Who’s On First: Liele or Carey? A Symphonious Approach to Assessing the First Modern Missionary

Last week I was in San Diego, California for the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society where I presented a paper assessing the implications of identifying who was the first modern missionary. What follows is an excerpt from the first half of that paper. The entire paper will function as the first chapter in a new volume that chronicles the history of the International Mission Board from Kregel Academic, forthcoming in 2020.

Who’s On First?

When historians classify historical figures in terms of who was first to do something, even when the figures did not think of themselves by such classifications, sometimes the historical accounts can read like the famous Abbott and Costello skit, “Who’s on First?”[1]  This is very much the case with the ongoing scholarship surrounding who was the first modern missionary or who should be termed “the Father of Modern Missions.” Sometimes, when I read these, a skit like this comes to my mind:

Who was on the mission field first?

That’s what I am asking, who?

Exactly.

Exactly what?

What’s on second?

I thought Judson was second. 

No, what’s on second. I don’t know is on third.

Who’s on first?

Exactly.

Who is on first, Liele or Carey?[2]

Who’s on first. I don’t know Liele or Carey.

So you don’t know Liele, Carey, or who’s on third?

Who’s on first!

Ah!

But, this skit aside, what is taking place among historians is important for it reveals that the entire story has not been told of who all helped propel Protestants to contribute to the growing task of global evangelism in the late 18th century. The purpose of this paper is to answer the question, “Who’s on First?” and does it matter? 

That is, this paper will acknowledge that George Liele was the first modern missionary and that it is right to consider William Carey the father of modern missions, but I hope to do more than that.[3] Yes, some dates and who did what on which day are vital for understanding the historical task, but George Liele’s contribution is far greater than just that he was first. I’m afraid in our efforts to reclaim him, we’ve also limited him. And then there is the matter of how he or Carey considered themselves. What would they make of all these titles? [4]

A Suggested Methodology

Among Baptist historians, there has been an ongoing methodological discussion about how best one is to interpret the Baptist tradition. Some have argued for a single source or “monogenesis” of great authority that anchors the Baptist tradition, which I argue in another essay, is largely an unhelpful contribution especially as it finds expression in ultra-successionist forms.[5]  Most have, instead, acknowledged that there is a multi-source or “polygenesis” influence that comprises the Baptist tradition.[6]  Baptists are a product of the Reformation, yes, but their organization formation comes in England later, for example.

In addition, another historian, William Brackney, has argued that a better way is to think of the various epochs of the Baptist movement is a “genetic approach that attempts to make a historical connection between the various streams of Baptist thought, while allowing for diversity in evolved thinking.”[7] This idea of searching for shared DNA, if you will, has merit, but I am afraid it sometimes loses theological precision.  Timothy George also used a genetics metaphor when describing his methodology, “Historical theology is the genetic study of Christian faith and doctrine …. [that] investigates the nuances and modalities, the developments and deviations, of the efforts of all Christians.”[8] I like the specificity here best as it attempts to find common doctrinal commitments and seeks to leave no person left behind.

What does this have to do with an assessment of the modern missions movement?  What I am suggesting with this essay is that historians are thinking in an unhelpful way about modern missions leaders when thinking merely in terms of chronology our progeny. However, this is not to say it is unhelpful to identify who might be the first to do something or from whom a tradition developed. I affirm those clarifying efforts.  Rather, I am saying that when assessing the modern missions movement, we need to do more than that if we are going to capture with faithfulness the movement itself.

Thus instead of monogenesis, polygenesis, or a genetic approach, I’d like to present what I call a symphonious approach for assessing the modern missions movement. This era in history is, after all, a movement, and much like the musical use of that term, we see much more similar themes: there are many diverse and complementary components that make up a symphony.  For the symphony to achieve its desired sound, all must play their part. Symphonies usually are comprised of four movements that each tell part of the story at different speeds and intensity.  

For example, when considering the Protestant Reformation, historians and theologians do not speak often in terms of who was the first Reformer or who is the Father of the Reformation.  Rather, those events and people in church history comprised a symphonic movement. Like its musical counterpart it had a prelude in Wyclif and Hus, struck its opening notes with Luther, and saw its development and full deployment in Zwingli, Calvin, and Cranmer. Complementing these major sections were a host of other Reformers, social and cultural events, and advancements in technology and translation, that, in their contexts and specific convictions, added to the color and depth of the symphony that was the Reformation.

