Origin and legacy of the Common Global Ministries Board

Origin and legacy of the Common Global Ministries Board

By William J. Nottingham

I want to express appreciation to Dr. Forrest H. Kirkpatrick, former dean of Bethany College and founder of this lecture series. I dedicate this study to another personality of Bethany, the Rev. Irvin Taylor Green, who taught from 1921 until 1953, thirty-two years. I am persuaded that Prof. Green (1882-1954) coached more preachers for the Disciples of Christ than any other person in our colleges and seminaries ever did. He was from Horse Cave, Kentucky, and did his graduate study at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He convinced his students of the importance of a cooperative brotherhood, as our church was called then, a loving and reasoning approach to the Bible, and unqualified loyalty to the United Christian Missionary Society (UCMS). He often spoke with pride of Bethany graduate and former president of Bethany, Archibald McLean, who for 39 years was at the head of the Foreign Christian Missionary Society and was a principle architect of UCMS at his death in 1920. He referred to him as “the immortal McLean” in the commencement exercises of 1938. Prof. Green often mentioned Bethanians who became executives of UCMS, including Cyrus M. Yokum, A. Dale Fiers, and Mae Yoho Ward. It is fitting that a lecture that centers on “the United Society” call Prof. Green to our collective memory and remind us of the theology of mission and dedication that shapes this history as much as anything else.


This study will attempt to be a theological reflection, as well as an historical memoir, on the still-existing missionary societies of our common movement from their beginnings in 1849 to the present. We must remember that the Christian Association of Washington in 1809 is referred to in the foreword of the Declaration and Address as a “society,” with twice yearly meetings, a standing committee of 21 members, financial subscription and support, provision for correspondence, and a stated mission of “promoting simple, evangelical Christianity free from all mixture of human opinions and inventions of men.” From that we can detect an ethos of the times, researched recently by the late Hiram Lester. In retrospect, W.K. Pendleton in the Millennial Harbinger of 1866 even calls it “a missionary society.” But our study includes first the American Christian Missionary Society of which Alexander Campbell was president for many years, the Christian Woman’s Board of Missions organized in 1874, the Foreign Christian Missionary Society dating from 1875, the merging of these three societies into the United Christian Missionary Society in 1920, the creation of the Division of Overseas Ministries and the Division of Homeland Ministries in 1973, and the Common Global Ministries Board in cooperation with the United Church of Christ in 1996. I hope to show that the characteristics of faith, leadership and temperament which resulted in the organized missionary work were precisely the determining factors which led to the restructure of the Disciples of Christ as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.

This was, in large part, the transformation of the United Christian Missionary Society into what it had always been implicitly, namely that part of the general church which served as the means of national and international mission, Christian education, social action, and much ecumenical engagement. While the creation of a General Assembly and General Board was possible only with the cooperation of all the state missionary societies and boards like the Pension Fund, Higher Education, National Benevolent Association, Church Extension, etc., it was the sharing of leadership from all these bodies and from local congregations, in and through UCMS up to that time, which most clearly expressed the sense of the one church which was to come. Our title “Origin and Legacy of the Common Global Ministries Board” shows my intention of keeping before us the present reality of the 19th century missionary societies, because it would be totally out of character to speak of this mission history as relevant to the past rather than reaching into the future of the 21st century. But, it must be noted at the beginning that the United Christian Missionary Society stands out in a special way.

So while the missionary societies of this lecture are in the plural, it is the United Society that gathers their spirit and commitment most notably, and which deserves to be recognized for its generous self-effacement in the interests of the church it served and helped create after a brief existence of only 50 years. The United Society, like the Pension Fund, Historical Society, Council On Christian Unity, etc., embodied a form of the cooperative church from the beginning, but no board was challenged to give up its corporate life for the sake of the whole as UCMS did. For this reason, A. Dale Fiers went from being president of UCMS in 1964 to executive for the International Convention and then General Minister and President of the newly structured church. By the same token in 1973, to everyone’s surprise, the official nominee, T.J. Liggett, had been defeated on the seventh ballot in favor of Kenneth Teegarden, because of the determined effort of some to avoid the imprint of the United Christian Missionary Society on the new shape of the church to which the vision of the United Society had contributed in large part.

