Volume 3.1 / The “Peculiar Qualifications” and Goals of Frontier Church Planters and Other Missionaries According to the Serampore Form of Agreement (1805)
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The “Peculiar Qualifications” and Goals of Frontier Church Planters and Other Missionaries According to the Serampore Form of Agreement (1805)

Travis Myers
ABSTRACT
In 1805 the famed missionary trio of William Carey, William Ward, and Joshua Marshman, along with six other men of the British Baptist Missionary Society who were stationed at Serampore, India, set forth for themselves, and a stream of new missionaries arriving from England, eleven “great principles” (as they called them) to explain their commitments and aims. The Serampore Form of Agreement (SFA) articulates a more robust and biblical understanding of the church planter’s life and ministry than typically does the popular contemporary literature on missions that is consumed by US American evangelicals. This survey of the document’s eleven principles demonstrates its early-nineteenth-century signers’ attention to culture learning and avoiding offense, to building rapport and diligent evangelism, to proper doctrine and patient disciple-making, as well as to indigenous churches and missionary oversight. Throughout the article, the author suggests several points of application to certain contemporary issues in missions, especially those related to best practices in the field and missionary qualifications.

1.     Introduction

Trending today among church planters in the least-reached parts of the world are strategies that minimize the teaching role of missionaries. These proposals often position themselves as remedy to earlier mistakes, especially the alleged authoritarian “indoctrination” of seekers and converts. However, popular American evangelical missions literature for the most part neglects both adequate biblical reflection and a careful study of missions history. Cutting-edge and pragmatic mission strategies void of sound ecclesiology are always with us, it seems.[1]

Craig Ott, Professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, notes the tendency toward pragmatism by North American evangelical missiologists and missionaries in his concluding chapter, "Missionary Methods: The Questions that Still Dog Us," in Missionary Methods: Research, Reflections, and Realities (Evangelical Missiological Society 21; eds. Craig Ott and J.D. Payne; Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 197-200.

However, the Serampore Form of Agreement (SFA) of 1805 articulates a more biblical and holistic understanding of the church planter’s life and ministry than typically does the contemporary literature proposing such things as “Discovery Bible Study” or “Obedience Based Discipleship.”[2]

For an introduction to these two strategies and an example of this kind of literature, see Jerry Trousdale, Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims are Falling in Love with Jesus (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012). I believe these techniques are better regarded as methods of evangelism rather than church planting or discipleship, per se.

On October 7, 1805 a group of British Calvinist Baptist missionaries in Serampore, India adopted the “Form of Agreement” composed by William Ward.[3] We remember the first three signers, William Carey (d. 1834), Joshua Marshman (d. 1837), and Ward himself (d. 1823), as the Serampore Trio for their decades-long partnership in pioneering Bible translation, evangelism, church planting, and social reform efforts.[4] With six other missionaries, these three put forth for themselves, and a stream of new missionaries arriving from England, eleven “great principles” (as they called them) to explain their commitments and aims. At a little more than twenty paragraphs in length, we might call it a robust memorandum of understanding or mission statement.[5] The anthropological insight and cultural sensitivity on display in this document belie the notion that previous generations of cross-cultural ministers were always impervious to the important concept of contextualization.

The SFA’s brief conclusion stated the document should be read aloud publically by each mission station three times a year in order to “keep these ideas alive in our minds.” I believe our global church planters who labor in difficult places today, those persons considering such a calling, and we who help prepare and shepherd such men and women can benefit from a consideration of these eleven principles. What follows is a survey of the document’s content, shape, and historical context with some occasional points of application for our own day suggested along the way.

2. The Things that are Necessary

The document’s brief introduction asserts that “The Redeemer” had “imposed” upon its signers “the cultivation of peculiar qualifications” for their “great and solemn work” as disciple-makers among Hindu and Muslim peoples. While the signers articulated their expectation that only the elect would come to faith, they immediately followed that with: “Nevertheless we cannot but observe with admiration, that Paul, the great champion for the glorious doctrines of free and sovereign grace, was the most conspicuous for his personal zeal in the work of persuading men to be reconciled to God. In this respect he is a noble example for our imitation.”

2.1. Loving the Lost by Building Rapport and Communicating Christ 

Some of the qualifications and goals of the SFA are explicitly noted as “absolutely necessary.” Such is the first principle. Missionaries must “set an infinite value upon immortal souls.” They should “often endeavour to affect [their] minds with the dreadful loss sustained by an unconverted soul launched into eternity.” In fact, “if we have not this awful sense of the value of souls, it is impossible that we can feel aright in any other part of our work, and in this case it had been better for us to have been in any other situation rather than in that of a missionary.”

