History

by CWM Communications Team

The Council for World Mission is a worldwide partnership of churches. The 32 members are committed to sharing their resources of money, people, skills, and insights globally to carry out God’s mission locally. CWM was created in 1977 and incorporates the London Missionary Society (1795), the Commonwealth Missionary Society (1836) and the (English) Presbyterian Board of Missions (1847).

THE BEGINNINGS: THE MISSIONARY SOCIETY

The rise of the London Missionary Society (LMS) can be regarded as a distinct era in the history of Christian missions. It goes back to the late 18th-century evangelical awakening in Britain. It was a time of spiritual renewal and discovery led by John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. The awakening stressed the importance of individual conversion, in effect transforming Christianity from being a state religion to becoming the religion of ordinary people. This spiritual awakening inspired lay humanitarian activity at home, coupled with an increased sense of Britain’s moral responsibility to spread the knowledge of Christ to the heathen world.

Many of its founders were first drawn together in 1793. John Eyre launched the Evangelical Magazine in July of that year as a forum for disseminating revival news, information, and ideas. David Bogue served the magazine as its editor. The same year, Edward Williams wrote an appealing letter to the Midlands churches passionately expressing the need for world evangelisation and foreign missions. Around the same time, a Baptist minister, John Ryland, received a letter from William Carey about the need to spread the Gospel. Carey suggested that Ryland join forces with others along the interdenominational lines of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. After Ryland showed Carey’s letter to Henry Overton Wills, an anti-slavery campaigner in Bristol, he quickly gained support. David Bogue and James Steven, as well as other evangelicals such as John Hey, joined forces to organise a new society. They began meeting in November 1794 in a Baker’s Coffee House, Cornhill, London, to plan the Missionary Society, and the momentum grew stronger.

As a result, the Missionary Society formerly began in September 1795 with the aim “to spread the knowledge of Christ among heathen and other unenlightened nations.” This aim of Society has remained substantially the same throughout history. At the foundation meeting in London on 23–24 September 1795, 200 ministers were present, of whom about eighteen oversaw the organisation of the meeting and made up the committee to establish the society itself.

Missionary Ship, John Williams

THE LONDON MISSIONARY SOCIETY

From its beginning, the Missionary Society was independent of denominations. It was inter-denominational and multinational in its character. This impulse, included in the founding principle, was not to take any particular form of Church. It was to take the message of the gospel and allow the local church as it was formed to determine its form of church government. The society quickly grew, with a Board of Directors and many smaller committees working together to oversee vast operations, including administration, screening, and training of missionaries, fund-raising, and various mission work. In 1818, the Missionary Society was renamed “London Missionary Society” (LMS).

FIRST MISSIONARIES

The first mission of the London Missionary Society was to the South Pacific or South Seas in 1796. Edward Williams gave the charge to the first missionaries sent out by the Society in July 1796. The missionary ship “The Duff” left England on 10 August 1796 with 30 missionaries and their families and landed in Tahiti on 6 March 1797. John Williams and his wife Mary Chawner began their first missionary journey on 17 November 1816 and arrived at Moorea on 17 November 1817. John and Mary established their first missionary post on the island of Raiatea. From there, they visited a number of the Polynesian island chains. Most of their missionary work was very successful. The LMS successively operated seven missionary ships in the Pacific named after John Williams.

The work in India began in 1798 when Nathaniel Forsyth landed at Calcutta. Unable to establish a mission there, he moved to the Dutch-controlled area of Chinsurah, working as the only LMS missionary in India for several years. He was followed in 1804 by William Ringeltaube, who initially worked at Tranquebar, but in 1806 established the Travancore (Kerala) mission at Mayiladi. The Travancore mission was one of the most successful LMS missions in South India. After 1813, the LMS expanded their mission stations in North and South India.

The work started in Southern Africa in 1799 when Johannes Theodorus Vanderkemp started a mission to the black Africans. Work began in the Cape area, and in 1802 Vanderkemp and James Read founded the mission station at Bethelsdorp. Many other missionaries arrived soon, and by 1818, there were 15 mission stations in Southern Africa. The Bechuanaland (later Botswana) mission was founded at Kuruman in 1816, and Robert Moffat began work in 1821. David Livingstone arrived in 1841 and was an important figure in the development of the mission. Kuruman became a mission centre, from which the missions to Matabeleland and later Central Africa begun.

The first mission to the West Indies was to Tobago. It was established in 1808 by Richard Elliott. A mission was also established in Trinidad in 1809 by Thomas Adam. Both were abandoned in 1814 and 1825. In 1808, John Wray established the mission at Demerara, British Guiana, and carried out extensive mission work with the enslaved persons on the sugar plantations. Wray then set up a second mission in British Guiana at Berbice in 1813. In Demerara, Wray was replaced by John Smith in 1817, who died in prison in 1824 and became a missionary martyr. Missionaries were sent out to Jamaica in 1834.

