The London Missionary Society began its existence in 1794 in a coffee house, and flourished in the upper room of a public house. Considered a laughable enterprise by the Establishment and the press, it was part of the `Evangelical Revival’ which had taken place among many British and New England congregations in the second half of the eighteenth century. It started in a distinctly homespun fashion.
In July 1794 John Ryland, a Baptist minister in Bristol and president of the city’s Baptist college, received a letter from a friend in India. William Carey had recently arrived in Bengal with his family, as an indigo planter. Only a month after landing in Calcutta, he wrote urging Ryland to establish a missionary society along the non-denominational lines of the Anti-Slavery Society, of which they were both members.
The idea was not entirely new to European Protestants. Since the seventeenth century Evangelicals had been attempting to convert American Indian tribes in Massachusetts, Delaware, New York and New Jersey, as had Moravian chaplains in the West Indies, the Gold Coast and Greenland. But the solitary and one-off nature of these missions meant that they had died out with the missionaries in question and made little impact anywhere except in the imaginations of the Evangelicals who read their published accounts. William Carey’s uncertain presence in India was another such lone attempt. If a serious effort, he told Ryland, was to be made to take Christianity into parts of the world where it was unknown, it had to be a sustained, numerous and coordinated affair. A missionary society was needed.
Ryland alone was only a catalyst in what followed. Intrigued he showed Carey’s letter to the prominent Bristol anti-slavery campaigner H. O. Wills, and the tipple effect began. Wills called together three other influential campaigners, to meet Ryland: David Bogue, a Scottish Evangelical minister preaching at the Bristol Tabernacle, James Steven, minister of the Scottish Church in Covent Garden, London, and a third Evangelical named John Hey. And the five men (all either in their late thirties or early forties) determined to set up just such a society. Bogue it was who penned a rousing announcement in the Evangelical Magazine, a new London-based journal. Bogue was a famous Scottish preacher, and few punches were ever pulled while an Evangelical Scotsman was in the pulpit. `We are commanded “to love our neighbour as ourselves”; and Christ has taught us that every man is our neighbour. Ye were once Pagans, living in cruel and abominable idolatry. The servants of Jesus came from other lands, and preached His Gospel among you. Hence your knowledge of salvation. And ought ye not, as an equitable compensation for their kindness, to send messengers to the nations which are in like condition with yourselves of old, to entreat them that they turn from their dumb idols to serve the living God, and to wait for His Son from heaven? Verily their debtors ye are.’
Many of the Evangelical Magazine‘s readers belonged to Dissenting or Nonconformist churches, which had opted to be outside the structure of the bishops and prayerbooks of the Churches of England and Scotland. So long as it raised the funds to maintain a place of worship and support a minister, any British congregation could be as autonomous as it wanted – the Dissenting movement had been legalised by the Toleration Act of 1689, although until 1828 such church members were banned from holding office in local or central government.
Early Evangelicals like John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, believed they were returning to ‘simple’, unadulterated worship, away from what they viewed as the pomp and corruption of the parliament-funded Church of England and its appointed bishops. The Dissenters were not the only ones with a low opinion of the Church of England in the eighteenth century: fox-hunting clerics, drunken parsons and engorged bishops had become stock images of satire in the radical press. Although there were certainly Evangelical minds in the Anglican Church, they received little attention from the bishops in their social campaigns. As the historian Asa Briggs wrote, the Church of England was led at this time by men `who thought of Christianity in terms of virtue and prudence rather than in terms of salvation and judgement’.
John Eyre, editor of the Evangelical Magazine, took up the campaign, which might otherwise have faltered. He commissioned a leading Evangelical, the Cornishman Thomas Haweis, to write an article in response to Bogue’s appeal. Haweis, a man of real influence, agreed that missions were long overdue, and, crucially, added that he knew of one person willing to put “500 into the cause, and another who would contribute “100. A meeting was called at Baker’s Coffee House on Change Alley in the City. Eighteen London supporters turned up. And thereafter, the embryo London Missionary Society met fortnightly, in a room above the nearby Castle and Falcon inn – despite the fierce temperance views generally held by their ilk.
At this stage, apart from Haweis and Eyre, no one of any real standing was involved, but by the first Castle and Falcon meeting in January leaders began to emerge. Joseph Hardcastle, a merchant who had been a powerful anti-slavery lobbyist, joined the group and offered the City premises of his firm as a temporary office for the society. Like Haweis, Hardcastle brought with him crucial access to the few Evangelical Members of Parliament.
