Following the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, Christians in the West began concerted efforts to spread their faith across the globe. On the Missionary Trail is the story of two men sent to places as far-flung as the Kalahari, Tahiti, and Canton to track the spread of Christianity. For eight years, George Tyerman and Daniel Bennet braved storms, pirates, tigers, and powerful but intractable local leaders to chart the success of the London Missionary Society's thirty-year endeavor. A remarkable account of faith and bravery, On the Missionary Trail is a unique addition to the literature of the missionary encounter.
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On the Missionary TrailA Journey Through Polynesia, Asia, and Africa with the London Missionary Society
By Tom Hiney
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Tom Hiney
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Story So Far
In the fourteenth year of the Emperor Augustus, and about the one hundred and fiftieth year of the coming of the English to Britain, the holy Pope Gregory was inspired by God to send his servant Augustine with several other God-fearing monks to preach the word of God to the English nation. Having undertaken this task in obedience to the Pope's command and progressed a short distance of their journey, they became afraid, and began to consider returning home. For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation, of whose very language they were ignorant.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People
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 Baptistcollege, 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.
* * *
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.
Excerpted from On the Missionary Trail by Tom Hiney Copyright © 2000 by Tom Hiney. Excerpted by permission.
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