How Missionaries Work

Missionaries in the Great Century

In the late 18th century, a humanitarian spirit and abolitionist movement took hold in Europe, prompting various Christian organizations to venture out to start missions around the world. Because of the vast missionary activities of the 1800s, it became known as the Great Century.

One of the earliest of these organizations was the Baptist Missionary Society, founded in 1792 by William Carey, one of the most prominent missionaries from this era. Convinced that Jesus' call to "make disciples of all nations" was still relevant, Carey traveled to India and translated the Bible into dozens of different languages. He also helped establish schools and improve natives' agricultural practices. Another of Carey's contributions was eradicating the Indian practice of sati -- the burning of widows on husbands' funeral pyres. Because of all his accomplishments, Carey became known as the "father of modern missions" [source: Eckman].


Africa was the center of much missionary work during the 19th and 20th centuries. During this time, various European powers were penetrating and carving up the continent for control. Established in 1795, the London Missionary Society (LMS) was very active in Africa. LMS missionaries were typically average Europeans from humble backgrounds. In many cases, missionaries in Africa sought not only to Christianize natives, but to Europeanize them through dress and culture [source: Ferguson].

David Livingstone, the most famous missionary of the Great Century, joined the LMS in 1838. After years of service, his mission work took a backseat to a career in exploration. Livingstone's goal was to open up more of the African continent to Christianity, trade and civilization. A highly educated and avid abolitionist, Livingstone earned fame for his explorations and inspired many other educated young men to become missionaries [source: Glazier].

Not all missionaries who traveled to Africa were European and Protestant -- many came from the United States. Lott Carey, a former slave, became a prominent American missionary. And Catholics were likewise swept up in the mission craze of this era. Religious orders such as the White Fathers and Holy Ghost Fathers formed to do mission work in Africa.

Missionary activity waned by mid-20th century, partly because it fell out of favor and partly because it had largely succeeded in establishing permanent parishes. Missionaries' efforts resulted in so many conversions that even today, African Catholic clergy come to the United States to serve in the priesthood [source: Glazier].