Book Reviews

The Evangelization of the World

A History of Christian Missions

Jacques A. Blocher and Jacques Blandenier Pasadena, CA 2012-12-06

The Evangelization of the World is a lengthy treatise on the history of Christian mission from the perspective of late twentieth-century evangelical French missionary teachers. The book is a recent translation of work begun by Blocher, who died in 1986, finished by Blandenier, and published in 1998 in French. For their time the authors do an excellent job of fairly evaluating the impact of the lives of many who have come to be esteemed in a larger-than-life way. The book also introduces readers to men and women who are lesser known but had significant impact. The tone is engaging and invites Christians to worship as they walk through the lives of saints gone before. Many intriguing missiological reflections deepen the meaning of the biographies and stories that are used to recount the history of missions in different eras and geographical locations. Short correlations from those missionaries to modern times are spread throughout the book. They offer readers a glimpse into the value the authors see in history for a sound foundation for living out the Christian life today (p. 236). However, at some points the book seems to exaggerate information, be unaware of recent developments, or simply misconstrue historical missionary happenings.

It is important to note that the stories and reflections have not been left untested, having been used in French-speaking African schools and seminaries for years before being translated here for an English-speaking audience. Perhaps because of this and the French authorship, the material has a francophone flavor, seen in the highlighting of a proportionately large number of French missionaries, especially in the section about the continent of Africa (see pages 482, 536, 549, 634–36). Nevertheless, it is not ethnocentric and provides good reflection and analysis with brief and to-the-point summaries of events (p. 379). Sections like the evaluation of the impact of the awakening on modern missions (p. 288) demonstrate the depth of the authors’ experience in missions and their knowledge of the subject. However, some of the reflections that make the book appealing may harm the experience of the novice who is not familiar with the vast theology of mission and its nuances in history. For example, the analysis of William Carey’s work in India is thorough, touching, and honest, with a special section on Carey and his “private” life (p. 315). However, the missiological reflections have a unique flavor compared with the majority of other works, especially in Carey’s famous principles; the section gives six rather than the five usually given (pp. 320–27). This can leave the impression that a unique perspective is widely accepted.

The clear highlight of the book is the stories. From famous men like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, and David Livingston to the vast array of wonderfully quiet servants, the book offers wisdom through narrative. Good insights, like that from Taylor’s life about missiological issues (pp. 360–61), once again point toward the contribution of the many who served and often died on the field. The more widely known stories most often end with a critique (p. 368). Large and extensive original source quotes ensure that readers are not misled with personal or ecclesiastical bias (p. 206). However, these lengthy quotes of source material add time and effort to the reading. Any prospective casual reader, student, or teacher must wrestle with this feature of the book.

In addition to narrative that engages readers, the writers include maps and many great photographs and illustrations that add to the feel and flow of the book and provide the reader with a much-needed break. These graphic representations add flesh to the bones of touching missionary stories. However, the maps are often confusing because of a lack of distinction in coloring and form, especially in routes taken by missionaries or boundaries of states and regions (pp. 69, 138, 158, 498). The photographs are the most valuable part of the visual aids and help draw readers into a world not their own. Sketches and pictures often represent dramatic events crucial to the history of missions in a way otherwise impossible for print to do (pp. 61 328, 429, 545).

While the writers do justice to the corpus of data of missions history and engage readers thoroughly with story and picture, they unfortunately make a minimal amount of unwarranted generalizations. The authors attempt to give fixed data for many missionary endeavors. This leads to some questionable and often methodologically lacking figures of conversions or of percentages. For example, the book lacks any real treatment of the truly modern missionary movement in India, and the figures might lead some to question statements like “by 1914 [Protestant and Anglican] churches reached 1 million members” (p. 336). Failure to truly understand the vast and organic nature of the modern missions movement in India and other places, undermines these attempts to put numbers on Christianity. Also some things stated as fact are probably instead opinion or misstatement. For example, speaking about Colliard, the author writes, “[He] was free of all the prejudices that then characterized the European attitude towards Africans” (p. 492). Later, they say, “In 1772 philanthropists obtained the abolition of slavery in Britain” (p. 499). Such statements issue a warning about the validity of some historical and geographical generalizations in this book. While probably intending to cast certain missionaries in a godly light, the authors overgeneralize attitudes and heart issues. Nevertheless, most missiological reflections in the book show the value of pursuit of Christlikeness and love for all people. The recounting of the sacrifice of John G. Paton, despite his faults, especially leads to a worshipful reflection and toward a deeper understanding of the impact of men and women in missions (p. 441).

Finally, and perhaps most grievously, the authors do a poor job reflecting on the history of mission in the fourth chapter: “The West: From the Fifth to the Eighth Century.” Firstly the caricature of the barbarian “invasions” as wholesale destruction of civilization (p. 52) has been thoroughly repudiated by modern scholarship (Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom). In addition, astute readers will notice that the history of Ireland is particularly lacking. Page 62 states that “women had a privileged position in Irish society.” No source is given for this comment, and sadly the currency of exchange in ancient Ireland was a cumal (the value of “a female slave”) (Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 112). These oversights and misrepresentations are troubling.

When compared with other treatments of the history of Christian missions this work is equivalently comprehensive but far more realistic in personal evaluations, and it is much more engaging in spiritual and missiological issues. The book is important because it moves toward a holistic approach to mission history that has been left untried because of difficulty, unwritten because of possible disagreement, or ignored because of a lack of critical thinking on the subject of missions with regard to its history. The authors attempt to relate to modern readers and also paint a picture of the history of the events themselves. They show how lives of men and women with all their failings and triumphs figure into the broad history of missions. Key events are given some new faces, and the authors point out ways in which many of the missionaries’ contributions redirected, recast, or continued missiological thinking in their day.

In conclusion, the book is a welcome addition to the history of mission genre in that it uses biography, missiological reflection, and historical events in a unique way to teach about the work of the triune God in history. Unfortunately the lack of historical accuracy and generalizations hinder this work from being useful for graduate studies. It seems it would be best used in introductory missions classes with the cautions addressed above. While sometimes it is just a history of missionaries and not missions, the engaging nature of the book make it worth reading and offer a non-American viewpoint of missions.

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Rodney H. Orr
Rodney H. Orr serves as department chair and associate professor of World Missions and Intercultural Studies at DTS. He has ministered in Ethiopia and Germany and served with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) for thirty-four years. Dr. Orr taught at the Nairobi International School of Theology in Kenya and helped build Africa Leadership and Management Academy (ALMA), a graduate school in Zimbabwe. His ministry also focused on Yale University and United Nations diplomats in New York City. Dr. Orr and his late wife, Cortina, have a son and a daughter.
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