Church Missionary Society Archive

Reference code(s): GB 0150 CMS
Held at: Birmingham - University of, Information Services, Special Collections Department
Title: Church Missionary Society Archive
Date(s) of contents: 1799-1959
Level of description: Fonds
Extent and medium: 250 linear metres


Name of creator(s):

Administrative/Biographical history: In the late 18th century, the Church of England did not have a body to organise and effect its missionary activity and the realisation grew that there was scope for a society to evangelise indigenous people. In 1799, a group of Evangelical clergymen and laymen (all members of the Eclectic Society, an Anglican discussion society) met at the Castle and Falcon Inn in Aldersgate in the City of London and the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East was formed. At that meeting, John Venn, rector of Clapham (and a member of the Clapham sect) laid down the guidelines which the CMS continues to follow. The basis was that the society should be loyal to the leadership of bishops and to the Anglican pattern of liturgy but that it was not to be dominated by clergy. It emphasised the role of laymen and laywomen and was and is primarily a membership society comprising its missionaries, its supporters and its staff at headquarters.

The Church Missionary Society (now renamed as the Church Mission Society) is administered by its committees and each Secretary to a main committee is in charge of a department at headquarters. The General Committee (now the General Council) is the most important and is responsible for overall policy: all CMS members are represented on the General Committee. The main departments at headquarters included the General Secretary's Department, the Finance Department (both in existence from the foundation of the Society), the Medical Department (set up in 1891), the Candidates Department (set up in 1897) and the Home Department (set up in 1871). Initially the Society had no designated offices but in 1813 it rented premises in Salisbury Square which had expanded by the end of the 19th century to house a large headquarters with a complex administration and numerous staff working under eleven Secretaries. The Society moved from the City of London in 1966 to its current premises in Waterloo Road.

The overseas mission work of the CMS began in Sierra Leone in 1804 but spread rapidly to India, Canada, New Zealand and the area around the Mediterranean. Its main areas of work in Africa have been in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan; in Asia, the CMS involvement has principally been in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China and Japan; and in the Middle East, it has worked in Palestine, Jordan, Iran and Egypt. It has also worked extensively in New Zealand (1809-1914) and Canada (1822-1930), with smaller missions in Abyssinia (1830-1842), Asia Minor (Smyrna) (1830-1877), Greece (1830-1875), Madagascar (1863-1874), Malta (1815-1843), Mauritius (1856-1929), Seychelles (1871-1894), South Africa (1840-1843), Turkey (1819-1821), Turkish Arabia (Baghdad 1883-1919 and Mosul 1900-1919), and the West Indies (1819-1861). All overseas mission work was administered by the Committee of Correspondence up to 1880. In 1880, the system of mission administration was revised and the mission field was divided into three geographical areas under three Group Sub-Committees: from 1935 the missions were administered by the Africa and Asia Committees.

Henry S. Cobb, 'The archives of the Church Missionary Society', Archives, vol 2, no 14 (1955).
Rosemary Keen, 'The Church Missionary Society Archives: or thirty years work in the basement', Catholic Archives, 1 (1981).
Church Missionary Society Archive, General guide and introduction to the archive: a guide to the microfilm collection (Adam Matthew Publications, 1998).

Custodial history: Following a long-term contract made between CMS and the University of Birmingham for the gradual transfer on permanent loan of the Church Missionary Society Archive, the first transfer from CMS headquarters in London took place in 1979-1980. This deposit comprised the Africa Overseas Missions records for the period up to 1934. The second phase of transfer took place in 1986. This comprised the East Asia and West Asia Overseas Missions records for the same period, up to 1934. The next major transfer of records from CMS headquarters was completed by 1993 and this included the records of the Overseas Missions for the period 1935-1949, records of the Finance, Medical and Candidates Departments; together with related archives including the surviving records of the Female Education Society and the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society as well as the privately deposited archive collection known as the Church Missionary Society Unofficial Papers. An additional deposit of material for 1950-59 was received in 2000.
The CMS has long recognised the value of its archives and first employed an archivist in 1951 in order to make the early mission archives available. The cataloguing work of the archive has all been undertaken by CMS archivists, most notably Rosemary Keen.

