Of Faith and Courage: The History of the ABCFM



Rethinking the Missionary's Task


    Andover professors, ca. 1884 -- Back row from left: Frank Edward Woodruff, George Foot Moore, Edward Young Hincks, Egbert Coffin Smyth; Front row from left: John Phelps Taylor, William Jewett Tucker, George Harris, John Wesley Churchill, John Putnam Gulliver
  Andover professors, ca. 1884
image courtesy Andover Newton Theolgocal School Archive


  William Ernest Hocking
  William Ernest Hocking
image courtesy Harvard University Archives

Missionary expansion had a profound effect on churches back at home, inspiring fervent debate about doctrines of sin and salvation, and by the early twentieth century, hard questions about the role of missionaries as emissaries of western culture.

In the 1880s, the American Board was at the center of controversy over the idea of future probation, the theory that non-Christians would have an opportunity to repent and be saved after death. As the debate swirled around Andover Seminary, critics charged that it would "cut the nerve of missions", and pressed for doctrinal screening of all candidates. American Board leaders resisted, arguing their job was to spread the gospel, not act as a theological clearinghouse.

But controversy was never far away. "Rethinking Missions" (1932), a survey of missionary work led by William Ernest Hocking, a Congregational layman and Harvard professor of philosophy, argued that missionaries should demonstrate their faith rather than preach, and collaborate with other religions rather than seek conversions. Though hotly debated, Hocking's model would become broadly influential, marking a distinct turn from earlier understandings of mission as simple proclamation to "heathen" peoples.


"Christianity presents a way of life ... which the Christian conceives, not as his way alone, but as a way for all men, entering without violence the texture of their living and transforming it from within. The goal to which this way leads may be ... [described] in the single phrase, Thy Kingdom come."

--William Ernest Hocking, Rethinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years (1939)

Andover Theological Seminary, ca. 1830
Phillips Hall, Bartlet Chapel, Bartlet Hall

image courtesy Andover Theological Seminary Archive