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Reference group
Founders of the London Missionary Society (act. 1795) were a group who came together with the interdenominational, essentially ecumenical vision of uniting within and outside Britain as many supporters as possible of Christian missions. Originally founded in September 1795 as the Missionary Society, sometimes known as the General Missionary Society, the society remained as it began, an entirely autonomous, voluntary body, dependent financially on individual subscriptions or donations, and free of control by any of the churches from which it recruited. However, it gradually evolved as the missionary umbrella for Independents and Congregationalists throughout the British Isles, and was formally constituted as the London Missionary Society (LMS) in 1818. In the persons and interests of its founders it drew on several of the main currents of eighteenth-century evangelical revivalism and concentrated in itself the developing concern with Christian missions overseas for the conversion of the heathen. Although not quite the first of the new voluntary missionary societies of the decade (the Baptist Missionary Society dates from October 1792) it was for long the largest and most vigorous of them all.

Many of its founders were first drawn closely together in 1793. John Eyre, who combined Anglican orders and links with the countess of Huntingdon's colleges at Trefeca and Cheshunt, devised and launched the Evangelical Magazine in July that year as a forum for the dissemination of revival news, information, and ideas among Anglicans, Independents, and dissenters. Eyre was assisted by other figures such as the Congregationalist Edward Parsons, the Church of Scotland minister John Love, and John Townshend (1757–1826), minister of the Independent church in Bermondsey. The Evangelical Magazine's columns were a natural place for what became important documents in the history of the society. These included the appeal by David Bogue in September 1794 for the formation of a voluntary non-denominational missionary society, and Thomas Haweis's review (November 1794) of Melvill Horne's Letters on Missions. Inspirational information was circulated about the evangelical stirrings around the country, such as the Warwickshire movement of 1793–4 led by Edward Williams, who was then of Carrs Lane Chapel, Birmingham, and accounts of the emerging regular meetings of London ministers in the City's Cornhill and Aldersgate.

Throughout 1795 momentum for the establishment of a society grew, and with it the multifarious composition of the missionary lobby. This rapidly reached the point where to do justice to individual contributions in 1795 and shortly thereafter became impossible. One LMS historian in his two-volume record included not only thirty-six principal figures but also a list of a further twenty-six ‘Founders, whose names have been omitted’ from extensive consideration. To do more he felt ‘would have been to write the memoirs of the flower of the British churches at the close of the … century’ (Morison, 2.590). At the foundation meeting in London, on 23–4 September 1795 at Old Spa Fields Chapel (which belonged to the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion), 200 ministers were present, of whom about eighteen oversaw the organization of the meeting and made up the committee to establish the society itself. Other roles and responsibilities—as preachers, session chairmen, those offering prayers and reading out letters of support—were widely distributed. Promises of aid were received from centres as widely dispersed as Axminster, Derby, Glasgow, Taunton, Essex, Nottinghamshire, and Warwickshire.

The principal organizers of the Missionary Society at its launch were mostly in their late thirties and early forties. A few were older, like Thomas Haweis, Rowland Hill, and Matthew Wilks (1746–1829), but William Shrubsole at sixty-six was wholly exceptional. Much more varied were their early backgrounds. Eyre had begun life as an apprentice clothier, George Burder as an engraver but with no formal education. Henry Boase was a banker, Robert Hawker a surgeon before taking Anglican orders, and Thomas Wilson a silk manufacturer and then treasurer of Hoxton Academy, chief training ground for the society's missionaries.

In the early heady days of autumn 1795 it was perhaps understandable that many should be temporarily caught up in the emotions of the moment. As the record of the initial LMS venture to ‘the South Seas’ suggests, optimism as to the practical simplicity and rapid success of the venture ran high. Missions overseas were widely seen as little more than the energetic extension of evangelism into a wider field, the essence of which had already been experienced in the Scottish highlands and such other similarly remote areas as the Forest of Dean. Its missionaries first arrived at the Pacific island of Tahiti in March–April 1797. The society's adoption of Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp for southern Africa in 1797, and of Nathanael Forsyth (1769–1816), William Fyvie, and James Skinner in 1798 for Chinsura and Surat in India, also marked the opening of what were soon to become important fields of LMS enterprise.

