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Andrew Walls and The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Introducing World Christianity to Church History [1996]

Author: Jeremy Hegi
Published: Winter–Spring 2018

MD 9.1

Article Type: Review Article

Walls, Andrew F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 266 pp.


In 1957, fresh from Oxford with his PhD in Patristics, Andrew Walls arrived at Fourah Baye College in Sierra Leone for his first teaching assignment. The young Scot had the responsibility of teaching church history to individuals training for ministry. Like many of his contemporaries, Walls believed that his task was to disclose the accumulated wisdom of the older Western, churches to the “young churches” of Africa.1 As he continued his course of teaching in Sierra Leone and later in Nigeria, however, he discovered that his attitudes and assumptions about church history were wrong. Walls was not merely teaching his students about the second century church; he was living in the midst of one. He began to recognize how closely the practices of the churches in Sierra Leone and Nigeria mirrored those of early Christianity. Moreover, he began to realize that the church in Africa was not a carbon copy of the Western Church, but that African churches had a history of their own that merited critical investigation. As he put it, “The life, worship and understanding of a community in its second century of Christian allegiance was going on all around me. . . . The experience changed this academic for life.”2 The final phrase in the previous quote is characteristic of the understated Walls. Not only did his realization change his life, but it fundamentally changed the study of church history: Christianity was never just a religion of the Western world, and by the 1950s its vital centers began appearing outside of the West. Walls exposed the inadequacies of a Eurocentric reading of church history and planted the seeds for a new academic discipline: world Christianity.3

Walls never published a book. Over the next forty years, however, it seemed that with every article he wrote, he broke new ground and brought new insight and further clarity to the study of church history and missions. Moreover, during this time he also trained a new generation of scholars who would become leaders in their respective fields and spurred the preservation of numerous materials from missionaries and churches.4 He was among the first to recognize the shift of the center of Christianity to the Global South—a development whose implications churches and scholars the world over are still struggling to grasp.5 In short, Walls’s career is rare and extraordinary in its range and impact. This is no less true for his book, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Part history and part theology, The Missionary Movement in Christian History is a collection of previously published articles and lectures that span a significant portion of Walls’s extraordinary career (1971–1994). These essays both represent his most important scholarly contributions and, in this collected edition, have quickly become a classic in church history, missions studies, and world Christianity.6 The purpose of this article is to revisit this classic work, consider its legacy, and discuss its continuing relevance to current scholarship.

Translation and Serial Progression

The Missionary Movement in Christian History is divided into three parts with an autobiographical introduction that helps the reader understand how what Walls calls “a collection of fragments” connects with each other.7 In part one, “The Transmission of Christian Faith,” he focuses on the nature of the Christian faith through its historical, geographical, and temporal transmission. He argues that the survival of Christianity depends on the transmission of faith through an act of translation that leads to the inculturation of the gospel and that this process ought to be the central focus of church history. In part two, “Africa’s Place in Christian History,” Walls discusses the transmission of faith in the context of Africa as he explores the Southern continent’s place in the history of Christianity. In part three, “The Missionary Movement,” he considers how this process of transmission affects both sides of those involved in the process as he examines the Protestant missionary movement from Western Europe, notably the United Kingdom, and North America. Each section of the book has essays that make significant contributions to the study of church history.

In the first essay of the collection, “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture,” Walls engages in a helpful thought experiment that demonstrates the core contributions of his work.8 Tipping his hat to Henry Van Dusen’s “visitor from Mars,” he imagines a long living extraterrestrial who is a “Professor of Comparative Inter-Planetary Religions” who can visit Earth every few centuries to study Christianity.9 Over a period of centuries, the scholarly visitor encounters a diversity of expressions of Christianity. He witnesses the Jewish roots and context of the early church, the first Council of Nicea and medieval Irish monasticism, and the height of the Western Protestant missionary movement in London and the vibrancy of indigenous African Christianity in Nigeria.10 What is Walls’s “Professor of Comparative Inter-Planetary Religions” to make of this Earth religion called Christianity?

