American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions

  • Overseas
  • 1810

The ABCFM was founded during the Second Great Awakening by several students from Williams College, with the intention of helping to spread Christianity worldwide. The organization was supported by individual donations and financial apportionments from the Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed denominations. It was America’s first charity focused on needy persons in other lands. The group’s first fundraising appeal produced $1,000. Then a $30,000 bequest from the widow of a wealthy Massachusetts merchant allowed the board to plan its first mission to India, which commenced in 1812. Rising popular support and individual donations added missions to Ceylon, China, Singapore, Siam, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Persia, western Africa, southern Africa, and the Sandwich Islands.

All missionaries were trained and ordained, often from colleges like Middlebury, Amherst, and Williams where evangelical feeling then burned bright. Many of them translated the Bible into new, sometimes previously unwritten, languages. They built schools and health facilities. Lots ended up advising local governments, and advocating for human rights. More than 1,250 missionaries were sent afield in the organization’s first 50 years, almost always in married couples.

The ABCFM also 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. 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.

Another religiously driven, philanthropically funded missionary society that had major effects on America and overseas countries during the nineteenth century was the American Missionary Association. For more information on that group, see the 1846 entry on the companion list of achievements in Public-Policy Reform.