This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine


On 28 November 1799 Reverend Thomas Lewis, ordained minister and evangelical missionary in the Pacific, was found dead by his missionary colleagues in the home he shared with his Tahitian wife. Two of his missionary brethren came to see the body before the surgeon was called and began a thorough medical examination. The first conclusion of suicide – whereby Lewis had “dash[ed] himself against the stones” on the pavement outside his house – was rejected in favour of an hypothesis that fitted more neatly with the missionaries’ view of indigenous culture: murder.

Rev Lewis, having sunk into a “native style of living”, against the advice of his colleagues, had been murdered by his wife’s lover. This, it seemed, was a more fitting end for a man who had rejected his Christian community in favour of “native debauchery”.

The tale of Thomas Lewis, and the many other evangelical missionaries who entered into racially mixed marriages in the early 19th century, ultimately shaped the very nature of Christian mission in that century, and with it one of the most important elements of Britain’s colonial and global encounter in the age of empire.

The evolution of the evangelical missionary movement’s racial thinking, as defined through marriage and sexuality, would not only mould its relationship with British colonialism, but would also determine the parameters of women’s involvement in mission, something which would have a profound impact on its history. Embedded in the question of marriage was the very character of the missionary enterprise and how it would be embodied in its agents. Single missionaries or missionary couples? Western or indigenised Christianity? Mission stations or wandering preachers?

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What is often unacknowledged in the historical study of Christian mission, and certainly in the stereotypes we hold of Victorian missionaries, is the extent to which these questions were open to negotiation in the early years of the missionary movement. When we think of missionaries now we tend to think of rather staid, stuffy individuals, scorning dance and drink, and dressed rather ludicrously in top hats and waistcoats, despite the searing heat of ‘darkest Africa’, or the tropical climes of the South Pacific. Either that or we are caught up in the strangely endearing image of the pompous missionary in the cooking pot.

How then had it come about that Lewis, an ordained and evangelical minister, had ended his life married to an indigenous woman, from whom, according to his colleagues, “no pledge of conjugal fidelity could be expected”.

The story had begun four years earlier with the founding, in 1795, of the London Missionary Society (LMS), and really even earlier than that, during the throes of the evangelical revival.

At the end of the 18th century the Pacific voyages of Captain Cook, the so-called ‘swing to the east’ occasioned by British loss of the American colonies, and the consumer revolution in imperial goods, all came together to spark a wide-ranging British interest in the non-Christian world. That, combined with a dramatic reassessment of Britain’s religious trajectory through the evangelical revival (which stressed vital and personal religion over nominal and ceremonial religious performance), culminated in the 1790s with the foundation of numerous evangelical missionary societies whose existence came to shape the parameters of Britain’s global encounter.

These evangelical missionaries were unique from both the Catholic missionaries who had travelled across the globe since the 15th century, and the various Anglican missions that had sprouted with Britain’s earlier colonial encounters in the ‘new world’. While Catholic missionaries had no legitimate sexual contact with their charges, and Anglican missionaries concerned themselves primarily with white colonial communities, evangelical missionaries sent from Britain at the end of the 18th century had an explicit relationship with indigenous peoples and cultures.

Christian missions sprung up all over the globe, and missionaries became one of the primary mediators between indigenous cultures and western ‘civilisation’. Working with and among the indigenous peoples of empire at a grass-roots level that the infrastructures of colonialism could only dream of, missionaries became a conduit of knowledge about non-western cultures. They practically invented ethnography and anthropology, and brought a stylised and religiously-inflected image of native peoples and cultures to colonial administrators, philanthropic organisations, and the British public at home.

While it is widely accepted that mission literature, in creating a divided society of converted and unconverted, “contributed unintentionally to the rise of racial as well as cultural arrogance” (in the words of historian Richard Price), those who organised and worked for the LMS, most especially in its early years, were stubbornly opposed to biological determinism.

This, after all, made absolute sense for a movement predicated on people’s ability (and willingness) to change, and was most obvious in the LMS’s early injunctions on marriage. While it was recognised that in the Pacific, the site of its first mission, “gracious women would be of most excellent use among the females,” it was also decided that “if single men went, which probably will be most desirable to begin, they would do well to form matrimonial connexions with the first converts of their natives, especially with those connected with the superior families; who would thus, receiving them into their bosom, be more engaged to protect them.”

Sensible marriage

This manifesto for racial intermarriage was entirely sensible for a missionary society reliant on an increasingly competitive philanthropic marketplace.

