Mission History

You Succeed Without Success

Cannon success“And all these, though well attested by their faith did not receive what was promised (Hebrews 11:39).”

Being brought up in the tradition that success is the measure of a man, missionary work has proven to be full of frustrations that irritate, and irritations that frustrate. Things never seem to work out the way you want them, when you want them. I’ve tried being the high-powered executive type, but always end up doing everything myself. I’ve tried being the non-direct, all-knowing psychologist type, and ended up accomplishing nothing. Why can’t natives, oops! I mean nationals, be more interested in my success as a missionary? More

Your Blood To Seal His Truth

Calvin to MartyrsBelow is an excerpt from a letter John Calvin wrote to five young Frenchman who were about to be martyred in 1553 for carrying the gospel into France.

“We who are here shall do our duty in praying that He would glorify Himself more and more by your constancy, and that He may, by the comfort of His Spirit, sweeten and endear all that is bitter to the flesh, and so absorb yours spirits in Himself, that in contemplating that heavenly crown, you may be ready without regret to leave all that belongs to this world. More

Thanksgiving’s Wampanoag call: Come Over and Help Us!

When the Pilgrims and Indians sat down for that first Thanksgiving “dinner” in 1621, the Protestants from England were feasting among an unreached people, the Wampanoag (thought Squanto himself was a Jesuit convert). The gospel need of their Indian hosts was not lost on the Mayflower colonists. The original Massachusetts seal contains a picture of a native American uttering the Macedonian call, “Come over and help us.”

In his contribution to a book on American Indians and Christianity, Douglas Winiarski tells of missionary efforts of Josiah Cotton, the son of one of the early American missionaries, John Cotton. Josiah Cotton labored for 4 decades among the descendants of those who gathered that first Thanksgiving harvest celebration at Plymouth. Winiarski’s description of Cotton’s ministry is a window into efforts to reach this unreached people in the century following the first thanksgiving. The highlighting is mine, emphasizing Josiah’s ministry and indigenous church planting among the Indians:

“For nearly forty years he served as a lay missionary to the Indian families of the Old Colony. Born in 1680, Josiah was the son of John Cotton Jr., a prominent Indian missionary in his own right and Plymouth’s town ministry. After graduating from Harvard College in 1698 and teaching school for several years in Marblehead, Cotton returned to Plymouth and promptly began an intensive program of study in the Massachusett language. Several years later he obtained permission from the London-based New England Company for the Propagation of the Gospel to serve as a lay preacher, and for these labors he was paid a modest annual stipend. In addition to his civic duties as a county court justice, registrar of probate and deeds, and representative to the General Court, Cotton preached biweekly sermons at the homes of Wampanoag families throughout Plymouth County. He compiled an ‘Indian Nomenclature’ that remains a standard reference source for anthropologists and linguists, and he later translated Cotton Mather’s short treatise on the Lord’s Supper in the Massachusett. The lay missionary’s pastoral responsibilities also included leading prayers and reading scripture, presiding over collective rituals of fasting and thanksgiving, visiting Native families, counseling the sick, and attending Indian funerals.

From the outset, his ministry was unique. Unlike prominent missionaries such as John Eliot or Experience Mayhew, who labored in the large praying town enclaves at Natick or Gay Head, Cotton initially preached to scattered groups of Indians living on the outskirts of small Plymouth County hamlets such as Bridgewater, Duxbury, Kingston, and Pembroke…Manomet Ponds…boasted its own church staffed by Native preachers. Although Cotton occasionally ministered to these disparate Indian families, the majority of his biweekly meetings were conducted at the homes of Indians Francis Ned, Nathan Hood, and Daniel Robin, all of whom lived and worked at Plain Dealing, Cotton’s farm located a few miles north of town. On average, fewer than ten Indians attended these Sabbath exercises. Most were local fishermen, day laborers, and indentured servants. They understood English ‘pretty well,’ according to Cotton, and they occasionally attended meetings at churches in Plymouth or Kingston.

Cotton’s four-decade preaching career coincided with a dramatic period of growth for the New England Company. While John Eliot’s famous praying towns in central Massachusetts languished in the wake of King Philip’s War, missionaries in the Old Colony redoubled their efforts and reported dramatic success among the remnant Wampanoags. On the eve of the conflict in 1674, Cape Cod lay preacher Richard Bourne counted a total of 462 praying Indians residing in more than a dozen communities. A decade later, the number of Native Christians on the Cape had double, while converts in the region that would become Plymouth and Bristol counties soared from 75 to more than 500. This unprecedented growth, moreover, occurred in a time when the total Indian population in the Old Colony declined by as much as 70 percent. One glowing report from Martha’s Vineyard even claimed that of the 180 families residing on the island, ‘no more than Two Persons.. now remain in their Paganism.’

Numbers alone do not tell the full story. By 1700, Native Christians throughout southeastern New England had developed sophisticated religious communities that occasionally outshone those of their English neighbors. During the 1660s, John Cotton Jr. recorded numerous conversations with Indians who inquired after the meaning of obscure scriptural verses, biblical prophecies, and doctrinal issues. He later claimed that his Native auditors took notes during his sermons and narrated their conversion experiences with emotive oratorical skill. Recently discovered examples of these church admission testimonies from the Indian church at Mashpee indicate that the earliest Native Christians in the Old Colony possessed a detailed knowledge of reformed theological doctrines and practices.” – Douglas Winiarski, “Native American Popular Religion in New England’s Old Colony, 1670-1770,” in Joel Martin and Mark Nicholas, ed., “Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape”, pp. 98-99

What a difference a few hundred years makes. Ironically, the “unreached” label is increasingly applied to New England itself. Gallup tells us that New England is now among the most “least-churched” in the United States with less than 3% attending an evangelical church. Some church planters are hearing the Macedonian call, not from Native American groups, but from the Pilgrim’s children.

As we give thanks this Thanksgiving for the gospel being spread to the ends of the earth, we can continue to pray that the gospel will be heard not just among the unreached, but also among those who once heralded the good news.

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