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The Scottish Churches' Work Abroad
The Dawn of Scottish Missions

THE great Foreign Missionary Enterprise of the Protestant Churches took its rise towards the close of the eighteenth century, and its development will be recorded in history as one of the most remarkable movements of the nineteenth century.

The Churches of the Reformation had no world-wide vision of the Kingdom of Christ, nor do they seem to have felt the urgency of carrying the Gospel to the heathen. This may largely be accounted for by the fact that they were fighting for very life at home, while at the same time they were completely cut off from contact with the heathen world so long as Spain and Portugal held the high seas. In the age of rationalism, however, which succeeded the ferment of the Reformation, the extraordinary view came to be held, and was formally defended by theologians, that our Lord’s command, "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature," was addressed to the Apostles only. The evangelising of the heathen world was their personale privilegium, and it was not to be doubted that the work had, in previous ages, been fulfilled. Even America, it was asserted, had been known to the ancients, and had been evangelised, though subsequently forgotten. The heathen world was therefore held to have rejected the Gospel, and to have no other fate in store than to await the Judgment Day.

This monstrous doctrine can never, of course, have met with universal acceptance, and in the Scottish Church in particular there are evidences from time to time of a larger vision and a more Christian spirit. The Scottish Confession of Faith, which John Knox and his friends presented to Parliament in 1560, bore on its title-page the text, "This glaid tydingis of the kyngdome sall be precheit through the haill warld for a witness unto all natiouns, and then sall the end cum," and it concludes with a prayer, "Give Thy servands strength to speake Thy word in bauldnesse, and let all Natiouns cleave to Thy knowledge." The General Assembly of 1647 put on record its desire for "a more firm consociation for propagating the Gospel to those who are without, especially the Jews," but nothing came of it. When the ill-fated Darien Expedition sailed from these shores in 1699 it carried with it certain ministers who were enjoined by the Assembly to labour among the heathen. The view was generally held that where a Christian country colonised it ought also to endeavour to Christianise, but the appeal was made to Kings, Princes, and States" to do the work, while the divine commission of the Church was ignored.


In 1709, however, there was founded in Edinburgh a "Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge" which turned its attention to the Indians of North America. Its operations were never extensive, but it is worthy of record that, at the time of the Stuart Rebellion of 1745, it was paying the salary of David Brainerd who by his saintly character and missionary zeal won a distinguished name in history. The same Society, a few years later, undertook the translation of the Bible into Gaelic. This scheme was opposed for political reasons by those who wished Gaelic to die out, which, being reported to Samuel Johnson by Mr. William Drummond, a bookseller in Edinburgh, drew from the great man a characteristic letter, in which he indignantly exclaims, "To omit for a year, or for a day, the most efficacious method of advancing Christianity, in compliance with any purposes that terminate on this side of the grave, is a crime of which I know not that the world has yet had an example, except in the practice of the planters of America, a race of mortals whom, I suppose, no other man wishes to resemble." In deference to this protest the scheme was allowed to go on, and, in a subsequent letter, Dr. Johnson says," I honour the translator as a man whom God has distinguished by the high office of propagating His word."

In the latter half of the eighteenth century England and Scotland began slowly to recover from the blight of irreligion which had fallen upon them, and a rising tide of warm evangelical feeling began to be felt.

This was largely due in England to the work of the Wesleys and Whitefield, in Scotland to the Cambuslang Revival and the activity of the Seceders. The modern missionary enterprise of the English-speaking world was a direct and necessary outcome of this evangelical revival. Various concurrent events drew the minds of Christian people to the condition and needs of the heathen world and opened the way for a vigorous forward policy. The maritime power of Spain and Portugal had decayed, and Britain was establishing her empire on the seven seas. The voyages of Captain Cook had revealed a world of romance among the South Sea Islands. The expansion of our Indian Empire after the battle of Plassey had begun to bring home the vastness of our responsibilities in the East. About the same time, the Slave Trade became a burning question which turned the Christian mind of Britain not only to the plantations in the West Indies but also to Africa, the homeland from which the slaves had been torn away.

All these events combined with the restless spirit of the time to bring to the birth a new era in missionary history. William Carey, the Northampton cobbler and preacher, gave an heroic lead when he not only founded the Baptist Missionary Society but volunteered himself to be the pioneer in India. Not that he was the first in the field. The Moravians had already sent missionaries to Greenland and the West Indies, while in South India, Schwartz had completed almost half a century of noble service. But undoubtedly Carey was the man of the hour, and his influence has been so profound and far-reaching that he is worthy to be called the Father of Modern Missions.

Carey sailed for India in 1793, and his work there had the loyal support of friends in Scotland even after his own Society had turned against him. It was the inspiration of Carey which prompted Robert Haldane in 1796 to sell his beautiful estate of Airthley, on the Stirling slope of the Ochils, and devote the proceeds to found a mission in India. Benares, the holy city of North India, was selected as the site of the mission, a party of volunteers including several Scots ministers was organised, but the Government of the day, at the instigation of the East India Company, refused a permit. One of the Directors of the Company declared that he would sooner see a band of devils let loose in India than a band of missionaries. Thwarted in his noble intention of carrying the Gospel to India, Robert Haldane, together with his brother James, commenced that career of home evangelisation which left so deep a mark on the Scottish life of the early nineteenth century.


