“Grant O Lord, that we may be instrumental in commencing this great and blessed work; but should Thou see fit in Thy providence to hedge up our way, and that we should even languish and die here, I beseech Thee to raise up others and to send forth labourers into this harvest. Let it be seen, for the manifestation of Thy Glory and Grace that nothing is too hard for Thee…” (prayer excerpt from Gardiner’s recovered journal, 1851)
The Anglican Calendar on September 6th commemorates Captain Allen Francis Gardiner, founder and missionary of SAMS, the South American Missionary Society. Gardiner’s story is little known today, but well worth telling, both for his unparalleled tenacity and the difficulties he faced, as well as the role he played in helping chart the course of Anglican cross-cultural mission engagement. His story set the stage for the ongoing endeavors that continue around the world today through missionary societies such as SAMS.
Anglican Missions Accelerate in the 19th Century
The 19th century in Britain marked a period of spiritual awakening and an increasing awareness of the world beyond Britain’s shores. Revival within the Church of England spread beyond the church. Conscious of the need for reform, duty, and new opportunities opening up all over the world, the British people, and Christians in particular, began gathering to contribute the best they had to give, energized to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to people beyond Britain.
In conjunction with this sense of endeavor, the growth of the British Navy gave grander perspective of the world and its peoples. Men like David Livingstone were able to gain worldwide acclaim combining geographical exploration, service to country, and missionary work among people groups hitherto unknown. Global exploration and map-making became a worldwide interest, and if missionaries like Livingstone were not blazing the trail, they were not far behind. Early exploration and mapping expeditions were conducted for hydrographic surveys along the Patagonian coasts and the Magellan Strait. The best-known of these expeditions was that of Captain Fitzroy’s HMS Beagle, made famous by the writings of one scientist aboard, a young Charles Darwin. Darwin later popularized these expeditions through a series of published journals that were immensely popular, and along with other published reports captured the imaginations of many in Britain.
One of the people groups encountered by this group of English explorers were the Yaghan, whom Darwin described as the least civilized people on earth (and possibly even “the missing link”). It was to the Yaghan that Allen Gardiner was ultimately called.
Gardiner’s British naval service
Allen Gardiner was born into a Christian family in Berkshire in 1794. Like many British boys during this time, he yearned for adventure. Discovered asleep on the floor by his mother as a young boy, upon awaking told her of his intention to travel the world, and so, wished to accustom himself to hardship. He entered the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth in 1808. At age sixteen he volunteered to join the HMS Fortunee. During the War of 1812, he served as a midshipman aboard the Phoebe and received recognition for heroism in the capture of the American frigate Essex in the Pacific (the inspiration for several books and the 2003 film Master and Commander—though in that adaptation the French were substituted for the Americans as the enemy).
His return to England two years later meant a commission to lieutenant and subsequent service around the world. Eventually, he was promoted to Captain, but with the Royal Navy being downsized in peacetime, there were no ships for him to command. Despite his service, and love of the sea, the naval experience was a godless life in which the truths of the Bible and what he had learned as a boy were mocked. But his mother’s prayers remained with him.
A Significant Turn
While on leave in Portsmouth, he ventured into town one day to a shop that sold Bibles. One of his biographers described him as being ‘so ashamed to go into the shop to buy it, he spent time walking up and down to make sure no one saw him do so.’ He then experienced in succession a number of deaths including that of his Godly mother, and later, his wife, which drove him to become a man of prayer. These experiences had a great effect on him and shortly thereafter he wrote from Cape Town:
“The last time I visited, I was walking the broad way, and hastening by rapid strides to the brink of eternal ruin. Blessed be His name, who loved us, and gave Himself for us, a great change has been wrought in my heart, and I am now enabled to derive pleasure and satisfaction in hearing and reading the Word of Life, and attending the means of Grace.”
On a voyage returning from China, Gardiner spent some time in Tahiti, where one Sunday he was personally struck by the quiet contentment and peace in the transformed lives of Tahitian Christians. He returned to London in 1834 offering himself for missionary service to the London Missionary Society, whose work in Tahiti had so blessed him. He earnestly felt that the Lord wanted him in South America, but neither the London Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society (CMS), nor the Baptist Missionary Society had any work on that continent, nor were they willing to start anything new there. Eventually, he accepted a position with CMS in South Africa, working among the Zulus on the Tongaat River, but left after four years, when tribal warfare made it impossible to continue his work. Today he is remembered in the city of Durban as one of its founders.
With no society to sponsor him, Gardiner began exploring opportunities to work in South America on his own. He arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1838 and worked his way around the coast to Chile, distributing Bibles in Portuguese and Spanish, noting several openings for missionary work, but his heart remained with the native peoples. Leaving his family in Concepcion, Chile, he crossed the Andes to try to work among the Huilliche-Mapuche people. Suspicion among the natives and opposition from Catholic clergy thwarted his efforts there.
The Beginning of SAMS
Back in England, Gardiner began writing letters and pamphlets to call attention to the need for taking the Gospel to South America. He wrote in his letters that ‘all the world was his parish,’ and he was content to seek out people alone to reach those who were without hope and without God. Friends in England received letters of appeal from him for help with funding to support the mission. He appealed to the established mission societies but was turned down. In 1844, he finally organized a society for the work in South America. Initially called the Patagonian Missionary Society, as that seemed the most likely spot to make inroads at the time, it was renamed the South American Missionary Society in 1851, in honor of Gardiner and his desire to expand the original mission from Patagonia into all of South America. Gardiner made successive missions with companions to South America, including Bolivia, but ultimately set his sights on Tierra del Fuego.