Readers are humbly reminded that God had in the past raised the “sottish and brutalised Britons” to sit in the heavenly places with Christ. God would be able likewise to convert the souls of Indians steeped in superstition and brutal practices like widow burning (sati).[6] This is no mere reference to an imperialistic civilizing agenda but to a much-hoped-for repentance from idolatry and carnal trust in the supposedly salvific “work of their own hands” on the part of unconverted Indians. Sympathy for the sore condition of lost persons – both temporal and eternal – should compel the missionary to evangelistic diligence.

These British Baptists realized that Indians perceived them and other Europeans as “barbarians” when they behaved and spoke in a manner ignorant of local customs and worldview. The second principle states it is therefore “very important” to learn everything possible about Indian “modes of thinking, their habits, their propensities, their antipathies, the way in which they reason about God, sin, holiness, the way of salvation, and a future state.”[7] The SFA claims here that it is “of the highest consequence, if we would gain their attention to our discourse,” to understand what appeals to Indians about their own “worship, feasts, songs, etc.” This knowledge and understanding could be “easily obtained” in three ways: conversing with Indians, reading their literature, and observing their “manners and customs.”[8] Today’s cross-cultural ministers should do no less. They should acquire the skills and insight for doing cultural exegesis that can be gleaned from the social sciences.

The third principle of the document states the missionary necessity to abstain from – as far as he or she is morally able[9] – whatever would “increase” the prejudices of Hindus against the gospel. “Those parts of English manners which are most offensive to them should be kept out of sight as much as possible.” Any degree of cruelty to animals should be avoided. An “unguarded word” or “one unnecessary display of the difference betwixt us, in manners, etc.” would be counter-productive and “set the natives at a greater distance from us.”[10] Zealots among us today should note that these Calvinist forerunners in cross-cultural ministry advised missionaries not to be quick in attacking the religious beliefs of Hindus, “do[ing] violence to their images,” or “interrupt[ing] their worship.” The “mild manners” of Moravians and (even!) Quakers toward Native Americans are commended.[11]

The SFA appeals here also to apostolic precedent, alluding to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; 10:23-32; and perhaps Romans 14: “Paul's readiness to become all things to all men, that he might by any means save some, and his disposition to abstain even from necessary comforts that he might not offend the weak, are circumstances worthy [of] our particular notice.” A missionary may be far better educated and enjoy more comforts of life than those whom he is trying to reach. Yet, “He who is too proud to stoop to others, in order to draw them to him, though he may know that they are in many respects inferior to himself, is ill qualified to become a missionary.”

The fourth principle states negatively that missionaries would be “highly culpable” if they contented themselves with preaching only a few times a week to those persons who could be easily gathered together “in a place of worship.” Missionaries should engage in evangelistic conversation with local persons “nearly every hour,” seeking opportunities “in season and out of season” by moving about in public and private spaces, even from town to town. The SFA confesses “We are apt to relax in these active exertions, especially in a warm climate; but we shall do well always to fix it in our minds, that life is short, that all around are perishing, and that we incur a dreadful woe if we proclaim not the glad tidings of salvation.”

The fifth principle specifies the necessary “great subject” of evangelistic preaching, teaching, and conversation: “Christ the crucified.” Again, the awareness of a cross-cultural evangelist’s own limitations and weaknesses are displayed in the admission that “it would be very easy” to teach many true things for years on end, but apart from the explicit gospel as the point of it all, there would be no “well-grounded hope of becoming useful to one soul.” Historic examples are given to illustrate that the church has been sustained and revitalized throughout the ages by “the doctrine of Christ’s expiatory death and all-sufficient merits.”[12] In addition, the SFA stated in 1805:

It is a well-known fact that the most successful missionaries in the world at the present day make the atonement of Christ their continued theme. We mean the Moravians.[13] They attribute all their success to the preaching of the death of our Saviour. So far as our experience goes in this work, we most freely acknowledge, that every Hindoo among us who has been gained to Christ, has been won by the astonishing and all-constraining love exhibited in our Redeemer's propitiatory death. Oh! then may we resolve to know nothing among Hindoos and Mussulmans but Christ and Him crucified.

