Review and Comment on Into All the World: The Story of Lutheran Foreign Missions

Rev. Dr. Albert Collver, Director of Church Relations

Polack, W. G. Into All the World: The Story of Lutheran Foreign Missions. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1930.

Some 36 years after the Missouri Synod engaged into foreign mission work (1894), William Gustave Polack (1890-1950†), a professor of history and liturgics at Concordia Seminary Saint Louis from 1925 to 1950, wrote the story of Lutheran foreign missions. The book apparently was written as a text for mission classes at the seminary. Eighty-three years later the book has value for a couple of reasons. First, the book attempts to address the accusation that Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Lutheran church were not interested in mission. Second, the book provides a history of Lutheran mission work that is unknown to most contemporary church goers and leaders alike. For those interested in contemporary church relations and ecumenism, the book details the work of 19th century Lutheran mission societies which provided the genesis of churches such as the Lutheran churches in India, Liberia, Madagascar, and Ethiopia. The book also demonstrates that the church in general, and Lutherans in particular, have taken an approach to mission that sends pastors to proclaim the Gospel and to establish seminaries, that establishes schools to educate children, that provides for human care, and that translates important texts beginning with the Scriptures, the Small Catechism, the Book of Concord, selected writings of Luther, and then other helpful Christian literature.

The Introduction defines a missionary as “one who is sent” (pg. 1) and quotes John 20:21, “As My Father hat sent Me, even so send I you.” He states that Jesus Christ is the “great Master Missionary,” and because of this Jesus sent out apostles to be his missionary. Next to address at this point the unstated criticism that Luther believed the task of proclaiming the Gospel to the nations was completed by the Apostles, Polack writes, “The apostles did a great work, but they did not complete the task. Other Christians who came after them continued the work of teaching and preaching the Word of Salvation.” (pg. 1) Polack’s point is that the task of proclaiming the gospel is handed down generation to generation.

He concludes the Introduction, “The church of to-day is also engaged in this work, and every Christian bears a part of the responsibility.” (pg. 1) In describing the story of Lutheran foreign missions, Polack demonstrates by example how “every Christian bears a part of the responsibility,” from the sent missionaries which included pastors proclaiming the Gospel, school teachers bringing Christian instruction to the young, doctors and nurses, agricultural experts, and other workers and laborers who assisted. For those not sent, both pastor and lay, his story shows how they supported the mission work with prayer and financial support.
The first chapter, titled, “The Biblical Background for Mission-work,” and the second chapter, titled, “Survey of Missions from the Days of the Apostles to the Reformation,” seeks to provide a brief history of missions before the Reformation. Polack notes that although the missionary work of the Christian church began with Christ and particularly the out pouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the Old Testament contains a number of passages on the subject. The Old Testament “indicated in various ways the growth and glory of His Church.” (pg. 3) After discussing various Old Testament passages, Polack states that the New Testament provides a fuller revelation regarding the missionary idea. The main New Testament passage for mission work in the New Testament is “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creation.” Polack notes that the “Great Commission” appears five times in the New Testament but “not always in the same form and in the same connections and relations.” (pg. 7) He concludes “no one can read the New Testament without being impressed by the fact that missions are a most vital factor in Christianity and that the men most closely associated with our Lord during His earthly ministry were thoroughly awake to this fact.” (pg. 11)

In the second chapter, Polack recounts the missionary activity of the Apostles. He also indicates where tradition said the various Apostles brought the Gospel to the world. Saint Paul crosses the sea bringing the Gospel to Asia Minor, Cyprus, Macedonia and finally to Rome. John to Asia Minor. Matthew to Ethiopia. Peter to Palestine and Babylon. Thaddeus went to Armenia and Persia; Andrew beyond the Black Sea; Philip to Scythia and Phrygia (modern Turkey); Bartholomew to Arabia. Thomas went to India. The Gospel went to the entire world known to the Apostles. Over the next 200 years in the post-apostolic period, Christians were persecuted and the blood of the martyrs were the seed of the Church. Polack highlights key individuals who were missionaries to the pagans such as Ulfilas, Martin of Tours, Patrick, Columba the Elder, Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface, Ansgar, and Cyril and Methodius. Polack notes, “Thus the Church of Christ was spread during these centuries into all parts of Europe … By the end of the Middle Ages all of Europe had been brought within the pale of the Christian Church, but the Church itself had become seriously corrupted.” (pg. 25) As Christianity advanced in the North, in the South where it had once flourished it was overtaken by Islam. The Middle Ages drew to a close, with the discovering of the New World and new opportunities for mission work.

In chapter three, Polack treats “The Age of the Reformation.” At the beginning of the chapter, Polack notes that of the past four hundred years of Lutheran history, “the last one to two hundred years of the history of the Christian Church have been years of exceptional missionary activity.” (pg. 34) In the 500 years since the Reformation, the church has had the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel over a larger geographical area and to more people than at any other time. The church has had more converts over the past 500 years than during the previous 1,500 years of the church’s history before the Reformation. The church also has had more martyrs. More Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than in the previous nineteen centuries of the church’s history. It is estimated that there were 45 million martyrs during the 20th century. In other words, a Christian is martyred every five minutes — making Christians the most persecuted group of people on earth. The new missionary age also has brought about a new period of martyrdom.

