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. (Winding up in a stew pot with a Cannibal Tribe is optional.)
One common plot line involves a Wide-Eyed Idealist going to the mission field expecting to do some Easy Evangelism, only to have a Crisis of Faith when their targets don't respond quite so readily. Of course, it will probably turn out that God works In Mysterious Ways. (If the Easy Evangelism works, you've probably got an Author Tract on your hands.)
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 or women, but may also be older married couples. 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.
Examples of Missionaries in Fiction
- One of Jack Chick's Chick Tracts features some white missionaries who had done charitable work in Darkest Africa end up going to Hell...because they tried to help people instead of accepting glowy no-face Pure Energy Jesus as their personal savior.
- In Rambo, 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.
- Mormon filmmakers have made several fictional films based on missionary experiences:
- The Other Side of Heaven is 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
- The 1919 film Broken Blossoms features a Buddhist missionary working in a Western country... it does not end well.
- Eric Liddel in Chariots of Fire.
- 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 trying to take down in court.
- Katharine Hepburn's character in The African Queen and the recycled in the Old West version Rooster Cogburn was a missionary, in WWI-era Central Africa and 19th C. Oklahoma, respectively.
- 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.
- Nathan Price from The Poisonwood Bible, with a dash of Mighty Whitey.
- 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.
- 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.
- Mightily Oats, at the end of Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum, sets out to be this in Uberwald. In the Back Story of Unseen Academicals, we learn that he succeeded.
- Jane Eyre's cousin St John aspires to be this.
- In Robert E. Howard's "The Hyborian Age", the Back Story to Conan the Barbarian, 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.
- In Tunnel in the Sky, two of the students on the survival test, Bob and Carmen, intend to get married and become missionaries after the test.
- The basic capping unit for the Sisters of Battle in Dawn of War: Soulstorm is called a Missionary. This being Warhammer 40,000, he also has an eyepatch, a chainsword, and the ability to rain fiery retribution on the Emperor's enemies.
- Fallout: New Vegas has the New Canaanites, who are post-apocalyptic Mormons known as one of the more benevolent societies by traders. One of them, a man by the name of Joshua Graham, ended up becoming one of the founders of Caesar's Legion and would end up as one of the most legendarily feared men of the wasteland.
- The Book of Mormon is about two young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda.
- The South Park episode "Starvin' Marvin In Space" was a satirical version of missionaries in Africa.
- Parodied in The Simpsons episode "Missionary: Impossible" when Reverend Lovejoy tricks Homer into becoming a missionary for a South Pacific island.