The ninth principle states it is a missionary’s “bounden duty” to learn the languages of the people he or she aims to evangelize and disciple. The fact that God had “qualified” the Serampore team to do so was an indication that they should “press forward” in the work (implying, perhaps, that those who cannot learn the local language have not been qualified by God to be in that place for that ministry). The production of vernacular Bible translations was of utmost importance and the reason for this. “We consider the publication of the divine Word throughout India as an object which we ought never to give up till accomplished.” Making Christ known by way of whole Bible translations as well as by the distribution of Scripture portions and Christian literature was an essential and urgent task:

It is our duty also to distribute, as extensively as possible, the different religious tracts which are published. Considering how much the general diffusion of the knowledge of Christ depends upon a liberal and constant distribution of the Word, and of these tracts, all over the country, we should keep this continually in mind, and watch all opportunities of putting even single tracts into the hands of those persons with whom we occasionally meet.

Not only was such work considered obligatory for a team of missionaries, it was one of several things the SFA says “becomes” them, meaning it is appropriate to their role and actually looks good on them! For example, “It becomes us to use all assiduity in explaining and distributing the divine word on all occasions, and by every means in our power to excite the attention and reverence of the natives towards it, as the foundation of eternal truth, and the message of salvation to men.”[14]

The sixth principle begins with, “It is absolutely necessary that the natives should have an entire confidence in us, and feel quite at home in our company.” To achieve this, the SFA notes, “we must on all occasions be willing to hear their complaints; we must give them the kindest advice, and we must decide upon everything brought before us in the most open, upright, and impartial manner.” For this to obtain, missionaries should be “easy to access” and “on all occasions” treat locals as equals. “Passionate,” or presumptuous, behavior would “sink our characters exceedingly in their estimation.”[15]

Even the twenty-first-century person with much cross-cultural ministry experience finds these principles easier to affirm intellectually than to practice or to feel in her heart. The document warns, “All force, and everything haughty, reserved and forbidding, it becomes us ever to shun with the greatest care.” Perhaps with this sixth point more than any other does a mature and honest believer – especially those who come from a more affluent, technological, and fast-paced culture – recognize the constant need for personal accountability, prayer support, and encouragement from brothers and sisters in the same ministry situation. Prayer supporters of missionaries should ask the Lord to spare their global partners from being (even perceived to be) aloof, harsh, and too critical.

2.2 Teaching Converts, Planting Churches, and Mentoring Leaders 

Principles seven and eight are by far the lengthiest of the document. They address the issue of discipling converts and forming new congregations, moving onward from principles regarding mere evangelism, culture learning, and cross-cultural friendship. Point seven begins with:

Another important part of our work is to build up, and to watch over, the souls that may be gathered. In this work we shall do well to simplify our first instructions as much as possible, and to press the great principles of the gospel upon the minds of the converts till they be thoroughly settled and grounded in the foundation of their hope towards God.

A willingness to frequently spend time with converts toward this end is commended. Patience is advised: “We must have much patience with them, though they may grow very slowly in divine knowledge.” The principle of meeting people where they are at seems to have been as much a core operating value for the Serampore group as it is for Christian cross-cultural workers today. Missionaries must certainly accommodate their curriculum and teaching styles to their audiences in the pursuit of maximal comprehension and reproducibility.[16] Yet the SFA takes a long view of the task and clearly aims for multi-faceted transformation as the eventual goal of accommodation.

Bearing with the moral faults of recent converts, whom the SFA calls “native brethren,” and reproving them with tenderness is said to be “a very necessary duty.” Missionaries should remember that newer Christians from such a background have only recently learned “just and adequate ideas of the evil of sin, or its consequences.” A “relapsed convert” should not be “cast away” even after “many falls.” The reader is humbly reminded that human nature itself is “backward” in “forming spiritual ideas” and “entering upon” a holy lifestyle. Thus we see that attention to biblical anthropology (i.e. the doctrine of humanity) combined with humble self-reflection and pastoral experience yielded sound, if only nascent, cultural anthropology in this early missiological treatise. The maturity that comes with age, and the nitty-gritty experience of shepherding the souls of other believers, will fit a person for endurance in missions by gradually purging youthful, idealistic expectations that lead to disappointment.

The SFA says missionaries should cultivate their own godliness because their personal lives reflect upon the Christian faith itself. “In walking before native converts, much care and circumspection are absolutely necessary.” In Europe “the falls of Christians” then had a lesser negative influence on others due to greater general knowledge of the Scriptures. However, for the missionaries in early nineteenth-century colonial India, “those around us, in consequence of their little knowledge of the Scriptures, must necessarily take our conduct as a specimen of what Christ looks for in His disciples. They know only the Saviour and His doctrine as they shine forth in us.” Missionary behavior is implicitly instructive to unbelievers and believers alike. The document also says that Indian converts themselves will become “ornament[s] to the Christian cause” as unbelievers observe their new manner of life.[17]

