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American Missionary Association archives

Identifier: 001

Scope and Contents

This collection is a valuable resource for the study of the abolitionist movement. It includes approximately 350,000 manuscript pieces. The mass of these was written during the period from 1839 to 1882, but several thousand are dated before and after that time. The manuscripts include some of the treasurers’ papers and minutes of Executive Committee meetings, as well as other items such as sermons, statistical reports, drawings, photographs, and essays; however, letters make up the large majority of the items. More than 100,000 letters are reports from foreign and home missionaries and teachers.

The papers provide the detailed history of the AMA from its origin to 1882. The materials dated prior to 1846 relate to several subjects, of which the most important are the Amistad case and the efforts of evangelical abolitionists to promote abolitionism among northern churches and religious societies such as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Home Missionary Society, and the American Bible Society.

The history of the AMA before 1861 includes its missions in Sierra Leone, Jamaica, Egypt, Siam, and Hawaii, and among Native Americans and fugitive slaves in Canada, as well as extensive home missionary activities. Approximately 150 home missionaries were scattered throughout the North and in the border slave states, but most of them were located in the states and territories west of the Appalachians. In their monthly and annual reports the ministers frequently commented extensively on social, economic, and political conditions of the communities in which they worked.

Most of the papers from the Civil War and Reconstruction Period are statistical and written reports from the missionaries and teachers in the South. By 1865 the AMA had laborers among blacks in every Confederate state and in Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, and the District of Columbia. Following the collapse of the Confederacy, with the cooperation of the Freedmen’s Bureau during its existence, the work among blacks was expanded and made more systematic. The AMA was not only the first of the northern benevolent societies to undertake educational and relief work among the Freedmen, but it also supported more workers in the southern field during Reconstruction than any other organization.

In addition to describing the number, size, curricula, and progress of the schools for Freedmen, the reports from the missionaries discuss the political, economic, moral, and spiritual conditions of the South; the opposition of southern whites to the missionaries and Reconstruction policies; relations with the U.S. Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau; denominational rivalry and conflicts among the various philanthropic societies; and their own criticisms of the war and Reconstruction policies of the federal government. This collection is an excellent source on the history of Reconstruction and on the history of the individual states during this period.

In relating the history of the AMA’s work among the Freedmen, the Archives contain the basic primary source materials that explain in detail the early histories of Fisk University, Hampton Institute, Atlanta University, Howard School (at Chattanooga), Emerson Institute, and hundreds of other schools.

The papers are divided into two main classifications: home (United States) and foreign. Home papers are filed according to the state of origin, and foreign letters are arranged by country of origin. The materials found in the addenda series include items added to the original donation after it had been processed. This series comprises the majority of the 20th century material in the collection and focuses mainly on AMA-founded schools. It also contains ledger books and minutes of the Association.


  • Created: 1828-1969
  • Other: Majority of material found in 1839-1882
  • Other: Date acquired: 08/22/1968


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Any copy rights such as the donor may possess in this property are hereby dedicated to the public. It is the responsibility of an author to secure permission for publication from the holder of the copyright to any material contained in this collection.

Historical Note

The American Missionary Association was established in 1846 by a network of nineteenth century abolitionists who met at the Second Convention on Bible Missions. Some of them had previously united in the legal defense of the Amistad captives in 1839. During the U.S. Civil War, the Association began founding schools for the freedmen and went on to found hundreds of schools for African Americans, as well as other minority groups and Appalachian Whites.

In 1839, 49 adult males and 4 children were taken to Cuba from what is now Sierra Leone as part of the international slave trade. During a voyage from Havana to another city, they took control of the merchant ship La Amistad and sailed up the eastern coast of the United States. Upon their landing in New York, they were put on trial in Connecticut. In 1841, two years of court appeals pushed their case up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they were declared free.

The settlement of the Amistad captives to Sierra Leone was administered by the Amistad Committee, which operated the Mendi Mission. Later, the supervision of the mission was transferred to the Union Missionary Society. The resettlement and care of the Mendi Mission had at first been offered to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, if that organization would adopt the principals of Christian abolitionism. The continued refusal of the American Board to adopt abolitionist principles led not only to the organization of the Union Missionary Society but also the Western Evangelical Missionary Society and the Committee for West Indians Missions. It was representatives of these three organizations, as well as other evangelical abolitionists, who came together at the convention of 1846, at which the American Missionary Association was founded. The American Missionary Association then absorbed the Union Missionary Society, the Western Evangelical Missionary Society, and the Committee for West Indian Missions.

