Artist's impression of the first meeting of CMS in 1799
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A brief history of CMS

From its beginnings in the crucible of the campaign to abolish slavery, a small group of pioneers became a worldwide network of people in mission
The Society was founded in Aldersgate Street in the City of London on 12 April 1799. Most of the founders were members of the Clapham Sect, a group of activist evangelical Christians. They included Henry Thornton MP and William Wilberforce MP. The founders of CMS were committed to three great enterprises: abolition of the slave trade, social reform at home and world evangelisation.

Wilberforce was asked to be the first president of the Society but he declined due to his workload but took on the office of vice president. Thornton became the first Treasurer. The Rev Josiah Pratt, curate of St John, Bedford Row (London) soon emerged in a proto-chief executive role.

The spiritual background to the emergence of CMS was the great outpouring of energy in Western Europe now called The Great Awakening. John Wesley an Anglican priest and failed missionary became a key player in the UK version of the story. Not all those influenced by the revival left the Anglican Church to become Methodists. One such was John Venn, the saintly rector of Clapham.

Members of the second and third generation following the revival saw many opportunities to consolidate its effects. Alongside the main Clapham agenda they sponsored Sunday Schools for evangelism and education, founded Bible Societies and much more.

The Reformation and the abolition of monasteries and religious orders left the Church of England without vehicles for mission, especially for outreach to the non-Christian world. This new membership society agreed to be loyal to the leadership of bishops and an Anglican pattern of liturgy, but not dominated by clergy and emphasised on the role of laymen and women. Much of what we call the Anglican Communion today traces its origins to CMS work. However CMS today is not confined just to Anglicanism, both in terms of people it sends out in mission or ally agencies and projects around the world.

It was expected that Church of England clergy would quickly come forward to be missionaries. When this didn’t materialise CMS turned towards mainland Europe and the earliest missionaries were German Lutherans. For over a century CMS enjoyed rich work relations with the Churches and seminaries of Western Europe. Sadly this was gradually eroded as the European superpowers vied with each other in the race for colonial expansion. Even so we can say the 20th-century quest for Christian unity began through the experience of mission.

Initially the Society had no designated offices. In 1813 it rented premises in Salisbury Square in the City of London and by the end of the 19th century a row of houses had become a large headquarters with a complex administration and numerous staff. In 1966 it moved to premises in Waterloo Road. In 2007 it moved to East Oxford to premises fitted serving to 21st century mission as part of a network of mission hubs all over the world.

The overseas mission work of CMS began in Sierra Leone in 1804 but spread rapidly to India, Canada, New Zealand and the area around the Mediterranean. Its main areas of work in Africa have been in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Sudan; in Asia, CMS's involvement has principally been in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China and Japan; and in the Middle East, it has worked in Palestine, Jordan, Iran and Egypt.

The chaplain on the First Fleet to Australia was sent at the urging of Wilberforce. The second was sent by CMS and is regarded as the Apostle to New Zealand where CMS Britain worked directly (1809–1914). Other work included Canada (1822–1930), with smaller missions in Abyssinia (1830–1842), Asia Minor (Smyrna) (1830–1877), Greece (1830–1875), Madagascar (1863–1874), Malta (1815–1843), Mauritius (1856–1929), Seychelles (1871–1894), South Africa (1840–1843), Turkey (1819–1821), Turkish Arabia (Baghdad, 1883–1919 and Mosul, 1900–1919), and the West Indies (1819–1861).

Canon Max Warren, perhaps the greatest CMS leader of the 20th century has suggested that CMS history had three distinct epochs where a specific metaphor summed up the nature and style of the work: 'fly-casting', 'scaffolding' and 'institutionalising', leading into the post-colonial world and a new philosophy of 'interchange'.

Read more about the distinct epochs of CMS history and where we are today...

CMS timeline