Believers need to be reminded regularly to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel (Col 1:9-10; cf. Phil 1:27). Some of today’s missionaries, though, may find freedom from anxious reserve and from constraint in evangelistic or teaching ministry by the reminder that their lives are (by their new spiritual nature in Christ) a positive reflection of Christ’s kingdom-building dictates and power at work in them. The mature Christian cultural outsider could, by God’s grace, have a much more significant and long-lasting (read, eternal!) impact for good by way of his loving lifestyle and practical witness of humble godliness than any negative (or just neutral) influence he will have by way of cultural or personal idiosyncrasies that are unintentionally – and unavoidably – passed along, as well, to converts. We live in a globalized age, after all. The anthropological and missionary ideal of pristine cultural preservation is passé.

In this seventh principle is included a commendation of “pious females” who can reach and then disciple “Asiatic women.” Women in that gender-segregated society, like in many such societies today, had little opportunity to hear from missionary men. Therefore, it “behoved” [sic] these male missionaries to ensure their “European sisters” had opportunity to learn local languages so that they were able to converse with local women “in every way that providence may open to them.” The SFA notes the first century apostles were aided in their work by women. Husbands today in cross-cultural contexts should remember it is often more difficult for missionary spouses, especially mothers of young children, to mingle with as many local people and excel (at least as quickly) in language learning. Extra intentionality, study, and prayer may be required for their success.

It is clear here that women of this mission station and mission society were not considered missionaries.[18] There is no female signer of the Seramore Form of Agreement. Yet biblical ecclesiology had as much to do with that as any gender bias. The missionary, concerned ultimately with church planting, was considered an apostolic-type role, one for which the elder qualifications of Scripture applied and the term “missionary” was reserved. Yet this affirmation of the value, and even necessity, of women on the field seems subtly subversive of the status quo in a day before single women were sent by any missions board or agency.[19]

The final paragraph of this seventh point begins with: “A real missionary becomes in a sense a father to his people.” While the contemporary reader may wince at the apparent paternalism here, the paragraph goes on to explain that a missionary should be concerned, even “anxious,” for the well-being of those among whom he labors. He should delight in their welfare and company. They should feel free and confident in his company. Ideally, there should be “sincere and mutual esteem.”

One way this mutual affection was probably cultivated with converts was by the provision of physical assistance. Aid is controversial in theory (read, rice Christianity) and complicated in practice.[20] While the British Baptists did not benefit from scholarship on the danger(s) of creating dependency, nor books on Western affluence as a missionary problem, they were acquainted with Indian brethren who had lost “their former [employment] situation and means of support” as a consequence of their new Christian faith. The SFA notes these men would probably not be hired by another “heathen master.” The seventh point warns: “In these circumstances, if we do not sympathise with them in their temporal losses for Christ, we shall be guilty of great cruelty.”[21]

Today’s “Business As Mission” proponents find precedent here for part of their own rationale. And all missionaries from affluent societies who serve in contexts of material poverty must navigate wisely to whom, in what way, and how much assistance to give. This can be a gut-wrenching endeavor. Candidates for service should develop a biblical theology of affluence and of helping without hurting. They should think through what criteria to use in weighing requests for assistance even before arriving in their place of ministry.

The eighth principle deals directly with the formation of native churches and the development of indigenous leadership. It begins, “Another part of our work is the forming [of] our native brethren to usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift and grace in them. In this respect we can scarcely be too lavish of our attention to their improvement.” In other words, missionaries should identify those new believers who are intellectually capable and eager to learn the skills of biblical exegesis, theological formation, and pastoral ministry then teach, teach, teach. Of course, to do so missionary teams themselves must include persons who possess these skills and knowledge.[22]

This eighth point also astutely identifies various reasons that local believers would serve better than Europeans as evangelists and missionaries in India. Negative reasons were stated which still obtain and are pointed out today by organizations such as Gospel For Asia: the task is immense; European missionaries are too few and their maintenance too costly; becoming fluent in Indian languages as a Westerner is too difficult; “not to say anything of the prejudices of the natives against the very presence of Europeans.”[23]

Positive reasons stated for a numerous body of trained Indians in full-time ministry also echo, in part, today’s celebration of and call for more missionaries sent from majority world churches: they would already be acquainted with “the customs, languages, modes of speech and reasoning [read, way of thinking]” of the unreached. If not yet so, they would be able to become “perfectly familiar with [these things], to enter their houses, to live upon their food, to sleep with them, or under a tree.” In short, the cultural distance for them to cross would be far less than that for the Westerner. The advantages are “so evident,” says the SFA, that God’s raising of this native force should be a constant concern of prayer!

