Methodism began to spread outside the British Isles in the 1760s with the preaching of Nathaniel Gilbert in Antigua and of Irish emigrants in America. Appeals for preachers for West Africa in the 1770s had no immediate result and Thomas Coke's first 'Plan' for missionary work misfired in 1784. But his Appeal of 1786, backed by John Wesley, led to the first stationing of missionaries in the West Indies and in West Africa. Asia, however, had to wait until missionaries reached Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1814 and India in 1817.
Initial steps to make the missions a responsibility of the Conference included a Committee of Finance in 1798 and a Missionary Committee in 1804, but with Coke still named as Conference's agent for the overseas work the shift from personal to corporate responsibility was only gradual, culminating in the creation of the first District Missionary Society in Leeds in 1813 and of a connexional missionary society in 1818. Meanwhile, following earlier abortive ventures, the first mission to West Africa began in Sierra Leone in 1811.
The nineteenth century saw the worldwide proliferation of missions, and all the other main Methodist bodies eventually established work overseas, though only the Bible Christians set up a separate society for the purpose (in 1821). Geographically the work ranged from the West Indies to China. (See under Bible Christians; Primitive Methodism; United Methodist Free Churches.) The heroic exploits of missionaries and their wives in hazardous and exotic (and hitherto unfamiliar) parts of the world provided a stirring appeal for support back in the home Church. In 1859 the Ladies' Committee (later 'Women's Work') sent out its first woman missionary, to Belize. The steady, and sometimes dramatic, growth of the Church in many lands owed much to the ability, energy and faith of indigenous converts who became partners in the enterprise. Educational work was a recognized part of mission from the early days and medical missions grew in importance.
In 1932 all this overseas work was effectively integrated under the MMS, set up at the time of Methodist Union, with 36 overseas Districts, of which only one, The Gambia, survived until its autonomy in 2009. Since World War II there has been a fundamental shift of outlook and policy. The Overseas Consultation held in Skegness in 1961 on the initiative of Douglas W. Thompson, then General Secretary of the MMS, was a landmark in the shift from 'overseas misions' to 'World Church Partnerships' between autonomous Churches.
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