This is not to say that the new body did not fare well with a General Minister and President, who was not selected from the ranks of the missionary tradition we are commemorating, but rather that the assumption in the years of planning had been that he or she would represent this historic relationship between “missionary society” and “church.” When Dr. Fiers installed Dr. Liggett as president of UCMS in 1968, T.J. was asked to pledge that he would continue faithfully in leading the process towards restructure. We shall see that in the creation of missionary societies in the mid-19th century, there was never any doubt, theologically, about the fact that the task of mission at home and abroad is the task of the whole church, and is of the very nature of the church, willed by God and revealed in the New Testament.

The place we begin is both before and after 1849. To know where the modern missionary movement came from, which includes our own, we shall recall the creation of societies which date from the late 18th century and the expansion in exploration, trade and conquest of mainly Protestant nations with which our ancestors felt a cultural and religious affinity. They copied patterns which they found about them and admired, which is one of the reasons there was such controversy. However, to know what we are dealing with concretely, we must begin with the present, on the threshold of the 21st century, following a span of two centuries which, for our purposes, may be called “the American missionary centuries.” We begin with today and the mission imperative of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US and Canada, approved by the General Assembly meeting in Pittsburgh in 1995: “We believe God’s mission for the church is to be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing and serving from our doorsteps “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The intention embracing the year 2000 and beyond is stated by General Minister and President Richard L. Hamm as “engaging in outreach ministries of reconciliation, compassion, unity, and justice.”

The missionary societies have resulted in two units of this church, namely the Division of Overseas Ministries (DOM) and the Division of Homeland Ministries (DHM). These two units are the immediate heirs of the United Society, already in existence 25 years, and including much of the continuing work of the earlier societies. The American Christian Missionary Society is present in DOM mission personnel sent to the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and in DHM’s support of the Inman Christian Center in San Antonio, Texas. The Christian Woman’s Board of Missions (CWBM) still exists in relations of DOM with the Church of North India in Bilaspur and Jabalpur, and in DHM through the Kentucky Appalachian Ministry. The Foreign Christian Missionary Society will be remembered in 1999 in the centennial of the Disciples Community of the Church of Christ in the Congo (formerly Zaire), and in DOM’s relations with the United Church of Christ in Japan (the Kyodan), both places later joined by CWBM.

The affairs of the 19th century societies and the UCMS are everyday concerns of DHM and DOM, not only in ancient legal ties or long-standing mission administration and fellowship, but extended into many new partner church relationships, ecumenical councils, support of evangelism and pastoral care, ministries of health and education, justice for women and children, and care for the environment. The collective financial legacies still are managed by a small board of trustees in the name of UCMS, and every year the three predecessor bodies are called into session, a board and officers elected, minutes recorded, and any business undertaken, if necessary, at the request of DOM and Homeland Ministries.

With regard to one of these units, the mission statement drawn up by the board of directors of the Division of Homeland Ministries and president Ann Updegraff Spleth in November 1997, states: “God calls Homeland Ministries to serve the church and the society one congregation at a time, one person at a time, through Faith and Leadership Development, Evangelism, Ministries of Justice and Compassion.” DHM includes the Office of Disciples Women, which traces its past to 1874 and well before that, as seen in the long-overdue tribute of the Chalice Press book by Debra Beery Hull Christian Church Women: Shapers of a Movement (1994). This office is responsible for relations with Disciples women clergy. It describes its task as helping women with leadership, service/action, resources for Christian Women’s Fellowship (CWF) study and worship, organizational helps, and outreach giving. The International CWF gives over three million dollars annually to the mission funding program of the total church.

