Missionary newsletters are a mainstay of evangelical culture. Those of us who have grown up in evangelical churches can attest to this. This informal literary genre typically contains a combination of updates on continuing mission efforts, requests for financial gifts and “prayer support,” as well as cultural insights and descriptions about what mission work is like in a particular setting. They are written to religious insiders — those who are already supportive of the ongoing work or other evangelicals who may be potential supporters. I enjoy reading these sorts of updates from my sister and her husband, who are missionaries, for example. Versions of this genre have been circulating at least since the 18th century. As I’ve sojourned in the world of Moravian history, I have been struck by the early Moravian contributions to missionary literature. It may be a stretch to say that they alone invented the missionary newsletter, but they were certainly an important part of the print culture in the Atlantic world that contributed to what we now think of as missionary updates.
Moravians spread out across the globe in the 18th century. They were a people in motion and regularly referred to themselves as both spiritual and literal pilgrims. What is more, they were meticulous record keepers and diarists. Itinerant preachers, missionaries, and even ordinary Moravians who made a significant journey kept journals or sent reports and letters to church leaders. These were often translated into multiple languages and sent across the globe to far-flung congregations. Because of this, historians have argued that members of this small religious group were among the most globally aware people at the time. Indigenous people with whom Moravians worked, even those who had never set foot outside of their towns and villages, arguably had more knowledge of other peoples and cultures than a typical person living in Europe.
As Moravians collated all of these journals and reports, some were filed away for posterity while others were edited and read publicly during special “congregation days.” These reports and journals included all of the elements that home churches needed to keep abreast and provide support for their work. They functioned the same way that missionary newsletters do today. Thousands of pages of these materials have been preserved in various Moravian archival facilities. While Moravians were not alone in keeping such journals and reports, they seem to have taken it to a new level.
The practice of writing and collecting such material led directly to the start of a new Moravian publication called Periodical Accounts relating to the missions of the Church of the United Brethren established among the heathen, which was printed by the Moravian mission society in London beginning in 1790. Periodical Accounts may have done the most to create a new genre of evangelical literature — a genre of writing that informed readers, interpreted foreign cultures, spiritualized the cause of missionaries, offered providential history, and provided detailed reports, graphs, and charts on the efforts to convert the heathen. The current authority on all this is the University of Münster historian, Felicity Jensz. You can find many of her articles and chapters listed here.
In North America, print culture was beginning to boom and religious books and periodicals were part of colonial American reading material. These publications usually included missionary “intelligence” and often drew heavily from what the Moravians were printing in London. Early 19th century examples of such serials would be The Christian Herald and The Congregationalist, both of which reprinted material from Periodical Accounts and other Moravian sources.
The rest is history, as they say. Similar publications continued to be published throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. I’ll likely write more about the backstory, legacy, and influence of these 18th century works in future posts. But for now, it will suffice to say that Moravians deserve much of the credit for establishing a genre of writing that has since become standard fare among evangelicals and one that missionaries continue to replicate in their newsletters.