New book of essays lifts up UCC's rich history of overseas missions

New book of essays lifts up UCC's rich history of overseas missions

March 22, 2012
Written by Daniel Hazard

Clifford Putney makes a passionate point in encouraging UCC members to check out the new book that he and Paul T. Burlin have co-edited lifting up the covenanted ministry now known as Wider Church Ministries.

Their collection of essays – titled "The Role of the American Board in the World: Bicentennial Reflections on the Organization's Missionary Work, 1810-2010" – contains  what Putney terms "the most comprehensive assessment to be made of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) since William Strong wrote his centennial history of the organization in 1910." (ABCFM later became WCM.)

"That statement may surprise people, because the Board isn't widely discussed in school textbooks," said Putney. "But if you look at the institutions that the Board created, the ideas that it spread, and the remarkable people with whom it was associated, you can't help but acknowledge the Board's importance."

The ABCFM was the country's first creator of overseas Christian missions. Founded in 1810 and supported by a coalition of Calvinist denominations, it was America's largest missionary organization in the 19th century, establishing the nation's first missions in India, China, Africa, Oceania and the Middle East.

"For that reason, members of the UCC ought to have an interest in our book," said Putney. "Not everyone in the UCC these days is comfortable with the idea of spreading Christianity into non-Christian lands."

Putney, an assistant professor of history at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., goes so far as to call the Board "one of the most influential organizations in modern world history."

Even those in the UCC who oppose overseas evangelical work should look back and carefully consider what their missionary forebears actually did, said Putney. "Many aspects of their work – especially their education of women and their opposition to slavery and exploitation – were highly progressive in the 19th century, and they're still worth celebrating today."

Essays on the Board's work in Hawaii, India, Spain, Japan, China, Angola, Turkey, the United States and Southeast Asia are highlighted. "Even so," said Putney, "our authors only cover a fraction of what the Board did. The true extent of its work is so vast that it's difficult to comprehend."

WCM helped to fund the book with a $2,500 "publication subvention grant," said Putney. "It was a godsend. Such grants are increasingly common in the world of academic publishing. They help to persuade publishers to take on books that may not sell widely.  Our grant from the WCM helped convince our publisher that our book about missionaries was a worthwhile project."

Putney said he and Burlin, professor of history at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, became interested in the ABCFM while writing books about the earliest missionaries in Hawaii, all of whom worked for the Board. "It's largely because of those missionaries and their children that Hawaii is a U.S. state today," said Putney.

The ABCFM was also a strongly ecumenical institution, Putney added. "Ultimately, the Board became the missionary arm of the Congregational Church, but in its early years, it represented the Presbyterians, the Dutch Reformed Church and the German Reformed Church, as well as the Congregationalists."

To learn more about the ABCFM, visit

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