The momentum for the mission to South East Asia (known as the “Ultra Ganges” Mission) was the fact that between 1808 and 1842, missionaries were not allowed to operate within Mainland China. The first missionary in China was Robert Morrison. He established a mission at Guangzhou in 1807 and was later joined by William Milne and Walter Medhurst in Malacca in 1815. The mission stations in Penang and Singapore were established in 1819. The opening of China in 1843 effectively brought the Ultra Ganges Mission to an end.

As a fruit of all these missionary works, LMS spearheaded the introduction of Protestant Christianity in the islands of the South Pacific, in China, in Madagascar, and was early on the ground in several other areas, notably South Africa, the Caribbean, and India. LMS has commissioned some of the most famous Christian missionaries of all time and operated a series of missionary ships which transported missionaries and supplies. The first missionary from LMS went to Tahiti in 1796. By 1945, the LMS sent 1800 missionaries overseas.

John Williams
House flag, London Missionary Society (LMS)
The statue of Quamina

THE LMS HALL OF FAME

Many missionaries commissioned by the LMS made a significant impact and influenced several generations in the history of missions. A famous historian Kenneth Scott Latourette acclaims: “The record of the London Missionary Society continues a major chapter in the history not only of Christian missions but also of the entire Church.” Here are some examples:

John Williams was regarded as the most successful missionary in the Pacific Islands. In 1830 he became the first person to introduce Christianity to Samoa.
Born on 29 June 1796 in Tottenham, near London, to Welsh parents, John Williams was commissioned by the LMS as a missionary in service in September 1816 and appointed to the South Seas. He married Mary Chauner on 29 October 1817. Williams and his wife Mary arrived in Tahiti in 1817. Based in Raiatea (Tahiti), the Cook Islands, and later Samoa, he built and sailed ships to transport Polynesian Christians as teachers and missionaries across the Pacific. He was a leading figure among a generation of explorer missionaries whose curiosity and sense of strategy were foundational for the church in the Cook Islands and Samoa. On a successful visit to England (1834-38), he oversaw the printing of the Rarotongan New Testament. After returning to the Pacific, he visited Rarotonga and Samoa, and on his way to New Hebrides, he landed at Erromanga on 19 November 1839, where natives killed him. Most of the Williams’ missionary works and the delivery of a cultural message was very successful, and they became famed in Congregational circles. The LMS successively operated seven missionary ships in the Pacific between 1844 and 1968, which were named after John Williams.

Robert Morrison was a Pioneer protestant missionary to China. The LMS appointed Morrison as a missionary, and he then studied medicine, astronomy, and Chinese in London. Following ordination in January 1807, he sailed for China through North America. He married Mary Morton in Macao on February 20, 1809. On the same day, he was appointed translator to the East India Company (EIC), which gave him a legal footing for remaining on Chinese soil and financial support. Some criticise his collaboration with the colonial enterprise in China.
He envisaged a triennial missionary conference and founded the Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca in 1818 with colleague William Milne. He completed a translation of the New Testament into Chinese in 1813 and the entire Bible in 1819. His magnum opus was his three-volume Chinese-English Dictionary, which gave him the name the “Father of Anglo-Chinese Literature.” He died on 1 August 1834 and was buried in the old protestant cemetery in Macau.

David Livingstone is perhaps one of the best-known of the LMS missionaries known as “Africa’s greatest missionary.” Appointed by the LMS to Buchuana land, he was ordained on 20 November 1840 and first sailed on 8 December 1840. He married Mary Moffat, daughter of Robert Moffat. He inspired abolitionists of the slave trade, explorers, and missionaries. He opened up Central Africa to missionaries who initiated the education and healthcare for Africans, and trade through the African Lakes Company. Livingstone died on 1 May 1873 at the age of 60 in Chief Chitambo’s village at Chipundu, southeast of Lake Bangweulu, in present-day Zambia. In his 30 years of travel and Christian missionary work in southern, central, and eastern Africa—often in places where no European had previously ventured—Livingstone may well have influenced Western attitudes toward Africa more than any other individual before him. His geographic, technical, medical, and social discoveries provided a complex body of knowledge that is still being explored. He has been a controversial figure, criticised for his expeditions that contributed towards the European Colonization of Africa.

Johannes Theodorus Vanderkemp was the first missionary to work among the Xhosa. He worked with the Khoi Khoi of the Cape Colony and committed himself to alleviating their economic struggles. He was ordained in London on 3 November 1798. After being appointed to South Africa, he sailed from London on 23 December 1798 and arrived in Cape Town on 31 March 1799. He later left cape town, and in 1803, he founded the Bethelsdorp, a mission station near Algoa Bay, through which he began his outreach to the Khoe people. Soon the Bethelsdorp became a refuge for Khoe runaways from cruel white farm owners. Today, the Bethelsdorp in Port Elizabeth became an integral part of the history of the Khoe people and their interaction with Christianity. It is where the CWM launched the Onesimus Project on 23 August 2022.
He adopted native people’s customs, dressed like them, lived in a hut with them, and eventually married a native Malagasy, Sara Janse, who was freed from enslavement and had four children. With his rich background in European and classical philology, he mastered and pioneered the study of Xhosa and Khoi-Khoi languages. From the beginning, he was bitterly resented by the Dutch colonists due to his cultural and racial appreciation and advocacy of the rights of the native population. He died in Cape Town in 1811.

