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American Home Missionary Society | Amistad Research Center

Name: American Home Missionary Society


Historical Note:

The American Home Missionary Society was formed in 1826 by the Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and Associate Reformed Churches with the purpose of financially assisting congregations on the American frontier until they could become self-sufficient. During its history, the Society assumed a "noninterference" position on the great social issue of slavery, especially since many of its large contributors from the South were slaveholders. Later, growing pressures from the North, where the Society received most of its financial backing, finally forced an official anti-slavery position in 1857. In 1893, the Society came under the complete domination of the Congregational Church and, with its interdenominational character gone, was renamed the Congregational Home Missionary Society.

ORIGINS

During the early nineteenth century the movement toward the formation of a national missionary society paralleled the growth of American nationalism in the years immediately following the War of 1812. This nationalism was typified by the expansion of the American frontier and the growth of economic and political independence from Great Britain. The people of the United States began to feel a greater sense of national identity, and sectional disputes became less important than the good of the nation.

Early attempts to organize and manage a national missionary society had only limited success; however, these attempts were important steps toward the formation of the American Home Missionary Society. The Young Men's Missionary Society of New York was formed in 1815, but by 1821 it had only nine men stationed in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The New York Evangelical Missionary Society, which was founded in 1816, employed ten men, nine of whom were stationed in New York State. Realizing that their separate efforts were limited, representatives from these and other local missionary societies formed the United Domestic Missionary Society in 1822.

As an organization that was national in scope, the United Domestic Missionary Society was more successful than state or other geographically limited missionary societies. It was primarily under the control of Presbyterians but received support from Reformed churches as well. In 1826 the society had more than 125 missionaries stationed in Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, and Florida. Receipts for 1826, its last year of operation, were over $10,000, and its officers estimated that 90,000 people benefited from the society's aid to their churches.

In May 1826 representatives of the Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and Associate Reformed churches from thirteen states and territories met at a convention in New York City and formed the American Home Missionary Society. In 1825 the United Domestic Missionary Society had hired six members of the senior class of Andover Theological Seminary, a Congregational school. These men, in cooperation with the United Domestic Missionary Society, issued a call in May 1826 for a convention to form a new union society that would include the Congregationalists. During the same convention the United Domestic Missionary Society voted to merge with the newly created American Home Missionary Society.

Until the formation of the American Home Missionary Society in 1826, missionary operations in the United States were geographically and financially limited. The many small state and local societies and the United Domestic Missionary Society, all of which served large geographical areas, lacked cooperation. The huge numbers of missionaries stationed in New York State were a duplication of effort, while relatively few missionaries were sent to other states. It was believed that a truly national society could coordinate missionary activities and expand the sphere of the missionaries' influence. The founders of the American Home Missionary Society also recognized the increased potential for funding if aid were requested by a single organization that serviced the entire country.

The Plan of Union, agreed to in 1801 by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and the General Association of Connecticut, was another important element in making American Home Missionary Society's foundations interdenominational as well as national. Basically, the Plan of Union created an official policy for a problem that had existed for Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the formation of new churches by providing for cooperation between these two religious bodies. A church formed by either Congregationalists or Presbyterians was permitted to secure a minister of either persuasion, while at the same time retaining its own form of church government. Congregations could share services and church structures, as well as the support of a minister. The Plan of Union not only made it possible for the American Home Missionary Society to formulate policy and regulate the operations of both Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries but also to appeal to each denomination for funding. While the Plan was still in effect, the society hired an equal number of Presbyterian and Congregational missionaries.

OPERATIONS OF THE AMERICAN HOME MISSIONARY SOCIETY

The stated purpose of the American Home Missionary Society was to assist financially, until such time as the church became self-sufficient, those congregations that were unable to support an established minister. The society's operations were largely restricted to the United States and its territories, although in the early years the society employed missionaries in Canada and maintained communication with the missionary societies of western Europe such as the Evangelical Society of France.

Throughout its existence the society had its home office in New York City. Its officers included a president, vice presidents, treasurer, auditor, corresponding secretaries, recording secretary, and directors. Administration was handled by the Executive Committee comprised of from thirteen to fifteen members, not all of whom were required to be society officers. Private citizens and ministers could become members and directors for life by subscribing sizable contributions.

Women and women's missionary groups continually provided financial support for the work of the American Home Missionary Society. In 1827, for example, approximately 47 out of the 130 local auxiliaries of the society were women's organizations; in 1831, 160 out of 400 were women's organizations. One of the earliest ways in which women and women's groups aided the society was by making up boxes of books, clothing, and other necessary supplies that were sent to missionaries. These gifts were an important supplement to the income of a missionary.

The activity of women's groups within the society was formally recognized when, in 1883, the Women's Department of the American Home Missionary Society was formed. Ten years later the Women's Department directed more than forty state women's organizations and contributed $51,000 to the society--20 percent of the total contributions. Women also served as missionaries; in 1893 there were thirty-five on the society's roster.

