On the Missionary Trail

Outside my study window in Nigeria was the grave of Mary Hanney, the wife of one of the early pioneers of the work in Eastern Nigeria. The 'White Man's Grave' in those early days certainly lived up to its name - but still missionaries came. On the Missionary Trail is the story of the London Missionary Society, and tells its story from its pioneer days.

Tom Hiney uses contemporary journals, mission reports and letters to tell how in 1795 'The Missionary Society' (later known as the 'London Missionary Society') was born as an interdenominational body of Congregation-alists, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Wesleyans. The guiding principle of the mission was that no denominationalism was to be preached, but 'only the glorious gospel of the blessed God to the heathen'. Decisions about church government were to be left to those they would convert. In 1796 the first missionaries sailed for the South Seas and others were swift to follow. By 1821 the LMS wished to know how their work was progressing, and they sent the Rev Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet to represent them and to report back to them. It is the story of this Deputation which forms the basis for Hiney's research.

It is a fascinating story. We meet Henry Mott and John Williams in the South Seas, Samuel Marsden (the 'Flogging Priest') in New South Wales, Robert Morrison in Canton, William Carey in India, David Jones in Madagascar, and Robert Moffat, John Philip and Johannes Van der kemp in South Africa. We read of the missionary ship Duff under Captain James Wilson sailing for the South Seas with the first 30 men plus six wives and three children. There are graphic accounts of the 51 sea voyages undertaken by the Deputation and their 10,000 miles of overland trekking amidst all sorts of dangers. There's the account of the Maoris pinching and prodding Tyerman to see whether he would be any good to eat! Then there are the stories of the men and women they visited, the miracles of grace they witnessed, their hopes and heartaches, and the lack of response they encountered, especially in China and India. Nor is the influence of Europeans on native communities glossed over, and some account is given of the struggle against slavery. One story Hiney does not enlarge upon, however, is that of the four women who volunteered to go out to become missionary wives. Once there the men were able to choose by seniority. Now there's a story!

An interesting outcome of the journey is the observations made by Tyerman and Bennet relating to the way mission should be conducted. These were the days, of course, when islanders could not be converted unless their chief was first. But they stressed the importance of speaking the language of the people for, as they said, one missionary learning the language can reach hundreds. They also stressed the importance of hospitality and of going to the people on the streets, and added 'Let your sermons be pithy, lively, warm and affectionate...To be so they must be short'! In her review in the Express, Jay Iliffe sees Hiney as setting the record straight with the question 'Is a secular society unfair on those who want to spread the word?' and concludes that the church has fought the evils of slavery, indifference and injustice when nobody else would. Hiney makes no special profession of faith (he says he belongs to the 'non-pew-sitting gen-eration') and his comments on 1 John 4:1-3 ('Test the spirits...') on page 177 need examination; but he begins each chapter with a biblical quotation and doffs his hat, to quote Iliffe, to 'the missionary men who braved a hell on earth'.

There's much more - the Epilogue and its observations, for instance; for this is a commendable excursion into missiology which is certainly worth reading, even though the author does not seem certain who founded the Methodist Church