American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions - Overview. 1810-1985

Records, ca.1810-1985

RG 4352/RG 1200

10 linear feet



This collection was created from several different accessions and several different sources.

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Processed April 1997 by archive staff

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Historical Note

The 1806 "Haystack Prayer Meeting" by "the Brethren," a group of several students at Williams College, Williamstown, Mass. is credited as the informal beginning of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) (1) Upon graduation from Williams, several of the students enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary, founded in 1806 as a "Trinitarian seminary in opposition to Harvard's Unitarianism" (2).

The leader, Samuel Mills, was inspired by the work of the Connecticut Home Missionary Society, John Eliot, David Brainerd, William Carey and London Missionary Society. In 1810 Mills spoke with the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts at their meeting in Bradford, Mass. about missionary work India and with Native Americans in the western United States. The result was to follow a method commonly used in Massachusetts at the time, to appoint commissioners to look into the matter. John Treadwell, Esq.; Rev. Timothy Dwight; Gen. Jedidiah Huntington; Rev. Calvin Chapin; Rev. Dr. Joseph Lyman, Rev. Dr. Samuel Spring, William Bartlett, Esq.; Rev. Samuel Worcester and Deacon Samuel A. Walley were the nine commissioners appointed in 1810 (3).

At the first annual meeting in Farmington, Mass., a constitution was adopted, although no specific missionary fields were mentioned. At the second annual meeting in Worcester, Mass., the Prudential Committee reported on their consultations with the London Missionary Society, and the LMS hopes that the newly created commissioners could direct their work toward India. The Prudential Committee also called attention to home mission needs amongst Native American populations. In February 1812, the first missionaries sailed for Calcutta, India (4).

The Board was officially chartered June 20, 1812 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and was authorized by William Bartlett, Newburyport, Mass.; Samuel Spring, Newburyport, Mass.; Joseph Lyman, Hatfield, Mass.; Jedidiah Morse, Charlestown, Mass.; Samuel Worcester, Salem, Mass.; William Phillips, Boston, Mass.; and John Hooker, Springfield, Mass. The act of incorporation stated that any "suitable persons" would be elected at the annual meeting and that at least one third of the Board would consist of "respectable laymen" and that not less than one third of the Board would consist of "respectable clergymen;" the other one third would be "composed of characters of the same description, whether clergymen or laymen" (5). Four fields of missionary activity were identified: (a) peoples of ancient civilizations, (b) peoples of primitive cultures, (c) peoples of the ancient Christian churches, and (d) peoples of Islamic faith (6).

Missions were started under these four headings. The following list is a direct quotation from Goodsell's You Shall be my Witness (p. 13-17). Note that colonial names have not changed to contemporary names, since this is how the names appear in the records. The list is meant to serve as a quick reference to the areas the ABCFM was involved with.


List of Missionary Sites

Peoples of Ancient Civilizations

Marathi (1813), India. A mission among the Marathi-speaking people of western India, headquarters in Bombay.

Ceylon (1816). A mission to the Tamil people of Jaffna at the northern tip of Ceylon.

Canton (1830), China. A mission begun to response to a request of British missionary Robert Morrison, maintained until 1866 when it was transferred to the Presbyterians, reopened in 1883 and discontinued in 1922.

Siam (1831). Transferred to the American Missionary Association in 1850.

Jews in Constantinople (1832). Transferred to the Mission to the Jews of the Free Church of Scotland in 1847.

Madura (1834), India. A mission among the Tamil-speaking Indians in South India, centered around the great city of Mathurai (formerly spelled Madura).

Singapore (1834), Malaya. A temporary mission, opened by personnel from Canton during the Opium War of 1834. Closed in 1843.

Madras (1836), India. Work in this southeastern India city was left to other boards with the death of Rev. Miron Winslow, 1864.

Amoy (1842), China. Transferred to the Foreign Mission Board of the Dutch Reformed Church of America in 1857.

Foochow (1847), China. Closed in 1950, one year after the Communist occupation of China.

Arcot (1851), India. Like the Amoy mission, transferred to the Foreign Mission Board of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1857.

Shanghai (1854), China. American Board personnel resident in Shanghai aided union enterprises in Shanghai. Closed in 1950, one year after the coming of the Communists to power.

North China (1854). A major mission of the American Board, with headquarters at Peking. Closed one year after the 1949 Communist occupation when all missionary personnel withdrew.

Japan (1869). A mission which is now part of the Church of Christ in Japan, historically centered around Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto.

Shansi (1881), China. Incorporated into the North China Mission in later years, headquarters at Fenchow. Closed in 1950, one year after the Communist occupation of China.

South China (1883). The reopened Canton mission (see above).

Shaowu (1918), China. A mission in the city of Shaowu, upriver from Foochow, for may years a special interest of the Christian churches. Closed in 1950, one year after the rise of the Communists to power in China.


