HinMiss 06-4-55


A Journey through Polynesia, Asia, and Africa with the London Missionary Society


Tom Hiney

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000, 365 pp.,  ISBN 0-87113-823-9


The London Missionary Society, founded in 1792, sent families to postings as far-flung as the Kalihari desert, Tahiti, and Canton to spread the gospel. But in an era when mail could take over a year to arrive, the LMS had little way of knowing how effective its efforts were. In 1821 the LMS deputized George Bennet and Daniel Tyerman to travel the world, to visit its stations and report on their progress. On the Missionary Trail is an extraordinary account of this seven-year expedition. [from the web site, www.groveatlantic.com/ ]  Most of the material and quotations come from the journal of Tyerman and Bennet.


There was so much in this book that was astonishing!  I was impressed with the unpredictable and hazardous traveling conditions on both land and sea; how little was known of parts of the world, such as unknown islands and much unmapped Africa; the early vitality of Christianity among the islands of the Pacific; the overwhelming odds against Christianity in China, Indonesia, India and elsewhere; the stories of secular events such as the beginning of the Muslim rebellion against the Dutch in Java and the story of the lost whaling ship, Essex; and perhaps most of all, how Protestant Christianity has grown from such tiny beginnings to a global religion in just 200 years – like the mustard seed as Jesus described it.


“Why did British Christianity, with the means at hand, lack a missionary history?”  “Back in 1600 the Jesuit order had had over 8,500 missionaries operating in twenty-three countries….  In 1773 the Vatican ended all Jesuit power, and with it the Catholic Church’s most prolific missionary organization.” (9)


“Missionaries had been banned in British India before 1813.  Many colonials simply did not want them there and thought the very idea of sending them was ‘pernicious, imprudent, useless, dangerous, profitless, and fantastic.’”  “Carey was forced to settle his Baptist mission in the tiny Danish river enclave of Serampore in Bengal.”  (21)


“The London Missionary Society’s first missionary to China was Robert Morrison.”  “[He was] the sole Christian emissary in an empire of more than 300 million people.” (27)  The Chinese government had forbidden any Chinese subject to teach Chinese to a European on pain of death. (28)


“Infanticide had been practiced ‘to an extent incredible’ on Tahiti when Nott first arrived.  He reckoned that ‘three-fourths of the children were wont to be murdered as soon as they were born, by one of other of the unnatural parents, or by some person employed for that purpose – wretches being found who could be called infant-assassins by trade’.” (56)


“Eurasian-bred fevers, measles and sexual diseases introduced by European ships certainly matched – and in places outstripped – the death toll from indigenous wars, sacrifice and infanticide.” (57)


“Many of the priests, and chiefs, in the Society islands had now become leading Christians.” (67)


“While Tyerman and Bennet waited, they were visited by King Mai, ruler of Bora-Bora, one of the smallest islands.  The king had made the 130-mile crossing by canoe to ask that a permanent missionary be sent to his island.” (68)


“The islands of Polynesia had been cut off from the rest of the world for 3,000 years.”  “There had been no foreign empire to shape them…” (69)


“…a large chapel had been built conspicuously on the beach at Huahine.  The deputation…were astonished to find no fewer than a thousand people, almost the whole island, already in the chapel.  The meeting was being conducted entirely by native deacons.” (72)  “Tyerman and Bennet were now convinced that the converts on these islands possessed deep and inspirational Christian faith.” (77)


“The Hawaiian mission was a year old and conversions had not taken place.” (96)


Two native teachers had been sent to Rurutu 18 months previous.  There had been no white missionaries at all but virtually the whole island had been converted.  (113-115)


“As to promiscuity, there was not much doubt that European crews had caused rampant outbreaks of venereal disease on the islands, during which monogamy was a safety-measure for anyone with sense on a small island.  It is scarcely surprising that the missionaries went to great lengths to stop promiscuity with crews among their native congregations….”  (119) [The shipping captains were much put out when their crews were prohibited from trading alcohol for sex on the islands.  They complained bitterly about the missionaries upon return to their home bases.]


