Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Missionaries Work


Non-Christian Missionaries
Buddhist leaders are depicted with their prayer beads and scrolls in 1812.
Buddhist leaders are depicted with their prayer beads and scrolls in 1812.
Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Largely because of their widespread influence in the Great Century, we usually associate missionaries with Christianity. However, other religions have sought to spread their faith through mission work as well. In fact, Buddhists were responsible for the first wide-scale missionary work. The religion holds that its tenets are universal and meant for all people around the world [source: Jestice].

As early as the third century B.C., King Asoka asked Buddhist missionaries to go and spread the religion beyond India. These missionaries went to several surrounding lands, including Thailand and Sri Lanka. Buddhism's presence continued to grow gradually in the ensuing centuries. By the fifth century A.D., missionaries established the religion in Java and had introduced it to other regions.

Buddhist missionaries have continued their work ever since. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Tibetan monks proselytized to peoples of the Russian Far East. And in the 20th century, Japanese scholar D.T. Suzuki was influential in increasing the popularity of Buddhism in the West.

Islam is another religion that has employed missionaries. Throughout its history, Islam spread chiefly through military conquest, but missionary work played an important role. For instance, Islamic missionaries would often proselytize to recently conquered peoples, establishing a stronger understanding of the faith and more earnest conversions [source: Jestice]. Islamic missionaries would even venture into unconquered lands to preach [source: Emerick]. Islam never had anything like Catholic missionary orders, but it did start to establish missionary societies by the late 19th century [source: Boorstin].

Some evidence points toward Jewish proselytism, too. A reference in the Gospels suggests that certain Jews would travel long distances to convert others [source: Matthew]. Today, missionary work is not a priority in traditional Judaism like it is for many Christians. Rabbis don't treat requests for conversion lightly. Rather, they challenge or even dissuade prospective converts in order to force them to think seriously about their choice [source: Cohn-Sherbok].