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Voyagers All?

The historic role of missionary societies in shaping children’s understandings of Britain’s place in the world

A Collaborative Doctoral Partnership studentship between the National Maritime Museum and the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

This studentship was awarded to Gréine Jordan, who commenced her doctoral research in October 2019.

Project Overview 

In The Making of English National Identity (2003) Krishan Kumar argued that English identity was characterised by a form of ‘missionary nationalism’: 

a nationalism that finds its principle not so much in equating state and nation as in extending the supposed benefits of a particular nation’s rule and civilization to other peoples. 

Kumar did not, however, particularly probe the ‘missionary’ component of ‘missionary nationalism’ – the degree to which exposure to missionary propaganda from a young age profoundly shaped the political, cultural and social attitudes adopted by many children in later life. 

For generations of children growing up in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain, it was at Sunday school that they first came into contact with images of people living in other parts of the world. The scale of this impact should not to be underestimated. Susan Thorne (2006, 143) has suggested that ‘virtually every working-class child attended Britain’s massively popular Sunday Schools at one point or another’. 

Images commissioned by Britain’s missionary societies formed part of their extensive educational programmes, and frequently embodied ideas about Britain’s providential role in the world (Brewer 2005). We might read these in terms of nineteenth-century ideas about ‘the White Man’s burden’, and as part of what we might now call historical constructions of ‘whiteness’, or perhaps more controversially 'the white saviour complex'. 

As Britain embarks on a new chapter in its relationship with the wider world, it becomes increasingly important to re-consider the ways in which this relationship has been imagined in the past. While ‘decolonisation’ has become a buzzword in both museum and academic circles, it has frequently been associated with the attitudes and positions associated with ‘high imperialism’. This project is intended to develop a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which forms of benevolent paternalism were shaped and propagated in the context of British missionary societies, through their engagements with children and young people across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Research Questions: 

  • How did British missionary societies engage with young people, and how did these engagements change over time? 
  • How differently were various regions of the world presented in missionary propaganda? How do the constructions of other parts of the world enable Britain to be imagined in particular kinds of ways? 
  • How were artefacts, images, and texts circulated to young people by missionary societies, and how varied were forms of circulation? 
  • Does the content of images change in response to the development of new media (prints, postcards, lantern slides, photographs)?
  • Is it possible to assess the impact of these images on children? To what extent can recorded fundraising be understood as a proxy for the commitment of children to missionary activity (cf. Prochaska 1978)? 

Relevant Collections at NMM 

In 2012, the Council for World Mission (formerly the London Missionary Society, estd. 1795) relocated its headquarters to Singapore and a great deal of accumulated material was donated to the National Maritime Museum, and has subsequently formed the basis of a display in the 2018 Pacific Encounters gallery. From card games featuring missionary stations, to collecting boxes in the shape of African houses and missionary ships, to suitcases of ethnographic items that were circulated to Sunday schools, this collection includes many of the artefacts and images through which children’s perceptions of the wider world were framed. 

Of particular significance for the National Maritime Museum is the role that missionary ships played in appeals to young people, with annual children’s collections held in support of missionary ships, and children’s organisations, such as the LMS Pilots, taking on a distinctly nautical tone. There are a large number of volumes produced for children about these ships, such as 'Voyagers All!', a 1947 volume produced by the London Missionary Society. This under-researched cache of primary material at the NMM provides a unique opportunity for a PhD student to explore the relationships between missionary texts and the artefacts, objects and images used to engage youthful audiences. 

Outline of research likely to be undertaken 

The primary focus of the project will be the collection of material acquired by the NMM in 2012. Many of these artefacts are insufficiently well understood at present, in terms of their date of production and how they fit into a story of missionary engagements with young people. Research will proceed through contextualisation of this collection in relation to a number of different strands of evidence: 

  • Missionary periodicals focused on young people (many now available online) – the LMS began publishing the Juvenile Missionary Magazine in 1844, continued as News from Afar until 1967
  • Missionary books for children – published by many societies and presented as Sunday school prizes 
  • Missionary archives, and particularly sections relating to the Home Office and outreach activities for children. Key repositories will be SOAS (LMS and Methodist Missionary Society), Birmingham (CMS) and Oxford (BMS)
  • Missionary Images intended for children – some available online and as postcards – others will be encountered in work on periodicals, books and archives
  • Other artefact collections – the Horniman Museum also has material from the educational department of the LMS, and the Church Missionary Society still holds a relevant collection privately. 


Dr Chris Wingfield (Sainsbury Research Unit) –

Dr Robert Blyth (National Maritime Museum) -


Brewer, Sandy. 2005. From darkest England to the hope of the world: Protestant pedagogy and the visual culture of the London Missionary Society. Material Religion 1 (1): 98–123. 

Kumar, Krishan. 2003. The making of English national identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Prochaska, F.K. 1978. Little vessels: children in the nineteenth-century English missionary movement. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 6 (2): 103–18. 

Thorne, Susan. 2006. Religion and empire at home. In Catherine Hall and Sonya O. Rose (eds.), At home with the empire: metropolitan culture and the imperial world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 143–65.