Efforts of the ABCFM in 19th Century China
Efforts of the ABCFM in 19th Century China
Among the many things Cornelius Gold encountered on his journey from New York to Hong Kong were the missionary schools and chapels, which were a common practice of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) including their various missions in China. They were effective ways for the ABCFM to bring Christianity directly to the people, in particular the youth. Masses were held in chapels where literature was distributed, while schools taught Christianity, reading, writing and music. They brought their messages directly to the people through a sense of community and by expanding education and knowledge, however this was often tainted by Orientalist approaches and viewpoints.
The ABCFM was organized in 1810 in Massachusetts. Their original plan was “to diffuse the Gospel among the people of the newly-settled and remote parts of our country, among the Indians of the country, and through more distant regions of the earth” (“Historical Sketch…” 2). Their work in China started in 1830 and lasted until 1866, with major missions in Canton, Amoy, Shanghai and Foochow focusing on the “urgency of World evangelization” (Maxfield). This type of goal had a condescending nature that revealed itself in many of the reports from missionaries during this time.
Two couples, Daniel and Maria Vrooman, and Samuel and Catherine Bonney, were largely based in the Canton mission, and worked in both the chapels and the schools as mentioned in Gold’s journal. One missionary stated the goal of the Canton mission as “to make known revealed truth, [and] to ‘preach the gospel’” (Baptist Magazine 94). The missionaries felt they had been largely successful in doing this, however they called for more missionaries to be sent in to increase efficiency. In total there were four chapels in the Canton mission, with Mr. Bonney’s being the smallest and least popular. Vrooman’s chapel was the most popular, with high attendance rates, but in spite of his popularity Vrooman had doubts about his success. He felt that his patrons “profess to love the truth, but [he did] not yet see positive evidence of their conversion” (Annual Report 123). Nonetheless, Bonney felt, in general, progress was being made in the interactions between the Chinese and the missionaries.
Schools in Canton were funded by “private donations and…the sale of books in the printing office” (Baptist Magazine 93). For Mrs. Bonney’s school many of these donations came from local citizens, while other missions struggled to receive funding from the board, such as Shanghai (Missionary Herald 1859, 193). Both the boys and girls schools had boarding options and taught scripture; however, they had some different academic focuses. Boys’ schools also taught literature, yet excluded “the Chinese classics” from the curriculum (Annual Report 123), while girls’ schools taught “reading, writing, singing, and needlework” (Annual Report 142). School goals were cited as “to Christianize [the students’] language…[and] to give their minds healthful food, to drive out the false notions they have received, and fill them with Christian thoughts and aims” (“Meeting in Behalf…” 78). This type of White-Savior complex was found in many reports on the schools in China during this time.
Racism could also be found in the Chapels. Baptisms were performed through the chapels, including in Amoy where one missionary spoke of baptism as a tool to “guide [the locals’] darkened souls to the Sun of Righteousness” (Missionary Herald 1853, 67). Missionaries in Shanghai referred to the locals as “sordid, money-loving…heathens” and said, “Christ has died for the Chinese also, and we are their debtors, to convey the gospel to them” (Missionary Herald 1859, 194). These attitudes likely contributed to the decrease in local interest as one missionary reported interest “has in great measure died away, and a large proportion of our hearers have ceased to attend” (Missionary Herald 1859, 193).
The chapels and schools were key to the ABCFM’s goals of spreading Christianity throughout the world, though this was met with varying success. The reports have a strong Orientalist tone, which portrays the local Chinese as “darkened souls” in need of saving. Additionally with some schools removing Chinese literature from the curriculum, these missionaries were not only forcing Western culture on the Chinese, but they were also removing Chinese culture. These accounts provide a unique insight into Christian-American views of China, and the racist nature many of those views took on.
- Ryan Deneen
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