American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
The Haystack Monument, Williams College, commemorates the event in 1806 that inspired the creation of the ABCFM.

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was among the first American Christian missionary organizations. It was created in 1810 by recent graduates of Williams College. In the 19th century it was the largest and most important of American missionary organizations.

In 1961 the ABCFM or the American Board, as it was often called, merged with other societies to form the United Church Board for World Ministries, an agency of the United Church of Christ. Other organizations that draw inspiration from the ABCFM include InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, and the Missionary Society of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.

Early history

The Judsons, Newells, and Luther Rice set sail for India from Salem, Massachusetts on the Caravan on February 19, 1812.

The founding of the ABCFM was inspired by the Second Great Awakening. In 1806, five students from Williams College in western Massachusetts took shelter from a thunderstorm in a haystack. At the Haystack Prayer Meeting, they came to the common conviction that "the field is the world" and inspired the creation of the ABCFM four years later. The objective of the ABCFM was to spread Christianity worldwide.[1] Congregationalist in origin, the ABCFM also accepted missionaries from Presbyterian (1812–70), Dutch-Reformed (1819–57) and other denominations.

In 1812, the ABCFM sent its first missionaries – Adoniram and Ann Hasseltine Judson; Samuel and Roxana Peck Nott; Samuel and Harriet Atwood Newell; Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice—to British India. Between 1812 and 1840, they were followed by missionaries to the following people and places: Tennessee to the Cherokee Indians, India (the Bombay area), northern Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka), the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii); east Asia: China, Singapore and Siam (Thailand); the Middle East: (Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, the Holy Land and Persia (Iran)); and Africa: Western Africa—Cape Palmas—and Southern Africa—among the Zulus.

The fight against Indian removal

Jeremiah Evarts served as treasurer, 1812–20, and as corresponding secretary from 1821 until his death in 1831. Under his leadership, the board in 1821 expanded the role of women: it authorized Ellen Stetson, the first unmarried female missionary to the American Indians, and Betsey Stockton, the first unmarried female overseas missionary and the first African-American missionary.[2]

Evarts led the organization's efforts to place missionaries with American Indian tribes in the Southeastern United States. He also led the ABCFM's extensive fight against Indian removal policies in general and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 in particular.[3]

1830 through 1860

By the 1830s, based on its experiences, the ABCFM prohibited unmarried people from entering the mission field. They required couples to have been engaged at least two months prior to setting sail. To help the missionaries find wives, they maintained a list of women who were "missionary-minded": "young, pious, educated, fit and reasonably good-looking."[4] The secretary post was offered to Elias Cornelius in October 1831, but he became ill and died in February 1832.[5] Rufus Anderson was the General Secretary of the Board from 1832 through the mid-1860s. His legacy included administrative gifts, setting of policy, visiting around the world, and chronicling the work of the ABCFM in books.

Rufus Anderson (1796–1880)

Between 1810 and 1840, the ABCFM sought firstly to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At home and abroad, the Board and its supporters undertook every effort to exhort the evangelical community, to train a cadre of agents, and to send forth laborers into the mission field. As a leader in the United Front and early federal American voluntary associations, the Board influenced the nineteenth-century mission movement.[6]

By 1850, the American Board had sent 157 ordained, male missionaries to foreign posts.[7]

Recruitment efforts

Orthodox, Trinitarian and evangelical in their theology, speakers to the annual meetings of the Board challenged their audiences to give of their time, talent and treasure in moving forward the global project of spreading Christianity. At first reflective of late colonial "occasional" sermons, the annual meeting addresses gradually took on the quality of "anniversary" sermons. The optimism and cooperation of post-millennialism held a major place in the scheme of the Board sermons.

After having listened to such sermons and been influenced at colleges, college and seminary students prepared to proclaim the gospel in foreign cultures. Their short dissertations and pre-departure sermons reflected both the outlook of annual Board sermons and sensitivity to host cultures. Once the missionaries entered the field, optimism remained yet was tempered by the realities of pioneering mission work in a different milieu. Many of the Board agents sought—through eclectic dialogue and opportunities as they presented themselves, as well as itinerant preaching—to bring the cultures they met, observed, and lived in to bear upon the message they shared. The missionaries found the audiences to be similar to Americans in their responses to the gospel message. Some rejected it outright, others accepted it, and a few became Christian proclaimers themselves.

