The Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, 1910

It is widely agreed that the high point of the era of modern Protestant missions was the World Missionary Conference, held in the Scottish capital city of Edinburgh in 1910. While this conference represented a landmark in missionary thinking, it is important to locate it within a broader context. Many of the achievements in mission thinking and organization that are often attributed to the Edinburgh conference are better seen as the outcome of similar gatherings dating as far back as 1854, and extending into the 1930s. Nevertheless, the Edinburgh conference was of iconic significance, comparable in some ways to an ecu- menical council.

The most significant feature of the conference was that it was organized by missionary societies, rather than by churches. This conference focused on developing strategies for the future of missionary thinking and action, being led and resourced by practitioners. This contrasted sharply with the Ecumenical Missionary Conference, held in New York in 1900, which had been attended mainly by church leaders, and was judged to have achieved little in the way of active proposals for the future. The Edinburgh conference’s organizers were all laymen – most notably, the American Methodist John Mott, one of the most active advocates of missionary work, whose Evangelization of the World in This Gen- eration (1905) created a surge of enthusiasm and optimism for the missionary enterprise, especially within the United States.

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Yet with the benefit of hindsight, the conference can now be seen to have reinforced existing Protestant paradigms of mission, when redirection and review was increasingly necessary. The world was changing; new strategies and approaches were clearly needed. The approach to mission at the conference was shaped by the dominant assumption that there was a reasonably homogeneous Christian world, primarily in Europe and North America, which was fully evangelized. Evangelism would remain the business of the “Home Church” – in other words, the spiritually and numerically robust churches of the west.

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