by Ian Burness
Ian served as a medical missionary doctor in Zambia, as General Director and then a Trustee of Echoes of Service and Echoes International, and he writes and speaks on mission.
One hundred and fifty years is a significant period in human history. It takes us from the age of steam to the world of the internet, from a world population of around 1.4 billion to one now just below 8 billion. It has witnessed a remarkable expansion of the world Christian population. In the 21st century we live in an era of a truly global Christian church.
The Brethren movement has made a significant contribution to the global advancement of the gospel for 150 and more years, and sent many cross-cultural mission workers around the world. From the time Anthony Norris Groves went to one of the most resistant parts of the world until the present, the Brethren movement has held evangelism and global mission to be central to what the local church is called to do. Neatby, in his 1902 history, described the foreign mission efforts of Brethren churches as ‘their true glory’.1
The local church has always been regarded as central to the sending process of new workers through the provision of commendation to service. An emphasis on sacrificing for Christ and being willing to lay everything on the altar was commonly stressed and this was demonstrated in its fullness when several of those who went to remote or dangerous areas were called to martyrdom. Running through our 150-year history is the same recurring story, which we, as a 21st-century generation, must also face and rediscover.
The launch of Echoes of Service magazine The Missionary Echo took place at a time of real upsurge in mission interest in Britain. This growing interest was matched in Scotland by the setting up of an agency in Glasgow in 1881, called Home and Foreign Mission Funds. This UK revival not only led to an increase in church growth and attendance, but also to a large increase in missionary sending. As missionary interest enlarged among Brethren assemblies in Britain and beyond, the level of sending increased rapidly. This was reflected by the increasing number of letters published in The Missionary Echo, the widening range of country reports included and the growth in funds routed through the Bath office. This publication has continued in uninterrupted monthly production since that time. Here is a small selection of some of the countries featured in early editions of this magazine, where gospel witness continues today.
When Groves first arrived in India in 1832, his reports on the need stimulated the sending of new workers to the Godavari area of what became Andra Pradesh in 1836. George Beer, a shoemaker, along with William Bowden, a stonemason, attended Ebenezer Chapel in Barnstaple, Devon. A visit by Groves in 1835 focused their developing interest in mission and impressed the gospel needs of India on their hearts. In 1836, they accompanied Groves to India with his party of returning and new missionaries. As their focus was to work among the Telugu people, they settled in the Godavari delta where a work commenced that continues to the present day. Joy Tilsley, who was called Home in 2011, represented the fifth generation of Bowdens to serve in that area of India. When The Missionary Echo began in 1872, there were eight workers in India. Over subsequent years this number grew until it became the largest field receiving workers from Britain and other countries. These established a wide variety of work, much of which continues to grow today under Indian leadership, where active evangelism and church planting is progressing. In our time, international borders are being crossed as India sends workers out to reach new fields.
This UK revival not only led to an increase in church growth and attendance, but also to a large increase in missionary sending.
An early interest in the work in China developed through links with Hudson Taylor. In the first year of The Missionary Echo, letters were included from Taylor, as well as C.H. Judd and G. Stott, who had been serving in China since 1866. As circulation of the new magazine grew, this led to a stream of new recruits for China: the Echoes centenary volume of 1972 listed 254 workers who served in China. These missionaries did not escape the effects of the Boxer uprising of 1900, when 189 missionaries from different societies and thousands of Chinese Christians lost their lives. Tragedy hit the Brethren community shortly after this uprising, when the Kinghams, with their daughter Gracie, lost their lives at the hands of a mob in the provincial capital of Nanchang. Today, mission partners who serve in countries like China continue to face the threat of persecution and restrictions on sharing the gospel, but the church is growing substantially.
The beginnings of the work in what is known as Central Africa will forever be linked with Frederick Stanley Arnot (1858-1914). Returning to Britain to tell of the needs and opportunities in the centre of Africa, Arnot recruited a party of 14 who travelled with him to Africa in 1888. These laid the foundations of an expanding work in Congo, Angola and Zambia. This party included Dr Walter Fisher, who established Kalene Hospital, and Dan Crawford, who produced the Luba-Sanga Bible. Central Africa became one of the largest fields for Brethren mission, where hundreds have served in evangelism, translation of Scriptures, church planting, Bible teaching, training, education, medical work and printing. These many ministries continue to expand today, led by African workers.
May 1867 was a significant time in the history of Argentina, for in that month the first public gospel preaching took place in the Spanish language. Prior to that, all Protestant public services were prohibited. This liberty led to an expansion of gospel work and John Ewan was the first Brethren missionary to go to Argentina in 1882. He was soon joined by other full-time workers, including the Torres, Paynes and Langrans. New local churches were established in the towns along the railway lines, advancing the gospel. Steady growth over the following years saw the work expanding. Today there are an estimated 1,500 local churches in the country with a growing network of Argentinian workers, both in and outside of the country, increasingly involved in cross-cultural mission.
Another area where there was significant input from Brethren missionaries for the best part of 100 years was North Africa. This part of the Muslim world is still excessively difficult to penetrate. Several generations of largely unknown workers served with great sacrifice and diligence. The present growth now being seen in some parts is built on the groundbreaking work done by previous generations. The most intense input in the north of Africa was in Algeria where progress was hard, converts few and many of these lost their lives. The first letter from George Pearse in Algeria was in 1880. Pearse was one of the founders of the Kabyle Mission. H.G. Lamb worked in the mountain villages in Kabylia but faced fanatical opposition. When the local villagers attempted to burn down the mission house, piling straw and wood around it, the missionaries watched from inside. Any attempt to escape would have been impossible as the house was surrounded by a mob. But God intervened, a sub-tropical downpour made it impossible to start the fire! The population’s attitude gradually changed as they saw evidence of the power of God at work. Now it is estimated that there are many thousands of Kabyle Christians, as God has worked in that part of North Africa.
Footsteps Worth Following
As Western culture disintegrates and the voice of the Christian church shifts more to the margins, certainly in the UK but also more widely, it is easy to feel that the era of missions is past. However, a knowledge of church history and a survey of the global work of God during the past 150 years provide a good corrective to despair. As we read the remarkable stories of those who have gone out with the gospel before us, we can see God’s hand at work in building His Church. We are encouraged to follow in the footsteps of our Lord and Saviour.