• Beth Snodderly, DLitt et Phil

Mission History in 400-Year Epochs

This article was first published in the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the Global South, used by permission.

For convenience in surveying and seeing patterns in mission history, missiologist Ralph D. Winter (1924–2009) postulated five 400-year epochs following the coming of Jesus. He saw a general pattern of each epoch starting with chaos and darkness while ending with a flourishing of biblical faith in a new cultural basin. While Winter’s explanation of mission history is focused on the West up until the fifth epoch, other mission historians describe in great detail what was also taking place in other parts of the world during these time periods. Although Christianity became mainly European for a time, the re-expansion of Christianity began at the end of the fourth epoch. Now in the 21st century the biblical faith is so globalized that historian Philip Jenkins believes the views of Northern Christians are becoming less and less significant in comparison to the views of Christians in the Global South (Jenkins 2011, 148).

0–400, First Epoch: Winning the Romans

400–800, Second Epoch: Winning the Barbarians

800–1200, Third Epoch: Winning the Vikings

1200–1600, Fourth Epoch: The Gospel Fails to Go East

1600–2000+, Fifth Epoch: To the Ends of the Earth

0–400, First Epoch: Winning the Romans

The chaos of persecution marked the beginning of the first four hundred years of the Christian faith. Due to persecution the Apostles left Jerusalem and became missionaries as they shared their faith wherever they went. Nero initiated persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire and this continued intermittently until after Diocletian in the early fourth century. In spite of persecution, the Church expanded in the known world.

According to Winter, “we know that the first 400-year period ended with a blaze of glory simply because the world’s most powerful empire had been taken over by the faith of our Lord” (Winter & Snodderly 2009, 157). The faith spread along the Roman roads as far north as England, where Pelagius demonstrated advanced biblical scholarship. At the end of this epoch, the Roman Emperor had become a Christian and moved the seat of power of both Church and State to Constantinople. Constantine’s historian, Eusebius, edited a large collection of Christian writings and others translated the Bible into Latin.

In the East, tradition claims that the Apostle Thomas introduced Christianity in India (Latourette 1975, 80). Persia and Arabia each had their distinctive forms of the Christian faith. The failure to translate Scripture into Arabic may have been a contributing factor in the later loss of Christian faith to Islam in the Arabic world.

To the South, Northern Africa was the home of Christian leaders, including the strongly missionary church of Alexandria. The tradition in Egypt of respected holy hermits was a forerunner of later monasteries that maintained libraries and made copies of books, keeping learning alive. Augustine became bishop of Hippo in North Africa in 395 and his influence on Christian theology continues through both Catholic and Protestant streams up to the present.

400–800, Second Epoch: Winning the Barbarians

The chaos in the second epoch of mission history started with the fall of Rome in 410 to the “barbarian” Goths. The resulting gradual collapse of Roman military power allowed the Angles and Saxons to invade Roman England leading to many years of tribal warfare. North African Christianity suffered at the beginning of this period from invasions by the Vandals from Europe. Weakened areas area around the Mediterranean were later unable to resist conquest by Islamic Arabs. If Christians had not overly identified themselves with the politics of Rome, perhaps the Arabs would not have chosen to distinguish themselves from the “Christian” Roman Empire by following a different version of biblical faith that had less exposure to the Bible. Islam continues today to compete aggressively with Christianity in Africa and other parts of the Global South.

Due to contact with “reluctant missionaries” forced out of the Roman Empire, many Northern European political leaders adopted the Christian faith. These leaders displayed varying degrees of biblical behavior, often coercing their followers to call themselves “Christian.” The former tribal chieftain, Charlemagne, became a believer and brought about at the end of this period a flourishing in learning, biblical studies, and manuscript reproduction. He founded public schools and imported teachers to the continent from Ireland, where the Celtics had kept learning from the Latin Bible alive. During this time, the Venerable Bede recorded the history of Christianity in England.

In other parts of the world, Armenia continued to be a Christian country while the Church of the East gained followers in many languages along the Silk Road(s) as far as China, including Turkey, Tibet, and India, under the leadership of the patriarch Timothy (Jenkins 2008, 6-11). Christian communities in Arabia grew until Muhammad’s followers co-opted many of them into the Islamic culture. On the African side, Christianity spread up the Nile as far as the Sudan and gained a foothold in Ethiopia where it continues to be the majority religion.

800–1200, Third Epoch: Winning the Vikings

This epoch opened with the chaos of ruthless pagan Viking invasions by sea in northern Europe. The Vikings, to whom Christians had failed to send missionaries, pillaged the monasteries for their wealth and killed people mercilessly. At the same time Muslims were invading southern Europe. In China, severe persecution in 845 so weakened the small Church of the East that when Nestorian monks went to China in 987 they were unable to find any Christians (Latourette 1975, 274). Increasing Muslim militancy decimated North African Christianity.

