Christianity: 1800 to 1900AD

Political Milestones: 1800AD to 1900AD

For those who lived through the 19th century it must have seemed as though they had dived into Alice’s wonderland, such was the social and industrial progress all around them. Many of the trappings of the modern lifestyle also appeared, along with rapid urbanisation. This was the era of the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, street lighting, railways, bicycles, time zones and frozen food. Pasteur’s discovery of bacteria saved millions of lives. Food production continued to soar on the back of breakthrough farming technologies and knowledge of genetics. World population soared by 700 million in this hundred year period, as many as lived on the whole planet just 200 years earlier. Wars of conquest continued in Europe of course. Much of the world was being trampled under European jackboots, but the seeds of independence movements were also beginning to take root.

The early decades of the century were dominated by French wars of aggression under the leadership of Napoleon. After occupying Spain, Italy and most of central Europe Napoleon foolishly advanced on Russia. After several major defeats, Napoleons was finally defeated at Waterloo, but not before some 6.5 million people had lost their lives. The 100 year peace that followed in Europe enabled its leading powers, especially Britain, to impose their will in empires around the world. Although a military defeat for France, the Napoleonic wars saw many ideologies associated with the French revolution exported to the rest of Europe. The pre-eminent example would be the publication of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in 1848AD. The reformation of Europe’s legal system and increasing pressure for democracy were others. For the remainder of the 19th century Franc turned its mind once again to acquiring an overseas empire.

The British Empire was at its height in this hundred year period, now called the Victorian Era. Encompassing 37 million square kilometres and one fifth of the world’s people, it saw English culture, technology, wealth and lifestyles exported to the world, as well as its incredible industrial products. The modern world and culture has been profoundly shaped by the British Empire. In values (which were largely Christian), its language, its capitalism, its science, its belief in progress and its games have all become global.   

The Empire’s expansionist protégée, the USA, was marching to a similar tune, expanding its North American “empire”. It bought huge tracts of the Midwest from France in 1803AD. In 1819AD it bought Florida from Spain. In 1845 Texas gained independence from Mexico, and seven years later joined the union. In 1848AD most of the West Coast was also ceded by Mexico. However, the drive for continental unity was almost destroyed in 1861AD with the outbreak of the American Civil War. This senseless war cost a million lives. It resulted in northern domination of the South and the freeing of all black slaves. In 1898AD America bought Alaska from Russia. After collecting the 48 states we know today as the United States, America was culturally, economically and politically ready to take on the mantle of superpower as the 20th century dawned.

While this was happening in the western hemisphere, Russia was enforcing its imperial ambitions on the super-continent. In 1809AD it seized Finland. In the middle of the century it claimed Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. By 1885AD it controlled all of the Caucasus and Muslim central Asia and was becoming a tangible threat to other European powers on the eastern fringes of Europe. In response, the western European powers propped up the Ottoman Empire as a buffer to Russian aggression, turning a blind eye to its brutality against minorities such as the Armenians. 

While empires were growing in some parts of the world, the Spanish, Ottoman and Portuguese empires were crumbling. Between 1810 and 1822, a wave of independence movements freed all of Central and South America from Spanish and Portuguese rule. The Ottoman Empire also spent most of the century crumbling in the face of Russian and European advances. In 1828AD Greece, with strong western military support, gained its independence. In 1830 Algeria fell to France. North Africa was the home of the Ottoman white slave trade, which since the 16th century had abducted over a million Europeans and Americans from coastal villages and ships. Their only escape was conversion to Islam. By 1878AD Bulgaria and the Balkan states likewise achieved freedom. Fortunately the Ottoman Empire would be consigned to the dustbin of history by the end of the First World War.

The great era of 19th century colonialism enslaved millions, economically and culturally raped nations and exploited the worlds vulnerable. The world’s wealth was transferred to the West, who now lived so much better than the rest of the world. The bitterness this engendered would erupt in the next century. May see these abuses as being committed in the name of Christianity, but in truth independent Protestant missionaries were often at loggerheads with colonial management, fighting for the rights of the dispossessed.   

The century finished with Italy and Germany fully unified and itching to take on Britain in any theatre of competition. Britain was fighting farmers in South Africa and starting to fade from its era of glory. Japan was finally open for business with the West and Africa was completely carved up amongst European powers. China was also passing through a time of humiliation at the hands of the Europeans, with millions dying in the Tai Ping and Boxer Rebellions. The yoke of colonial rule at the hands of white imperialists was now at its worst and would soon yield to nationalist and Communist aspirations.   

Spiritual Milestones: 1800AD to 1900AD

European political expansion to the far corners of the globe was closely followed by a wave of Christian missionaries taking the Gospel to those same four corners. The Great Awakening of the 18th century now morphed into the Great Missions movement of the 19th century. William Carey’s arrival in Calcutta in 1792AD was the opening bell in a long overdue rush to reach the lost. This era was to be the greatest century of Western missions the world would ever see. Wave after wave of revival swept America and North Western Europe as the century progressed. As a result, mission agencies began to spring up all over the Christian world and in all denominations. In 1800AD there were fewer than a hundred Protestant evangelical missionaries in the Third World. By 1900AD there would be some 45,000. In contrast, Catholic missions dwindled as the century progressed. For the first half of the century the largest sending nation was Britain. In the second half the largest sending nation the USA, but only after it had planted thousands of new churches all across the western half of continental USA. One of the little-known discoveries they made was the existence of over 210 global flood legends embedded in indigenous folklore, testament to their dispersion at the Tower of Babel, and their need for the Gospel.

