Missionary Societies

‘Missionary films’ are probably best defined as films shot in the mission field, by missionaries, for a metropolitan audience. The archive collections contain numerous films of this kind. Almost all are produced or sponsored by missionary groups or societies, including the Church Missionary Society, the Methodist Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, the Salvation Army, and others. There are also some professionally produced films that have explicitly missionary themes (eg From Fear to Faith, produced by Gaumont-British Instructional for J. Arthur Rank’s Religious Films Society), though it should be remembered that in the case of films actually produced by missionaries, the central object of study is often the history of the missionary society itself.

A good sense of both the common aims and techniques of missionary film, and of the general place of film within the ideological structure of a particular missionary group, can be drawn from the archive and publications of the London Missionary Society (L.M.S.).

The L.M.S. is well-represented in the catalogue, with well over forty films held at the BFI. It was by no means the first religious group to begin a programme of film-making within the Empire – the Salvation Army, which had started experimenting with film in the 1890s, had made 13 films in India by 1906 (Rapp, 1996, 171), and the Mill Hill Missionaries were making films in Uganda and other parts of the Empire by the early 1920s. (It should be noted that one of the first well-known films with a true missionary theme, Wetherell’s Livingstone [1925], though not an L.M.S. production, does of course feature the L.M.S.’s most celebrated missionary as its protagonist, and also received some L.M.S. sponsorship.) However, the L.M.S. certainly had a carefully considered policy toward film and an active film-making programme in place from the mid-1930s onwards, and there is an important point of crossover with the official history of colonial film-making, for the Society’s General Secretary, A. M. Chirgwin, sat on the Advisory Board of the Bantu Educational Kinema Experiment (BEKE.).

The short-lived BEKE was one of the crucial official interventions into cinema in the Empire, and it was largely based on research initially conceived of and undertaken by J. Merle Davis of the International Missionary Council (IMC). The project in execution remained ‘under the auspices’ of the IMC, with numerous missionary and Christian voices being present on the Advisory Council, alongside representatives of both officialdom and of various secular interests (Smyth, 1979, 443; Notcutt and Latham, 1937, 209-10). The development and productions of Bekefilm have been covered in detail elsewhere (see BEKE. entry, Smyth op.cit.), but the example it presents of strong missionary involvement in a colonial film-making programme is instructive when assessing missionary cinema, not least because it helps to draw a necessary distinction between two kinds of missionary cinematic practice: the missionary use of cinema as a tool in the mission field, and the largely separate matter of films actually produced by missionaries.

While the history and extent of missionary film-making during the twentieth century is almost completely overlooked in histories of film, Bekefilm may be seen as an exception to that rule, for despite the involvement of officialdom and commerce, and the secular themes of most of the films, the motives which underlay the programme had stemmed originally from missionary priorities and missionary work. However, scholars have usually examined Bekefilm in terms of its official and colonial connections, and its status as a precursor of the Colonial Film Unit, rather than the missionary concerns that were central to its genesis. These concerns were exemplified by pious worries about the moral welfare of Africans living under the dramatically new conditions imposed by the wild-fire spread of mechanised heavy industry on the Northern Rhodesian Copper Belt, though part of the perceived danger related to the potentially harmful effect of Hollywood cinema on African audiences. Such missionary concerns informed the fundamental orientation of the BEKE: it was a programme which aimed to educate, entertain and propagandise an African audience, and thus in fruition it dovetailed with modern missionary aims, just as it had grown from them.

Although the highly organised BEKE. programme was exceptional in its scope, there is certainly some evidence that missionaries used film as a tool in the mission field. In Merle Davis’s original report on conditions the Copper Belt, Modern Industry and the African (Merle Davis, 1933), the author notes at length the possible educative topics which might be addressed by film, and suggests that ‘a moving-picture outfit with suitable films could profitably form a part of the equipment of every African mission’ (ibid., 324). In passages which are the direct forerunner of the BEKE programme, the report goes on to describe the importance of devising suitable films for the African viewer, and also notes that the clergy of the American Congregational Board in South Africa had for some years provided a cinema service for African mineworkers on the Rand (ibid,  325). However, it seems likely that the religious films usually screened for local audiences were by and large simply conventional and widely available pictures, employed as a part of proselytizing the faith. A report in the August 1938 issue of the  London Missionary Society’s Chronicle, for instance, describes a street screening in Manakambhiny, Madagascar, in which the film shown evidently depicts the life of Christ, rather than any of the specifically mission-related themes which are found in missionary films proper (‘A Gospel Film in Madagascar’; Williams 1938). Examples such as this, taken together with the evidence provided by the development and productions of the BEKE, suggest that where film was used in the mission field, it was an adjunct to the main purposes of missions everywhere – conversion, Christian religious education, and secular moral and social instruction.

