Church historians sometimes call the 19th Century the missionary century. Following William Carey’s publication of An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen in 1792, and his subsequent move to India the following year, hundreds followed Carey in obedience to the missionary call. They travelled to Africa and Asia and South America and to the remote islands of the South Pacific Ocean. Those who survived became legends and heroes of subsequent generations. David Livingstone and Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson, John Paton and Lottie Moon are among those we revere.
But of all the 19th Century missionary endeavors, none was as successful as the effort to evangelize the young, expanding nation called the United States of America (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol. 4; also Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 227). Rodney Stark documents how this happened in his excellent book The Churching of America. In summary, the United States was churched, not so much by missionary heroes, as by ordinary believers, some of whom were preachers, who evangelized and planted churches as the nation grew to the west. The most successful of these were the Baptists because they were not stymied by denominational polity or steep educational qualifications.
So what did those 19th Century pioneers do to reach the United States for Christ? Simply put, they discipled the nation. Every church leader knows the Great Commission. Or do they? What comes to mind when you hear the term “Great Commission?” If you’ve studied Matthew’s version you know that the key verb is “make disciples,” and it is an imperative verb, a single word in the original language. The command is to “disciple all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Think about that command – “disciple all the nations.” What does that mean? How do you do it? What does a discipled nation look like? Many have understood the command to mean that we are to make “some” disciples from among all the “people groups” in the world. But is that what it means, or does it mean that we are to do precisely what it says – “disciple all the nations?”
Personally, I have never been convinced that our evangelism and missionary strategies should be fashioned so as to “win at least a few converts” from among all of the many thousands of nations (people groups) in the world, so that each will be represented around God’s throne in glory. Yes, all the peoples of the world will be represented before the throne, and this will be a “great multitude that no one could count” (Rev. 7:9). But the Scripture also says of God that “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9b). That means that God doesn’t want a single individual to perish, not one.
I don’t intend by this to disregard or lessen in any way those who are spending their lives among isolated peoples, in difficult places, sharing Christ and spending their lives so as to see the first converts from among an unreached people. These missionaries are my heroes and should be supported and encouraged in every way. They are doing the incredibly hard work of going from zero believers to one believer, and zero churches to one church. I’m simply saying that in our preaching and strategizing we should strive to share the gospel with every single individual, in every house and hut, on every hill and in every valley, and in each language spoken on the earth. If 90 percent of the people of a nation have heard the gospel, but my loved ones are among the 10 percent who have not heard, that is a personal disaster which would cause me to deeply grieve because the destination of a person without Christ is hell.
I’ll address in a subsequent article how “discipling all the nations” can be applied to a local church or individual, but let’s think first about how the United States became a discipled nation (Note: To say that a nation is discipled is not to say that it will remain discipled. Historically many nations were once more discipled than they are at present, including the United States).
In large measure the first Europeans that moved to the land that became the United States were Christians. They weren’t all Christians, but they certainly weren’t Hindus or Muslims or Zoroastrians. The governing document of the Pilgrims, the Mayflower Compact, stated that they had undertaken “for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith.” Early on, men like John Elliot sought to evangelize Native Americans. The early immigrants were largely a Christian people. I don’t mean by this that they all knew Jesus. I simply mean that our nation was largely settled by a people with a Christian background.
When the First and Second Great Awakenings happened in the 18th and 19th Centuries, many colonists and Americans were spiritually converted to faith in Jesus Christ. Differently than converts in Saudi Arabia or India today, however, these early American converts did not “leave” a religion and join a new religion. In many cases they came to a saving faith in the God they already claimed to confess as God.
As the new nation migrated westward, believers did as well. Along the famed Oregon Trail were Christians like David Lenox, who, finding no church where he settled, started one in his cabin west of present day Portland, OR. Lenox was not a preacher, but a Baptist layman who founded the first Baptist church west of the Rocky Mountains on May 25, 1844. Twelve years later there were 26 Baptist churches in Oregon, not because of missionaries sent from the East, but because of laypeople and preachers who started churches wherever they settled.
Evangelizing people and starting churches are the first steps toward discipling a nation. Then, in the United States, schools, and even hospitals, were soon started by Christian settlers. In Portland, OR, Rev. Horace Lyman and Rev. N. Doane were among those who started schools in the early years. A Google search of the first schools in most any town, universities included, will reveal that most of the first schools in the Colonies and in the U.S.A. in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries were founded by Christians. The same is true of hospitals, orphanages, anti-slavery organizations, and temperance societies. Thus, I would propose that the United States became a “discipled nation” because churches were founded, and these churches moved out from the church to begin schools and other organizations that benefited the communities and furthered the mission of the churches. Churches penetrated their communities and transformation occurred as a result.
What does this mean for your church and your community? How do you disciple your community? How do you disciple a church or and individual? These are questions we will explore in subsequent articles.