The Baptist Missionary Society, linked with William Carey, was formed in 1792. Three years later, in 1795, the London Missionary Society commenced (its first secretary was John Love). It is evident that there was a growing national interest in missions, so it is not surprising that attempts were made in 1796 to begin a collection within the Church of Scotland for foreign missions. The attempt failed, therefore the evangelical party within the Church of Scotland formed an Edinburgh Missionary Society. Almost immediately there was an interest expressed in this new society by two congregations in the north – Ferintosh (the minister was Charles Calder) and Moy (the minister was Hugh Mackay). Other congregations sent further financial support in the following year (1797) – Tarbat, Edderton, Fearn, Nigg, Logie, Rosskeen and Kilmuir.
This interest in missions was maintained, and in 1800 a group of ministers from Easter Ross met in Evanton (in the home of a Mr. Allan) to discuss the possibility of setting up a missionary society in the north. They did not want to take any unrealistic steps, so ‘being persuaded that the magnitude of the object required mature deliberation and serious discussion, they resolved to correspond with other ministers and private Christians, and to meet again for prayer, before coming to any determination in the matter.’ Several other ministers and private Christians approved of the scheme, so a statement was drawn up for distribution throughout the north, and signed by leading northern evangelical ministers. The statement referred to blessing of God on the formation of other missionary societies, pointed out that supporting missionary endeavour was a way of sending ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ to the poor heathen’, and urged that even the poor, in supporting the society, would promote ‘extensively the glory of God and the good of your fellowmen’. It also intimated that a public meeting would take place in Tain on Wednesday 27th August 1800 with the purpose of forming a missionary society.
A large crowd gathered on this occasion. Dr. Alexander Fraser of Kirkhill preached in English in Tain parish church from Isaiah 32:8 (‘But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand’) and Dr. Angus Mackintosh of Tain preached outside in Gaelic from Isaiah 40:3-5 (‘The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it’).
After the services were over, a meeting was held to form a missionary society. Dr. Alexander Fraser was the chairman of the first meeting. Its purpose was the spread of the gospel throughout the world. The Society was to last for forty-four years, until it was absorbed into the missionary agencies of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Fraser was its first president. He died two years later. Other presidents included Charles Calder in 1803 and John Macdonald in 1843. The society only ever had two secretary/treasurers: Dr. Angus Macintosh from 1800 to 1831 and his son Dr. Charles Calder Macintosh from 1829 to 1843 (he helped his father for two years).
The Society initially arranged for two services to be preached annually in Tain and in Inverness; in 1824, it increased the number to six by arranging for two sermons to be preached annually in Dingwall as well. These meetings enabled supporters of the society to have an annual conference, as it were, in each of those places. The sermons were delivered by the best preachers in the area, with John Macdonald of Ferintosh being a regular, preaching over thirty times for the Society. Collections were taken after the services for use by the Society.
Prayer was also an important aspect of these occasions and at other times. The first Mondays of May, August, November, and February were set apart as days of solemn prayer for the revival of religion at home and for the spread of the Gospel abroad. In each parish where the minister was willing, local branches were formed. They met for prayer, information about mission work was conveyed, and collections were taken. Some branches met weekly, others monthly, and still others met quarterly. These collections were usually handed in at the annual meeting in Inverness, Dingwall or Tain.
Some of the money was used to employ a native worker in India. Most of it, however, was sent to support other missionary agencies: among them, over £2000 was given to the Edinburgh Missionary Society and almost £1500 to the London Missionary Society between 1800 and 1843. The Northern Missionary Society also supported missions to the Jews, missions to Highland exiles in the British colonies, and missions to Roman Catholics in Ireland and elsewhere. After 1831, it also sent support to the Church of Scotland Indian Mission (for twelve years, they gave £50 annually).
The standard set by the Society for potential missionaries was high: its aim was ‘to employ in the work of Missions such only as give satisfactory evidence of genuine piety, pure zeal for the glory of God, and fervent love for the souls of men, connected with a solidity of judgment, firmness of mind, clear views of Scripture doctrine, and a sincere disposition to spend and be spent in propagating the Gospel among infidel or heathen nations.’ It seems that the only missionary produced by the society was John Macdonald of Calcutta (the son of the Apostle of the North).
The Society ceased in 1843. At its final meeting it concluded unanimously ‘that the objects of the Society can henceforward be most efficiently carried out by means of each congregation contributing to the several schemes of the Church, agreeably to the instructions of the “Free” Assembly, or to other missionary objects entitled to Christian support, and therefore resolve that the usual annual meetings shall in future be discontinued.’ They did so anticipating ‘that increased exertions will be made by the friends of Missions in this part of the country for the promotion of the Gospel and the hastening of the coming of Messiah’s kingdom over all the earth’.
Of course, the final assessment of the contribution of the Northern Missionary Society will not be given until the Day of Judgement. Yet it is important to note that strong interest in the worldwide spread of the gospel marked Highland Christianity during the first half of the nineteenth century (and later), and who can tell the effects of their prayers and sacrificial giving.