Not only would intermarriage entrench early missionaries in indigenous communities (and particularly in their economic systems of exchange), but further, “if the labours of the Missionaries were not crowned with immediate success in the conversion of many, a very few families established would offer a seed to be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and probably equally taught both language of father and mother.” Children of mixed racial and cultural ancestry could thus be an asset to the mission, and could extend the scope of Christianity (for free) from within the indigenous community itself.

From the first, however, the mixed marriage ideal ran into the intractable problem of conversion. While racially mixed marriages were encouraged, religiously mixed ones were absolutely forbidden: “Only in the Lord is the dear apostolic order.” The objection of the missionary brethren in Tahiti to Lewis’s “fixed determination to take to wife one of these natives, and abide faithfully towards her until death” was not the racial element, but the religious one: “If any missionary be connected with an heathen woman, he should no longer be considered as a missionary, or a member of the church.”

Lewis’s religiously mixed marriage, among others, spelled the end for racial intermarriage in the South Seas (Pacific) Mission. By 1804 the LMS had resolved that “if any of the Brethren be strongly persuaded that his stability and usefulness… would be promoted by his entering into the marriage state, he be advised to state his wishes to his Brethren there, and with their permission return to England for that purpose.”

Even more strikingly, “four pious women” were dispatched from Britain to New South Wales in 1809. “The single Brethren at Taheite [sic], who wish to change their condition, will, probably, visit them at that place; and should they marry, the Mission will probably derive much stability and encouragement from that measure.”

Conversely, intermarriage was swinging along nicely in the LMS’s South African mission, founded in 1799. There, on 29 June 1803, missionary James Read was married to “a young Hottentot woman”, Elizabeth Valentyn, by the mission superintendent, Johannes Vanderkemp, in order to encourage “those who believe in Christ… publicly to bind themselves to each other in inviolable ties of matrimony”.

Vanderkemp himself was married to Sara Janse, a young Malagasy girl over 40 years his junior, and unconverted, in 1806. Although the marriage was labelled “exceedingly disgraceful” by a later generation of missionaries, it garnered very little notice from the LMS, whose attention was only really drawn to the matter after his death in 1811.

Unfortunately, James Read and others like him gave that later generation of missionaries much to chew on. “Deplorable is the state of affairs’, noted missionary George Thom in 1817, “four Missionaries stand charged with adultery and Fornication… James Read’s conduct is the worst of all.”

Read’s adulterous affair with one of his converts, who also bore him an illegitimate son, was well known in the colony, and at least three additional missionaries were formally accused of having extra-marital affairs. Others simply failed to meet prevailing moral standards in the evangelical community.

By 1817 Thom (ringleader of a missionary faction determined to do away with intermarriage) had convened what became known as the South African Synod, a gathering of missionaries in and around the Cape designed ostensibly to deal with numerous incidences of missionary immorality, but actually, according to many modern historians of mission, to bring evangelical missionary mores into line with an emerging, and highly racialised, settler colonial culture.

For the South African situation had one important element entirely missing from the Pacific context: British imperialism. There missionaries were engaged in a constant ideological battle with a colonial culture that prioritised a racial (rather than cultural or religious) discourse of difference between Europeans and non-Europeans. This discourse was itself inflected with the need to justify the economic exploitation of the indigenous Africans (primarily the Khoisan – ‘hottentots’ and the Xhosa – ‘blacks’).

Intermarriage, as well as a rejection of western dress and living standards, was a political statement for South African missionaries, but one which could not survive the increasing colonial ambivalence of a new generation of missionaries more and more concerned with “the whole system of civilisation”.

Thom, convenor of the South African Synod, had begun his campaign against intermarriage almost upon his arrival in 1812. By 1814 he noted that “three missionaries have Hottentot wives which has lowered their character in the eyes of the farmers and indeed of the whole colony. It cannot be expected that the manners and sloth of a Hottentot will improve a missionary, and he can never take her into any family. The use of such women to the Cause appears… to be very little. Two extremes should be avoided particularly with Hottentots, too much familiarity and too much distance…”

Thom’s concerns about the colony’s perception of his missionary brethren is all too evident, as is his clear conceptualisation of racial difference: “The missionary character is not to be brought down to Hottentots; but His character raised to the missionary.”

By the late 1810s, then, the London Missionary Society was sliding into an understanding of mission which was not exactly complementary to imperial objectives (individual missionaries continued to be a thorn in the side of imperial administrations well into the 19th century), but which had more scope for overlap and accommodation with colonial cultures that prioritised racial difference over cultural and/or religious hybridity. By 1817 the percentage of active LMS missionaries who were married to white women before embarking for the field had nearly tripled to 75 per cent.