One more precise indicator of at least medium-term commitment to the society may be found less in the missionary body itself than in the eventual composition of its first directorate. There emerged a body, entirely of men in the manner of the time, numbering thirty-four and divided between fourteen lay directors and twenty clerical (although it is worth noting that by 1815 the directors numbered 168). Of the laymen only J. Audley (in Cambridge) and Sir Egerton Leigh (in Warwickshire) gave addresses outside London. From the metropole itself came figures like Joseph Hardcastle (1752–1819) of Hatcham and Duck's Foot Lane; the merchant and preacher Robert Steven (1754–1827), born in Scotland but now associated with the Independent chapels at Walworth and Shacklewell (Morison, 2.572–82); Daniel West (1726–1796) of Spitalfields; and Robert Cowie from Islington. Of the clerical directors some half-dozen were London-based—including, for example, Alexander Waugh at Wells Street and John Reynolds (1739–1803) at Hoxton Square. The remainder, however, appear to be significant figures in provincial centres of support—James Boden (1757–1841) at Sheffield, John Mead Ray (1754–1834) at Sudbury (Morison, 2.558–68), and Edward Williams, who had moved from Birmingham to Rotherham.

The networks of connections which not only linked but were generated by these denominationally and often geographically mobile men were numerous and complex. The reluctance of most Scottish churchmen as yet to embark on overseas missions led significant numbers to give their support and in some cases their personal involvement to the new southern society. In addition to David Bogue, John Love, and Alexander Waugh, these included George Jerment, James Bennett, James Peddie, and John Brown (1754–1832). Among those drawn in from England, John Townshend was involved not only with the formation of the LMS, but with the Irish Evangelical Society and the London Society for the Conversion of the Jews; with Robert Steven (Morison, 2.575–82) he formed the London Hibernian Society. Many if not most of the early members of the LMS were also promoters and supporters of both the Religious Tract Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Such connections were also long-lasting and productive, making the society one of the religious mainstays of nineteenth-century Britain's religious community. From a low point of £2943 in 1802 its income grew to reach £196,315 in 1908. From a total recruitment between 1795 and 1914 of 1350 missionaries, roughly one-third remained active overseas. The work and scholarship of figures like William Ellis (1794–1872) in the Pacific, David Livingstone in Africa, and James Legge in China were esteemed far outside the missionary fraternity. The founding generation would have regretted the extent to which denominationalism came to dominate the missionary field, seeing in it a rejection by other societies of the LMS's own ‘fundamental principle’ favouring diffusion of the gospel rather than ideas of church order and government. But in other respects—numerical growth, global reach, the development of local churches and Christian initiatives—their early vision was largely sustained.

Andrew Porter


R. Lovett, The history of the London Missionary Society, 1795–1895, 2 vols. (1899) · J. Morison, The fathers and founders of the London Missionary Society: with a brief sketch of Methodism, and historical notices of the several protestant missions from 1556 to 1839, 2 vols. [1840]; new edn [1844] · G. H. Anderson, Biographical dictionary of Christian missions, another edn (1999) · N. M. de S. Cameron and others, eds., Dictionary of Scottish church history and theology (1993) · N. Gunson, Messengers of grace: evangelical missionaries in the south seas, 1797–1860 (1978) · D. M. Lewis, ed., The Blackwell dictionary of evangelical biography, 1730–1860, 2 vols. (1995) · R. H. Martin, Evangelicals united: ecumenical stirrings in pre-Victorian Britain, 1795–1830 (1983) · S. Piggin, Making evangelical missionaries, 1789–1858: the social background, motives and training of British protestant missionaries to India (1984) · A. Porter, Religion versus empire? British protestant missionaries and overseas expansion, 1700–1914 (2004) · A. F. Walls, The missionary movement in Christian history: studies in the transmission of faith (1996) · M. J. Harrison, ‘Daniel West: George Whitefield's forgotten trustee’, Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society, 7/8 (June 2006), 461–8


SOAS, Council for World Mission archives