The future Indian evangelists and missionaries envisioned in the document would be sent forth and supported by a network of numerous indigenous churches established by missionaries.

[W]e think it our duty as soon as possible, to advise the native brethren who may be formed into separate churches, to choose their pastors and deacons from amongst their own countrymen, that the word may be statedly preached, and the ordinances of Christ administered in each church by the native minister, as much as possible, without the interference of the missionary of the district…

These communities of Indian Jesus-followers were to identify and function as a tertium quid in the complicated social context of an Asian sub-continent under European colonial control. The goal was a thoroughly indigenous, yet distinctly Christian, sub-culture. Congregations of Indian Christians would be both at home in their culture and on pilgrimage as sojourners through this life (to borrow the language of Andrew Walls[24]) amidst Hindu and Muslim neighbors:

…the different native churches will also naturally learn to care and provide for their ministers, for their church expences [sic], the raising of places of worship, etc., and the whole administration will assume a native aspect; by which means the inhabitants will more readily identify the cause as belonging to their own nation, and their prejudices at falling into the hands of Europeans will entirely vanish.

So decades before the great missions agency directors Henry Venn (d. 1873) and Rufus Anderson (d. 1880) were famously promoting the idea of a “three-self” church (self-governing, self-funding, self-propagating), the SFA set forth such a goal.[25] The long-range goal was an Indian church of “permanent establishment” that would survive and thrive after the missionary efforts of Europeans had failed or were no longer necessary.[26]

Contemporary missiologists have added a fourth “self” to the description of a fully indigenous or contextualized church: self-theologizing. I dare suggest that the framers of the SFA foresaw a day, too, when Indian theologians would produce an ever growing corpus of sermons, tracts, pamphlets, and books in which they would explicate biblical content for Indian contexts and audiences, both Christian and skeptical. A glimpse of this vision can be had in the document’s commendation of native evangelists, pastors, and missionaries who would better know the Indian way of thinking.

In addition, William Carey referred to Indians in his manifesto (An Enquiry) thirteen years earlier (1792) as “fellow creatures, whose souls are immortal as ours, and who are as capable as ourselves, of adorning the gospel, and contributing by their preaching, writings, or practices to the glory of our Redeemer’s name, and the good of his church….” One way Carey tried to motivate his British audience to missionary labors and support of them was by imagining a day when they themselves could be edified by the peculiar contributions of Christian writers from a variety of contexts that were yet unreached and untaught.[27]

Readers of the Serampore Form of Agreement will not find in it the false dichotomy made by some today in claiming the Holy Spirit is far better than a missionary teacher at keeping recent converts and emerging church leaders from heresy.[28] It reads, “These churches will be in no immediate danger of falling into errors or disorders, because the whole of their affairs will be constantly superintended by a European missionary.” This British-Baptist-Calvinist crew apparently understood that the Holy Spirit sets overseers in place for the sake of guarding the church’s understanding of “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:28). Missionaries were, and are, to function as temporary elders and overseers, much like Paul and then Timothy did in Ephesus, training other faithful men over time in the good deposit of biblical doctrine (2 Timothy 2:2). In this way they protect and hand down to others the treasure trove that had/has been likewise entrusted to them by its previous stewards.[29]

Not all missionaries need to be seminary-trained or elder-qualified. The Serampore Trio was a good example of a team that delegated duties according to personal talents, experience, and desire in order to accomplish a wide range of things.[30] Yet missionary teams should be led by elder-qualified men who equip certain local male believers for church leadership, then temporarily serve as coaches/overseers for them. All other missionary team members should meet the qualifications for deacons. They are, after all, representing Christ in all they do while meeting the physical needs of others in his name. Like Stephen, though, missionaries in diaconal roles should also be quick and ready to boldly and clearly rehearse the biblical story of the gospel when God grants them opportunity to do so (Acts 7).

Cultivating an appreciation for the entire, unified, interrelated biblical corpus should be an aim of missionaries, especially among new believers and those seekers willing to read and query portions of Scripture with us. To show someone how the whole Bible gloriously fits together is to help equip them for rightly interpreting any part of it for themselves. It points them to the Bible’s beautiful self-attesting nature of being divinely breathed out and uniquely given to us by God.[31] It lays groundwork for a greater appreciation of the person of Christ and the redemptive work of God through him.

The inductive Bible study teaching method of merely guiding reader responses to a brief passage or single story in Scripture should be accompanied by explanations of each text’s place in its larger canonical, covenantal, and theological (call it “worldview”) context. This of course takes time, effort, one’s own education, and a missionary posture of instructor rather than mere discussion facilitator. The role of religious scholar and expert in sacred scriptures is actually one appreciated by most unreached peoples of the world. Good pedagogy and the best hermeneutical principles are not at odds with one another.

