London Missionary Society

Scope and Content

Records of the London Missionary Society, dating mainly from the foundation of the Society in 1795, but with some material from 1774 onwards relating to Madagascar and Mauritius, and a series of 'Extra' correspondence dating from 1764. The records relate to the structure and administration of the Society and mission activity overseas and comprise LMS Home Office minutes and papers, committee minutes, correspondence inward and outward, candidates' papers, and papers of official deputations; official journals, reports and correspondence from LMS missionaries in the field; special series of 'Odds', a collection of miscellaneous documents including material from the mission field; a large collection of portraits of missionaries; more than 15,000 photographs, showing individual converts, mission staff and buildings, and also depicting the lives, work and pursuits of indigenous peoples, means of transport, topographical scenes and historical events. Personal papers of LMS missionaries in the archive include an important collection of 115 original letters from David Livingstone (1813-1873), as well as correspondence of Robert Moffat (1795-1883) in Southern Africa, Robert Morrison (1782-1834) in China and James Sibree (1836-1929) and Elizabeth Lomas (1877-1959) in Madagascar. Home Personals include the papers of Dr Ralph Wardlaw Thompson (1842-1916), Foreign Secretary of the LMS from 1881-1914.

Records after 1966 are those of the Congregational Council for World Mission, and reflect the administrative changes and restructuring leading up to the creation of the Council for World Mission in 1977. Records for this period have been arranged and listed as a continuation of the LMS papers as in many cases changes to administrative structures took place gradually.

Administrative / Biographical History

The origins of the London Missionary Society (LMS) lie in the late 18th century revival of Protestant Evangelism. A meeting of Independent Church leaders, Anglican and Presbyterian clergy and laymen, held in London in November 1794, established the aims of the Missionary Society - 'to spread the knowledge of Christ among heathen and other unenlightened nations'. The Missionary Society was formally established in September 1795 with a plan and constitution. This governed the establishment of a Board of Directors and the conduct of business, outline the powers of the Directors and the conduct of business, established an annual meeting of Members to be held in May, and defined the role of trustees. The Missionary Society was renamed the London Missionary Society in 1818. Although broadly interdenominational in scope, the Society was very much Congregationalist in both outlook and membership.

Mission activity started in the South Seas, with the first overseas mission to Tahiti in 1796. Missionary work expanded into North America and South Africa. Early mission activities also centred in areas of eastern and southern Europe including Russia, Greece and Malta. There was even an LMS 'mission to Jews' in London. However, during the 19th century, the main fields of mission activity for the LMS were China, South East Asia, India, the Pacific, Madagascar, Central Africa, Southern Africa, Australia and the Caribbean (including British Guiana, now Guyana). The LMS was not always successful in gaining a hold in the overseas mission field. Western missionaries were refused entry to China until after 1843, and in Madagascar, early missionary success was countered by a period of repression and religious intolerance lasting from 1836 to 1861, and which included the deaths of many local converts.

In terms of organisational structure, the LMS was governed by a Board of Directors. The workings of the Board were reorganised in 1810 when separate committees were appointed to oversee particular aspects of mission work, including the important foreign committees. The administrative structure of the LMS relied upon the work of salaried officials such as the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, together with the workings of the various committees, including the Examinations Committee, which appointed missionaries to the field. Directors themselves were unpaid. The constitution of the LMS was revised in May 1870, as a direct result of financial pressures and the expansion of overseas mission work; the work of the Investigation Committee (1866) in turn led to a new administrative policy and the emphasis on the development of the self-governing and self-financing indigenous church.

In 1966 the LMS merged with the Commonwealth Missionary Society, to form the Congregational Council for World Mission (CCWM), which in turn was restructured to create the Council for World Mission in 1977.

Further information on the history of the London Missionary Society can be found in the official histories:

Richard Lovett, The History of the London Missionary Society 1795-1895 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1899).

