Of Faith and Courage: The History of the ABCFM

Native Americans

"We Have Done What We Could"

The American Board and Justice for Native Americans


Cherokee textile pattern

"Suppose we have gained nothing. Ought we therefore to repent of having made the attempt? Are we never to make efforts and sacrifices for the accomplishment of an important object, without the certainty of success? ... No. If we have gained nothing else, we have at least gained a very cheerful testimony of our consciences, that we have done what we could, for the preservation of injustice, oppression, and robbery, and the preservation of the national faith."

--Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler, "A Letter in Their Defense", Missionary Herald 29 (May 1833): 183-186, explaining their role in Worcester v. Georgia, their case argued before the Supreme Court in 1832

Foreign mission school at Cornwall, CT
The Cornwall School

The American Board's work among Native Americans raised issues of racial justice. In 1817, the Board helped open a remarkable school in Cornwall, Connecticut, with a student body of Hawaiians and Native Americans. Opposition arose when two students, including Cherokee leader Elias Boudinot, married white women; the Board's corresponding secretary Jeremiah Evarts stood up strongly on their behalf.

In 1817 Cyrus Kingsbury arrived in northern Georgia to work among the Cherokee and Choctaw. The Cherokee, who believed that literacy would help them resist the American government's aggressive land policies, welcomed missionary schools. But President Andrew Jackson's program of "Indian removal" – forced marches to lands across the Mississippi – soon led to a confrontation between the Board and the United States government.

In 1830, ABCFM missionaries Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler ended up in the Georgia State Penitentiary for resisting these unjust policies. Their case eventually wound up in the Supreme Court, highlighting an early and important act of civil disobedience. In 1838 Butler joined the "trail of tears" to Oklahoma, a march which took the lives of 4,000 Cherokees and Butler's own infant daughter – and eventually fueled a public backlash against Indian removal.

Cherokee mission at Brainerd, TN
The Cherokee Mission at Brainerd, Tennessee