2.3. Prayer, Godliness, and Priorities

The tenth principle asserts that prayerfulness and “the cultivation of personal religion” is necessary to make missionaries ready and fit for all of these “laborious and unutterably important labours.” The SFA holds up David Brainerd as an exemplary missionary and man of prayer. Brainerd “pour[ed] out his very soul before God for the perishing heathen, without whose salvation nothing could make him happy.” The document then states: “Prayer – secret, fervent, believing prayer – lies at the root of all personal godliness.”[32] Individual and corporate prayer is called for, a fervent “wrestling with God” that he might “famish these idols, and cause the heathen to experience the blessedness that is in Christ.”

The radical final principle of the SFA exhorts all signers to glorify God with their “bodies and spirits which are his [i.e. God’s].” It begins, “Let us give ourselves up unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strength, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own. Let us sanctify them all to God and his cause.” Alluding to Philippians 4:11-13 and 2 Timothy 2:3, the SFA moves on to make this exhortation: “Let us continually watch against a worldly spirit, and cultivate a Christian indifference towards every indulgence. Rather let us bear hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, and endeavour to learn in every state to be content.”

The SFA promises God’s care and a greater portion of happiness to the missionary who lives this way. It also states that if God has enabled a missionary to persevere in this kind of lifestyle and ministry, then he or she might appropriately hope that “multitudes of converted souls will have reason to bless God to all eternity for sending his gospel into [their] country.” Multitudes of Indian believers do just that today.[33]

3. Conclusion

The tenth, penultimate point also includes what could be considered a succinct, one-sentence summary of the document:

A competent knowledge of the languages current where a missionary lives, a mild and winning temper, and a heart given up to God in closest religion, these, these are the attainments which, more than all knowledge or all other gifts, will fit us to become the instruments of God in the great work of human redemption.[34]

Each of the necessary qualifications and goals of those who would be frontier church planters and other missionaries can be categorized as one of these three things: either knowledge of the local language/culture; cultural sensitivity and humble, personable relatability or friendliness; or spiritual maturity and perseverance in the habits of grace or personal soul care. Pioneering church planters among unreached people groups have seldom seen much return on their labors in their own lifetimes, even those who have had a working knowledge of local culture, a “winning” personality, and “a heart given up to God.” Missionaries have more frequently sown gospel seed in faith and passed on the baton to a few converts before planting their own bodies in the ground. But these eleven “great principles” of the Serampore Form of Agreement (1805) set forth a more biblical and realistic long-term vision of the life and labors God might use in frontier missions than do the theologically deficient and idealistic proposals of “silver bullet” missiology - strategies that seek an easy fix to the enduring problem of hard-to-engage or resistant people groups.[35] May the sovereign and eternal Lord, who patiently builds his church, be pleased to grant more gospel fruit among the least-reached nations of the world, through the wise and faithful labor of an international contingent of qualified church planters who possess the proper aims and practices.


[1] Craig Ott, Professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, notes the tendency toward pragmatism by North American evangelical missiologists and missionaries in his concluding chapter, “Missionary Methods: The Questions that Still Dog Us,” in Missionary Methods: Research, Reflections, and Realities (Evangelical Missiological Society 21; eds. Craig Ott and J.D. Payne; Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 197-200.

[2] For an introduction to these two strategies and an example of this kind of literature, see Jerry Trousdale, Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims are Falling in Love with Jesus (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012). I believe these techniques are better regarded as methods of evangelism rather than church planting or discipleship, per se.

[3] I have consulted the “Form of Agreement” as found online in “The Serampore Form of Agreement,” Baptist Quarterly 12/5 (1947): 125-38 (http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/12-05_125.pdf). This anonymous mid-twentieth-century article introduces the Serampore mission station, church, and nine signers of the SFA. For William Ward as author of the SFA, see also A. Christopher Smith, “The Legacy of William Ward and Joshua and Hannah Marshman,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research (1999): 125-26.

[4] Ward and Marshman, the latter with his wife Hannah, joined Carey in 1799. (Smith, “Legacy,” 120). Ward had been a newspaper editor and social reformer in Britain both before and after his conversion. The standard popular biography of Carey is Timothy George, Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey (Birmingham, AL: New Hope, 1991).

