The Philadelphia region historically produced fewer missionaries than other areas of North America. Through at least the early twentieth century New Englanders and southerners dominated the organized efforts of Christian churches to send out evangelists to convert others to the faith. Ironically, William Penn’s decision to make Pennsylvania a Holy Experiment in religious tolerance may explain why Philadelphia did not experience the flowering of missions seen to its north and south, as fewer settlers were inclined towards persuading others to adopt their religious perspective. Even so, the area’s rich religious heritage provided impetus for some missionary efforts.

an illustration showing a Moravian church with a large baptismal pool in the center. Native American men and women stand along the sides of the hall watching as three Native American men kneel at the pool. A caucasian man pours water over one of the kneeling men's heads.
Moravian missionaries in Pennsylvania focused on converting members of local Native American tribes to Christianity, working mostly within the Lenape and Mahican tribes, where they learned the tribes’ languages and cultures. This illustration from an eighteenth century German text shows a Moravian priest baptizing Native American converts in an American church. (Wikimedia Commons)

The earliest Christian missionaries in the Americas worked among Native Americans, though efforts in British North America were muted compared to those of French Jesuits in the Great Lakes region and Spanish priests establishing missions throughout New Spain. Among the Swedes who settled Fort Christina in 1638 at present-day Wilmington, Delaware, Lutheran minister John Campanius (1601-83) learned the language of the area’s Delaware Indians and sought converts using a translated catechism, making him the region’s first Christian missionary. A century later David Brainerd (1718-47), a young Presbyterian from Connecticut who was influenced by the New Light theology of the Great Awakening, procured a commission as Native American missionary and in the course of three years’ work with Delawares near present-day Crosswicks in central New Jersey, baptized and organized a community of over 130 converts before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1747. Although many persecuted religious groups coming to colonial Pennsylvania sought to insulate their members from the corrupt or bruising influences of wider society, the Moravians were committed to missions work, preaching to Native Americans and establishing towns on the Pennsylvania frontier that welcomed converts. The most influential Moravian missionary of the eighteenth century was David Zeisberger (1721-1808), a native of Saxony who migrated first to Georgia before helping found Bethlehem in 1741. From there, he ventured out to Native peoples on the Pennsylvania and Ohio frontiers. Zeisberger learned Iroquoian and Algonquian languages, producing dictionaries and religious tracts in each and establishing several communities of converts. Efforts like Zeisberger’s laid early groundwork for continued Christian missions to Native peoples throughout North America as European-American settlement expanded west in subsequent centuries.

In the same era Henry Mühlenberg (1711-87) came from Germany to minister to Lutherans in North America. Landing in Philadelphia in 1742, he traveled from his base in New Providence up and down the Atlantic seaboard, preaching to European settlers in multiple languages and successfully consolidating the Lutheran denomination in North America. Anglican missionaries sent to Philadelphia by the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts were less successful. Charged by the Church of England with countering dissidents’ influence in the British colonies, they struggled to find willing converts in a colony dedicated to religious tolerance, and many were forced to close their missions during the American Revolution to avoid persecution.

Missionary Influences on the Church

a black and white drawing of John Woolman shown in profile.
John Woolman became a leading figure in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends as he appealed to local Quakers to reject slave ownership, a practice that the Meeting formally prohibited to its members in 1758. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Missionaries often have moved their home churches toward new theological and political positions, as in the case of John Woolman (1720-72), the best-known missionary from the middle colonies. A merchant and tailor born in 1720 to Quaker farmers in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, Woolman abandoned his businesses to become a full-time reformer after being asked several times to sign a bill of sale or probate transfer of slaves. The experience moved him to embrace abolition, a cause he made his mission for the remainder of his life. In 1746, Woolman traveled fifteen hundred miles through the southern colonies with fellow Quaker Isaac Andrews to observe slavery firsthand and persuade Quakers to desist from slaveholding. He also decried poverty and championed Native American rights, visiting Native populations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to learn from them and to share Quaker thought, most notably in the Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania. Woolman died in England of smallpox at age fifty-two, having gone there to appeal to British Quakers to cease support for slavery. Throughout the eighteenth century, Quaker women also volunteered as missionaries in disproportionate numbers, often traveling in pairs as “Public Friends.”

