History of the New England Company

The New England Company can lay claim to being the oldest missionary society still active in Britain. It was founded by an Act of Oliver Cromwell's Parliament on 27 July 1649. Following the restoration of the monarchy it was granted a Royal Charter by Charles II in 1662. The Charter provided for the promotion and propagation of "the Gospel of Christ unto and amongst the heathen natives in or near New England and parts adjacent in America". To this end the Company sent both missionaries and teachers to New England and later further afield to Virginia and New York. The administration was undertaken by a group of Commissioners appointed by the Company who were prominent local citizens; normally the Governor of Massachusetts was the chairman. Although early efforts were made to teach and evangelise in local languages, recruitment difficulties compelled the Company more and more to undertake the work in English, by persuading the native people to settle in one place and attend school.

The American War of Independence forced the Company to change the scene of its operations. It took a little time but in 1786 the Company was advised that it was unable, safely and legally, to "exercise the Trusts of its Charter in any part of America which is out of the King's Dominions". Accordingly it transferred its operations to the remaining Loyalist Colonies in North America in what is now Canada, and major activity began in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. At the same time the Company began to give grants to the West Indies. Under his will of 1711 Dr Daniel Williams had left a substantial bequest to the Company, the proceeds of which could be applied towards "the advancement of the Christian Religion amongst Indians, Blacks and Pagans in some or one of the Plantations of His Majesty King George the Third", but missions did not begin until 1790.

The nineteenth century saw an expansion of the Company's work westward in Canada, mirroring the political expansion and development of the country. The Company continued to appoint missionaries and teachers directly, but came more and more to work in conjunction with the newly appointed colonial bishops and eventually with the Canadian Government Department of Indian Affairs. In 1828 for example it was agreed that a missionary should take directions from his bishop "in matters purely spiritual" and in all other matters take "the direction of the Company".

The process of withdrawal from direct involvement continued apace in the twentieth century and the Company agreed to hand the remaining schools and lands it owned to the Department of Indian Affairs. Its efforts became concentrated on effective management of its lands and investments in England, and it was content to send cheques to the bishops in both Canada and the West Indies and to allow them to dispose of the money as they thought fit. Direct contact with the bishops was spasmodic to say the least, the main occasions being the Lambeth Conferences which only took place at ten year intervals.

Thanks to modern technology and conscious decisions by the Company, the last few years have seen a reversal of the trend of disengagement and a return, if not to hands on administration, to a far more equal partnership. Every year one member of the Company visits Canada and the West Indies alternately to see for himself some of the projects for which grants have been given and to meet the bishops and others concerned with the administration of the grants. Potential recipients are required to make detailed applications each year and to report how the money has been used. At the same time the development of the internet has enabled the Company through this website and through e-mails to establish a continuing dialogue with those concerned in both Canada and the West Indies, thus developing greater mutual understanding and knowledge and a fuller working partnership. The original Charter was subsequently supplemented by another in 1899, and the Company is now established by a modern Royal Charter dated 27 February 1961. The fundamental mission of the Company as set out in the original Charter remains the same, however, even if its language seems rather dated, and the founding fathers would still recognize and approve of the work being currently undertaken.

A fuller account of the history of the New England Company is contained in a publication entitled "Come over and help us; the New England Company and its mission 1649-2001". Copies can be obtained from the Secretary of the Company.

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