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Section III: Central Records

Part 4 provides a complete sequence of Annual Letters, 1887-1912. These indexed bound volumes of letters sent to headquarters provide an invaluable review of the events and experiences of each CMS mission, year by year.


The custom of missionaries writing Annual Letters to the Secretaries in London began in the 1850s and only ended in 1974. It gave individual missionaries their only opportunity to write directly to headquarters without the local CMS mission secretary seeing what they wrote. Communications on all matters of business had to be carried on through the local Corresponding Committee and the mission secretary. Now once a year the London committee wished to hear directly from their missionaries and in turn to write to them "to assure you of their sympathy, and as far as may be to assist in bearing your burdens and cheering and encouraging you on your way" [C I2/I 2p191 Chapman].

At the same time these letters were used in the compilation of the Society's annual report. In 1855 Chapman wrote asking missionaries "at the close of each year, to put us in possession of your experience of the Lord's dealing with you during the year" [C I 1/I 1p85]. A printed circular to the missionaries from John Mee in 1868 asked for "a well considered concise account of the principal facts and features of the years work...to lay the foundation of the Report". By then the Annual Letter had developed a format of its own with "a very short tabular statement appended at the foot of the last page" [these were the statistics included in the annual report for the year and published in the Proceedings].

From the late 1870s the Annual Letters were being printed. "The Annual Letters as soon as they come in are put in print (unless they are very long) not for publication but for circulation among the members of the Committee. Even the Secretaries, therefore, do not see them for several days. No matters of business should be entrusted to the Annual Letter". [C C 1/I 2p 265]. By 1900 they were being regularly bound. G. Furness Smith writes "Annual Letters [are]...printed and sent round to members of the Committee and portions will appear bound up in a volume called "Extracts from Annual Letters"...the best preparation for an annual letter is a daily journal relating events as they occur and putting down impressions and hopes or fears. This read over at the year's end would furnish materials for an accurate review, while further observation and experience would help to revise and correct the reflections and anticipations suggested at the time". [G1 CH 2/L 1p 84].

It is difficult to judge how heavily the printed letters were edited but by the appearance of the very few surviving originals very little was cut out and usually they were only topped and tailed.

A master set of the bound volumes of the printed letters was kept in the Editorial Department, which also kept the original documents. From 1871 to 1879 copies of the letters are entered in the appropriate mission books of the missions archive series. For the period 1886 to 1912 only the bound printed set survives. From 1916 the manuscript series begins again, though very few survive for the war years 1917-1919 and it is possible that the originals for the missing years 1913-15 were likewise very sparse in number.

From the 1920s missionaries were sometimes encouraged to write on particular aspects or topics of mission interest in order to aid the compilation of the report. The actual writing of the Annual Letter was not optional, but a strict Secretarial request. Nevertheless the researcher should be aware that some missionaries simply refused to write them and that the absence of a letter does not necessarily mean that it has been lost.

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