After independence, most American missions focused domestically in an era of nation building. In 1808 Philadelphia merchant Robert Ralston (1761-1836) and other city leaders founded an organization, eventually called the Pennsylvania Bible Society, to provide religious literature to the public. The first of many such organizations nationwide, the society raised $7,000 to purchase stereotype printing plates from Britain and successfully lobbied Congress for a waiver of import tariffs. It printed over seventeen thousand Bibles from the original plates, the first use of that technology in the United States, and from its headquarters in Philadelphia has continued its efforts to provide religious literature to the public uninterrupted into the twenty-first century. In 1835 the Home Missionary Society of Philadelphia organized under Methodist-Episcopal auspices, becoming a nonsectarian agency ten years later, to serve the spiritual and material needs of the city’s poor. Society members made home visits to women, particularly widowed mothers, to provide food, coal, and funds. They established community houses to care for impoverished children and also placed them for foster care. Recognized in the city as a key early provider of social welfare services, the Home Missionary Society embraced professional welfare practices as they evolved and continued in successor organizations to minister to the needs of children into the twenty-first century.

a black and white photograph of Betsey Stockton. She wears a high-collared shirt with a white collar and a close-fitting cap with a flower on her head.
Betsey Stockton traveled as a missionary to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1821 after her manumission from slavery, becoming the first Black missionary on the islands. She returned to the mainland in 1825, where she founded the taught in “infant school” for children of color in Philadelphia. (Wikimedia Commons)

Domestic missions also included the rapid expansion of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded and headquartered in Philadelphia in 1816, as it sent clergy to establish AME churches across the northern and western United States, then to Canada and the Caribbean. The church grew most rapidly during and after the Civil War, when missionaries moved into southern states to minister to newly freed people. Dedicated AME evangelists established connections that helped spur southern black migration to Philadelphia in the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, among the first Philadelphians to serve as a missionary overseas was African American Presbyterian Betsey Stockton (c. 1798-1865). Born into slavery in Princeton, New Jersey, Stockton came as a child to work in the Philadelphia home of Presbyterian minister and future Princeton University president Ashbel Green. Religiously educated in the Green household, Stockton was later manumitted and applied to serve as a missionary in the Sandwich Islands. In 1822 she became the first single woman to serve as an American missionary overseas.

A Burst of Mission Work

A black and white photograph of Theophilus Gould Steward in the uniform of the 25th United States Colored Infantry. A stiff white collar under the jacket of his uniform identifies him as a chaplain.
Clergyman Theophilus Gould Steward (1843-1924), shown in this late nineteenth century photograph, was one of the foremost African Methodist Episcopalian evangelists to work in the Deep South, penning a widely-repeated sermon on the Biblical text, “I seek my brethren.” Steward helped build AME churches in the United State and Haiti before enlisting in the Army as a Chaplain for sixteen years. (Library of Congress)

American missions work grew steadily through the nineteenth century, then soared after the 1890s in conjunction with the expansion of empire, increased ease of transoceanic travel, and the growth of a class of college-educated youth seeking meaningful life work. At home, several million members of Protestant missions societies sponsored field workers, published missions journals, and ran missions study programs for church members. Middle-class women played a significant role in the American missions movement at home and abroad, as missionary service gave single women a socially approved means to travel, while married women accompanied missionary husbands and found roles ministering to women and children, work often considered culturally inappropriate for male evangelists. Among such women was Fannie Jackson Coppin (1837-1913), who had been a newspaper columnist and principal of the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth before marrying African Methodist Episcopal minister Levi Jenkins Coppin (1848- 1924) in 1881. In 1902 the Coppinses moved for a decade to South Africa, there founding a missions school they named the Bethel Institute.

