Inspired by the 18th century Evangelical Revival, Protestant missionaries set out to bring Christian light to the empire’s “dark” regions. The work of these dedicated people brought official opposition and public controversies. Were they right to attempt the destruction of other religions?; to bring ideas of equality to subject races?, to extend empire by demanding official protection? By 1900, these complex issues remained unsolved.
Some of the greatest Victorian heroes and heroines were missionaries; pursuing their evangelical work. Brave men and women were decimated by malaria and yellow fever in Africa; clubbed, boiled and eaten in the Pacific islands; tarred and feathered in the Caribbean; massacred in India during the mutiny of 1857 and in China during the Boxer rising of 1900. None of these disasters deterred them, and dedicated volunteers were always available to fill the ranks of the fallen. By 1900, societies in Great Britain and Ireland could support 10,500 missionaries around the globe; by contrast the United States supported 5,500 and continental Europe only 2,500.
An estimated 90% of the health and education services in the Afro-Asian empire were staffed by missionaries and financed by their supporters in England. Not until the end of the second world war did government make its belated attempt to make good its long neglect of those areas. Throughout the period of empire which ended with American Independence in 1783, very little was done to take Christianity to the unconverted world overseas. A few missionaries in the West Indies and America managed (if they were tactful or courageous) to baptise and instruct a number of Negro slaves, but they did not dare criticise the institution of Slavery, for fear of enraging the slave-owners they were forced to acquiesce in a system they regarded as unchristian.
The faith that Wesley had found was Evangelical Puritanism, who's key concepts were, original sin, the devil, heaven, hell, the rigid observance of Sunday and the literal truth of the Bible.
One person in particular was responsible for the dramatic end-of-the-century change - John Wesley, an Anglican cleric who spent two frustrating years 1736 - 38 in the newly-founded American colony of Georgia. During that time he did not convert a single soul to Christianity: in fact he ended his stay in the New World with doubts about his own belief. On his return to England however, he found the certainty he was searching for and saw the Truth, in a sudden flash of inspiration.
Wesley was soon drawing hysterical crowds of up to 80,000 and the British Establishment were shocked. The demagogic fury released by the French revolution helped to change the minds of the Establishment. It seemed as if frighteningly egalitarian slogans from France would soon contaminate the deprived English working classes. Suddenly, Wesleyan doctrines began to appear a positive godsend to British social and political stability.
One of Wesley’s Evangelical supporters, Lady Huntingdon, once told him: “attempt nothing less than all mankind”, He could hardly have imagined to what extent her message would come true. Wesley himself, did a prodigious amount in Britain: before he died in 1791, he travelled 225,000 miles and preached 50,000 sermons, countless new converts took heed of his doctrine and prepared to obey literally Christ's command set down in the Bible: “go yea into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature”.
Providentially, new and fertile fields for missionary endeavour presented themselves. The voyages of Captain Cook, victories during the Napoleonic Wars brought unexpected acquisitions of territory for our new empire, and the expanding scope of the anti-slave trade campaign, headed in parliament by Wiliam Wilberforce.
This offered many new areas for activity by a variety of Protestant churches. In swift succession the major organisations preaching to the heathens overseas were founded, in 1792, The Baptist Missionary Society, in 1795 the Congregationalist London Missionary Society, in 1799 The Anglican Church Missionary Society and finally in 1804 The British and Foreign Bible Society. Now the foot-soldiers of the Evangelical revolution sallied forth to do battle where ever the enemy was to be found - it made no difference to these warriors whether they battled against sophisticated higher religions such as Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism in Africa and Asia or pure primitive worship in Australasia, the South Seas and Canada. It took a special kind of person to carry forward the ambitious woof the missionary movement in the early 19th century. Fortunately, the times had produced many such individuals.
Few of these individuals had received any higher education. For example the London Missionary Societies task force that landed in Tahiti in 1797, included only four ordained clergymen the rest were butchers, carpenters and sundry tradespeople. Robert Moffat, the great LMS (London Missionary Society) worker who went in 1816 to the Bechuana people in South Africa and among whom he laboured for 50 years had little education and no theological training. Mary Slessor who’s work in Africa earned her the name of the “White Queen of Okoyong” had been working in a linen mill in Dundee since the age of eleven. They got very meagre wages £20 per annum plus seeds and a little livestock and agricultural implements but had unlimited personal scope being as one of them put it “ Little Protestant Popes”.
In India the missionaries faced stiff anti-evangelical opposition from the all-powerful East India Company. The Company might tolerate priggish chaplains, but was dead set against missionary work among the Indians on the grounds that it would cause civil disturbance. So, when William Carey, a cobbler, who was a Baptist village pastor, arrived in Bengal in 1793, he was treated as an illegal immigrant. The company forced him and his companions to seek refuge in the Danish colony of Seranpore near Calcutta. To their enemies, the evangelists were the ‘thin end of the wedge’. Charles Marsh, a former Madras barrister speaking for those who wished India to remain “unspoiled” prophesied, during a debate in the House of Commons “the likely outcome of missionary activity - I leave it to those who are versed in moral calculations to whether predestination and gin would be a compensation for the changes which will overcome Indian habits, morals and religion”.