[5] Brian Stanley called the SFA the “covenantal basis for the Serampore mission community” in his article, “Planting Self-Governing Churches: British Baptist Ecclesiology in the Missionary Context,” Baptist Quarterly 34/8 (1992): 379 (http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/34-8_378.pdf). According to Stanley, the SFA and its principles were jettisoned by a new generation of Baptist Missionary Society missionaries even within Carey’s lifetime. See also, Brian Stanley, The History of the Baptist Missionary Society, 1792-1992 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992).

[6] I offer widow burning as one example of a social injustice opposed by Carey and other BMS missionaries. For William Carey, in particular, as a social reformer, see Vishal Mangalwadi and Ruth Mangalwadi, The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999) and Chakravarthy R. Zadda, “Shoemaker and Missionary, William Carey: A Dalit Christian Perspective,” in Expect Great Things, Attempt Great Things: William Carey and Adoniram Judson, Missionary Pioneers (ed. Allen Yeh and Chris Chun; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 27-41.

[7] Both Ward and Marshman authored books on Hinduism for Western readers, the latter’s work being more focused than Ward’s was on a Christian critique and response. See Smith, “Legacy,” 126.

[8] For a positive assessment of Carey as an early missiologist, including as a scholar of Indian culture, literature, and history, see Timothy C. Tennent, “William Carey as a Missiologist: An Assessment,” in Expect Great Things, Attempt Great Things: William Carey and Adoniram Judson, Missionary Pioneers (ed. Allen Yeh and Chris Chun; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 15-26, esp. 20-23. See also Mangalwadi and Mangalwadi.

[9] While this point only provides the caveat, “as far as we are able,” the sixth point ends with, “We can never make sacrifices too great when the eternal salvation of souls is the object, except, indeed, we sacrifice the commands of Christ.” Therefore, I have interpreted this point to also refer to one’s biblically-informed moral scruples.

[10] We should remember here that Carey is still lauded by Indians, especially those of lower castes, as a social reformer and critic of certain cultural norms and practices. The Serampore crew tried to walk a middle way, compelled by love, of both cultural accommodation and public critique of sinful norms a la Paul Hiebert’s theory of “critical contextualization.” See esp. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985).

[11] On the cross-cultural ministry practices of Moravian missionaries in the colonies of Pennsylvania and New York in the latter half of the eighteenth century, see Travis L. Myers, “Mission as ‘Peaceable Strangers’” (unpublished paper) and Rachel Wheeler, To Live Upon Hope: Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth-Century Northeast (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008). 

[12] The document states, “It was the proclaiming of these doctrines that made the Reformation from Popery in the time of Luther spread with such rapidity. It was these truths which filled the sermons of the most useful men in the eighteenth century.”

[13] Ward wrote in his journal while aboard an American ship bound for India in 1799, “Thank you, ye Moravians: you have done me good. If I am ever a missionary worth a straw, I shall owe it to you under our Savior.” See Smith, “Legacy,” 122.

[14] Other things said to “become” the missionary are 1) taking every opportunity to evangelize (in the first principle); 2) shunning haughty behavior and speech (sixth principle); and 3) establishing schools so that Indian children might learn the liberal arts and sciences (ninth principle). By 1885 Christian missionaries in British India had established or worked to maintain 1,628 schools (Tennent, “William Carey as a Missiologist,” 21). Ward claims in the ninth point that the establishment of Christian schools would gradually prepare Indian society to be “born at once” sometime in the distant future as a Christian country, alluding to Isaiah 66:8.

[15] Like the members of the British Baptist Missionary Society, US American missionaries represent a global empire whether they realize it or want to. They must listen, with respect, to the critiques of American foreign policy, of economic globalization, and even of democracy itself that some, including Christians, in other parts of the world will make to their hearing. Missionaries should not allow their political convictions, culture-warring assumptions from “back home,” or an unreflective patriotism to hinder any rapport building, communication of Christ, or even refinement of their own view of the world and Christian faith.

[16] For an introduction to the important topic of evangelizing and making disciples of oral or oral-preference learners, see https://bibleandmission.redcliffe.org/resources/bible-and-orality/ or the works of M. David Sills.

[17] Carey wrote presciently in his Enquiry – and in application of good biblical theology – that one advantage native evangelists would have over missionaries from elsewhere is that unbelievers would be able to recognize the difference Christ had made in the lives of native converts since their conversion. See Travis L. Myers, “Tracing a Theology of the Kingdom of God in William Carey’s Enquiry: A Case Study in Complex Mission Motivation as Component of ‘Missionary Spirituality’,” Missiology: An International Review 40/1 (2012), 37-47.

[18] For an introduction to Hannah Marshman (d. 1847) as the “mother of the Serampore mission,” see Smith, “Legacy,” esp. 122-24.