By Christmas, about thirty men were committed to the new society and supportive letters from ministers around the country and on the Continent were arriving at the offices of Hardcastle & Co. on Swan Stairs. As early as the spring of 1795 a series of circulars, magazine articles and private correspondence began to broadcast `a general summons’ to all interested Evangelicals to attend the society’s first public meetings, which were to take place in London in the week 21-5 September. In Hardcastle the society now had a Treasurer, and in John Love (minister of the Scottish Church in Artillery Street, London) a provisional secretary. David Bogue was set to examining the offers of active missionary service now also arriving at the society’s office.
The society was launched six years after the French Revolution, which by now had led to a European war. Fighting would continue on land and at sea until 1815 and posed an immediate problem for communication lines between future mission stations and London. The war did not appear to affect northern Europe’s increasing wealth, however. Despite blockades and counter-blockades, trading interests continued to grow. Britain now had mature trade links with India and China and a profitable sugar empire in the West Indies. Her population would, in her first national census of 1821, be 14.1 million. She was also principal slave trader to the newly independent America, a massively lucrative business on the proceeds of which the Atlantic city ports of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow had grown. The British government was very dependent on continued trade – duties on Chinese tea alone made up 10 per cent of the Treasury’s revenue. As the search for new commodities gathered pace, Britain, France, America, Sweden and Russia all sent out navigators to explore beyond the boundaries of the Spanish American and Dutch Asiatic Empires. Australia and the islands of the Pacific were added to European charts.
The Pacific discoveries of Captain Cook had made a particular impression on the British imagination. His 1768 voyage of discovery to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia had an impact on the reading public equivalent to that on television audiences of the moon landing two hundred years later. His Voyages were reprinted in a widely available cheap edition in 1784, and almost all those who had been on board ended up publishing some account. The revelation of a `lost’ Polynesian culture, entirely cut off from any exterior force of civilisation, touched a chord with Cook’s compatriots. The French and Spanish had both weighed anchor at Tahiti before Cook, but he was the first to stay there for any time and to record something of the Polynesian society.
Britain’s new fascination with the Polynesians was fuelled by the arrival in London of a live `specimen’. Omai was a Tahitian, brought back to England by Cook on his second journey to the Pacific in 1775. Joseph Banks, botanist on Cook’s ship the Endeavour, dressed Omai in tailor-made suits, the portraitist Joshua Reynolds painted him and even Dr Johnson sought an audience, as his biographer recorded. ‘He was struck by the elegance of his behaviour, and accounted for it thus: “Sir, he had passed the time … only in the best company; so that all he had acquired of our manners was genteel. As proof of this, Sir, Lord Mulgrave and he dined one day at Streatham; they were sitting with their backs to the light so that I could not see distinctly; and there was so little of the savage in Omai, that I was afraid to speak to either, lest I should mistake one for the other.’ Omai became a regular guest at country weekends during his two-year stay in England; King George III himself eventually requested a meeting with the exotic savage. Omai cheerfully shook hands when the meeting took place, saying `How do, King Tosh,’ to the King’s reported delight.
Behind the drama of new discoveries lay more worrying questions for the Evangelicals. Why did British Christianity, with the means at hand, lack a missionary history? When had there last been a serious missionary movement among Christians anywhere? For a religion that had no racial prerequisites and whose first apostles had become missionaries throughout the Roman Empire, telling those they converted to go and do likewise `to the end of the world’, it was unsettling for all Evangelicals in the eighteenth century to realise how greatly the momentum towards a notion of world Christendom had slowed.
There were not even Catholic missionaries in the field any more. Back in 1600 the Jesuit order had had over 8,500 missionaries operating in twenty-three countries, including Brazil, India, Malaya, the Congo, Japan, Ethiopia and China. In the course of the eighteenth century, the Jesuits lost favour in the courts of Catholic Europe, which grew suspicious of their power. In 1759 they were thrown out of Portugal. Eight years later 5,000 Jesuits were ejected from Spain and its dominions. In 1773 the Vatican ended all Jesuit power, and with it the Catholic Church’s most prolific missionary organisation.
The northern European Protestants, at the time of the French Revolution, had nothing comparable to the cohesion or cathedral-building purse of the Catholic Church in its heyday with which to fill the vacuum. Nor did the British government, unlike the Spanish of old, consider itself on a Christian mission. The empire was in place to trade. In 1793 an India Bill went before parliament which renewed the royal licence of the East India Company. The MP William Wilberforce called for an amendment allowing Christian missions and native schools to be opened in India, but the bid was resisted and not one single bishop supported the amendment when it went before the House of Lords.
