The James Ford Lectures 2024 - The World’s Reformation

During the early modern era, British (and other) Protestants were far more globally aware, and actively engaged in seeking to win converts in the non-Christian world, than we have recognised. This story has been neglected in part because they pursued the ‘propagation of the Gospel’ very differently both from their Catholic contemporaries and their modern successors. These lectures will survey some of the distinctive themes of early Protestants’ global missions, from the ingenuous and often damaging preconceptions they brought to the task; through the makeshift institutions they developed or adapted to tackle it; to the deep assumptions about the God’s plan for human history and the world’s end which underpinned the whole project.

This was global Christian mission, but not as we know it. Instead of a prelude to the missionary history of the high imperial age, these lectures will argue that this story should be understood as an attempt to carry the Protestant Reformation to the world.

Lecture One: Propagation (18 January 2024)

Early modern Protestants conceived of their global encounters less as ‘mission’ than as the ‘propagation’ of the Gospel, a continuation of the Reformation in a new context. This first lecture asks what it means to see the subject in those terms, exploring the metaphors and motives behind these early ‘missionary’ efforts and also the scruples that restrained them.

 Lecture Two: Apocalypse (25 January 2024)

This lecture will be followed by a drinks reception from 18:00 in the North School of Examination Schools.

If you believe God has called you to convert foreign peoples, you also believe that is his plan for the world. This lecture will explore how early modern Protestants’ missionary projects were shaped by deep but shifting assumptions about the shape of history and the cosmic struggles in which they were engaged.

Lecture Three: Allurement (1 February 2024)

Determined to prove themselves different from the tyrannical Spanish, early modern British Protestants were convinced they could win converts by modelling a religious and social life so appealing that ‘heathen’ peoples would freely embrace it. This lecture will discuss why this quixotic conviction persisted in the teeth of contrary evidence, and examine the poisonous residue left by its eventual evaporation.

Lecture Four: Language (8 February 2024)

Vernacular language ministry was central to the Reformation; yet early modern Protestant missionaries persistently underestimated the significance of language barriers, often attempting flawed, short-cut solutions. This lecture will consider why the Reformation experience proved so misleading and show that, when these problems were overcome, the effects could be striking.

Lecture Five: Enslavement (15 February 2024)

The most persistent conundrum of early modern Protestant missions was converting the enslaved – which, it was assumed, meant working with and through the slave system. Examining the failure of a range of impractical, idealistic and grimly compromised attempted solutions to the problem, this lecture will argue that enslavement was the principal rock on which early Protestant missionary projects foundered.

Lecture Six: A new phase (22 February 2024)

In the 1790s, a new British missionary surge began. This final lecture will ask: what changed at the end of the eighteenth century, and what did not? Alongside the impact of the Evangelical Revival and those harbingers of later missions, the Moravian Brethren, the argument will focus on the many-faceted impact of the American Revolution.

ford lectures