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The London Missionary Society was a non-denominational missionary society formed in England in 1795 by evangelical Anglicans and Nonconformists, largely Congregationalist in outlook, with missions in the islands of the South Pacific and Africa. It now forms part of the Council for World Mission (CWM).
As early as 1793, Edward Williams, minister at Carr's Lane, Birmingham, had written a letter to the churches of the Midlands, expressing the need for world evangelization and foreign missions. It was an effective letter; Williams began to play an active part in the plans for a missionary society, and, in due course, it was Williams who gave the charge to the first missionaries sent out by the Society.
Proposals for the Missionary Society began in 1794 after a Baptist minister, John Ryland, received word from William Carey, the pioneer British Baptist missionary who had recently moved to Calcutta, about the need to spread Christianity. Carey suggested that Ryland join forces with others along the non-denominational lines of the Anti-Slavery Society to design a society that could prevail against the difficulties that evangelicals often faced when spreading the Word. This aimed to overcome the difficulties that establishment of overseas missions had faced. It had frequently proved hard to raise the finance because evangelicals belonged to many different denominations and churches; all too often their missions would only reach a small group of people and be hard to sustain.
The society aimed to be more successful by creating a forum where evangelicals could work together, giving overseas missions more lines of financial support and better co-ordination, including firm support against their fierce opponents who wanted unrestricted commercial and military relations with native peoples throughout the world. The aim was to enable longer-term and more successful missions to be established.
After Ryland showed Carey’s letter to H.O. Wills, an anti-slavery campaigner in Bristol, he quickly gained support. Scottish ministers in the London area, David Bogue and James Steven, as well as other evangelicals such as John Hey, joined forces to organize a new society. Bogue wrote an appeal in the Evangelical Magazine:
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 yourselfs of old, to entreat them that they turn from their dumb idol to the living God, and to wait for His Son from heaven? Verily their debtors ye are.
Its editor, Rev. John Eyre of Hackney, responded by inviting a leading and influential evangelical, Rev. Thomas Haweis, to write a response to Bogue's appeal. The Cornishman sided firmly with Bogue, and immediately identified two donors, one of £500, and one of £100. From this start, a campaign developed to raise money for the proposed society, and its first meeting was organised at Baker’s Coffee House on Change Alley in the City of London. Eighteen supporters showed up and helped agree the aims of the proposed missionary society - to spread the knowledge of Christ among heathen and other unenlightened nations. By Christmas over thirty men were committed to forming the society.
In the following year, 1795, Spa Fields Chapel was approached for permission to preach a sermon to the various ministers and others by now keenly associated with the plan to send missionaries abroad. This was organised for Tuesday 22 September 1795, the host chapel insisting that no collection for the proposed society must be made during the founding event which would be more solemn, and formally mark the origin of the Missionary Society. Hundreds of evangelicals attended, and the newly launched society quickly began receiving letters of financial support, and interest from prospective missionaries.
Joseph Hardcastle of Hatcham House, Deptford became the first Treasurer, and the Rev. John Eyre of Hackney (editor of the Evangelical Magazine ) became the first Secretary to the Missionary Society - the latter appointment providing it with an effective 'newspaper' to promote its cause. The Missionary Society's board quickly began interviewing prospective candidates. In 1800 the society placed missionaries with the Rev. David Bogue of Gosport for preparation for their ministries.
A Captain Wilson offered to sail the missionaries to their destination unpaid. The society was able to afford a boat for the Captain to sail: The Duff. It could carry eighteen crew members and thirty missionaries. Seven months after the crew left port from the Woolwich docks they arrived in Tahiti, where seventeen missionaries departed. The missionaries were then instructed to become friendly with the natives, build a mission house for sleeping and worship, and learn the native language. The missionaries faced unforeseen problems. The natives had firearms and were anxious to gain possessions from the crew. The Tahitians also had faced difficulties with diseases spread from the crews of ships that had previously docked there. The natives saw this as retribution from the gods, and they were very suspicious of the crew. Of the seventeen missionaries that arrived in Tahiti, eight soon left on the first British ship to arrive in Tahiti.