The channels through which the society implemented its objectives and supervised its extensive operations were its auxiliary societies, agents, and agencies. When the society was formed in 1826, many states already had their own missionary societies; for example, the Missionary Society of Connecticut had been in operation since 1798. After the formation of the American Home Missionary Society, many of these state and local societies surrendered the missionary work beyond their own state or local geographical areas to the society. In 1828 the Executive Committee of the society established the "Terms of Connection and Stipulation between the American Home Missionary Society and its Auxiliaries." Under these terms, any missionary society could become auxiliary to the American Home Missionary Society by agreeing to give the parent society all of its surplus funds after its own missionary operations were paid and by sending the parent society a copy of its constitution and annual reports, as well as listings of its missionaries, their fields of operations, and the results of their labors. These auxiliaries were independent in that they elected their own officers, regulated their own budgets, and carried on missionary work in their own geographical areas. However, they were considered to be an integral part of the parent society and remained in close communication with the Executive Committee. By 1832 all of the New England societies had become auxiliaries of the American Home Missionary Society. The financial benefits of this type of cooperation were so apparent that the auxiliary/parent society arrangement continued throughout the society's existence.

In other areas of the country, where no state societies existed, the American Home Missionary Society employed agents to implement its directives and regulate its operations. These agents were experienced ministers with executive ability. As the middlemen between the Executive Committee of the society in New York City and the local churches and missionaries, they were responsible for maintaining the continuity of missionary operations. Through correspondence and personal visits, they advised local churches, secured ministers to settle in an area, reported on their labors, and advised the Executive Committee on religious conditions in general. Although they were not considered collecting agents, these men were urged to set up schedules within their agencies for receiving contributions to the society from the churches. They received applications for aid from local churches and made preliminary examinations of these applications before submitting them to the Executive Committee for action.

The missionaries employed by the society were hired on a yearly basis in response to an application for aid by a local church, or on the recommendation of an agent or auxiliary. The twelve-month commission received by a missionary was renewable through a new application for aid. These applications included such information as the number of church members, population of the town, attendance at public worship, the size of the missionary's family, the amount pledged for his support by the people in his congregation, and the amount of support requested from the society. The missionary was generally paid on a quarterly basis, with annual salaries ranging from $25 to $400. In return, the missionary was required to submit annual and quarterly reports of his labors to the society. He was also to assist his local congregation in the preparation of applications for aid for his support. The American Home Missionary Society promoted the support of a resident, rather than an itinerant, ministry. This policy, which had its beginning in the United Domestic Missionary Society, was based on the belief that a resident minister had a greater opportunity to foster lasting religious beliefs than did the traveling missionary, whose contacts with the congregation were too infrequent.

GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT

1826-1850

From its beginning the American Home Missionary Society was a voluntary association, as opposed to an endowed foundation. Its funds had to be collected, its areas of missionary activity had to be established, and its missionaries had to be sought out and employed. Shortly after the founding of the society, the Reformed churches withdrew their support. Despite these problems the society realized tremendous growth during its first decade of operation. In its last year of operation the United Domestic Missionary Society had received about $12,000 in contributions and supported 127 missionaries in nine states. The receipts of the American Home Missionary Society for its first year of operation were $18,000, with 169 missionaries employed in fifteen states. Five years later, 1831-1832, the annual receipts had increased to about $50,000, and the number of missionaries had grown to 506.

Internal and external problems caused a reduction in the missionary operations of the society in the later part of the 1830s. The financial panic of 1837 ended the investment boom of the early 1830s. The depression that followed involved falling prices, bankruptcies, unemployment, and general distress. In its annual report of June 1837, the society admitted its financial desperation in the face of the national "pecuniary pressure." Faced with a large budget deficit, the society sent a circular letter requesting its missionaries to withhold their drafts on the society's treasury.

An internal dispute within the Presbyterian Church augmented the financial difficulties of the society. The dispute between "Old School" and "New School" factions challenged the interdenominational nature of the American Home Missionary Society. The Old School Presbyterians believed that the Plan of Union, which had been binding for both Presbyterians and Congregationalists since 1801, was contrary to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church. They believed that the church should have complete control over its own missionary operations through its Board of Missions. The more liberal New School faction desired to continue cooperation with the Congregationalists through the American Home Missionary Society. The schism that finally caused the Presbyterian Church to divide in 1837 resulted in a number of missionaries of the Old School persuasion leaving the employment of the society.

The combination of the financial depression and the internal dispute among the Presbyterians resulted in a reduction in the society's activities. The number of missionaries employed by the society fell from 786 in 1836 to 684 in 1837, with receipts declining from $101,000 to $85,000 during the same period. After 1841, with the return of financial stability, and until the late 1850s the society again functioned effectively. In 1853 the society employed a record 1,087 missionaries, and in 1855 its receipts were more than $190,000.

