Church Missionary Society – North America

Map of CMS Missions


Mission Books

Journals and Letters

By the end of the 17th century the responsibility for the propagation of the Anglican faith and the conversion of the native peoples in the colonies and dependencies of Great Britain had devolved to voluntary groups. The first of these was The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, which was formed in 1698 to support Christian education and supply Christian literature. Shortly thereafter The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was established in 1701, to provide “a clergy to be resident in the Plantations, Colonies and Factories belonging to this kingdom” to minister to the settlers, and then to seek the conversion of the aborigines.  Thereafter various nonconformist churches in Britain formed Missionary Societies to help with this work: The Baptist Missionary Society was organized in 1792, the London Missionary Society in 1796, and the Glasgow Missionary Society in 1796.

The Church Missionary Society (CMS) had it origins on 12 April 1799, when sixteen Anglican clergymen and nine laymen, under the chairmanship of the Rev. John Venn, met in London and established an organization for missionary activity. This organzation would later acquire the title of the Church Missionary Society. Unlike the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the CMS was, by its constitution, focussed exclusively on the establishment and the support of missions to the “heathen”. This organization extended the scope of missionary activity of the Church of England to Africa and the Near East, and in to an appeal by a member of the North West Company, in 1819, to establish a mission among the Indians beyond the Rocky Mountains. This initial contact would eventually lead to Anglican missionary work in British North West American. In 1820, upon the urgent representation of John Pritchard, the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to appoint a chaplain for the Company in North America. That year the Company appointed John West to the post, and West approached the CMS and proposed the establishment of schools for Indian Children at the Red River Settlement as a means of converting the Indians, and as a center for the propagation of Christianity among the tribes to the north and west. The Committee of the CMS decided to allocate £100 as an experiment and in this way the CMS entered the North West. John West would thus represent both the HBC as their chaplain and the CMS as their agent.

John West arrived at York Factory on 14 August 1820, and drew up a plan for the collection and maintenance of half-breed and Indian Children at one location so they might be educated in an organized system. On his departure for Red River he took with him two native boys, renamed James Hope and Henry Budd, who became the first Indian converts under the auspices of the CMS. At the Red River Settlement, West located his mission three miles north of Fort Douglas, where constructed a chapel, a school, and residences for himself and his Indian pupils. This would eventually come to be known as “The Upper Church” and later as St. John’s. In 1822 the CMS undertook to maintain this establishment, and continued for a century to provide the financial support and missionaries necessary to propagate the gospel throughout North West America.

The CMS did not enter the mission field on the Pacific Coast until 1857. In that year the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel allocated £250 a year for three yeas to support a mission to the Indians on Vancouver Island. In response to an appeal by Captain James C. Prevost, the CMS decided to establish a similar mission on the mainland. William Duncan, a young Yorkshire evangelical, volunteered to go, and in June 1857 he arrived at Victoria. Three months later, Duncan secured passage to Fort Simpson on the Nass River, 500 miles up the coast, where he intended to locate his mission. Because of the interference of traders, Duncan moved his mission to Metlakatla, seventeen miles from Fort Simpson on the Tsimshian Peninsula, where he established a new industrial community for the Tsimshian Indians. Much of the subsequent history of the CMS on the Pacific Coast, until Duncan’s removal in 1887, revolves around this mission and Duncan’s conflict with Bishop Ridley over its administration.

In 1903 the Committee of the CMS passed a series of resolutions designed to terminate their association with the missions of Canada. They believed that the Church of England in Canada should now be able to carry on the mission work there, while the CMS was needed elsewhere. They accordingly began to reduce the size of the annual grants to the missions in western Canada. In 1920 the CMS officially withdrew from Canada. Given the large number of missionaries in the Canadian west who had written about their work for 100 years, the CMS records contain a vast archives concerning the religious, economic, and social history of the Canadian West.

In 1955 the National Archives of Canada microfilmed the records of the CMS relating to Canada. These consisted of fourteen volumes of outgoing correspondence, thirteen volumes of incoming correspondence, and approximately sixty thousand pages of original incoming correspondence filmed on 52 reels of microfilm. (A-75-A-126 – See links at top of page for inventories of this material).

Copies of the incoming correspondence, recopied into bound volumes called “mission books” and listed in the inventory as C.1/M., were made from 1822-1876. The early copies were fairly complete, but in the later years only extracts of important letters were copied with journals and other enclosures excluded. The mission books, however, remain a valuable guide to the correspondence itself.