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American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions

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Williams College - Haystack Monument

Haystack Monument, Williams College, 1806.

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.

Historical overview

The founding of the ABCFM is associated with the Second Great Awakening. Congregationalist in origin, the American Board supported missions by Presbyterian (1812–1870), Dutch-Reformed (1819–1857) and other denominational members.

Early missions

The first five missionaries were sent overseas in 1812. Between 1812 and 1840, representatives of the ABCFM went to the following people and places: Tennessee to the Cherokee people, 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). It became the leading missionary society in the United States.

The fight against Indian removal

Jeremiah Evarts served as treasurer from 1812–1820 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.[1]

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.[2]

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."[3]

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 the work of the ABCFM in books.

Aspects of the first thirty years

Rufus Anderson, engraving by J. C. Buttre

Rufus Anderson (1796–1880)

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.

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.

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 labored 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.

ABCFM compound in Fuzhou

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

The American Board followed with many other appointments in rapid succession. Revs. I. Tracy and S. W. Williams, LL.D., followed in 1833, settling 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 Baoding, 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 missionaries established a college, over which Dr. Mateer presided. Tengzhou was one of the centers for Chinese literary competitive examinations. Dr. 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. Nevius and Corbett 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.[4]

ABCFM-sponsored missionaries

Indigenous workers affiliated with the Board

See also

External links

References

  1. 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.. http://www.maxfieldbooks.com/ABCFM.html. Retrieved 2006-06-20. 
  2. Andrew, John A., III. (1992). "From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts, the Cherokee Nation, and the Search for the Soul of America". http://www.amazon.com/dp/0820314277/. 
  3. "Did You Know?". Christian History & Biography 90: 3. Spring 2006. 
  4. Townsend (1890), 233-234
  • Townsend, William (1890). Robert Morrison : the pioneer of Chinese missions. London: S.W. Partridge. 

Select Annotated Bibliography

no:American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions nn:American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions zh:美国公理会差会

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