Chapter XXIX

The Western Foreign Missionary Society

We have seen the process of absorption by which, in 1828, the Church had been stripped of its Foreign Missions, for the benefit of the American Board. The condition of things thus induced was not viewed without profound emotion, by many, throughout the Church. In Baltimore, it immediately became a subject of anxious deliberation, in the weekly conferences of the pastors. After more than a year of private discussion, the subject was brought into the Presbytery, under the conviction and desire that the Presbyterian Church, as such, should exert itself, more directly, and efficiently in the cause of foreign missions. “It was felt to be her imperative duty, which she could not neglect, without great guilt; and absolutely essential to her piety and permanent prosperity. It was believed that the only organization which then existed—the American Board—could never call into action the latent energies of the whole Church; and that something was required from among ourselves, to accomplish this transcendently important object. Accordingly, the Rev. Dr. John Breckinridge introduced the preamble and resolution of the 6th of October, 1830, which were unanimously adopted by the Presbytery.”

This first minute was as follows: “Whereas, in the view of this Presbytery, the Presbyterian Church, with which we are connected, in general, and we as a Presbytery, in particular, have to a most inexcusable degree, neglected the claims of Foreign Missions; and whereas, the present state of the heathen world, as well as the last command of our Divine Redeemer, most urgently call us to exert ourselves in this noble cause, therefore,

” Resolved, That we, as a body, will make the attempt, from this time, to support at least one missionary, from year to year, in the foreign field.”

The views of these brethren, however, contemplated nothing less than bringing up the whole Presbyterian Church, in her organic capacity, to this blessed work. A few days after the adoption of the above resolution, the Rev. Dr. John H. Rice passed through Baltimore. In the parlor of Dr. Nevins, he was waited upon by a committee to which the subject had been referred by the Presbytery, and urged to prepare a paper; which might arouse the attention of the Church, and secure, in some form, the contemplated end. For no one was, as yet, clear, as to the precise mode of action to be adopted. All venerated the American Board, and were embarrassed, in considering the duty and privilege of the Church on the subject, by respect to the plans and policy of that institution. Dr. Rice promised “to think of it;” and, fulfilled the promise, by his overture to the General Assembly, which was dictated from his death bed a short time afterward.

It Was at this conference, in Dr. Nevins’ study, that the phrase, “the Presbyterian Church a Missionary Society,” true as it was to the facts of her history, was fixed upon as the rallying-call to the Church.

On the 18th of March, 1831, the committee of the Presbytery published a circular letter on this subject. Our Church,” say they, “affords peculiar facilities for combined, uniform, and powerful operations, in this way. It is organized already, and only needs to be set in motion, in order to make it a most efficient missionary institution. The plan proposed above, of operating through the Presbyteries, seems to be at once the most simple and effective.”

Again, “In proposing this plan, it is by no means intended to interfere with other societies, already engaged in missions. On the contrary, the object is, to co‑operate with them, as far as possible to do so. But the Assembly’s Board of Missions is fully occupied on our own continent, and has no purpose of effort beyond the two Americas. The American Home Missionary Society is exclusively domestic, as its name imports; and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions needs some such combined effort as this, to bring up ‘to the help of the Lord against the mighty,’ the whole Presbyterian Church. The details of the plan may be left for future consultation. But the principle of operation might be at once adopted; the whole Church might be simultaneously excited through the Presbyteries; and the way be thus prepared to send forth, from one hundred Presbyteries, one hundred missionaries to the foreign field. Dear brethren, we are wedded to no peculiar plan; but we feel that something must be done; that it must be done at once; and that it must be done by all the Church; and with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.”

This circular, signed on behalf of the Presbytery, by William Nevins, George Morrison, George W. Musgrave, and John Breckinridge, prepared the way for the overture of Dr. Rice, and excited the hope and expectation that the Church would be induced to make a proportionate response to the call of duty, so impressively urged.

Dr. Rice had already indicated the hold which the subject had taken on his mind. On the 22d of November, 1830, he wrote to the Rev. Dr. B. B. Wisner, Secretary of the American Board. In this remarkable letter, he surveys with anxiety and alarm the undeveloped indications of the coming strife in the Church, and the growing estrangement between the Congregational and Presbyterian elements. “I do think, that, in a year or two, there has been a considerable increase of local and sectarian feelings among Congregationalists and Presbyterians. That these two denominations are further apart than they were some years ago, is manifest. I thought, too, that during my visit to Boston, I saw tokens of a growth in the strength of New England feeling. Presbyterian feeling also is considerably roused up.”

