To celebrate the founding of BCMS on October 27th 1922 may seem, at first sight, a surprising thing to do.
It is, of course, important to honour the memory of our founders’ spiritual courage and tenacity and it is also valuable to be reminded of the principles and priorities to which we are heirs. Nevertheless, 1922 is not the year that marks the beginning of the story of the Society, any more than the history of the church in England begins with the Reformation and the launch of the Church of England as a denomination. It is, in fact, the date when the unhappy theological division between what the majority of CMS had become in the early years of the 20th century, and those within it at the time who adhered to the convictions handed down from their forefathers (particularly regarding the trustworthiness of the Scriptures) parted company. To understand why this division took place, and why it is appropriate to mark it with an annual Crosslinks Day, we need to go back beyond 1922 to the close of the 18th century. The decision to rename the BCMS as Crosslinks in the 1990’s makes it especially important that we revisit this history, lest we forget who we are and “the rock from which we were hewn” and risk forfeiting vital lessons for our own day.
The story begins in a coffee house in London in 1799. Gathered together on April 12th, in a room on the first floor of the Castle & Falcon in Aldersgate Street, is a group of sixteen Church of England clergymen and nine laymen united in their commitment to the cause of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Under the chairmanship of John Venn (son of Henry Venn of Yelling), they have assembled after four years of discussion and deliberation to form a society dedicated to proclaiming that gospel beyond the shores of Britain, to the ends of the earth.
They met at a time of considerable national crisis. George III was on the throne, recently recovered from his episode of madness, the nation’s affairs lay in the hands of the brilliant young Prime Minister, William Pitt and the country was engaged in a desperate struggle for survival in the war against post-revolutionary France where Napoleon was in his ascendancy. The young Horatio Nelson had begun to emerge as a national hero but, despite her naval forces enjoying dominance of the seas, Britain’s army was in such a perilously weak condition that the possibility of an invasion across the channel posed a serious threat. The economy seemed stretched to breaking point with the financial burden of the war, although it stood actually on the brink of a transforming industrial revolution. Unabated by the loss of the American colonies Britain’s international trade was flourishing, accompanied by the notoriously cruel commerce of the West African slave trade. In Parliament the MP for Yorkshire, William Wilberforce, was engaged in a campaign, suggested to him by his close friend Pitt, for its abolition. Having been converted in 1785 Wilberforce was an active member of the so-called Clapham Sect, amongst whom John Venn as Rector of Clapham was the Bible teacher. At the same time Wilberforce retained his long standing political friendships, enjoying a privileged position in the Prime Minister’s inner circle.
Today Wilberforce is mostly remembered for his strenuous efforts, sustained over a long period, in securing the legislation for the abolition of the Slave Trade that led eventually to emancipation. However, he believed that “God hath laid before me two great objects”; these were the emancipation of African slaves and the reformation of the practice of real Christianity in England. For Wilberforce the writing of his book “A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians contrasted with Real Christianity” (often abbreviated, for obvious reasons, to “Real Christianity”) was every bit as important as his parliamentary work. It was a labour of love that sold in considerable numbers and he intended it to be the means of fulfilling the second of these “great objects”. Accomplished in the midst of many rival demands on his time, and consequently agonisingly slow in completion (in its author’s estimation), he wrote in the book’s introduction, “It has been, for several years, the earnest wish of the Writer to address his Countrymen on the important subject of Religion; but the various duties of his public station, and a constitution incapable of much labour, have obstructed the execution of his purpose”. He set out that purpose in unmistakeably clear terms, “The main object is…to point out the scanty and erroneous system of the bulk of those who belong to the class of orthodox Christians, and to contrast their defective scheme with a representation of what the author apprehends to be real Christianity…the subject is of infinite importance…this present scene, with all its cares and gaieties, will soon be rolled away and we must stand before the judgment seat of Christ. This awful consideration will prompt the writer to express himself with greater freedom than he should otherwise be disposed to use. And he trusts that this consideration will secure to him a serious and patient perusal”.
