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A Brief History of Episcopal Missions

by Louise Hannum ReachOut January 1996

Before the Revolutionary War the Church of England saw the colonies as their mission field. Many of the Epis­copal churches on the East Coast were started by the Society for the Pro­pa­ga­tion of the Gospel in For­eign Parts. After the Revolutionary War, many church members loyal to the crown left for Eng­land, Canada, and the West Indies, and the Episcopal Church had to develop its own priests and lay leaders…

In the early 1800’s the Church Missionary Society sent money to the Epis­copal Church to encourage it to start a missionary society. The Church was at a low ebb and needed the money for all its work. So in 1820 our Church’s official name became the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Soci­ety of the Protestant Episcopal Church of USA (the legal title it still has today). All Episco­palians were automatically members of the Missionary Society.


The first mission effort was to plant the church as people moved west. Missionary bishops were easily incorporated into the church because of the above title. One of the first was Leonidas Polk, a graduate of West Point who attended Virginia Seminary to the dismay of his military family and was ordained in 1830. He had an adventurous ministry traveling the Southwest with all its hazards and  became the first Episcopal Bishop there in 1838.

The church expanded throughout the West with the zeal of faithful men such as William Kip in California, Bishop Rowe in Alaska, and Bishop Hare among the Dakota Indians. Each biography is a wonderful witness for the church and the expansion of Christ’s Kingdom.

A handful of people worked outside the USA, supported by Sunday school pennies, Epiphany Sunday offerings, and small sums the church contributed. The Rev. Channing Moore Williams  was one of the first Protes­tant missionaries to arrive in Japan in 1859 when it opened. He became the Bishop of China and Japan in 1866.

There were a few Episcopal missionaries in China in the mid 1800’s. Bishop Schereschewsky, one of the early ones, translated the Bible into a Chinese dialect, finishing typing it with one finger due to paralysis of his hands.


Between 1900 to 1945 many missionaries flooded into China, including Charles Long, former director of Forward Movement Publications, and Agnes Sanford's parents.

Sunday school lessons and articles in the official magazine of the Episcopal Church, The Spirit of Mission, presented information about missionary work in Liberia, the Philippines, Haiti, Brazil and Alaska. Money from the mite boxes went to Liberia one year, the mission that was begun in 1830 by the freed African slave, James Thompson. The next year another mission was publicized along with pictures and ways to help.


Many local parishes remained interested in missions until the late 50’s. There were around 500 appointed Episcopal missionaries in the field. The church began to focus on civil rights in the U. S. and block grants were given to minority civil rights groups. Block grants were also given to overseas bishops. There was a trend to cut down on missionaries. Overseas churches were encouraged to develop indigenous leadership and evangelists. Bishop Gordon of Alaska saw the need to prepare Alaska natives for leadership. With the help of the Rev. Walter Hannum, Archdeacon of Northern Alaska, in the late 50’s David Salmon was ordained the first Athasbaskan Indian priest in Alaska.
The whole Anglican Communion began to work as Partners in Mission. Bishops of overseas churches had a say in choosing and directing missionaries. There were fewer long-term appointed missionaries, less than 50 in 1994, including the Volunteers for Mission, who raise their own support to go for one to three years.


Voluntary mission societies in the Episcopal Church began with the ECMC [now New Wineskins Missionary Network] in 1974 to help renew interest in mission and provide much needed training. This was  followed by the South American Missionary Society in 1976 and Episco­pal World Mission [now Global Teams] in 1982.

In 1993 the Rev. Tad deBordenave [see photo above] began Anglican Frontier Missions, helping our church again do pioneer missions among 25 of the world’s 11,000 people groups which have never heard the gospel and have no access to the gospel. This is a great tribute to Tad’s great-great-great uncle, Bishop Channing Moore Williams, the pioneer Episcopal missionary to Japan!

New Wineskins Missionary Network


Click HERE to download materials from the 2016 New Wineskins for Global Missions Conference.