Returning to the direct BEKE/L.M.S. nexus, the aforementioned A. M. Chirgwin had been the L.M.S. Foreign Secretary to the Southern Fields from 1929-32, and the missions on the Copper Belt were thus his direct professional concern during the period of the original International Missionary Council (IMC) report which had been the precursor to the BEKE (Merle Davis, op.cit.). Another respected L.M.S. missionary, Mabel Shaw of the Mbereshi L.M.S. school in Northern Rhodesia, had also served as a member of the Commission on the IMC Copper Belt investigation. The L.M.S. thus had some close ties to the BEKE, and the beginnings of the experiment were reported in the June 1935 issue of the Chronicle in a short article entitled ‘African Films for Africa’ (Chronicle, June 1935, 135). The February 1936 issue carried an update on the project, detailing the films that had been produced (Chronicle, February 1936, 38), and the increasing amount of references to film in subsequent issues makes it clear that from around this date film and its uses – particularly at home – becomes an active concern of the Society. The Chronicle for November 1936 carried a substantial article on film and film-making. ‘Films in Britain’, written by Howard Diamond, the L.M.S. Assistant Treasurer, establishes clearly the L.M.S. position toward the cinema. ‘There is an important movement on foot just now in the film world’, writes Diamond, ‘…a movement among people who take films seriously and who know that they can be used for education and instruction as well as for entertainment’ (Diamond, 1936, 254). He goes on to note recent developments in the educational use of film in schools, before mentioning that ‘[m]any churches, and certainly all the Missionary Societies, are fully alive to the possibilities inherent in this new method of education’ (ibid.). Rank’s Religious Film Society (RFS) production company, and the work of the Missionary Film Committee are both singled out as being active in the field. The latter organisation had been formed by several Protestant missionary societies in the late 1920s. Its secretary, T. H. Baxter, had made a feature-length missionary film entitled Africa Today in 1927 (Roberts, 1987, 201). Baxter would also sit on the Advisory Council of the BEKE.

The emphasis of the article is placed on the educative potential of film, and this should be seen in light of the flurry of research into educational film that had intensified at the end of the 1920s with the Historical Association’s 1929 investigation into film and history teaching (an investigation, like the BEKE, sponsored by a Carnegie-related trust). The move toward using film as a teaching tool gathered momentum in the early 1930s. The journal Educational Film Review had been founded in 1935, and the early years of the decade had seen a great number of enquiries, committees, books and papers all devoted to the educative potential of film.

Diamond explicitly identifies L.M.S. productions as a vital part of these contemporary developments in British educational film – the L.M.S. is ‘right in the van of this movement [sic]’ – and makes the perhaps unlikely boast that the Society offers ‘a programme which, for real interest and news value, leaves the studios far behind’ (Diamond, op.cit.).

The actual production capacities of the L.M.S. at this time constituted two cameras, which were rotated from mission to mission around the world. These cameras were ‘constantly at work sending new material home to London’, where it was then ‘made ready for film showings all around the country’ (ibid.). It was, at this stage, a cottage industry at best, occupying an uneasy place between amateur and professional production. The films were toured around the country using equipment of ‘the very latest design’, complete with ‘sound-amplification equipment’ to allow for music and spoken commentaries (nevertheless, most L.M.S. films of this period are intertitled). Although most audiences would have been drawn from churchgoers, there is some indication that the films were shown elsewhere, and the June 1937 Chronicle carries a report on a screening, hosted by Rev H. D. Cotton, of early L.M.S. Papua films at the Royal Geographical Society (Chronicle, July 1937, 148). Film screenings organised by the L.M.S. seem to have been integrated into religious education sessions, which were to be bookended by prayers (Latham, 1959, 35). The L.M.S. also ran regular, church-wide educational programmes which focussed intensively on particular areas of L.M.S. activity – 1951, for instance, saw the world-wide launch of the ‘Introducing Papua’ programme, which involved the distribution of prepared books, plays, ‘pageants’, phonograph records and films, including Papua Patchwork (L.M.S. Survey, 1951-2, 26).