1850-1859

Although the 1850s were a period of growth for the society, there were major adjustments and oppositions facing the Executive Committee. First, there was the conflict between the New School Presbyterians and the Congregationalists. And, second, the society became sensitive to pressures, both internal and external, concerning its position on the issue of slavery.

During the 1850s the New School Presbyterians became increasingly dissatisfied with the American Home Missionary Society. They believed that the society was playing favorites by appointing more Congregational than Presbyterian missionaries. Both Presbyterians and Congregationalists began to strengthen their separate denominational identities. Internal politics within the Presbyterian Church also lessened the disagreements between the Old School and New School factions. In 1855 the society received 32 percent of its receipts from New School sources, while in 1860 only 19 percent of the yearly receipts came from New School Presbyterians. In 1861 the New School Presbyterians withdrew completely from the American Home Missionary Society, thereby leaving the society in the total control of the Congregationalists.

The society also became embroiled in the national dispute over slavery. As early as 1845 the society had begun to reduce the number of missionaries stationed in the South. In 1846 anti-slavery forces in the North founded the American Missionary Association to work among Negroes and Indians. The American Home Missionary Society, in an effort to remain impartial, refused to take a firm abolitionist position even though its operations were primarily in the North. By 1847 the society condemned slavery as an "evil" but continued to aid slave-holding ministers and congregations. In 1853 slave-holding ministers were denied commissions. As the slavery issue sharpened, the society was unable to find northern ministers who were willing to work in the southern states. It was not until 1857, when anti-slavery advocates threatened to withhold their contributions to the society, that the Executive Committee severed its connections with both slave-holding congregations and ministers. By 1860 only three missionaries were employed in the South.

THE CIVIL WAR AND AFTER

In 1862, Joseph E. Roy, the society's agent in northern Illinois and northern Indiana, wrote that the war "has absorbed the thought and feeling of the people," and that "many of the congregations are almost literally stripped of their young men, and many of the churches have lost officers and prominent supporters." The combined effect of the war and the withdrawal of the New School Presbyterians caused a marked reduction in the society's operations. Many of its missionaries enlisted in the army as soldiers or chaplains. For the year 1861-1862 the society's revenues dropped by more than $20,000 from the previous fiscal year, and the number of missionaries was reduced by more than 200.

After the war the society regained its financial stability with receipts for 1865 rising above $200,000 for the first time. However, the two decades following the outbreak of the war were not a period of tremendous growth for the society, even though its receipts increased annually. In 1862 the society employed 863 missionaries, while in 1879 only 946 were employed. This period of stagnation was due in part to postwar inflation and the shortage of manpower. In the twenty-year period preceding the war, the average expense for one year of missionary labor rose 28 percent, while in the fifteen-year period after the war the same expense rose 49 percent. The 600,000 casualties of the Civil War created a lack of qualified males to fill missionary positions. For example, the number of missionaries in Pennsylvania alone fell from 47 in 1861 to 5 in 1865.

In the ten-year period following 1882, the society's growth was phenomenal. Statistics for 1882 show receipts of $341,000, with a roster of 1,070 missionaries. By 1892 receipts totaled $738,000, with 2,002 missionaries employed by the society. This growth may be attributed to the tremendous expansion of the missionary field brought about by the rapid settlement of the West, the increase in the permanent population of the existing states, and a rise in immigration from eastern European countries to America's urban centers. In response to the resulting needs, the American Home Missionary Society became more involved in city missions, hiring foreign-speaking missionaries to serve the needs of the immigrant groups, and in the support of financially weak churches in all parts of the country.

During the 1890s the society still employed the majority of its missionaries in the western states and territories; however, it increased the number working in the South and Southwest from 17 missionaries in 1882 to 203 in 1892. The number of missionaries employed in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states remained relatively consistent. As more and more churches became self-sufficient, the society began placing its importance on working with congregations that were without any visible means of support. These congregations represented both the rural and urban poor.

The American Home Missionary Society after the Civil War was without interdenominational conflict. The withdrawal of the New School Presbyterians by 1861 helped to unify the Congregationalists in their support of the society. This financial support was one of the most significant factors in the society's success. Finally, in 1893 the Executive Committee of the American Home Missionary Society reluctantly admitted that the society had lost its interdenominational character. The society was renamed the Congregational Home Missionary Society; under a different name it still exists.

CONCLUSION

From a purely statistical point of view, the operations of the American Home Missionary Society were a success. Total receipts for its first sixty-seven years amounted to $16,006,504. More than 50,000 man-years of missionary labor were financed and directed by the society. Conversions or new memberships to the churches that received society support totaled 422,041. Between 1826 and 1893 the society had missionaries in every actual or future state of the Union except Alaska and Hawaii. But, more important, for thirty-five years the society successfully overcame denominational barriers in the spirit of cooperation. The withdrawal of the New School Presbyterians did not represent the weakness of this principle of cooperation but rather illustrated that, even on a temporary basis, ecumenical cooperation was possible.

Sources: American Home Missionary Society records
Note Author: David G. Horvath, Editor





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