Burgeoning Chinese and Indian nationalist movements after World War I prompted Asian resistance to claims that Christianity was the one true faith, critiques that influenced some missionaries to reassess their goals and relationship to local cultures. Those at home took note. In the early 1930s Baptist layman and financier John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960), assembled a committee of well-heeled Protestants to travel to Asia as the Laymen’s Commission on Foreign Missions. Their goal was to study the state of the enterprise and issue a report recommending its future direction. Haverford College philosophy professor and Quaker mystic Rufus Jones (1863-1948) was the best-known of those on the commission. In 1926 Jones toured missions fields in Asia and in 1928 authored a paper for a missionary conference at Jerusalem, urging Christians to embrace the best in other religious traditions. That view was echoed in the Laymen’s Committee 1932 report, Re-Thinking Missions, which advanced a pluralist vision of religious accommodation and recommended that missionaries deemphasize Jesus and overt Christian symbolism in their appeals. Together with Harvard University philosopher William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), Jones authored the report’s key chapters.

Pearl Buck’s Large Role

A black and white photograph of Pearl Buck as a young woman. She is dressed in a silk blouse and sweater and faces the camera.
Author Pearl Buck, shown in this 1932 photograph, spent most of her early life performing mission work in China. On returning to the United States, she founded an adoption agency focused on mixed-race Amerasian children who were often fathered by American servicemen and rejected by their parents’ communities. (Library of Congress)

Re-Thinking Missions roiled American Protestantism, accelerating growing theological divisions. Its institutional impact was most prominent on the northern Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. Writer Pearl Buck (1892-1973), the American daughter and wife of Presbyterian missionaries in China, publicly praised the Re-Thinking Missions as “the only book I have ever read which seems to me literally true in its every observation and right in its every conclusion.” A fierce intellectual who was ambivalent about the role of Christian missionaries in her beloved China, Buck was growing in fame as a novelist (she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for The Good Earth), and her endorsement of the report garnered international attention. It outraged fundamentalist Presbyterian professor J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), who in 1929 had left Princeton Theological Seminary to found the conservative Westminster Theological Seminary in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Machen called on the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions to censure Buck and withdraw financial support for her and her husband. Instead, Buck resigned as a missionary, but Machen was sufficiently troubled by the board’s failure to censure her that he founded the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions at Plymouth Meeting in 1933. Suspended by his presbytery in 1935 for his separatist actions, Machen and fellow fundamentalists next established what would become the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, headquartered in Willow Grove, to counter the liberalizing tendencies of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Philadelphia has remained home to several missions initiatives, the largest of which is the American Baptist International Missions, housed at American Baptist national headquarters at Valley Forge since 1962. The relatively small Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions has remained in Plymouth Meeting, while the newer Center for Student Missions in Germantown placed students on short-term urban service missions around the United States. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), arguably the most prominent missional church in the United States, with active missions around the globe, in summer 2016 completed construction of a temple and education center near Logan Circle in Center City. The first Mormon temple in Pennsylvania, it was planned as the center for LDS worship and activity in the region.

A color photograph showing the Church of Latter Day Saints Temple in Philadelphia. The building is large, white, and features imposing columns on the front facade and a tall steeple topped with a golden statue of a herald angel. The photograph is taken against a night sky emphasizing the illuminated form of the temple.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) continues active missionary work across the globe in the twenty-first century. The church completed their Philadelphia temple and education center, shown here, in 2016, serving as a hub of LDS religious activity in the region. (Photograph by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia)

Since the early twentieth century, missions activity in many Christian churches has emphasized medical, educational, and economic development assistance to others in Christ’s name in place of, or in addition to, explicit evangelism with the goal of conversion. In keeping with that trend, churches throughout the Philadelphia region have sponsored local, national, and international missions initiatives, working with community institutions that aid the poor in Philadelphia, Chester, Camden, and elsewhere in the region and sending members to provide disaster relief, build infrastructure, teach Vacation Bible School, and form relationships with Christians worldwide.

Gretchen E. Boger is Dean of Teaching & Learning and Director of the Merck Center for Teaching at St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island. She earned her Ph.D in history from Princeton University in 2008 with a dissertation entitled “American Protestantism in the Asian Crucible, 1919-1939,” about the changing nature of missions after World War I and the role of returned missionaries in American religious discourse. (Author information current at date of publication.)

