History of Missions Lecture 6: Age of Discovery



Lecture 6 will focus mainly on China, Japan and South America.


  • the discovery of America changed a lot
  • trade routes between Europe and the east (India specifically) were increased and wouldn’t require going through islamic countries

When they first got to America they thought it was just the other side of India, hence the name the west indies.

The pope had also awarded Portugal control over a number of lands, but as Columbus went to America with the blessing of Spanish royalty, this started a tension between the two powers.

The Jesuits had a large role in the missionary side of this period of time. The Jesuits were disciplined and devout monks. Their founder, ignatius loyola, had a military background and the order were known for their willingness to accept orders and live in extreme conditions. They were also highly involved in education, founding schools and universities.


Francis Xavier was a companion of Ignatius and was to become the most famous Roman Catholic missionary. First he went to India and tried to interpret the lords prayer, the creed and ten commandments into the TTamil language. Quotation page 150. He did a lot in his time there and when he left there was a steady church.

The location I want to look at in more depth is Japan. People knew of Japan but only as imaginative stories of Marco Polo who had actually never been there.

Xavier met a Japanese man in india and this is what happened. Quote 154. Xavier felt he must spread the gospel there and travelled with two Jesuits and Yajiro, the man he had met. They attempted to translate Christian words into Japanese but this did not work too well. Japan was going through political disorder. There was not one government, but a collection of 250 divisions and local rulers. There was however an openness to new ideas and the gospel. What they didn’t realise was how cold it would get in the winter months. It was difficult to get enough to eat and they suffered a lot form the cold.

As translation became a problem, for exams using a Buddhist word to describe God, instead the missionaries simply introduced Portuguese terms into the Japanese.

The Japanese also had an interesting effect on Xavier. Whereas missionaries had believed in the doctrine of tabula rasa which meant to level to the ground – meaning in order to build faith in a group, everything from their old way of life had to stop completey. Now he believed that with the Japanese civilisation there were so many elements of nobility the gospel must transform and recreate but not reject everything before as worthless.

Another important observation he mad was about how a missionary should enter a new culture. They needed the highest quality of missionaries because they needed to be willing to adapt themselves to the customs of the country as much as possible as long as they weren’t breaking their own vows.

One argument that occurred around his issue, which might seem a small one to us, is whether a missionary should wear cotton or silk. One might believe that missionaries, having taken a vow of poverty should wear cotton, it being cheap. However, the other side would say that by wearing cotton a missionary would not be welcome in the richer levels of the people. Instead wearing silk made the missionary acceptable to the people and would be received well.

It took around 30 years for a Japanese person to be ordained as a priest, but in those years Christians had increased in number to around 300,000. Sadly the persecution of Christians soon after this meant that the Christian population was almost completely destroyed. There is little reason for this persecution but there has been a suggestion that the ruler felt that the entry of Spanish Franciscan monks were the beginnings of an army. It doesn’t matter but largely Christian were blamed for bringing in laws which were against the kami (gods of Japan).

Some missionaries left, others tried to hide in Japan. Some even denied their faith in order to avoid torture. It took more than two centuries before Japan would be open to Christian teaching again.


Matthew Ricci was brought to China and was to become again one of the most famous Roman Catholic missionaries. China had become an extremely xenophobic place where something foreign was always rejected. They regarded their own civilisation as the only true civilisation in the world, and therefore if foreigners did come into China, they must be coming to pay homage, to praise, the Son of Heaven.

Ricci went along with this in order to gain entry to the city. Quote 163

He also came claiming he might be able to help, with the clocks he made, and later as a maker of maps. He was allowed to stay for ten years and in that time began the begins of a church.

He had the same problem as Xavier of course when it came to translations of the Christian words. For example:

  • T’ien chu – lord of heaven

The ancient terms:

  • Shang-ti and t’ien simply heaven had some theistic significance and so could be used.
  • Sheng – holy because it actually meant something venerable, deserving of respect and honor.

Many were baptised, notably noble families and scholars of distinction.

By 1610 when Ricci died there was a church of 2000 members.


When the spaniards and Portuguese were in the new world, they had a system of how to gain control: conquest, settlement and evangelisation.

The people living in this new world were to be brought under the control of the Christian kings. The Spanish king instructed that the indigenous people were to be treated kindly, without violence, and settled in villages and schools and churches.

Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans came soon after and started going deeper into south America. The incas and Aztecs were quickly conquered, partly due to help of neighbouring people who were being ruled harshly. There was a willingness for the gospel.


Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions (Penguins Books, Great Britain, 1964).

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