The Church Missionary Society

By Associate Professor John Stenhouse

The Church Missionary Society (CMS) was founded in April 1799 by members of the Eclectic Society, a discussion group of Anglican clergy and laymen founded in 1783 that included John Venn, Rector of Clapham, and John Newton, an ex-slave trader turned clergyman-poet who wrote the words to Amazing Grace. Originally called the Society for Missions to Africa and the East, the new body was renamed The Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East in 1812. Supporters included the Clapham sect, a group of wealthy evangelical Anglican philanthropists and reformers. They included William Wilberforce, leader of the parliamentary campaign against slavery, Charles Grant (Lord Glenelg), a director of the British East India Company, and Thomas Fowell Buxton, who led the parliamentary antislavery forces after Wilberforce died and helped found the Aborigines Protection Society.

The CMS was part of a new wave of evangelical mission societies emerging out of the evangelical revival that swept out of continental Europe across Britain, Ireland and the colonies during the eighteenth century. Nonconformist ministers and laypeople founded the British Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 and the London Missionary Society in 1795, so the CMS was a latecomer. As a voluntary society with no official standing in the Church of England, the CMS initially attracted little interest or support from the great and the good in church, state and society. English elites sometimes looked disdainfully on early evangelical missionaries as fanatics likely to do more harm than good. The CMS had great difficulty attracting ordained Anglican clergy during its early decades and so had to rely mainly on skilled laymen, often from skilled working class or lower middle class backgrounds. The first CMS ‘mechanic missionaries’ in the Bay of Islands—William Hall, a joiner, and John King, a ropemaker, soon joined by Thomas Kendall, a schoolteacher—reflected these difficulties of recruitment. To enroll ordained ministers, the early CMS relied heavily on German Lutheran clergy. Several CMS missionaries in New Zealand came from such a background, including Johann Wohlers of Ruapuke, J.F. Riemenschneider, and Carl Volkner, killed by Hauhau at Opotiki in 1869.

Like most evangelical mission societies, the CMS hoped wherever they worked to establish flourishing native churches that sang, prayed, and read the Bible in their own native language. CMS missionaries and Māori worked with expert linguists at the University of Cambridge to formulate a written script for te reo Māori into which they translated the Bible and other literature. Literacy in their own language was one of the attractions of Christianity to Māori, many of whom made Christianity their own during the 1830s and ‘40s. Although CMS missionaries did not always approve of the beliefs and behaviour of native Christians in New Zealand, as elsewhere, they could seldom control the ‘vernacular Christianities’ they set out to create.