Concerning the other unit, the important new development pointing to the next century is the Common Global Ministries Board which brings together the programs and activities of the Division of Overseas Ministries and the United Church Board for World Ministries into one mission operation. D.T. Niles, at an assembly of the East Asia Conference of Churches (now the Christian Conference of Asia) in Kuala Lumpur, challenged the two boards to unite their world mission endeavors. Since 1967, thanks to the response of Alford Carleton and Virgil Sly, then T. J. Liggett and Robert A. Thomas, there have been joint offices serving both boards, such as Southern Asia under Telfer Mook and then Eric Gass, or Latin America and the Caribbean first from 1968 to 1971 by myself and now since 1989 with David Vargas. Since January 1, 1994, all area executive secretaries are shared, as well as the personnel officer, recruitment, deputation, etc. The motivation was the emphasis of the 1960’s on Joint Action for Mission and the strong ecumenical commitment of the two churches, related to the same partners in many places and wishing to put into practice signs of Christian unity in world mission.

The background and preparation are described in detail in a document I presented to the Council of Ministers of our church meeting December 8, 1991, in Lexington, Kentucky, which I shall append to this address for the record. Economic considerations did not enter in until the late1980’s when reduction of executive staff became advantageous to the two boards. In fact, there often were additional costs involved. Christian unity truly was “the polar star.” It is worth noting that mission executives always cooperated to the fullest extent through the area committees of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and that Luz Bacerra, from 1989, was executive secretary for Southeast Asia for DOM and the Presbyterians for five years. Scott S. Libbey, UCBWM executive vice-president 1985 to 1994, and Daniel F. Romero, General Secretary for Mission, 1987 through 1997, deserve much of the credit in creating the new united mission entity. This 30 years of serving and growing together was culminated by Patricia Tucker Spier and David Y. Hirano, who succeeded me and Dr. Libbey upon our retirements January 1, l994.

The Common Board was inaugurated for the two churches in April 1996, with 20 members named by DOM, 20 by UCBWM, and 6 from partner churches around the world, a total of 46. They have voice and vote, and full responsibility for the sending of approximately 200 missionaries, global mission interns, and short- and long-term volunteers to 90 different countries. Partner churches range from traditionally Disciples of Christ or UCC denominational ties, like the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Honduras or the Disciples of Argentina, to the Reformed Church of France and the Christian Apostolic Holy Spirit Church in Zion of Swaziland. A consultation was held last October in Indianapolis sponsored by the Global Ministries office for Latin America and the Caribbean and five Pentecostal churches in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Chile and Puerto Rico. Lists of these relationships are available.

More so than previous mission units, Global Ministries has also become an intermediary, or broker, for congregational and regional participation in overseas relationships, even assisting with the globalization of theological education among seminaries. Reflecting the times, much more emphasis is given to work camps, study trips, short-term volunteers, two-way missionary exchanges and the hosting of visitors at the local level.


Kenneth Scott Latourette’s seven-volume history of the expansion of Christianity dedicates three to the 19th century alone, calling it “The Great Century.” Volume III covers 1500 to 1800 and says on page 48: “The closing years of the 17th and the opening years of the 18th century witnessed the emergence of several Protestant missionary societies. He speaks of them as “new instruments for propagating the Christian faith, without precedent, in the expansion of Christianity, or, indeed, in the spread of any religious faith.” Their support came primarily from lay Christians at the same time that egalitarianism began to be expressed broadly in Western society. Space does not permit the listing of the great number of societies which grew up in Europe in the following century, and the names of leaders who became known internationally, but in the United States, missionary societies multiplied rapidly early in the century.

I regret that we cannot give attention to the contradictions of the “American missionary centuries,” but we must seek explanations someday of the ironic relation to the murder and displacement of Native Americans, wars humiliating Mexico and Spain, or defending slavery to the death, and the effect of European colonialism resulting in two modern wars worldwide. I think this remains an unsolved mystery, but one that impinges on the moral and cultural base of missionary spirituality, hopefully as conscious resistance rather than as unconscious justification. What is the theological and sociological correlation?

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was organized in 1810 by Congregationalist clergy in Massachusetts after the memorable inspiration of students of Williams College, when, as legend has it, they took refuge under a haystack during a rainstorm on an afternoon’s outing. The direct structural lineage of this board is to be found in the United Church of Christ’s Board for World Ministries, and its work continues as part of the Common Global Ministries Board with the Disciples of Christ.