What follows makes for intriguing reading 200 years later – far from charging his contemporaries with (as might well be supposed) failing to maintain a sharpness of social conscience, Wilberforce’s concern is with the abandoning of fundamental gospel convictions. Thus he launches into a restatement of the classical, biblical doctrine of sin and the corruption of human nature, points to the unique saving work of Christ and urges repentance from what he calls “neglect of the peculiar (i.e. specific and unique) doctrines of Christianity” - in particular the authority of Scripture, the nature of holiness, the lamentable state of the church and her leadership in his day and the importance of real Christians “exerting themselves in the present times”. In all this he was careful to lead by example.
Although Wilberforce was not personally present at the meeting in April 1799, he lent his fullest support to the proposed missionary initiative; one man who was there was Charles Simeon, the indefatigable Rector of Holy Trinity, Cambridge. Simeon had undertaken the journey to London in order to lend his weight to the launch of what would soon become known as the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Acknowledging the already established work of the SPCK and SPG, mainly in the Americas, the meeting agreed to establish a new society “to send missionaries to the Continent of Africa or other parts of the heathen world”. As a matter of principle they insisted on the necessity of sending “spiritual men” to accomplish “spiritual work”, resolving that they would recommend only those who had themselves “experienced the benefits of the gospel and therefore earnestly desire to make known to their perishing fellow-sinners the grace and power of the Redeemer and the inestimable blessings of his salvation”. In an account drawn up for public distribution John Venn spelled out their ambition to work for God’s glory amongst the nations. Echoing the language of ISAIAH 66 he wrote of their hope that “since God has so signally defended this Island with His mercy as with a shield, His gracious hand, to which, amidst the wreck of nations, our safety had been owing,” would be “acknowledged and his goodness known in distant lands”.
Having declined the invitation to be President of the new society, owing to the pressing nature of his other duties, Wilberforce nevertheless agreed to lead a deputation to visit the Archbishop of Canterbury. The intention was to present him with a copy of Venn’s “Account”, the Rules of the Society and a letter from the Chairman not asking the Archbishop for permission to launch the CMS, nor even for patronage, but rather informing him of the development and inviting his support, “humbly trusting that his Grace would be pleased favourably to regard their attempt to extend the benefits of Christianity”. Although dated 1st July 1799 it was not until August that Wilberforce succeeded in obtaining an audience, and a full year lapsed before the Archbishop’s response was given, after having consulted with his fellow bishops. Wilberforce wrote to the Committee in July 1800, “I have had an interview with the Archbishop who has …expressed himself in as favourable a way as could be well expected…his Grace regretted that he could not with propriety at once express his full concurrence and approbation… (but) acquiesced in the hope that the Society might go forward…and that it would give him pleasure to find (their activities) such as he could approve”.
Those activities, flowing from the momentous decision of 1799, constitute the story of the CMS under which, for more than a hundred years, the gospel was taken to the farthest corners of the earth. Churches were planted in places such as the Niger where William Crowther’s missionary endeavour bears fruit today in the Church of Nigeria’s influence within the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Tragically, in the early years of the 20th Century and whilst so much effective gospel work was being continued around the world, the church at home found itself subjected to a tidal wave of theological liberalism that threatened to carry all before it. In the aftermath of yet another terrible European war the leadership of the CMS considered that their Society could not defy such a modernising movement but should rather adapt to the “new learning” and be less rigid about the requirements for belief and practice of would-be candidates, provided they had a zeal for serving abroad. This approach was firmly resisted by those who retained strong convictions about the authority of the Scriptures and who recognised the obligation of “contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (JUDE 3). To them it appeared beyond question that what a candidate believed personally must affect the message that he proclaimed, be it either in content or in fruitfulness. When it became clear that a modernising, theologically liberal consensus held sway within the hierarchy of the CMS a faithful remnant, under the leadership of Daniel Bartlett, felt that they had no alternative but to part company and to launch a new society, adhering to the original principles and purpose of 1799. They named it pointedly, if not all that tactfully, the Bible Churchman’s Missionary Society (BCMS).
On October 27th 1922, at the office of the Christian Alliance in Bedford Street, London, a group of clergy and laity met “with bowed heads, and hearts trusting only in God” to launch the BCMS, which was immediately consecrated to God in prayer. In their account titled The First Twenty-five Years published in 1947 Hooton & Wright comment, “It was with sadness of heart that the decision to leave the old Society was arrived at by the leaders of the new one. They were men who had regarded the Church Missionary Society with affectionate or even passionate devotion, as representing the ideal of evangelical principles and evangelistic activity: probably all of them had been life-long supporters of its work. Some who were present at this opening gathering can recall the emotion with which so serious a step was taken, and the deep feelings that were aroused as the new Society was commended to God in prayer”.