Soon, the Association operated missions in Hawaii, Siam (Thailand), Egypt, for run-away American slaves in Canada and liberated slaves in Jamaica, for Chinese immigrants in California, and provided aid to abolitionist churches in the Northern states and territories, and in the border Southern states. As the antebellum era drew to a close, the American Missionary Association found itself contributing to individual teacher's salaries in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. It was not as financially strong as other leading missionary groups of the day and it did not yet operate entire schools. The Civil War brought the opportunity to educate escaped "contrabands" even as the Union armies made inroads through the South, the American Missionary Association was nearby, setting up schools in local facilities which the military had previously confiscated.

By 1866, American Missionary Association officials realized that normal or grammar schools and colleges to train African American teachers would be the most effective use of their resources, and within three years they had chartered seven institutions for higher learning: Berea College, in Kentucky; Fisk University, in Tennessee; Atlanta University, in Georgia; Hampton Institute, in Virginia; Talladega College, in Alabama; Tougaloo University, in Mississippi; Straight University, now known as Dillard, in Louisiana. The curriculums of these schools were modeled after the better Northern schools of the time, combining academic and industrial courses.

The American Missionary Association also aided in the establishment of Howard University and contributed the entire support for its theological department. Fourteen non-chartered normal and high schools had been opened by 1876. By 1879, 150,000 pupils in the South were being taught by graduates of American Missionary Association normal schools and colleges. And by 1888, the Association' schools had educated 7,000 teachers. In addition to training teachers, these schools had two other purposes. They were to demonstrate conclusively that African Americans were capable of mastering higher education and they were to provide African American leaders who might assist their people in the struggle for equal rights.

The Association's primary concern was to provide a liberal Christian education among African Americans, even during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when public opinion ran strongly in favor of vocational training for the race. However, the American Missionary Association did not lose sight of the African American community's need for economic independence. Consequently, manual labor departments enabled the students to pay for part of their educational costs. In the process, the schools often harvested their own food and raised their own livestock, and they sometimes built and maintained their physical stock of buildings as well.

Following Reconstruction, the American Missionary Association adopted the policy of divesting itself of its primary and secondary schools as rapidly as public authorities in an area could be brought to accept responsibility for African American education. This policy, which sprang from the Association's conviction that education is primarily a public responsibility, allowed for the increase in expenditures toward the improvement of its institutions of higher learning. In an effort to encourage the acceptance of public responsibility, the American Missionary Association frequently turned over its buildings and grounds to local school boards without receiving any financial compensation for the properties. The South, however, was slow to accept this responsibility and as late as 1946, the American Missionary Association was still supporting seven of the region's high schools and academies.

The American Missionary Association established the Race Relations Department at Fisk University, under the directorship of Dr. Charles S. Johnson, in 1942. This met the needs of a climate that contained increased racial strife, both as a result of increased expectations for social participation by World War I veterans of color, and by the increased northern urban immigration by African Americans. After the Second World War, the bi-racial staff of the Race Relations Department endeavored to bring about better human relations through social research, education, and community action. The annual Race Relations Institute, held at Fisk, served as a training ground for many civil rights activists.

The Association's work with Native Americans was interrupted by the Civil War, but was resumed and expanded during the Reconstruction Period. The work with Asian Americans, white residents of Appalachia, and Puerto Ricans also received a significant portion of the American Missionary Association's attention.

In 1934, the Congregational and Christian Churches merged and the American Missionary Association, with Dr. Fred L. Brownlee as General Secretary, became part of the portfolio of the new organization, the Board for Homeland Ministries. The Board had had its own non-American Missionary Association missions in higher education, the Division of Christian Education, headed by Bryant Drake since 1940. Brownlee was succeeded in office by Rev. Philip M. Widenhouse, in 1954, and then by Wesley A. Hotchkiss, in 1957.

