and fully expounded the Gospel of Jesus Christ." (7)

In most cases "evangelization" was thus a form of shorthand for conveying the message of Jesus Christ that the vast majority of the world's population still had not heard. While some New Zealanders understood the word in premillennial terms, most perceived that the signs of the times indicated that the time was ripe for a concerted response to the great needs of the world. Such a conclusion tended to open up the methods and strategies of missionaries and mission organizations to broad and imaginative definition.

Missions as a Response to Great Need

From the 1890s on, missions increasingly became viewed as a response to great need. Statistics of Asian populations and non-Christian religions were increasingly employed in order to rally the church to the missionary cause. There is evidence that at the same time the "great need of the heathen world" was also understood in humanitarian terms, with Christians being particularly concerned about the perceived plight of Asian women and children and the reports of widespread famines in India and China. New Zealand missionaries often wrote accounts that reinforced these stereotypical images for the general public, a trend also discernible in international missionary literature. (8)

Yet missionary writers and speakers also articulated a fairly accurate sense of the specific needs of others that reflected their everyday realities. Dr. John Kirk reported in 1910 that "the name of our hospital [Ko T'ong] stands for "Universal Love,' and if this is to have any meaning at all in the hearts of the people--aye, if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to have any meaning at all--we cannot afford to turn poor, pain-burdened, weary souls from our door." (9) Writings from the Bolivian Indian Mission also indicated that social amelioration of the Quechua Indians and the righting of injustices were very important. Some people clearly saw specialist activities such as medical and educational missions as inherently valid and important, and not merely as precursors to overt evangelism. This perspective also filtered back to the New Zealand public. Missionary applications after 1918 indicate that a growing number of people were applying specifically to be medical or educational missionaries.

Obligation, Duty, Service, and Sacrifice

From the early 1900s the "great need" motif was conflated with a cluster of theological categories popularly perceived to be God's commandment to spread the Gospel worldwide, the missionary duty attendant upon both individuals and churches, and a strong undercurrent of spirituality that emphasized service and sacrifice. A variety of factors contributed to this aspect of missions: women's missionary unions, missionary literature and study circles, visiting speakers, Christian conventions, and youth movements like Christian Endeavour, the Student Christian Unions, and the emerging Bible Class movement.

The focus on service and sacrifice was evident throughout the entire period 1890-1930, becoming particularly obvious after World War I. Also present were notions of personal usefulness, service motivated by love, personal surrender to God's call, and the view that human agency was indispensable to completing the missionary task.

The impact of war on New Zealand society was unprecedented. Of 100,000 men sent to fight, 18,000 died and many more were wounded. The trauma of these losses branded the public consciousness and psyche and, in the 1920s, resulted in the erection of public memorials and the annual ritual of Anzac Day. It was not surprising that the potent language of warfare and of sacrificial service and duty was co-opted for the missionary cause in the postwar period. Missionary publicists exhorted young people to emulate the spirit of sacrifice shown by soldiers and other wartime volunteers.

Also, by the 1920s the general call to responsibility and sacrificial service had been intensely personalized. Many people applied a highly individualized biblical hermeneutic, as illustrated by the notion of missions as a response to God's command (as embodied in the Matthean and Markan texts). The original Greek of both texts clearly indicates that the task of missions was entrusted to a community of people, not to any one individual. Yet a generation or more of evangelical theology and spirituality that increasingly emphasized individual conversion, devotional practices, and personal accountability before God caused a general commandment to the whole church to be subconsciously internalized as a personal imperative.

Expansion and a Changing World

Another cluster of terms or images emphasized the expansionist nature of Christianity: going with, carrying, or taking the Gospel; conquest; and extending the kingdom of God. This expansionist theme was hardly surprising in this period, which witnessed the climax of European global power. Missionary rhetoric was not always easily disentangled from language extolling the particular virtues of the British Empire. John Takle, a missionary with the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society (NZBMS), commented that "every true Britisher thrills with the privilege of belonging to an Empire so extensive that nearly one quarter of the world's population has come under its sway, an Empire that has done more than any other for the emancipation of peoples, and for the evangelisation of the native races." (10) In New Zealand such sentiments were born out of historical, cultural, and familial proximity to British roots and were voiced most stridently in times of heightened imperial awareness. New Zealand's relationship to Britain, however, was not necessarily uncritical. Missionary commentators, for example, were ready to admit Britain's flawed reputation. John Takle was quick to remind his 1916 audience that ultimately the Christian community should be more concerned "with a greater Imperium, to whose Imperator we have bowed in reverence, obedience and loyal submission. Our supreme interest is the Kingdom of God ... for Christ shall reign."

