In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mission

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • The Missionary Outlook
  • Organizational and Transregional

Renaissance and Reformation Mission
Luke Clossey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0208


The Christian mission in the Renaissance period (1350–1650) witnessed the completion of the nominal Christianization of Europe and the beginning of the evangelization of the world, a process rooted in a medieval mentality but evolving to complement the new European exploration and globalization. In fact, it is only in this period that “mission” pushed past “evangelization” and “propagation” to be the term of choice to refer to attempts to convert others to Christianity, or to a particular kind of Christianity. In these centuries the Latin, Catholic Church dominated, for reasons of both theology and geography. Much of the earliest written histories of the less literate converts is missionary history. Even where Christianity did not dominate a society, the missionaries’ tendency to write copiously and in European languages has made them attractive informants for scholars interested in the broader histories of those regions. The scholarly literature is therefore vast, and this article only scratches the surface. Except for some primary-source anthologies and iconic works of scholarship, it focuses on recent and English-language publications whose bibliographies can direct the reader further. Mission history, like this bibliography, is primarily organized by geography. Students of a regional mission only exceptionally read farther afield—for good reason, given the extent of the scholarship. Despite this diversity, we can look back over the past half century to see a rough evolution of the historiography: what we might call a “classical” approach, relying almost entirely on missionary sources, adopted a missionary perspective; the fruit, in some cases, was the stereotype of enlightened missionaries saving savage aboriginals. A revisionist impulse, exploiting new archaeological and anthropological evidence, and drawing new inferences from the old sources, re-created the indigenous perspective; in instances where remaining evidentiary gaps were bridged with speculation or polemic, we are sometimes left with a new, reversed stereotype, of savage missionaries ruining enlightened aboriginals. Transcending both the classical narrative and its corrective, a new trend is giving us more human histories driven by individuals’ very individual stories—and these men and women, European and indigenous, missionary and convert, are enlightened and savage and everything in between, often in unpredictable ways. The revisionist outlook endures, however, to the extent that now some scholars consider inherently flawed any book focused on missionaries.

General Overviews

Unfortunately no reliable survey of Christian missions specifically for our period is available. Neill 1986 and Latourette 1937–1945 are older accounts of the entire run of mission history. The Monumenta Missionum Societatis Iesu series contains a vast archive of primary documents, while Koschorke, et al. 2007 offers a single-volume anthology of translated sources. The centrality of missionaries means that a good history of Christianity will also serve the student of missions: Irvin and Sunquist 2001 begins a two-volume project with great sensitivity to geography and expansion, while The Cambridge History of Christianity collects recent scholarship specific to our period. Clossey 2019 provides a historiographical overview, and a comparison with Buddhist and Islamic expansion.

  • The Cambridge History of Christianity. 9 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006–2009.

    Recent magisterial series. Volume 4, Christianity in Western Europe, c. 1100–c. 1500, edited by Miri Rubin and Walter Simons, has no chapter on missions but provides background information. Volume 6, Reform and Expansion, 1500–1660, edited by R. Po-chia Hsia, features individual chapters on Christianity in India, China, the Balkans, and the Andes.

  • Clossey, Luke. “Religious Expansion in Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism.” In Global Reformations: Transforming Early Modern Religions, Societies, and Cultures. Edited by Nicholas Terpstra, 27–44. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2019.

    After placing the Christian mission in a global context, this essay critically surveys the models historians use, and have used, to understand conversion.

  • Irvin, Dale T., and Scott Sunquist. A History of the World Christian Movement. 2 vols. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001.

    The first volume is an award-winning survey of Christian expansion to the fall of Constantinople. It avoids the usual Eurocentric approach to achieve an exemplary geographical balance. The second volume covers modern Christianity from 1454 to 1800.

  • Koschorke, Klaus, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado, eds. History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450–1990: A Documentary Sourcebook. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

    Contains key primary sources. Because it disproportionately emphasizes the later centuries, only about a quarter of the volume is from our period.

  • Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of the Expansion of Christianity. 7 vols. New York: Harper, 1937–1945.

    Like Neill, Latourette has a Protestant emphasis in its focus and perspective. It is more dated but more detailed than Neill. For our period most relevant are Vol. 2, The Thousand Years of Uncertainty, A.D. 500–A. D. 1500 (1938), and Vol. 3, Three Centuries of Advance, A.D. 1500–A.D. 1800 (1939).

  • Monumenta Missionum Societatis Iesu. 68 vols. Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Jesu, 1944–.

    By far the greatest collection of primary sources on this period’s missions. Organized geographically, volumes feature critical editions of untranslated sources. The series includes Documenta Indica (18 vols., South Asia, 1540–1597), Epistolae S. Francisci Xaverii aliaque eius scripta (2 vols., letters of Francis Xavier), Jesuit Makasar Documents (1 vol., Sulawesi, 1615–1682), and ten sets of Monumenta: Angliae (3 vols., England and Wales, 1541–1662), Antiquae Floridae (1 vol., Florida, 1566–1572), Brasiliae (5 vols., Brazil, 1538–1565), Historica Japoniae (3 vols., Japan, 1547–1562), Malucensia (3 vols., Maluku, 1542–1682), Mexicana (8 vols., Mexico, 1570–1605), Novae Franciae (9 vols., French Canada, 1602–1661), Peruana (8 vols., Peru, 1565–1604), Proximi-Orientis (6 vols., Egypt and the Levant, 1523–1773), and Sinica (1 vol., China, 1546–1562).

  • Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. 2d ed. New York: Penguin, 1986.

    The most concise overview of two millennia of Christian missions, written unapologetically by the Anglican bishop of Tirunelveli.

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