American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions

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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.

Organization and Functioning[edit]

The ABCFM consisted of an annual meeting with a Prudential Committee (aka Executive Committee)[1] that took care of day-to-day business. It elected a Corresponding Secretary to produce written documents, and a Treasurer to receive donations, and had Board Members.

The ABCFM held its first meeting on 5 September 1810, and elected Samuel Worcester corresponding secretary.

Corresponding Secretaries and other key leaders[edit]

Note: After some secessions due to the slavery issue and the movement of New School Presbyterian-affiliated missionaries to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, the ABCFM was left as a Congregationalist body after 1870.[13]
Note: After 1930, the ABCFM revised its constitution to create the position of "Executive Vice-President" to provide a position that was "first among equals" amongst ABCFM secretaries.[18]
  • Dr. Frank Field Goodsell was the first Executive Vice-President of the ABCFM, which he led from 1930 to 1948.[19]
  • Alford Carleton served as executive vice president of the board from 1954 to 1970.
Note: when the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregational Christian Church in 1957, the Congregationalist-affiliated ABCFM merged with the E&R affiliated Board of International Missions[20] to become the United Church of Christ denomination's United Church Board of World Ministries under Carleton[21] On June 29, 1961, the ABCFM formally concluded. On July 1, 2000, a UCC restructure renamed UCBWM became "Wider Church Ministries" under the UCC's covenanted ministries structure.[22]

Board Members[edit]

In 1826, the American Board absorbed 26 members of the United Foreign Missionary Society (UFMS) into its board.[23]

Early history[edit]

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.[24] 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[edit]

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.[25]

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.[26]

1830 through 1860[edit]

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."[27] The secretary post was offered to Elias Cornelius in October 1831, but he became ill and died in February 1832.[28] 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.[29]

Missionary stations in 1855[edit]

By 1850, the American Board had sent 157 ordained, male missionaries to foreign posts.[30]

The January 1855 issue of the Missionary Herald[31] listed the Current missions of the Board as follow:



Western Asia[edit]

Southern Asia[edit]

Southern Asia[edit]

  • Mission to Canton (Canton station)
  • Mission to Amoy (Amoy station)
  • Mission to Fuh-Chau (Fuh-Chau station)
  • Mission to Shanghai (Shanghai station)

North Pacific Ocean[edit]

North American Indians[edit]

Recruitment efforts[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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. It also helped create the Canton Hospital. 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.[32]

ABCFM in the Middle East[edit]

The ABCFM founded many colleges and schools in the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans.[33]

ABCFM-sponsored missionaries[edit]

Indigenous workers affiliated with the Board[edit]

  • 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[edit]


