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The Global Christian Mission: The Maritime Global Expansion

These new hubs of trade were directly affected by the Protestant Reformation erupting in Central Europe.

Ferdinand Magellan’s epic circumnavigation from the Atlantic into the Pacific, and the goods brought back from the Pacific stirred the energies of both the Dutch merchants and the English. The Netherlands, having been constantly “under the political heel” of the Spanish King, Charles (Carlos) I, also serving as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, took the opportunity to challenge the Spanish and Portuguese. Dutch mariners rounded the Cape of Good Hope, crossed the Indian Ocean into the Pacific oceans and laid claim to the fabled “spice islands” (modern Indonesia). Not long after, England ventured into the high seas to compete with the Dutch and the Iberian powers of Spain and Portugal. In so doing, the English navigated into the northern waters of the Indian Ocean putting Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Bay of Bengal, and Southeast Asia within their sights. The waters of the Malay Archipelago beckoned them further and they entered the South China Sea.

The significance of these ventures is greater than what first meets the eye. The Pacific and its subsidiary seas, islands, islets, peninsulas, and archipelagos threw out a vast mission field for Protestant Evangelical missions. In 1619, the Dutch mariners made landfall on Java, the largest island of Indonesia, in the area of modern Jakarta. Reformed missionaries set out from the Netherlands as well as from bordering Germany and Denmark. The islands of Indonesia, at the time referred to as the Spice islands, were known for their coffee. It was the Netherlands, also known as Holland, that may be credited with initiating the modern global mission. Its antagonism toward Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and to an extent, Anglican England, attracted persecuted and harassed Christians. Reformed Christians, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Lutherans, and even Jewish believers found Holland to be a haven. It was from the Netherlands that the English “Separatists” (Congregationalists) took flight to North America and established the settlement of Plymouth.

Near the same time, England made landfall at the island of Singapore, just three miles off the tip of Malaysia. The Malay peoples and the English related well, and a brisk trade in tea, teakwood, and other natural products arose from the interchange. Singapore was transformed into a prosperous island city and became, along with Hong Kong, off the coast of China, a major entrepôt of maritime commerce. It was not long before the Scottish Covenantal Presbyterians and the English Evangelicals, both Broad Church Anglican, Baptists, and Wesleyans formed the SPCK, the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. Whatever the problem areas in evangelical Christianity, the British succeeded in the area of the establishment of Christian schools.

Even then, Holland was the leading nation in the global Christian mission. It was Holland which stressed religious freedom for all Christian persuasions. No other nation in Europe rivaled the Netherlands in the spread of the gospel from Jakarta in Indonesia, South Africa, Guyana in Northeast South America, and New Amsterdam, now known as New York City.

The oceanic ventures of Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries had a global impact for the church and especially for those affected by the Protestant Reformation.

One of the reasons for the role of the Dutch Republic in the Christian faith’s global spread was the Dutch had Europe’s largest economy and needed the skilled workers for their trades and industries as well as seamen for their international trade networks.

By the time of the Protestant Reformation between 1517 and 1550, the outward spread of Evangelical, Reformed, and then Waldensian, Pietist, Moravian and Anabaptist Christians was underway, first a trickle and then a flow of emigrants.

In the period of the late 1500s, both England and the Netherlands took the lead. By the 1600s, the Netherlands took the lead in the global spread of the Christian Gospel.

These oceanic ventures had a global impact for the church and especially for those directly affected by the Protestant Reformation: The Lutheran, the Reformed, the Anabaptist, and the Catholic.

In the midst of this, there emerged out of the Roman Catholic Reformation an organization which became known as the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, formulated by Pope Gregory XV in 1622.

This was the forerunner of both the Lausanne Covenant of 1974, the Manila Manifesto, Affirmation 21 (1989), and the Cape Town Commitment Preamble of 2010, in the promotion of indigenous congregations of believers.

Three hundred fifty-two years before the Lausanne gathering promoted by Billy Graham, John R.W. Stott, and other prominent Christian leaders from around the world, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, expressed the mission dei (mission of God). It instructed missionaries not to regard it as their task to change the manners, customs, and uses of the people they served except where such usages were “evidently contrary to religion and sound morals. What could be more absurd, than to transport France, Spain, Italy, or some other European country to China? Do not introduce all of that to them, but only the faith.”

 

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Category: Church History, Winter 2020

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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