If you were to visit Whitman Mission National Historic Site, how far would you have to travel? Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the other missionaries who joined them traveled over 2,000 miles, almost coast to coast across the country. In fact, when they made the trip in 1836, it wasn’t one country at all. These individuals were venturing deep into the interior, a foreign country for United States citizens of their time. No wonder the organization that sent them was called the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).
What Was the ABCFM and Why Send Missionaries?
The ABCFM was a Protestant Christian organization that sent missionaries to foreign countries far and wide. In 1833, a story was published in The Christian Advocate that inspired a wave of missionary efforts in Oregon Country. According to the article, four Flathead Indians traveled across the continent to visit William Clark in hopes of obtaining a copy of the Bible.
Four men, three of whom were actually Nez Perce, did in fact visit Clark, but the details of the visit were largely exaggerated based on second-hand knowledge of the interaction. These exaggerated reports inspired many hopeful missionaries from different sects of Christianity but also filled them with unrealistic expectations for the fieldwork that lay ahead.
Nevertheless, the article in The Christian Advocate was considered by many to be a sign that they must go forth and spread the word of God. Churches and missionary organizations, including the ABCFM, began searching for people to send westward. But who would be willing to leave everything that was familiar behind? Who would be capable of creating a self-sufficient mission?
Making the Cut: The Missionaries are Chosen
The ABCFM sent Samuel Parker to find individuals willing to establish a mission in Oregon Country. He found Narcissa Prentiss and Marcus Whitman. Eliza and Henry Spalding were already set to be ABCFM missionaries to the Osage Nation but were transferred to serve as members of the Oregon party as well. William H. Gray was the final member to be added to the initial Oregon mission effort. They were later joined by the Walkers, Eells, Smiths, and Rogers.
Arriving in the Northwest: The Mission Stations are Chosen
The ABCFM expected missionaries to be self-driven, and sure enough those they chose were just that. The result was more than one quarrel over who would lead any given mission station and who would have to follow the lead of others. As a result, five different stations were established in what is modern-day Washington and Idaho. Splitting into multiple stations quelled some of the conflict over leadership and included the added bonus of reaching more potential converts, but it also made self-sufficiency harder to obtain as resources had to be stretched across all of the mission stations.
Last updated: November 17, 2021