The reaction to the launch of the new society was fiercely hostile, drew on the widespread affection for the CMS and was accompanied by accusations of schism. Some felt that, even if the CMS was no longer fully reliable, at least a sphere of conservative work might be attempted within it in preference to forming a new society; others went so far as to dismiss the new society as a work of the devil. Bartlett issued a pamphlet entitled “Why a new society?” giving an account of the events leading up to the decision and the reasons for it. The liberal elements within the CMS leadership eventually broke their silence with the publication of the volume Liberal Evangelicalism. In a contemporary review the Church Times set the record straight, “Despite the eager disclaimers of the twelve contributors to the volume before us (at least six of whom had been active on the liberal side in the recent dispute) it is obvious that most of the fundamental beliefs of historical evangelicalism have been discarded … much is said about social service, but nothing about redemption through Christ’s blood…Truly the passage from Clapham to the New Thought has not been an evolution but a revolution…That Evangelicalism should shed its prejudices is a good thing, but not that it should scrap its convictions, and with them much of the Christian verity as well. The present writers would have been more courageous if, in becoming Liberals, they had admitted they were no longer Evangelicals”.
Undeterred by such hostility the leaders and membership of the new Society set about fresh gospel initiatives with extraordinary energy and determination, confident that God would provide the resources necessary for a work that honoured his name. Godly men and women headed off to such far flung places as Burma and the Arctic, whilst in Britain the need to train men and women in biblical convictions for mission work was addressed in the establishing of BCMS theological colleges. Official recognition was granted to these colleges in Bristol towards the end of 1927 and in 1928 the first ordinations took place for BCMS candidates for gospel ministry at home and abroad. In those same years the Society played a significant role in the resistance to the scheme for replacing the Book of Common Prayer with a theologically revised version and demonstrated a serious commitment to the cause of the gospel within the Church of England at home, as well as within the Anglican Communion abroad, which continues today.
Crosslinks’ contemporary strap line GOD’S WORD TO GOD’S WORLD catches well the aims and ambition of those who, at great cost, established the BCMS “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (see REV 1:9). The subsequent eighty-plus years of the Society have proven the faithfulness of Almighty God to those who trust him and born witness to the wisdom and courage of those who dared to take such a principled and brave decision in 1922.
Today we can hardly avoid asking ourselves whether, had we been in their shoes, we would have had the courage and conviction to do as they did. At the time there were not lacking those who counselled strongly against taking such a step, urging the value of unity (“Is this the right way?”), the need for patience (“Is this really the right time?”), the obligation of charity (“Who are we to judge others?”) and the danger of schism (“What about the reputation of the gospel?”). It is not difficult to see the pertinence of the events of 1922 to the crisis facing those loyal to the scriptures within the worldwide Anglican Communion today – a crisis over issues that men and women in both camps of the 1922 divide would scarcely have believed possible could become matters of serious controversy within a Christian church. Yet such is the scope of the liberal agenda that, given time, almost anything lies within its reach.
In marking the founding of BCMS in October 1922 we celebrate a stand taken on theological principle, not as an end in itself but for the sake of the gospel. As we do so we are mindful of our opportunities – and responsibilities - for the cause of God’s mission today. Perhaps we would do well to pray for a measure of that same sense of purpose and uncompromising determination demonstrated more than eighty years ago so that we may prove faithful in our day and generation.
G.R. BALLEINE A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England (1908)
Charles BARTLETT Why a new Society? (Booklet published in 1922)
G.W. BROMILY Daniel Henry Charles Bartlett - A Memoir
(Morrison & Gibb1959)
HOOTON & WRIGHT The first twenty-five years (BCMS 1947)
H.E. HOPKINS Charles Simeon of Cambridge (Allen & Unwin 1977)
H.C.G. MOULE Charles Simeon (1892)
Eugene STOCK The History of the CMS (1899)
William WILBERFORCE Real Christianity (1797)