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It was in this climate of official apathy that the Missionary Society awaited its first public meetings in 1795. The response was encouraging. On the first day, 200 Evangelicals from round the country gathered at the Castle and Falcon, paid the guinea membership, and proceeded to elect from among themselves thirty-four regional directors to meet once a year, and a London-based board of twelve to meet monthly. Letters were presented from prospective missionaries and an interviewing committee was chosen. It was agreed that physically strong and `craftful’ men would be needed. As Thomas Haweis put it:
A plain man – with a good natural understanding – well read in the Bible, – full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, – though he comes from the forge or the shop would, I own, in my view, as a missionary to the heathen, be infintely preferable to all the learning of the schools; and would possess, in the skill and labour of his hands, advantages which barren science could never compensate.
The following day at a public service in the Whitfield’s Tabernacle on Tottenham Court Road, thousands of people from all denominations congregated at the chapel, many having to crowd at the doors. The service was a highly charged affair. Bogue, ‘a masterly Scotch speaker’, addressed those present. He refuted the arguments being used in the conservative press against the idea of sending missionaries, and called for an end to the sectarian bigotry which had split and corrupted British Christianity. `It is to be declared to be a fundamental principle of the Missionary Society that its design is not to send Presbyterianism, Independency, Episcopacy, or any other form of the Church Order, but the glorious Gospel of the blessed God to the heathen … We have before us a pleasing spectacle, Christians of different denominations united in forming a society for propagating the gospel among the heathen. Behold us assembled with one accord to attend the funeral of bigotry; and may she be buried so deep that not a particle of her dust may ever be thrown up on the face of the earth.’
Bogue’s sermon cast a spell on the great congregation. `Not a person moved,’ said one attendant, `it was like a second Pentecost.’ Evangelical London was caught in the grip of a fervour throughout the week, as churches and chapels across the capital swelled with congregations come to hear some of the country’s finest Dissenting speakers, never before unleashed on the capital’s public all at once.
Having now officially launched itself, the society decided with characteristically ambitious vision that its first missionary target would be the South Sea islands of the Pacific. Its combination of pentecostal fervour and utopian optimism proved irresistible, and the society grew in strength and subscription. In four weeks “3,500 had been donated to the cause and more followed, as the Evangelical Magazine relayed news of the meetings to the country at large.
The Board began interviewing prospective candidates even before they had any clear idea of how they would transport the chosen missionaries across the world to the South Seas. God would provide – as indeed he did. A Captain Wilson offered to sail them to their destination unpaid. The society – which was soon in a position to afford it – then bought a boat, the Duff, for “4,800. The vessel could carry eighteen crew and thirty missionaries.
Captain Wilson was something of a legend. He had begun life as a soldier, fighting at the battles of Bunker Hill and Long Island during the American War of Independence. Afterwards, he had enlisted with Sir Eyre Coote’s British regiment in Madras, which was deployed against the French in south India. Captured by the French at Cuddapore, Wilson escaped by jumping forty feet from the roof of a prison and swimming the alligator-infested River Coleroon. Recaptured by the troops of the French ally Hyder Ali, he was stripped, chained to another prisoner (who died) and marched 500 miles barefoot before being thrown into Hyder Ali’s own gaol at Seringapatam. After being held for twenty-two months, with great iron weights on his arms, Wilson was eventually released. Back in England he published a successful account of his adventures and became a merchant sailor. A stalwart atheist for most of his life, he was converted by an Evangelical sermon he heard at the Orange Street Chapel in Portsmouth.
Not all the volunteers were as welcome as Wilson, however. The diary of Reverend John Reynolds, one of the interviewing committee, records instances of more than one charlatan and wild-eyed maniac. On 23 November 1795 Reynolds attended a committee meeting, where `a piece of intelligence brought by Wilks respecting a missionary candidate very awful. His character very suspicious – three friends were deputed to go from the Vestry to his lodgings to make enquiries – they returned and their report confirmed Mr Wilks’ information. He is a man void of truth and honesty – a mere swindler. The deceiver was of course rejected, and we were thankful to God for the timely discovery.’
Most candidates seemed promising enough (`Mr Tuck of Brentwood came to offer himself as a Missionary – his wife also zealous for going among the heathen’) and it was chiefly a matter of picking the likliest among them. By spring 1796 thirty men had been chosen, to travel with a total of six wives and three children.