Success for the evangelicals came in 1833, when, after a debate on the renewal of the East India Companies Charter in the House of Commons, India was opened to any missionaries who wished to go there; no longer was the company permission required. In India in 1857, the missionaries were reckoned by the Administration to have been largely responsible for the Indian Mutinies.
When John Smith, an ex-bakers apprentice, arrived in British Guiana, in 1817, he was bluntly told by Governor Murray, “if you ever teach a Negro to read and write, and I hear of it, I will banish you from the colony immediately”. Held responsible for a bloodily suppressed slave revolt in 1823, Smith was arrested, sentenced to death by court-martial, and died in a cell in Colony House, Demarara while awaiting confirmation of his sentence.
In Australia the first missionaries were free from government interference since the Governor, Arthur Phillip was a thoroughgoing sceptic who was willing to make use of Christianity if it could create a peaceful community. But they found other obstacles in their way when they accompanied the first consignment of convicts to Botany Bay. This was the destination of criminals and the missionaries found rough fellow passengers greeted them with ribald and violent hostility. In 1814 the Rev. Samuel Marsden went on to found the first mission in New Zealand, leaving there a joiner, a shoemaker and six mechanics from New South Wales to convert the native Maoris. Here as in Australia there was no interference by colonial governors, because there were none, but were soon at loggerheads with colonial groups in London that advocated the annexation of New Zealand and therefore threatened missionary freedom of action and the Maori way of life on the islands. However in this case, the missionary movement had powerful allies in parliament as the Under - Secretary of State at the Colonial Office, Sir James Stephen, was the son-in-law of John Venn, one of the founders of the Congregational Missionary Society. Influential connections of this sort did in time come to be of enormous assistance to the missionaries against anti-imperialists, little Englanders, agnostics who opposed conversion of the natives to any religion, humanists who argued that indigenous religious practices should be respected, all had criticisms to make of the missionary work.
To woo the rising middle-classes in England, the backbone of Victorian society, missionary propaganda stressed their role in multiplying commercial outlets (all those savages had to be clothed and raised towards western living standards) and inculcating the heathen with the gospel of hard work. To overcome government opposition, missionaries pointed out that their efforts brought about political docility in the newly acquired territories. Missionaries on leave lost no chance to paint the “dark” side of native life in order to attract funds. By 1837 an articulate spokesman for missionary activity, John Williams, of the LMS had devised the indivisible trinity of Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation as justification for their work.
In these efforts to convince the British people of the value of their work the missionaries were remarkably successful. They were human beings particularly representative of their time, faithfully reflecting the mixture of pious self-righteousness and hard headed pragmatism which characterised the Victorian era.
Samuel Marsden, first missionary in New Zealand, won an exalted place in missionary history, and was compared to St. Augustine. It was an unwarranted reputation. St. Augustine at least converted a Saxon king, within six months, but Marden’s Anglican mission took eleven years to baptise its first Maori - a flawed triumph - for the man who accepted the Christian way of life was on his deathbed. Marsden, a blacksmith’s son came to the south Pacific after William Wilberforce induced him to cut short his studies at Cambridge and carry the gospel to Australia. There Marsden served as Chaplain to the convict settlement of New South Wales and made his first contact with the Maoris. In December 1814, the tubby missionary landed at New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. Three days later - Christmas Day - Marsden tackled the task of sowing the “Word of the Lord” on the stony ground of New Zealand.
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One of Marsden’s Maori friends, Chief Ruatara, gave him half an acre of land, a fence and a makeshift pulpit in the centre and arranged some old canoes as seats. Over this improvised chapel was hoisted the Union Jack “it seemed to be the signal for better days in this benighted land” wrote Marsden who took as his text the gloriously hopeful message of St. Luke’s gospel “I bring you glad tidings of Great Joy”. The tidings made no lasting impression. He returned to Australia leaving a mission so unsuccessful that the ensuing decade has been labelled “the Maori Domination”.
Marsden made seven visits from Australia to strengthen the mission but by the time he died in 1838, “Satan - the enemy” had yielded hardly an inch. Only later where Marsden’s efforts rewarded, for in the 1850’s the Governor reported that nearly all the Maoris were Christian.
One missionary admitted he had “been converted from a Christian to a heathen” had to be dismissed for drunkenness and other vile passions too indelicate to mention. Marsden’s influential friend Ruatara died. Maoris terrorised the missionaries pilfering their meagre possessions and openly despising the gospel which they said was not suitable for warriors “Satan” wrote a New Zealand bishop years later “had obtained a strong hold upon the people”.
In the West Indies the planters and the Colonial Church were outraged by the appearance of London Missionary Society envoys early in the 19th century. With reason, the missionaries were regarded as agents of the hated ‘abolitionists’. Indeed the missionary movement was closely allied with the antislavery crusaders in all parts of the world where slavery existed. The missionaries had been carefully briefed before leaving England: ‘not a word must escape you in public or in private which might render the slaves displeased with their masters or dissatisfied with their situation’. “You are not sent to relieve them of their servile condition but to offer them the consolation of religion”.