This bird’s eye view of Christian history illustrates the two assertions that constitute the central themes of The Missionary Movement in Christian History. First, Walls argues that translation lies at the core of the Christian faith and is key to its survival across geographic and cultural boundaries.11 His argument begins with the assertion that the incarnation is the paradigmatic act of translation.12 Human beings cannot be separated from their cultural and social networks any more than a person can lift a bus while standing inside of it. Therefore, when God became a human being, God did not just become a “general” human being but was a person in a particular location, in a specific ethnic group, and in a specific time and place. God became a Jewish male in first-century Palestine. This act of translation, however, was not a one-way process but a dynamic interaction that took place between God and humanity. As the divine entered into first-century Jewish Palestinian culture, the people in that cultural-temporal location had to rely on pre-existing language and cultural conventions to comprehend this new element. In doing so, they had to take the existing structures of their language and culture and reorient them toward the divine. In this way, the gospel became rooted in the mental habits and cultural forms of that first-century society for a distinctive Christian mind to be formed and a unique Christian fellowship to be built on the core principles of the religion.13 Christianity grew out of the grassroots of human culture and came to expression in a distinctively Jewish way.

Walls takes this theological argument and views Christian history through the lens of translation. As the gospel entered into new contexts, it was as if the incarnation happened all over again in each different setting. The Word became vernacularized among a new people. As they oriented their language, customs, and social networks toward the gospel, however, they raised new questions and concerns significant to their contexts that previous Christians had not.14 Recall our Professor of Inter-Planetary Religions who observed the Christian faith situated in a Jewish context, expressed in terms of Jewish ritual and concerns. Three hundred years later when he observes the Council of Nicea, he witnessed a Christianity enmeshed in Grecian philosophical framework concerned about metaphysics and theology that, in many ways, seemed disconnected from its earlier Jewish context. Fast forward yet another 300 years and Walls showed us another cultural shift—metaphysics had been set aside for the earthiness of the Celtic Irish and their focus on developing a spirituality through the crucible of penitential discipline. A little over a thousand years later we witnessed the excitement of Christians gathered in London who, rather than seeking to be apart from society like their Irish ancestors in the faith, displayed intense activism that they brought to bear on every aspect of their society. Finally, by 1980 our space professor saw that for the Aladura churches of Nigeria, power as revealed through preaching, healing, and personal vision, is paramount.15

As the gospel was transmitted from one context to the next, new concerns arose for it to address. This transmission led to a diversity in the expressions of Christianity across time and space. Yet, Walls avoids a deconstructive postmodern relativism as he points out the coherence that unites these disparate Christian communities across the centuries: (1) they all worship the God of Israel, (2) they place ultimate significance in Jesus Christ, (3) they believe that God is active where believers are, and (4) believers are a part of God’s people, a community that transcends time and space.16 For Walls, this paradoxical dynamic of “indigenizing” and “pilgrim” principles lies at the heart of the Christian faith and its transmission.17 On the one side, human beings cannot escape their cultural and social networks, so the gospel must become indigenized, or expressed through these cultural norms. On the other side, as God’s interactions with human beings begin in their particular contexts, God reorients them and begins to transform them into what God desires. With this dynamic in view, Paul’s assertion that every knee would bow before Jesus in Philippians 2 and John’s vision of all the nations gathered around God’s throne in Revelation 7 take on new significance and meaning. These images become realized in the tremendous diversity of human life and culture as it expresses the gospel and becomes reoriented toward God. The kingdom is fulfilled in diversity, not homogeneity. This theological point coupled with a historical survey of Christian history reveals one of Walls’s significant contributions to church history: translation lies at the heart of Christian faith, and the history of the religion is best understood through its translation and transmission across time and space.

The second theme that becomes a significant contribution to the study of church history, and is closely related to the first, is Walls’s concept of “serial progression.”18 Again, consider Walls’s space professor’s journey through Christian history. He witnessed Christianity as a Jewish sect in the first century. He saw Christianity transformed into a non-Jewish Greek speaking religion in the fourth century. He observed medieval Irish monks’ spiritual practices in the seventh century. He attended a gathering of British activist evangelicals in the nineteenth century. Finally, in the late twentieth century, he watched Nigerian Christians claim God’s power through healing, preaching, and personal vision. In each case what was once the periphery of a center of Christianity became a new heartland for the religion as the old passed away. For example, in the first century, the Gentiles were on the peripheries of Jewish Christianity, but by the fourth century, the center of Christianity was among non-Jewish Greek-speaking peoples with a northern European barbarian frontier. The Christian faith, throughout its history, has not progressed steadily onward, claiming new territory and maintaining its hold on places it has been. Instead, as new Christian centers emerge old ones die away. First-century Palestine, fourth-century Constantinople, seventh-century Ireland, nineteenth-century Britain, and twentieth-century Nigeria have all become heartlands of Christianity in their time, and they have all (except Nigeria) ceased being so. Indeed, as Walls shows, if it were not for the process of cross-cultural transmission that lies at the heart of the Christian faith, the religion would have died out long ago.19 Growth takes place at the edges and frontiers of Christian areas, even as the previous Christian center experiences decline.