Likewise, I argue, it is with the modern missions movement. The Reformers themselves played some parts of the initial piece, but the Moravians and others open the overture in its beginning. George Liele, then, represents the first section with a unique and influential contribution that many have overlooked, yet he mobilized and impacted many. Carey, shaped by all who went before gives a full, well-organized presentation, the DNA of such serves a refrain for later movements that include Americans, Adoniram and Ann Judson, and many other missions societies, organizations, and work. 

What is more, there are other figures who contribute to this symphony who have yet to be acknowledged. Timothy George notes the underappreciated John Sutcliff.[9] There are many women who advanced the cause of global missions during 1800-2000 who have not yet received full study. In addition, there is need to research the churches who sacrificed, those sent by the churches to check on the missionaries and send reports, and the printers and distributors of letters and pamphlets from the field—and much more. Thus, as far as titles and assessing the right chronology of the movement, I am arguing that it is more helpful to think of the modern missions movement like other movements in church history and to minimize the emphasis on titles in favor of assessing all the component parts and their unique contributions that serve to make up the movement as a whole.

The Shortstop

When historians and theologians analyze the modern missions movement in the ways they quantify other movements in the history of Christianity, seeing these leaders and each playing unique parts in one grand symphony appears to allow their voices and legacies to have appropriate appreciation and ongoing influence. This is in distinction to attempts to summarize one missionary or the other as “the first” or “the father” while minimizing their much larger contribution.

David Bebbington posits that, “The most important development in which Baptists participated during their four centuries of existence was the foreign missionary movement.”[10]  My argument has been that a symphonious approach to assessing that movement allows current researchers to see the full value and beauty of what the movement’s leaders were able to do in their lifetimes, not to mention all the supporting figures and trends that helped to strengthen the movement that have yet to be studied and shared.

As Stratford Caldecott reminds, “For every great change, every rebirth or renaissance in human culture, has been triggered by the retrieval of something valuable out of the past, making new, creative developments possible.”[11] I hope this assessment serves to help foster new and creative assessments of the modern missions movement for the sake of those who do not yet have a missions history.

Candidly, here at the end, many historians might respond to my clarifications and say, “Enough already, I don’t care who is on first or how is the best way to put it all together, just as long as the missions movement and its overlooked figures are studied and shared.” With that bottom-line sentiment, I would agree, but then, also would point out that, “I don’t care,” well, he is the shortstop.


[1] “‘Who’s on First?’ by Abbott and Costello,” The Baseball Almanac,

[2] The name George Liele can be found spelled also as Leile or Lisle.

[3] For the purposes of this paper, I define missionary as “one who crosses cultures to share the gospel.”  See Jason G. Duesing, “The Pastor as Missionary,” in Jason K. Allen, ed. Portraits of a Pastor (Moody, 2017).

[4] The full version of this essay includes a historical overview of the start of Protestant missions as well as biographical introductions to the main figures under consideration in this presentation.

[5] Jason G. Duesing, “Baptist Contributions to the Christian Tradition,” in Baptists and the Christian Tradition, Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps, eds. (B&H Academic, 2020).

[6] See James M. Stayer, Werner Packull, and Klaus Deppermann, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,” MQR 49:2 (Apr 1975): 83-121, and Malcolm B. Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (B&H Academic, 2007), 7.

[7] William H. Brackney, A Genetic History of Baptist Thought (Mercer, 2004), 2-3.

[8] Timothy George, “Dogma Beyond Anathema: Historical Theology in the Service of the Church,” in Review & Expositor 4 (Fall 1987), 691.

[9] Timothy George, “Let it Go: Lessons from the Life of William Carey,” in Expect Great Things, Attempt Great Things, Allen Yeh and Chris Chun, eds., (Wipf & Stock, 2013), 8

[10] David W. Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries (Baylor, 2010) , 215.

[11] Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake (Brazos, 2009), 12.