Missionary poetry is a genre of poetry written by missionaries or about missionary work. Growing in popularity with the rise of the Protestant missionary movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries, poetry by missionaries and about Christian missions work is still widely composed and read today, especially as more Christians embrace literary arts as a means of expressing their faith and spiritual journeys.
The Development of Missionary Poetry
Among the first poems in this genre is an epic poem by W.L. Bowles. Originally untitled, this work, now known by the name "The Missionary," tells the story of a Spanish military commander and a priest among the Indians of South America. Bowles wrote during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His work focuses on early Jesuit Catholic missionary endeavors to Latin America. The genre of missionary poetry developed in conjunction with the era of Protestant missions. While Protestants began the work of cross-cultural missions in the 17th century among American Indians, it was the revival movements of the late 18th century and early 19th century that increased the desire of the Protestant church to spread the message of salvation to other nations.
A Selection of Poets Who Wrote About Missionary Work
Many poets have written about the work of Christian missionaries and cross-cultural ministry. Though not all were missionaries themselves, they have helped to shape the genre of missionary poetry. Prominent names include: Cliff Ashby, W.L. Bowles, Charlotte Bronte, Amy Carmichael, Elisabeth Elliott, Frances Havergal, James McAuley and Lilias Trotter.
Motifs In Missions Poetry
The genre of poems by missionaries and about missionary work is also defined by the use of the following themes and motifs: sacrifice, identification with the suffering of Christ, a burden for the unsaved, reflection on one’s chosen field of service, inner tension between longing for home and a sense of calling to a foreign place, prayer to God for strength and guidance in doing His work, willingness to die for the cause they have undertaken, a renouncing fear and objections, geographical and cultural characteristics of the mission field and divine reward.
Missionary Poetry by Women
Women have penned the majority of well-known missions-themed poems. The late 19th and 20th centuries ushered in an era of prominent women missionaries. Elisabeth Elliott, wife of Jim Elliott, who was killed when entering Ecuadorian tribal territory, continued to serve as a missionary after the death of her husband and has written four books of poetry reflecting on life, faith and missions. Amy Carmichael, missionary to India, wrote poetry that included reflections on personal trial in the mission field, as well as devotional material. And Charlotte Bronte’s poem "The Missionary" is an example of poetry that conveys a missionary theme, but was not written by a missionary.
Missionary Poetry Today
The writing of missionary-themed poetry continues today as Christians express their cross-cultural concerns and ministry experience through verse. Several websites provide open forums for missionaries to reflect upon their work in the field through poetry. Websites such as ChristArt.com and MissionFirefly.com accept poetry with a missionary theme.