On 9 August 1796 a service was held for the inaugural mission at Surrey Chapel. Just four of the chosen thirty were ordained ministers. All four were in their late twenties: it was vital that they should be young and healthy. James Cover and John Eyre (no relation to the editor of the Evangelical Magazine) were accompanied by their wives, and Cover was also to take a twelve-year-old son. The other, non-ordained missionaries had been chosen for their skills as much as their conviction. No one was to receive a salary, but the society would send supplies and provisions as soon as the Duff returned to England.
The artisan missionaries represented each of `the useful arts’; the hope being that they would build the mission stations, and be living advertisements to the natives of Christian application. Among them were six carpenters, two bricklayers, two tailors, two shoemakers, a gardener, a surgeon and a harness maker. They were given very few instructions as to what they should do after their arrival, which is one reason why most of them would fare so disastrously. The farewell service at Surrey Chapel was almost the sum of their briefing. The Secretary preached on Genesis 17:l: `When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between you and will greatly increase your numbers.”‘ Then the ministers, in turn, took a Bible from the altar and presented it to a missionary, saying, ‘Our beloved brother go, live agreeably to this word, and publish the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Heathen, according to your gifts, calling, and abilities. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ To which each missionary replied, `I will, God being my helper.’
The party rode down to Woolwich docks that evening to join the Duff. They sailed at six the next morning, on 10 August 1796.
Nearly seven months later Wilson anchored the Duff off the island of Tahiti, after a voyage via Gibraltar and Cape Horn. Seventeen missionaries were to disembark here, including all those who were married. As the island came into view, the missionaries on board began to sing a hymn, `O’er the gloomy hills of darkness’. The weather was bad, so Wilson moored out at sea for the night, dropping the missionaries by boat around midday the next day. It was a dazzling scene, as the bricklayer Henry Nott recalled later. There was `deep blue sky after the morning’s rain. Violently coloured, screeching birds. Thick brilliant vegetation. Tree-covered mountains laced with waterfalls, the silver strand; the good ship Duff, which had just dropped the missionaries, sails furled, riding at anchor beyond the coral reef, the only link with home on the other side of the world.’
The men Wilson dropped that morning wore tail coats, high stockings, knee breeches and buckled shoes; their wives wore bonnets and heavy cotton skirts. The missionaries’ immediate instructions were commonsensical, if vague: to make as friendly contact with the islanders as possible, build a mission house for sleeping and worship, learn the language of the island and, until able to preach in the native tongue, offer examples of `good and co-operative living’. The Tahitian king, Pomare, who came to examine them from the beach, wore a girdle of bark cloth, jewellery of shark teeth and shells, and a crown-bunch of feathers. He rode astride a slave crawling on hands and knees.
Leaving the missionaries there, Wilson and the Duff sailed to the Marquesas, ten days north, and dropped a further two missionaries. One of them, John Harris, lost his nerve and fled back to the Duff before it had weighed anchor. William Crook remained. Wilson then took the Duff 1,200 miles west to the island of Tonga, where the remaining nine unmarried missionaries were dropped. Returning via Australia and Canton, he was back in Britain two years after his departure.
The missionaries who had been left in the South Seas quickly discovered an unforeseen problem. Since Cook’s voyages, other ships of exploration and whaling (Russian, French, British and American) had paid visits to the islands. Rum and firearms were now a part of life, as were disagreements and occasional violence between crews and islanders. The natives watching the missionaries disembark from the Duff were as wary about their intent and greedy for their possessions as they were incredulous at the sight of them. The introduction of firearms into Tahitian warfare had made the islands increasingly dangerous places, but most dramatically, bacterial diseases carried to Polynesia by European crews had had a terrible impact on the populations: some islands had seen their numbers decimated. Though the islanders seemed to attribute these plagues to vengeance by their own gods, they were still wary of the crews. The missionaries left on Tahiti probably would not have obtained Pomare’s permission to settle at all, had it not been for a marooned English-speaking Swedish sailor called Peter Haggerstein, who had been living on the island for four years and who was able to act as interpreter.
Of those left on Tahiti, eight of the seventeen soon wanted to leave. Another two, the harness maker Benjamin Broomhall and the Reverend Thomas Lewis, `went native’; the latter having first taken a native woman as his wife. (Broomhall was never seen again; Lewis’s broken skull was found two years later.) Most of the deserters left Tahiti aboard the first ship to stop there, a British vessel on its way to Sydney two months later. Two of them had gone mad; one missionary suffered a nervous breakdown, during which he tried to make love to King Pomare’s wife and teach Hebrew to her court.