“I want some of my beloved New England friends to come to Philadelphia, [to the Assembly,] just to try to get good, and to do good; to come without feeling that they belong to New England, but that they belong to Christ and his Church; not to say one word about any matter in dispute among Christians, but determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified…I wish, too, that some plan might be devised for kindling up in the Presbyterian Church, the true spirit of missions, and rousing this sluggish body from sleep. Here is a subject of delicacy and difficulty. The Presbyterian spirit has been so awakened up, that I begin to apprehend that no power of man will ever bring the whole body to unite under what is thought to be a Congregational Board. But the Church must not be under the guilt of letting souls perish, who might be saved. What can be done? Here we want wisdom. I never will do anything to injure the wisest and best missionary society in the world, the American Board. But can no ingenuity devise a scheme of a Presbyterian Branch of the American Board—co-ordinate—sufficiently connected with the General Assembly to satisfy scrupulous Presbyterians, yet in union with the original Board, having the same object, and tending to the same result? Do think of this. Something must be done; but I cannot say what.”

“A Presbyterian branch, co-ordinate, sufficiently connected with the General Assembly, yet in union with the original Board;” such was the conception of this departing servant of Christ. On the next Sabbath he preached his last sermon. Had the men to whom he addressed himself been worthy, what a sublime spectacle would the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches have now presented, one in faith and love; independent, yet united; together laboring for the world’s conversion, through the instrumentality of organizations, co-ordinate, and operating each freely, in its own sphere, yet maintaining mutual understanding, concert, and co-operation in their plans, to the furtherance of the one end!

To Rice’s call for New England men in the Assembly, who should “come without feeling that they belong to New England,” and “not to say one word about any matter in dispute,” the response was the presence and labors of Mr. Bacon on behalf of Mr. Barnes, and his subsequent insults over Presbyterianism as a failure. To the proposition for a co-ordinate Board, the reply was, without alternative, the American Board, and that only.

In fulfilment of his sublime conception, Dr. Rice dictated to an amanuensis, from his sick-bed, the overture on missions, which was laid before the Assembly of 1831. This paper, in the preamble, set forth the evangelization of the world as being the pre‑eminent office of the Church, according to the institution of Jesus Christ. It recognized the divine favor, bestowed upon the American Board, and expressed an earnest desire to co-operate with it. It then proposed a series of resolutions, predicated upon the proposition “that the Presbyterian Church in the United States is a missionary society, the object of which is, to aid in the conversion of the world; and that every member of the Church is a member for life of said society, and bound, in maintenance of his Christian character, to do all in his power for the accomplishment of this object.” The plan provided that the Assembly appoint from year to year a “Committee of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, for Foreign Missions,” “to whose management this whole concern shall be confided, with directions to report all their transactions to the churches. The Committee shall have power to appoint a Chairman, Corresponding Secretary, Treasurer, and other necessary officers. The Committee shall, as far as the nature of the case will admit, be co-ordinate with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and shall correspond and co-operate with that association, in every possible way, for the accomplishment of the great objects which it has in view.”

We have already seen the complexion and spirit of the Assembly of 1831, before which this overture came. It was controlled by those who, in 1826, had attempted to bind the Assembly by solemn covenant to the American Board. Dr. Miller states, that, a year or two later, “a proposal was privately made, by some of the friends of the American Board, that the General Assembly should pass a solemn act, binding itself, or, at least, resolving, not to undertake any separate foreign missionary enterprise. This proposition, however, was firmly resisted,” and, for the time, defeated. The attempt was now made to use the occasion of Rice’s overture to accomplish this cherished object.

The overture was referred to a committee of five, who recommended that a committee of three be appointed to confer with the American Board, as to measures to be adopted for enlisting the Church more fully in the work of foreign missions, and report to the next Assembly. This proposal was adopted, and the committee of conference elected by ballot. The Rev: Drs. John McDowell, Thomas McAuley, and James Richards, were the New School nominees, and were elected; while the Rev. Drs. A. Alexander, John Breckinridge, and E. P. Swift, the Old School nominees, were appointed alternates. Dr. Rice was still living. When he heard the names of the committee, he remarked that “some of the alternates, he thought, understood his views better than some of the principals.”