Immediate source of acquisition:


Scope and content/abstract: The official archives of the Church Missionary Society comprise the records of the administrative departments at the Society's headquarters, principally the General Secretary's, Finance, Medical, Candidates and Women's Departments, and the records of its Overseas Missions.
The archives of the administrative departments include Committee and Sub-Committee minutes, administrative files, incoming and outgoing correspondence, letter books, registers, missionary application papers, ledgers, cash books and other financial records, printed and other materials. These archives relate to the central administration and running of the society, and include for example records relating to CMS policy and direction, the seeking out and training of missionary candidates, records of the CMS training institutions and children's homes, papers relating to the welfare of its staff, correspondence with overseas bishops and other missionary societies, papers relating to CMS property, and correspondence with its overseas hospitals and other medical institutions.
The archives of its Overseas Missions include letter books, mission books, original (incoming) papers, precis books and other records. During the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, the CMS exercised close supervision and control over its missions and, as a result, the records are both extensive and detailed. The mission papers are therefore a rich source for Church and mission history and enterprise. The papers include, for example, the detailed journals and annual letters which the society's missionaries were required to provide as an account of their activities. As the work of the missions embraced not just evangelism but also for example education, medical work, language study and translations, and development of local agriculture and industry, these detailed records are a valuable resource for study in a wide range of other research interests including anthropology, politics, slavery, geography and travel, and women's studies.
The archive also includes sets of some of the CMS publications and reports. These include its Register of missionaries (clerical, lay & female) and native clergy from 1804 to 1904 (1905); Proceedings of the Church Missionary Society (incorporating its annual report), 1801-1921/22, the Annual Report of the Committee of the Church Missionary Society, 1922/23- ; CMS Annual letters of missionaries, 1886-1912 (printed for private circulation); the CMS Historical Record 1919, 1922/23-1945/46 (a typescript record); and Mercy and Truth, 1897-1921 and The Mission Hospital, 1922-1940 (a periodical for the CMS medical mission work).

System of arrangement: The arrangement of the archive largely reflects the administrative growth of the Society. For the purposes of cataloguing, the work of the Society has been divided into two parts - work at home (ie in the British Isles) and work overseas.
The arrangement of the records of the CMS relating to its work within the British Isles is by Department. Each Department has been allocated a reference letter (eg C=Candidates, F=Finance and G=General Secretary) and the records within each department have then been arranged into a classification scheme according to their creation and use by that department (eg A=Administration, C=Committee work, with further subdivisions as appropriate).
The records relating to the CMS's overseas work are organised into three chronological divisions: 1799-1880; 1880-1934; and 1935-1959. These divisions reflect the changes made by the Society in the administration of its overseas mission work. Once established, each mission area had its own administrative machinery including a mission secretary, committees and conferences and it also had its own series of correspondence and papers at headquarters. Each mission area was allocated a reference letter/letters and number and this reference is retained throughout the whole period 1799-1959. For example, the missions in Africa are all given the letter A and then numbered in the order in which work began (eg A1= Sierra Leone; A8=Tanganyika).
Overseas Missions under the Committee of Correspondence (C), 1799-1880:
The Committee of Correspondence (also known as the Parent Committee), established in 1799, directed the overseas mission work of the Society until 1880. The records of each mission for the period 1805-1880 (which are all prefixed by the letter C, followed by the mission reference) comprise the following series:
E=early incoming and outgoing correspondence, 1805-1820 (for the missions established before 1820 only);
L=letter books containing copies of outgoing letters from CMS headquarters, 1820-1880;
O=incoming papers and correspondence from the mission secretary and missionaries (arranged alphabetically by name of missionary), 1820-1880;
M=mission books containing copies of the incoming papers by clerks at headquarters, 1820-1880
Overseas Missions under the Group Sub-Committees, 1880-1934:
In 1880, the overseas mission work was divided into three groups, each with its own sub-committee. The mission areas were divided between three regions, East Asia (Group 1), West Asia (Group 2) and Africa (Group 3). The missions geographically outside Asia and Africa were allocated to one of the Groups to equalise the work of the Secretaries serving the Group Committees.
The records of each mission for the period 1880-1934 (which are all prefixed by the appropriate reference for the Group, followed by the unique mission reference) comprise the following series:
I=letter books containing private and confidential letters to individual missionaries;
L=letter books containing copies of outgoing letters from CMS headquarters, mostly official letters to the mission secretary;
O=incoming papers and correspondence from the mission secretary and missionaries (arranged chronologically);
P=precis books containing a summary of the original papers and used as agenda for committee meetings.
Overseas Missions under Africa and Asia Committees, 1935-1959:
From 1935, the incoming and outgoing correspondence and papers are all kept together and arranged by their missions and then organised into a number of file series (all prefixed by the mission area's unique reference, followed by number or letter references). These include correspondence with the mission secretary and papers of local CMS committees; correspondence with bishops and diocesan authorities; and series of files for each educational, medical or other institution or place in which the CMS missionaries worked.


