THE London Missionary Society —"
The Missionary Society," as it was originally
called—was founded in September 1795, and the South Seas Mission, to which
James Chalmers was first appointed, was its earliest venture.
Some years previous to the founding
of the Society, the publication of the narratives of Captain James Cook’s
voyages round the world, and of that specially devoted by this intrepid
explorer to the Pacific Ocean, had greatly widened the geographical
horizon. "By the important discoveries made in these successive voyages,"
John Williams afterwards wrote, "a new world was opened to the view of all
Europe; for, besides New Holland and New Guinea, almost innumerable
islands were found to exist, bestudding the bosom of the vast Pacific with
their beauties." Public interest in the primitive peoples inhabiting these
distant shores had been aroused; and the accounts of their savage and
unillumined condition had awakened in the hearts of Christian men and
women at home a desire to send the gospel of peace to them.
So early as
the great William Carey had declared that "if he had
the means, he would go to the South Seas and commence a mission at
Otaheiti." But he found a sphere in India, and it was left to "The
Missionary Society" to undertake the evangelisation of the South Seas. The
first band of missionaries landed in Tahiti— Captain Cook’s Otaheiti—in
For twelve years these brave
pioneers, and comrades who joined them from time to time, sacrificed
energy and health, and, in some cases, life itself, without seeing any
direct fruit of their work. Efforts to carry the evangel to other islands
were even less successful. In Tahiti, the missionaries contrived to retain
a bare foothold, but of progress there was at first no sign.
After the lapse of these twelve
years, however, it began to be evident that the savage islanders were
becoming convinced of the disinterested intentions of the missionaries,
and of the social advantages of the Christian rule of life; and in June
1813 it was discovered
that at least one Tahitian had embraced the Christian religion. The cloud
whose showers had brought quickening to the seed so laboriously sown was
at first "no bigger than a man’s hand," but in an incredibly short time it
overspread Tahiti and the adjacent islands. The national idols and temples
were destroyed, Christian laws were promulgated by the King of Tahiti, and
the good news spread to the Leeward Islands, the Society Islands, and the
Low Islands. In May 1818 the Tahitian Missionary Society was formed, and
those who had but recently been heathen
idolaters gave of their goods to assist in carrying the
gospel to their less fortunate neighbours. Numbers, too, consecrated
themselves to the work of missionary teachers, settling on the different
islands visited by the pioneer missionaries, and giving themselves to the
life-work of teaching, by word and example, the simple truths they had
themselves learned concerning the true God and the Christian gospel.
For the South Seas Mission, the year
1817 derived especial importance
from the arrival of John Williams as an addition to the missionary staff.
Williams had the instincts of the true pioneer. "A missionary," be wrote,
"was never designed by Jesus Christ to gather a congregation of a hundred
or two natives, and sit down at his ease, as contented as if every sinner
was converted, while thousands around him, and but a few miles off, are
eating each other’s flesh and drinking each other’s blood, living and
dying without the gospel.
"For my own part, I cannot content myself within the
narrow limits of a single reef; and if means are not afforded, a continent
would to me be infinitely preferable; for there, if you cannot ride, you
can walk; but to these isolated islands a ship must carry you." By the
enterprise of John Williams, fresh fields of labour were opened up in one
island after another. In time he overtook the New Hebrides
group,—believing this to be the key to New Guinea and the islands
inhabited by the Papuan races,— and suffered martyrdom in the year 1839 in
an attempt to obtain a footing upon the island of Erromanga, one of this
The islands of the South Pacific owe
everything to Christian missions. In the one-third of the globe covered by
the Pacific Ocean, between Asia and the Americas, there are seventeen
groups of islands. Within a period of fifty years, nine of these became
entirely Christianised, while Christian influence effected a considerable
improvement in others. So recent an observer as Robert Louis Stevenson has
declared that "with all their gross blots, with all their deficiency of
candour, humour, and of commonsense, the missionaries are the best and the
most useful whites in the Pacific."
One of the earliest points of
advance secured by Williams was the discovery of Rarotonga, in the Hervey
Islands group, an island which had "escaped the untiring researches of
Captain Cook." Stationed on the island of Raiatea, the largest and most
central of the Society Islands, Williams, in his intercourse with the
Polynesians, learned of the existence of this island, and even spoke with
one or two who had come from Rarotonga. After several ineffectual
attempts, he made his important discovery in 1823, and "dear Rarotonga"
became the object of his deepest solicitude, and a centre from which he
went forth upon his many missionary cruises.
The island contains an area of
thirty-one square miles and consists of "a mass of high mountains which
present a remarkably romantic appearance." It is surrounded by a reef, and
possesses several good boat harbours, while ships may effect a landing at
one point at least. Williams estimated the population at from
6000 to 7000.
A year after its discovery
the whole population of Rarotonga had renounced idolatry, and were engaged
in erecting a place of worship 6oo feet in length; it was here that
Williams built with his own hands the Messenger of Peace, a craft
in which he sought to evangelise the South Pacific; here occurred the
well-known incident in which a written message upon a
chip of wood excited the wonder of his
native messenger, who declared that it must have spoken. For the native
chiefs, Williams drew up a code of Christian laws as the basis of the
administration of justice in their island.
At the outset, the evangelisation of
the island was mainly carried on by Polynesian teachers. In 1827 Mr.
Charles Pitman was stationed there as the first resident English
missionary, and in 1828 he was joined by Mr. Aaron Buzacott. Six years
later, Williams was able to write of the island: "I cannot forbear drawing
a contrast between the state of the inhabitants when I first visited them
in 1823, and that in which I left them in 1834. In 1823 I found them all
heathens; in 1834 they were all professing Christians. At the former
period I found them with idols and maraes; these, in 1834, were destroyed,
and in their stead there were three spacious and substantial places of
Christian worship, in which congregations amounting to 6000 persons
assembled every Sabbath day. I found them without a written language, and
left them reading in their own tongue the ‘wonderful works of God.’ I
found them without a knowledge of the Sabbath, and when I left them no
manner of work was done during that sacred day. When I found them in 1823,
they were ignorant of the nature of Christian worship; and when I left
them in 1834, I am not aware that there was a house in the island where
family worship was not observed every morning and every evening. I speak
not this boastingly; for our satisfaction arises not from receiving, such
honours, but in casting them at the Saviour’s feet; for ‘His arm hath
gotten Him the victory,’ and ‘He shall bear the glory.’
" Elsewhere he wrote:
"In reference to the island
generally, it may be observed that the blessings conveyed to them by
Christianity have not been simply, of a spiritual character, but that
civilisation and commerce have invariably followed in her train."
In 1839, before starting on the
voyage in the Camden which was to prove his last, Williams spent a
considerable time "in meeting with the brethren and the natives, and in
making arrangements for the establishment of a college to educate pious
and intelligent young men for missionary work, in which, besides
theological truth, they were to be taught the English language and
mechanical arts. Over this important institution Mr. Buzacott consented to
Between 1839 and 1867, when Chalmers
entered upon his duties, the work had been faithfully carried on by
Messrs. Pitman and Buzacott, the Rev. William Gill, and the Rev. E. R. W.
Krause, in succession, and the establishment included the Training
Institution founded by Williams, and five villages or settlements, each
under the immediate charge of a native pastor. The efficient oversight
of all this work promised to be
no light task for the young missionary and his wife.