Polack begins his discussion about “The Age of the Reformation” by stating, “The Reformation restored to the Church the Gospel in its purity and in all its fulness.” (pg. 34) It is of great significance that the Reformation restored the Gospel, for without knowing the pure Gospel, without have the message and doctrine to preach, in the worst case there is no mission activity and in the best case, it is hindered. People frequently take for granted that the church possess the pure Gospel and do not realize the challenge in keeping the purity of the Gospel. Mission work involves two aspects summarized succinctly by former Missouri Synod President Alvin Barry, “Get the Message Straight! Get the Message Out!”

The contemporary era seems to have emphasized one over the other at various time, usually at the expense of getting the message straight. Polack correctly notes the major aspect of the Reformation was “getting the message straight” and would encourage the reader not to underestimate the importance of that. In fact, the movement of the church from one region of the world to another region is in part caused by a lack of thankfulness by people for the Lord’s Word proclaimed in truth and purity. In formerly Christian lands, such as North Africa, Europe, and perhaps the United States are caused in part by a lack of thankfulness and a lack of concern about keeping the message straight.

Even in 1930, the Lutherans in general and the Missouri Synod in particular faced the accusation that Reformation was not interested in mission. Polack quotes Dr. Gustav Warneck’s monumental work History of Protestant Missions: “Notwithstanding the era of discovery in which the origin of the Protestant Church fell, there was no missionary action on her part in the age of the Reformation.” This accusation against Martin Luther and the Reformation is oft repeated in missiology books throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. These accusations continue to be leveled against the Lutheran church both by people outside the Lutheran church and by those within who have been influenced by these missiology thinkers. Behind these charges are assumptions both about the definition of mission and the church. If “mission” is defined as “Go into the world,” then Luther and the Reformation were not missional. If “mission” is defined according to the verb in Matthew 28:19 as “make disciples” wherever you are at by baptizing and by teaching, then Luther and the Reformation were among the greatest missionaries in the history of the church. Most contemporary works on missions define being missional as “going” someplace, even though this is not the verb used by Jesus in the “Great Commission.”

As to the charge the Reformation and Luther did not “Go” into the world, Polack notes that it is based on “insufficient knowledge of history” and “on false judgment of the circumstances.” (pg. 36) One aspect of the accusation involves Dr. Martin Luther’s understanding the preaching of the apostles “has gone out into all the world, though it has not yet come into all the world.” (pg. 37) In one sense, Dr. Luther believed that Jesus’ command to proclaim the Gospel to the world was fulfilled by the preaching activity of the Apostles. At the same time, Luther “recognized the duty of Gospel-preaching and that it is obligatory upon every age of the Church.” (pg. 37) Luther’s view is consistent with the doctrinal position that all prophecy and commands of Christ are fulfilled so that he can return in glory at any moment. At any moment from the time of the Apostles until the present, Christ could return in His glory. The gospel has gone out into the world and any delay in His return is related to his gracious will to allow more time for the Gospel to be proclaimed.

Another aspect of the accusation that the Reformation and Luther were not interested in missions revolves around the historical circumstances of the Holy Roman Empire (that is, the German lands at the time of the Reformation). The German people did not possess a navy or ships, as the predominately Roman Catholic countries of Spain and Portugal. It would be two more centuries before sea travel became relatively common place for the rest of the world. (Not unlike the present age when people can travel in relative ease around the world on jumbo jets.) Part of the so-called lack of interest among Lutherans to take the Gospel to the world was simply the inability to do so. Polack notes, “A further reason why the Evangelicals in the Reformation Age did not carry the Gospel to the heathen in foreign fields was the fact that these were inaccessible to them. Throughout the sixteenth century foreign commerce and shipping, colonization and conquest, were under the exclusive control of the servants of Rome.” (pg. 41)

Polack addresses these charges and points out: “Most of the critics of Luther hold that by missions we must think only of the evangelization of the heathen who have not the Gospel, of foreign missions in our modern acceptation of the term. That, however, is not correct, and our Church has never defined missions in this restrictive sense… we can truly say that the entire Lutheran Reformation was a missionary movement. It brought the Gospel to thousands who had had little or nothing of the saving Light before. In fact, Luther and his disciples were fairly submerged in the mightiest missionary undertaking since the days of the apostles.” (pgs. 38 – 39) He concludes, “the dissemination of Gospel-truth into all corners of Europe, beginning at Wittenberg and going out into all parts of the Continent and the British Isles, was itself one of the greatest missionary movements in history … When Luther gave back to the world the Bible, the source of all true faith and Christian service, he laid the foundation for all the Protestant missionary movements that came after him.” (pgs. 42 – 43)

One of the single biggest hinderances to mission was the establishment of the State Church and the rise of rationalism. By definition, the State Church is concerned with the people within the State, not outside the State. The resources given to the State Church are to be used within her territorial boundaries. Polack notes, “no Protestant state church has made foreign missions, from the beginning, the concern of the Church as such.” (pg. 81) Polack observed, “Only in a number of free churches, especially in America, are missions the affair of the Church as such. We may call this one of the evils of state-churchism.” (pg. 81) All of the Lutheran churches, and most of the other Protestant churches were state churches and as such the State did not have an interest in investing resources in foreign missions. Because Rome was not beholden to any one State (in fact, the States were beholden to Rome in many cases), mission work flourished in the New World under the direction of the Roman Catholic church.

