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Missionaries in the Pacific

Influenced by the Pacific voyages of Cook and other European explorers and the published accounts of sailors, scientists and gentlemen explorers such as Joseph Banks, European missionary activity commenced in the South Seas in 1774 with the arrival of Franciscan friars in Tahiti. The friars' attempts to evangelise the Tahitians failed and they returned to Lima (Peru) in 1775.

The Pacific Islanders saw no other missionaries for the next 22 years until the arrival of missionaries from the London Missionary Society (LMS) on board the missionary vessel DUFF in March 1797. Although the first contacts - aided by King Pomare I - were hopeful, the Tahitians quickly disregarded these new arrivals, whose behaviour was so different from that of the European sailors and traders they had met before, and the LMS struggled to gain converts.

The origins of the London Missionary Society (LMS) and other missionary societies such as The American Board for the Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the Wesleyan Missionary Society lie in the late 18th century revival of Protestant Evangelism and the development of the Congregationalist movement in England and the United States of America. At a meeting of Independent Church leaders, Anglican and Presbyterian clergy - including Thomas Haweis - and laymen, held in London in November 1794, the aim of the London Missionary Society was to spread the knowledge of Christ 'among heathen and other unenlightened nations'.

The Missionary Society was formally established in September 1795 and although broadly interdenominational in scope, the Society was very much Congregationalist in both outlook and membership. The Missionary Society was renamed the London Missionary Society in 1818. London Missionary Society work expanded into North America, South Africa, eastern and southern Europe including Russia, Greece and Malta. There was even an LMS mission to Jews in London. However, during the 19th century, the main fields of mission activity for the LMS were China, South-East Asia, India, the Pacific, Madagascar, Central Africa, Southern Africa, Australia and the Caribbean.

During the course of their work the LMS, like other missionary societies, established the first printing presses in the Pacific Islands and subsequently translated the King James Bible along with numerous religious tracts, prayer books and hymnals into the various languages and dialects of the Pacific Islands.

From its inception the Society had close links with Port Jackson, New South Wales where a number of its most prominent citizens including Robert Campbell of Campbell and Clark were based. The Society's missionary activities in the Pacific were on a number of occasions blended with speculative trading hence the close links with Sydney's merchants and traders - with all five JOHN WILLIAMS vessels and the LMS's other ships MESSENGER OF PEACE and HAWEIS being involved in trading ventures throughout the Pacific.

In terms of organisational structure, the LMS was governed by a Board of Directors. The workings of the Board were reorganised in 1810 when separate committees were appointed to oversee particular aspects of mission work, including the important foreign committees. The administrative structure of the LMS relied upon the work of salaried officials such as the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, together with the workings of the various committees, including the Examinations Committee, which appointed missionaries to the field. Directors themselves were unpaid.

The constitution of the LMS was revised in May 1870, as a direct result of financial pressures and the expansion of overseas mission work; the work of the Investigation Committee (1866) in turn led to a new administrative policy and the emphasis on the development of the self-governing and self-financing indigenous church. In 1966 the LMS merged with the Commonwealth Missionary Society, to form the Congregational Council for World Mission (CCWM), which in turn was restructured to create the Council for World Mission in 1977.

One of the most popular and well-known missionaries of the LMS was John Williams (1796-1839). Born in London, England in 1796, Williams was heavily influenced by his Baptist father and his Calvinistic Methodist mother who brought him up as a member of the Congregational Church of England (English Christians who separated from the Church of England, members of which included the Pilgrim Fathers and Oliver Cromwell)

In 1814 he underwent an Evangelical conversion and became a member of the Tabernacle Church (Calvinistic Methodists). In September 1816 he volunteered and was accepted for missionary service with the London Missionary Society. In November 1816 the Williams's along with William David Bourne (1794-1871), David Darling (1790-1867) and George Platt (1789-1865) sailed for the South Pacific to take up the position of missionaries in Tahiti.

Arriving at Hobart Town in March 1817 the LMS missionaries held the first Evangelical service conducted in Van Diemen's Land, with Williams denying opposition by preaching in the open air. The missionaries then visited Sydney where they were favourably received by Governor Macquarie (who was no doubt influenced by the work of earlier Evangelical missionaries who had visited NSW) before sailing for the Pacific in September 1817.

Williams preached throughout the Pacific, held prayer meetings in Sydney and Hobart, bought a ship, the HAWEIS, to trade between the islands and NSW, and planted and harvested sugar cane and tobacco to provide a cash crop for the missions.

The 72-ton, wooden schooner / brig HAWEIS was built on the island of Moorea, Society Islands for the London Missionary Society by the missionaries George Bignall and John Williams. The vessel, launched in December 1817 by King Pomare of Tahiti, was named after Dr Thomas Haweis whose interests led to the founding of the London Missionary Society.

Governor Brisbane was so impressed with the work of Williams that he supplied stock and other supplies to the LMS and appointed John Williams as British Magistrate to the Pacific Islands.

