The Council for World Mission is a worldwide partnership of Christian 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).
In the beginning…
The thinking behind the formation of a missionary society goes back to the evangelical awakening in Britain in the 18th century, a time of spiritual renewal and discovery led John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. The awakening stressed the importance of individual conversion, in effect transforming Christianity from being a state religion – the domain of aristocrats – to becoming the religion of ordinary people. The logic went that if religion concerns every person, then should it not concern the world.
Against this background William Carey wrote his tract “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use Means for the Conversation of the Heathens” (1792), arguing that the commission to go, teach and baptise all nations was for all Christians. With encouragement of William Carey, a group of ministers began meeting together to plan the Missionary Society (as it was first called) in a London Coffee House.
The Missionary Society was formerly begun in 1795. The aim of the society has remained substantially the same throughout its history to “spread the knowledge of Christ throughout the world.” The impulse has led missionaries to serve in many part of the world. From its beginning the society was an association of individuals rather than a denominational missionary society. This meant that the Missionary Society was independent of denominations and inter-denominational in its character. This impulse was included amongst the founding principle not to take any particular form of church but to take the message of the gospel and allow the local church as it was formed to determine its own form of church government.
The very first mission of the new society was to the South Seas led by John Williams and his wife Mary Chawner. Travelling on the missionary ship The Duff John Williams arrived in Tahiti on 5th March 1797.
The mission used ships between the many island groups of the region but the distances were so great that missionaries concentrated on the major island countries. Converts were sent as missionaries between the islands and spread the good news to other islands. Pacific islanders also went on the missionary ships to support and aid the work of the missionaries.
Most of Williams’ missionary work and their delivery of a cultural message was successful and they became well known in congregational church circles. However, in November 1839, while visiting a part of the New Hebrides where Williams was unknown, he and a fellow missionary James Harris were killed and eaten by cannibals.
In these early days of the Missionary Society mission work was begun in North India, Southern Africa, South India, China, Tobago, British Guyana, Trinidad and Mauritius.
In 1818 the Missionary Society changed its name to become The London Missionary Society (LMS). Whilst established as inter-denominational, overtime and with the forming of other denominational missionary societies the LMS became the missionary society of the Congregationalists.
The LMS had a series of small missionary ships which transported missionaries and supplies through the mission fields, mostly the ships were used in the Pacific. Latterly children from Sunday Schools in UK, New Zealand and Australia raised money for the ships, collecting ship half-pennies (there was a picture of the John Williams on the reverse of the coin).
The LMS Hall of Fame
There are many examples of people throughout the history of the CWM who have been inspirational and influential – whether they served through LMS, PCE or CMS. Some examples:
Robert and Mary Moffatt were commissioned as missionaries in the same service as John Williams in 1816. In 1820 Moffatt moved his family to establish the missionary post at Kuruman where he continued to serve until his return to England in 1870. His daughter Mary, married the missionary and explorer David Livingstone who was also based as an LMS missionary at Kuruman.
Johannes Van der Kemp a Dutch Lutheran pastor read a sermon from one of the LMS founders and was so moved he offered himself for missionary service in Southern Africa. He arrived in 1799 and began his work among African tribes. With the exploitation of the colonialists Vanderkemp built Christian settlements to care and protect people from the colonialists harsh treatment. Van der Kemp refused the governors order to provide labour for farms which put his at loggerheads with the government.
David Livingstone is perhaps one of the best known of the LMS missionaries, though not remembered most of missionary endeavours as for his extensive travels in Africa. He was and remains a controversial figure. Criticised for his failure to make converts, as a poor expedition leader and mostly for his call for Africa to be opened up to “commerce, Christianity and civilisation” which paved the way for the notorious “scramble for Africa.” Yet he was an inspiration to missionaries and became the recruitment poster-boy of the LMS.
John Smith went to Guyana in 1817 with a mission to work amongst the slaves. His work flourished in the Demerara region where he gathered a church of over 800 slaves. He wrote about the appalling conditions slaves experienced and these representation brought changes through acts of parliament. Letters addressed to colonial governors were sent which recommended reform but these were withheld. Despite Smiths encouragement to show restraint violence broke out and a slaughter of slaves took place. Smith was imprisoned for instigating the riot and condemned to death. During his appeal he was imprisoned and in such unhealthy conditions that he died.
Missionaries frequently learnt the languages of the people among whom they worked. Not only learning the language, but writing grammars and dictionaries. The work of Robert Morrison in China is a good example of this contribution.
Eric Liddell was successful athlete whilst a schoolboy at Eltham College – a school founded by the LMS for the sons and orphans of missionaries – so successful that he was selected to run the 100 in the 1924 Paris Olympics. He refused to train and run on Sundays and so was withdrawn, but ran instead in the 200 and 400 metres, winning a bronze and gold medal. He set the world record for the 400 metres in 47.6 seconds. Eric Liddell’s story is captured in a film Chariots of Fire.
At the height of his career Liddell became an educational missionary in China. For a time he worked alongside his brother who was a medical missionary through the LMS. Liddell was interred in 1943 in an internment camp – he had previously been on a prisoner exchange list but gave his place to a pregnant woman – he died in February 1945 from a brain tumour, aged 43.
End of an Era
With few exceptions, the LMS missionaries that went out to spread the knowledge of Christ were from Britain (and if not were European). Though not always subservient to colonialism, British missions received protection and sometimes privilege from colonial powers. The work of the LMS took place in a particular moment in history and certainly not everything it was right. It is not possible to re-write or censor history but it is possible to celebrate the faith and sacrifice of others, whilst learning from their mistakes and committing ourselves to new culturally appropriate ways of working.
The end of World War 2 marked the end of an era. One by one British colonies became independent states and the indigenisation of mission gathered pace. This alongside a growing desire to move towards devolving mission to independent churches, for example in 1927 the formation of the Churches of Christ in China; the unifying of the church in South India in 1947; in Kiribati missionaries encouraged the forming of a national church with national leadership.
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 mission and the churches established through those missions. Encouraged and challenged by the associate churches, the consultation agreed that the CWM’s current structures maintained unhelpful donor and recipient relationships which failed to give space for a truly collaborative exercise. The document calling for change “Sharing in One World Mission” points 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 changed again to simply be the Council for World Mission – dropping Congregational and Reformed. 1995 CWM celebrated its 200th Anniversary in celebrations which were called “Dare to dream”. Since then CWM has continued to support member churches in mission, through the sharing of people, resources and learning.
In 1994 the Hong Kong Council of Churches in Christ in China decided to sell a hospital property which had been in place for over a century as part of the LMS mission work. The sale of this property was shared between the Hong Kong Council of Churches of Christ and CWM, meaning that CWM received a significant amount of money which is invested and continues to support the work of CWM.
The financial resources made it possible for CWM to launch a Mission Support Fund (MSP) which supports member churches in mission and in 2001 to launch Regional Empowerment Fund which supported mission programmes in the regions of CWM.
A new governance structure was adopted in 2003 and again in 2012. In 2012 CWM relocated the general secretariat to Singapore.
A whistle stop tour of the story of LMS and its merging with other missionary societies over time, which bring us up to today with our vision today of “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.”