Dr Graham Johnson, Christian Brethren Archivist, writes:
Magic lantern slide shows (known as phantasmagoria) were produced from at least the seventeenth century and became popular in the late eighteenth century. In the 1870s the development of gelatin silver slides made possible the creation of photographic magic lantern slides and such shows were widespread from the late nineteenth century, when religious and moral organisations adopted them on a wide scale.
Their use in the mission field was appreciated by David Livingstone, who with great difficulty, and at great expense, transported fragile glass slides and cumbersome heavy projection equipment (which he described as his ‘most valuable travelling friend’) into Central Africa.
Their use at home as mission propaganda was even more widely appreciated: they raised awareness of missionary activity, encouraged financial support, and in an age before television, were a good night out, a useful supplement at a Sunday school, or an exciting addition to a regular chapel meeting. In the words of the popular Victorian journalist W.T. Stead, ‘Photography and the magic lantern are going to democratise sects, educate the masses and contribute to the evangelisation of the world’.
A collection of 100 glass slides was discovered on the shelves of the Christian Brethren Archive by the current archivist, where they had been donated before his arrival at some point between 1979 (when the archive was created) and 2003. They had originated from Newmilns in Ayrshire. Alongside the slides on the shelves, in an old battered suitcase, was the impressive projector (see illustration) which had been fitted with a modern plug, suggesting use well into the twentieth century.
The collection is made up of a number of purchased commercial slides, including many from ‘The Life and Work of David Livingstone’ produced by the London Missionary Society. There are slides of exotic places of a kind that could be found in any Victorian travelogue. However, the unique appeal of this collection is the slides produced specifically for a Brethren audience. Among the latter are photographs from the mission field, and coloured montages illustrative of the work of Brethren missions in India, Spain, the Faroes, Central and South America, Russia, Italy, British Guiana and Malaysia.
There are photographs of Brethren worthies including George Müller and Henry Groves, and slides illustrative of particular events in Brethren history such as the early get-togethers in Dublin usually considered foundational, and the fabled meeting of the missionaries Arnot Swan and Faulkner in Garanganze in Central Africa during 1888. The collection also includes the opportunity for a sing-along, incorporating hymn lyrics: ‘Throw out the life Line’ illustrated by a turbulent seascape and ‘There’s a call comes ringing’ illustrated by gloomy skies and a boat coming to the rescue.
The slides provide a fascinating insight into the evangelising activities of Brethren assemblies and their attempts to popularise the activities of the missionaries working in the field.
The lanterns slides have recently been digitised at ultra-high resolution by the Library’s expert Heritage Imaging Team, thanks to generous funding from the J. W. Laing Trust. They are now available to view online via Luna.
You can also download a pdf copy of the catalogue, incorporating all the images, here (13Mb).