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" (not to mention, some missions used the forced labor of native people). 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 plotline 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
- In The Faraway Paladin, Gracefeel's worship has waned in the years between the sealing of the Demon King and Will's arrival at the City of the Dead, to the point that her religion is referred to as "lost" or "dead" or numerous occasions. Upon swearing himself to her, Will is tasked with helping to restore faith in Gracefeel, which he does primarily by performing good deeds in her name rather than aggressively proselytizing to others.
- Mormon filmmakers have made several fictional films based on missionary experiences:
- Katharine Hepburn's character Rose in The African Queen and ger brother Samuel are British Methodist missionaries in the village of Kungdu in German East Africa at the beginning of the First World War.
- The movie Black Robe depicts the adventures of a Jesuit missionary tasked with founding a mission in New France in the 17th century.
- 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 was born in China of Scottish missionary parents. His devout sister Jennie disapproves of Liddell's plans to pursue competitive running, but Liddell sees running as a way of glorifying God before returning to China to work as a missionary.
- The End Of The Spear recounts the story of Operation Auca, in which five American Christian missionaries attempted to evangelize the Huaorani (Waodani) people of the tropical rain forest of Eastern Ecuador.
- A The Vicar-like missionary appears in the third act of Heart of Darkness (1958). He comforts the escaped Marlow and expresses interest in administering last rites to Kurtz.
- The Mission is about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th-century South America.
- Michael Palin's The Missionary 1982. In 1905, after ten years of missionary work in Africa, the Reverend Charles Fortescue is recalled to England, where his Bishop gives him his new assignment, to minister to London's prostitutes.
- 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.
- 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.
- In Rambo IV, a bunch of Christian missionaries were pretty much the MacGuffin for Rambo to go do his thing.
- In Rooster Cogburn, Miss Eula Goodnight (Katharine Hepburn) is the spinister daughter of missionary killed by outlaws who attaches to Cogburn when he goes in pursuit of the killers.
- Allan Quatermain's father was a Christian missionary in South Africa.
- Graham Greene's A Burnt-out Case had Christian missionary work as a sneering sort of background to the overall story.
- 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.
- Discworld: 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.
- 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.
- Jane Eyre's cousin St John aspires to be this.
- In Rick Cook's Limbo System, Father Simon starts to do this accidentally, while not thinking himself authorized.
- 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 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.
- Nathan Price from The Poisonwood Bible, with a dash of Mighty Whitey.
- 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.
- 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 Book of Mormon is about two young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda.
- In Age of Empires III one of the minor civilizations is the Jesuit Mission, who represent the Jesuit Missionaries who traveled to far countries at the time. Their special unit is the Conquistador, and upgrades that increase building hitpoints, and train villagers faster.
- The Civilization series from at least IV onward incorporate a religion system that can spread across the game world. Both passive (via proximity and trading) and active means of religion spreading exist, with the latter using missionary units that the player can raise and send to spread their religion to a specific destination.
- 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.
- Parodied in The Simpsons episode "Missionary: Impossible" when Reverend Lovejoy tricks Homer into becoming a missionary for a South Pacific island. He instead does the opposite of what he's supposed to do and corrupts their society by introducing vices such as gambling and drinking.
- The South Park episode "Starvin' Marvin In Space" was a satirical version of missionaries in Africa.