These programmes were intended to raise awareness about the Society’s activity in the mission field, and the regular content of missionary films is consistent with this aim. Very often they are more like travelogues; early L.M.S. films of Western Samoa or Papua, for instanceHere And There In Samoa, Samoa Sidelights, or Port Moresby, are often presented in this style, and hardly examine missionary work. Other films concentrate on missionary history, detailing the foundation and success of the mission in a given area, though frequently they simply give what amounts to a historical tour of a particular mission. Many films hope to show the good work the missions are doing, whether in healthcare, education or Christian duty: the numerous L.M.S. films of the Neyyoor mission hospital in South India, the many films of the L.M.S. John Williams ships which plied the Pacific islands (e.g. Coral Islands Minister), Build A Hospital (Mbereshi) and Tiger Kloof all fit into this category.

In films with a more sophisticated narrative, several themes recur. L.M.S. films made in Southern Africa regularly focus on the social processes identified by the IMC Commission to the Copper Belt – the much-vaunted clash between the rural and industrial. The subject is regularly cast as a struggle between tradition and modernity, or primitivism and development, in which the mission is the guiding light which will help ‘baffled’ or morally weak natives find their feet in a new world. Elsewhere, particularly in films set in Papua, the people and their culture are simply presented as being in a state of ‘disintegration’, the remedy for which is standard missionary combination of schools, hospitals and the bible (see for instance the L.M.S.’s 1951 film Papua Patchwork).

In general, the films hope to enlighten their audience principally about the nature, scope and history of missionary work, and so their ideological content tends not to be driven by any very complex colonial concerns.

This perhaps stems in part from another central aim – sometimes implicit but often explicit – of many missionary films: revenue generation. For despite the emphasis on what is called ‘education’ in the missionary literature, the majority of films made by missionary societies do not, and perhaps do not really intend to, educate their audience in detail about anything other than the work of the mission itself. The real subject is always the hard-working missionary, a sort of metaphysical district officer. It is the missionary who brings spiritual improvement, and for that greater work to take place there must be resources. Many a missionary production ends with an appeal for funds, and this practical requirement for donations from the congregation was acknowledged as part and parcel of the film-making programme. Films provided a good occasion for donation: a notification of the new L.M.S. film Pacific Schooner appeared in the Chronicle with the advice that the film ‘will be of great use at meetings for the distribution of New Year Offering Cards’ (Chronicle, December 1938, 268). This is to be expected, as the missions relied largely on donations for their survival.

A further distinction can be drawn here between missionary films proper, and films – such as early productions by Rank’s RFS – which are ‘religious’ i.e. that carry a religious message. The distinction is porous, and there are exceptions, but in general missionary films do not themselves attempt to evangelise to their audience – rather, they bring news of the progress of evangelisation elsewhere. What religious significance they have for their intended audience generally consists of the example they provide of faith in action and extension, rather than any direct evangelical message – the reciprocal show of faith demanded from the audience was the financial contribution). They were morally strengthening and educative, providing their audience with information and with examples of faith at work, and these values should be seen in relation to the complex of ideas concerning the danger from Hollywood pictures that surrounded religious film-making and the use of film by religious groups from the late 19th century onwards.

Perhaps because of their instrumental function, and despite being composed of fascinatingly candid and unusual documentary footage, colonial missionary films in general provide no clear picture of the places which are often their ostensible subject. What they do show, however, and what makes them important and problematic documents of Empire, is evidence about how the missions preferred to represent themselves to audiences. In a very literal sense, and quite unlike missionaries in the field, they were preaching to the converted, and so reflect the prejudices and presuppositions of their audiences back to them in the manner which was most likely to produce the desired response i.e. support, volunteers, and donations. That the films sometimes present accounts which appear basic and reactionary should be understood as stemming from the utilitarian function of missionary society pictures as rather blunt propaganda tools – aids to ‘education’ which doubled as a revenue generating devices.