Norman Goodall, A history of the London Missionary Society, 1895-1945 (London: Oxford University Press, 1954).

Gales of change: responding to a shifting missionary context: the story of the London Missionary Society, 1945-1977, ed. by Bernard Thorogood (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1994).


The papers in the main series are arranged into home material and foreign missions material, with the foreign missions papers arranged geographically by country. The material is divided into the following categories: Home materials; Africa; Americas; Australia; China; Europe; India; Madagascar; Papua New Guinea; South Seas/South Pacific; Ultra Ganges/South East Asia; West Indies and British Guyana; Personals. Up to 1927, incoming and outgoing letters are kept separately, as are reports (from 1866 onwards) and journals. From 1928, incoming and outgoing correspondence is arranged into personal and subject files, and is ordered alphabetically. Later accruals (1941-1970) are again arranged geographically, but the papers also include subject files, and are broader in scope than the main series of correspondence, minutes etc.

Access Information


Acquisition Information

Deposited on permanent loan by the Council for World Mission in 1973. Further deposits in 1988, 1991, 1994, 2001, 2005 and 2007.

Other Finding Aids

An unpublished guide to the CWM/LMS papers, 1795-1940, was prepared by Hannah Lowery in 1994. This has been subject to a number of revisions and is available on the archive catalogue and in the Special Collections Reading Room, SOAS Library.

Unpublished lists for the three accruals to the collection, 1941-1950, 1951-1960 and 1961-1970 and detailed lists for certain sections of the London Missionary Society papers, including early missionary correspondence (to c1899), journals and missionary deputations, 1795-c1900, reports, 1866-1939, candidates papers (to 1940) and missionary portraits, are available in the Special Collections Reading Room, SOAS Library.

Alternative Form Available

The main accession of London Missionary Society papers, 1795-1940, and the first accrual, 1941-1950, have been published on microfiche by IDC Publishers (now Brill). Copies are held at a number of research libraries around the world.

Archivist's Note

Collection description prepared 15th May 2000, revised on an ongoing basis.


Conditions Governing Use

For permission to publish, please contact Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library in the first instance

Copyright held by Council for World Mission unless otherwise indicated.

Custodial History

Much outgoing material from 1914 onwards was lost to bomb damage during the Second World War.

Related Material

SOAS Library also holds records of the Commonwealth Missionary Society (Ref: CWM/CMS), which forms part of the records of the Council for World Mission (Ref: CWM), and the library of the Council for World Mission (Ref: CWML). Personal papers of a number of LMS missionaries were deposited with the Council for World Mission/London Missionary Society by individual missionaries and their families, including letters of Robert Moffat in southern Africa, Robert Morrison in China, and James Sibree and Elizabeth Lomas in Madagascar, and papers of Dr Ralph Wardlaw Thompson, foreign secretary of the LMS. Personal papers of LMS missionaries presented directly to SOAS are held in the MS or PP MS sequences and include papers of J T Hardyman (Ref: PP MS 63); papers of William Lockhart (Ref: MS 380645); unpublished memoirs of James Sibree (Ref: MS 380616); Legge family papers (Ref: MS 380476). SOAS also holds records of the Presbyterian Church of England Foreign Missions Committee (Ref: PCE). Some LMS archive materials, are still held by the Council for World Mission, and are awaiting transfer to the SOAS.

Dr Williams's Library, London, holds c1,600 items of correspondence received principally by the Secretaries of the LMS, 1804-1852.

West Yorkshire Archive Service holds the Arthington Trust Collection, which includes reports and correspondence relating to LMS missions funded by the Trust.

Minute books of LMS auxiliaries can be found in local Record Offices.

The collection of artefacts and oil paintings formerly belonging to the Council for World Mission (collected largely by the London Missionary Society) have been donated to the National Maritime Museum, London, and the Dr Williams' Library, London. Earlier donations of artefacts were made by the London Missionary Society to the British Museum, London. Please contact these institutions direct with enquiries.