A Distant Look Back at Missionaries and Attrition, Part I

“The opinion is often expressed that the present-generation missionary does not view his work as a work for life.”

This is the kind of sentiment that sounds as relevant today as it did in 1933—maybe even more so. After making this statement, though, Lennox then goes on to show that the missionaries of his day were actually serving longer, on average, and the proportion of “lifelong” service was increasing compared to their predecessors.

 

The opinion is often expressed that the present-generation missionary does not view his work as a work for life. —William Lennox

Not every former missionary gets an obituary printed in The New York Times, but in 1960, William Gordon Lennox did. Born in Colorado Springs in 1884, Lennox attended Colorado College, but when he applied to the Boston University Divinity School, he was rejected because of his deficiencies in Latin and Greek. For his fall-back plan, he earned a medical degree from Harvard Medical School, followed by spending four years as a medical missionary in China. It was during his time there that he saw epilepsy firsthand, and upon his return to the States, he devoted himself to the study of the disease, as a teacher and researcher at Harvard. In time, he became known as the “father” of the modern epilepsy movement in the US.*

Also, along the way, he wrote The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, in 1933. I referred to this book in my post “What Is the Average Length of Service for Missionaries on the Field? The Long and the Short of It, ” and having found a copy since then, I’d like to share more from this extensive study.

Before diving into the more recent findings, Lennox begins by taking a broad look back at “the entire journeyings of the missionary host.”

  • In the more than 100 years of Protestant missionary work preceding the book’s publication, approximately 75,000 missionaries had gone out, providing around 1 million years of service.
  • Their efforts resulted in 110 national Christians per missionary, or 8.3 for each year of work.
  • These missionaries served an average of 12.5 years, with those married averaging 13.7 years, and singles, 8.5 years.
  • By 1923, there were over 29,000 missionaries—representing 826 societies and committees in Europe, the United States, and Canada—serving abroad.

Then Lennox takes a narrower view, concentrating on workers sent out by six foreign missionary boards: the American Board, the board of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, the general and women’s boards of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the general and women’s boards of the Northern Baptist Convention. Findings from these groups were also supplemented with survey results from an additional 28 missionary societies from the US, Canada, and Great Britain.

The first missionary from these six boards went abroad in 1812. By 1880, the number of cross-cultural workers from these groups had surpassed 1,000, and by 1932, the total had grown to 4,263. This last figure represents about one-third of Protestant missionaries from North American and about one-sixth of those from around the globe at that time.

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