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David Bogue: the forgotten man (1750-1825)

1 November 2012 | by John Legg

David Bogue: the forgotten man (1750-1825)

David Bogue is ‘one of the greatest of the forgotten figures of Church History’ (Iain Murray) and especially of the history of missions. After the Moravians, William Carey, rightly, took centre stage. However, Bogue was very influential both before and after that.

The London Missionary Society

Bogue was converted in Scotland, but went south to London. In 1777 he was called to be minister of the Independent Church in Gosport, near Portsmouth, where he ministered for the rest of his life: forty-eight years. The church grew numerically and spiritually during his ministry. He started taking in a few students in general subjects, including the commentator, Robert Haldane. In 1789 on the initiative of several men, who were increasingly concerned about the lack of evangelical preachers, he began to prepare three students for the ministry. Through Haldane’s generosity the number of students increased, but the facilities were still very  limited. They met in the vestry of Bogue’s chapel, measuring only thirty by eighteen feet, and used the Principal’s library. The curriculum majored on systematic (Calvinistic) theology, especially the works of Jonathan Edwards.

In March 1792 Bogue preached at the annual meetings in London of the Scottish society which had supported the great American missionary to the Indians, David Brainerd. Bogue urged his hearers to care for the spread of the gospel ‘among the heathen and mahometan (Islamic) nations’. Two years later, stimulated by seeing a letter from Carey, he published an article in the new Evangelical Magazine addressed to his fellow ‘Evangelical Dissenters who practise infant baptism’, pointing out that they alone were idle’ with respect to missions. He proposed that a seminary be established to give appropriate instruction to well-qualified men, superintended by ‘an able and eminently pious minister in a central position’. Clearly he did not believe that Gosport or, therefore, he himself qualified. This appeal led to the formation of a missionary society, ‘irrespective of denomination’. Bogue himself closed the founding meetings by dealing forcefully and biblically with ten objections that might be raised. Initially called simply ‘The Missionary Society’, it was later renamed ‘The London Missionary Society’ (LMS) and became largely the instrument of the Independents (or Congregationalists).

Early days and the Gosport Academy

These men were influenced, as Carey had been, by the discoveries in the South Seas of Captain James Cook, who visited Tahiti in 1769 and said that a Christian mission would never take root there. The Anglican, Thomas Haweis, was determined that a work in Polynesia should be their first priority and it was agreed that the first group of thirty missionaries would go to Tahiti. (Bogue favoured India and was willing to go there himself with Robert Haldane, but they were prevented by the ungodly directors of the East India Company. Instead, Haldane went to Geneva, where under God he led a remarkable revival.) Haweis and others thought that little training was required. This resulted in an enormous waste of resources in the early years; the first two expeditions were disasters. With a few notable exceptions, the missionaries failed; many deserted the mission and even the faith altogether. Only nine out of the sixty remained as real workers.

This produced a change of attitude and in August 1800 Bogue was asked to establish the kind of seminary he had proposed. He provided a comprehensive theological education in 120 lectures, plus Latin and Greek. He stressed assessing the spiritual and temperamental suitability of the candidates, insisting that they master the local language and culture. Out of over 200 students, at least 115 were sent out as missionaries to various fields, over half to Africa. There were no more defections! Those trained at Gosport included most of the early pioneer missionaries, apart from Carey and his fellow-baptists in India and the Anglican so-called ‘pious chaplains’ of the East India Company, such as Henry Martyn. (Contrary to the accusations of some opponents, Bogue was also extremely active in home evangelism in Hampshire, as well as going on evangelistic tours in Scotland and even France.)

World mission

The story of some of Bogue’s students illustrates the worldwide spread of the gospel in the early nineteenth-century. A Scot, Robert Morrison (1782-1834), trained for the ministry, but after reading two missionary magazines about Carey, knew that God had called him to go overseas. In 1804 he applied to the LMS who sent him to Dr Bogue’s Academy. In 1807 he settled in Canton, the first Protestant missionary in China. The East India Company would not allow him to work as a missionary. Instead, he took paid work as a secretary/translator for the Company, which freed him to translate the whole Bible, as well as preparing a dictionary. In 1814, he baptised his first believer, the first Protestant convert in China – one of only twenty – five during his life. Two colleagues were also from Bogue’s Academy: William Milne, who died after only eight years, and Samuel Dyer, whose daughter married Hudson Taylor.

Another Scot was Robert Moffat (1795-1883). His mother read aloud to her children from missionary publications, especially about the Moravian pioneers. When Robert left home to work in England, his mother made him promise to read a chapter of his Bible every morning and evening, which he duly did, soon becoming deeply convicted of his sin, before finding salvation through the letter to the Romans. Then one day, he came across a poster advertising a missionary meeting to be addressed by William Roby, an Independent minister in Manchester. The date of the meeting was past, but young Robert timidly sought out the speaker. Roby gave him a warm welcome and, having enquired about his desire to be a missionary, recommended him to the LMS directors. At first they turned him down, on the surprising grounds that they had too many such volunteers to cope with!

Roby persevered and in September 1816, Moffat and eight others were set apart for the work of missions. At some point Moffat had contact with Gosport; when he set sail for Africa his luggage included his own manuscript copies of Bogue’s lectures, to be used to instruct the indigenous church. After mastering the hitherto unwritten Setswana language, into which he later translated the Bible, Moffat proved that this was the way into the people’s hearts. Their attitude towards him changed and the gospel began to take hold. The Moffats’ daughter, Mary, later married the great missionary explorer, David Livingstone.

David Jones (1797-1841) and Thomas Bevan (1795-1819) initially trained at Thomas Phillips’ school for preachers at Neuaddlwyd in West Wales. They responded to Phillips’ challenge, ‘Who will go as a missionary to Madagascar?’ The LMS sent them to Dr Bogue to complete their training and they and their wives set sail in 1818. Within six months of their arrival in the island, Bevan, both wives and two new-born babies were dead and David Jones was left on his own. Help soon arrived from Neuaddlwyd: David Griffiths and another David Jones. Despite restrictions imposed by a new queen, Jones and his colleagues saw success in evangelism and Bible translation, before they were banished and a severe persecution began. This lasted twelve years, with 800 banished and 200 killed. When it ended, on the queen’s death, divine arithmetic meant that a church of 1,000 had become one of 7,000!

Many tributes were paid to Bogue on his death: to his diligent and faithful service, to his prayerful friendship and especially his amazing vision of a great work from such an insignificant base.

John Legg is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.