Other North American Missions to the Indians

Among the North American missions of the ABCFM north or west of the displaced Southeast tribes were the 1823 Mackinaw Mission (Mackinac Island and Northern Michigan), the Green Bay mission (Michigan Territory at Green Bay), the Dakota mission (Michigan Territory/Iowa Territory/Minnesota Territory primarily along the Mississippi and the Minnesota (St. Peters) Rivers), the Ojibwe mission (Michigan Territory/Wisconsin Territory/Minnesota Territory/ Wisconsin at La Pointe and Odanah, Yellow Lake, Pokegama Lake, Sandy Lake, Fond du Lac, and Red Lake), and the Whitman mission in Oregon.

Missionaries of the Dakota mission experienced the explosion of Dakota violence in August 1862 at the start of the U.S.-Dakota War. Some of them attended the imprisoned Dakota and accompanied the exiled Dakota when they were forced out of Minnesota in 1863, especially those of the Williamson and Riggs families.

The Dakota mission translated the Bible into Dakota and produced a dictionary and a schoolbook. The Ojibwe mission translated the New Testament into Ojibwe and produced a number of schoolbooks, but used a now-abandoned notation style to do so. Both were among the first to render these languages in print.

Work with indigenous preachers

Indigenous preachers associated with the Board proclaimed an orthodox message, but they further modified the presentation beyond how the missionaries had developed subtle differences with the home leaders. Drawing upon the positive and negative aspects of their own cultures, the native evangelists steeped their messages in Biblical texts and themes. At times, indigenous workers had spectacular or unexpected results. On many occasions, little fruit resulted from their labors. Whatever the response, the native preachers worked on—even in the midst of persecution—until martyrdom or natural death took them.

Native preachers and other indigenous people assisted Board missionaries in Bible translation efforts. The act of translating the Scriptures into a mother tongue reflected a sensitivity to culture and a desire to work within the host society. Second only to the verbal proclamation of the Gospel, Bible translation took place in all sorts of settings: among ancient Christian churches, such as the Armenians and the Assyrian [Nestorian] church; cultures with a written language and a written religious heritage, such as the Marathi; and creating written languages in cultures without them, such as among the animistic people in Hawaii.

Educational, social, and medical roles served by ABCFM missionaries

Printing and literacy played crucial roles in the process of Bible translation. Similarly, the press runs and literacy presentations contributed significantly to the social involvement exhibited by the Board. To a greater or lesser extent, education, medicine, and social concerns supplemented the preaching efforts by missionaries. Schools provided ready-made audiences for preachers. Free, or Lancasterian, schools provided numerous students. Boarding students in missionary homes allowed them to witness Christian life in the intimacy of the family.

Education empowered indigenous people. Mostly later than 1840, it enabled them to develop their own church leaders and take a greater role in their communities. Board missionaries established some form of education at every station. A number of Board missionaries also received some medical training before leaving for the field. Some, like Ida Scudder, were trained as physicians but ordained as missionaries and concentrated on the task of preaching. Others, such as Peter Parker, sought to practice both the callings of missionary and medical practitioner.

ABCFM in China

After the London Missionary Society and the Netherlands Missionary Society, the Americans were the next to venture into the mission field of China. The Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, representing the Congregational Churches of the United States, sent out Revs. David Abeel and Elijah Coleman Bridgman in 1829. They were received in February 1830 by Dr. Robert Morrison. These men worked first among the Chinese and Malays of the Straits Settlements. From 1842 to his death in 1846, Mr. Abeel devoted himself to establishing a mission in Amoy (modern Xiamen).

View of ABCFM compound in Fuzhou, ca.1911-1918

The American Board followed with many other appointments in rapid succession. Revs. Ira Tracy and Samuel Wells Williams (1812–1884), followed in 1833, settling at Singapore and Macau. In the same year Revs. Stephen Johnson (missionary) and Samuel Munson went to Bangkok and Sumatra. There were four great centers from which smaller stations were maintained. These were Fuzhou, in connection with which were fifteen churches; North China, embracing Beijing, Kalgan, Tianjin, Tengzhou, and Baoding, with smaller stations in the various districts of the center missions; Hong Kong; and Shanxi, with two stations in the midst of districts filled with opium cultivation and staffed by missionaries of the Oberlin Band of Oberlin College.