White missionary families were becoming the primary mission institution, negotiated through the culture and practice of mission sexuality. White missionary women, meanwhile, became an absolutely fundamental part of mission, bringing their energy and zeal to mission stations around the globe, and making themselves so indispensable that by mid-century calls were increasing for single female missionaries who could concentrate entirely on mission objectives – without the worries of keeping house and raising children.

The ways in which women were drawn into the missionary enterprise, determined by the question of who could be married to a missionary, shaped the character of the LMS’s global evangelical mission, with all the racial and cultural implications that went with it. Indigenous women, meanwhile, remained integral to mission, but in a racially-determined, subordinate role: as Bible women and native assistants.

The moment for a truly indigenised Christianity had passed, and would not completely resurface (excepting a brief revival in the 1860s) until well into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Emily Manktelow is a teaching fellow in colonial/postcolonial history at the University of Exeter.

Famous missionaries

William Carey (1761–1834)

Born in Paulerspury, Northamptonshire in 1761, Carey was the first evangelical missionary to India, arriving in Bengal with the former East India Company surgeon John Thomas in November 1793. Moving the mission to Serampore in 1800, Carey pioneered mission printing, translating theBible into six Indianlanguages – Bengali, Oriya, Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi and Assamese. Infamous for demanding that his unwilling wife Dorothy accompany him to India (where she rapidly descended into acute mental illness), Carey's personal life also demonstrates a frequent commonality among evangelical missionaries (men and women) – mission first; family second.

William Knibb (1803–45)

Born in Kettering, Northamptonshire in 1803, Knibb became one of the most famous evangelical missionaries in the Caribbean. He was also a strong advocate of abolition both there and in Britain. Knibb arrived in Jamaica in 1825, just a year after the notorious death in prison of LMS missionary John Smith, accused of inciting the Demerara slave rebellion in 1823. Knibb himself became embroiled in the Jamaican Rebellion of 1831, and having been arrested and released, was dispatched by his brethren to Britain in order to defend himself and his colleagues against the accusations of incitement. Knibb's abolitionist campaigning, at Exeter Hall (famous for dissenting meetings) and in parliament, was an extremely important part of the wider abolitionist movement, and cemented missionaries' role as conduits of knowledge for the British public about the non-European world.

Robert Morrison (1814–43)

Born in Morpeth, Northumberland in 1782, Morrison became the founding missionary of the LMS's China Mission in 1807. Morrison was particularly interested in translation, creating a Chinese dictionary and grammar book which were published by the East India Company (who had employed him as translator since 1809) between 1815 and 1823. Returning to Britain in 1824, his Chinese library became the foundation for the School of Oriental and African Studies collection. Morrison returned to China in 1826, but died in 1834, the last years of his life marred by the official obstruction of his religious and publishing objectives by the colonial authorities.

David Livingstone (1813–73)

Born in Blantyre in 1813, Livingstone is of course most well known for his explorations in Africa between 1852 and his death in 1873. In mission circles Livingstone embodied two important trends: as autodidact in his youth, and as a strong proponent of Christian commerce during his missionary career. Livingstone is (and was) famous for his punishing, and self-inflicted, educational regime: studying literature, science and geology in between the hours he spent as 'piecer' at the local mill (where he was employed from the age of ten). The notion of self-help and self-improvement embodied in this LMS missionary would become a common trait (and trope) among evangelical missionaries, reminding us also of the potential for religious adherence to promote social mobility. In the field, Livingstone went on to promote the precepts of "commerce, Christianity and civilisation" – the belief that legitimate commerce would 'save' Africa (particularly from the slave trade – "illegitimate commerce"), and that Christian conversion should be accompanied by a material conversion to western culture. Livingstone 'abandoned' his mission in 1858 to take up exploration 'full-time', but undoubtedly continued to think of himself as a Christian missionary until his death in 1873.

Mary Slessor (1848–1915)

Born in Aberdeen in 1848, Slessor is one of the most famous female missionaries in the history of Christian mission (rivalled only by Gladys Aylward). Slessor became a teacher in Calabar, Nigeria, in 1876, but really became famous for living in the remotest mission stations she could find, and dispensing with the colonial lifestyles of more urban colleagues. A formidable Scot, she browbeat local chiefs and colonial officials alike, becoming vice consul in Okoyong in 1892 and presiding over the native court. She is best known now as the 'White Queen of Okoyong', and for pioneering the end of twin murder among the Efik people of Nigeria. Her image appears on the obverse of the £10 Scottish banknote.