The decade after World War I marked a slight change in missionary attitudes toward imperialism and the British Empire. New Zealand was still intensely proud and supportive of the British Empire, but there were indications that significant changes lay ahead. The war itself had exposed a disturbing human heart of darkness, raising serious questions about human progress. Many people now understood that world peace was a fragile commodity and, rightly or wrongly, that new forces of colonial liberation were a potential threat to that peace. On the one hand, nationalist movements and sentiments were having a ripple effect among indigenous Christian communities. It became increasingly obvious to many missionary societies that a key task in this period would be the establishment of independent indigenous churches and structures. On the other hand, the fear increased that these modernizing societies would be swamped by the more invidious elements of Western civilization and that indigenous churches would not be mature or strong enough to stop or reverse this process.

An Evaluation of the Theological Contours

Three questions are worth pursuing in light of the above discussion. First, to what extent was early New Zealand mission theology gendered? Second, to what extent was a distinctive body of New Zealand mission theology emerging by 1930? And third, to what extent had differences in mission theology become significant by 1930?

First, what was the extent of gender differentiation in New Zealand mission theology? On the surface there was little. Women, though, seem to have placed a greater emphasis than men on mission either as a response to great need or as sacrificial service, while men seem to have emphasized more than women did the socially ameliorative aspects of mission and the imperative of missionary duty.

There are some indications, however, that women had an important role in shaping popular missionary thinking. The Baptist and Presbyterian Women's Missionary Unions (BWMU, PWMU) drew attention to the fundamentally theological and spiritual nature of mission through their devotion to and emphasis upon prayer. Foreign missions was conceived of as a four-way partnership between God, missionaries, indigenous Christians, and supporters at home, and prayer was the essential glue that held this relationship together. (11) Women and students were also important initiators and organizers of formal mission study, especially following the world missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910. They helped to shape a core of church-going people who were quite well informed in terms of international awareness and understanding. Furthermore, through books and magazines women accentuated the motif of need by highlighting the perceived plight of women and children in places like India and China. In so doing, they reinforced, rather than subverted, prevailing Western stereotypes of the non-Western world and accentuated notions of racial superiority. (12) Women did, however, develop a greater sense of connectedness between New Zealand missionary supporters and their international "sisters." For example, a formal association existed between the PWMU and a North American Presbyterian women's missionary alliance. This association in turn had links with the American World's Missionary Committee of Christian Women. By philosophically and theologically identifying with their international sisters, Presbyterian women understood themselves to be empowered by the incarnational Christ to form part of a great feminine "girdle round the earth." (13)

The second question asks about a distinctive body of New Zealand mission theology by 1930. Early on, the missionary movement was largely the product of a missionary worldview imported from Great Britain. As it developed, a variety of contextual factors served to further shape and entrench this movement as an integral participant in the wider Anglo-American missionary movement. Although New Zealanders were increasingly informed by local literature and speakers, the content was not substantively different from what was being written, read, and preached in Australia, South Africa, North America, or Great Britain.

Despite this common foundation, there are a number of indications that this question may be worth further reflection. In New Zealand's Bolivian Indian Mission, for instance, one can detect the influence of an earlier pioneering mentality that spurred on its initial workers before 1914, as well as a self-effacing attitude that directed the honors away from the mission and its personnel. (14) Among New Zealand Baptists generally there was a curious blend of colonial independence, self-congratulation, and sense of imperial obligation. An oft-repeated exhortation in NZBMS reports was that the several million people in East Bengal were New Zealand's special responsibility, entirely dependent upon a handful of colonial Baptists for their eternal salvation and well-being. (15) Among Anglican and Presbyterian missionary applicants there was also a note of responsibility that issued from a sense of dual privilege. It was a great privilege not only to be a Christian and live in a Christian society but also to live specifically in New Zealand, especially in light of the global socioeconomic inequalities that became increasingly apparent after World War I.

The third question asks what differences in mission theology had become significant by 1930. Late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century theological developments, as well as the impact of World War I, helped precipitate a general crisis for Western Protestantism. New Zealand was not wholly untouched by this situation. Changing views on the rationale and practice of mission and the forming of various theological camps in response were a reflection of wider debates and developments.

