The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was the first American Christian foreign mission agency. It was proposed in 1810 by recent graduates of Williams College and officially chartered in 1812. In 1961 it merged with other societies to form the United Church Board for World Ministries. Other organizations that draw inspiration from the ABCFM include InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.
The founding of the ABCFM is associated with the Second Great Awakening
in origin, the American Board supported missions by Presbyterian
(1826–1857) and other denominational members.
The first missionaries were sent overseas in 1812. Between 1812 and 1840, representatives of the ABCFM went to the following people and places: India
area), northern Ceylon
(modern day Sri Lanka
), the Sandwich Islands
), east Asia (China
), the Middle East (Greece
, the Holy Land
), and Africa
(Western Africa—Cape Palmas
—and Southern Africa—among the Zulus
). It sent its first group of five missionaries in 1812. It became the leading missionary
society in the United States
The fight against indian removal
served as its treasurer from 1812–1820 and as its Corresponding Secretary from 1821 until his death in 1831. Under his leadership, the board in 1821 sent the first unmarried female missionaries to the Indians, Ellen Stetson
, and the first unmarried female overseas missionary, Betsey Stockton
. He led the organization's efforts to place missionaries with 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.
1830 through 1860
By the 1830s, it prohibited unmarried people from entering the mission field. They required couples to be engaged at least two months prior to setting sail. To help the missionaries find wives, they maintained a list of women that were "missionary-minded", "young, pious, educated, fit and reasonably good-looking.
Rufus Anderson was the General Secretary of the Board from the early 1830s through the mid 1860s. His legacy included administrative gifts, setting of policy, visiting around the world, and chronicling through books the work of the ABCFM.
Records of the ABCFM
Many of the historical records of the ABCFM are held at Harvard University
, yet records can be found from New England to Hawaii and elsewhere around the world (See Bibliographic Essay below).
Aspects of the first thirty years
Between 1810 and 1840, the ABCFM sought first and foremost 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.
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.
Listening to such sermons and being influenced back at their schools, 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 stated and itinerant preaching—to bring the culture 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.
Work with indigenous preachers
Indigenous preachers associated in some way 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, the indigenous workers experienced 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 very 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; languages with a written language and a written religious heritage, such as Marathi; and unwritten languages among animistic people, such as in Hawaii.
Educational, social, and medical roles served by ABCFM missionaries
Printing and literacy played crucial roles in the process and efficacy 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 concern supplemented the preaching efforts by missionaries. Schools provided ready-made audiences for preachers. Free, or Lancasterian
, schools provided a large number of students, while boarders in missionary homes saw the Christian life proclaimed, however imperfectly, in the intimacy of family life. Education empowered indigenous people and enabled them to develop—mostly later than 1840—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 received a little 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 hold in tension the callings of missionary and medical practitioner.
ABCFM in China
The Americans were the next to venture into the mission field of China after the London Missionary Society
and the Netherlands Missionary Society
. 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, and who were received in February 1830 by Dr. Robert Morrison
. These men labored among the Chinese and Malays
of the Straits Settlements
, but from 1842, up to his death in 1846, Mr. Abeel devoted himself to establishing a mission in Amoy
The American Board followed up the appointment of these men with many others in rapid succession. Revs. I. Tracy and S. W. Williams, LL.D., followed in 1833, and settled at Singapore and Macau. In the same year Revs. S. Johnson and S. 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 Paoding with smaller stations in the various districts of the center missions; Shanxi, with two stations in the midst of districts filled with opium cultivation; and Hong Kong. At Tengzhou a college had been established, over which Dr. Mateer presided. Tengzhou was one of the centers for the literary competitive examinations of China. Dr. Mateer believed that the light of modern science shown in contrast with superstition would prove effective. He therefore, taught astronomy, mathematics, natural philosophy, and history, devoting himself, along with his wife, to the young men and boys under his care. The result is that he has trained young men to be teachers all over North China. The young men whom he had specially trained in Biblical in struction began native ministry. Drs. Nevius and Corbett had co-operated in this latter work, by giving a theological education to candidates for the ministry during a portion of each year at Yantai.
This Society had in connection with its principal stations 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.
ABCFM Sponsored Missionaries
Indigenous Workers Affiliated with the Board
- Townsend, William (1890). Robert Morrison : the pioneer of Chinese missions. London: S.W. Partridge.
Select Annotated Bibliography