Project Canterbury

A New Year's Letter on the Present Condition of the Melanesian Mission, by Its Bishop.

From The Southern Cross Log, Auckland, Vol. 5, No. 56, December 15, 1899, pages 5-9.

By Cecil Wilson

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2010

[5] A.D. 1900



May the New Year bring with it to you every blessing from God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

I want, if I can, in a few words, to lay before you now, when our Jubilee Year has almost gone by, and we are, as it were, beginning afresh, the condition of the Melanesian Mission— the Church's Mission to the South Sea Islanders.

I am moved to do this because I have now completed my fifth year as Bishop of this Mission, and have lately returned from my fifth voyage all round my diocese.

It is time, I believe, for me to speak, and I think that I am now qualified, and indeed compelled, to speak.

I am the more moved to take this step because there are others, besides ourselves, beginning to do, or offering to do, our work for us in our own islands.

I have this year found the beginning of what promises to be a strong Roman Catholic Mission, on an island off Guadalcanar in the Solomons. A staff of priests, visited and directed by the Bishop in Fiji, is already on the spot.

Another Roman Mission is actively engaged among our heathen and converts in the New Hebrides.

I have, moreover, received an official letter from the Presbyterian Mission in the New Hebrides, asking me whether I should prefer to yield to their Mission three of our islands in the New Hebrides, adjacent to them, or all our islands in the German Solomons, including Bugotu.

I have also received a private communication from a Wesleyan minister, lately of Fiji, saying that their Mission has trained numbers of our Guadalcanar lads in their College at Fiji, and that their supporters in the Colonies are pressing them to send these boys, with regular Wesleyan missionaries to help them, to Guadalcanar, for the speedy conversion of that great island.

The Church could not, with honour, give up any further portion of the islands, which, under the first Bishop Selwyn, Bishop Patteson, and Bishop John Selwyn, it undertook as its share of the Western Pacific. It is a small enough share as it is, when we consider that Christians, of other religious' bodies, have occupied the Southern New Hebrides, the Loyalties, the Fijis, and almost all the islands in the Eastern Pacific.

[6] I cannot, in my episcopate, consent to make it still smaller; and yet I can plainly see that, as the Melanesian Mission is now equipped, with a handful of clergy and a slow Mission vessel, there is no human possibility of our bringing all our people to a knowledge of Christ within this generation, or even the next.

After fifty years of labour we have never yet seen Choiseul or Bougainvi1le, while Rubiana, Rennell Island, Utupua, and Vanikoro, are all large islands quite untouched.

Our position is this: The Mission is utterly undermanned.

We are fourteen European missionaries all told. Of these, at least three must stay at Norfolk Island to train the native teachers, upon whom all our work depends. One more must stay for the same reason at S. Luke's, Siota (Solomon Islands). Of the remaining ten, one is in England on sick leave, and I fear may not return; another is in England as Organising Secretary, because I am always told that the Church at Home and in the Colonies needs "someone from the spot" to preach and lecture, or it will do but little for the Mission's support.

There are eight of us left to supervise the work of 400 native teachers (of whom twelve are in holy orders), in islands scattered over 1,000 miles of ocean. How can we lead the attack on new islands, and still "hold up like white corks the black net," as Bishop Selwyn expressed it?

A black net of native teachers is a splendid fishing apparatus if it is properly supported, but, with only eight of us to hold it up, there is every chance of it sinking.

Native teachers are admirable, and very effective in working among their own people, but we must not expect them to hold their ground against clever French priests.

Hitherto, we have withdrawn to Norfolk Island for some months in each year, in order to teach our people self-reliance and independence. Now Roman priests are living on the spot, working among our people, and in our absence filling up vacancies in our schools with their teachers.

The system of the Mission's work must be adapted to its altered circumstances. Most of us must now live in the islands, with our people, from year's end to year's end. We have a good staff of native teachers, but, as their difficulties increase, they need their leaders more constantly with them; they will then be three times as efficient. We must have men settled on all these islands which we have not yet touched. We must have men settled also in the islands where, for fifty years, we have sown the seed, or else others will gather in our harvest.

We must have a Mission vessel capable of travelling about, freely and quickly, between all the groups of islands.

[7] To make the Melanesian Mission adequate for the work that the Church has sent it to do, it needs twenty more European missionary clergy and laymen, and a new fairly-fast Mission vessel, costing at least £12,000.

The following table will show the condition of the Melanesian Mission as it is, and as it should be:—


  Staff Schools Teachers Scholars at Norfolk Island Income  
1894 9 Men, 6 Women 122 381 188 £7545  
1904 27 Men, 13 Women 292 655 269 15564/18/11  

This is much to ask for, but not too much; for, after all, it is only asking the Church to take seriously in hand her missionary work in the islands.

I know what self-denial there has been on the Mission's behalf; I know what work, what generosity, what prayers, what men have been sent in the past; but has not most of this been the work of individuals, and of small parties of earnest supporters, rather than of the Church as a whole?

I do not consider that the Church has encouraged her clergy to go and win the "dark hearts" of the islands to Christ. She has not organised her missionary work so that means have been abundant and unfailing. She has not begged her rich to give their thousands with the generosity with which her poor have given their mites. She has not been straightened until the heathen be given an opportunity of knowing their Saviour.

She has enjoyed the picturesqueness of a Mission to the Islands, and its history has appealed strongly to sentiment; but the far higher, nobler, and only sound motive for missionary work—the love of Christ, obedience to His command, and pity for the unsaved—has too often been absent.

[8] Fifty years would not otherwise have been allowed to pass, and the Cross not yet planted on islands which she pledged herself to win.

It is still not too late. Make this year for us an annus mirabilis. It is the Jubilee Year of the Australian Board of Missions. Let it be the year when the Church, as a whole, begins once more to do her duty among the South Sea Islands. In conclusion, let me say that the men you send to us should be of your best. These are often said to be too good for, and thrown away upon, savages. A man cannot be too good to have sole or part spiritual charge of an island, perhaps 100 miles long, with a dozen different dialects spoken on it.

The State does not hesitate to send out its best men—its Johnstons and its Lugards—to do its work, nor should the Church.

I can find work for others, but I want the best men, for it is they who leave their mark on the people, and whose names will live on in the Church, as pioneers of the Gospel.

There will be many to tell them that they are throwing themselves away, and making shipwreck of their lives. For myself and the members of my staff, I can say, that without professing to be among the best, we have all been through that; and yet there is not one of us who would not say, that by becoming a missionary at the call of his Lord, he had taken the best step he ever took in his life.

Twenty new men and a first-rate Mission vessel is what we ask for. Then in twenty years, I believe, we may hope that, under God, Melanesia will be Christian.

I am, by the grace of God,
Yours affectionately, in Christ,
Bishop of Melanesia.

Norfolk Island, November 11, 1899.

Project Canterbury