The Legacy of Melvill Horne

By Schwarz, Suzanne | International Bulletin of Mission Research, April 2007 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Melvill Horne


Schwarz, Suzanne, International Bulletin of Mission Research


The following poem published in the Evangelical Magazine in September 1795 celebrated the formation of the interdenominational Missionary Society and the new opportunities it presented for spreading the Gospel of Protestant Christianity to the globe:

   O! that from Britain now might shine
   This heavenly light, this truth divine!
   Till the whole universe shall be
   But one great temple, Lord, for Thee! (1)

The legacy of Melvill Horne (1762-1841), a contemporary of William Carey (1761-1834), lies principally in his role as a missionary advocate and publicist who helped to foster this renewed phase of overseas Christian expansion in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Horne's Letters on Missions; Addressed to the Protestant Ministers of the British Churches, published in 1794, stimulated extensive debate on the nature and purpose of overseas missions and provided the main catalyst for the formation of the Missionary Society (later renamed the London Missionary Society). Although building on the work of his Continental predecessors, Horne moved debate in new directions by calling for a pan-evangelical response to missions. (2) Horne's account of his experimental missionary praxis in Sierra Leone also offered guidance that informed the organization of later missionary ventures to the South Seas and Africa. He was regarded as an important source of intelligence by both the Missionary Society and the Society for Missions to Africa and the East Instituted by Members of the Established Church (later known as the Church Missionary Society). The republication of Letters on Missions in America in 1797, 1815, and 1834 reflects the popularity and continuing relevance of his work. An edition published in London in 1824 asserted that the book "at the time of its first publication ... was eminently instrumental, in first kindling and extending the flame of missionary zeal that has since that period spread so widely through our country." (3)

Although Letters on Missions enjoyed a far wider contemporary circulation than Carey's celebrated Enquiry of 1792, Horne has received comparatively little attention in the historiography of missions. (4) His work helped to erode contemporary prejudice against missions and created a culture in which the moral imperative to convert heathen nations became an accepted and respectable feature of religious activity in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. (5) Horne was aware of this changing climate of opinion. In a sermon preached before the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in June 1811, Horne observed that missions, which were "at first treated as wild and romantic, begin now to be considered feasible, as well as laudable." (6)

Development of a Missionary Impulse

Horne was born in Antigua in 1762, and the family moved to England following his father's death. (7) His family background and early education in the West Indies may have influenced his later predilection for missionary work. He was the nephew of Nathaniel Gilbert III (ca. 1721-74), who, inspired by a meeting with John Wesley, introduced Methodist preaching among an estimated three hundred slaves on his Antiguan plantation. (8) Horne was admitted on trial as a Methodist itinerant preacher in the Liverpool circuit in 1784 and subsequently preached in the Chester and Wolverhampton circuits. Ordained to the ministry of the Church of England in 1786, Horne became curate of Madeley in Shropshire following the death of John Fletcher. (9)

Horne's Arminian eschatology and acceptance of the Wesleyan view of a world parish are reflected in his decision to undertake a mission to the west coast of Africa. (10) In March 1792 Horne explained to his parishioners that he was obliged "to forsake all I hold dear, and to encounter all I esteem dreadful in life, if peradventure, the wretched sons of bleeding Africa may be brought to flee for sanctuary under the wings of the God of Israel. …

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