Missions and the Magic Lantern

By Simpson, Donald | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Missions and the Magic Lantern


Simpson, Donald, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


In May 1895 the Church Missionary Society (CMS) sent out a party of new missionaries to Uganda, in response to an appeal from the Right Reverend Alfred Robert Tucker, Anglican bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa. The five women in the group were the first CMS women to be sent to Uganda, where they became engaged chiefly in educational work at Mengo (just south of Kampala).(1) CMS headquarters arranged for two photos of the party: a studio pose in England on the eve of their May 18 departure, and another in Mombasa, where they arrived on July 9, this time in less formal dress.(2) Tucker (in full beard, center of the middle row, Mombasa photo) and another CMS missionary, Dr. Edward J. Baxter (directly behind Tucker), had come to Mombasa to welcome the newcomers; Tucker would accompany them inland to their stations in Uganda.(3)

Most British mission supporters who viewed these two pictures around the turn of the century saw them not in the form of prints or published photographs but as "magic lantern" slides projected on a screen. A century ago magic lantern shows were widely used by mission agencies, both in their overseas work and in the promotion of missions at home. The pictures accompanying this article were reproduced from the original glass slides. They are part of a trove of 621 missionary lantern slides transferred from CMS archives in 1988 to the Royal Commonwealth Society Library (now part of the Cambridge University collections), thanks to the good offices of Rosemary Keen, CMS archivist.

Mission Origins of Magic Lantern

The magic lantern - a translation of the Latin Laterna magica - was probably devised in the 1640s by Jesuit scholar and missions advocate Athanasius Kircher.(4) A professor of Oriental languages in the Roman College of the Jesuits (now the Gregorian University in Rome), he is best known for his work in deciphering Egyptian hierglyphics, for his research into the life and faith of Coptic Christians, and for a comprehensive survey of European and missionary contacts with China. While the first use of magic lanterns was religious, the technology was such as to stir the viewer to wonder, if not apprehension. An English observer, writing in 1696, described it as follows: "A Magic Lanthorn, a certain small Optical Macheen, that shows by a gloomy Light upon a white Wall, Spectres and Monsters so hideous, that he who knows not the Secret, believes it to be performed by Magic Art."

During the nineteenth century the magic lantern developed remarkably. Starting with hand-painted colored pictures on strips of glass, by mid-century the slides were produced on 3 1/4-inch glass squares, using photographs (often hand-colored), chromolithographs, or transfers. Each slide consisted of two pieces of glass; one carried the image, and the other was a plain piece protecting the illustrated surface. Magic lantern programs were largely the province of traveling showmen - religious, comical, or anecdotal. Their presentation ranged from the highly professional, in which triple-lensed projectors could produce remarkable effects of dissolving views, to amateur productions in a church hall and domestic showing for the family circle. Before the days of electric power, illumination was provided by an oil lamp, which was silent but smoky, or, more elaborately, by gas jets playing on a carbon pencil. The latter gave a better light than the lamp but emitted a hissing noise. It required the user to carry around gas cylinders, which were heavy and cumbersome, and with the lantern itself and heavy slides to carry, volunteers or family members were pressed into service for transport. The size of an audience was limited by the quality of the light source. Churches and small halls were often used for shows, but programs could also be presented out of doors, using the wall of a building or a white sheet as a projection screen.

The range of topics was extremely wide. Religious subjects, including the words of hymns, sometimes with accompanying pictures; moral tales, particularly in the cause of temperance (in England, photographic slides on the topic of temperance, made by the firm of Joseph Bamforth of Holmfirth, Yorkshire, were particularly prominent); as well as educational topics, travel, humor, art, children's stories, novels, and poems were among the subjects offered. …

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