Presbyterian Mission History (2nd of 12). What Early Presbyterians Enjoyed:

Widespread Support for Mission Agency Partnerships.

In the early days of our country American Presbyterians established important partnerships with two mission agencies, The American Home Missionary Society (AHMS) (established in 1826) and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) (established in 1810). (There were many more church-mission agency partnerships, but these two will feature prominently in the breakup of the Presbyterian Church at the 1837 General Assembly). The AHMS organized churches for westward moving settlers, back when “moving West” meant walking from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and Ohio! Today there are more Presbyterian churches in western Pennsylvania and Ohio than any other region of the United States. But Presbyterian administrators in Philadelphia began to worry that the AHMS was more successful at planting churches on the “Western frontiers” than Presbyterian-approved “circuit riders.” The day would come, in 1837, when Presbyterians on the East Coast would end the partnership with the AHMS and eliminate from the membership rolls the Presbyterians on the “Western frontiers” who depended on the AHMS for establishing new churches. Here is the background.

In 1792 William Carey wrote his Enquiry, containing easy-to-assemble instructions for establishing mission agencies. It had an immediate effect, ending a 275 year “mission ice age.” All over Europe and the United States small groups of Christians began organizing mission agencies, as we saw here, and the Protestant mission era commenced. In 1802, the Presbyterian General Assembly appointed a “Standing Committee of Missions.” This Committee wrote to various “missionary associations in Europe and America” to inquire into “the measures and successes of others engaged in Missionary undertakings.”[1] Thus, at the highest levels the Presbyterian Church sought the counsel of missionary societies to determine the wisest way to engage in missions. The General Assembly then authorized two mission programs to provide pastors for churches on the Western frontiers (Kentucky, Ohio, western Pennsylvania). The first was a “circuit rider” plan administrated directly by the General Assembly. The second, the American Home Missionary Society, was a cooperative effort organized by Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Dutch Reformed and Associate Reformed churches. Presbyterian donors soon showed their preference for the American Home Missionary Society plan to fund settled pastors instead of circuit riders. Clifford Drury writes, “Many Presbyterians transferred their support to this interdenominational agency because they objected to the policy of the Standing Committee favoring the circuit rider rather than the settled pastor.”[2] Drury continues:

The American Home Missionary Society experienced rapid growth. At the end of its first year’s operations, it reported receipts of $18,130.76 and a force of 169 missionaries and agents. In its eleventh annual report the Society stated that it had received during the previous year $85,701.59 [an annual growth rate of 16 per cent], and that it had aided 810 missionaries.[3]

This success, Drury adds, was “phenomenal as compared with the contemporary activities of [the circuit rider program of] the Presbyterian Board of Missions.”[4] “It is evident,” he observed, “that the larger part of Presbyterian benevolences was being channeled through the voluntary societies.”[5] Unfortunately, what began as a successful working relationship between mission societies and the Presbyterian Church became controversial and reached a boiling point in the 1830s. In 1837, Presbyterian leaders on the East Coast would close ranks to expel 60,000 Presbyterians on the “Western frontiers” for donating to the American Home Missionary Society.[6]

[1] Clifford Merrill Drury, Presbyterian Panorama; One Hundred and Fifty Years of National Missions History (Philadelphia,: Board of Christian Education, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1952). Drury features all the Presbyterian missionaries whose efforts were directed toward the Native Americans. All the missionaries were sent by mission agencies:

1. John Eliot (1604-1690), missionary to the Native Americans near Roxbury and translator of the Bible into the language of the Algonquin Indians. Eliot was sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

2. Azariah Horton (1715-1777), missionary to the Native Americans of Long Island. Horton was sent by the Scottish Society for Propagation of Christian Knowledge.

3. David Brainerd (1718-1747), and his brother John Brainerd (1720-1781, were sent to the Delaware Indians of New Jersey by the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge.

[2] Ibid. 30-31

[3] Ibid. 67

[4] Ibid. 67

[5] Ibid. 80

[6] The quarrel in the Presbyterian Church over three great issues that were dividing the church—slavery, doctrinal questions, and the matter of partnering with mission agencies—began to have a negative effect upon church membership. The denomination reported having 247,964 members in 1834. No report was made for 1835, but only 219,943 were reported in 1836, showing a net loss of about 12 per cent in the two-year period. Thousands of members, sick of the quarrels, were changing their affiliations to other denominations. Ibid. 84′

Presbyterian Mission History. This is Blog Post 2 in a series 12:

  1. What Francis Makemie Envisioned : Beneficial Relationships between Presbyterian Churches and Mission Agencies
  2. What Early Presbyterian Churches Enjoyed: Denominational Support for Voluntary Societies
  3. How the General Assembly of 1837 Expelled 60,000 church members on account of their partnership with mission agencies.
  4. The General Assembly Establishes the Board of Foreign Missions. An Extraordinary Mission Era Begins.
  5. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 19th Century
  6. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 20th Century
  7. Ninety-Five Notable Presbyterian Missionaries in Gerald Anderson’s Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions
  8. The Extraordinary Rise of Presbyterian Women’s Mission Societies following the Civil War
  9. What the General Assembly of 1902 Endorsed: Recognition and Regulation of “Special Interest Organizations.”
  10. Time to say Good-bye, Perhaps. How Everything Seems to be Ending.
  11. This is not the End. The Holy Spirit Enables New Mission Initiatives.
  12. Presbyterian Mission History: A Bibliography.