The Final Journey
Gardiner learned more with each mission he attempted. He had decided they needed their own 120-ton schooner as a base of operations in the islands at the southern tip of the world. When the cost for such a ship became too expensive, he had two 26-foot launches built, named Speedwell and Pioneer. Gardiner left England from Liverpool aboard the Ocean Queen on September 7, 1850. Aboard the ship were the two launches and six companions – Joseph Erwin, Dr. Richard Williams, John Maidment (a catechist), and three Cornish fishermen, John Badcock, John Bryant, and John Pearce. They landed on Picton Island in December with six months of provisions. They had difficulty engaging with the Yahgans who eluded them, and when they did engage, met resistance and attack. But the more pressing issue was the limited food on hand. The men had their rifles, but somehow had departed the Ocean Queen without unloading their gunpowder, which severely limited their ability to hunt, making them dependent upon what little seafood they could find along the coast.
By the end of six months with no sign of further supplies, sickness, hunger, and exposure to one of the worst climates on the globe began taking their toll. In June, Badcock, was the first to die, followed by Williams. Then, in August, it was the turn of Erwin and Bryan; then Pearce; then, on September 4th, Maidment. The last entry in Gardiner’s journal was dated Friday, September 5th, 1851:
“If a wish was given to me for the good of my neighbor it would be that the Mission in Tierra Del Fuego be pursued with vigor. Butt the Lord will direct and do everything because time and reason are His, your hearts are in His hands… great and marvelous are the loving kindnesses of my gracious God unto me.”
When the Admiralty supply ship, the John Davison, finally arrived in late October, Gardiner had been dead for six weeks. Lying beside him, they found his journal.
News of Gardiner’s Death
The news of Gardiner’s death was reported in The Times with an editorial deploring the foolish
waste of the lives of a cultured Englishman and his companions and of the money spent on hordes
of savages. There arose a nationwide protest against this view, as Englishmen contrasted their lifestyle with Gardiner’s self-denying vocation. Gardiner and his companions were like the
kernel of wheat Jesus talked about which, unless it falls into the ground and dies, “remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” The Lord honored Gardiner’s prayers, sending forth laborers into His harvest in South America, many of whom also became fallen kernels of wheat.
One such kernel that bore fruit was in a young English Missionary named Thomas Bridges. George Pakenham Despard, who assumed leadership of the Society in Gardiner’s absence, had found baby Thomas on a bridge and adopted him. When Despard felt called upon to continue Gardiner’s work with the Yaghans, he took the 13-year-old Thomas along with him to Keppel Island in the Falklands. The new strategy was to bring a few Yaghans over at a time to learn their language and teach them the faith, then resettle them among their tribespeople. Bridge’s young mind quickly absorbed the Yaghan language and he became a fluent speaker and interpreter. After another attempt by missionaries in 1859 to establish a base in Yaghan territory resulted in their massacre by the natives, Bridges visited the Yaghan settlements in complete weakness and vulnerability. Unthreatened by Bridges, and moved by the forgiveness he brought, the Yaghans at last received the Good News. Those who were baptized included several who had killed Bridge’s friends. Later a ship sank offshore, but the Yaghans who in the past would have killed the sailors, risked their lives to save them. Their transformation in Christ was so dramatic that even Charles Darwin became a committed giver to SAMS.
Gardiner’s Seed Bears Fruit
Today through SAMS-USA The seed of Gardiner and his companion’s efforts continued to call many into mission in South America after his death. Those efforts continued spreading to South America and other countries where Societies were founded to join in the vision to reach the continents with the Gospel. It wasn’t until 1976, however, that the U.S. branch of SAMS was founded by a group of mission- minded Episcopalians concerned about missional drift and dilution.
Today the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders (1) is a sending organization which works alongside the Anglican Church in the sending out what today equates to 117 total missionaries serving 29 countries around the world. SAMS’ purpose, like Gardiner’s, is to serve the church throughout the world in obedience to Jesus’ Great Commission. Our Society partners with Anglican churches and dioceses overseas, and therefore, works to place missionaries where they can take full advantage of well-established relationships in a given cultural context in order make disciples who make disciples of Jesus Christ.
SAMS emphasizes the crucial role of the Sender as much as the Missionary, and seeks to mobilize the church to pray, encourage, communicate with, and financially support a missionary’s cross- cultural ministry. The Society also comes alongside those who feel called to serve long-term or short-term, to mutually discern their call, and once confirmed, provides the necessary language and cultural coaching and training in raising financial support.
If you meet a SAMS Missionary and get to know them and their own stories, one trait will surely emerge. Not unlike the Apostle Paul, Allen Gardiner, or Thomas Bridges, they’ll exhibit that mysterious Grace to derive energy from opposition, tenacity from hardship, and courage from rejection. As the tribal adage goes, ‘God has created lands with lakes and rivers for man to live, and the desert so that he may find his soul.’
Author: Brendan Kimbrough; Contributors: Dana Priest and Stewart Wicker
(1) SAMS maintained the acronym, but changed its name in 2009, from the South American Missionary Society
to the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders. The change better reflected the emphasis
on the combined role that both Missionaries and Senders play in any cross-cultural work as well its alignment
with global Anglicanism, further reflecting the global nature of its missionary placements.