In 1814, the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions was organized in Philadelphia. In 1819, the Missionary and Bible Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America was formed. The Episcopal Church began its Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society in 1821. The Synod of Pittsburgh of the Old School Presbyterians formed the Western Foreign Missionary Society in 1831, with a name change to Presbyterian Foreign Missionary Society in 1837. In 1832, the American Baptist Home Mission Society was organized. In 1837, the Foreign Missionary Society of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States was formed. The Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians split between North and South in the 1840’s, and new missionary societies were born of each one. The list of other missionary societies organized on a sectarian basis, or on a local and state level, according to Latourette “even a bare catalog,” would extend to many hundreds of pages!

To this enumeration must be added the proliferation of magazines, journals and heroic missionary accounts that filled the imagination and stirred the faith of people on the frontier. Mention must be made of names which became well-known, both within and outside of the churches, like Henry Martyn, William Carey, Robert Morrison, Adoniram Judson, Alexander Duff, and martyrs like John Williams.

However, in reading this history, we are already being selective in our memory, because there was also a deep-seated opposition to missionaries, from ridicule by the East India Company and debate among statesmen to arguments in the assemblies of the churches. A. McLean said in his lectures to college students late in the century: “When the present era of missions began, the people of God were hostile or indifferent for the most part.”

In his first address of Where The Book Speaks in 1907, a hermeneutical interpretation called “The New Testament A Missionary Volume,” he writes: “While this should be our attitude it is a well-known fact that many in our fellowship are opposed to missions. There are others who say this cause makes no appeal to them…They are interested in the local work, but in nothing else.”

All of this is to show the inevitability of a growing awareness of the need for home and foreign missions among some members of the Campbell-Stone movement and sooner or later the need to organize in order to accomplish them. They were always an energetic minority! Missions became part of the social air they breathed, and lent themselves to the polemical spirit of the times. The discord became particularly acute with the increase of prosperity in the North and Middle West after the Civil War.

At the same time, this listing of associations helps us understand Alexander Campbell’s criticism of missionary societies in The Christian Baptist in two respects: first, the denominationalism, confusion and pretension they represented in his view; secondly, the way they distracted people from the church and appeared to remove the missionary task from the church, itself. We know that he modified his views on this subject, but also I found that I had to modify my understanding of his early view in order to understand how a Disciples of Christ missionary society became acceptable to him, even to the point of serving as president for seventeen years. Mr. Campbell’s opposition to missionary societies must be explained by his reliance on the Bible and his ecclesiology derived from it, not because missionary societies are missing from its pages, but because the church is the divinely instituted means of proclaiming the Gospel and nothing should take its place. It is a matter of the revealed grace and will of God embodied in the church. In other words, it is not a case of literal interpretation but of theological interpretation. In The Christian Baptist, he wrote of the church that he lamented “to see its glory transferred to a human corporation” or that it be “robbed of its character by any institution, merely human, that would ape its excellence and substitute itself in its place.”

He wrote in the Millennial Harbinger of 1850 that from the first volume of the Christian Baptist he had insisted that the church is the only missionary society. I believe that, in the last analysis, this opinion has been consistently maintained among Disciples of Christ ever since. This is why my article is entitled “Mission as Ecclesiology” in The Vision of Christian Unity. I can testify that those presidents of UCMS whom I have known – A. Dale Fiers, Virgil Sly, T.J. Liggett, and Robert A. Thomas, as well as the women who were UCMS vice-presidents – never saw the missionary society as anything other than a function of the church. Just as Campbell often said: “Every Christian is a missionary, either personally or through someone better fitted, but every member of Christ’s Church.” Joseph M. Smith, both in his Strategy of World Mission dissertation, which is indispensable to a reading of our history, and in a study document of UCMS, related mission to the catholicity of the church: “The outreaching mission of the Disciples of Christ has been the channel through which they have expressed the catholic nature of the church in both the local and universal sense.” He sees it as the practice of a catholic congregationalism.