After the result of this vote had been ascertained, two commissioners from the Synod of Pittsburgh, the Rev. W. C. Anderson, and the Rev. E. P. Swift, happened together, on the steps of the church where the Assembly met. “What is now to be done?” said the former. “We must go home,” was the reply, “and revive our Western Missionary Society.” Upon the return of these members from the Assembly, this suggestion was anxiously weighed by brethren of the Pittsburgh Synod, first among whom, in these consultations, beside those already named, were the Rev. Thomas D. Baird, and the Rev. Alan D. Campbell. The result was the introduction, by Dr. Swift, of an overture to the Synod of Pittsburgh, in pursuance of which that body resolved to resume its missionary organization and work.

In this overture, a survey was taken of the aspects of Providence, as calling the Church, in every land, to the work of missions. The efforts already put forth, and labors and results accomplished by the servants of Christ, were recognized. Especially and with pleasure “the truly splendid operations of the American Board” were referred to ” with none but unmingled feelings of respect and affection.”

“Nor do the Synod regard it as improper to recur, with grateful sentiments, to those humbler efforts which: they have been enabled, in departed years, to put forth, through the Western Missionary Society, in this great and good cause. Still, however, much remains to be done. The resources of large districts of the Presbyterian Church are slumbering in inaction, and experience, for a few years past, has demonstrated the fact that, they cannot be drawn forth by a society so remote as the American Board; or by any that does not involve an ecclesiastical organization, comporting with the honest predilections of many of our people.”

It was, therefore, resolved “that it is expedient forthwith, to establish a society or board for foreign missions, on such a plan as will admit of the co‑operation of such parts of the Presbyterian Church as may think proper to unite with it, in this great and important concern.”

The first article of the Constitution provided that “This Society shall be composed of the Ministers, Sessions and Churches of the Synod of Pittsburgh, together with those of any other Synod or Synods, Presbytery or Presbyteries, that may hereafter formally unite with them; and shall be known by the name of The Western Foreign Missionary Society of the United States.”

A Board of Directors was immediately chosen, consisting of six Ministers and six Ruling Elders, residing in the vicinity of Pittsburgh, together with one minister and one elder from each Presbytery belonging to the Synod. Provision was also made for the admission of a Minister and Elder from each Presbytery belonging to any other Synod, which might enter into cooperation on this plan.

The first officers of the Society were the Hon. Harmer Denny, President, Rev. Thomas D. Baird, Vice President, Rev. E. P. Swift, Corresponding Secretary, Rev. Elisha McCurdy, Treasurer.

In the Assembly of 1832, Dr. McAuley, from the committee of conference with the American Board, submitted a report, signed jointly by the committee and by the Rev. Drs. Jeremiah Day, Lyman Beecher, and B. B. Wisner, a committee on behalf of the Board. This report entered into an elaborate argument, to prove that the Board is “properly a national institution; “that it” sustains the same relation to the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed churches, and fairly represents each of these religious denominations;” and, in short; that there should be but one foreign missionary institution, sustained by those denominations, and the Board should be that institution.

The conclusions to which the joint committees of conference came were, “that it is wholly inexpedient to attempt the formation of any other distinct organization, within the three denominations, for conducting foreign missions; and that it is of the highest importance to their own spiritual prosperity, and to the extension of the Redeemer’s kingdom, in the earth, that the ecclesiastical bodies and the individual churches in these connections should give to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions their cordial, united, and vigorous support.

“In reference to the particular topic, named in the resolution of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, appointing their committee, viz.: ‘Measures to be adopted for enlisting the energies of the Presbyterian Church more extensively in the cause of missions to the heathen,’ the committees of conference are of opinion that but two things are wanting, to secure the desired result; that the Prudential Committee of the American Board should take prompt and efficient measures, by agencies and other ways, to bring the subject of foreign missions, in its various relations, before the individual congregations and members of the Presbyterian body; and that the General Assembly and subordinate judicatories of that Church give their distinct and efficient sanction and aid to the measures that shall be adopted, for this purpose.”

With the report, were submitted a series of resolutions, which do not appear in any of the published accounts of the proceedings. Their purport may be gathered from what follows. When this report was under consideration before the American Board, the Rev. Dr. Miller, who was present, as a member of the Board, offered the following minute, as further expressive of its mind on the subject,

“While this Board accept and approve the foregoing report, as expressing their firm opinion, on the subject referred to the Committee of Conference,

“Resolved, That if the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, or any of its subordinate judicatories, shall eventually think proper to form any association for conducting foreign missions, separately from the American Board, this Board will regard such association with fraternal feelings, and without the least disposition to interfere with its organization or proceedings.”

