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In the early years of work in China and Africa, missionaries battled isolation and diseases. Though some died or returned to the U.S., there was a successful push into Africa’s interior.

1850s Overview

The 1850s were marked by a significant push into the African continent. In the early part of the decade, Thomas Jefferson Bowen moved into Yorubaland (a part of modern day Nigeria), where he proclaimed the gospel in areas no Westerner had ever been. He was likely the first Southern Baptist missionary to preach in a Muslim city. There was also a thriving mission station in Liberia, where a number of African American missionaries served.

In Shanghai Matthew and Eliza Yates established a mission station that would welcome and influence missionaries in China over the next several decades. Matthew became a towering figure in Southern Baptist life and the most well-known Foreign Mission Board missionary in the organization’s first few decades of history.

Despite the progress experienced by missionaries like Yates and Bowen, in the 1850s the FMB was hit with one challenge after another. Missionaries in Africa and China constantly suffered from diseases like yellow fever, malaria and dysentery. Some died, while others returned to the United States.

The FMB was also challenged during the Landmark Crisis, in which a group of Southern Baptists claimed the local church, rather than a board, should be responsible for examining and sending out missionaries. In 1859 a resolution was passed that affirmed the continued cooperation among Southern Baptist churches to fund and send out missionaries through the Foreign Mission Board. 

IMB Milestones

Significant Ministry Events

Mission Work Started in Africa’s Interior

Ministry in Yorubaland (a part of modern-day Nigeria) opened as an offshoot of the work in Liberia, fulfilling Southern Baptists’ desire, since the formation of the Foreign Mission Board, to take the gospel into Africa’s interior as well as to China.

Travels in North and Central Africa

FMB Authority Questioned by Landmark Crisis

Baptist pastor and newspaper editor James R. Graves challenged the Foreign Mission Board, asserting local churches have sole authority under Scripture to appoint and send out missionaries. This Landmark Crisis ended with a resolution to maintain existing operations while working closely with churches that wanted to fund their own missionaries.

James R. Graves

Missions in Context

Major World Events

Taiping Rebellion Threatened Chinese Imperial Rule 

The Taiping Rebellion was a time of political and religious unrest during the Qing Dynasty. The widespread upheaval reached 17 provinces and took between 20 million and 70 million lives, including that of FMB missionary Landrum Holmes, who was killed by Taiping rebels in 1861. Missionary Matthew Yates was a virtual prisoner in his home for 18 months after his wife and infant daughter were forced to leave Shanghai. Although the rebellion failed, it ultimately weakened China’s imperial rule.

Taiping Rebellion

European and Ottoman Empires Fought Crimean War 

Although famous in the West for Florence Nightingale and “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the Crimean War was fought over Russia’s southern expansion and Britain’s concern that the expansion would spread into India. Another cause for the conflict was control over religious sites in Jerusalem. Russia was ultimately defeated by allied Britain, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire.

Crimean War

Second Opium War Opened Chinese Ports 

France used the death of French missionary, Father Auguste Chapdelaine, in China’s interior as an excuse to join the United Kingdom’s war against the Qing Dynasty in China. The Dynasty’s defeat resulted in the opening of more Chinese ports to Westerners and allowed for missionaries and other foreigners to have free movement in the country.  

China Ports Opened 1860

Missionary Profiles

Honoring Faithful Service

Thomas and Lurenna Bowen

A former Texas ranger, Thomas faced the challenges of the mission field with courage and strength. Unfortunately, the effects on his physical and mental health would plague his final years.

Thomas and Lurenna Bowen

Rosewell H. Graves

With this one ministry experiment, Rosewell Graves changed the mission strategy for reaching China and ignited a spiritual awakening.

Rosewell Graves

Jesse B. Hartwell

His Chinese interpreter refused to believe, but through constant witness and love, that would change.

Jesse B. Hartwell

God at Work

Stories From The Field

“Yariba will be a Christian Land”

Dear bro. Taylor,—I have arrived in Yariba [part of modern-day Nigeria]. … Abbeokuta is a large city on the east bank of a small river Ogee, 80 miles north-east of Badagry. It is ten or twelve miles in circuit, and contains at least 50,000 people; some say 100,000. Here are four missionary stations—one Wesleyan and three Episcopal. The number of disciples exceeds 300, a good many of whom are from Sierra Leone. ...



Towering Pioneers

During a rebellion, Matthew Yates refused to leave Shanghai, even when cannonballs fell through the roof of his house.

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