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"Through extensive study, evangelicals have concluded that the best-equipped people to carry the gospel to remote parts of the world are Caucasian midwesterners with strong regional accents."
Joel Kilpatrick, A Field Guide to Evangelicals & Their Habitat

Oh, the missionary man, he's got God on his side

He's got the saints and apostles backin' up from behind

Black-eyed looks from those Bible books

He's a man with a mission, got a serious mind
The Eurythmics, Missionary Man

To go with the more simple definition, a missionary is someone who travels far away from home on a religious expedition to another culture. The vast majority of the time, it is making efforts to convert the locals to their faith. While, obviously, dedicated to his religion, he can be anywhere on the range from Sinister Minister to Good Shepherd.

Just about any historical figure who founded a religion could be called a missionary, because they would have had to spread "The Word" to increase the numbers of the believers. The Apostle Paul in the Bible was most well known for his travels throughout the Roman Empire.

In some cases, there are negative implications with regards to the pure intentions of the devout. Sixteenth-century Spanish Catholics set up many missions in South America after the conquistadors left. To some people this might be a case of Mighty Whitey as they are trying to "enlighten the savage." Indeed, to many the idea of a missionary is a person lurking around in the deepest and darkest jungles of Africa, mingling with the Bushmen.

Not all missionaries are motivated by the scriptures to evangelize. Some missionaries are merely sponsored and paid by a church to bring medical and other supplies to areas in need. Either way, a missionary has above average chance to be a Badass Preacher.

Of course, in more everyday life, people have the image of people knocking on your door asking you to read various books or magazines. Modern missionaries are likely to be from one of two specific organizations:

  • Jehovah's Witnesses: Each member of this faith has made an extensive study of the Bible and dedicated his or her life to Jehovah God to do his will. Their main objective is using God's word to preach the good news of God. The stereotype is usually of someone knocking on your door early in the morning giving you a pamphlet about how the end times are coming.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Usually young men, but may also be families. LDS missionaries are identified by name tags (usually black) and always work in pairs. The young men are typically seen wearing white shirts with dark pants and conservative ties, often riding bicycles.

Modern variants include Hollywood Jehovah's Witness and Knocking on Heathens' Door.

Examples of Missionaries in Fiction

  • Rambo: In the fourth film a bunch of Christian missionaries were pretty much the MacGuffin for Rambo to go do his thing.
  • The movie Black Robe and...
  • The Mission (Naturally) were about missionaries.
  • The End of the Spear.
  • Graham Greene's A Burnt-out Case had Christian missionary work as a sneering sort of background to the overall story.
  • The Canopy
  • Allan Quatermain's father was a Christian missionary in South Africa.
  • Shogun had a Protestant protagonist going up against Catholic missionaries. The main character of Shogun himself went very local though, and was never a missionary. He was just a dude who happened to be Protestant.
  • Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is partly about the conflict between missionaries and the native Africans they're trying to convert. There are two missionaries present in the narrative: the respectful and fairly well-liked Mr. Brown, who builds a school and hospital and respects the Igbo beliefs, and the harsh Reverend James Smith, who forces his beliefs on others and incites conflict between his congregation and the non-believers. Missionaries are not shown to be simply good or bad, it just depends on the sort of person they are.
  • Mormon filmmakers have made several fictional films based on missionary experiences:
    • The Best Two Years
    • God's Army
      • The sequel God's Army: States Of Grace
  • The Other Side of Heaven was about the Real Life story (mostly--some of the more spiritual parts of the original book were dumbed down in order to appeal to a wider audience) of a Mormon missionary in Tonga.
  • Michael Palin's The Missionary
  • Jack Chick wrote a tract in which some white missionaries who had done charitable work in Darkest Africa end up going to Hell... because they didn't preach enough.
  • Nathan Price from The Poisonwood Bible, with a dash of heavily subverted Mighty Whitey.
  • The South Park episode "Starvin' Marvin In Space" was a satirical version of missionaries in Africa.
  • The Mormon Missionary Those "Caucasian midwesterners with strong regional accents" who try to "carry the gospel" to highly secularized, predominantly Lutheran (nominally) white people and having very little success at it.
  • The Azadi Apostles in Dreamfall mix this with Church Militant.
  • Parodied in The Simpsons episode "Missionary: Impossible" when Reverend Lovejoy tricks Homer into becoming a missionary for a South Pacific island.
  • Jules Verne had a lone French missionary in Five Weeks in a Balloon. Not a large part, but a sympathetic portrayal.
  • Played with in Missionaries (by Lyubov and Yevgeny Lukin). Caravels show up in Oceania, and there's missionaries in addition to adventurers. Not quite nice or cool people. Only, there's a catch. A few nerdy guys found a portal into the past (turned out to be Alternate Universe instead) and tried to stop European colonization... via giving to-be-colonized savages a "better fighting chance"... but local development overdid it.
  • The 1919 film Broken Blossoms features a Buddhist missionary working in a Western country... it does not end well.
  • Mightily Oats, at the end of Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum, sets out to be this in Uberwald. In the Backstory of Unseen Academicals, we learn that he succeeded.
    • Sort of, he seems to be much more focused on fighting evil and righting wrongs then gaining converts.
      • In a place like Uberwald, what's the best way of gaining converts? Nutt was "born again" after meeting him.
  • Jane Eyre's cousin St John aspires to be this.
  • Eric Liddel in Chariots of Fire.
  • In Robert E. Howard's "The Hyborian Age", the Backstory to Conan, Arus.

 he determined to go into the western wilderness and modify the rude ways of the heathen by the introduction of the gentle worship of Mitra. He was not daunted by the grisly tales of what had happened to traders and explorers before him, and by some whim of fate he came among the people he sought, alone and unarmed, and was not instantly speared.

  • In Rick Cook's Limbo System, Father Simon starts to do this accidentally, while not thinking himself authorized.
  • One appears in the first Once Upon a Time in China movie. He appears to just be a background character up until he proves to be the only man in the entire community with the courage to testify against the criminals that Wong Fei-Hung is try to take down in court.
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