Walls’s concept of the serial progression of Christianity is significant, not just for the study of Christian history but also for the present and future of world Christianity. Areas that had once been heartlands for the Christian faith, namely Europe and North America, have been experiencing a massive decline in adherents to Christianity just as new centers of the religion have emerged in what had once been peripheries of the faith: Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America. It seems that the future of Christianity is in the Global South, and, as Walls asserts, Christianity’s encounter with Southern cultures will be “as determinative for the future shape of Christianity as was the encounter with the Greek world.”20 Taken in light of Walls’s argument that translation lies at the core of the Christian faith, the concept of serial progression has significant implications not only for the study of Christian history but also for the contemporary study and practice of Christian missions and theology as both disciplines are conceived of in the West. While it is outside of the scope of this essay to explore those implications in detail, one is clear: business as usual for Western missionaries is over. This does not mean that Christians from North America or Europe should stop seeking to practice missions. Rather, in light of the historical developments and arguments highlighted by Walls, Westerners ought to reevaluate the assumptions, methods, and theology that undergird their participation in the mission of God.21

Contemporary Scholarship

While The Missionary Movement in Christian History represents numerous contributions that Walls has made to the study of world Christianity, Christian history, and missions studies, there are places where this collection of essays falls short and where scholarship has moved beyond his work.22 Walls’s work in this volume leaves Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism out of the analysis. While there are chapters that explore Christianity through the medieval period, he fails to investigate the role that Roman Catholic mission and expansion played in the global transmission of Christianity in the early modern period.23 Moreover, the contemporary role that Roman Catholicism plays in the mosaic of world Christianity, especially in its charismatic forms, is essential to understanding the religion in the Global South.24 In the same way, the rise of global Pentecostalism and its missionary roots are essential for understanding the emergence of world Christianity in the twentieth century. More than any other form of Christianity, Pentecostal and charismatic movements are sweeping through the Global South.25

Another feature of world Christianity that is essential to understanding contemporary Christianity is its gendered nature. In her book, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, Dana Robert shows that the ratio of female to male Christians is roughly two to one. She argues that since women significantly outnumber men as practicing Christians, Christianity is a women’s religion.26 Since the majority of public leaders in Christianity’s past and present have been men, however, the crucial role that women have played in the history of the religion has long been buried. Scholars like Robert, who are doing the work to uncover these stories, recognize the groundwork that Walls laid by drawing attention to the traditional margins of Eurocentric Christian history.

No work of scholarship is immune to the passage of time, and The Missionary Movement in Christian History is not an exception. As mentioned above, there are areas of Christian history and world Christianity that this collection misses. Such criticism, however, does not undercut the value of Walls’s enduring contributions. The breadth of his analysis over the span of Christian history, his range of knowledge, and his ecumenical sympathies give this collection of essays a significance that will last for years to come and inspire generations of readers.


The Missionary Movement in Christian History is a classic for good reason. A veritable “who’s who” of scholars, from Mark Noll and Philip Jenkins to David Bebbington and Kwame Bediako, publicly recognize how Walls’s work has impacted and influenced their scholarship.27 The themes of “translation” and “serial progression” as Walls introduces them in this volume challenge the very way we study and understand the history of Christianity, Christian mission, and world Christianity. Scholars are still coming to grips with the implications of the shift of Christianity from the West to the Global South for their work, and those who ignore this change do so at their peril. There is still much that Walls has to teach us, and we are fortunate that we have this collection of essays to return to as we evaluate our respective situations in light of the changing face of world Christianity.

Jeremy Hegi is a PhD candidate at the Boston University School of Theology in Church History and World Christianity. Prior to matriculating at Boston University, he received his MA and MDiv from the Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology. Jeremy’s research interests focus on the intersection of American religious history, the history of missions, and women’s history.