The year 1796 is a notable landmark in missionary history. In February of that year the Scottish Missionary Society was formed, at first under the name of the Edinburgh Missionary Society. At the same time the Glasgow Missionary Society was founded in the west of Scotland. These two Societies had the support of many of the evangelical ministers both of the Church of Scotland and of the Secession, and while acting independently they cordially cooperated in the work. The founding of these two Societies naturally brought the subject of Missions prominently before the mind of the Church, and led to a memorable scene in the General Assembly. Two Synods had sent up overtures asking the Assembly to support the missionary cause. To many this seemed a highly suspicious and revolutionary proposal. It must be borne in mind that the recent excesses of the French Revolution had provoked a strong conservative reaction and a nervous tendency to take alarm at the most innocent innovation. The debate spread itself out into a battle royal between the two contending parties in the Church of Scotland. Leading speakers on the side of the Moderates declared that to spread abroad the knowledge of the Gospel among barbarous and heathen nations was "highly preposterous, in so far as it anticipates, nay, reverses, the order of nature. Men must be polished and refined in their manners before they can be properly enlightened in religious truths. Philosophy and learning must, in the nature of things, take the precedence"! As for the Missionary Societies it was openly averred that they were nothing but revolutionary clubs in disguise, "highly dangerous in their tendency to the good order of society at large." "I do aver," exclaimed one alarmist, "that since it is to be apprehended that their funds may be in time, nay, certainly will be, turned against the constitution, so it is the bounden duty of this house to give the overtures recommending them our most serious disapprobation, and our immediate, most decisive opposition." Dr. John Erskine of Greyfriars Church, the President of the Edinburgh Society, rose to reply. He was then in his seventy-fifth year, no revolutionary, but one of the most revered ministers in the city, a man whose warm heart had kept his mind awake to the needs of the age. "Rax me that Bible," he exclaimed, stretching his arms towards the Moderator. With the sacred volume in his hands he then read aloud the words of Christ’s great commission to the Church, "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature "—words which, we are told, burst on the Assembly like a clap of thunder. The effect, however, was only momentary. The swelling tide of moderate oratory rolled on and the friends of missions suffered defeat.

That this antipathy to missions was not confined to the Established Church is evidenced by the fact that in the same year the Associate Synod pronounced against the Societies on the ground of the "lowerin o denominational testimony by promiscuous association in mission work."


Nothing daunted by these official frowns, the two Societies set to work. At first, however, like the sister Societies in England, they had to grope their way through many difficulties and discouragements. They had no such gigantic breakdown as accompanied the first inexperienced effort of the London Missionary Society in the South Seas, but the early years were years of comparative failure and disappointment. The field chosen was Sierra Leone, which at that time was being organised as a settlement for freed slaves. The representatives of the Scottish Missionary Society were Peter Greig and Henry Brunton. The names of their colleagues from the Glasgow Society may be left in oblivion, as they proved unworthy of their high calling. Peter Greig, like the more famous Robert Moffat, was a gardener at Donibristle, in Fife, and a member of the Secession Church there. Moved by the love of Christ and the thought of the heathen world, he used at times to go with his minister, the well-known Ebenezer Brown, into the little church after the day’s work, so that "amid the darkness and solitude he might speak more freely the thoughts of his heart." He sailed with his companions for Sierra Leone in 1797, and a beginning of work was made at the Susoos, about 120 miles inland from Freetown. When he had only been a year in the country, however, Peter Greig was murdered by the natives. He has the distinction of being the first missionary martyr of modern times, and, as such, his name ought to be better known and more honoured in Scotland than it appears to be.

The field in Sierra Leone was, after a time, abandoned, and Henry Brunton was transferred to Karass, between the Black Sea and the Caspian, where the Scottish Society had begun another mission. This second undertaking was soon brought to an end by Russian intolerance. After about a quarter of a century of these discouragements the Scottish Society turned its thoughts to India, while the Glasgow Society sought a new field in South Africa, with the happiest results in both cases.

Before speaking of these it may be convenient to mention here the notable contributions made by Scotland to the London Missionary Society, which from its inception in 1795 has always had a warm place in Christian Scottish hearts. It has sent forth, to name but a few, such eminent Scotsmen as Morrison, Moffat, Livingstone, and John Mackenzie. Robert Morrison, though born in Morpeth, was of Scottish parentage. He sailed for China in 1807, and by his incomparable patience, his massive learning, and his invincible faith, he stands in history as the greatest of Chinese missionaries. Robert Moffat was an East Lothian man, born at Ormiston. A gardener to trade, he became one of the most faithful labourers in God’s vineyard in South Africa, to which he was sent in 1816. The famous missionary martyr, John Williams, was set apart at the same time for the South Seas. The original proposal was that both should go to the South Seas, but Scotland intervened in the person of Dr. Waugh, one of the Directors, who drily said, "Thae twa lads are ower young to gang thegither." So Moffat landed at Cape Town, and pushing north over the Orange River into what was then an unmapped country, he laboured for fifty years among the Bechuanas, and drew the eyes of Britain, and especially of David Livingstone, to the vast interior which the nineteenth century was to see so marvellously opened up. "None greater, none holier than he," was the recent tribute of General Smuts, and it was well and truly earned. The length and fruitfulness of his labours, his peaceful subjugation of Africaner, that notorious freebooter and signal trophy of grace, his wonderful influence over the savage king of the Matabele, all entitled him to be regarded, as he was in his last years, as the Grand Old Man of the missionary world.


