Unsung Methodist Personalities: Biographies from the history of New Zealand Methodism by Donald Phillipps

'Carpenter of Sickness'

You’re a missionary on the other side of the world. Such training as you have received has been almost solely for the purpose of saving souls.

But the people whose souls you desperately want to save are human beings like you, and they suffer from the same sicknesses and afflictions as you. There is no doctor, quite literally within 1000 miles except, maybe, for a passing ship’s surgeon.

If you are lucky, you have been supplied with a case of medicines, some equipment, and a smattering of training. To make up for your ignorance, you fall back on Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, all 650 pages of it. It was first published in 1769 and was still going strong nearly a century later.

You carry it round with you all day, every day. It fills a pocket of your great-coat, and with its help you do your best. For a Wesleyan missionary, at least, it’s a great improvement on John Wesley’s own Primitive Physick - every Wesleyan minister had one of these, as well.

It is easy to smile, or wince, at the rationale behind medical practice 200 years ago. We can understand why such medical men as there were in this part of the world were so derisive of the missionary’s faith in bleeding and blistering, and in purging and vomiting. But we wonder why mercury, or rhubarb, should have been considered beneficial.

We wouldn’t want to go back to those times but we might try to stand with the missionaries as they did their best. And we definitely should admire and honour the missionary wife who, almost without exception, became the midwife at her husband’s mission station.

The first Wesleyan missionary with medical qualifications was Richard Burdsall Lyth. Born in York in 1810 to John, a businessman and Mary Lyth (both of them Wesleyans), Richard was professionally trained and entered the ministry as a Member of the Royal Society of Surgeons of Edinburgh (MRCS) and a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. He was received on probation at the 1836 Conference, and before his departure for the South Pacific married Mary Ann Hardy.

Richard and Mary arrived in Tonga in 1837, and spent two years at Ha'apai. He was then transferred to Somosomo, Fiji, and spent the next 16 years in those islands, mostly resident at Lakemba. For seven years he was District Chairman, and then for health reasons left Fiji and took up the appointment of Governor/Chaplain at Wesley College, Queen St., Auckland, for three years until his return to England in 1858.

All references to Richard Burdsall Lyth stress his devotion, sanctity and modesty. His professional skills were available to the people of the area and to the missionary families in Fiji. He was called ‘matai-ni-mate’, ‘carpenter of sickness’, by the Fijian people, and is remembered with honour.

But he is equally remembered for his aptitude for training native catechists. His stations at Lakemba and Viwa became seminaries for preachers. Significant leaders of Fijian Methodism whom he trained included Joel Bula, Paul Vea, and Matthias Vave. He was also an accurate and thorough-going linguist and took a large share of the work of translating the scriptures, while correcting the efforts of his colleagues.

When Lyth returned to England in 1859 he spent seven years in the warmer Circuits of southern England, before superannuating. During that time he was largely responsible for revising the whole of the Fijian-language Bible being put together by the British and Foreign Bible Society.

He superannuated in 1866, but in 1869 he went to Gibraltar as chaplain to the forces, for four years. Maybe he was chasing the sun again. He died at his home city of York in 1887.

It seems extraordinary that Lyth never regarded himself, nor was officially appointed by his superiors in London, as a medical missionary. In the five-volume History of the Wesleyan Missionary Society one of the authors stated that he strictly subordinated “therapeutic to evangelistic interests”.

What does that say to us in 2015? Would we invert the order? Our scientific world view might assign spiritual health to second place after that of physical health. Is that a fair comment? Evangelist or therapist – either way Richard Burdsall Lyth is to be honoured.

Richard Burdsall Lyth


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Last updated on 30 September 2020, 6:00 PM