[19] For the most comprehensive study of the history of US American women in missions, and their changing roles and statuses, see Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of their Thought and Practice (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997).

[20] Stanley notes the caste system complicated things for missionaries since low-caste Indians would seek protection and support from missionaries and mission stations through religious conversion (Stanley, “Planting,” 383).

[21] For a brief survey of Carey’s contribution to the social amelioration of the Dalit community and Indian women, see Zadda, “Shoemaker and Missionary,” 36-41. See also Ruth Mangalwadi, “William Carey: A Tribute by an Indian Woman,” in Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi, The Legacy of William Carey (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 27-48.

[22] Serampore College was established in 1818 for the vernacular training (in the Bengali language) of Indians for ministry, but succumbed to pressure for English-language instruction for secular employment by the 1840s, losing, with Bengali, an evangelistic emphasis as well (Stanley, “Planting,” 379-80).

[23] For instruction and insight regarding cross-cultural and global partnerships in missions today, see Paul Borthwick, Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the North American Church? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012). For a multi-faceted theological and practical rationale for Westerners to remain a part of pioneer church planting missions, see D.A. Carson, “Conclusion: Ongoing Imperative for World Mission,” in Martin I. Klauber and Scott M. Manetsch, The Great Commission: Evangelicals and the History of World Missions (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), 176-95.

[24] See the two collections of essays by Andrew F. Walls that have been hugely influential on the field of missiology, especially the history of missions: The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996) and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002).

[25] Stanley notes the Anglican Venn actually “drew much of his inspiration from the commitment of nonconformist (i.e. Baptist) missions to implement on the mission field what they practised at home: the planting of genuinely autonomous churches” (citing C. Peter Williams, The Ideal of the Self-Governing Church: A Study in Victorian Missionary Strategy [Leiden: Brill, 1990]) in Stanley, “Planting,” 379.

[26] Problematic is the fact that the SFA omits any explicit reference to a time when this missionary supervision may terminate.

[27] Myers, “Tracing a Theology of the Kingdom of God,” 43 (citing Carey’s Enquiry, 69-70).

[28] For example, this video produced by Act Beyond makes this claim, as well as other false dichotomies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLl5JKK8_oY.

[29] The SFA also reads, “[the missionary of the district] will constantly superintend their affairs, give them advice in cases of order and discipline, and correct any errors into which they may fall; and who, joying and beholding their order, and the stedfastness [sic] of their faith in Christ, may direct his efforts continually to the planting of new churches in other places, and to the spread of the gospel in his district, to the utmost of his power.” Here Ward and the rest of the Serampore crew might seem to have committed what Steve Saint has called “the great omission” in his book, The Great Omission: Fulfilling Christ’s Commission Completely (Seattle, WA: YWAM, 2001). That is, rather than enlist young churches among newly reached people groups to be a part of cross-cultural missions to those people groups still unreached, Western missionaries have often assumed pioneer missions to be their own exclusive task in a “West reaching the rest” mentality. However, recent research has demonstrated that Indian Christians trained by the Serampore crew were sent to evangelize and plant churches among both Hindu and Muslim peoples in present day Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. See James Ryan West, “William Carey, William Ward, and Islam: Evangelizing Bengali Muslims, 1793-1813” (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2014).

[30] Carey was a linguist, translator, and professor, primarily; Ward a writer, administrator, and printer; while Marshman was a school teacher, evangelist, and pastor. See Mangalwadi and Mangalwadi, The Legacy of William Carey; and Smith, “Legacy.”

[31] See John Piper, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).

[32] I have inserted dashes for the sake of clarity. Insight into the spirituality and theology of William Ward is afforded us in his, Reflections on the Word of God for Every Day in the Year (London: Simpken and Marshall, 1825; Orig., Serampore, 1822). Ward had just begun composing a treatise on the proper character of a missionary when he died (Smith, “Legacy,” 126).

[33] For an introduction to the history of Christianity in India and its current manifestations, see especially Robert Eric Frykenberg, Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present (Oxford History of the Christian Church; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). See also Frykenberg, “India,” in World History of Christianity (ed. Adrian Hastings; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 147-91; Kirsteen Kim and Sebastian C.H. Kim, Christianity as a World Religion (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); and Jason Mandryk, Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation (7th ed; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010).

[34] Italics added for clarity. For a recent introduction to the practices of Christian spirituality, see David Mathis, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).

[35] Ott notes the exchange of “sound theological foundations” for “shortsighted quick fixes” and “the endless search for the elusive ‘silver bullet’” as the first pitfall of a pragmatic approach to missions in his, “Missionary Methods,” 198.

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