Upon the Methodist Union of 1932, the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS) and the foreign missions of the United Methodist Church and the Primitive Methodist Church merged to form the Methodist Missionary Society (MMS). The formation of the United Methodist Church in 1907 had already brought together the foreign mission activities of the Methodist New Connexion, the Bible Christians and the United Methodist Free Churches. The MMS retained the general administrative structure of the WMMS, so the records of the WMMS and MMS form a continuous sequence. From 1973 the Methodist Church Overseas Division (MCOD) assumed responsibility for overseas work, being coterminous with the MMS. Following further restructuring in 1996, the MMS was formally wound up in 2013.
Wesleyan missions "among the heathen" began in 1786, when Thomas Coke, destined for Nova Scotia, was driven off course by a storm and landed at Antigua in the British West Indies. There he developed a successful mission of both slaves and landowners. Within a few years almost every British colony in the West Indies had been reached. Under Coke's instigation, a mission to West Africa was undertaken in 1811 and successfully established at Sierra Leone (the first scheme for the establishment of a mission to West Africa, devised by Coke in 1769, had proved a failure). In December 1813 Coke left England with six fellow Methodist missionaries to establish missions in Ceylon [Sri Lanka] (although Coke died on route) and subsequently elsewhere in the Indian sub-continent.
The Methodist Conference of 1804 established a 'Standing Committee of Finance and Advice' to act as an executive through which the Conference would control its foreign affairs, under the General Superintendence of Coke. However, the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS) originated with the District Auxiliaries - the first of which was founded in Leeds on 6th October 1813 - formed spontaneously for the support of overseas missionary work, without the sanction of Conference. By 1818, the proposals put forward by the District Auxiliaries were approved by Conference and embodied in a general missionary society. Meanwhile, following Coke's death in 1814, the London Committee of Finance and Advice was renamed the 'Executive Committee', and in 1815 an additional 'Committee of Examination and Finance' was established to conduct the detailed examination of missionary receipts and disbursements. In 1817 the new Committee mooted the formation of a permanent constitution for the missionary department, and in 1818 the Laws and Regulations of the General Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (the joint work of Richard Watson and Jabez Bunting) were accepted by Conference and the WMMS was fully constituted. The new society embraced the Auxiliary Districts and Circuit Missionary Societies that had already been formed.
Despite its name the WMMS was not a self-regulated 'Society', but rather the Methodist Church 'mobilised for foreign missionary service'. The Conference appointed a new Executive Committee, which in the intervals between the annual Conference was given superintendence of the collection and disbursement of funds from subscribing members and the management of foreign missions. The President of Conference acted as Chairman of the Committee, which included 48 members with equal numbers of ministers and laymen. It met monthly. The Committee included three Secretaries, ordained ministers whose job it was to receive correspondence from the field, and to draw up plans for the stationing of missionaries to be submitted to the Committee and ratified by Conference. By 1834 it was usual to have four Secretaries. In emergencies the Committee was empowered to fill vacancies and recall missionaries for disciplinary proceedings. The Conference was the ultimate judge in these matters.
Abroad, the Conference and Executive Committee exercised control through the District Synod and District Chairman (General Superintendent). Missionaries from each District were required to meet in an annual Synod. Synod Minutes were sent home. By 1903 the functions of the Synod had been limited to the supervision of ministers and Circuits in the District, and 'Local Committees' had been established as the agents of the Executive Committee in the administration of funds. Local Committees comprised the missionaries of the district in addition to local 'gentlemen'. They met annually, received official letters of instruction from home and returned minutes of the meeting and letters reviewing the year's work. The District Chairman was responsible for the general welfare of the District and the progress of work in all Circuits. When the Local Committee was in session, its powers were paramount. In the intervals between its sessions, the District Chairman exercised these powers.
The first mission in Europe began in France in 1791. Subsequently, missions were established in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Malta. Missionary work was also undertaken in the Channel Islands, Ireland, Gibraltar, Egypt and the Levant. The French Methodist Conference was established in 1852.
Missions in Canada were established in the 1780s in the Hudson Bay Territory, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward's Island and Newfoundland. The Canadian Methodist Missionary Society was established in 1824 and Canada gained its own independent Conference in 1854. After nearly a century of mission in the Caribbean and Americas the West Indies Conference (excluding the Bahamas and Honduras) was established in 1885 but, as a result of financial problems, it rejoined the the British Conference in 1903.
Work in West Africa had begun in 1811 with Coke's mission to Sierra Leone. A second station was opened on the River Gambia in 1821, and on the Gold Coast [Ghana] in 1834. The first missionary to arrive in South Africa was John McKenny, followed by Barnabas Shaw who established a station at Namaqualand in 1816. The South African Conference was established in 1882, and assumed care of mission work in South Africa (with the exception of the Transvaal and Swaziland which did not join the South African Conference until 1932). The first Wesleyan Methodist missionary work in Rhodesia began in Mashonaland [Zimbabwe] in 1891, followed by Matabeleland [Zimbabwe] in 1895 and then Northern Rhodesia [Zambia] in 1913.
Work in Australia began in 1818 when Rev. Samuel Leigh arrived in Sydney to found a mission for convicts in New South Wales. Work began in Van Diemen's Land [Tasmania] in 1821, Victoria in 1838 and Queensland in 1850. The Australasian Methodist Missionary Society was organised as an auxiliary in 1822, and in 1855 as an independent society under an independent Conference. Missionaries were sent to New Zealand in 1822, a mission was established in the Friendly Islands [Tonga] in 1826 and in 1835, after some initial difficulties and false starts, in Fiji.