1 Walls, The Missionary Movement, xiii.

2 Ibid.

3 World Christianity, as an academic discipline, provides a framework for studying Christianity that focuses on local, indigenous expressions of Christianity as these expressions relate to and are embedded in transnational networks. Joel Cabrita and David Maxwell’s recently published Relocating World Christianity: Interdisciplinary Studies in Universal and Local Expressions of the Christian Faith provides the best overview and discussion of world Christianity as an academic discipline. See Joel Cabrita and David Maxwell, “Introduction: Relocating World Christianity,” in Relocating World Christianity: Interdisciplinary Studies in Universal and Local Expressions of the Christian Faith, eds. Joel Cabrita, David Maxwell, and Emma Wild-Wood (Boston: Brill, 2017), 1–44. Following Lamin Sanneh’s lead, I prefer the term world Christianity to global Christianity. The latter term implies a replication of Christian forms and patterns developed in Europe while the former term is more in line with Walls’s thought. For a more in-depth discussion see Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 22–23.

4 For more information on the impact of Walls’s work through his students and establishment of repositories for missionary materials, see Jonathan Bonk, “Changing the Course of Mission and World Christian Studies,” in Understanding World Christianity: The Vision and Work of Andrew F. Walls, ed. William R. Burrows, Mark R. Gornik, and Janice A. Mclean (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 61–78.

5 As Walls was writing about African Christianity as a new and vibrant center of World Christianity, David Barrett was in the process of gathering demographic data and publishing the first edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia that corroborated Walls’s assertions. Barrett and Walls were the first scholarly voices to recognize the shift of the centers of Christianity from the West to the Global South. For more information on Barrett’s life and work see Gina Zurlo, “ ‘A Miracle From Nairobi’: David B. Barrett and the Quantification of World Christianity, 1957–1982” (PhD diss., Boston University, 2017).

6 While the essays in this volume reflect Walls’s most significant contributions, he published one of his most important and impactful articles, “Eusebius Tries Again: Reconceiving the Study of Christian History” after the publication of The Missionary Movement in Christian History. See Andrew Walls, “Eusebius Tries Again: Reconceiving the Study of Christian History,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 24, no. 3 (July 2000): 105–11.

7 Walls, The Missionary Movement, xiii.

8 Ibid., 3–15.

9 Henry Van Dusen established the first American seminary professorship in the field of World Christianity in 1945. His definition of the field, however, reflected his context. He envisioned “World Christianity” as the inevitable worldwide unity and cooperation of Protestant Churches. Thus, contrary to Walls’s “Professor of Comparative Inter-planetary Religions,” his Martian visitor witnesses a self-conscious interconnected religious movement toward Christian Unity. See Henry P. Van Dusen, World Christianity: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1947), 46. See also Walls, The Missionary Movement, 3.

10 Walls tells this story in the first part of “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture.” See Walls, The Missionary Movement, 3–7.

11 Walls most clearly discusses this point in ch. 3, “The Translation Principle in Christian History.” Ibid., 26–42. Lamin Sanneh similarly emphasizes the centrality of translation to the Christian faith in his masterful, Translating the Message. See Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

12 Walls, The Missionary Movement, 27.

13 Ibid., 28.

14 Ibid., 10.

15 Ibid., 3–5.

16 Ibid., 24.

17 Ibid., 7–9.

18 Though this is a theme that repeatedly appears throughout the book, Walls explores this concept most thoroughly in chapter 2, “Culture and Coherence in Christian History.” Note that this chapter was delivered as a speech in 1982, the same year David Barrett published his World Christian Encyclopedia. Walls, The Missionary Movement, 16–25.

19 Ibid., 22.

20 Ibid., xviii.

21 Walls begins to explore the implication for Western missions in this volume as well. See ch. 11, “Structural Problems in Mission Studies”; ch. 17, “The American Dimension of the Missionary Movement”; ch. 18, “Missionary Societies and the Fortunate Subversion of the Church”; and ch. 19, “The Old Age of the Missionary Movement.” Ibid., 143–59, 221–61.

22 Outside of the two themes I outlined above, The Missionary Movement in Church History represents many more scholarly contributions that Walls has made over the years, especially in African Studies.

23 For an in-depth exploration of early-modern Catholicism from the perspective of World Christianity, see Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of The World Christian Movement, vol. 2, Modern Christianity from 1454–1800 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2012).

24 See the discussion of Roman Catholicism and world Christianity in Scott W. Sunquist, The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900–2000 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 103–12.

25 For an excellent survey of the missionary roots of Pentecostalism, see Allan Anderson, Spreading Fires: The Missionary Nature of Early Pentecostalism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007).

26 Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 118.

27 For more on Wall’s influence, see Bonk, “Changing the Course of Mission,” 61–78.

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