At Tengzhou missionaries established a college, over which Dr. Calvin Mateer presided. Tengzhou was one of the centers for Chinese literary competitive examinations. Mateer believed that the light of modern science shown in contrast with "superstition" would prove effective. He and his wife taught astronomy, mathematics, natural philosophy, and history. He trained young men to be teachers all over North China. The young men whom he had trained in Biblical instruction began native ministry. Drs. John Livingstone Nevius and Hunter Corbett (1862–1918) co-operated in this latter work, by giving a theological education to candidates for ministry during a portion of each year at Yantai.

At its principal stations in China, the Society maintained large medical dispensaries and hospitals, boarding schools for boys and girls, colleges for native students, and other agencies for effecting the purposes of the mission. As of 1890 it had twenty-eight missionaries, sixteen lady agents, ten medical missionaries, four ordained native ministers, one hundred and five unordained native helpers, nearly one thousand communicants, and four hundred and fifty pupils in its schools.[8]

ABCFM in the Middle East

The ABCFM founded many colleges and schools in the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans.[9]

ABCFM-sponsored missionaries

Indigenous workers affiliated with the Board

  • Babajee (b. 1791)
  • Liang Fa
  • David Malo
  • Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia (c. 1792–1818) sometimes spelled "Henry Obookiah"
  • Puaaiki
  • Asaad Shidiak
  • Reverend Joel Hulu Mahoe (1830–1890) Hawaiian Missionary known as "Mahoe", "Noble Missionary", and "The Gallant Pastor of Tarawa". Graduate of Lahainaluna Theological School in 1854 and second pure Hawaiian to be ordained.
  • Henry Blatchford of the Ojibwe mission did translations and lay preaching beginning at Pokegama (Minnesota) in 1836, was ordained eventually and worked at the Odanah mission until he died in the late 19th century.

See also


  1. "ABCFM 200", Exhibits, Congregational Library, retrieved 18 Jan 2012<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  2. Maxfield, Charles A (1995). "The Formation and Early History of the American Board of Commissioners For Foreign Missions". The 'Reflex Influence' of Missions: The Domestic Operations of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1810–1850. Retrieved 2006-06-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Andrew, John A III (1992). "From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts, the Cherokee Nation, and the Search for the Soul of America".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Did You Know?". Christian History & Biography. 90: 3. Spring 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. William Buell Sprague, ed. (1857). "Elias Cornelius, D. D. 1816–1832". Annals of the American Pulpit: Trinitarian Congregational. Robert Carter & Brothers. pp. 633–643.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Corr, Donald Philip "The Field Is the World": Proclaiming, Translating and Serving by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1810–40 (Pasadena: William Carey Library Dissertation Series, 2009)
  7. Burke Library Archives, Columbia University,, accessed 18 Feb 2013
  8. Townsend (1890), 233-234
  9. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, The Annual Report, 1917 full text, pp. 62-95.

6. See Putney, Clifford (writer of introduction and editor with Burlin, Paul), The Role of the American Board in the World: Bicentennial Reflections on the Organization's Missionary Work, 1810–2010 (Eugene, Or: Wipf and Stock, 2012)



  • American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1838). Report, Volume 29. s.n. Retrieved 24 April 2014.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1836). Annual Report, Volumes 27-31. Retrieved 24 April 2014.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1840). Annual Report - American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Volumes 31-33. Retrieved 24 April 2014.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • İdris YÜCEL, "An Overview of Religious Medicine in the Near East: Mission Hospitals of the American in Asia Minor (1880-1923)", Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Vol 14, Issue 40, Spring 2015.
  • İdris YÜCEL, “A Missionary Society at the Crossroad: American Missionaries during the Collapse of the Ottoman Empire”, Journal of Modern Turkish History, Vol 8 Issue 15, Spring 2012.

External links

Select Annotated Bibliography

  • Sections drawn from the conclusion to Donald Philip Corr's dissertation and is used with permission.