Anthony Norris Groves had the mission field in view when he first associated with that little band of simple Christians in Dublin. Those men were anxious to obey the Scriptures, the whole of the Scriptures, and nothing but the Scriptures. They wanted to obey “Pauline doctrine" and to imitate “Pauline" evangelical zeal. Paul did not differentiate between home and foreign missions. He had the one message for the world. This explains why “early brethren" regarded the world as their parish.
The commencing date for the assemblies’ movement is usually regarded to have been in the 1820’s. It is all the more amazing that the first little missionary band set out in 1829. Mr. Stunt has taken those carefully kept diaries and retold the story for young folks in the language of young Henry Groves. From a worldling’s point of view it was a madman’s venture. “He had no guarantee of any support from England. His private means sufficed to pay the initial expenses of the work, but from that time onwards he made his needs known only to the Lord, and in some way or another they were all supplied".
All this after a lucrative dental practice in Exeter. The diaries tell us something of the arduous land journey from Leningrad to Bagdad. It took six months. Shortly after arrival, Bagdad was almost wiped out by plague, flood and war-60, 000 out of a population of 85,000 died including Mrs. Groves. The going was as difficult then in Muslim lands as it is now. Some Armenians were saved but even in the wake of disaster, Mohammedans proved unresponsive and the survivors of the little band moved on to India where the movement took root and has continued until this day.
Nobody can underestimate the importance of A. N. Groves when it comes to missionary matters. The normal method of doing this kind of thing would be to set up a committee to look after the interests of those who are going to be engaged in such a work. Not so with A. N. Groves. The Lord alone was to be looked to for support. And so the practice of the apostles was re-established after all those centuries, “for his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles”, 3 John 7.
That little band that was led to Bagdad and then to India by A. N. Groves was only the vanguard of a considerable army. In the intervening years something like 5,000 men and women have gone from those New Testament churches to serve their Master overseas. Another secessionist has paid tribute on this score. “They were undoubtedly at their best on the mission field. Determined, intrepid, dedicated, they ventured into many lands, often pioneering where none had been before. Here the daring among them found an outlet for initiative and adventure, linked to the main task of carrying the Gospel as their Lord commanded. The large number who went overseas was higher than that of almost any other Christian group or denomination in proportion to their membership".
Groves’ second trip to India was at the head of another little band of missionaries including the Beers and the Bowdens who were to give such yeoman service in India. Five generations of Bowden descendants have served God in India and this with the Dan Crawford connection must make it a family saga which simply awaits an author. When compiled it will outshine Galsworthy’s “Forsythe Saga".
One scarcely knows whether Colonel Cotton’s contribution to the development of India was at its greatest in the construction of the Godavari Dam or in his encouragement of that band of missionaries. His experience of collaborating with missionaries while continuing with his secular employment must be one of the best examples in existence.
Our connection with Africa is every bit as thrilling. The pioneer F. Stanley Arnot, was influenced as a boy by David Livingstone. Setting out in 1881 he blazed the trail in what was to become a favourite mission field. Affectionately it was called the “Beloved Strip”, and over the years we have sent more than 700 men and women to it. Arnot and Dan Crawford were explorers in their own right and completed Livingstone’s work, being honoured by the Royal Geographical Society for it. The commanding influence acquired by Arnot over the cruel tyrant Msidi, has been told in Tony Lawman’s book, “From the Hands of the Wicked”. How much the imagination of young folks in assemblies must have been fired by these men can be gauged by the number who went to Central Africa in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. Young John Cobbe arrived in 1896 and announced to Crawford that he had come to pay his debt. He lived two years only and was one of several dozen which the climate of Africa laid low. One thousand one hundred are said to have attended the farewell meeting in Kilmarnock to bid Godspeed to John Wilson and to James Anderson, the former of whom lived little more than a year in that inhospitable climate. But their work lived on and Arnot claimed that the despised brethren formed the established church of that part of Africa.
Their material contribution here was not a dam like Cotton’s but their contribution to the study of African languages has been immense. As I write I have before me a publication by Professor Guy Atkins of the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies which says, “The standard work on Chokwe is M. B. Macjannet’s Dictionary and Grammar Lessons. Altogether a most useful work of reference to which I am greatly indebted for source material”. And again, “The neighbouring language of Luena, which is closely related to Chokwe, has been thoroughly analysed in the well known ‘Grammar of Luvale’ by A. E. Horton’. “An excellent dictionary of Luena … has recently appeared by the same author”. The names of both mentioned authorities will be found in Echoes’ “Turning the World Upside Down".
It is almost invidious to select more. The time would fail me to tell of Sloan and Gook, of Strong and Wildish, of Ewen and Clifford, of the Kinghams and the Equador martyrs, of Bull and Patterson, of Guiccardini and Rosetti, of Lord Radstock and Dr. Baedeker etc. The half hath not been told and will not be this side of eternity.
But it is a noble heritage well worth preserving and supporting. At any one time now we have somewhere between 1,100 and 1,200 on the various fields of the world in addition to the many who serve God at home (about 130 in the U.K. alone). May God help us to sustain them till the Lord comes.