  1. ^ Maxfield, Charles A. (2001). "THE FORMATION AND EARLY HISTORY of the AMERICAN BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS FOR FOREIGN MISSIONS". Charles A. Maxfield (1995 Dissertation). Retrieved 25 August 2016. "The ABCFM held its first meeting on 5 September 1810, and elected Samuel Worcester corresponding secretary." ... The Prudential Committee (the Executive Committee of the ABCFM) 
  2. ^ Maxfield, Charles A. (2001). "THE FORMATION AND EARLY HISTORY of the AMERICAN BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS FOR FOREIGN MISSIONS". Charles A. Maxfield (1995 Dissertation). Retrieved 25 August 2016. Jeremiah Evarts, corresponding secretary of the ABCFM from 1821 to 1831, 
  3. ^ The Missionary Herald (Volume XVIII, No. 11 (November 1822) ed.). Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong. 1822. p. 338. Retrieved 9 September 2016. The Board then made choice of the following officers, for the ensuing year... 
  4. ^ Maxfield, Charles A. (2001). "THE FORMATION AND EARLY HISTORY of the AMERICAN BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS FOR FOREIGN MISSIONS". Charles A. Maxfield (1995 Dissertation). Retrieved 25 August 2016. Elias Cornelius (1794-1832) accepted the position of corresponding secretary late in December 1831, left almost immediately on a fund raising tour, and died at Hartford, 12 February 1832 
  5. ^ Maxfield, Charles A. (2001). "THE FORMATION AND EARLY HISTORY of the AMERICAN BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS FOR FOREIGN MISSIONS". Charles A. Maxfield (1995 Dissertation). Retrieved 25 August 2016. 
  6. ^ Maxfield, Charles A. (2001). "THE FORMATION AND EARLY HISTORY of the AMERICAN BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS FOR FOREIGN MISSIONS". Charles A. Maxfield (1995 Dissertation). Retrieved 25 August 2016. From 1835 to 1846 the Board had a period of stable leadership under the direction of Anderson, Greene, and Armstrong. In the division of labor of three co-equal secretaries, Rufus Anderson was foreign secretary, Benjamin Wisner and then William Armstrong were domestic secretaries, and David Greene was secretary for American Indian missions and editor of the Missionary Herald 
  7. ^ "Rev William Jessup Armstrong". Find a Grave. Retrieved 26 August 2016. Died in the wreck of the Steamer Atlantic, age 50. He labored long in the fields of central Virginia where he gathered a church. Born in Mendham NJ, son of the minister Dr A Armstrong. He died on one of his monthly returns to Boston, 
  8. ^ Missionary Herald, Volume 39. 47, Washington Street Boston: Press of Crocker and Brewster. 1843. p. 429. Retrieved 25 August 2016. 
  9. ^ The New York State Register, for 1858. No. 333 Broadway, New York City: John Disturnell. 1858. p. 179. Retrieved 9 September 2016. N/A 
  10. ^ The Missionary Herald, Volume 62 (Volume 62, Number 7 ed.). Missionary House, 33 Pemberton Square BOSTON: ABCFM. June 1866. p. 2. Retrieved 25 August 2016. 
  11. ^ Public Opinion: A Comprehensive Summary of Press Throughout the World on All Important Current Topics, Volume 20 (Volume 20, Number 3 (January 16, 1896) ed.). 13 Astor Place, New York, New York: The Public Opinion Company. 1896. p. 83. In 1866 he was appointed foreign secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a position which he retained until October, 1894 
  12. ^ Ishii, Noriko Kawamura (Mar 1, 2004). American Women Missionaries at Kobe College, 1873-1909. Routledge. pp. 31–36. Retrieved 25 August 2016. 
  13. ^ "American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions archives, 1810-1961: Guide". Houghton Library, Harvard College Library. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 US. 2004. Last updated 2016 July 7. Retrieved 25 August 2016. After some secessions due to the slavery issue and the formation by the Presbyterian Church of its own foreign mission board, the ABCFM was left as a Congregationalist body after 1870.   Check date values in: |date= (help)
  14. ^ Ishii, Noriko Kawamura (Mar 1, 2004). American Women Missionaries at Kobe College, 1873-1909. Routledge. p. 36. 
  15. ^ "Barton, James Levi (1855-1936)". History of Missiology. Boston University School of Theology. Retrieved 26 August 2016. He was elected president of Euphrates College, Harpoot, in 1892, but when his wife’s ill health prevented continuing residence in Turkey, Barton became foreign secretary of the ABCFM. First among equals on the board staff, Barton believed that the primary need of indigenous Christian communities was well-trained leadership. Before his retirement in 1927,  
  16. ^ The Congregational Year-book. Boston: Congregational sunday School and Publishing Society. 1899. p. 42. Retrieved 25 August 2016. 
  17. ^ Shavit, David (1988). The United States in the Middle East: a historical dictionary. Greenwood Press. "Riggs graduated.. and was ordained in 1910... president of Euphrates College from 1910 to 1921, child welfare director of the Near East Relief in 1920-1921; and associate secretary and corresponding secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) from 1921 to 1932. 
  18. ^ Goodsell, Fred Field (1959). You Shall be My Witnesses: An Interpretation of the history of the American Board 1810-1960 (Library of Congress Card Catalog Number 59-15355 ed.). ABCFM. p. viii. Retrieved 26 August 2016. the Board's first Executive Vice-President Dr. Fred Field Goodsell"..."When the Constitution of the Board was revised to provide that among its secretaries one should be first among equals, a sort of Prime Minister... That man was Dr. Goodsell... he was called back to Boston to lead the Board... For nineteen years" 
  19. ^ "Goodsell, Fred Field (1880-1976). Papers, 1928-1972 (bulk)". History Matters. Congregational Library & Archives. Retrieved 26 August 2016. In 1930, he moved to Boston where he was made the first Executive Vice-President of the ABCFM. After his retirement in 1948 
  20. ^ "Timeline of Mission". Global Ministries. Global Ministries. Retrieved 26 August 2016. 1961 ABCFM merges with Board of International Missions to form the United Church Board for World Ministries (UCBWM) 
  21. ^ "RG 30/385 - Carleton Family Papers 1808 (1853-1973) - 1985". Oberlin College Archives. Retrieved 26 August 2016. After serving as president of Aleppo College for seventeen years, Dr. Carleton returned to the United States to serve as executive vice president of the ABCFM. His first major task was to guide the Congregational Church in a merger with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, creating the United Church of Christ. Resulting from this merger, the ABCFM, formerly a branch of the Congregational Church, became the United Church Board of World Ministries. He served as executive vice president of the board from 1954 to 1970.  
  22. ^ Finding Aid prepared by: Brigette C. Kamsler, September 2011. "American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions archives, 1810-1961: Guide". Houghton Library, Harvard College Library. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Retrieved 26 August 2016. On 29 June 1961 the ABCFM was formally concluded, becoming part of the United Church Board for World Ministries (UCBWM), an instrumentality of the new denomination. On 1 July 2000, the UCBWM became Wider Church Ministries, one of the four covenanted ministries of the UCC. 
  23. ^ Maxfield, Charles A. (2001). "THE FORMATION AND EARLY HISTORY of the AMERICAN BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS FOR FOREIGN MISSIONS". Charles A. Maxfield (1995 Dissertation). Retrieved 25 August 2016. In 1826 the UFMS and the ABCFM merged; in effect, the UFMS was absorbed by the American Board. At its annual meeting that year, the ABCFM added twenty-six new members to the Board, 
  24. ^ "ABCFM 200", Exhibits, Congregational Library, retrieved 18 Jan 2012 .
  25. ^ 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. 
  26. ^ Andrew, John A., III (1992). From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts, the Cherokee Nation, and the Search for the Soul of America. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0820314277. 
  27. ^ "Did You Know?". Christian History & Biography. 90: 3. Spring 2006. 
  28. ^ William Buell Sprague, ed. (1857). "Elias Cornelius, D. D. 1816–1832". Annals of the American Pulpit: Trinitarian Congregational. Robert Carter & Brothers. pp. 633–643. 
  29. ^ 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)
  30. ^ Burke Library Archives, Columbia University,, accessed 18 Feb 2013
  31. ^ ABCFM (1855). Missionary Herald Vol 51. Boston: T. R. Marvin. pp. 2–14. Retrieved 11 May 2017. 
  32. ^ Townsend (1890), 233-234
  33. ^ 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)



External links[edit]

Select Annotated Bibliography[edit]

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