26th May 2018 marked the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Friends Foreign Mission Association in 1868. This put overseas mission and relief work on a permanent footing for the Society for the first time, and this work has continued in some form ever since.
There was a prior provisional committee set up, also meeting for the first time on 26th May, 1865, and work did commence under its auspices but the Association was officially constituted in 1868.
Quakers were not immune to the evangelical fervour that increased in many denominations in the early 19th century. One Quaker in particular took up this calling with great enthusiasm. George Richardson (1773-1862), was a widely travelled Quaker minister who was devoted to issues such as peace, temperance and anti-slavery. He became a passionate proponent of mission work and wrote extensively to Friends to drum up support for it. Richardson reported in 1860 that “It is now ascertained by an extensive correspondence that a large body of Friends cordially approve of an attempt being made for the promotion of this object…” (George Richardson Papers, TEMP MSS 378)
Richardson described the object as “aiding in the diffusion of Gospel light amongst the Heathen and other unenlightened nations”. This is language that Quakers today, might find uncomfortable. Further descriptions of the mission work Richardson had in mind, and was promoting widely among Friends, confirm how similar in nature it was with that of other denominations, as “labour for the spread of true Religion” by “scriptural education”. Quaker missionaries worked closely with the London Missionary Society at home, and with missionaries of other denominations in the field.
However judging this activity by modern standards would be somewhat unfair. In some ways, this enthusiasm for missionary work, in the context of the Society of Friends at that time, represented a radical challenge to quietism of preceding Quaker generations. It is interesting to see how Friends have viewed this work over the years. In a pamphlet marking the jubilee anniversary of FFMA in 1916, the tone was still evangelical. The writer asked of the Society: “How shall we take our right place in spreading the news that God is the Father, and loves us, that Christ His Son is the Saviour of the whole world?” (FFMA jubilee, 1866-1916, 1913)
However fifty years later, in an address on the centenary of FFMA, William Sewell, a relative of Joseph Sewell, one of the first Quaker missionaries, was looking at missionary activity with a more critical eye. He mentions the relatively poor understanding of non-western cultures and comments on the dangers, as well as virtues, of introducing “western values” into these cultures. He does say: “Friends fortunately did less harm than they might so easily have done” (Continuing witness: addresses given at the Friends Foreign Mission Association centenary meeting, Friends Service Council, 1968).
We feel he really wants to say than other missionaries have done here, and attributes Friends’ comparably less harmful activity to their core belief in of that of God in everyone; he implies that although Quakers may have referred to people as heathens, they did not treat them as such.
Into the 1970s, Friends Service Council (successor to FFMA) was still referring to one of the strands of its work as “missionary activities”, and was a member of the Conference of British Missionary Societies, although stating that this body was “rethinking the concept of ‘mission’” (International Work of the Religious Society of Friends, 2nd ed., FWCC, 1975).
FFMA was run as an independent organisation funded by subscription with annual general meetings, and some non-Quakers were involved in both the funding and work. Its first projects were in areas Quakers already had some knowledge of and were led by strong individual characters who felt a calling to a particular area of work. And it was a calling – missionaries generally served for the rest of their life. This, in a time before air travel and health insurance, was at considerable personal cost, in terms of distance from family and home comforts, and potential for danger.
The first mission work the provisional committee approved was to send Rachel Metcalfe (1828-1889) to India to pursue “female education”. Rachel Metcalfe had worked as a domestic servant in younger life, and then as a seamstress. She had felt a calling to do mission work, and saw an advertisement looking for a sewing mistress at a school in India. Not having the means to fund her journey herself, she applied to Friends for help, and became the first missionary sent by the fledgling provisional committee for this work.
She set up several schools and an orphanage with the help of more Friends who joined her. She developed rheumatism in Benares which led to her use of a wheelchair by 1874, but this did not halt her work. Friends moved into Hoshangabad district as there were no other missionaries here, and started work which continued well into the 20th century there.
The potential danger these early missionaries faced was exemplified by a horrifying fate suffered by a Quaker missionary family in the other early field of work for FFMA: Madagascar.
Louis and Sarah Street, and Joseph Sewell were the first Quaker missionaries to go to Madagascar, in the second official mission of FFMA. They soon required assistance. William Johnson answered this call by going to Madagascar in 1871, Lucy Sewell joined him and they were married there in 1872. William became involved in educational work and became superintendent of a large boys’ school in Ambohijatovo. Johnson also oversaw the building of a hospital, designing it himself.
The Johnsons were asked to move to Arivonimamo to cover another missionary’s leave in 1895. At this time the French were at war with the Malagasy people, eventually “annexing” the island as a colony by 1896. Some Malagasy rebel forces blamed the defeat of the army, and deposition of the monarchy, on the recent conversion to Christianity, and harsh punishment was meted out to Malagasy Christians and missionaries. In November 1895, rebels overtook the Johnsons’ home and killed the couple and their child.
By 1889, the FFMA had 38 missionaries in the field, by 1902 that number had risen to 93. The activities of the association were capturing the attention of more than just a few enthusiastic believers in mission work, becoming a more general concern for the Society. This was reflected in the decision at Yearly Meeting, 1917, to have a “closer union” between FFMA, London Yearly Meeting and Ireland Yearly Meeting, essentially bringing FFMA under official management by both these yearly meetings.
World War I brought a challenge of a greater magnitude for Friends in overseas work. Here the focus was emergency relief in response to crisis rather than the ongoing education and medical activities done as part of mission work. Emergency committees were set up to organise this crisis relief. The lessons learned from this war would undoubtedly shape future views of overseas service.
In 1919 the Council for International Service was established. This was very much a product of WWI, and most of its activities were almost akin to secular mission work. Rather than spreading Christianity, CIS established a network of International Centres that promoted “international understanding” and nonviolent solutions to conflict. This was referred to as the ministry of reconciliation.
All this work was brought together under one banner in 1927. FFMA was wound up and the work of CIS incorporated into Friends Service Council. At this point FSC took on or started up projects in: China, India, Syria, South Africa, Pemba, Madagascar, Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Poland, Russia, and Greece.
The nature of the work varied from place. Some work continued in a fairly traditional mission manner with building and managing of schools and hospitals. Other work included helping to support and sustain small communities of Quakers outside of Britain and building up networks of people sympathetic to Quaker values; it was this work which would lead to Quaker centres becoming refuges when Nazi oppression started threatening various groups in European society in the 1930s.
Quaker Peace and Social Witness, the successor body to Friends Service Council, today mainly focuses on promotion of nonviolence in areas of the world with conflict. This includes working with other churches to provide ecumenical accompaniers in Israel-Palestine; and helping facilitate a conflict resolution programme in East Africa. Friends World Committee for Consultation supports and encourages the Quaker faith around the world.
While nineteenth to early twentieth century missionary activities, outlooks and language may to a certain extent be shaped by paternalistic, colonialist and racist attitudes, there is much to admire in the work of overseas missions. The stories of these ordinary men and women who gave their life’s work to the service of communities they joined overseas, often at great personal cost, can still prove inspirational and moving, over a century later.