Allen was born in Bristol, England, the youngest of five children of an Anglican priest. He was orphaned early in life but obtained an education on scholarship at St.John’s College, Oxford, and at the (Anglo-Catholic) Leeds Clergy Training School. In 1892 he was ordained a deacon, and the following year he became a priest in the Church of England. In 1895 he was sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) to its North China Mission.
While preparing to head a new seminary for Chinese catechists in Peking (Beijing), he was trapped with other foreigners in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. After rescue by foreign troops, Allen wrote about his experience in The Siege of the Peking Legations (1901). While on furlough in England he married Mary B. Tarlton. In 1902 they returned to north China, where their first child was born, but Allen soon became ill and the family had to be sent home. There he took charge of a parish until 1907, when he resigned in protest against the rule of the established church that he must baptize any child presented for the sacrament whether or not the parents had any Christian commitment. Thereafter he held no official post but continued as a voluntary priest, supporting himself by writing and lecturing until his death in Kenya, nearly 40 years later.
The crises of his early experience led him to a radical reassessment of his own vocation and the theology and missionary methods of Western churches. He was an early advocate of the Nevius plan to establish churches that from the beginning would he self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing. He wanted the forms of the church to he adapted to local cultural conditions and not be mere imitations of Western Christianity. To accomplish this, missionaries would have to hand over responsibility to the local leaders in the community, who would not be professional clergy either in their training or in their compensation. Allen 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. He continued to be an Anglican, however, and to insist on the importance of sacraments and creeds and the supervision of bishops in order to maintain discipline and provide links with the church universal.
Allen’s views were confirmed by a trip to India in 1910 and by later research in Canada and East Africa. In 1912 he published what became his most famous and enduring book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? After World War I, he began a long association with the Survey Application Trust and World Dominion Press, an independent missionary research group founded by the Congregationalist layman Sidney J. W. Clark. With the help of the trust he published other books and pamphlets elaborating his reconception of Christian mission, notably Pentecost and the World (1917), The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It (1927), and The Case for Voluntary Clergy (1930).
Allen’s ideas had little effect on the churches and missionary societies of his day but as he himself predicted, his work was rediscovered (in the 1960s) and has exercised a growing influence on missiology and ecclesiology in many places, not least in China.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- Roland Allen, Educational Principles and Missionary Methods (1919); Voluntary Clergy (1923); Voluntary Clergy Overseas (1928).
- David M. Paton, ed., Reform of the Ministry: A Study of the Work of Roland Allen (1968) contains a history of the Survey Application Trust, a list of publications of the World Dominion Press, an account of Allen’s last years in East Africa, and selected correspondence.
- David M. Paton and Charles H. Long, eds., The Compulsion of the Spirit (1983) contains selected writings of Roland Allen with brief introductions by the editors.
- Hubert J. B. Allen, Roland Allen: Pioneer, Priest, and Prophet (1995), is a biography by his grandson.
- See also Charles Henry Long and Anne Rowthorn, “Roland Allen,” in Gerald H. Anderson et al., eds., Mission Legacies (1994), pp. 383-390.