In June of 1910, the World Missionary Conference took place in Edinburgh, Scotland. This conference met for ten days. It was international. It was ecumenical. About 1,200 delegates from mostly Europe and America, representing all sorts of Protestant denominations, came together to talk about the need for world missions and what world missions could look like in the beginning of the twentieth century.
You can trace the roots of the World Council of Churches, actually, back to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. The World Council of Churches was established in 1948. You could pull on the threads of various groups that led up to them, and you’d be taken right back to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. It was a very pivotal moment in the twentieth century.
Let’s look at five aspects of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. First, it was ecumenical. At that time, it was predominantly Protestant. There were no Roman Catholics present. There were no Greek Orthodox present. But as a term, ecumenical continued to expand and broaden. So first, it meant within Protestant denominations. Then ecumenical would come to mean Protestant and Catholic and Jewish. Then Islam was added. Then Eastern religions. Today, the word ecumenical is very broad and elastic.
The second thing about the Edinburgh Missionary Conference is related to that question of the ecumenical movement, and that is the question of inclusivism or pluralism. The Edinburgh Missionary Conference consisted of eight major reports. One of them was on this topic: “The Missionary Message in Relation to the Non-Christian World.” They began raising questions. Is Jesus Christ the only way? Is the Bible the true and final authority? Is Christianity, that is, biblically faithful Christianity, the only true religion? We see how those questions could be answered in the wrong way, and lead to deleterious and negative consequences. That’s the question of inclusivism and pluralism.
A third aspect of the Edinburgh Missionary Conferences is that it increased attention to missions. The nineteenth century was a great century of modern missions. It was the century of William Carey and missionary expansion. The twentieth century then witnessed even greater missionary activity. During the twentieth century, this missionary activity was carried on even during and despite of World Wars. Travel became much easier, and so missions expansion increased. So the twentieth century was a great century of modern missions.
The fourth aspect is the Edinburgh Missionary Conference’s impact on Africa. Leading into 1900, Africa was dominated by Islam and by the folk religions found across the continent. But after this conference, significant attention was given to Africa. There was a major push of missions into the continent of Africa. One book chronicling this was published in 1925, and it was titled South Africa, An Open Door. And so the Edinburgh Missionary Conference inspired and encouraged mission endeavors in Africa.
Fifth, the Edinburgh Missionary Conference served to remind the delegates and the constituencies they represented of the great need of the big world that we live in. In 1910, the world’s population was 1.5 billion people. In June of 2020, the world population is estimated at 7.7 billion. It’s a big world. And that’s a big need.