The etymology of mission

Business literature abounds with doctrine on the importance of “mission statements.” A “mission,” according to Merriam Webster is “a specific task with which a person or a group is charged.” As part of that sense, mission is defined as a “a preestablished and often self-imposed objective or purpose.” All well and good.

There is an obsolete meaning for a mission, though: “the act or an instance of sending.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this obsolete definition of mission came first. The common definition of mission —- a destiny or destination – did not arise until nearly a century later in the late 17th century.

It’s interesting to think about how that evolution occurred. Although I can’t find any scholarly analysis of the word, here’s what I have pieced together. The origin of the word “mission” comes from the late 16th century and 17th century, during the height of the Counter Reformation, and specifically the rise of the Jesuit missions. In the initial sense of the word, mission was literal: sending Jesuits across the world to spread the Catholic faith. As the Counter Reformation gained momentum, though, the concept of mission shifted: instead of being a “push” of Jesuits out into the world, the word became to signify a sort of “pull” to proselytize. In other words, the very concept of mission was transformed from describing how the Jesuits carried out their work (i.e., traveling across the world) to a statement of their goals (i.e., converting populations to Catholicism).

To a modern sensibility, it seems discordant to imagine the act of defining an organization’s “mission” as a descendant of religion generally, and colonialism specifically. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider how the word’s definition evolved–from how to why–and to contemplate how modern leaders can understand and give meaning to their own work.