As the New England Regional Conference for The Gospel Coalition wrapped up in Boston, I visited the nearby town in which the American missionary movement was birthed 200 years ago. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was formed in 1810 during the Second Great Awakening. The men and women sent out from New England to other nations were motivated by the love of God and his gospel. Inspired by this rich history, today modern pastors stand in these spots and cry out for the Lord to revive their hometowns and fill those historic churches once again.
I had a personal reason for visiting Haverhill, Massachusetts: my ancestors were among these missionaries. Their story is a compelling example of what happens when the gospel drives what is today called social justice. Instead of bifurcating solid doctrine from good works, they met the global upheaval of the Industrial Revolution with the timeless love and truth of Christ.
Boston to Bombay
Amos Abbott and Anstice Wilson were only 22 when they married in Wilton, New Hampshire, in June 1812. Amos was a graduate of Andover Theological Seminary with an assignment to teach at a mission school in Ahmednuggur, India, in the inland state of Maharashtra. Eleven days after their wedding, they sailed for India. Their journey from Boston to Bombay required about four months of ocean travel through rough waters. A civil war was in progress when the Abbotts reached India, but they persevered.
For the next 20 years, the Abbotts ministered in India while rearing six children. Anstice Abbott started a school for her children and the children of other missionaries, but poor health forced Amos to return home with his family 13 years later. While they were home in the United States, his eldest daughter, Augusta, met one of the students her father was tutoring in the Marathi Indian dialect—-Samuel Dean. After a brief courtship, Samuel asked Augusta to join him in India to continue the family’s work. Just like her mother, Augusta was married and put out to sea in a matter of days. In those days, families said their final goodbyes to one other, not knowing when or if they would see each other again. So Augusta’s parents bid their daughter goodbye and sent her back to India.
Samuel proved to be an effective preacher and church planter. In addition to conducting regular preaching services and organizing new churches near his own home, Samuel often journeyed into the remote sections of India where people had never heard the name of Christ—-and Augusta often went with him. Sometimes they camped for days, with snakes and the bubonic plague as ever-present dangers. Eventually this hard work wore Samuel down, and the family returned to America in 1867 so he could recover his health. He went on to be a church planter in Nebraska for the next dozen or so years before his death.
Work with Widows
In 1889, then, Augusta found herself a widow in a changing world. Many controversies were shaking the nation and the church, but Augusta decided to go back to India. She wanted to work with her sister, Annie, who ran a home for young widows. Because girls married very young in India, many of the widows were practically children. And since widows were considered disgraceful in Indian culture, these young girls were shunned by society and even their own families. The home Annie ran protected these widows, gave them a basic education, and trained them in a marketable craft. The older widows who attained sufficient proficiency in reading were known as the “Bible Women”—-a point of controversy in the Hindu culture.
Dean and Abbott’s influence was deeply felt in this region of India. When Augusta returned a second time to India, she was greeted shortly thereafter by an Indian man who had searched for her, hearing that the widow of the great preacher, Samuel Dean, was nearby. He wanted to tell her about the fruit from Samuel’s preaching, for now there were several churches in that region, and he wanted to pay his respects.
Augusta spent nearly five years there working with the “Bible Women” before she returned home. In an age when transoceanic travel was grueling work, she made the trip to India twice to face down Hindu intimidation and teach important life skills to abandoned widows.
Augusta was a very fruitful woman, spiritually. All of her children became Christians, and she left a rich spiritual heritage. She was a fearless helpmate to her husband, working with him to found churches in two nations. She ran a hospitable home, educated many children (including her own), and still served Indian women who were wrongfully discarded by their own society. She saw inequity and injustice in India, and chose to meet that need through the gospel.
Augusta could have enjoyed her retirement in relative ease in the United States, but she chose instead to give away her life to those who desperately needed it. And when she returned to India, she received the good news of the fruit of her co-labors with her husband. Together they accomplished much—-and, by all accounts, stayed true to the glorious gospel.