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At the turn of the nineteenth century a strong religious revival and movement called the Second Great Awakening profoundly affected Protestant Christians in the United States. The movement was strongest in New England, and several denominations headquartered there entered the evangelistic field, intending to go around the world and convert nonbelievers to Protestant Christianity. With that as its aim, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was established in 1810 by prominent members of the Congregational Church at Andover Seminary in Massachusetts. Respected Presbyterian leaders, including Rev. Timothy Dwight, also became members. The first mission was sent to China and the second to Ceylon.

Also among the targets of ABCFM activity were American Indians. Their souls, members believed, could be saved by religious conversion and their futures by education. In 1817 the board sent out its third missionary, Cyrus Kingsbury, to the Cherokee to establish its first Indian mission, Brainerd Station, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1818 he ventured to the Choctaw of Mississippi to set up a second, Eliot Mission.

In 1817 in New York the Presbyterians, the Reformed Church in America, and the Dutch Reformed Church founded United Foreign Mission Society. Its mission was essentially the same as that of the ABCFM. Both of these organizations believed that Christian education, church worship, farming, and domestic work would help American Indians become acculturated to Western civilization. Therefore, each mission established a school for Indian children as well as a church. In order to reduce competition among missionaries of similar doctrinal beliefs who might be working in the same region, in 1826 the ABCFM and UFMS merged.

Their union coincided with the beginning of mass removal of tribes west of the Mississippi by the federal government. 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 American Board established more mission stations and branches in Indian Territory than the combined number established by those three denominations. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists traveled throughout the region, visiting homes, setting up churches, and converting individual Indians to be preachers. Activities of the ABCFM missions here were often reported in the board's official newspaper, the Missionary Herald.

Several ABCFM stations and missionaries were created in Indian Territory (I.T., or present Oklahoma). These included Union Mission, established in November 1820 by Epaphras Chapman among the Osages, and Dwight Mission, first established for the Cherokees in May 1820 in present Arkansas by Cephas Washburn (Congregational) and Alfred Finney (Congregational). Dwight moved in 1829 to I.T. Under the direction of Dr. Marcus Palmer, Fairfield, also created for the Cherokees, moved to I.T. in 1829 from Arkansas. Park Hill, also originally established in Arkansas for the Cherokees, moved west in 1829–30. Samuel A. Worcester (Congregational) joined the mission at Park Hill in 1836.

The ABCFM was even more prevalent in the Choctaw Nation. Wheelock Mission was established in 1832 by Alfred Wright (Presbyterian); Stockbridge Mission, near Eagletown, was established by Cyrus Byington (Presbyterian) in 1835; and Pine Ridge was established by Cyrus Kingsbury (Congregational) in 1836–37. Spencer Female Academy, Wheelock Female Seminary, and Good Water Female Academy existed under the ABCFM umbrella, as did Wapanucka Institute for the Chickasaws. Among the three hundred American Board missionaries who served in Oklahoma, notable were Daniel S. Butrick (Presbyterian), who served the Cherokees at Fairfield, Mount Zion, and Dwight missions in the 1830s, and Elizur Butler (Congregational), who served at Fairfield. The ABCFM did not attempt to convert the Seminoles.

The ABCFM began to change in the late 1830s due to internal dissension among the Presbyterians. In 1837 the "Old School" Presbyterians left and set up their own Board of Foreign Missions that continued to serve Indian Territory. In 1857 the Dutch Reformed withdrew, and in 1870 the "New School" Presbyterians left also, leaving only the Congregationalists.

The debate over the morality of slavery, coupled with the approach of the Civil War, spelled the end of ABCFM activities in Indian Territory. Many of the American Board missionaries held abolitionist views, and virtually all of them were from New England. Therefore, the U.S. Indian agents, who were mostly southerners, deemed them suspicious. The ABCFM withdrew its support from the Choctaw missions in 1858 and from the Cherokee missions in 1860.

After the 1837 rift the Presbyterian Church USA mission board had continued to support work in Indian Territory. Robert M. Loughridge brought the denomination's doctrine to the Creek Nation in 1843, building Koweta Mission and School. In 1848 John and Mary Anne Lilley and John Bemo built Oak Ridge Mission, near present Holdenville, for the Seminoles. After the Civil War the Presbyterians inherited the doctrinal mantle of the ABCFM in the region.

The Dutch Reformed Church never had a strong presence in Indian Territory. The Women's Board of Home Missions sent Frank Hall Wright, a Presbyterian minister, to the Comanche in 1890 and then to the Cheyenne and Arapaho in the 1890s. Under Wright, William C. Roe, and numerous others the Dutch Reformed mission remained at Seger Colony for several decades.

Dianna Everett


"American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions," Encyclopedia of Native American Religion, ed. Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin (Rev. ed.; New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2000).

Hope Holway, "Union Mission, 1826–1837," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 40 (Winter 1962–63).

William G. McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789–1839 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984).

W. B. Morrison, "The Choctaw Mission of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 4 (June 1926).

Clifton J. Phillips, Protestant America and the Pagan World: The First Half Century of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1810–1860 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969).

William E. Strong, The Story of the American Board, An Account of the First Hundred Years (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1910).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dianna Everett, “American Board of Commisioners for Foreign Missions,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=AM002.

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