History of the Minnesota Conference UCC: Anglo-American Missionaries

The following is the third history segment in a series, shared regularly in COMMAntary to help us come to terms with our past. We’re doing this not to be mired in nostalgia for “the good old days,” but to consider what our history might tell us about God’s aims for our present and future ministry.

Having reflected on the Dakota and Ojibwe presence in Minnesota, we turn our attention this week to the Anglo-Americans (as they called themselves) who settled here in the 1800s. In particular, we focus on the Congregationalist missionaries arriving here from New England.

In the 1830s, the Congregationalist Church sent Anglo-American missionaries to Minnesota via the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (the predecessor body to the UCC’s Global Ministries). The ABCFM was rooted in the Second Great Awakening in the United States, a revival that changed American society forever. At the heart of the Second Great Awakening was a tension around race in church and society – a tension that continues to shape the nation even today.

On the one hand, this revival emphasized the individual’s relationship with God, regardless of race. This theology brought together white abolitionists with African-American leaders in the North, an alliance that shaped the cultural, religious, and political landscape of the U.S. for decades.

On the other hand, though, the Second Great Awakening also carried within itself a spirit of Anglo-American Protestant supremacy. This spirit wove its way into the ABCFM, as seen in its archives at Harvard. Even as the stated spirit of racial unity before God unfolded in the desire to bring all nations into the church, from the beginning of the ABCFM another spirit suggested all nations should conform to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ways of being in the world.

This racial contradiction came with the young people sent into missionary work by the ABCFM. Samuel Pond and his brother Gideon had more zeal than training as religious leaders, yet they were ordained in Connecticut as ABCFM missionaries to the Dakota peoples in present-day Minnesota. In the same spirit, peers of theirs were sent as missionaries to the Ojibwe in places like Pokegama (Pine County) and Sandy Lake (Aitkin County). While the French had visited Minnesota in prior centuries – leaving behind names such as Hennepin and La Salle – the continued white presence in Minnesota traces much of its roots back to Anglo-Saxon Protestants in New England. These Anglo-American Congregationalists, consciously or not, brought a simultaneous urge of both equality and dominance when they arrived in what is now the Minnesota Conference.

As an example, it is worth pausing to reflect on the organization that sent Congregationalist missionaries to Minnesota. Note the name: the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The Congregationalists of the early 1800s viewed present-day Minnesota as a foreign place, whose Dakota and Ojibwe inhabitants were perceived by white New Englanders as foreign despite the fact that the land had been part of the United States for decades, first through the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and then the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. While we in today’s Minnesota Conference have a different perspective on race, the reality of our history is that our spiritual (and, in some cases, literal) ancestors believed they were going to a foreign people in a foreign land to convert them to Anglo-American Christianity, culture, language, and more.

© Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ | 2023