“God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us; that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.” (Psalm lxvii)
‘I love my friends – I love my country – I love the church at Home … these very blessings bestowed on me make it my duty to impart them on others … For the opportunity to ‘do good’ confers the obligation to ‘do good.’” (Hiram Bingham; Wagner)
The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was organized under Calvinist ecumenical auspices at Bradford, Massachusetts by the General Association of Massachusetts, on the June 29, 1810.
ABCFM had its origin in the desire of several young men in the Andover Theological Seminary to preach the gospel in the heathen world. (The term ‘heathen’ (without the knowledge of Jesus Christ and God) was a term in use at the time (200-years ago.))
In 1812, the first missionary enterprise of the ABCFM (Adoniram Judson, Samuel Newell, Gordon Hall, Samuel Nott and Luther Rice, together with their wives) embarked to Western India; the first station was at Bombay.
“Christians have wanted some grand object to seize their hearts and engage all their powers … The spread of the gospel and the conversion of the world constitute the very object wanted – the common cause which ought to unite … the great family of Christians.” (Leonard Woods; Wagner)
Letters from Bombay convinced the ABCFM and friends of the mission that “the missionary work is great, painful and arduous, and requires primitive self-devotion, invincible perseverance and bounteous liberality; but they made it appear that if the work be conducted with the true spirit, in the right manner, and with adequate means, accompanied with the promised influence and blessings of Heaven, the Gospel … may spread through the heathen world.” (Wagner)
“The general purpose of these devoted young men was fixed. Sometimes they talked of ‘cutting a path through the moral wilderness of the West to the Pacific.’ Sometimes they thought of South America; then of Africa. Their object was the salvation of the heathen; but no specific shape was given to their plans, till the formation of the American Board of Foreign Missions.” (Worcester)
By 1816, however, contributions to the ABCFM had declined. There were several reasons including post-War of 1812 recession and the fact that India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) were too remote to hold public interest. (Wagner)
Among the targets of ABCFM were American Indians. Their souls, members believed, could be saved by religious conversion and their futures by education. (OKHistory)
The years following the War of 1812 brought demands for Indian land cessions. Among the factors complicating the issue of Indian relations and policy were the differing perceptions of the problem among settlers and missionaries.
Folks saw a couple options: bring Indian youth into white communities and teach them there, or go out to them and teach them in their own communities. They chose the former.
The Foreign Mission School, in Cornwall, Connecticut, was founded in 1816 by ABCFM and in operation from 1817 to 1826; the school hosted over one-hundred students from China, Hawai‘i, India, the South Pacific, Europe and several Native American nations (speaking at least twenty-four different languages.) (NPS)
The object of the school was the education, in the US country, of heathen youth, so that they might be qualified to become useful missionaries, physicians, surgeons, schoolmasters or interpreters, and to communicate to the heathen nations such knowledge in agriculture and the arts, as might prove the means of promoting Christianity and civilization. (ABCFM)
It is important to note that in the early nineteenth century all land west of the Ohio Valley was considered foreign territory. Westward continental expansion bled into the Pacific and beyond. (NPS)
The ABCFM developed a strong emphasis on missions to American Indians. They first ministered to Cherokees in Tennessee, and then followed displaced southeastern tribes to Michigan, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Oregon.
“It is not to be forgotten, that the Board desire to establish, as soon as possible, a mission, or missions, among the Indians of our wilderness. The committee have this subject constantly in view, and hope they shall soon be able to engage suitable agents to explore this field, and to collect such information as will lead to an immediate prosecution of the design. Missions to the heathen on our own continent, if conducted on the proper scale, will not be less expensive than any other.” (Worcester)
During Indian uprisings, missionaries attended to Indians in jail or sent on exile. They produced Bibles, dictionaries and schoolbooks in Dakota and Ojibwe when there were no print versions of these languages. They trained indigenous preachers and leaders. (Philanthropyroundtable)
The mission field in Indian Territory proved fertile. The ABCFM concentrated on establishing permanent educational centers. Although the early competition included the Baptists, Methodists and Moravians, the ABCFM established more mission stations and branches in Indian Territory than the combined number established by those three denominations. (OKHistory)
But President Andrew Jackson’s program of ‘Indian removal’ – forced marches to lands across the Mississippi – soon led to a confrontation between the ABCFM and the US government.
