The Second Great Awakening and the Missionaries

For the past several months one of my curiosities has been the early Christian missionaries in the Oregon Territory. Who were they? When and how did they come? What did they bring with them and what did they do on arrival? How did they get along with each other? Why Oregon?

Summer intern Erik and I had some good times discovering obscure references, learning about the spats among denominations, and wondering what possessed sane people, mostly living in New England, to forsake all to preach the Gospel to the Indians.

It looks like it traces back to the “Second Great Awakening,” a period of religious fervor, primarily in New England, but extending to Europe as well, that gave us Jonathan Edwards and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and Joseph Smith and the Mormon religion. Jason Lee was caught up in it, and raised funds and fervor for Oregon. The visit of the four Indians—Flathead and Nez Perce—to St. Louis found resonance with awakeners and inspired Father DeSmet and the Jesuits to head for Montana.

The Whitmans and Spaldings came West under the auspices of the
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). And here is the Wikipedia take on the Awakening and ABCFM: “The founding of the American ABCFM was inspired by the Second Great Awakening. In 1806, five students from Willliams College in western Massachusetts took shelter from a thunderstorm in a haystack. At the Haystack Prayer Meeting they came to the common conviction that ‘the field is the world’ and inspired the creation of the ABCFM four years later. The objective of the ABCFM was to spread Christianity worldwide.”

“A Cent-a-Meal: American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions” still bank

Jason Lee and the Methodists found their way to Oregon Territory in 1834, two years before the Whitmans and Spaldings with the ABCFM. The latter group was supported primarily by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Dutch Reformed congregations. The first ABCFM missionaries went to British India in 1812, and were followed between 1812 and 1840 by expeditions to the Cherokees in Tennessee, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Bombay, Northern Ceylon, China, Singapore, and Siam (Thailand); western and southern Africa; and the Middle East (Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the Holy Land).

And when the Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions heard a report from their Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) mission about the “abundance of unconverted Indians on the West Coast” along came the Spaldings and Whitmans.


Years and years and years ago, when I was a young Peace Corps Volunteer in Eastern Turkey, I had a Volunteer friend who had grown up in a missionary family in Lebanon and Syria. He talked about traveling across deserts on sand covered and non-existent highways from compass marker to compass marker in the 1950s. And said that his father had soon realized that the only converting going on was turning a few Arab Christians away from their Orthodox and Catholic churches—churches with histories longer than those of American missionary movements, or, for that matter, the United States! He wasn’t converting any Moslems, so he gave up proselytizing and went to teaching agriculture.

Turkey and the entire Middle East is predominantly Moslem, but not only are there many Moslem “denominations,” but significant numbers of Druze, Zoroastrians, and Christians. The Orthodox church in our nearby city of Diyarbakir dated to the 600s—and during my four years in the region I found other Christian churches, even went to a Christmas Eve service in a Chaldeon Catholic church where the liturgical language was Syriac or Aramaic, a language close to that spoken by Jesus and the early Christians.

I wondered then what possessed American missionaries to go half way across the world to struggle—mostly unsuccessfully—with converting Moslems and settle for gaining a few Protestant converts from Christian denominations older than their home country. And now I have it: the Whitmans and Spaldings might just as well have gone to Syria or Turkey as made their way West to the Oregon Territory. And if it hadn’t been for that haystack storm and conversion meeting it might have been a different world.

Today the news from Syria is about a Christian town being taken over by rebels of the jihadist faction, and Christians and other minority groups in Syria fighting with the Assad government to take it back. The NPR report said that the Syrian Christians were speakers of Aramaic, which took me back to that long ago Christmas Eve service in an old church with people whose ancestors had recited the same words in the same language almost 2000 years ago. There is something humbling and satisfying in that thought.