The Missionary Task of Theology: A Love/Hate Relationship? -- By: Harvie M. Conn

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 45:1 (Spring 1983)
Article: The Missionary Task of Theology: A Love/Hate Relationship?
Author: Harvie M. Conn


The Missionary Task of Theology:
A Love/Hate Relationship?*

Harvie M. Conn

The last six decades have not been the happiest of times for professors of missions in the American theological seminary. The previous century had been a history of seminaries running to catch up with student missions interest. Samuel J. Mills had set the pattern. In August 1806 he and four companions sought refuge under a Massachusetts haystack in a thunderstorm and gave themselves to prayer for world missions. They carried that vision to Andover Seminary and in 1811 launched the Society of Inquiry on the Subject of Missions. In 1813 students at the year-old Princeton Seminary founded a similar organization. Society after society was founded within one to three years after the opening of a new seminary. By 1857, there were seventy of them around the country.

The backbone of the world mission movement became those societies in the seminaries.

There was no recruiting of missionaries by secretaries of the mission boards and societies during the nineteenth century. Throughout the century and well into the next the Societies of Inquiry and related organizations in the seminaries spontaneously brought forth volunteers in abundance.1

Boards were swamped with applications from seniors about to graduate.

By the close of the century the picture had not changed. A new organization, the Student Volunteer Movement, had been formed in 1886 at a student conference in Mt. Hermon, Massachusetts, sponsored by Dwight L. Moody. Before the year ended,

* An address delivered by the author on the occasion of his inauguration as Professor of Missions at Westminster Theological Seminary, 23 April 1982.

2106 volunteers had been enrolled for “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” By 1935, the movement had sent over 13,000 volunteers abroad from North America. They poured into seminaries, looking for help.

From the 1920s, the picture began to change. 1921 was the peak year for the volunteers: 2783 were newly enrolled, and 637 sailed for the field. In 1934 only 38 left North America. And 1938 saw only 25 enrolled in the movement.2

Again, the theological seminary has reflected, and not altered, that pattern. Even in the nineteenth century, missions as an academic discipline had taken its time to enter the curriculum. During the first half of that century only Princeton Theological Seminary in 1811 had made plans “to found a nursery for missionaries.”3 And...

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