In 1830, ABCFM missionaries Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler ended up in the Georgia State Penitentiary for resisting these unjust policies. They were tried on September 16, 1831, for violation of Georgia law. The jury brought a quick verdict of guilty, and Worcester was condemned to 4 years of hard labor in a penitentiary.
Their case eventually wound up in the Supreme Court, highlighting an early and important act of civil disobedience. March 3, 1832, Chief Justice Marshall pronounced in favor of the missionaries and declared the laws of Georgia extending her jurisdiction over the Cherokee ‘repugnant to the constitution, treaties and laws, therefore null and void.’ (cherokee-org)
In 1838, Butler joined the ‘Trail of Tears’ to Oklahoma, a march which took the lives of 4,000-Cherokees and Butler’s own infant daughter – and eventually fueled a public backlash against Indian removal. (CongressionalLibary)
Back at the Foreign Mission School, the school’s first student was Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia (Obookiah,) a native Hawaiian from the Island of Hawaiʻi who in 1807 (after his parents had been killed) boarded a sailing ship anchored in Kealakekua Bay and sailed to the continent.
ʻŌpūkahaʻia died suddenly of typhus fever in 1818; Edwin Welles Dwight is remembered for putting together a book, ‘Memoirs of Henry Obookiah’- it was an edited collection of ʻŌpūkahaʻia’s letters and journals/diaries. “Memoirs of Henry Obookiah” served as an inspiration for missionaries to volunteer to carry his message to the Sandwich Islands (Hawai‘i.)
Hiram Bingham wrote in a letter dated July 18, 1819, to Worcester that “the unexpected and afflictive death of Obookiah, roused my attention to the subject, & perhaps by writing and delivering some thoughts occasioned by his death I became more deeply interested than before in that cause for which he desired to live …”
“… & from that time it seemed by no means impossible that I should be employed in the field which Henry had intended to occupy … the possibility that this little field in the vast Pacific would be mine, was the greatest, in my own view.” (Brumaghim)
Subsequently, in the summer of 1819, Bingham and his classmate at Andover Theological Seminary, Reverend Asa Thurston, volunteered to go with the first group of missionaries to Hawai‘i.
On October 23, 1819, the Pioneer Company of American Protestant missionaries from the northeast US set sail on the Thaddeus for the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawai‘i.) There were seven American couples sent by the ABCFM to convert the Hawaiians to Christianity in this first company.
These included two Ordained Preachers, Hiram Bingham and his wife Sybil and Asa Thurston and his wife Lucy; two Teachers, Mr. Samuel Whitney and his wife Mercy and Samuel Ruggles and his wife Mary; a Doctor, Thomas Holman and his wife Lucia; a Printer, Elisha Loomis and his wife Maria; and a Farmer, Daniel Chamberlain, his wife and five children.
With the missionaries were four Hawaiian students from the Foreign Mission School, Thomas Hopu, William Kanui, John Honoliʻi and Prince Humehume (son of Kauaʻi’s King Kaumuali‘i.)
By the time the Pioneer Company arrived, Kamehameha I had died and the centuries-old kapu system had been abolished; through the actions of King Kamehameha II (Liholiho,) with encouragement by former Queens Kaʻahumanu and Keōpūolani (Liholiho’s mother,) the Hawaiian people had already dismantled their heiau and had rejected their religious beliefs.
Over the course of a little over 40-years (1820-1863) (the “Missionary Period”,) about 180-men and women in twelve Companies served in Hawaiʻi to carry out the mission of the ABCFM in the Hawaiian Islands.
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