The Primitivist Missiology of Anthony Norris Groves: A Radical Influence on Nineteenth-century Protestant Church in Britain

by Robert Bernard Dann

As the second of a 2-volume work, this book builds upon its companion volume by attempting to demonstrate how Groves’ ecclesiology was worked out in mission practice and theory.

Trafford Publishing, 2657 Wilfert Road, Victoria, BC, Canada V9B 5Z3, 2007, 245 pages, $25.06.

Reviewed by Mark Young, professor of world missions and intercultural studies, Dallas Theological Seminary.

Anthony Norris Groves is not a widely-known figure in North American Protestant mission studies. Robert Bernard Dann’s carefully-researched study of Groves’ ministry and thinking sets out to change that fact. As the second of a 2-volume work (the first volume being The Primitivist Ecclesiology of Anthony Norris Groves: A Radical Influence on the Nineteenth-century Protestant Church in Britain), this book builds upon its companion volume by attempting to demonstrate how Groves’ ecclesiology was worked out in mission practice and theory.

Just as readers may not be familiar with Groves, many may not know the term “primitivist.” Dann cites Richard Hughes’ work, The American Quest for the Primitive Church, for a sense of the philosophical basis of primitivism. According to Hughes, “The notion of ‘primitivism’ suggests that ‘first times’ are in some sense normative or jurisdictional for contemporary belief or behavior.” Later, Dann notes that Groves’ primitivism grew out of Pietistic (especially Jewish Pietistic) contacts that led him to “consider events recorded in the New Testament as precedents establishing principles.” In this regard, the conceptual foundation of primitivism sounds right at home in conservative evangelical hermeneutics even today. We simply use the term “biblical” instead of “primitive.”

Dann’s work provides not only a richly-researched narrative of Groves’ life, but also insight into early Protestant mission efforts in the Middle East and India. Of particular interest is the character of the relationships between missionaries and the relationships between missionaries and nationals. Dann willingly takes on the sacred cow of “voluntary societies” as the structural basis of Protestant missions. His conclusions regarding (1) Groves’ views on the development of indigenous churches apart from the denominational trappings of the mission agencies, (2) the need to make the gospel accessible to the poor and avoid the trappings of colonial elitism, and (3) the movement away from dependence upon raising support in order to live by faith in the local economy are all still points of vigorous debate among evangelical missionaries. Dann paints Groves as an outsider whose views aroused opposition among established denominational missionaries.

Dann wants to convince the reader of Groves’ widespread influence in missiology and mission practice. But it is difficult to do so. Dann admits that Groves never created a mission organization to propagate his ideas, that he was heavily criticized by other mission leaders, that his life’s work ended in relative failure, and that his writings remained obscured for decades. Surely it is true that Groves’ ideas are still in play in mission circles, but is there a case that it is because of Groves’ influence? Dann seems to overstretch the evidence when he writes that “many ideas attributed to later writers find their first expression in the letters and journals of Anthony Norris Groves.” Are his letters and journal truly the “first expression” of these ideas? It seems quite possible that another researcher combing the personal writings of other missionaries may find similar ideas expressed contemporaneously or even earlier than Groves’ ideas. That said, there is no doubt that Dann has opened an important treasure chest in the history of Protestant missions. This reviewer benefited greatly from this book and commends it heartily.

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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