In June 1834 John Williams returned to England determined to publish his accounts of missionary activity in the Pacific, raise funds for further works and acquire a more suitable missionary vessel. In 1835 he superintended the printing of the Rarotongan New Testament. Early in 1837 he published his 'Narrative of the Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands.' On 11 April 1838, he left England in his new missionary ship the CAMDEN. He had determined before he went to England to make the purchase of a vessel for mission service and so successful were his efforts, that he obtained the sum of 4,000 pounds.

The vessel was placed under the command of Captain Morgan, who had brought out the first settlers for the colony of South Australia in the DUKE OF YORK, and who, after a remarkable providence in the South Sea Islands, lost his vessel on the coast of Australia, and found his way back to London just in time to take command of the Society's first permanent missionary vessel.

The CAMDEN called at Cape Town, and there the missionary band was increased to 20 with the addition of Ebenezer Buchanan, a volunteer for service in Polynesia. Sydney, Port Jackson was reached on 10 September 1838, and during the vessel's stay in Port Jackson the missionaries travelled around the colony spreading the word and collecting additional funds for their work. In 1837-1838, Williams gave evidence before the committee of the House of Commons on Aborigines, was influential in the establishment of the NSW Aborigines Protection Society and the Auxiliary Missionary Society in Sydney.

It so happened that while the CAMDEN was in Sydney, preparations were also being made there by the Wesleyan Missionary Society for sending forth their second band of missionaries to Fiji. The two expeditions left Sydney Harbour in company on Tuesday evening 23 October, a united valedictory service was held in the Baptist Church, and on Thursday morning (25) the missionaries and the friends of the two Societies went on board the steamer AUSTRALIAN, and together proceeded to the vessels which were anchored in Watson's Bay.

As they steamed down the harbour, service, commenced by the Rev. J Saunders giving out the hymn 'Jesus, at Thy command', was held, prayer being offered by the Rev. John McKenny. In Watson's Bay the Wesleyan missionaries were first taken on board their vessel; then the CAMDEN was visited, and her contingent put on board. During the embarkation many spirited and some solemn hymns were sung, and amid much cheering from the steamer and a whaling vessel anchored in the bay, the Wesleyan messengers of the Cross, among whom was the Rev. J Calvert and John Williams and his comrades, sailed through those Sydney headlands through which so many missionary vessels have since come and gone.

Returning to Sydney in early 1838 on board the missionary brig CAMDEN Williams drew considerable crowds at public meetings before sailing off to the Pacific Islands. On 20 November 1839 John Williams was killed whilst trying to establish a missionary presence on the island of Erromanga (Tanna) in the New Hebrides.

Following the death of Williams the CAMDEN returned to Sydney and a request was made to the Governor asking that a ship of war might be dispatched to recover the bodies if possible and to convey the news to Samoa. This was done. On 1 February 1840, HMS FAVOURITE, Captain Croker, with Mr. Cunningham on board, left the anchorage at Sydney for the New Hebrides. At Tanna, a friendly chief was taken on board to act as interpreter.

The remains of Williams and some of the other missionaries were taken to Samoa, and buried at Apia close to the native church. At the service addresses were delivered by the Rev. C Hardie in English, and by the Rev. T Heath in Samoan. Captain Croker requested that the marines might be allowed to fire a volley over the grave of the Christian hero, and he too wrote an epitaph: 'Sacred to the memory of the Rev. John Williams, father of the Samoan and other Missions, aged forty-three years and five months, who was killed by the cruel natives of Erromanga on November 20th, 1839, while endeavouring to plant the Gospel of Peace on its shores'.

The CAMDEN returned to Britain and the London Missionary Society commenced raising funds to buy a new missionary vessel named after John Williams. JOHN WILLIAMS (1) was launched in March 1844 and for twenty years worked in the Pacific before being wrecked on Danger Island near Rarotonga. Subsequently the London Missionary Society had six missionary vessels named after John Williams.

Like the LMS, the American Board for the Commissioners of Foreign Missions was inspired by the voyages of the early Pacific explorers.

The ABCFM began informally with the 1806 'Haystack Prayer Meeting' of 'the Brethren', a group of Congregational ministers or students at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts. After graduating several of the students enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary. In 1810 Samuel Mills, one of the students spoke with the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts about missionary work in India and with Native Americans in the western United States.

Commissioners were appointed to look into the matter, a method of operation common at that time. The Board was officially chartered 20 June, 1812 in the Commonwealth of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. As stated in its original Constitution, the Board's purpose was to 'devise, adopt, and prosecute, ways and means for propagating the gospel among those who are destitute of the knowledge of Christianity'.

The Board annually elected a President, Vice-President, a Recording Secretary, a Corresponding Secretary, a Treasurer, and a Prudential Committee. The first missionaries of the American Board sailed for Calcutta in 1812. Missions opened in Sri Lanka in 1816, Madura in 1834, and Madras in 1836. The Board's first missions in Turkey were established in 1819, Greece and China in 1830, and Africa in 1834.