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General Guide and Introduction to the Archive



The arrangement of the archive reflects the administrative growth of the Society. The Society is basically run by committees and the Secretaries to the main committees are heads of departments at headquarters and in many ways act as a board of directors. The work of the Society is in two parts; home (i.e. within the British Isles) and overseas.


The overseas part of the work was originally the responsibility of the Committee of Correspondence. It was to seek out prospective missionaries, to prepare them for service overseas and to be responsible for them from then on. In effect its role combined the tasks of what were later to be the Candidates, Medical, Africa and Asia departments. For the archives of the Candidates and Medical departments the classification system for work within the British Isles has been used. The Africa and Asia departments have their own classification system for the papers commonly known as the "mission archives" for the period 1799 to 1949. Their post-1934 papers on general subjects however, use the classification system for work within the British Isles.

The two other committees set up when the Society began were the General Committee, which directed overall policy, and the Committee of Accounts (later the Finance Committee) which was responsible for administering the funds. These became the General Secretary's department and the Finance department or division. Both these departments' archives have also been treated as part of the work within the British Isles.

In 1811 a Committee of Funds was appointed whose task was to augment the Society's funds. This developed into the Funds and Home Organisation Committeee in 1881 and the work moved out of the sphere of the Finance department, though it remained closely linked with it. The Home Secretary was head of the Home division whose archives use the classification system for work within the British Isles.


The General Secretary's department is the most important because the General Committee was ultimately responsible for CMS policy. There are three areas of responsibility for the General Secretary. The first is as chief Candidates' Secretary. Apart from a short time during Henry Venn's secretaryship the work of seeking out and training missionary candidates belonged to the General Secretary. The heavy pressure of work led to the formation of a Candidates department in 1897 and this was considered part of the General Secretary's responsibility until 1914 when it became a branch of the Foreign department. However the General Secretary continued to consider himself the chief Candidates Secretary until the major reorganisation of the Society's headquarters administration in 1982. The department's records therefore include the records of Islington College and other training institutions.

Until 1880 the Secretary to the General Committee was also Secretary to the Committee of Correspondence and as such was considered the chief Foreign Secretary (a term not formally used until later). When the three Group Secretaries took over the routine administration of the work in the missions overseas the General Secretary remained responsible for overall policy and continued to be the designated secretary for correspondence with the Archbishop of Canterbury and with overseas bishops. This responsibility has continued to the present day. The department's records therefore comprise not only a major source for the policy underlying the activities of the Society abroad, but are the main source on the formation of churches and dioceses and the appointment of bishops.

All the Secretaries have equal authority in the administration of the Society, but because the General Committee (now General Council) was the Society's ultimate authority the General Secretary is considered "first among equals". He is the representative of the Society in dealing with bishops and archbishops. He is also responsible for all spiritual matters. The department's records therefore contain papers on staff welfare and much personal and confidential correspondence which reflect his role of final arbiter and highest court of appeal.

The Medical department was set up in 1891 and served both the Medical Committee, which was responsible for the administration of medical missions overseas, and the Medical Missions Auxiliary Fund Committee, whose task was to arouse support within the British Isles to enable the MMA "to increase the number and equip thoroughly the medical missions of the Society". The department's archives contain correspondence with all the hospitals and other medical institutions founded and staffed by CMS. The medical periodical called Mercy and Truth contains articles about the institutions and the medical work (though emphasis is on evangelistic opportunities rather than purely medical details).

The Candidates department dates from 1897 but the work of seeking out and training missionary candidates was the responsibility of the Secretary to the General Committee from the founding of the Society. In 1891 pressure of work led to the appointment of an Assistant Clerical Secretary whose sole job was to work with prospective candidates. In 1897 this Assistant was made a full Secretary of the Society and the Candidates department was formed.

Its task was to correspond with and be responsible for prospective missionaries from the time of their first application until their departure to their work. The Secretary was also responsible for corresponding with the five Colonial Church Missionary Associations, whose candidates, from the 1890s until about the 1920s, had to be approved by CMS London before being accepted. The department also corresponded similarly with the West Indies Church Missionary Council, which negotiated the employment of West Indian agents in West Africa.

At first the department was considered part of the General Secretary's responsibility but in 1914 it was proposed that for administrative purposes it should be a branch of the Foreign department (Africa and Asia). In practice it appears to have retained independence while being very closely linked with both the Foreign department and the General Secretary's department.

The Candidates department's papers mainly comprise the application papers of prospective missionaries. Unfortunately it was this department that suffered when an incendiary damaged headquarters in the Blitz. The committee minutes survive, but for the correspondence there is one set of bound volumes of letters for 1846-65 and then a gap until the early 1890s. A small tin trunk full of the "blue packets" of application papers was all that survived for the period up to 1940.

