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The Global Christian Mission: In the Wake

Among those who settled in the areas south of Canada from Maine to Florida, the “separatists” who founded the Plymouth settlement on coastal Massachusetts were the forerunners of anything approaching an evangelical presence. The Separatists, now known as Congregationalists, and the Narragansett Indians had cordial relationships with one another. The Puritan settlers of Boston did not have any such mutual relationship with the Narragansett. In fact, the relationship was stormy with one outstanding exception: the exceptional personality of Roger Williams.

Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, meeting with the Narragansett Indians. 1856 engraving by J. C. Armytage.

Williams, early America’s leading advocate for the separation of the church from political interests, purchased land in 1635 from the Narragansett. He founded the town of Providence in southern Massachusetts on the northwestern shoreline of Providence Bay, as a place where Native American and English culture could not only co-exist side by side, but also flourish. It was from Providence that the first attempts to understand the Native American perspective on life and land ownership were made and credit is given to Williams to further such understanding as he and his family settled among the Narragansett. Readers may find it interesting that Williams was the first Puritan to enunciate a distinction between civil authority and the righteousness of life as proclaimed by Jesus and the Scriptures. It was from Williams that Thomas Jefferson coined the idea of a “curtain between church and state.” It was also from Williams that the Baptist churches in America emerged.

Providence and Boston are, however, but one example from North America. Further north, Quebec and Montreal reflected their French origins associated with the voyages of Champlain into what would become known as Canada. It is also from the French incursions through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence strait that the first French settlers and the first missionaries in America entered. Among the forerunners of actual Christian missionaries among the native “north americans” were Jesuits from France, the most outstanding of whom was Jean de Brebeuf (1593-1649), who arrived in Quebec in 1625, 4 years after William Bradford forged an alliance with Massasoit, chief sachem of the Wampanoag confederation of the Narragansett in 1621. De Brebeuf identified closely with the Huron Indians in Ontario.

North America, however, is not the only place that the Christian missionary enterprise was active. North America was not the only point of contact between Christians with the rest of the world. First of all, it leaves out the expansion of the Orthodox Church in the East, the contact between the Western Christian and the Syriac Mar Thoma Christians in northwestern India, and the work of isolated Christians in Asia and Africa hidden from Western eyes because of the ravages of the Turkic Moslem armies.

At the same time, what occurred in Massachusetts and Canada had occurred elsewhere. Where settlements were made in Southeast Asia and Indonesia ,there were both accommodation where western settlements were made and also conflict. For the most part, southeast Asia was fairly well-settled and the merchants of the coastal bays welcomed potential purchasers of their teak, rice, and other products. Conflict arose mostly between European settlers and the more remote peoples of the backcountry who considered the newcomers as threats. This was also true for the major islands as New Guinea, and parts of the Indonesian chain of islands. For the most part, France fared well with Vietnam until the latter 20th century, with the incursion of Communism into that section of Asia. Saigon was considered to be the Paris of the East.

This set of circumstances also played itself out in South America and Central America where the coastal settlements more often were open to potential European customers than were the interior peoples. This was especially true for Hispaniola and also Brazil and Argentina. When Cortez docked on the East Coast of Mexico, he found the native peoples more welcoming. When he crossed the Sierra Madre Oriental to enter the realm of the Aztecs, he had Nahuatl allies with him and his Spanish troops.

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Category: Church History, Fall 2019

About the Author: Woodrow E. Walton, D.Min. (Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions), B.A. (Texas Christian University), B.D. [M.Div.] (Duke Divinity School), M.A. (University of Oklahoma), is a retired Seminary Dean and Professor of biblical, theological and historical studies. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, Texas. Walton retains membership with the Evangelical Theological Society, American Association of Christian Counselors, American Society of Church History, American Academy of Political Science, and The International Society of Frontier Missiology.

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