Bible translation was a hallmark of the men and women who went out to the field. By 1818AD Robert Morrison had completed a Chinese translation of the Bible. However, evangelism was banned in China at the time so few were impacted until the nation was forced by European governments to open its doors to missionaries in 1858AD. By 1865AD Hudson Taylor was reaching deep into inland China with the Gospel. Although many hundreds of missionaries died on Chinese soil, and the infant church was nearly snuffed out in the Boxer rebellion, Christianity was finally, after nearly 2000 years, taking permanent root inside the Chinese culture.

Africa was a particularly difficult destination for the thousands of missionary recruits. Disease, deprivation and danger all took their toll. Such was the situation that many said their last farewells to family and friends in Europe and shipped their belongings to the “dark continent” in coffins. Back in Europe, evangelical politicians such as William Wilberforce were campaigning tirelessly for both the abolition of the African slave trade and the protection of Europeans against Muslim enslavement. 

While little known to the western world today, recent exhaustive research by Dr Robert Woodberry from the University of North Carolina has shown that in areas wherever independent Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in European colonies, those countries are now on average more economically developed than those who did not allow independent Protestant missionaries. Specifically he found they were more democratic, have comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment, better conditions for women, and more robust membership in non-governmental associations. This usually meant superior progress for those colonies under British rule as compared to those under French and Spanish rule. Hence the modern myth of the evil influence of the 19th century missionary is just that, a myth. However, these missionaries were not without fault as many brought their culture to their host countries thinking it was an integral part of the Christian faith. Hence the presentation of the Gospel was often not done in a culturally sensitive fashion, so converts were generally few in this era, and non-existent in Muslim dominated regions.

However, toward the end of the century something remarkable and unique also happened in the missionary movement that hinted at what the future would hold. For the first time in 1300 years, the 19th century saw Muslims came voluntarily to Christ in large numbers via indigenous evangelism. The first breakthrough was in Indonesia where Sadrach Surapranata (1835-1924), created a culturally sensitive expression of the Christian faith that was acceptable to his fellow Muslims. Sadly, he was disdained and ex-communicated by the local Dutch missionaries. By the time of his death in 1924 between 10 and 20 thousand people had come to faith in Jesus Christ. Over in Ethiopia a similar breakthrough occurred around the same time under the ministry of Shaikh Zakaryas (1845-1920) who saw some 7,000 Muslims come into relationship with Jesus after he discarded all the Gospel’s European cultural baggage and adapted it to the local Muslim culture. These two men represented a major breakthrough that would become the blueprint for 20st century missions. 

Back in Europe, spiritual opposition to the great wave of interest in the unreached of the world began to penetrate the Protestant churches of Europe in the form of liberal theology. Unlike America, many Protestant churches in Europe were still funded by the state, so there was little incentive to stick to the true gospel. Hence the beliefs of many of these churches gradually morphed from classical Christianity to intellectualism and then to atheistic beliefs based evolution and materialism. For them, humanism became their guiding philosophy, with Charles Darwin as their prophet. Theology then became a critique of the Christian faith instead of the understanding of the faith. The preaching of the true gospel had largely dried up in Europe by 1900AD and many churches were emptying out. The Protestant Reformation had run its course, while the intransigence and cultural stubbornness of the Catholic and Orthodox religions had turned Europe’s intellectuals to atheism and evolution for answers to the big questions of life. After 1500 years of cultural hegemony, European Chrstendom was in terminal decline. 

Satan used other means to counteract the 19the century missions movement as well. The rise of sects such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses inside western culture took many people away from the truth. At the same time Islamic persecution resulted in the slaughter, yet again, of hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians. Many more were massacred in the various independence movements in Eastern Europe. In China opposition to the Gospel saw around a million local believers die in the Tai Ping Rebellion of 1843-64. In all some 2 million Christians would be martyred in the 19th century.

Despite its cultural decline the morals and ethics inscribed in the pages of the New Testament were now becoming the ethics of the whole world. Hundreds of volunteer social justice organisations, such as the Salvation Army (1865AD) were popping up to take care of the poor, lame, mentally ill, disabled, prisoners, children, women and foreigners. Most hospitals and many of our best schools were started in this era by Christians. Sadly, as Christianity declined in the 20th century these functions had to be taken over by the state and funded through onerous taxation. On the legal front the Biblical concept of human rights was moving from scripture and into the lives of millions. Men like Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, Livingstone and Spurgeon were challenging social evil wherever they saw it. Women’s rights, the abolition of slavery and child labour, worker’s rights, the right to vote and children’s education now became goals of churches everywhere. These would eventually become the Christian basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948AD. Wherever true Christianity went, democracy, dignity, progress and freedom eventually followed.  

The century finished with a huge 10% jump to 34% of the world’s population coming under the influence of Christianity to some degree. Unfortunately, only 1% of those can be classed as true Christians with a personal relationship with their creator. For the first time in many centuries Christianity had once again overtaken Islam as the world’s largest religion. However, it could not penetrate it using Western evangelism. The stage was now set for both fastest growth in evangelical Christians in the history of the world, the spiritual bankruptcy of European Christendom, and the most horrendous persecution of Christians in history under Communism.