Review of Sixteenth Century Mission: Explorations in Protestant and Roman Catholic Theology and Practice edited by Gallagher and Smither

February 1, 2023

Gallagher, Robert L. and Edward L. Smither, eds. Sixteenth Century Mission: Explorations in Protestant and Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021, 29.99, paperback.sixteenth-century-mission


Many readers will be able to recall a barbed quotation taken from the Jesuit, Robert Bellarmine, who castigated Protestantism for its evident lack of apostolic zeal for mission. He claimed that “they had hardly converted a handful” (Stephen Neill, The History of Missions, 1986, p. 188).  As one who wrestled first to understand and then to explain to others the ‘tortoise and the hare’ phenomenon exhibited in the modest beginning of Protestant missionary effort in the sixteenth century, this reviewer was keen to examine Sixteenth Century Mission. The prospect of finding accounts of Reformation-era missions provided from both sides of the confessional divide in a single volume seemed promising. In this review, we shall consider Sixteenth Century Mission as to its concept, as to its methodology, and as to its overall quality.

The concept of Sixteenth Century Mission (hereafter SCM) is a noble one. Why hasn’t someone brought together essays representing early modern Protestant and Catholic mission, before now? The volume offers an initial ten chapters describing Protestant missionary activity within and beyond Western Europe, followed by eight chapters describing the Catholic mission activity which—because linked with transoceanic exploration of Columbus and da Gama—commenced before the dawn of the Reformation era. But this consideration of the laudable concept behind the book, leads naturally to a reflection on the methodology implicit in it.

In SCM we indeed see essays about Protestant and Catholic sixteenth century mission. But it is striking that the volume does not bring the two missionary movements together in any intersecting way. By volume-end, we are none the wiser as to what (if anything) Protestants thought about existing Catholic missionary endeavor, and vice versa. This lack of intersection is in part a reflection on the expectations spelled out in commissioning the conference papers which now form SCM chapters; it is also a reflection of the fact that the majority of chapters on Catholic mission are written by non-Catholics (which is the opposite of what we might expect).

Still thinking about methodology, on the whole, SCM employs a broadly historical method in its attempts at comparing Protestant and Catholic mission. Yet while some authors write from a rigorously historical perspective, emphasizing original sources (e.g. chaps. 7 &15); others utilize a blend of quite romantic nineteenth century accounts with modern scholarship (e.g. chap. 4). Some chapters (e.g. 5) are essentially historical-theological, while still others are extensively biographical (2,7,10, 13,14). It appears that the volume has overlapping chapters: two touch on the Genevan mission to Brazil (5&6), two explore European Anabaptist missionary activity close-to-home (9&10), while a further two (11&12) both touch on Jesuit missionary activity in China. It was not clear to this reviewer what warranted the inclusion of chapters 2 and 13, as they formed no real part of missionary history. It is enough to say that the project of bringing early Protestant and Catholic missionary activity into comparative focus was impeded by a lack of methodological unity and a clearer division of labor.

The reviewer wants to highlight strengths in this volume. An impressive opening chapter by Ray Van Neste sorted out fact from historical misrepresentation of early Protestant missionary efforts; this trend he traced back to German missiologist, Gustav Warneck (d. 1910). But Warneck, effectively dispatched in that first chapter, was still sowing frequent confusion later in the book. We find helpful surveys of Lutheran missionary expansion into Scandinavia in the early sixteenth century (chap. 3) and early, pre-Calvin Protestant proliferation in France (chap. 4). These chapters are primarily drawn from existing secondary literature. A chapter on the French Reformed mission in colonial Brazil (6) while largely dependent on a range of secondary literature, because written from within Brazil by Franklin Ferreira—did draw on Latin American literature and brought new insights which were truly helpful.

An insightful chapter (7) on the Zurich Reformation-era linguist, Theodore Bibliander, showed that this scholar was alert to the family of human languages and the theological implications of this inter-relatedness for the spread of the gospel. The chapter on Ignatius Loyola and his Spiritual Exercises (10) while instructive, seemed oblivious to the fact that the unquestioning submission to papal authority encouraged in these exercises made Jesuit emissaries of the Pope ‘persona non grata’ in Catholic Spain, Portugal, France and the Philippines by the mid-eighteenth century. The one which follows, on Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit mission to China (11) does well in drawing attention to the pitfalls of the Jesuit strategy of accommodating the Christian message to non-European cultures. But this is not shown to be part of the larger tendency of this religious order which led to the coining of the adjective, ‘Jesuitical’, i.e. duplicitous. The reviewer admired the nuance observable in the chapter (12) on Jesuit missionary effort in West African Kongo; here it is shown that Jesuits involved themselves in unwelcome statecraft and mercantile trade, as well as the evangelizing which was their stated reason for being in the Kingdom.

A chapter on Bartolomé de las Casas (14) deserves credit for its acknowledgement that las Casas – while defending the native population against efforts to enslave them, promoted the enslavement of West Africans (a stance he later needed to repudiate). But the attempt to show that las Casas, a Dominican, was almost-Protestant and very nearly conformed to the Bebbington quadrilateral represented a tendency toward digression away from his task.

In sum, SCM represents a noble concept which points the way towards a wider understanding of still-other tangled questions. Its methodology needed to be much clearer, especially in drawing on actual representatives of the Roman Catholic tradition. It contains a good number of excellent chapters which I know I will return to regularly.

Kenneth J. Stewart

Covenant College.





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