Overseas missions: a glimpse from the past

I hadn’t intended writing another post here today, but after writing yesterday’s post I was digging around the internet and came across (on the invaluable Papers Past website) an article from the Otago Daily Times from Thursday 25 September 1896 reporting on a meeting held in Dunedin the previous evening to farewell five missionaries being sent out (one returning to the field) by the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society to missions work in Bengal. Since it is such a substantial report – my printout of it runs to eight pages of A4 – I thought it might be worth reproducing some key extracts here (permitted under the Creative Commons licence)..

The article begins

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An impressive attendance, on a week night at the time Dunedin had a population of about 47000.

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I don’t know whether the chairman’s description (“unique in the history of the colonial churches”) was accurate – he didn’t sound 100 per cent sure either – but whether it was or not, recall that NZBMS had been founded only 11 years early by the small Baptist denomination and, as is noted later in the article, they had already lost to death two of their first missionaries.

Mr Bertram than briefly addresses the meeting

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A reminder of that great age of optimism and commitment, summed up in that famous aspirational phrase “the evangelisation of the world in this generation”. I had not previously been aware that there had been such an institutionalised connection between the SVM and the NZBMS. And if “the world” was not brought to Christ, so many did go, the good news was told in many lands, so many foundations of today’s churches were laid. As to Melbourne, at the time it had a population about ten times that of Dunedin.

Then a Baptist missionary recently commissioned by the New South Wales Baptist churches spoke of something of his call.

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And then the article moves on to reproduce the text of the remarks delivered on behalf of the Secretary of the NZBMS, the Revd H H Driver. The denominational hierarchy today appears to be a bit embarrassed by Driver, but whatever grounds they may (or may not) have for that – he too being human – I found the remarks recorded here both interesting and somewhat inspiring. He begins with the foundation of the mission, only 11 years earlier.

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We might not today use the term “idolator” – perhaps especially not in reference to adherents to Islam, the dominant religion in East Bengal – but the core point remains: the knowledge of a mission and mandate (the Great Commission) and a drive and commitment to be part of that, even with the limited resources available to the denomination (although it is worth noting that at the time New Zealand – while much poorer than it is now – was one of the richest countries on earth).

He continues outlining the scope of the work and the opportunities.

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And in language, and faith, that perhaps catches the breath

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Driver then turns to introducing the missionaries being farewelled at that meeting. First up is Annie Bacon, returning to the field after a year’s furlough. Then he introduces Letitia Ings

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And then moving on to first three male missionaries to be sent out by NZMBS from New Zealand (many missions had more female than male missionaries). They had been trained by Rev Alfred North, then minister at the largest (Hanover St) Baptist church in Dunedin.

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Of their future work Driver notes

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(The economist in me was fascinated by the reference to the potential transport link into China.)

Each of the outgoing missionaries then addressed the meeting although the content of their remarks was not recorded by the ODT. Then Revd Alfred North took the stage

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North notes, almost in passing, that the (British) authorities in India had often previously been hostile to misisonary work (notably the British East India Company), but that attitudes had now changed markedly, but his interest isn’t the government but the people and the false religion they adhered to.

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Ending his address this way

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The final brief remarks appear to be from a minister of another denomination

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Churches have changed, mission has changed, the willingness to turn out to large public meetings has changed, and the willingness of media to report such events has changed (perhaps meaning that there might be no permanent record even if such events were held now) but I found it a fascinating insight on an age easily described as “bygone” and yet in the scheme of things not that long ago really – the year of my birth is only a little closer to today than to 1896.

Perhaps not all readers will see it the same way but I found it inspiring, encouraging, and a not a little humbling. Do we – do I – share the practical commitment these people articulated and lived, whether to mission abroad, or the increasingly challenging and difficult post-Christian New Zealand?

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