Toward the end of this period, as in the previous periods, there was again a time of peace and quiet, with the gospel established in a new culture. Former enemies, the Vikings, had become Christians (to some extent) through the witness of monks they had made to be their slaves or Christian girls they had captured to be their wives and mistresses. Encouraged by Pope Urban II, former Vikings turned their warlike tendencies toward a tragic misconstrual of Christian mission and led the early Crusades into the Holy Land. However, in the absence of further invasions of Western Europe, scholarship and Bible study were able to flourish. In England, Alfred the Great initiated translation of the Scriptures into Anglo-Saxon, the common language. Scholars and the Monastic Orders founded universities in Europe and made significant advances in technology and education.

By the end of this epoch, most of Europe had a state-endorsed form of the Christian faith. Christianity expanded into Russia and continued in a small way in India. In the Chinese Church of the East, their adoption of customs of the surrounding cultures may have been partly responsible for the eventual loss of Christian identity.

1200–1600, Fourth Epoch: The Gospel Fails to Go East

The chaos of the Crusades continued into this period—a misguided attempt to found the kingdom of God on earth by the violent methods of the world. Instead of winning the Muslims and the Holy Land, the church-sponsored Crusades directly contributed to the alienation of the Muslim world that continues to this day. Crusaders even attacked the city of Constantinople, propelled by Venice’s commercial greed, with the result that the weakened former Christian capital eventually fell under Muslim rule in 1453. The Black Plague brought further chaos to Europe, killing up to one third of the population, with an even higher proportion of deaths among the Franciscan Friars who cared for the sick in spite of the known danger.

But after all that death and confusion, once more at the end of this period the faith flourished in another cultural basin. Monks like Martin Luther rebelled against the corruption among Church leaders and the period ended with reforms within the Roman Church and in a new form of biblical faith in the Germanic cultural basin. Known as the Protestant Reformation, Northern European Christians had freed themselves from Mediterranean/Latin control. Breakaway movements like this happen in the mission world today when a group of people prefer to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than accepting the missionaries’ cultural interpretations.

Catholic Friars were able to go by sea to do mission all over the world due to Prince Henry the Navigator’s improvements in navigation instruments. Both Franciscans and Dominicans were in India during this time period. By 1535 the Friars had established the University of Mexico City. However, by 1500 Christianity was again nearly absent in China, despite some recovery of the faith during this time period. In the Middle East, under Muslim rule, Christian communities were scarce.

1600–2000+, Fifth Epoch: To the Ends of the Earth

Chaos and flourishing are inter-mingled in the Fifth Epoch. European countries increased their worldwide explorations and colonization for commercial purposes. However, Catholic countries also sent Friars with the explorers, taking the Gospel to the people in the new lands. The first half of this period was almost exclusively a time of Roman Catholic missions, but by 1800 the French Revolution had undercut much of the funding for Catholic global mission.

Protestant mission efforts since 1800 fall into three overlapping eras (Winter & Hawthorne 2009, 263-78):

1st Era: Reaching the coastlands, typified by William Carey, the “father of modern missions,” already in India before 1800.

2nd Era: Going inland, typified by Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission that he founded in 1865.

3rd Era: Recognizing unreached peoples who are isolated by language and/or culture from hearing the Gospel. Cameron Townsend and Donald McGavran first called attention to these realities in the 1930s and Ralph Winter addressed the Lausanne ’74 Congress with this emphasis.

The efforts of both Protestant and Catholic missionaries brought flourishing to the Global South as they established schools and hospitals and provided moral foundations for future political independence. Around the world the advantages of science, including reduced disease, came as a result of the Christian worldview that nature is orderly and operates according to discoverable laws, an essential prerequisite for scientific thought. The chaos of two world wars in the 20th century brought, at the same time, increased awareness by Western missions of unreached peoples in need of both the Gospel and practical development. After World War II Christianity spontaneously exploded worldwide.


The faith that started with a baby in a manger has become a global phenomenon. Jenkins points out that today the largest Christian communities are in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Jenkins 2011, 1). These former recipients of mission are now sending out missionaries themselves and widespread migration means that Global South believers are taking their faith around the world. When Christianity is freed from a particular culture’s clothing and people groups are studying the Bible in their own language, believers are able to learn how to work together to demonstrate God’s will and God’s character in all aspects of life, resulting in benefits to their societies.


Escobar, Samuel. 2003. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.

Jenkins, Philip. 2008. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. New York: HarperCollins.

______. 2011. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Latourette, Kenneth S. 1997. A History of Christianity: Reformation to the Present. Rev. ed. Peabody, MA: Prince Press.

______. 1975. A History of Christianity: to A.D. 1500. Rev. ed. Peabody, MA: Prince Press.

Moffett, Samuel H. 1998. A History of Christianity in Asia: Beginnings to 1500. 2nd rev. ed. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Stark, Rodney. 2014. How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.

Walls, Andrew. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll: Orbis

Winter, Ralph D. and Beth Snodderly, eds. 2009. Foundations of the World Christian Movement: A Reader. Pasadena, CA: Institute of International Studies.

Winter, Ralph D. and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. 2009. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader. 4th ed. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

#history #erasofmission #Christianity #UnreachedPeoples #RalphWinter #globalsouth


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