Copyright 2023, Rutgers University.


Moravian Missionaries Baptising Native Americans

Wikimedia Commons

Moravian missionaries in Pennsylvania focused on converting members of local Native American tribes to Christianity, working mostly with the Lenapes and Mahicans. The Moravians arrived in Pennsylvania from Germany in the early eighteenth century, part of a global mission trip prescribed by Moravian Bishop Nicolaus von Zinzendorf (1700-60), attracted by the colony's religious freedom. Von Zinzendorf and other missionaries founded Bethlehem, Pennsylvania as a Moravian settlement that grew to a population of 1200 in a decade. The residents lived in same-sex communal quarters and drew no wages, with all their needs provided for by the church. The community emphasized moral living and leading by example, and considered these values more important than perfect adherence to doctrine. They found great success in converting Native Americans, learning the tribes’ languages and cultural practices. This illustration from an eighteenth-century German text shows a Moravian priest baptizing a group of Native American converts while others look on.

German-born David Zeisberger (1721-1808) was one of many Moravian missionaries who worked primarily in Native American villages. Zeisberger came to Pennsylvania in 1739 to assist with the founding of Bethlehem. Zeisburger spent the majority of his life performing mission work amongst the Lenape and Mahicans, living with them and often acting as an intermediary between the tribes and other white settlers. Over his six decades of missionary work, he became fluent in the Lenape language creating bilingual dictionaries and religious texts. During the Seven Years' War, the murder of several Moravian Indians set off a retaliation cycle between white settlers and converts. A group of Scots-Irish vigilantes, dubbed the Paxton Boys, engaged in increasingly violent skirmishes with local tribes, culminating in the December 1793 massacre of a village of Susquhannocks at Conestoga. As the Paxton Boys continued marching east, Zeisberger led a group of converted Moravian Indians to Philadelphia for refuge. The Paxton Boys advanced with intent of murdering the sheltering converts, but were stopped and scattered at Germantown by a delegation led by Benjamin Franklin. After the conflict, Zeisberger moved west to Ohio and continued his mission work until his death.

John Woolman

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

John Woolman (1720-72) became a leading figure in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends as he appealed to local Quakers to reject slave ownership, a practice that the Meeting formally prohibited to its members in 1758. Woolman was born in Burlington, New Jersey in 1720 and as a young man worked preparing important documents, including deeds and wills. Woolman found the practice of owning slaves at odds with Christian beliefs and so when asked to prepare a will that included instructions for transferring ownership of an enslaved man, Woolman refused and instead talked the will holder into freeing him. In 1746, Woolman and fellow Quaker Isaac Andrews embarked on a mission trip to the American South, traveling through Virginia and North Carolina to observe slavery and preach against it and wrote essays in opposition to the practice. Returning to Philadelphia, Woolman became an early boycotter of goods produced with slave labor, including clothing dyes, and encouraged others to join him. He continued his missionary work until his death in England in 1772.

Betsey Stockton

Wikimedia Commons

Born and raised in slavery in Princeton and Philadelphia, Betsey Stockton was manumitted in 1817 and in 1822 asked to join family friends bound for the Sandwich Islands as missionaries. She was commissioned by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and taught school on Maui for three years, before training Hawaiian teachers to take her place. On return to the mainland she taught in the first “infant school” for Philadelphia children of color then at a mission school in Grape Island, Canada, and finally for many years at Princeton’s only school for Black children. She was one of the founders of Princeton’s First Presbyterian Church of Color, now the Witherspoon Street Church.

Saint John Nepomucene Neumann

Library of Congress

As German and Irish immigrants swelled the Catholic population of Philadelphia in the mid-nineteenth century, they found a champion in Bishop John Neumann, appointed the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. In 1836, John Nepomucene Neumann (1811-1860) migrated to America from Bohemia, where he had been denied ordination due to a local surfeit of priests. He was ordained instead in New York and assigned to itinerant missionary work in the Lake Ontario region. Suffering loneliness in his isolated commission, in 1840 Neumann became the first American novitiate of the mission-oriented Redemptorist society, founded in Italy to promote ministry among the poor and forgotten. Despite his initial reluctance to assume the Philadelphia bishopric in 1852, Neumann became a fount of church-building activity in the city, organizing parish churches at an average rate of one per month, often along national lines for those who spoke little English. Fluent in at least six languages, he was beloved for ministering to immigrants in their native tongues. Neumann also built the first diocesan school system in the United States, expanding the number of Catholic schools in the diocese from two to 100, and founded or supported several societies of nuns in Philadelphia. In 1977, Pope Paul VI canonized Neumann, who became the first American male saint.