In the New Zealand context before 1930, the extent to which these debates had an impact was limited to certain groups and contexts. For example, World War I had a particular impact on the emerging missionary thinking of the various Western student movements. The New Zealand Student Christian Movement debated missionary policy in the mid-1920s and produced at least one reformulated policy statement as a result. This statement placed a new emphasis on intelligent engagement with world issues and on identification with other peoples under the rubrics "fatherhood of God" and "brotherhood of man." Mission was viewed as a cooperative exercise with indigenous peoples and churches. (16) In response to this statement, one critic identified the "dangers of the present position" as being an overemphasis on these very phrases, which blurred distinctions between "the saved and the unsaved," and a misunderstanding of the concept "kingdom of God." The critic concluded that foreign missions would be weakened as a result, warning that "it is at our peril that we turn aside from our divinely appointed task to some fascinating programme of social betterment and internationalism." (17) Such views were representative of a conservative sector of New Zealand Protestantism that emerged in the 1920s. Differences in opinion over the content and direction of foreign missions separated those willing to embrace new modes of thought from those seeking to defend what they understood to be nonnegotiable orthodoxies. While the growing theological divide in New Zealand was less drama tic than in North America, it was obvious that the underlying theological rationale for, and the ecumenicity of, the missionary movement was under threat by the late 1920s.

In conclusion, it seems clear that up to 1930 most mission groups and denominations in New Zealand accepted a number of core theological components that did not restrict missionaries and organizations to any one philosophy or methodology. This latitude in turn served to locate missionary work at varying points along a missiological continuum. Thus mission could be variously defined as both conversion and social amelioration, as both proclamation and Christianization, and as both an act of Christian obedience and religious or social activism. It was only as a conservative defensiveness emerged after World War I that this underlying breadth of thinking began to disappear.

Further research and reflection are needed to carry this discussion through to the end of the twentieth century. I anticipate that such discussion would highlight at least two lines of thought. The first is that after 1918, at least two streams of thought emerged with respect to mission theology. These streams, which could be broadly labeled "conservative" and "ecumenical," were local manifestations of broader international trends. In the 1930s and 1940s this division was most manifest in things like the growth of interdenominational missions, the growing dominance of the Auckland-based New Zealand Bible Training Institute, and the creation of two divergent Christian movements among students in secondary schools and universities. From the 1950s this dividing of the ways between the two streams was also a feature of much denominational thinking, as church assemblies and synods wrestled with the postcolonial era of indigenous political and ecclesiastical independence. Many of the main denominations moved away from a conversionist or expansionist mode of thought to embrace the notion of partnership and a commitment to wider socioeconomic aid and development.

The second line of thought is that the theological gap between the two streams was often more rhetorical than real. Great emphasis continued to be placed on the ameliorative aspects of mission, regardless of where organizations or denominations lay along the theological spectrum. This underlying commonality became a more pronounced reality from the 1980s onward, as evangelicals in particular embraced a more holistic approach to mission. Mission was thus still predominantly defined as a response to the physical, socioeconomic, and spiritual needs of others, even while it retained areas of ambiguity and variety. Innovative ventures such as Servants to Asia's Urban Poor (which originated from New Zealand) (18) and wide support for both interchurch aid ventures and organizations like World Vision and Tearfund underscore an essentially pragmatic approach to the wider world by New Zealand Christians.
Table 1. Ranked Descriptions of Missions
by New Zealanders, 1890-1930

Missions viewed as: Overall rank

Salvation/conversion 1
Response to great need 2
Going with/taking the Gospel 3
Duty/obligation 4
Preaching/teaching 5
Spiritual warfare 6
Extending God's kingdom 7
Christian leavening of society 8
Enlightenment 9
Response to God's command 10
Service /sacrifice 11
Representing Christ 12
Reaping a harvest 13
Liberation 14
Premillennial urgency 15
Biblical fulfillment 16
Establishing an indigenous church 17

Missions viewed as: 1890-1918

Salvation/conversion 1
Response to great need 3
Going with/taking the Gospel 2
Duty/obligation 4
Preaching/teaching 5
Spiritual warfare 9
Extending God's kingdom 6
Christian leavening of society 7
Enlightenment 8
Response to God's command 10
Service/sacrifice 11
Representing Christ 13
Reaping a harvest 12
Liberation 15
Premillennial urgency 14
Biblical fulfillment 16
Establishing an indigenous church not mentioned

Missions viewed as: 1919-30

Salvation/ conversion 1
Response to great need 2
Going with/taking the Gospel 4
Duty/obligation 7
Preaching/teaching 8
Spiritual warfare 6
Extending God's kingdom 10 (tie)
Christian leavening of society 12
Enlightenment 9
Response to God's command 5
Service / sacrifice 3
Representing Christ 10 (tie)
Reaping a harvest 13
Liberation 14
Premillennial urgency 16
Biblical fulfillment 17
Establishing an indigenous church 15

Source: The information in this and the following table is based on
comments and phrases from 623 individual documentary sources for the
period 1890-1930. Of these sources, the largest number are Presbyterian
(217), followed by Baptist (127), Anglican (122), China Inland Mission
(58), Bolivian Indian Mission (45), and other (54). For further
details, see Hugh Douglas Morrison, "'It Is Our Bounden Duty': The
Emergence of the New Zealand Protestant Missionary Movement, 1868-1926"
(Ph.D. diss., Massey University [Albany], 2004.)