To return to the story of the two Societies, a mission was begun in India in 1822 by the Scottish Missionary Society. The first missionary was the Rev. Donald Mitchell, a son of the manse, who had been converted to Christ when a lieutenant in the Company’s army at Surat.

Less than a year of missionary service was granted him, and he lies buried in an obscure village at the foot of the Western Ghats, but from that lonely grave the tide of Scottish Missions has spread far and wide over India. At first the Government forbade access to Poona, the recently conquered capital of the Marathas and a centre of fanatical Brahmanism, so the pioneers worked for a time in the jungly foot-hills south of Bombay. The first convert gave a dramatic illustration of the terrific power of caste. Some weeks after his baptism he sat down at the Lord’s table, but when the bread and wine were offered him he sprang up and, crying out, "No, I will not break caste yet," he rushed out of the church. For some years the work was continued in the country districts, but, the way being now open, it was resolved to transfer the Mission to Poona and Bombay. In 1829 there arrived in India, John Wilson, whose great name and work is commemorated in the Wilson College, Bombay. He at once commenced educational work in Bombay, and, for many years, aided by his colleagues, Nesbit and Murray Mitchell, he exercised a profound and increasing influence both in government and in native circles. The Indian Mission was manned by ordained ministers of the Church of Scotland. Accordingly, when the various Scottish Churches, through the growth and prevalence of a more evangelical spirit, began to undertake missions of their own, this mission was in 1835 transferred to the Church of Scotland, under whose auspices it developed rapidly until the Disruption in 1843, when its missionaries adhered to the Free Church.

In 1824 the Scottish Society had begun another mission in Jamaica, which was intended originally for the instruction of the plantation slaves in Christian truth. This mission had the support mainly of the Secession members of the Society, and, accordingly, in 1847 it was transferred to the United Presbyterian Church. With this transference the distinctive work of the Scottish Society came to an end.

The experience of the Glasgow Society was very similar. In 1821 it began a mission in Kafraria which has been, ever since, one of the most powerful Christian agencies at work in South Africa. The most notable of its pioneers was the Rev. John Ross, who, going out to Kafraria in 1823, laboured there for fifty-five years, and was succeeded in the work by his two sons, Richard and Bryce Ross, and by a grandson. The religious controversies, at that time raging in Scotland, made their influence felt in the far-off mission field where Established Churchmen and Secessionists laboured together. At length, as in the case of the first foreign missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, a separation had to be made, and in 1837 two Presbyteries were formed, one of which followed the Free Church at the Disruption, while the other was taken over by the United Presbyterian Church in 1847. The same year, therefore, saw the end of the separate existence of the two pioneer Societies and the absorption of their work by the Scottish Churches, whose members had created and supported them.

This was due to the fact that in 1824 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had reversed the unhappy decision of 1796, and resolved to embark on a policy of missionary enterprise. Warneck, the great German historian, remarks that "with the exception of the Established Church of Scotland, in no Protestant State Church have missions been from their beginning the concern of the Church." This statement requires modification, for, as we have seen, the evangelical party in the Church of Scotland found an outlet for their missionary zeal through the agency of the two Societies, whose work they supported for a quarter of a century before the Church undertook missions of her own. It should, however, be noted as a distinctive feature of Scottish Church life that missions are the affair of the Church as such, and are supported and governed directly by the Church courts. In England and elsewhere missions, while drawing support from the various denominations, are still under the management of Missionary Societies, like the Church Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, etc. The state of things in Scotland is, doubtless, partly due to the fact that Scotsmen are strong churchmen, and have confidence in their Church. Partly, also, it is due to the happy circumstance that the constitution of the Presbyterian Church is democratic, and, by its gradation of Church courts, from Kirk Session to General Assembly, provides machinery admirably adapted for the prosecution of Foreign as well as Home Missions.

This is as it ought to be. The Christian ideal is that the Church itself should be a missionary agency, and that membership in the Church should necessarily involve interest in and support of the missionary cause. Indeed, the distinction between Home and Foreign Missions is, in a sense, artificial, and ought not to be unduly stressed. For there is but one great missionary enterprise to which the Church is called, and in which she is everywhere engaged—the winning of the nations to the obedience of Christ. The contribution which Scotland is fitted to make to this supreme task is both distinctive and valuable, for it will not be denied that she stands high among the nations in respect of evangelical enlightenment, education, and national character. And, in view of the approaching Union of the Scottish Churches, the inspiring prospect is opening out of a time, in the not far-distant future, when Scotland, with united front and her Christian forces efficiently organised, may do more than she has ever yet done for the evangelisation of the world.

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