by Bobby Jack
Just ten years after Echoes of Service was started, the first brethren missionary, J. H. Ewen, arrived in Argentina in 1882. My parents, Willie and Pearl Jack, left Scotland as missionaries in 1935 and my brother James and I were born and brought up in Argentina. In 1991, after some time in the UK, Isabel, my wife, and I were commended as missionaries from Greenview Evangelical Church, the same one that had commended my parents. As a family, we have been connected to Echoes for 86 years, more than half the existence of the charity.
‘Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, Peruvians from the Incas and Argentines from boats.’1 This statement clearly paints a picture of the great immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that produced a people who are almost all of European ancestry. In 1876, the Law on Immigration and Colonisation came into force. The constitution of 1852 established freedom of worship with the aim of encouraging Protestant immigrants. It also established the freedom to publish ideas without censorship, which opened the way for the spread of the gospel. Between 1820 and 1932 Argentina received 6.5 million immigrants. Almost half came from Italy, 30% from Spain, 10% from other countries and, at most, 1% from Great Britain. This phenomenal influx created a huge educational and cultural problem.
President Domingo F. Sarmiento conducted the first census in 1869 and a serious problem was detected: 75% of the population of 1.8 million was illiterate. He began an emergency programme, introducing new techniques and bringing in teachers from the USA, mostly Protestant women. This received strong resistance from the Catholic Church, in whose hands elitist education had been established since the Spanish Viceroyalties.2 Sarmiento persisted and a law was finally passed in 1884. Lay education would be free and compulsory for ages 6 to 14. The intention was to create an Argentine identity of the existing melting pot of races and to leave colonial Catholicism behind.
Governments saw the opportunities provided by the extensive pampas and the ideal climate to produce food for the world’s growing population. Meat and grains became the great exports and transformed Argentina into one of the main agro-exporting countries. It also produced one of the best economies in the world. Railways, ports and government administrative buildings were built.
It was in that context that the first brethren arrived. Some brought their technical training, others came with a pioneering missionary vision – all called of God. Three in particular are remarkable. They were very different from one another and all contributed their own expertise. They arrived within a few years of one another and all three died in 1923 or 1924, after establishing the work and its characteristics that endure to this day.
J. H. Ewen arrived in 1882 and saw the substantial population growth and the impact of the new educational system, religious freedom and freedom of the press. He also observed spiritual darkness, the ruthlessness of those who came only to get rich and the fact that the opportunities with a focus on eternal matters were not being met. Soon he was back in England enthusing the assemblies about the great possibilities in the Land of Silver.3
Charles Torre, who came to work on the railways, arrived in 1889 and was soon caught up with Ewen’s enthusiasm. Torre structured and laid the foundations for the growing testimony of the assemblies. He soon launched a printing press, producing brochures and evangelistic material in the thousands and magazines for hungry readers across the country. He sold as many Bibles and New Testaments as the best colporteurs of Bible societies. In 1894 he began an orphanage in Quilmes and was involved in the establishment of the first assembly of the Brethren in Argentina. Both are still ongoing today.
Will Payne arrived in 1892 and pushed out and beyond Buenos Aires, including into Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile. With George Langran and Nicolás Doorn, Payne crossed the Andes by mule and he was on the maiden voyage of the El Alba boat in Paraguay. He was instrumental in starting assemblies across a huge area. The enthusiasm of these pioneers inspired many more, who took advantage of this juncture for the advancement of the gospel, which peaked in the 1920s.
In 1899, at the age of 14, Nicolás Doorn, a young Danish man, came to Argentina with his family. Will Payne was instrumental in recognising Doorn as a full-time missionary in 1906. Once commended, Doorn settled in Córdoba, in the centre of the country. Payne soon organised an excursion to the north with Doorn and Langran. They set out on horseback with Bibles, pamphlets, treatises, blankets, sheep hides, dress suits and food, sleeping under the Southern Cross with their saddles for pillows.
The enthusiasm of these pioneers inspired many more, who took advantage of this juncture for the advancement of the gospel
The Word Goes Out
As they travelled, they approached a far-off mine in Famatina, where they made a surprising discovery. They found Don Cirilo Alvarez and a group of believers who filled them with amazement for they had never heard a preaching of the gospel but were true believers in Jesus Christ! Alvarez was a miner in La Mejicana, who had found a treatise on the series El Correo that Nicolás composed in the Montes de Oca street printing press. He was interested in the content, so he wrote to Torre in Buenos Aires who sent him a New Testament. By reading both, Alvarez, his wife and five others became Christians. Doorn and Langran were the first believers they had ever had contact with, making it a touching encounter. These Christians were full of questions. They had read of the baptism of the believers and were baptised, and of the Lord’s Supper and celebrated it. They wrote to Squeo, a plasterer from Tucumán, and he sent them a hymnbook, so in their meetings they sang hymns. They did not have the music but Alvarez improvised the melodies with his guitar. Doorn and Langran were astonished at what the Word of God and the Holy Spirit could do in those who sincerely seek the Lord.
It was an achievement for a miner in the 1900s, far from everything, to be literate. The wise strategy of implementing education and of producing a vast amount of evangelical literature reached a soul from so far away. What began as expeditionary excursions became regular and then planned, concentrated efforts. Always advancing, always growing, a huge area of Argentina absorbed not only immigrants but also highly motivated dedicated men and women: missionaries and administrators, foreigners and nationals, who laid the foundations for an extensive and growing work of the Lord.
George French was born in Argentina in 1875 and was saved in 1890. He was an excellent organiser and was, for 45 years, director of Path of the Believer, one of the most influential magazines among the assemblies. Its pages promoted a workers’ fund, a precursor to the current FEMA (Argentine Missionary Service Group). This gave assemblies an administrative structure for missionary work that continues today.
A Growing Testimony
The first assembly began in 1892 in Buenos Aires. By 1905 there were seven – all in cities, strategic for future expansion. In 1907, a Stewards’ company, now Mayordomos Cristianos, was established through which all properties were registered. In 1911 there were 23 assemblies, which grew to 181 assemblies in 1947. Printing material never stopped; initially with foreign aid until the 1930s when local assemblies took over the work. By 1930, an estimated 2.5 million pieces had been printed and the task carries on.
The number of foreign missionaries slowly decreased as the local missionary movement developed. At present, there are 700 places of brethren testimony in Argentina: mostly established churches and outreach ministries. Several private evangelical schools are highly regarded in their local communities. There are national and regional general conferences. Regional and national retreats are held for church leaders. Immigrants coming from neighbouring countries, such as Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia, are integrating into existing churches and forming their own new ones. Covid-19 has taken its toll but most churches have adapted and are growing. Having lost faith in previous securities, more people are coming to Christ!
Most of the seed planted over 140 years has fallen on good soil, now exporting not only meat, wheat and footballers but also the gospel that was once brought to Argentina. Dedicated workers, called by God, are spreading the good seed worldwide.