Table 2. Dualistic Images of Missions
by New Zealanders, 1890-1930

Christendom Non-Christendom

Light Darkness
Sight Blindness
Freedom Slavery
Knowledge Ignorance
Life Death
Wealth Poverty
Saved Unsaved
Nourished Starving
Happy Wretched
Pure Degraded
Blessed Cursed
Whole Incomplete
Hopeful Hopeless
Cultured Uncultured


(1.) This article is derived from my recently completed Ph.D. dissertation, Massey University (Albany, 2004), on the growing involvement of New Zealand Protestant churches in overseas missions between 1868 and 1930. I gratefully acknowledge helpful comments on this article that I have received from Janet Crawford, Allan Davidson, Peter Lineham, and John Roxborogh.

(2.) David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), pp. 339-41.

(3.) Nelson (New Zealand) Evening Mail, January 19, 1899, p. 2; January 20, 1899, p. 2.

(4.) Dana L. Robert, "The Origin of the Student Volunteer Watchword: 'The Evangelization of the World in This Generation,'" International Bulletin of Missionary Research 10 (1986): 146-48; J. R. Mott, The Evangelization of the World in This Generation (London: Student Volunteer Missionary Union, 1900), pp. 7-8.

(5.) "Ivens," ANG 143/3.70, Box 10, New Zealand Church Missionary Society Archives, Auckland.

(6.) South American Messenger 3, no. 3 (1899): 170-71.

(7.) New Zealand Baptist Union (henceforth NZBU) Baptist Handbook, 1903-4 (New Zealand Baptist Union, 1904), pp. 14-23; Herbert Davies, Four Studies in Worldwide Evangelisation (Dunedin: ASCU, 1909), pp. 5-7.

(8.) Joan Brumberg, "Zenanas and Girlless Villages: The Ethnology of American Evangelical Women, 1870-1910," Journal of America n History 69, no. 2 (1982): 347-71; Judith Rowbotham, "'Hear an Indian Sister's Plea': Reporting the Work of Nineteenth-Century British Female Missionaries," Women's Studies International Forum 21, no. 3 (1998): 247-61.

(9.) "Missions Report, 1910," Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, Proceedings of the General Assembly (Dunedin: Otago Daily Times, (1910), p. 116.

(10.) New Zealand Baptist (henceforth NZB), November 1916, p. 210.

(11.) For example, "BWMU Member's Card," undated, Folder 1, Box 0036, New Zealand Baptist Historical Society Archives, Carey Baptist College, Auckland.

(12.) Joan Brumberg argues that similar literature encouraged American women to represent their non-Western counterparts predominantly in terms of intellectual deprivation, domestic oppression, and sexual degradation ("Zenanas and Girlless Villages," pp. 356-67).

(13.) This construction, however, contained inherent racial hierarchies implying that "superior" Western sisters had to rescue their "inferior" Indian sisters. Sarah Coleman, "'Come Over and Help Us': White Women, Reform, and the Missionary Endeavour in India, 1876-1920" (M.A. thesis, Univ. of Canterbury, Christchurch, 2002), pp. 198-99; Presbyterian Church of Southland-Otago, Proceedings of Synod 1899 (Dunedin: Otago Daily Times, 1899), p. 74; NZBU Baptist Handbook, 1913-14 (New Zealand Baptist Union, 1914), p. 101. See also Yvonne Robertson, "Girdle Round the Earth": New Zealand Presbyterian Women's Ideal of Universal Sisterhood, 1878-1918 (Dunedin: Presbyterian Historical Society of New Zealand, 1994).

(14.) Margarita Allen Hudspith, Ripening Fruit: A History of the Bolivian Indian Mission (Harrington Park, N.J.: Harrington Press, 1958), pp. 16-19; The Bolivian Indian, January-February 1929, p. 8.

(15.) For example, "NZBMS Report, 1903," NZBU Baptist Handbook, 1903-4, p. 68.

(16.) "Report of the Commission Appointed to Consider the Missionary Policy of the NZSCM," ca. 1925-26, Miscellaneous Publications, MSPapers-1617-503, New Zealand Student Christian Movement Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

(17.) Typewritten report in "Pacific Basin Tour 1926--NZ," Series 7, Biographical Documentation, Folder 2590, Box 156, Mott Papers, Record Group 45, Yale Divinity School Library, New Haven, Conn.

(18.) Viv Grigg, Companion to the Poor, rev. ed. (Monrovia, Calif.: MARC, 1990); Jenni M. Craig, Servants Among the Poor (Manila: OMF Literature, 1998).

Hugh Morrison is currently (2005) a contract Lecturer in History at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.
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Author:Morrison, Hugh
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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