In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Missions and the British and Irish Churches: 1701–c. 1900

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Faith or Interdenominational Missions
  • Historiographical Issues and Primary Sources
  • Missions and Empire
  • Missions and Colonialism
  • Missions and Gender
  • Colonial Missions
  • Missionaries

Victorian Literature Missions and the British and Irish Churches: 1701–c. 1900
Rowan Strong
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0210


Christian mission, understood principally as a deliberate institutional program to achieve the conversion of non-Christian peoples overseas, became a prominent aspect of most British churches in the nineteenth century. The beginnings of British Christian missions are to be found in the foundation of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in 1701 as a mission society of the Church of England to colonists, Indians, and Black slaves in Britain’s North American colonies. However, the mission impetus in British Christianity gained a fresh activism with the Evangelical Revival of the mid-eighteenth century, which stimulated a concern in transatlantic Protestantism for the personal conversion of people in Britain and North America. The revivalist factor in domestic missions was sustained throughout the nineteenth century. It also resulted in the foundation of the first evangelical foreign mission society, the Baptist Missionary Society, in 1792. Other evangelical (Anglican and Nonconformist) denominational mission societies followed in the early nineteenth century. Later, interdenominational Protestant missions developed, usually known as Faith Missions, which were not underwritten by a particular denomination. This British missionary impetus was certainly connected to the growth of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, but also involved missions beyond the empire. A further aspect of this Victorian mission development was the commencement of what became known as Colonial Missions to support and foster the Christianity of British emigrants in settler colonies of the empire. Older Roman Catholic missions were revived in the nineteenth century, having begun much earlier than Protestant ones (in the sixteenth century); but given its previous centuries of illegal existence in Britain, the Catholic Church in Britain in the nineteenth century was principally caught up in domestic missions to established and immigrant Catholic populations from Ireland and Europe. While mission societies were also founded in several British colonies by British churches there, this overview is concerned with missions from Britain rather than the various global missions themselves.

General Overviews

Modern historical critical evaluation of British mission movement began with Neill 1966. However, general overviews are few, as the massive historical literature on missions concentrates on more detailed subjects. Those that do exist in recent critical scholarship are confined to Protestant British foreign missions; however, Carey 2011 surveys colonial missions. Porter 2004 brought together much of Porter’s earlier scholarship on missions in a wide-ranging survey in which he offered a more nuanced perspective to the connection between missions than the usual postcolonial negative assessment on connections between the British churches and the British Empire. Cox 2008 continued this broader perspective beyond the confines of mission and imperialism, as well as paying more attention to the role of women in missions. All three of these later important overviews of foreign missions set the more well-known 19th-history mission history within the previous context of the eighteenth century.

  • Carey, Hilary. God’s Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World c. 1801–1908. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511921650

    Offers a comprehensive survey and analysis of British colonial missions, both Protestant and Catholic, based on excellent research work in primary sources. Understanding an emerging global “British world” in the development of the British Empire, it examines colonial missions within various contexts, including denominational, church and state, and the British Empire.

  • Cox, Jeffrey. The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700. London: Routledge, 2008.

    A very useful introduction to the history of British foreign missions, including surveys of both British domestic missionary culture and the impact of foreign missions, especially in Africa and Asia. While its principal point of analysis is British imperialism and missions, it includes useful sections on other historical factors, including race, gender, interfaith encounters, and the role of women both as supporters of missions and as missionaries themselves.

  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of the Expansion of Christianity. 7 vols. New York: Harper Brothers, 1937–1945.

    While this massive work is rather dated now, having been written before some contemporary critical analytical themes of modern historiography became prominent, it is still worth consulting for basic narratives of many of the global fields of mission engaged in by British and Irish churches (in Volumes 4–6).

  • Neill, Stephen. Colonialism and Christian Missions. London: Lutterworth Press, 1966.

    While not restricted to European colonialism, this monograph was a groundbreaking investigation of the connection between Christian missions and colonization by the European imperial powers, particularly in the nineteenth century. It provided, for its time, a global overview of missions in this colonialism context that has become a major motif in mission historiography.

  • Porter, A. Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.

    An important historical overview by one of the significant historians of British foreign missions. In a monograph that is the final fruit of many previous publications on the subject, Porter raises important questions about missions as merely agents of British imperialism. It includes useful insights into Anglican and non-evangelical missions that have been rather overlooked in the scholarly historical literature.

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