Missionary and Bible Tract Societies

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Voluntary societies were central to American missionary endeavors during the colonial and early national eras. Most of these organizations were affiliated with a denomination and led by prominent church officials, but they relied on the labor and contributions of both ministers and laity. In spite of occasional competition, they often welcomed interdenominational cooperation in the service of the propagation of Christianity. Usually, they raised money by distributing published texts, such as letters from missionaries, in metropolitan areas of North America and Britain.

The first society devoted to missions in British America was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, established by the Long Parliament in 1649. In 1662 King Charles II granted a new charter to the organization, renamed the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England and the Parts Adjacent in America. Known as the New England Company, it supported the work of Puritans among Algonquian tribes of New England. After the American Revolution this group shifted its focus to Canada.

In 1698 Thomas Bray founded the Church of England's Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), which distributed religious books throughout Britain and its colonies while building charity schools in the British Isles. In 1701 he founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). Although focused on providing ministers to colonists and their slaves, the SPG also launched several missions to Indians, which had the most success with the Mohawks. At the outbreak of the Revolution, it turned its attention to Canada. The Associates of Dr. Bray, founded in 1717, assisted with the Church of England's efforts to convert slaves.

In 1709 the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in the Highlands and Islands and the Foreign Parts of the World (SSPCK) was chartered. It employed missionaries such as David Brainerd, who preached to Indians in New England, New York, and New Jersey. It also helped organize the visit of Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian and Presbyterian minister, to Britain from 1766 to 1768. The SSPCK continued to fund missions to the Iroquois and other tribes after the Revolution.

The United Brethren, or Moravians, began American missionary work in 1735. They were very successful in converting Indians, especially of the Delaware tribe. The Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel, which existed from 1741 to 1764, raised money for Moravian missions. When it was established in 1795, the Friends' Indian Committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting also organized some missions, building on the earlier work of individual members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers.

While the first Great Awakening of the 1740s invigorated missionary efforts in already-existing institutions, the Second Great Awakening inspired the creation of new societies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Statewide organizations appeared first, such as the New York Missionary Society in 1796 and the Connecticut Missionary Society in 1798. The first women's missionary organization, the Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes, was established in 1800. Many "Female Cent Associations," in which members contributed one cent a week for missionary endeavors, also were founded in this era. These local groups were focused mostly on missions to both whites and Indians in frontier regions such as western New York, southern Ohio, and Kentucky. In 1826 most of them were absorbed into the American Home Missionary Society, which was officially nondenominational but predominantly Congregationalist. Because their reliance on itinerant preachers had already met with much success in frontier areas, the Methodists developed missionary organizations later than other Protestant denominations, founding the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1820.

Many local Bible societies, which distributed free or inexpensive Bibles, also were founded in this era, beginning with the Philadelphia Bible Society in 1808 and the Connecticut Bible Society in 1809. They were combined into the American Bible Society in 1816. Likewise, regional tract societies, such as the New England Tract Society, founded in 1814, were absorbed into the American Tract Society in 1825. Other groups connected with missionary projects, moral reformation, and what is sometimes called the Benevolence Empire were founded in this era, including the American Education Society in 1815 and the American Sunday School Union in 1817.

The emergence of national voluntary societies devoted to foreign missions often is connected with the leadership of Samuel J. Mills Jr., Gordon Hall, and other members of the so-called Haystack Band, who—when they were students at Williams College in 1806—committed themselves to missionary work while conducting a prayer meeting under a haystack in a rainstorm. Their initiative led to the founding in 1810 of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), a multidenominational Protestant organization that sent its first missionaries to Calcutta in 1812. It then sent missionaries to Hawaii and to Syria in 1819. After two ABCFM missionaries became Baptists while en route to India, the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions (also known as the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions or the Triennial Convention) was founded in 1814. Missionary goals also provided some of the impetus for the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was founded in 1816 to resettle free African Americans in Africa. In 1818 the ACS commissioned Samuel J. Mills and Ebenezer Burgess to visit England and Sierra Leone in an effort to purchase land for a colony. In 1822 the ACS obtained land in Liberia and sent its first settlers there, along with its hopes that African American colonists would help spread the gospel throughout the African continent. Through organizations such as the ACS and the ABCFM, the United States became a source as well as an object of missionary outreach.

See alsoBible; Frontier Religion; Liberia; Religious Publishing; Revivals and Revivalism .


Bays, Daniel H., and Grant Wacker, eds. The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home: Explorations in North American Cultural History. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.

Goodykoontz, Colin Brummitt. Home Missions on the American Frontier, with Particular Reference to the American Home Missionary Society. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1939.

Stevens, Laura M. The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Szasz, Margaret Connell. Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607–1783. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

Laura M. Stevens

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