Missions Among Peoples of Primitive Cultures

American Indians (1817). During the period 1817-1883 missions were conducted among Indians, especially the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws and the Dakotas.

Sandwich Islands (1820). The Board sent many missionaries to Hawaii, earlier called the Sandwich Islands, turning responsibility over to the indigenous Hawaiian Evangelical Association in 1863. Assistance from the American Board in finance and personnel continued to a very limited and decreasing extent until 1908.

Cape Palmas (1833). Missionaries of the Board attempted to establish a base at Cape Palmas on the Guinea Coast of Northwest Africa. When they withdrew in 1843, some of the work was transferred to the American Protestant Episcopal Board.

Sumatra and Bornea (1834). The first missionaries to Sumatra were struck down by cannibals. The Netherlands Government gave their successors permission to pioneer to Northwest Borneo. In 1838 the survivors transferred to Amoy, China.

South Africa (1835). A mission was established among the Zulus; later on other points were occupied in what became the Union of South Africa and Portuguese East Africa (Inhambane). This Mission continues.

Gaboon (1843). After the Cape Palmas Mission was closed, pioneer work was begun at Gaboon, West Africa. In 1870 this was transferred to the Presbyterian Board.

Micronesia (1843). A mission to the Polynesians in the Marshall and Caroline Islands. For some time the Gilbert Islands were occupied but that mission was transferred to the London Missionary Society in 1917.

Angola (1880). Portuguese West Africa. After pioneering, a mission was established among the Ovimbundu, a major tribe of the Colony.

Southern Rhodesia (1893). A mission to the Ndau people in the Rhodesian Highlands.


Missions Among the Peoples of the Ancient Christian Churches

Ottoman Empire (1820). Missions among the Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Syrians, Assyrians and other Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, all of whom belonged to one or the other of the Christian Churches, were begun in 1820. Work continues among Armenians and Greeks.

Mexico (1872). Mission directed especially to Mexican citizens alienated from Roman Catholicism. The American Board field is in northwestern states with institutional cooperation in Mexico City.

Spain (1872). Mission directed especially to Spanish elements alienated from Roman Catholicism. American Board fields were in northern and northeastern states with institutional work in Madrid. In 1933 responsibilities were transferred to an interdenominational committee.

Italy (1872). Mission begun as an experiment which was terminated after two years, leaving field to other agencies already at work.

Czechoslovakia (part of Austria) (1873). Mission directed to Czech people alienated from Roman Catholicism. Work transferred to local Protestant body in 1932.

Philippine Islands (1903). Mission directed to people alienated from Roman Catholicism after the Spanish-American War. The large southern island of Mindanao was assigned to the American Board as its special field by Protestant Council. Cooperation with Union Theological Seminary at Manila and with Silliman University at Dumaguete on the island of Negros. This mission was part of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (Presbyterian, Disciples, Evangelical United Brethren, Congregational Christian and autonomous Filipino churches).

France (1946). A "Mission of Fellowship" to war-stricken European people, centered in Chambon-sur-Lignon in Haute Loire, France.


Missions Among Muslim Peoples

Turkey, Arab, Persian and Turkish Muslims (1820). Mission directed to all peoples of the Near East, including large Arab, Persian and Turkish populations. Syria and Persia Mission units transferred to Presbyterian Board U.S.A. in 1871. The Mission among Turkish Muslims continues, and since 1915 the American Board has undertaken some responsibilities in Syria and Lebanon, in most cases in cooperation with the Presbyterian Board.

Philippine Islands (1903). Mission to all people on the large southern island in Mindanao, including large Moro Muslim population.




(1) Goodsell, Fred Field. You Shall be my Witnesses (Boston : American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1959), p. 6.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid., pp. 7-8.

(4) Ibid., pp. 9-10.

(5) Ibid., pp. 11-12.

(6) Ibid., pp. 12.


Scope and Content Note

The archives of the ABCFM, located at Harvard University, contain the official reports from ABCFM missionaries, who were located in all parts of the globe during the 19th and 20th centuries. Personal correspondence and photographs often remained in individual families and are found in numerous repositories. Collections held by the Congregational Library archives include:

For more information on the ABCFM, see the Congregational Library card catalog. The Congregational Library holds a large collection of ABCFM printed pamphlets arranged by the country. The Congregational Library also has a microfilm copy of the ABCFM archives; see Papers of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions: Documents Administered by the Houghton Library of Harvard University. Guide to the Microfilm Collection (Woodbridge, Ct. : Research Publications International, 1994) for a name and missionary substation index to the microfilm. Note that this index is a quick source of birth and death dates and missionary lists. The Panopolist and Missionary Herald periodicals printed letters and reports received by the ABCFM headquarters. Note that the Congregational Library maintains a fairly complete card personal name index to these periodicals and that each volume of the periodical contains an extensive personal name and geographic name index. For photographs of the ABCFM offices while they were located in Congregational House, contact an archivist.