Language: English

Conditions governing access: Open Access to all registered researchers. The CMS archives are subject to a 40 year closure period and material is usually released at the end of each decade (ie the latest records to be released are 1950-59 which were made available at the beginning of 2000). Annual letters of missionaries are subject to a 50 year closure period; letters up to 1951 are available for consultation and letters for subsequent years will be released on an annual basis.

Conditions governing reproduction: Permission to make any published use of any material from the collection must be sought in advance in writing, in the first instance from the University Archivist, Special Collections (email: The copyright owner of a large proportion of the archive is vested in the Church Mission Society and requests to make published use of materials will therefore be forwarded to the CMS Archivist, as appropriate.

Finding aids: A complete paper catalogue of the deposited archive to file and item level is available in the Special Collections Department reading room and at the National Register of Archives in London. An electronic catalogue of part of the collection, principally the Overseas Missions records, is available on the University of Birmingham Information Services Online Archive Catalogue.. Further parts of the catalogue will be made available electronically in due course.
A card index to the archive, compiled by the CMS, is available on microfiche for consultation in the Special Collections Department reading room. This is principally a name index but it also includes some places and subjects. In addition other printed guides and registers are available for use.


Related material: The Special Collections Department holds microfilm sets of other CMS journals not included in the archive (acquired as part of the microfilm collection published by Adam Matthew Publications).
The Special Collections Department holds archives of other missionary societies including the following:
Church of England Zenana Missionary Society (CEZ);
Society for Promoting Female Education in the East (FES);
Loochoo Naval Mission (L);
Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society (MS47).
It also holds the Church Missionary Society Unofficial Papers (CMS/ACC), a large collection of privately deposited papers relating to the work of the Church Missionary Society, both at home and through its overseas missions, and to its missionaries and their families. This collection complements the official archive of the Church Missionary Society.


Archivist's note: Administrative history compiled using:
Henry S. Cobb, 'The archives of the Church Missionary Society', Archives, vol 2, no 14 (1955).
Rosemary Keen, 'The Church Missionary Society Archives: or thirty years work in the basement', Catholic Archives, 1 (1981).
Church Missionary Society Archive, General guide and introduction to the archive: a guide to the microfilm collection (Adam Matthew Publications, 1998).

Date(s) of descriptions: Created 12/09/2002, modified 18/09/2002 Bassettp

Anglican missionary societies
Educational missionary work
Indigenous clergy
Indigenous lay workers
Medical Missionary work
Mission administration
Mission educational institutions
Mission hospitals
Mission policy
Mission schools
Missionary training

Personal names
Venn | Henry | 1796-1873 | Anglican missions administrator and theorist
Venn | John |1739-1813 | a founder of the Church Missionary Society
Warren | Max | 1904-1977 | historian and General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society 1942-1963

Corporate names
Church Missionary Society

East Africa
East Asia
Middle East
New Zealand
North America
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South Asia
Sri Lanka
West Africa