The island of Atui had been semi-Christian for some time, the result of a Raiatean mission left by John Williams in 1822.  There was a chapel.  Almost half the islanders were Christian. (133) 


Rarotonga was new to European navigational charts, having been found by John Williams only the previous year.  “Williams was stranded at the uncharted island for the best part of a year so he began to explain Christianity to the islanders.  They proved friendly an interested.  At the same time he started to build a boat out of coconut trunks and palm binding. After nine months (no ship having stopped at the island) Williams’ 70-ton rivetless Messenger of Peace was completed, despite having been repeatedly sabotaged by rats.  Williams successfully sailed the 700 miles back to Raiatea.  (134)


The Maoris of New Zeeland were a sailors’ worst nightmare, “for they had made a series of cannibalistic attacks on vessels in the fifty years since [Captain] Cook’s visit.”  Tattoos covered all parts of their bodies, including their faces.  No missionary had ever seen a conversion there. (135-36)


Australia.  By 1820 there was a white population of 8,235 in Sydney, three-fifths of them felons.  (140)


In 1824 the first steamship seaworthy enough o reach India set off.  It took just 103 days to reach Calcutta from Kent. (142)


“Now that these tribes had been found by Europe, it was as important in the immediate term for missionaries to protect the tribes in their contact with other Europeans, as it was to convert them to Christianity.  Whether captains, sailors, soldiers or farmers, frontiersmen were generally competitive and unphilosophical people.  Like the Bushmen in South Africa, aborigines in New South Wales were shot with impunity, as if they were game.” (153)


“Throughout his missionary life (he would die in Tahiti in 1844) Nott paid continuous witness to the recurring outrages being performed by European captains in remote parts of Polynesia.” (160)


The deputation took passage to Java on the Hugh Crawford.  (162)  They had unintentionally managed to time their journey to coincide with the outbreak in the interior of the four-year Java War, led by a Moslem against the Dutch rule.  15,000 Dutch troops and more than 20,000 Javanese were killed.  (171-72)  “There was quite clearly not the interest in Christianity in Java that there was in Polynesia, despite far longer exposure here to the religion.” (176)


The only Protestant church in China was in Canton, a city of one million.  (190) 


At a Christmas service in Singapore, that “southernmost extremity of the Asian mainland,” they contemplated the size of the task.  “Not to one in a million of the uncounted population of China, further India, and the beautiful islands of the most magnificent archipelago in the world, have the ‘good tidings of great joy’ been declared with any more effect than the whistling of the wind, or the gurgling of the water ‘which shall be unto all people.’” (197) 


In Singapore, “Islam was by no definition a religion in decline.”  “Islam also had its share of revivalist sects, such as the Bedouin Wahhabis in central Arabia, who were calling for a return to the earliest doctrines and practices of Islam, as embodied in the Koran and Sunna, and attacking what they called the ‘degeneracy and luxury of the cities of the plain.’” (197) [So this isn’t new!]


“Eight months in the Orient had failed to produce any clue as to where the LMS’s resources might best be used.” (203)


“…the Indian subcontinent, a vast collective of civilizations, most of which had been existing without any knowledge of Christianity since the time of Christ’s death.  Until just twelve years before, Christian missionaries had been forbidden by the British.” (208) [particularly the East India Company, p. 221]


“In terms of converts, there had been little to sing about in Bengal since 1813.”  “In seven years the mission could count just thirteen converts.”  “Despite this, some interest in Christianity as a philosophy had been shown among Bengal’s Hindus.” (215)


In 1790, [William] “Carey put forward the facts: the world’s population was around 730 million.  Only around 174 million of these were Christian.  He quoted [Captain] Cook’s observation that the most barbarous of people ‘appear to be as capable of knowledge as we are’.…” (220)


“In each region of the world, the society’s stations were being encouraged to support themselves through farming.  In principle, the society’s funds in London were for the opening of new missions rather than the upkeep of old ones.” (238)


