American Missions

Published Apr 28, 2010
American Missions

A violent rainstorm descended upon the prayer meeting of five Williams College students in a grove of trees near the Hoosack River one summer afternoon in 1806. They moved to a nearby haystack. There they continued in prayer and committed themselves "to send the Gospel to the Pagans of Asia, and to the disciples of Mohammed." By 1810 they had inspired the Congregationalists of Massachusetts and Connecticut to organize the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, America's first foreign missionary society.

Representing Presbyterian and Dutch-Reformed as well as Congregational Christians, the American Board became the leading missionary society in the United States. Inspired by William Carey and patterned after British missionary societies, the American Board sent its first group of five missionaries to Asia in 1812; key organizers Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice were among this first group.

The American Board soon had sent missionaries to every part of the globe: India in 1813; Cherokee Indians in 1817; Hawaii, Palestine, and Turkey in 1819; China in 1830; Africa in 1833. In its first fifty years, the American Board sent out over 1250 missionaries. Most were from the smaller towns and farm villages of New England. Few were affluent, but many were trained in colleges where the evangelical revival burned brightly - - colleges such as Middlebury, Amherst, and Williams. There they received a classical education which included Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. When they reached the mission field they were able to translate the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into difficult and often previously unwritten languages. They built educational systems in their lands of ministry and were often called upon to advise foreign governments.

Their missionary reports to their home office in Boston were printed in the Missionary Herald, the magazine of the American Board established in 1821. For many Christians in America, the Missionary Herald was their window on the world. Descriptions of native customs, history, economic activities, and geographical features were included along with accounts of the influence of the Gospel on these far off lands. In a day before TV, radio, or rapid communications, such missionary reports became prime information for many Americans about foreign lands.

The American Board saw to it that schools and hospitals were established in all the mission fields. Native leaders were trained to continue the work of the ministry.

In 1961 the American Board merged to form the United Church Board for World Missions. After 150 years, the American Board had sent out nearly 5000 missionaries to 34 different fields. They had established over a thousand schools and colleges and spread the Gospel throughout the world-and it all began with five young men praying in a haystack!

DISTANT DATELINE: Erasmus Sparks a Return to the Bible

BASEL, FEBRUARY, 1516. In a first for printing history, the Basel firm of Froben in Switzerland has just published the New Testament in its original Greek. Prepared by the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the text was printed in an amazingly brief six months. In his preface, Erasmus reveals some of the startling reasons behind his work: I could wish that every woman might read the Gospel and the Epistles of St. Paul. Would that these were translated into each and every language so that they might be read and understood not only by the Scots and Irishmen, but also by Turks and Saracens ... Would that the farmer might sing snatches of Scripture at his plow and that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler might lighten with stories from Scripture the weariness of his journey.

Many question his outlook and warn of chaos if people come to think they can read the Bible for themselves in the common tongue.

Erasmus' edition of the New Testament is part of his larger goal of reforming the church to develop truly Christian character among the church leaders and the people. He has also written a scathing satire, The Praise of Folly , and done editorial work on the early church fathers as part of his efforts to seek reform.

His Greek New Testament is selling well. Christian scholars eagerly devour this work that is bringing them back closer to the original text of the Scriptures, and across Europe many are reexamining accepted church doctrine and tradition in the light of these newly available Biblical texts.

Reformation Pilgrimage (Editor's Notebook)

In our page century by century progression through church history, we came with this issue to the tumultuous 16th century and the explosive influence of the Reformation. A couple of years ago in preparing our Christian History Institute video curriculum REFORMATION OVERVIEW I was privileged to visit all the major Reformation locations where the original events took place. People and issues I had read about came to life for me in an unforgettable way. Day after day I was gripped by the adventure of stepping back into the world changing convictions and issues faced by the great Reformers. Several impressions left a lasting mark upon me.

  • The posting of the 95 theses by Luther in 1517 was not the beginning of the Reformation but in many ways a culmination of widespread developments that had been building up for generations.
  • There was not one Reformation but many. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Tyndale, the Anabaptists and others were all distinctive centers of dynamic development and spiritual renewal. -- The intellectual discipline of the major Reformers was prodigious. These leaders were almost without exception devoted to careful scholarship. Compare this to the kind of leaders we so often exalt today, based more on the attraction of personality and media charisma than the quality of their thought.- - We are familiar with the big name--, in the movement, but all of them had their circle of colleagues and close confidantes with whom they struggled, debated, agonized and prayed. Luther had his Melanchthon, Zwingli his Bullinger, Calvin his Farel, Tyndale his Frith.
  • The Major Reformation events often took place in little out of the way places far removed from the centers of influence. Luther's Wittenberg surely was no Rome. Even today it is so small we couldn't find a hotel in town. Calvin's Geneva was not a major international city when he went there. It became one because of what he did there.

--Ken Curtis


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