Robert Richardson shows the change of attitude in the movement and the relativizing of opinions when he writes that it was his criticism of abuses by the clergy “that led Mr. Campbell to condemn Sunday-schools, missionary, education and even Bible societies, as THEN (sic!) conducted, because he thought them perverted to sectarian purposes.” The implication is inescapable that the times had changed by the late 1840’s, and the clarifying word “then” appears twice more in the paragraph! To consider the missionary society as an “instrumentality” of the church, for which the church is represented in general convention by elected “messengers,” was a different story from the Christian Baptist days. It is not an independent body, but is a means “employed by the Church at large for the accomplishment of important ends demanding mutual assistance, counsel and cooperation.” The missionary society became a form of the church’s presence and outreach, both practically and theologically. It fulfilled this ecclesiological role implicitly for Disciples of Christ until restructure made it explicit a century later.

Campbell, himself, had written in 1842 that his mind had changed and that “we ought rather to act under the conviction that we may be wiser today than yesterday, and that whatever is true can suffer no hazard from a careful and candid consideration.” Mr. Richardson points out that “the rapid increase of the churches generally, but especially in Kentucky, where the membership was already estimated at forty thousand, impressed Mr. Campbell more and more with the responsibilities of his position, and with the vast importance of a clear understanding on the part of the churches in regard to the whole subject of organization and cooperation.”

On October 23, 1849, 156 delegates from 11 states gathered in Cincinnati to create the American Christian Missionary Society. Tucker and McAllister, in Journey in Faith, show some suspicion when they say that Alexander Campbell, “either because of poor health or for strategic reasons, was not present but was represented by W.K. Pendleton.” The December edition of the Millennial Harbinger contains Mr. Campbell’s regrets at having been denied the pleasure due to “an unusually severe indisposition” and his hearty endorsement, being “peculiarly gratified.” Robert Richardson says nothing about the organizing of the first convention in Cincinnati and the creation of the ACMS, but he mentions that a year later, on starting a 40-day trip West with his daughter Virginia, Mr. Campbell stopped in Cincinnati to attend “the anniversary of the Missionary Society, and then visited Madison and many other points in Indiana to which appointments had been forwarded.” The author gives more attention to Campbell’s visit to Bloomington than to the convention where he was president and which is noted for the first time in the biography! He attends again in 1851, with Dr. J.T. and Julia Barclay then missionaries in Jerusalem. This time, Richardson says he “found an increasing interest on the subject of missions amongst the brethren, and an improvement in liberality which he labored earnestly to promote.” In 1853, Campbell “delivered an address to the Christian Missionary Society, of which he was still president, in which he dwelt earnestly upon the importance of missions both at home and abroad, and urged a general cooperation on the part of the brotherhood for the conversion of the world.” The Millennial Harbinger of 1854 includes this central conviction: “We shall, therefore, regard it as a fixed fact – that the Church of Jesus Christ is, in her nature, spirit and position, necessarily and essentially a missionary institution.”(underlined in the original!)

Richardson writes that through the decade until 1863 “he manifested his usual interest in the great subject of missions” and “was accustomed to meet with the ACMS as its president regularly every year, delivering addresses and urging increased liberality.” W.K. Pendleton wrote in 1866: “We feel that it is due to the great name of Alexander Campbell to vindicate his memory from the charge that he was ever opposed to true missionary work or true and scripturally conducted missions.”

Tucker and McAllister have a section in Journey in Faith called “Toward a National Organization, ” which tells of the decade-long progress toward the calling of a General Convention in Cincinnati in 1849 and the creation of the American Christian Missionary Society. Campbell, himself, not only saw the need to give a kind of church structure to the growing movement of preachers and congregations in order to coordinate and authorize through open critical discussion the spreading of their understanding of the Christian faith for their times, but he led by a series of essays in the Millennial Harbinger 1842-1848 on cooperation and consensual agreement. A number of meetings were held, and David S. Burnet took the lead. He was 20 years younger than Mr. Campbell and had been involved already in the organization of a Bible Society, largely supported by Ohio Disciples. He became one of the many persons who pushed for discussion and decisiveness in the steps which led to the Convention that gave birth to the ACMS. John T. Johnson of Kentucky made the resolution to start a society for world evangelization. It is to be noted that Mr. Campbell had urged a delegate assembly to be representative of congregations and of the whole body, not just individuals. This was not fully realized until the provisional General Assembly held in St. Louis in 1967 leading to the restructured church.

