Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ellis, William (1794-1872)

ELLIS, WILLIAM (1794–1872), missionary, born in London 29 Aug. 1794, of parents in straitened circumstances, was bred a gardener, but, coming under deep religious impressions, offered himself as a foreign missionary to the London Missionary Society; was accepted, trained, and ordained in 1816 for the office, and appointed first to South Africa, but afterwards to the South Sea Islands. Leaving England in 1816, along with his wife, he arrived in 1817 at Eimeo, one of the Georgian or Windward islands, and in the following year commenced a new mission at Hushine. In 1822 he removed to Oahu, one of the Sandwich group, but had to leave it owing to his wife's health; returned to England in 1825, visiting America by the way. As a Polynesian missionary he combined great spiritual earnestness with mechanical skill, and likewise with a profound interest in scientific and antiquarian research. While in England he published a 'Tour through Hawaii,' and thereafter his 'Polynesian Researches.' The 'Researches' excited great interest; the book was reviewed in the 'Quarterly Review' by Southey, whose judgment was given in the words, 'A more interesting book we have never perused.' The publication of this work went far to redeem the character of missionaries in the eyes of some who had thought of them all as ignorant and narrow-minded men. In 1830 he was appointed assistant foreign secretary to the London Missionary Society, and soon after chief foreign secretary. Among other literary employments he became editor of an annual called 'The Christian Keepsake,' which brought him into connection with many literary friends.

His first wife having died in 1835 after many years of great suffering, he married in 1837 Miss Sarah Stickney, a lady who acquired considerable literary fame, chiefly in connection with a work entitled 'The Poetry of Life,' and works on the women of England in their various relations. Miss Stickney had been brought up a member of the Society of Friends, but not caring to accept all their principles and rules, she had left that body and become a member of the congregational church. Her husband and she enjoyed five-and-thirty years of married life, marked by great congeniality of taste and pursuit, both in religion and general culture. The list of her books appended to this notice attests the variety of her accomplishments and her great literary activity. Among the practical objects in which she and her husband were deeply interested was the promotion of temperance, and their zeal in this cause took a very practical form, several persons given to drunkenness being taken in hand and encouraged by every contrivance of affectionate solicitude to turn from their evil ways. Mrs. Ellis likewise instituted a school for young ladies—Rawdon House, to which she gave the benefit of her personal superintendence. Her object was to apply the principles illustrated in her books (The Women of England, &c.) to the moral training, the formation of character, and in some degree the domestic duties of young ladies. Other means were devised for improving the intellectual condition of young women of the lower classes. She had studied art both in theory and in practice, and her character and attainments gave her a position of no ordinary influence.

The profoundest interest of both her and her husband, however, was all the while in the cause of christian missions. While Ellis was secretary of the London Missionary Society the affairs of Madagascar began to create interest, both in connection with the persecution of the christian converts under Queen Ranavolona, and the interference of the French in the affairs of the island. Ellis was requested by the directors of the society to prepare a 'History of Madagascar,' which appeared in 2 vols, in 1838. In 1844 he was obliged, owing to ill-health, to resign the post of secretary. In the same year he published the first volume of a 'History of the London Missionary Society.' In 1847 he was invited to take the pastoral charge of an independent congregation at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, where he and his family had been residing for some time.

In 1852 the affairs of Madagascar had reached such a crisis that Ellis was requested by the directors of the society to visit the island, in order to ascertain and improve the condition of the christians. When he arrived in 1853 he was not allowed to proceed to the capital. He retired for a time to Mauritius; visited Madagascar a second time, and was again refused access to the capital. Before he arrived in England communications reached him indicating that a change had come over the authorities, and conveying their invitation to him to visit them. Without hesitation he retraced his steps, and paid his third visit in 1856. Yet even now the queen would not allow him to extend his visit beyond a month, and though he was able to learn a good deal, he could not do what he had desired either for the country or the christian cause. Soon after his return from this third visit the queen died, and matters assumed quite a different appearance. In 1861 Ellis set out on his fourth, and by far his longest and most satisfactory visit to Madagascar, and remained in the island till 1865. The events that followed are well known. In 1838 a christian queen came to the throne, advised by christian counsellors. Persecution being exchanged for encouragement, an immense addition to the number of persons professing Christianity took place. The continuance of the plots of the French created great difficulties in the political government. Ellis was able to give advice by which these difficulties were in a great measure overcome. Both church matters and state matters were settled on a basis which provided for self-government, constitutional liberty, and the freedom of the church. When he returned to England in 1865 he received an extraordinary welcome. A great part of his time was spent in going from place to place and delivering lectures and addresses. Three books, entitled 'Three Visits to Madagascar' (1858), 'Madagascar Revisited' (1867), and 'The Martyr Church of Madagascar' (1870), gave full particulars of the whole movement.

In the beginning of June 1872 he caught cold on a railway journey and died on the 9th of the month. Scarcely had he been buried, when Mrs. Ellis was seized with precisely the same form of ailment, and died on the 16th.

The principal works of Ellis have been already noticed. Those published by Mrs. Ellis were the following:

  1. 'The Poetry of Life,' 2 vols.
  2. 'Conversations on Human Nature.'
  3. 'Home, or the Iron Rule,' 3 vols.
  4. 'The Women of England.'
  5. 'Sons of the Soil,' a poem.
  6. 'The Daughters of England.'
  7. 'The Wives of England.'
  8. 'The Mothers of England.'
  9. 'Family Secrets,' 3 vols.
  10. 'A Summer and a Winter in the Pyrenees.'
  11. 'A Voice from the Vintage.
  12. 'Pictures of Private Life.'
  13. 'The Young Ladies' Reader.'
  14. 'Look to the End,' 2 vols.
  15. 'The Island Queen,' a poem.
  16. 'Temper and Temperament,' 2 vols.
  17. 'Prevention better than Cure.'
  18. 'Rawdon House.'
  19. 'Fireside Tales.'
  20. 'Social Distinction,' 3 vols.
  21. 'My Brother.'
  22. 'The Beautiful in Nature and Art.'
  23. 'Northern Roses,' 3 vols.
  24. 'Education of Character.'
  25. 'Education of the Heart.'
  26. 'The Morning Call, a table-book of Literature and Art,' 4 vols.

[Memoir of Rev. William Ellis, by his son, John E. Ellis, 1873; Register of Missionaries. &c. of the London Missionary Society, by J. O. Whitehouse, 1888.]

W. G. B.