American Board Archives

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was a Protestant agency founded in 1810 and chartered by the state of Massachusetts in 1812 to send missionaries abroad, primarily for religious motives, but also to pursue general altruistic labor, including opening schools and hospitals. Between 1820—when its first personnel arrived in Smyrna, today’s Izmir—and the second decade of the twentieth century, the ABCFM established more than twenty mission stations in Anatolia and the Balkans, which mainly served local Christian populations, chiefly Armenian and Greek. For organizational purposes, it eventually divided its work in these territories into four separate administrative units: the European, Western, Central, and Eastern Turkey Missions. In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, the American Board’s ventures in this vast region included 450 schools, nine hospitals, ten dispensaries, and several printing presses. About one-third of the Board’s operations worldwide in this era were centered here, and the ABCFM was undoubtedly the most significant contemporary American presence in the area.

Istanbul headquarters of the American Board in the late nineteenth century. The buildings still exist today, in Eminönü, near the Spice Bazaar. Most Board enterprises closed during World War I, and after the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, those remaining in Turkey were incorporated into the new national secular system. In 1928, the Board was operating eight schools, three hospitals, and a press in the country, but the following decades witnessed further closures. Circa 1960, The ABCFM was replaced by the United Church Board for World Ministries (UCBWM), the mission program of the United Church of Christ (UCC), which retained the longstanding title “American Board” for its Turkish office (Amerikan Bord Heyeti, or ABH, in Turkish). The UBCWM adopted an explicit policy to transfer existing ABH institutions to Turkish ownership and supervision, and in 1968, the Health and Education Foundation (Sağlık ve Eğitim Vakfı, or SEV), a private, non-profit Turkish organization, was established with the initial task of securing Board properties in its name. SEV assumed full administrative and financial management of all surviving ABH institutions in 1998 (three schools, one hospital, and a publishing house) and full ownership by 2010. In the same year (2010), ABH, then functioning as the liaison office of the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries, closed permanently, bringing to an end the American Board’s historical presence in Turkey.

Upon closing the ABH office in December 2010, the UCC transferred its archives to the care of the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT). As co-owner of the collection, ARIT is responsible for its management, principally to implement an official policy to catalogue, digitize, and make the resource publicly available for research on the worldwide web. The archives are presently housed in Istanbul, at the SALT Research Center and Library; besides storage, SALT Research is scanning the collection and providing the venue for its online display. Access to the physical archives is currently restricted, in accordance with the plan to make the materials accessible entirely via the Internet.

American Board missionaries at a Fourth of July picnic near Merzifon in the late nineteenth century.The collection consists mainly of administrative records that were held at the American Board’s Istanbul headquarters for its missions in Turkey and the Balkans, but also some personal papers and photographs, as well as a few deeds, permits, maps, and plans of mission properties. It primarily comprises correspondence of the Amerikan Bord Heyeti’s financial officers in Istanbul and reports by staff, committees, and mission stations in the field, which document the activities of stations, schools, medical facilities, and publishing and evangelistic ventures. Some reports and documents relate to mission work in Syria and other locations in the Middle East, as well as to associated organizations, such as the humanitarian agency Near East Relief founded during the First World War, in which certain American Board personnel served. Correspondents include officers and staff of the ABCFM’s main office in Boston, Mass., and local financial officers William W. Peet (1851-1942, active 1881-1928) and his successor Luther R. Fowle (1886-1973, active 1912-1954). Most of the records are in English, many are in Armenian, and some are in French, German, and Ottoman and modern Turkish.

A number of items in the collection have already been processed under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2013. They have been organized in the following series, which are accessible on the SALT Research website through the links below.

1. Selected reports and other records of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, affiliates and successors in Turkey and the Balkans, 1825-1988

2. Records of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Near East Relief, 1917-1928

3. Photographs and Photograph Albums

4. The Riggs Papers

5. Annual Station Reports

Maps and Timelines for the American Board in Turkey and the Balkans