Seven missionaries were left on the island, including the hardy 64-year-old Mrs Eyre. (Many of the missionary marriages were simply pairings-off by congregation. It seems extraordinary that the society agreed to send Mrs Eyre on such a journey, but she must have convinced the Board of her suitability despite her age. And her endurance once in the South Seas paid testament to their decision, for she outlasted all the younger women.) They had been granted permission by King Pomare to live in a house built for Captain Bligh, who had spent six months on the island in 1789, as a British exploratory follow-up to Cook’s voyages. On leaving the island, Bligh’s sailors had mutinied, left Bligh and eighteen loyal crew members in a boat off Tonga and returned to Tahiti. Bligh had survived, reaching Timor, 3,500 miles west, and returned to England. Nine of the mutineers had hidden on remote Pitcairn island, south-east of the Tahitian islands, with six male and twelve female Tahitians. When the missionaries arrived they were still hiding there; their settlement was not discovered by the British until 1808.
Once the Duff returned to England, the society was ready to send it straight back to Tahiti. The ship was to carry provisions and thirty more missionaries and left British waters in December 1797 under Captain Robson, Wilson’s first mate on the previous voyage. Three months into her passage the Duff was captured by French pirates off Cape Frio on the Brazilian coast. The missionary party (which included seven children) was transported to Montevideo and the Duff was sold there by its captors. The missionaries eventually reached Lisbon at the end of September 1799 and from there made their way back to England, some by land through Spain, others on British vessels. The mission had been a disaster; the cost of it to the society in provisions and vessel amounted to “10,000.
Without reinforcements from the Duff, the missionaries in the South Seas were left in a particularly vulnerable state, especially those in Tonga, who endured `two and a half years of indescribable horror’ without a single visit from a European ship. Three of the nine were murdered, one – a bricklayer, George Veeson – abandoned Christianity, and the remaining five – when war broke out on the island – hid in caves and lived hand to mouth, having been chased and stripped of everything they possessed. Eventually, in January 1800, a European vessel anchored offshore and the mission was abandoned; as was the one-man mission on the Marquesas, though William Crook had reported no ill-treatment from the islanders there. Tahiti was now the one remaining mission.
Some supplies (and four of the Tonga missionaries) arrived in Tahiti from New South Wales in 1801. The increasing disruption to shipping caused by the Napoleonic Wars meant it was a further four and a half years before any more provisions and reinforcements from London reached the missionaries, by which time they had long had to abandon any notion of European dress, food or footwear. Sporadic fighting continued throughout the period between King Pomare and a chief called Tauta, the two sides fighting for possession of the island’s idol stone, known as Oro. Nor was any progress made in converting the islanders to Christianity. One missionary wrote in his diary of `the disease, the cruelty, the ugly anger that flared, the murderous blow from behind, the treachery and hate, the dirt and idleness’. Infanticide and other live sacrifices to Oro were widespread.
Two of the original group, Henry Nott and John Jefferson, began to make headway with the Tahitian language. In 1803 they started to compile a dictionary. They were encouraged in this by the new king (also called Pomare) who provided them with some protection. This was a definite breakthrough. Arriving at the mission house one day, Pomare announced, `I want to learn the talking marks. Will you teach me?’ His subsequent interest in reading proved occasional, but never faded.
In 1807 John Jefferson died. Fresh warfare broke out on the island and nine more missionaries escaped aboard a British vessel for Sydney. Only four, led now by Henry Nott, remained. Pomare was defeated and the mission house he had protected was burned to the ground. The king went into exile with his surviving followers on the nearby island of Eimeo. At this point, a further two missionaries boarded a European ship which stopped at Tahiti and likewise escaped to Australia. Nott and one remaining missionary, William Henry, accompanied the defeated king to Eimeo. An attempted peace embassy back to Tahiti by Nott failed. He was received by Tauta, but told: `Better get off the island, white man. Brown men make war.’
After five years in exile (during which almost all of Pomare’s exiled army had been converted to Christianity), the king returned to Tahiti with his warriors, and successfully regained his throne. Thanks to the perseverance of Nott and Henry, the Missionary Society had found its first foothold in the South Seas. Quite how strong a foothold was unclear to those at home, who could only follow the mission’s progress by the occasional and outdated mission reports arriving back in England.
Copyright ” 2000 by Tom Hiney. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.