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The American Church

June 13, 2005

From Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History, the start of Chapter 17 "The American Dimension of the Missionary Movement"

Americans themselves know all too well that their genius is not in religion… Americans are great people; there is no doubt about that.  They are great in building cities and railroads, as ancient Babylonians were great in building towers and canals.  American have a wonderful genius for improving the breeds of horses, cattle, sheep and swine; they raise them in multitudes, butcher them, eat them, and send their meat-products to all parts of the world.  Americans too are great inventors.  They invented or perfected telegraphs, telephone, talking and hearing machines, automobiles… poison gases.  Americans are great adepts in the art of enjoying life to the utmost… Then, they are great in Democracy.  The people is their king and emperor; yea, even their God; the American people make laws, as they make farms and farm implements… Needless to say, they are great in money… They first make money before they undertake any serious work… To start and carry on any work without money is in the eyes of the Americans madness… Americans are great in all these things and much else; but not in Religion, as they themselves very well know… Americans must count religion in order to see or show its value… To them big churches are successful churches… To win the greatest number of converts with the least expense is their constant endeavour.  Statistics is their way of showing success or failure in their religion as in their commerce and politics.  Numbers, numbers, oh, how they value numbers! … Americans are essentially children of this world; that they serve as teachers of religion… is an anomaly… Indeed, religion is the last thing average Americans can teach… Americans are the least religious among all civilized peoples… Mankind goes down to America to learn how to live the earthly life; but to live the heavenly life, they go to some other people.  It is no special fault of Americans to be this-worldly; it is their national characteristic, and they in their self-knowledge ought to serve mankind in other fields than in religion.

    The year is 1926; the source, the first volume of the Japan Christian Intelligencer; the writer, Kanzo Uchimura, one of the outstanding Christian figures of his day in Japan.  He was a first-generation Christian, converted through American missionaries, and full of honour and respect for certain Americans.  Of ‘my own teacher in Christian religion,’ as he called him, Justus H. Seelye, Uchimura wrote, ‘I could not but bow myself before such a man, place the care of my soul in him, and be led by him into light and truth.  The Lord Jesus Christ shone in his face, beat in his heart.’

    There are reasons for beginning an assessment of twentieth-century American evangelical missions with this view from the outside.  Uchimura speaks as a Christian, as a disciple of Christ whose knowledge of Christ has come from sources.  But for him, as for a good part of the world, to hear the words American missions is to hear first the word American.  This chapter is concerned with the prehistory of our subject and will say little directly about the evangelical societies in the past hundred years that lie at the heart of it.  The flowering of American missions that began a centuray ago is in full continuity with the American missions of an earlier period.  ‘Evangelical’ missions as such belong, as it were, to Volume Two.  Volume One of our story is the American-ness of American missions.

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