The missionary factfile

What was the evangelical revival?

Inspired by the rise of Methodism and the preaching of John Wesley, the evangelical revival took place in the late 18th century. It promoted a personal relationship with God and (according to historian David Bebbington) was based around four main precepts: conversionism (the belief that to be an evangelical, one must have a personal conversion experience, and thus be ‘born again’); activism (some expression of the Gospel in effort); biblicism (belief in the primacy of the holy scripture); and crucicentrism (a focus on the crucifixion, and the subsequent atonement of all God’s people).

What was the LMS?

The London Missionary Society was founded in 1795 by a group of evangelically minded individuals inspired by the apostolic injunction to "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature". Among its contemporaries were the Baptist Missionary Society, founded in 1792, the Edinburgh (Scottish) and Glasgow Missionary Societies (both 1796), and the Church Missionary Society (1799). By 1900, some 10,000 missionaries had been dispatched from Britain, over 1,300 of whom were sent by the London Missionary Society alone.

Who were Christian missionaries?

Initially pious, uneducated ‘godly mechanics’; increasingly classically educated Christian ministers. Official missionaries were also often accompanied by their (equally pious and committed) wives and families, but female missionaries were not employed in their own right until well into the mid-19th century.

Where were they sent?

Missionaries were sent to every corner of the globe, from America, Canada and the Caribbean, to Australasia, Hawaii and the Pacific, including along the way Malta, Mongolia, north, south and central Africa, India and China. While Christian missions often sprang up in (and sometimes preceded) areas of imperial expansion, theirs was a truly global enterprise creating an international evangelical network that continues to shape Christianity to this day.

Who paid for them?

Through donations, fundraising events and missionary tours, the missionary public in Britain actively raised huge amounts of money for the mission cause. Men, women and children across the social classes were all mobilised towards this end, but no doubt the most vociferous supporters were those of the upper working and lower middle classes. They wore their religious and evangelical connections as a 'badge of respectability' in their quest for social inclusion in the emerging 'respectable' middle classes.

Were missionaries imperialists?

Not entirely. While missionaries were certainly convinced of their religious, cultural and, increasingly, racial superiority, they could also be highly ambivalent about imperial expansion, and often championed indigenous rights in the face of encroaching settler populations. As the 19th century progressed, however, and they faced the frequent disinterest of indigenous peoples in the Christian message, they increasingly turned to racial discourses to explain indigenous intransigence, and imperial power structures to protect and foster their fledging convert communities.

The globalisation of God’s word

The Caribbean

The history of the Christian mission in the Caribbean cannot be disassociated from the history of slavery. While early mission and church organisations, including the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Church of England, often had large slave-holdings, later evangelical missionaries were extremely vociferous in their calls for abolition. What’s more, they were often deemed dangerous radicals by white slave-owners because of their message of human equality and their active encouragement of slave conversion and education.


The Chinese mission was among the earliest – founded by Robert Morrison in 1807. Morrison ultimately translated the entire Bible into Chinese, thus consolidating a long-standing tradition of translation among Christian missionaries.

While missions were confined to five coastal cities in 1860, by the end of the 19th century they had spread throughout China – in large measure due to organisations that encouraged missionaries to acclimatise to local dress and custom. Despite this, Christian missionaries and converts suffered extreme violence during the Boxer Rebellion between 1898 and 1901: some 236 Christian (Protestant and Catholic) missionaries and over 30,000 Christian converts were killed in the uprising.


Africa is, of course, far too diverse an area to sum up in one sweeping generalisation. Missions were founded across the continent in the 19th century, forming a primary site of mission activity. Africa was also extremely important to the idea of evangelical mission, symbolising the very notion of Christian light penetrating into ‘heathen darkness’ – a concept increasingly embodied in mission literature by African peoples, religions and cultural practices.


India ultimately became the largest site of Christian missionary activity despite initial ambivalence among the East India Company, which feared that missionaries would rile the natives. India was particularly marked by the presence of female missionaries in the later 19th century, who were deemed necessary for the penetration of the infamous zenana (the female apartments of women under purdah, or seclusion).


The Pacific

Inspired by the voyages of Captain Cook, the Pacific was one of the first sites of evangelical missionary activity. The history of missionary work in the area is a turbulent one – with murders, ‘backsliding’ (ie ‘going native’) and involvement in the geopolitical rivalries of the region between the French and British empires just some of its hallmark features. The current religious demographic of the islands, however, speaks eloquently to ultimate success.