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Historian Paul Burlin co-edits new book on America's largest 19th-century missionary organization

February 29, 2012

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was the country's first creator of overseas Christian missions. 

Founded in 1810 and supported by a coalition of Calvinist denominations, the ABCFM established the first American missions in India, China, Africa, Oceania, the Middle East, and many other places.

It was America's largest missionary organization in the nineteenth century, and its influence was immense. Its missionaries established the first Western schools and hospitals in many parts of the world, and they successfully promoted women's rights and other ideals from the Enlightenment.

In their new book, The Role of the American Board in the World: Bicentennial Reflections on the Organization's Missionary Work, 1810-2010 (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Paul T. Burlin, Ph.D., University of New England professor of history, and Clifford Putney, Ph.D, Bentley University assistant professor of history, have co-edited a new book of essays providing valuable insights on the work of the ABCFM.

"The essays in the book articulate a variety of perspectives," Burlin explains, "from critical chapters (like my own) to others that have a more positive assessment of the impact of the American missionaries sent forth by the Board."

Some of the contributors profile the lives of notable ABCFM missionaries, others focus on ideological shifts within the Board, and still others chronicle the Board's role in historic events, including the Opium Wars, the colonization of Hawai'i, and the Armenian Genocide.

Burlin came to work on the book through his earlier scholarship on the American colonization of Hawai'i. As a result of that work, he became interested in the beliefs of Protestants caught up in the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening, a phenomenon which many scholars have credited with inspiring myriad antebellum reform movements such as abolitionism, prison and education reform as well as women's rights.

"While I share little or nothing of the worldview of the missionaries I have researched," Burlin says, "I must say that I have been impressed by the rigorous demands of their faith, a faith which demanded much of them and promised little in return about which they could be certain. This stands in stark contrast (in my mind) to the often blithe and sanctimonious religiosity of contemporary America which seems to have reversed the equation, and now promises much, and demands next to nothing of significance from its adherents."

He adds that "for one such as me who is not at all enamored by a liberal, progressive reading of American history, the contrast between the early 19th century missionaries and the evangelicals of today is not only ironic, but provides much grit for further reflection and thought."


In a pre-publication review, Jonathan J. Bonk, author of Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem - Revisited, writes: "Both contributors and publisher are to be thanked for this long-needed contemporary examination of the first foreign mission board founded in the United States. It provides often-neglected depth-of-field perspectives, enabling us to understand and appreciate a Western missionary movement that has been, for better or for worse, dominated by the United States for the last century. I heartily recommend this book."

Richard Elphick, Wesleyan University Professor of History writes: "This lively collection offers numerous models for reinterpreting Christian missions in the history of the United States and many Asian, African, and Middle Eastern societies. The chapters depict colorful and often combative American missionaries, not only as evangelists and educators, but also as publicists of atrocities, reformers, lawgivers, traders, cultural observers, and advocates of destabilizing marital and gender norms. Nuanced and richly contextualized, they exemplify the best in the new historiography of missions."

Paul T. Burlin

A professor in the UNE Department of History, Professor Burlin's specialty is 19th-century American diplomatic history and has published a number of articles in this area. He is also author of the book Imperial Maine and Hawai'i: Interpretative Essays in the History of Nineteenth Century American Expansion, which traces connections between Maine and Hawai'i as a way to explore large issues related to American imperialism in the 19th century.

He also has an interest in the perceptions and insights "foreigners" have about U.S. history, culture and society. He is particularly interested in Brazilian observations about the United States. In addition, he has an interest in questions dealing with contemporary American culture.

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