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On the Mission Trail

Category Articles
Date February 1, 2000

Two hundred years ago was the beginning of the golden age of missionary expansion from Europe and North America. At that time there were 174 million professing Christians in the world which had a population of 730 million, so Christians set up missionary societies. The first was founded in 1794, plainly called the Missionary Society. This became the Congregationalist-dominated London Missionary Society in 1818 when the Anglicans and Methodists left to form, respectively, the Church Missionary Society and the Methodist Missionary Society.

The split prompted the LMS to conduct a world-wide survey of its foreign stations. In 1821 it sent out two roving ambassadors, Daniel Tyerman, a pastor, and a wealthy sponsor, George Bennet. The tour lasted eight years. Tyerman died of fever in Madagascar but Bennet returned to England in 1829 as a veteran of 51 sea voyages in which he clocked up 80,000 miles, plus another 10,000 miles of overland travel. The voyages were all under canvas. The distance he covered was equivalent to four round-the-world trips.

This has been a forgotten voyage, and the story of this odyssey has been retold in a new book entitled On the Missionary Trail by Tom Hiney (Chatto & Windus, £16.99, 367 pages). The author has used the published and manuscript accounts of the travellers and the people they met. The itinerary took them first around the Horn to Tahiti. They stayed in the Pacific until 1824, visiting all the Society islands as well as the Marquesas and Hawaii. After a three month ocean voyage from Tahiti to Australia via New Zealand, they spent eight months in the Far East and South-east Asia (Java, Macao, Canton, Singapore), then 18 months in India, and a year in Mauritius and Madagascar (where Tyerman died). Bennet then proceeded to Cape Town for his final port of call before returning home.

The narrative provides a capsule view of the Pacific islands within a generation of the first explorers mapping the island. The spread of the gospel meant the ending of infanticide, slavery, cannibalism, human sacrifice, and the reign of totem and taboo. The termination of blood feuds meant that issues of adultery, murder, and theft could be dealt with by law courts. Before this, vendetta had been the only form of punishment that was socially approved, but with the arrival of the European sailors and traders came the spread of diseases, especially measles and smallpox for which the inhabitants of those nations had no immunity.

Shortly after Bennet and Tyerman’s embassy the LMS were squeezed out of Polynesia, retaining a foothold only in the Melanesian outpost of Papua, New Guinea. Tahiti became a French protectorate in 1842; Hawaii became an American preserve and elsewhere in the Pacific the Mormon cult spread rapidly. In South Africa Robert Moffat pioneered powerfully among the Bechuana, supported by his son-in-law David Livingstone. The great success of the LMS was in Madagascar, which in the 1820’s did not look a promising area at all for the kingdom of God.

Hiney’s book is packed with fascinating detail from the materials he has consulted, but should be read along with Iain Murray’s The Puritan Hope (Banner of Truth) and William Williams’ Christianity Among the New Zealanders (Banner of Truth) which not only give historical background to 19th century missionary expansion but those books have a warmth, theological sympathy with the evangelistic enterprise of the church and an inspirational quality.

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