“This amendment,” says Dr. Miller, “was very unceremoniously negatived; two other members of the Board, only, so far as I recollect, viz.: Dr. Spring, of New York, and Dr. Carnahan, of Princeton, rising. in its favor.”

This took place, at the meeting of the Board in October, 1831; and occurred in view of the fact, which was publicly known, that the Synod of Pittsburgh was, at that very time, about to revive the Western Missionary Society.

When the report of the committee came before the Assembly of 1832, it is possible that, had matters remained as when the committee was appointed, the Assembly might have been induced to accept the bonds forged for them, by the committee and the Board. But, in the mean time, the Western Society had been organized. Already, it had chosen Africa as its first field of operations. The funds were in its treasury, and the first missionaries chosen. And the announcement of these facts, the report that the Presbyterian Church was about to be known again among the heathen, had excited in the bosom of the churches an interest and aroused emotions which commanded respect, and set a ban upon the present proposal.

In the discussion that ensued, Mr. Baird, the Vice President of the Western Society, gave voice to these sentiments, “I am a friend of the American Board. But passing those resolutions will do it more hurt than good. There is a spirit rising, in the West, for a separate movement, on ecclesiastical principles. The Synod of Pittsburgh has, already, organized a foreign missionary society. The missionaries are selected, and the funds secured, to commence their operations. This is so organized that it may be transferred to the General Assembly, and placed under its ecclesiastical supervision, whenever it shall be judged expedient for the Assembly to take up the work of foreign missions. Those who are opposed to the whole principle of voluntary associations may here be enlisted under an ecclesiastical organization; and feelings will be awakened in favor of foreign missions, which the Board never could reach. But if these resolutions are passed, in view of the fact that a Western Board has already been established, many will feel that the Assembly and the American Board have set up too high and exclusive a claim in behalf of that institution.”

Dr. Alexander objected to the resolutions, “because they will so commit the Assembly, that we cannot with propriety, at any time, or for any reasons, organize a Board of foreign missions. It also contains a virtual censure of the society already formed at Pittsburgh. So long a report ought never to be adopted as the act of the Assembly. I am in favor of the American Board. I am a member, and have confidence in it. I am willing to recommend it, and invite its committee to send their agents into our bounds, whenever the churches are willing to receive them. But I am not willing that the Assembly should thus bind themselves and their successors for ever, from acting by themselves. Suppose the charter members, who all reside in Massachusetts, should hereafter fall into great errors, in regard to the manner of conducting missions; or, into fundamental errors of doctrine. I have no suspicion of the kind. But we have no security that such a thing will never take place. And is this supreme judicatory. of the Presbyterian Church to be so committed, that. it cannot withdraw the control of its foreign missions from such a Board?”

The resolutions were rejected, and it was resolved, “that while the Assembly would express no opinion in relation to the principles contained in the report, they cordially recommend the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to the affection and patronage of our churches.”

Whilst the Board was thus strongly endorsed, the Western Society was no otherwise recognized than by a sentence in the Narrative, in which “the Assembly hail, with pleasure, the appearance of a deeper interest in the subject of Foreign Missions, recently manifested in the churches of the West, by the establishment of a Western Foreign Missionary Society. We would that all our churches might have a strong sense of their obligation to send the gospel to every creature, and afford fairer evidence of the sincerity of their daily prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come.”‘

But, although the Western Society shared so little in the favor of the majority of the Assembly, it enjoyed the smiles of the Head of the Church, and the growing confidence and support of his people. When its third annual meeting was held, in May, 1835, it had already established missions in Western Africa, in Northern India, and among the Wea, Iowa, and Omaha Indians. The Synod of Philadelphia had united with that of Pittsburgh, in its control. It had about twenty missionaries under its care, and was well sustained by the contributions of the churches.

By the Assembly in session in Pittsburgh, in that year, a committee was appointed to confer with the Synod of Pittsburgh, on the transfer of the society to the care of the General Assembly; and to devise and digest a plan for conducting Foreign Missions. By a subsequent resolution, the committee was authorized, should the terms of the transfer be approved by them, “to ratify and confirm the same with the Synod, and report the same to the next General Assembly.”

Under this commission, the committee proposed to the Synod, at its next stated meeting, certain “Terms of Agreement,” in reference to the transfer, which were accepted and ratified by the Synod, and reported accordingly to the Assembly of 1836.

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