The missionary societies were well entrenched in British territory, and often profoundly implicated in the Imperial project; their cinematic missives to the faithful at home came from deep within the Empire and went, without secular official oversight, directly to audiences which were being asked to applaud, assist with and pay for what they saw. While the films may not give an accurate representation of Empire, they hold up a faithful mirror to the expectations and prejudices of this audience, and to that extent they are documents which illuminate for us the imaginary Empire of the metropole.

Francis Gooding


Works cited

‘A New Film Service’ The Chronicle: A Magazine of World Enterprise  September 1938, p. 213 (London: London Missionary Society)

‘African Films for Africa’, The Chronicle: A Magazine of World Enterprise June 1935, p. 135 (London: London Missionary Society)

Survey 1952: A review of the work of the London Missionary Society for the year 1951/52(London: Livingstone Press)

The Church’s Guide to Films For Religious Use(London: Church of England Films Commission, 1946)

Cocker-Brown, T. ‘The Copper Belt Riots’ The Chronicle: A Magazine of World Enterprise  June 1941, p.65. (London: London Missionary Society)

Darch, John H. Missionary Imperialists? Missionaries, Government and the Growth of the British Empire in the Tropics, 1860-1885 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster 2009)

Diamond, Howard ‘Films in Britain’ The Chronicle: A Magazine of World Enterprise November 1936, p. 254 (London: London Missionary Society)

Etherington, Norman ed. Missions and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005)

Latham, R. O. Practical Programmes: Ideas and Suggestions for Missionary Occasions (London: London Missionary Society, 1959)

Low, Rachael The History of British Film 1929-39: Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930s (London: Routledge 1997 [1979])

Merle Davis, J Modern Industry and the African (London: Macmillan and Co., 1933)

Notcutt, L. A. and Latham, G. C. The African and the Cinema (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1937)

Rapp, Dean‘The British Salvation Army, The Early Film Industry and Urban Working-Class Adolescents, 1897-1918’ Twentieth Century British History vol. 7 no. 2 1996: pp.157-188

Roberts, Andrew D. ‘African on Film to 1940’ History in Africa, vol 14 (1987) pp. 189-227

Smyth, Rosaleen ‘The Development of British Colonial Film Policy, 1927-1939, with Special Reference to East and Central Africa’ The Journal of African History, vol. 20, No. 3 (1979), pp. 437-450

Wilkinson, John The Story of Chogoria (Carberry: Handsel Press 1994)

Williams, L. M. ‘A Gospel Film in Madagascar’ The Chronicle: A Magazine of World Enterprise August 1938 p. 176 (London: London Missionary Society)

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Tribal life in Kenya; local religions; educational, medical and other activities of the Methodist Church.



Record of Baptist Missionary Society tour led by Herbert Janes (later Sir Herbert Janes). Various parts of Southern Africa (including ...



Aspects of the major social problems raised by the rapid industrialisation of Northern Rhodesia; work done by the missionaries.


CHRISTIANITY AND COPPER (1956) enhanced entry

Film on the Copper Belt region of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), specifically the interaction of Christianity and commerce in this region ...


COMMON ROUND (1935)has video enhanced entry

A Missionary in a remote African district fights plague and prejudice.

Dr Pyke, the headmaster of Portland House Preparatory School, delivers ...


CORAL ISLANDS MINISTER (1966)has video enhanced entry

An introduction to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, including footage of fauna, flora and the local way of life, and ...


FROM FEAR TO FAITH (1946)has video enhanced entry

The film describes how a mission-trained Africanboy returns to his home village, having been at the mission school since a ...



Depicts the work of the London Missionary Society at St. Anthony's Hospital, Kawimbe, including maternity, child welfare, ante- and post-natal ...



Two `true' stories which illustrate the work of both home missions and overseas missionary work.

One story set in Basildon New ...



Documentary looking at the work done at the Guild Hospital to help orphans, lepers and the work done in `the ...



Some of the hospitals, child-welfare classes, schools, teacher-training colleges, etc., run by the Anglican churches and missions in the five ...



Depicts medical work of the London Missionary Society at Jianganj, specifically at the new hospital built by the Society to ...