My point here is that the first missionary society was the product of a long and intense process which generated considerable soul-searching. There were shared biblical principles and at the same time fundamental differences in theological opinion. Disagreement grew concerning congregational ecclesiology, commonality in mission with other Christians, and also perhaps communion of the Holy Spirit. This tension would eventuate in separate bodies and institutions of the 20th and 21st centuries. A full appreciation is probably hidden from us in the distance from ante-bellum times. But the nature of the Bible’s authority, the relatively new idea of the autonomy of the local congregation, and the centrality of millennialist eschatology for these men and women, with men doing most of the writing which is left to us, seem to me to be mysteries that can only be observed from different angles and rarely entered into existentially by later generations like our own.

This is evidenced in the decisions concerning missionaries growing out of this fervor leading up to the Cincinnati convention: Dr. and Mrs. James T. Barclay were the first. It was in their parlor in Washington, D.C., 1843, that the congregation had been organized which became the Vermont Avenue Church and in 1930 the National City Christian Church. They went to Jerusalem, not because of Acts 1:8 “beginning with Jerusalem” as a popular Disciples legend has it, but because it was taken for granted by Alexander Campbell and his followers that the Jews were to be converted before the return of Christ. The title of Campbell’s journal proclaimed clearly the eschatology of the pre-Civil War spirituality, so neglected in our denominational memory by scholars and theologians since then. In the Millennial Harbinger of 1841, we read in what is called The Protestant Theory: “The Millennium, so far as the triumphs of Christianity is concerned, will be a state of greatly enlarged and continuous prosperity, in which the Lord will be exalted and his divine spirit enjoyed in an unprecedented measure. All the conditions of society will be vastly improved; wars shall cease, and peace and good will among men will generally abound. The Jews will be converted, and the fullness of the Gentiles will be brought into the kingdom of the Messiah.” The Brook Farm Harbinger, published weekly from June 1845 to June 1847 by New England transcendentalists, could not have been more utopian, and it is not a coincidence that they both are called “harbingers” of a better world.

The founding of the American Christian Missionary Society cannot be separated from the millennialist eschatology of the period nor from the pragmatism which required a foreign dimension to keep pace with other denominations or to outgrow them! D.S. Burnet’s book The Jerusalem Mission and Dr. Barclay’s book The City of the Great King make this clear, along with speeches and articles by various leaders like Isaac Errett. Barclay wrote in a journal The Christian Age: “The ACMS…resolved…to make the first offer of salvation to Israel. . .for the salvation of the Jews…for upon the conversion and resumption of Israel is unquestionably suspended the destruction of Antichrist and the salvation of the world.” The same assumption had been indicated in the Appendix of the Declaration and Address of Thomas Campbell in 1809. But the conversion of the Jews is not what makes the missionary effort eschatological; rather it points to the fact that the whole of this prewar missionary conviction can be understood only in light of the eschatological theology of the times. This was thought to be biblical, with Rev. 14:6-7 regularly on the cover of the Millennial Harbinger, but deeply influenced by contemporary moral philosophy and Anglo-Saxon utopian belief in progress. Each succeeding generation had its own implicit theological definition of missionary endeavors, never unanimous probably, but in which the common theme, nevertheless, is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the church as the bearer of Good News for this world and the next.

Others sent out by ACMS were J.O. Beardslee to Jamaica in 1858, where he had already been a Congregationalist missionary and proposed himself, and Alexander Cross, a freedman who arrived in Liberia in 1854, only eight years after its founding. Both of these efforts were short-lived, because Mr. Cross became ill and died, and funds ran out for Mr. Beardslee’s support at the time of the Civil War. The Christian Woman’s Board of Missions picked up the work later in each place. In 1919, their missionaries in Liberia were transferred to the Belgian Congo mission of the Foreign Society, already in existence and destined to become one of the largest Disciples of Christ communities in the world. In December, 1993, the Disciples of Christ of Jamaica joined with the United Church that had resulted earlier from union of Presbyterians and Congregationalists, thereby bringing