Theophilus Gould Steward, AME missionary

Library of Congress

Clergyman Theophilus Gould Steward (1843-1924), born in historically black Gouldtown in southern New Jersey and educated at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Divinity School, was one of the foremost AME evangelists to work in the Deep South, penning a widely-repeated sermon on the Biblical text, “I seek my brethren.” Steward joined the clergy of the African Episcopal Methodist Church in 1864 and left for a mission trip to the South the next year, where he helped establish AME churches in Georgia and South Carolina and spent time ministering in Haiti before returning to the Philadelphia area. In 1891, he enlisted in the Army, joining the 25th Infantry, where he served as chaplain for sixteen years. Throughout his life, Steward wrote numerous texts on religion and history and became one of the founding members of the American Negro Academy, the first scholarly society for Black academics in America. At the time of his death in 1924, Steward taught history, French, and logic at the AME-associated Wilberforce University, where he had earned his doctorate.

Pearl Buck

Library of Congress

Perhaps the most famous of American missionaries in the 20th century, Pearl Buck (1892-1973) spent most of the first forty-two years of her life in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries and then a missionary in her own right. In 1934 she returned to the United States and bought Green Hills Farm in Bucks County. There she continued her career as a writer and established Welcome House, an international adoption agency with an emphasis on placing mixed-race Amerasian children, often fathered by American servicemen in Asia and rejected by their parents’ communities. Buck owned Green Hills Farm until her death in 1973.

Church of Latter Day Saints Temple

Visit Philadelphia

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) continues active missionary work across the globe in the twenty-first century. Missionary activity in Philadelphia by Mormons began in 1839 when Benjamin F. Winchester (1817-1901 of Erie, Pennsylvania arrived in the city, soon followed by LDS founder Joseph Smith (1805-44), who established the Philadelphia Branch of the church at Seventh and Callowhill Streets. In 1857, LDS leadership ordered all members of the church to join the main religious body at Salt Lake City, Utah in the face of government hostility and anti-Mormon sentiment, closing the Eastern States Mission that had provided missionaries for the Philadelphia Branch.

The Philadelphia Branch was not reorganized officially until 1881, after an increase in domestic missionary activity. Over the twentieth century, the church expanded in the region, building their first chapel in the city in 1938 and their first stake, which administers several regional churches, in 1960. The church completed their Philadelphia temple and education center, shown here, in 2016, serving as a hub of LDS religious activity in the region. At the time, Mormon membership in the Philadelphia area, including South Jersey and Delaware, numbered over 40,000. Annually, the church sends over 50,000 missionaries around the world, who provide humanitarian and community services in their mission area along with proselytizing. The Philadelphia both sends and receives missionaries. (Photograph by J. Fusco)

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Related Reading

Angell, Stephen W. “Rufus Jones and the Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry: How a Quaker Helped to Shape Modern Ecumenical Christianity,” Quaker Theology Today 2, No. 2 (Issue No. 3 online edition) (Spring 2000).

Campbell, John T. Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Conn, Peter. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Norman Pettit, ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Hutchison, William R. Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Nobles, Gregory. The Education of Betsey Stockton: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022.

Olmstead, Earl P. David Zeisberger: A Life among the Indians. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997.

Tappert, Theodore G. and John W. Doberstein, eds. and trans. Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman: Condensed from the Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

Neumann, John. The Autobiography of Saint John Neumann, C.SS.R., Fourth Bishop of Philadelphia. Alfred C. Rush, trans. Boston : St. Paul Editions, 1977.

Plank, Geoffrey. John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

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