Two unsuccessful attempts were made to establish Protestant missions in the middle of the 16th cent., one by French Protestants for a colony in Brazil and the other a plan of King Gustavus I of Sweden for work among the Laplanders. The Dutch East India Company sent missionaries to the Malaysians early in the 17th cent., and a seminary for the training of missionaries for work among the Native Americans was carried on in New England in the 17th cent. by John Eliot and Roger Williams (see also Stockbridge). The Society of Friends also made converts among Native Americans.
In Great Britain associations were formed to encourage the extension of the faith among the American colonists—the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England (1649), the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (c.1698), and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (1701). The Scottish Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge appointed (1742) David Brainerd as a missionary to the Native Americans. Denmark sent into its colonial fields of the East and West Indies the first Lutheran missionaries—mainly German Pietists—in 1705. Members of the Moravian Church went as missionaries to all continents except Australia before 1760.
A new missionary spirit was aroused in Great Britain at the end of the 18th cent. by the evangelistic fervor of John Wesley and George Whitefield. The Baptist Missionary Society was formed (1792), and William Carey went to India. Then followed the founding of the London Missionary Society (1795), which in 1797 laid the foundations of missionary work in the South Sea Islands, and, among the Anglicans, the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East (1799). In 1813 the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society was added.
In Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and France missionary societies were organized. In the United States they sprang up all through the early part of the 19th cent.—the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810), the American Baptist Missionary Union (1814), which supported the mission in Myanmar of Adoniram Judson, the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1819), and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church (1820). Although its work had started much earlier, the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions was not actually constituted until 1837. American home mission societies began addressing their efforts to Native Americans, Eskimo, blacks, and settlers on the expanding Western frontier, and, later, to immigrants from Europe and Asia and to persons in isolated mountain regions of the South.
Many missionaries have specialized in providing medical and educational services as an effective means of opening the way for spiritual ministry. Two of the most famous missionaries to Africa, David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer, were medical missionaries. Organized medical work in India started in the middle of the 19th cent. under doctors sent by the London Missionary Society and the American Board. With the work of Alexander Duff in India in 1830, a new enterprise in missionary effort on educational lines was launched.
In China a number of Christian colleges and universities were established. Work there was started (1807) by Robert Morrison, representing the London Missionary Society. The China Inland Mission, with funds and personnel drawn from several denominations and countries, was founded (1865) by J. H. Taylor. The opening of Japan by treaties in 1858 offered an opportunity to introduce foreign missionaries. Educational work has been an important part of missionary activity there. A marked trend in missionary work in recent years has been the training of indigenous leadership for church offices and administrative positions in mission enterprises.
In 1921 the International Missionary Council, composed of some 26 national and regional missionary organizations and Christian councils in various parts of the world, was formed. During and after World War II missionary accomplishments in many lands were severely curtailed or destroyed, but as quickly as possible new mission schools, hospitals, orphanages, and churches were built to replace those destroyed (except in China, which was closed to missionaries after 1949). In 1961 the International Missionary Council became part of the World Council of Churches, and there has been a high level of cooperation among Protestant churches in mission work. There continues to be a strong emphasis on medical care and education in mission work throughout the world. By the end of the 20th cent. the number of missionaries was around 400,000 worldwide, an all-time high. Of those, about a quarter were non-Westerners serving in countries other than their native lands. In the 1990s evangelical Christian missionaries were a source of tension and controversy in the Orthodox countries of E Europe and in the Roman Catholic countries of Latin America.