Re-digging the Well of Roland Allen

Probably most of you reading this blog are familiar with the re-digging of the well concept, made famous recently from the “Healing Rooms” of John G. Lake. A ministry actually moved into the same offices in Spokane, WA used by Lake 80 years earlier. Today there are over 640 Healing Rooms world-wide!

In a similar way, we are hoping to re-dig the well dug by Roland Allen in the early 1900s as he formed a partnership with two other men and influenced generations of missionaries. So wide was his influence that William Danker of Concordia Seminary (St Loius, MO) calls Roland “certainly one of the most seminal missiological and ecclesiological minds of the 20th Century.” Yet many of you reading this have never heard his name before or only recognize him as the author of a few books.

Where it all began.

Roland Allen first left the shores of England for China in 1895 as an unassuming young man of 26. “He is not the sort of man to impress settlers or savages by his physique” said one of his professors of him at the time. In fact, he was first turned down for an overseas assignment because of a “weak heart” which dogged him his whole life.

After landing in north China, Roland quickly set himself to his task. He had been invited by Bishop Scott to “open a clergy school for the diocese of North China… I spent five years learning the language and preparing some boys for work as catechists.”

It was during these five short years that Roland saw first hand disturbing practices by the missionary community he was a part of. He wrote later of this time that he had to “face several fundamental questions in connection with the propagation of the Church.”

This was all most likely heightened by the Boxer Rebellion that struck China in 1900. The Chinese revolted to the “foreign devils” presence by killing 20,000 Chinese Christians, including 135 missionaries with over 50 of their children. The Boxers were known to use the “baptismal register” to track down the local believers!

Here is an insight to this tumultuous time from Roland’s grandson, Hubert Allen:

“Although Western commercial and territorial greed were seen as the primary reasons for this Chinese xenophobia [dislike of foreigners] an element of it was also a growing mistrust for Western missionary activities: It was not that they hated the Christian religion qua religion; they hated it qua foreign”


Furlough, Marriage and Ill Health

Shortly after the Boxer Uprising, Roland made his way back to England for a much need furlough. It was also at this time he developed his “unorthodox” views of missionary activity. He was certain that the foreigner’s first work was to train his converts in real independence; to hand over full responsibility to the indigenous Christians within the shortest possible time.

His reply to his critics that this was fraught with risk:  “What is to ensure orthodoxy? Nothing: no power can ensure orthodoxy but the power of the Holy Spirit.” 

In 1902 Roland married an active supporter of the North China Mission Association, Beatrice Tarleton. After another year in England as a newly married couple, the Allens again set out for China. Sadly this return was bittersweet as Roland was ordered back to England due to poor health after only a brief 9-month stay. He would never again come back to China as a missionary but traveled the world over for the next 30 years a missionary statesman, promoting his profound message of the spontaneous expansion of the church along apostolic methods and practices.

His illness afforded him time to study and this was not ineffective for the kingdom:

“I was ill, and came home for two years, and began to study the methods of the Apostle St. Paul. From that day forward I began to see the light… The Apostolic system is so simple, that it can be apprehended by men in every stage of education and civilization.” 


Strategic Partnership

In 1907, Sidney Clark, a future partner of Roland’s, resigned from his lucrative clothing business in order to give his whole time to the work of overseas missions. His eyes were opened after a business trip to the Far East in 1905; where he saw “up close and personal” the lack of systematic planning by mission agencies, gross inefficiency and wasted resources.

Clark lamented at the time: “If I conducted my business in the way the missionary societies conduct theirs, I would be bankrupt.”

A few years later Clark, Allen and Thomas Cochrane teamed up to found the World Dominion Movement, which produced missionary books and periodicals from 1917 – 1957. (While the name sounds dramatic today it was only an expression then of “Christ’s Government in All Nations”).

The Survey Application Trust was the exploratory arm of the World Dominion Movement and conducted surveys of the existing mission areas around the world. The Movement criticized missionaries for their paternalistic and protective attitudes and their failure to trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the new church in its development


What We Seek to Re-dig

1. Short-cycle apostolic teams.

“The continued presence of a foreigner seems to me to produce an evil effect. The native genius is cramped by his presence, and cannot work with him. The Christians tend to sit still and let him do everything for them, denying all responsibility…I should feel disposed to group all foreigners (i.e. missionaries) together in one place to avoid having them reside in more places than can be helped. A visit of two or three months stirs up the Church. Long continued residence stifles it.”

2. Hold the current mission movement accountable to apostolic practices.

“We have been anxious to do something for them. And we have done much. We have done everything for them. We have taught them, baptized them, shepherded them. We have managed their funds, ordered their services, built their churches, provided their teachers. We have nursed them, fed them, doctored them. We have trained them, and have even ordained some of them. We have done everything for them except acknowledge any equality. We have done everything for them, but very little with them. We have done everything for them except give place to them. We have treated them as ‘dear children’, but not as ‘brethren’.”

3. Non-professional Leadership.   

“The stipendiary system [professional clergy] grew up in settled churches and is only suitable for some settled churches at some periods: for expansion, for the establishment of new churches, it is the greatest possible hindrance. It binds the church in chains and has compelled us to adopt practices which contradict the very idea of the Church.”

We are looking for partners to help re-dig and establish the well for a new generation!! For more information please find us at Until All Have Heard.

Yours for the least in the Kingdom,

Jeff and Maria Gilbertson

PS. Most biographical details are taken from Roland Allen: Pioneer, Priest, and Prophet (1995) by Hubert J. B. Allen.

5 thoughts on “Re-digging the Well of Roland Allen”

  1. I read the complete works of John Lake edited by Roberts Liardon. What a powerhouse he was.
    Thanks for writing this article. I want to look into Roland Allen more.

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  2. Very thought-provoking post with lots of food for thought. Thanks for reviving Roland Allen. I feel part of the journey is to help us identify WHY we do things the way we do. There are factors (eg. family, we are being paid to do a job, etc.) that impact the work. Unless those real factors are addressed what you write about–as good as it is–will remain interesting theory. But how does a modern apostlic missionary family put into practice some of the principles of the Pauline methodology?

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  3. Guy, Your point of a modern apostolic missionary family is well taken!
    In the NT there is only one example: Aquila and Pricilla as a apostolic family who traveled with Paul and ahead of Paul (ie. Corinth, Ephesus and Rome and back to Ephesus, whew!!)
    There is however Philip, who, after he was selected by the church in Jerusalem (Acts 6), was “taken by the Spirit to Azotus” and then he proceeded to walk into Caesarea (Acts 8). Twenty years late we find him still there with his 4 unmarried daughters!!
    (Acts 21)
    Maybe we are missing something right at this point!
    Yours for the least in the Kingdom,
    Jeff G

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  4. It is also worth looking at the work of two other missionaries in the Far East — John Nevius in Korea and St Nicholas of Japan.
    I don’t know if they ever met, but they seemed to come up with some remarkably similar ideas.

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