When The Duff returned to Britain it was immediately sent back to Tahiti with thirty more missionaries. Unfortunately this journey was disastrous. Captured by French privateers, the Duff was sold by its captors. The expense of the journey cost The Missionary Society ten thousand pounds, which was initially devastating to the society. Gradually it recovered, however, and in 1807 was able to establish a mission in China under Robert Morrison.
In 1817 Edward Stallybrass was sent out to Russia to start a mission among the Buryat people of Siberia. The mission received the blessing of Alexander I of Russia, but was suppressed in 1840 under his successor Nicholas I. Alongside Stallybrass worked Cornelius Rahmn of Sweden, William Swan and Robert Yuille of Scotland.
In 1818, the society was renamed The London Missionary Society.
In 1822, John Philip was appointed superintendent of the London Missionary Society stations in South Africa where he fought for the rights of the indigenous people.
1830 – John Williams sighted the coast of Savai'i in Samoa and landed on August 24, 1830 at Sapapali'i village in search of Malietoa Vai‘inupo, a paramount chief of Samoa. John Williams was greeted by his brother Taimalelagi. Upon meeting Malietoa at a large gathering in Sapapali'i, the LMS mission was accepted and grew rapidly throughout the Samoan Islands. The kingdom of Manu'a also became a LMS island kingdom.
1832 – John Williams landed at Leone Bay in what was later to become American Samoa. (Tala faasolopito o le Ekalesia Samoa) He was informed that men of their village have accepted the 'lotu' brought by an Ioane Viliamu in Savai'i; not knowing John Williams now stood before them. A monument stands before the large beautiful Siona Chapel – now CCCAS in Leone, American Samoa; in honor of John Williams, the Apostle of the Pacific.
In 1839, John Williams missionary work whilst visiting the New Hebrides came to an abrupt end, when he was killed and eaten by cannibals on the island of Erromango whilst he was attempting to convey to them the blessings he brought. He was traveling at the time in the Missionary ship Camden commanded by Captain Robert Clark Morgan (1798-1864). A memorial stone was erected on the island of Rarotonga in 1839 and is still there today. His widow is buried with their son, Samuel Tamatoa Williams, at the old Cedar Circle in London's Abney Park Cemetery, the name of her husband and the sad record of his death described first on the modest stone. John Williams' remains were sought by a group from Samoa and his bones were brought back to Samoa, where throngs of the LMS mission attended a funeral service attended by Samoan royalty, high ranking chiefs and the LMS missionaries. His remains were interred at the native LMS church in Apia. A monument stands in his memory across the from the Congregational Christian Church of Apia chapel.
Rev. Dr. Alexander MacDonald and his wife Selina Dorcas (née Blomfield) arrived in Rarotonga in May 1836, then Samoa in April 1837 and settled at Safune on the central north coast of Savai'i island in Samoa in August 1837. He left the LMS in 1850 when he accepted a position with the Congregational church in Auckland, New Zealand.
1839–1879 – Reverend George Pratt served as a missionary in Samoa for many years, at the station at Matautu on Savai'i island. Pratt was a linguist and authored the first grammar and dictionary on the Samoan language, first published in 1862 at the Samoa Mission Press.
1844 – London Missionary Society established Malua Theological College at the village of Malua on Upolu to educate local men to become village clergy for the rapidly growing mission with over 250 villages and 25,000 membership.
Despite such difficulties, the society prevailed and would soon send missionaries all over the world, notably to India, China, Australia, Madagascar and Africa. Famous LMS missionaries included Robert Morrison (1782–1834) who went to China in 1807, John Abbs (1810–1888) who went to Travancore, India in 1837, the sinologist James Legge (1815–1897), and David Livingstone (1813–1873) who went to South Africa in 1840.
The LMS missionaries had a huge influence on the spread of their largely non-denominational approach to Christianity, throughout the world.
The London Missionary Society merged with the Commonwealth Missionary Society (formerly the Colonial Missionary Society) in 1966 to form the Congregational Council for World Mission (CCWM). At the formation of the United Reformed Church in 1972 it underwent another name change, becoming the Council for World Mission (Congregational and Reformed). The CWM (Congregational and Reformed) was again restructured in 1977 to create a more internationalist and global body, the Council for World Mission.
The records of the London Missionary Society are held at the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The 1924 Olympic gold medalist Eric Liddell served as an LMS missionary to China.
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