In China the first mission to be established was in Canton [Guangzhou] in 1851. In 1860 a new station was established at Fatshan [Foshan], and in 1862 a mission for Central China was established at Hankou [Wuhan], where the first medical missionary was appointed. By the early C20th missionary work had spread to, amongst other places, Wuchang [Wuhan], Hanyang [Wuhan], Suichou [Suizhou], Wusueh, Hunan and Changsha. In 1906 there were three districts: Hunan, Canton and Wuchang.
After the establishment in 1814 of missions on the island of Ceylon [Sri Lanka] the first Wesleyan Methodist mission in India was founded at Madras [Chennai] in 1817, albeit initially under the supervision of the Tamil District on Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. Further missions were founded in Southern India but missionary work did not reach Northern India until 1860. By 1903 work was underway in eight districts including Madras, Negapatam, Hyderabad, Mysore, Calcutta, Lucknow and Bombay. Methodists in the MMS districts of Southern India joined The Church of South India (a union of a number of Protestant churches) on its inception in 1947, but their brethren in Northern India did not create a similar union (The Church of North India) until 1970. A mission to Burma [Mynamar] began in 1887 in Mandalay.
In 1858 the Ladies Committee for the Amelioration of the Condition of Women in Heathen Countries, Female Education, etc, was founded as an auxiliary to the WMMS, although managed independently. By 1932 the Women's Department had sent female missionaries to work alongside their male colleagues in most of the WMMS mission fields.
On 20th September 1932, in the Royal Albert Hall, London, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the United Methodist Church and the Primitive Methodist Church united to form the Methodist Church of Great Britain. As a result, the missionary societies of the three Churches merged to form the MMS. Thus in 1932, the foreign missions of the MMS encompassed all of the regions where the individual societies previously worked. These included the West Indies (comprising the ex-WMMS districts of Bahamas, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Barbados and Trinidad, and British Guyana); Latin Europe (comprising the ex-WMMS districts of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal); West Africa (comprising the ex-WMMS districts of Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Gold Coast, Western Nigeria and French West Africa, the ex-UMMS work both in the Colony and in the Protectorate among the Mendes, and the ex-PMMS districts of Fernando Po and eastern Nigeria); Ceylon (ex-WMMS districts); South India (comprising the ex-WMMS districts of Madras, Trichinopoly, Hyderabad and Mysore); North India (comprising the ex-WMMS districts of Bengal, Lucknow and Benares, and Bombay and Punjab); China (comprising the ex-WMMS districts of South China, Hupeh and Hunan, ex-UMMS districts of Hopei and Shantung, Yunnan, Ningpo and Wenchow); Kenya (ex-UMMS district); Burma (ex-WMMS district), and Southern and Northern Rhodesia (ex-WMMS work in both Southern and Northern Rhodesia, and ex-PMMS work in Northern Rhodesia only).
All Methodists were deemed to be members of the MMS. Its headquarters were based in London (firstly at 24 Bishopsgate and then, from March 1940, 25 Marylebone Road) and it was governed by a General Missionary Committee, which acted on the authority of the Methodist Conference. The administration of foreign missions retained the general structure of that used by the WMMS (which formed the largest group in the union of 1932). Foreign districts were administered in much the same way as home districts, with District Synods and a District Chairman (Superintendent) representing the authority of the General Committee and ultimately the Conference, in the field. The work of women missionaries in the MMS was represented by the 'Women's Work' department.
The General Committee included several General Secretaries, ordained ministers who were responsible for official correspondence with the missionaries. These positions evolved into 'Area Secretaries', each taking responsibility for a different area of overseas work, i.e. Africa, Americas & Caribbean, Asia & Pacific and Europe. In the administrative restructuring of 1973, all departments of the Methodist Church became known as divisions, with the Methodist Church Overseas Division (MCOD) assuming responsibility for overseas work. It underlined the fact that the MMS was never an independent Society, but the Methodist Church itself engaged in mission overseas. In 1996, further large-scale administrative restructuring removed these divisions and the Church became a single connexional team (World Church Office). The position of Area Secretary is preserved in the overseas work of the present day Methodist Church, now known as Partnership Co-ordinators within the World Church Relationships team.
The nature of the relationship between the Methodist Church of Great Britain and churches overseas has also evolved, from a paternal role to one of equal partnership. Many of the former overseas 'districts' have become autonomous Methodist Churches in their own right, with their own Conference, Synod, and President (known by various titles). The World Methodist Council exists to provide a forum to promote co-operation and common purpose amongst Methodist peoples worldwide.
Methodist Missionary Society, 'Our Missions Overseas - Past and Present. The First Annual Report of the Methodist Missionary Society, 1932' (MMS, 1932).
G Findlay & W W Holdsworth, 'The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society' (Epworth Press, 1921-1924).
Birtwhistle, N Allen, 'Methodist Missions' in volume 3 of 'A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain' (Epworth Press, 1983).
Pritchard, John R, 'Methodists and their Missionary Societies 1760-1900' (Ashgate Methodist Studies, 2013).
Pritchard, John R, 'Methodists and their Missionary Societies 1900-1996' (Ashgate Methodist Studies, 2013).