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American Missionary Association | Amistad Research Center

Name: American Missionary Association

Historical Note:

The American Missionary Association was established in 1846 by a network of nineteenth century abolitionists who met at the Second Convention on Bible Missions.  Some of them had previously united in the legal defense of the Amistad captives in 1839. During the U.S. Civil War, the Association began founding schools for the freedmen and went on to found hundreds of schools for African Americans, as well as other minority groups and Appalachian Whites.

In 1839, 49 adult males and 4 children were taken to Cuba from what is now Sierra Leone as part of the international slave trade. During a voyage from Havana to another city, they took control of the merchant ship La Amistad and sailed up the eastern coast of the United States. Upon their landing in New York, they were put on trial.  In 1841, two years of court appeals pushed their case up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they were declared free.

The settlement of the Amistad captives to Sierra Leone was administered by the  Amistad Committee, which operated the Mendi Mission. Later, the supervision of the mission was transferred to the Union Missionary Society. The resettlement and care of the Mendi Mission had at first been offered to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, if that organization would adopt the principals of Christian abolitionism. The continued refusal of the American Board to adopt abolitionist principles led not only to the organization of the Union Missionary Society but also the Western Evangelical Missionary Society and the Committee for West Indians Missions. It was representatives of these three organizations, as well as other evangelical abolitionists, who came together at the convention of 1846, at which the American Missionary Association was founded. The American Missionary Association then absorbed the Union Missionary Society, the Western Evangelical Missionary Society, and the Committee for West Indian Missions.

Soon, the Association operated missions in Hawaii, Siam (Thailand), Egypt, for run-away American slaves in Canada and liberated slaves in Jamaica, for Chinese immigrants in California, and provided aid to abolitionist churches in the Northern states and territories, and in the border Southern states. As the antebellum era drew to a close, the American Missionary Association found itself contributing to individual teacher's salaries in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky.  It was not as financially strong as other leading missionary groups of the day and it did not yet operate entire schools. The Civil War brought the opportunity to educate escaped "contrabands" even as the Union armies made inroads through the South, the American Missionary Association was nearby, setting up schools in local facilities which the military had previously confiscated.

By 1866, American Missionary Association officials realized that normal or grammar schools and colleges to train African American teachers would be the most effective use of their resources, and within three years they had chartered seven institutions for higher learning: Berea College, in Kentucky; Fisk University, in Tennessee; Atlanta University, in Georgia; Hampton Institute, in Virginia; Talladega College, in Alabama; Tougaloo University, in Mississippi; Straight University, now known as Dillard, in Louisiana.  The curriculums of these schools were modeled after the better Northern schools of the time, combining academic and industrial courses. 

The American Missionary Association also aided in the establishment of Howard University and contributed the entire support for its theological department.  Fourteen non-chartered normal and high schools had been opened by 1876. By 1879, 150,000 pupils in the South were being taught by graduates of American Missionary Association normal schools and colleges.  And by 1888, the Association' schools had educated 7,000 teachers. In addition to training teachers, these schools had two other purposes.  They were to demonstrate conclusively that African Americans were capable of mastering higher education and they were to provide African American leaders who might assist their people in the struggle for equal rights.

The Association's primary concern was to provide a liberal Christian education among African Americans, even during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when public opinion ran strongly in favor of vocational training for the race.  However, the American Missionary Association did not lose sight of the African American community's need for economic independence. Consequently, manual labor departments enabled the students to pay for part of their educational costs. In the process, the schools often harvested their own food and raised their own livestock, and they sometimes built and maintained their physical stock of buildings as well.

Following Reconstruction, the American Missionary Association adopted the policy of divesting itself of its primary and secondary schools as rapidly as public authorities in an area could be brought to accept responsibility for African American education. This policy, which sprang from the Association's conviction that education is primarily a public responsibility, allowed for the increase in expenditures toward the improvement of its institutions of higher learning. In an effort to encourage the acceptance of public responsibility, the American Missionary Association frequently turned over its buildings and grounds to local school boards without receiving any financial compensation for the properties. The South, however, was slow to accept this responsibility and as late as 1946, the American Missionary Association was still supporting seven of the region's high schools and academies.

The American Missionary Association established the Race Relations Department at Fisk University, under the directorship of Dr. Charles S. Johnson, in 1942.  This met the needs of a climate that contained increased racial strife, both as a result of increased expectations for social participation by World War I veterans of color, and by the increased northern urban immigration by African Americans.  After the Second World War, the bi-racial staff of the Race Relations Department endeavored to bring about better human relations through social research, education, and community action.  The annual Race Relations Institute, held at Fisk, served as a training ground for many civil rights activists.

The Association's work with Native Americans was interrupted by the Civil War, but was resumed and expanded during the Reconstruction Period. The work with Asian Americans, white residents of Appalachia, and Puerto Ricans also received a significant portion of the American Missionary Association's attention. 

In 1934, the Congregational and Christian Churches merged and the American Missionary Association, with Dr. Fred L. Brownlee as General Secretary, became part of the portfolio of the new organization, the Board for Homeland Ministries.  The Board had had its own non-American Missionary Association missions in higher education, the Division of Christian Education, headed by Bryant Drake since 1940.  Brownlee was succeeded in office by Rev. Philip M. Widenhouse, in 1954, and then by Wesley A. Hotchkiss, in 1957.

At this point, the American Missionary Association was absorbed again, into the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, and became a part of the Division of Higher Education and the American Missionary Association.  This organizational restructuring was the result of a further merger between the Congregation and Christian Churches, and the Evangelical and German Reformed Churches.  Other prominent officers in the campus ministry efforts of the Division were Hartland H. Helmich, Verlyn Barker, Rev. William K. Laurie, Rev. Paul H. Sherry, and Robert Mayo.  In addition, Herman H. Long and Rev. Galen Weaver headed the Association's projects concerning race relations; Joseph T. McMillan, Jr., managed college relationships; Robert Newman managed the American Missionary Association's concerns with church and culture; Rev. Yoshio Fukuyama and Rev. Paul H. Sherry tended to the General Secretary's planning and strategy; Dr. Clifton H. Johnson established and operated the Amistad Research Center, the official repository for the American Missionary Association's archives.

Wesley A. Hotchkiss continued to act as the American Missionary Association's General Secretary through this 1957 merger and beyond, and he retired in 1983.  At this point, Verlyn Barker succeeded Hotchkiss as Acting General Secretary and in 1984, Nanette Roberts assumed the official office and was succeeded in 1987 by Rev. Theodore H. Erickson, and in 1989 by co-General Secretaries, Rev. B. Ann Eichhorn and Rev. L. William Eichhorn.  Other officers in the office of the General Secretary were Rev. Boardman W. Kathan, Rev. James A. Smith, Jr., and Rev. Grant Spradling.

Even after the first absorption of the American Missionary Association, into the Board for Homeland Ministries, in 1934, the purpose of the American Missionary Association was maintained.  Truman B. Douglass, the Board for Homeland Ministries' Executive Vice President, cooperated with General Secretary Brownlee to maintain the education ministry. In 1963, the American Missionary Association's schools were transferred to the Council for Higher Education of the United Church of Christ.  Douglass' oversight was succeeded by Howard Spragg, the former Board for Homeland Ministries Treasurer, in 1968, and then by Shelby Rooks, in 1984.  In 1985, Division of Higher Education was eliminated and became the Division of Christian Education and the American Missionary Association.  And in 1987, the Association's financial endowment, which had been carried and maintained intact since 1846, was fully absorbed by the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.

Note Author: Lester Sullivan

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