By the end of the eighteenth century, pious Lutherans and other pious Protestants who heard the call of Jesus to make disciples of all nations formed mission societies. Polack notes, “But as the State, of which the Church in Germany was a part, does not provide funds for missionary work, this necessitated the formation of voluntary societies in order to turn the new interest and zeal into practical execution.” (pg. 82) Bible and mission societies came into existence and were funded by individuals rather than by the State. Both pastors and lay people were members of the mission societies. Some of the mission societies established missionary seminaries or houses of study. Several mission societies founded in the nineteenth century continue to exist and function today. Although many mission societies were unionistic in nature, some intended to be distinctly Lutheran. For instance, the Leipzig Mission Society desired: 1) to carry on the work of missions in the spirit of the Lutheran Church; 2) to give the missionaries a thorough course of instruction; 3) to adapt the preaching to the needs of the people; 4) and to leave the heathen unmolested in customs not in conflict with the Word of God. (pgs. 95 – 96) The Hermannsburg Mission Society desired, “all the Lutheran symbols and especially the beautiful Lutheran liturgy to be recognized and used by mission-churches as well as by churches in the fatherland.” (pg. 97) The mission societies carried out the mission work in foreign lands that the State Churches were unwilling to do.

The history of the mission societies had a significant effect on the Missouri Synod. Some of the pastors who later joined the Missouri Synod were initially sent by mission societies in Germany. Additionally, the Missouri Synod’s Constitution did not allow members of the Synod (pastors, teachers, and congregations) to cooperate and work with “heterodox tract and mission societies.” In fact, the Missouri Synod was founded with the intention of doing missions as a church rather than through mission societies. Polack writes, “At the organization of the Missouri Synod in 1847 Foreign Mission effort was designated as one of its objectives, but the extensive Home Mission work to which the Synod was called to give immediate attention made it impossible to begin missionary operations in non-Christian countries. Nevertheless a mission among the American Indians in Northern Michigan was carried on.” (pg. 124) Polack also notes that the Synodical Conference was formed in 1872 with the intention of carrying out foreign missions between the cooperating Synods.

In Chapter Nine, Polack treats, “The Foreign Missions of the Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States.” As noted above, the Missouri Synod was founded with the intention of doing foreign missions. In 1893 the Missouri Synod resolved to begin mission work in Japan, however, these plans did not materialize and the Synod began work in India. On October 14, 1894, the first foreign missionaries, Theodore Naether and Franz Mohn, for the Missouri Synod were commissioned to serve in India. These men had been affiliated with the Leipzig Mission Society but they found it necessary to depart for reasons of conscience. The Leipzig Mission Society was not remaining distinctly Lutheran so these men sought out the Missouri Synod.

Polack outlines the methodology used by the Missouri Synod in foreign mission. “Evangelization by missionary preaching tours was one of the chief methods of making Christ known to the people.” (pg. 130) “Christian day-schools are considered to be equal in importance to evangelization.” (pg. 131) “It is the policy of the mission to employ only Lutheran teachers.” (pg. 145) Medical work was begun. “Divine services are conducted regularly at all stations and outstations.” (pg. 131) Orphanages were established. A seminary was built. The elements of Missouri Synod mission, while not always called Witness, Mercy, Life Together, nevertheless followed this pattern.

Polack concludes his book: “Thousands and thousands of heathen have heard the Gospel-message, and many, far more than we know, have been won by it for life eternal. May God help us to realize this thankfully, and may the blessing of God inspire us at home and aboard to still greater self-sacrificial and consecrated service! For the love of our Savior and of the whole redeemed human race let us labor while it is day.” (pg. 156) Indeed, let us labor while it is day.

Into All the World: The Story of Lutheran Foreign Mission is a forgotten book that still tells a helpful story. A story that corrects some misperceptions some people still hold today regarding how the Reformation and Lutherans view mission. The book helps us see that mission is at its heart the sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which happens every Sunday in the local congregation, in various settings as Christians share the hope that they have, and aboard on the foreign mission field. The basic elements of mission have not changed: proclaim the Gospel (Witness), show mercy and charity to those in need (Mercy), hold divine services and build schools and seminaries (Life Together). Polack also helps to show how Lutheran and Protestant mission emerged out the State Church by using mission societies. He also shows how the Missouri Synod sought to be different by being a church engaged in mission rather than carrying out this task through “tract and mission societies.” The history of the first Lutheran mission efforts are as inspiring today as they were then. The book is a quick and easy read. Well worth the time for those interested in mission and the history of missions.

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