At this point, the American Missionary Association was absorbed again, into the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, and became a part of the Division of Higher Education and the American Missionary Association. This organizational restructuring was the result of a further merger between the Congregation and Christian Churches, and the Evangelical and German Reformed Churches. Other prominent officers in the campus ministry efforts of the Division were Hartland H. Helmich, Verlyn Barker, Rev. William K. Laurie, Rev. Paul H. Sherry, and Robert Mayo. In addition, Herman H. Long and Rev. Galen Weaver headed the Association's projects concerning race relations; Joseph T. McMillan, Jr., managed college relationships; Robert Newman managed the American Missionary Association's concerns with church and culture; Rev. Yoshio Fukuyama and Rev. Paul H. Sherry tended to the General Secretary's planning and strategy; Dr. Clifton H. Johnson established and operated the Amistad Research Center, the official repository for the American Missionary Association's archives.

Wesley A. Hotchkiss continued to act as the American Missionary Association's General Secretary through this 1957 merger and beyond, and he retired in 1983. At this point, Verlyn Barker succeeded Hotchkiss as Acting General Secretary and in 1984, Nanette Roberts assumed the official office and was succeeded in 1987 by Rev. Theodore H. Erickson, and in 1989 by co-General Secretaries, Rev. B. Ann Eichhorn and Rev. L. William Eichhorn. Other officers in the office of the General Secretary were Rev. Boardman W. Kathan, Rev. James A. Smith, Jr., and Rev. Grant Spradling.

Even after the first absorption of the American Missionary Association, into the Board for Homeland Ministries, in 1934, the purpose of the American Missionary Association was maintained. Truman B. Douglass, the Board for Homeland Ministries' Executive Vice President, cooperated with General Secretary Brownlee to maintain the education ministry. In 1963, the American Missionary Association's schools were transferred to the Council for Higher Education of the United Church of Christ. Douglass' oversight was succeeded by Howard Spragg, the former Board for Homeland Ministries Treasurer, in 1968, and then by Shelby Rooks, in 1984. In 1985, Division of Higher Education was eliminated and became the Division of Christian Education and the American Missionary Association. And in 1987, the Association's financial endowment, which had been carried and maintained intact since 1846, was fully absorbed by the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.


87.80 Linear Feet

Language of Materials


Arrangement Note

The records have been divided into two main classifications: home (United States) and foreign. The home records have been filed according to place of origin, i.e., by states, beginning with Alabama and ending with Wyoming. Within the state files, the records are arranged in chronological order. The foreign records have been filed according to county of origin, with some exceptions. These records are also arranged in chronological order within each country section. A more detailed explanation of the arrangement, including exceptions, can be found at the beginning of volume 1 of the Author and Added Entry Catalog of the American Missionary Association Archives, which is linked to this finding aid under Other URL.

Source of Acquisition

American Missionary Association

Method of Acquisition


Appraisal Information

Correspondence of missionaries and teachers, teachers' reports, and publications produced by the American Missionary Association, which document the early abolitionist and education work condcuted by the Association.

Accruals and Additions

A portion of the records were added to the collection after the original donation had been processed. These records are filed under Addenda at the end of the collection. In addition, the American Missionary Association 1969 addendum documents the 20th century work of the AMA.

Existence and Location of Originals

Microfilm copies are available for research use.

Related Materials

The Amistad Research Center houses organizational records of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, which absorbed the AMA. The Center also holds the personal papers of various teachers, administrators, and missionaries who served the AMA. A subject guide of AMA-related holdings is maintained by the Center.

Other Descriptive Information

During the original processing of this collection, each document was assigned a document number. Entries listed in the Author and Added Entry Catalog of the American Missionary Association Archives are also maintained in a card catalog at the Amistad Research Center. The card catalog includes the corresponding document number for each entry. The three volume catalog is maintained as pdf files on Amistad's website. See Other URL below to access the pdf version of the Catalog.

Processing Information


American Missionary Association archives
Clifton H. Johnson and Christopher Harter
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Amistad Research Center Repository

6823 Saint Charles Avenue
Tilton Hall, Tulane University
New Orleans LA 70118 US
(504) 862-3222