The Finance department existed from the founding of the Society in 1799 when the Committee of Accounts was set up "to receive subscriptions, to regulate the accounts and to undertake the charge of fitting out and conveying the missionaries to the place of their destination". The receipt of money, including that derived from legacies, and the keeping of the accounts remain the chief work of the Finance department today. In 1842 following a financial crisis a Finance Committee was appointed "without whose sanction no expense of any kind was to be incurred". Besides dealing with purely accounting functions, the Finance department has always been responsible for the Society's property at home and overseas and for special funds set up for specific purposes (mainly connected with foreign work). The Finance Secretary has also been responsible for the physical administration and organisation of headquarters and for the payment of salaries and pensions to the missionaries and staff. The department has the usual financial volumes, papers about property etc. There is also interesting correspondence with the Foreign Office and other government departments 1876-1914.

The Home department or division began in 1871 with the appointment of a Central or Home Secretary. The department's earliest responsibility was for the deputation work, through which interest in and support for mission might be stimulated. For this it was largely dependent on the local Associations for which it supplied magazines and other publications as well as missionary collecting boxes. The Home Secretary was also in charge of the field staff (agents from headquarters who were stationed at convenient centres throughout the British Isles and who provided support services for the local CMS supporters).

The work of the department expanded quickly and it became responsible for all the publications of the Society, with an Editorial Secretary (formerly the editor) at the head of a large section. By 1915 when Eugene Stock was Editorial Secretary there were sections dealing with such matters as women's work, missionary study, education (public schools, Young People's Union), exhibitions, and the Gleaners' Union. It was also responsible for organising meetings such as the Summer Schools, congresses, the Day of Intercession and the anniversary meetings (Annual Sermon etc.). The division's responsibilities were at their greatest in the 1940s and 1950s, when there were four departments in charge of 36 sections. The four comprised the Deputy Home Secretary (responsible for deputation work and the field staff), the Editorial Secretary (in charge of all the Society's publications) the Publicity Director and the Education Secretary (who was also responsible for work amongst children and youth).

There are the usual files of correspondence and often minute books for each section of the Home division, though the ephemeral nature of the work means that some sections' records are sparse or incomplete. The Editorial section includes the file set of all the Society's publications.


A. Work within the British Isles

Each Secretary to a CMS main committee has a department at headquarters. These departments have been allocated a reference letter, e.g. C Candidates, F Finance, G General Secretary. The files of each department have then been divided into groups according to the use which the department gave them e.g. A Administration, C Committee work. Where this grouping is very large (notably with the administrative files) there are further sub-divisions, e.g. AC Correspondence, AT Training.

The files or volumes in each group or subdivision are then numbered so that each can be individually called up for reference. Volumes are always individually numbered and occasionally for certain series of correspondence etc. each individual item has its own number. For the most part, however, the reference is for a group of papers comprising a file.

When quoting the file reference it is essential to have the department letter as well as the rest, for the sub-references occur in the papers of nearly all the various departments at headquarters. AC1, for example, merely indicates the first entry in the correspondence series (ref.AC) and must be further differentiated as to whether it is, for example, in the Finance department's records (F/AC1), the Medical department (M/AC 1) or the Candidates' department's files (C/AC 1).

B. Overseas (Missions) Series

Each mission area, as soon as it was allocated a mission secretary, had its own administrative machinery of committees, conferences etc. At the same time it had its own series of correspondence and papers at headquarters. For the period before 1880 the work was under the Committee of Correspondence (C); then in 1880 the work was divided into three groups, each with its own sub-committee East Asia (G1), West Asia (G2) and Africa (G3).

1799-1880 Under the Committee of Correspondence (C)

At some point between 1805 and 1810 the early incoming and outgoing correspondence was collated, bound and indexed and this series continues until 1820 (E). From 1820 until 1880 the copies of outgoing letters were pasted into letter-books (L) and there is a separate series of incoming papers (O). Copies of the incoming papers were made by clerks at headquarters on quires of papers which were bound into mission books (M).

1880-1934 Under Group Committees (Groups 1-3: East Asia;
West Asia; Africa: reference G1, G2, G3)

The main series of letter-books continue for this period (L) and consist almost entirely of official letters to the mission secretary. Private and confidential letters to individual missionaries are entered in a series of individual letter-books (I), the incoming papers (O) were kept year by year in a sequence numbered for each year, while a summary was kept in the précis books (P) (which also acted as agenda for the committee meetings).

1935-1949 Under Africa and Asia Committees

The incoming and outgoing correspondence is kept together in a series of files comprising correspondence with the mission secretary and papers of other local CMS committees in a numbered sequence prefixed by the mission area's own reference; then follows the correspondence with the bishop and diocesan authorities (d); series of files for each educational (e) or medical (m) institution or place (g) in which CMS missionaries worked.

Each mission area has it own classification reference. The African missions (A) are numbered in the order in which work began in the country or area e.g. A 1 Sierra Leone, A 3 Niger, A 8 Tanganyika. The Indian missions likewise: I 1 North India, I 5 Travancore and Cochin. Other missions have letters e.g. CE Ceylon, SN Northern Sudan etc.

N.B. Because all mission archives series have the same sets of letter-books etc., it is essential, when giving references at all times to distinguish the series, e.g. I 4 (Punjab and Sind), CE (Ceylon) and whether it is pre-1880 or post-1880 (i.e. C I 4 or G2 I 4). An incomplete reference such as L 1 (for first letterbook) or P 2 (second précis book) could refer to any of eleven African missions, ten Indian missions, five China missions or many others.

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