“The permanent chance of perishing there made life a gamble for all the British in India, military, merchant and missionary alike.  The extent of mortality, mainly from cholera, was legendary at home.”  “This mortality rate of one in three (death often occurring within the first year of arrival) is echoed in the East India Company lists of the period.” (239)


(Still in India) “The journey they planned to make, which would involve visiting the five society mission stations which were dotted around the south, involved a distance of not less than 3,000 miles.  It would have to be made at walking speed, for there was no river by which they could navigate the route they were taking and the roads were uncertain for horses: ‘We travel on palanquins, each being provided with a set of thirteen men, palky-bearers….”  “The terrain through which the route lay would vary considerably, passing over arid plains, mountain ranges and through numerous stretches of coastal jungle.” (249)  “This wilderness region is much infested with tigers, and we were not always out of peril.” (251)


“It was not late August 1827.  The deputation and their bearers had been away from Madras for seven months and Tyerman and Bennet had been in India for sixteen months altogether.  In that time they had trekked and boated almost 4,000 miles, the same distance as between London and the Congo.”  [Now THAT’s a short-term missions trip! dlm]


“Almost all the Christian missionaries operating in the country had a sense of being logistically and spiritually overwhelmed by a vibrant culture and huge population.”  “The arrival of missionaries in India had been, for the most part, completely ignored.” (269)


There was an anti-missionary fervor among the settlers in South Africa.  There were more than 7,000 slaves in Cape Town.  Some missionaries were hated because they spoke out against the mistreatment of Hottentots.  (306) 


Robert Moffat had been urged to push further north-east.  He reached the end of the mapped continent at a place called Lattakoo, in March 1820.  They went north from there.  (308)


“Bennet and Tyerman had made fifty-one sea voyages, exceeding in total 80,000 miles, and had covered more than 10,000 miles on land.  In an age before steam, they had covered a distance four times the world’s circumference.” (310)  Tyerman died before the end of the journey.  Bennet reached home on June 6, 1829. (312)


In December 1829, 1,200 copies of the deputation’s journal were printed.  It was reprinted once more in 1840 and then forgotten.  “The world the deputation had seen already seemed long gone to those watching the first railways, steamships and telegrams.”  (313)


“In 1870 the London Missionary Society moved into the last cannibal country of the Pacific, Papua New Guinea.  The first missionaries there were all South Sea islander volunteers, some 120 of whom died in the first twenty years.  W. G. Lawes arrived in 1874, followed by James Chalmers in 1877.  In 1881 three converts were baptized.  By 1890 thousands of people were attending the society’s Motuan-tongue chapels on the coast and there were hundreds of outstation schools along the eastern part of the country.” (316)


“By the time of the first World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh in 1910, no fewer than 160 missionary boards or societies were in existence, not including the Catholic mission societies.”  The Edinburgh meetings took place at the very height of the missionary era.  Every region in the world – except Tibet and Afghanistan – had by then received Christian missions of some kind.” (323)


“An academic book about Polynesia, published in 1994, We the Navigators, dismisses in passing the entire missionary movement in the Pacific as ‘cultural genocide.’  This seems to miss the point that it was the Polynesians, not the missionaries, who abandoned their idols.”  (325)


“The facts that Europe was more Christian and more successful than any other part of the world appeared inseparably linked, even if European Christianity was not perfect.  Missionaries believed that they were not just introducing converts to Christianity, but to a better standard of life.” (327)  But “Europe was losing its spirit in the pursuit of comfort and wealth.” (327)


“The colonial-era missionary movement involved thousands of European missionaries; 1,327 from the LMS alone between 1795 and 1944.”  “Post-Christian Liberalism in the West is unforgiving towards both colonialism (which it sees as armed robbery) and the missionary movement (which it sees as proof of the arrogance of the colonials, presuming that they knew what was best for the natives whom they found).  But the relationship between missionaries and colonialism was never so straightforward.  That they were contemporaneous forces and at times mutually useful does not mean they were predominantly co-operative; very often they were ranged against one another, particularly over slavery.” (328-29)


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