John Smith was a missionary martyr who served the enslaved people in the Demerara region of Guyana. Smith was born on 27 June 1790 in Northamptonshire and trained to be a baker, after which he committed himself to be a missionary. He married Jane Godden, and on 12 December 1816, he was ordained at Tonbridge Chapel. He was appointed to the ‘Le Resouvenir’ plantation and arrived in Demerara on 23 February 1817.
On 9 March 1817, he took over from John Wray, who had been transferred to neighbouring Berbice County, and started preaching at Bethel Chapel, which was primarily attended by African enslaved persons. Smith baptised 390 enslaved people in the next four years, and his tiny congregation grew to 800 people. He became a counsellor and friend to his congregation. He constantly wrote to colonial governors about the appalling conditions the plantation workers experienced and recommended bringing reforms. Under the leadership of Quamina Gladstone, a Guyanese slave from Africa and a deacon of the Bethel chapel, the enslaved people rebelled against the plantation owners in August 1823, which was called the Demerara rebellion. As a result, violence broke out, and the slaughter of enslaved people took place.
Smith was charged with promoting discontent and dissatisfaction in the minds of enslaved people, provoking them to rebel, and failing to notify the authorities that they intended to rebel. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death. Due to the unhealthy conditions in prison, he died on 6 February 1824. Smith was only 34 years old when he died. His death was a major step forward in the campaign to abolish slavery. News of his death was published in British newspapers, provoked enormous outrage and garnered 200 petitions to Parliament.

There were many women and native missionaries who also made remarkable contributions to the mission fields and spread the gospel. However, their stories were not recorded in history. CWM is working to restore their rightful place in the mission history. They may well be placed in the LMS hall of fame. Here is a photo of the women, who dedicated themselves to the mission of God, with the LMS staff after their missionary training.

END OF AN ERA

As noted in the previous sections, the LMS missionaries who went to spread the knowledge of Christ were from Britain. Though not always subservient to colonialism, British missions generally received protection and sometimes privileges from colonial powers, while some were even collaborators. The work of the LMS took place at a particular moment in history, and certainly, not everything it did was right. In recognising and reflecting on this, it is also possible to celebrate the faith, faithfulness, and sacrifice of others while learning from their mistakes and committing ourselves to new, culturally appropriate, and life-flourishing ways of working.

The end of World War II marked the end of an era. One by one, British colonies became independent states, and the indigenisation of mission gathered pace. This happened alongside a growing desire to move towards the devolving mission to independent churches. For example, the formation of the Churches of Christ in China in 1927, the unifying of the Church in South India in 1947, and Kiribati missionaries encouraged the forming of a national church with national leadership.

THE NEW ERA: COUNCIL FOR WORLD MISSION

In 1966 the London Missionary Society and the Commonwealth Missionary Society merged to form the Congregational Council for World Mission (CCWM). The formation of the United Reformed Church in England and Wales in 1972 brought into the work of CCWM the mission work of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, particularly Bangladesh, Singapore and Taiwan. In 1973 CCWM became Council for World Mission (Congregational and Reformed). But changes were not complete, and in 1975 a consultation was held in Singapore.

The mission consultation brought together churches that had been engaged in foreign missions and the churches established through those missions. Encouraged and challenged by the associate churches, the consultation agreed that the CWM’s current structure was unhelpful as it maintained the donor and recipient relationships which failed to give space for a truly collaborative exercise. The document calling for change, “Sharing in One World Mission,” pointed to the ecumenical nature and outlook of the new CWM. The new structure based on equal partnership and mutuality came into being in 1977.

In 1980 the name was finally changed again to the Council for World Mission—dropping Congregational and Reformed. In 1995, CWM celebrated its 200th Anniversary around the theme, “Dare to Dream”. Since then, CWM has continued to support member churches in mission through the sharing of people, skills, resources, and insights.

In 1994 the Hong Kong Council of Churches in Christ in China (HKCCCC) decided to sell a hospital property which had been in place for over a century as part of the LMS mission work. A major portion of the income gained through the sale of this property was shared with the CWM as a “gift of grace,” and created the Nethersole Fund to help the mission projects in Hong Kong and mainland China.

The financial resources made it possible for CWM to launch a Mission Support Programme (MSP) to support member churches in mission and to launch the Regional Empowerment Fund (2001), which supported mission programmes in the regions of CWM. A new governance structure was adopted in 2003 and again in 2012. Eventually, in 2012, CWM relocated its general secretariat to Singapore as a strategic location to facilitate the mission work with all the member churches and house the global office.

This whistle-stop tour of the story of LMS and its merging with other missionary societies over time brings us to our current vision: “Life-flourishing Communities, Living out God’s promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth” and our being “Called in Christ to radical and prophetic discipleship, working in partnership with churches and the ecumenical community to resist life-denying systems, affirm peace, do justice and enable life-flourishing communities.”