Founded in 1810, The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was the first organized missionary society in the United States. The ABCFM posted missionaries throughout the globe into the mid-20th century, and its influence was immense.
The primary objective of the ABCFM was to spread Western Protestant Christianity to various groups of peoples throughout the world. Beyond religious expansionism, mission work offered a thin veil for American cultural and political imperialism. The resources found in this collection often reflect the biases of the missionaries documenting their interactions with various local groups.
Woman's Boards of Missions were organized in association with the ABCFM in 1868 to promote work with women in the mission field. These continued as separate organizations until 1936.
By the time of its 100th anniversary in 1910, the Board was responsible for 102 mission stations and 600 missionaries stationed in:
- Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)
- West Central Africa (Angola), South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
- Asiatic and European Turkey
- China, Japan, Micronesia, and the Philippines
- The "Papal lands" of Mexico, Spain, and Austria
The early 19th-century missions to Native Americans had shut down by then, as had missions to Hawaii, where the church had achieved independence from the Board.
Beyond mission/religious studies, this collection offers research opportunities in a variety of fields and research topics, including but not limited to Colonial and Post-Colonial Studies, Linguistics, Women and Gender Studies, History of Science/Medicine, Cultural Studies, Politics and Diplomacy and Genealogy.
This collection offers an abundance of English language primary resources relating to the various working of the Board. The bulk of this vast collection consists of correspondence between missionaries in the field and the administrative officers of the organization.
Also included are:
- administrative records (ABCFM and Woman’s Board)
- personal papers of officers of the Board and missionaries
- individual and collective biographies of missionaries
- photographs of individuals and missions
- manuscript histories of missions
- maps and plans
- property records and claims for for losses of missionary property due to war
- records of organizations associated with the Board
- records of the collection (indexes or tables of contents) to selected volumes
THINGS TO KNOW
Manuscripts, documents, and publications relating to the ABCFM can be found not only at Houghton but in several libraries at Harvard, particularly the Harvard Divinity School Library. The main ABCFM collection (call number ABC 1-91) at Houghton Library is open for research, as are numerous supplementary collections such as archives received directly from missionary families, publications of the Board, and secondary works relating to the organization.
A portion of the collection has been commercially microfilmed. Research Publications Ltd. (now Primary Source Microfilm, an imprint of the Gale Group) filmed a considerable part of the collection in the early 1980s, targeting the correspondence to and from the field prior to 1919. Download the reel listing for the contents of the 858 rolls of film.
In the case where a microfilm exists, users are asked to consult the film in place of the fragile originals. A complete set of the microfilm is housed in Lamont Library, next door to Houghton.
Access to ABCFM material, excluding microfilm, is through Houghton Library’s reading room.
Portions of the main collection have more detailed subject indexes: