18 Mar

Helen Knight, The Missionary Cabinet (1847)

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) partnered with the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society to publish The Missionary Cabinet in 1847. This book provided a virtual tour of an actual room at the ABCFM headquarters in Boston that housed idols. The room, called the Cabinet of Curiosities, was open to the public. The book encouraged children to visit the Cabinet at the headquarters. For those who could not, the book served as a surrogate tour of the room and the idols in the cases.

"Interior View of the Cabinet," The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 2.

“Interior View of the Cabinet,” The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 2.

The Missionary Cabinet included an image of the Cabinet (Figure 1), which children could examine as they read. It depicts white, middle-class children and parents perusing idols. There is a long, rectangular table in the center of the room that holds plant and animal specimens in partitioned spaces. There are seven cases against the walls of the room that hold idols from South Asia, the Sandwich Islands, Africa, China, India, Syria, Russia, and Catholic Germany among other places.

The ABCFM opened the Cabinet in the mid-1830s in Boston. An 1838 letter from the ABCFM to missionaries in Hawaii documented the progress of the Missionary Room and the Cabinet. The letter noted, “You are aware that there is, in connection with the Missionary Rooms, a Cabinet of Curiosities, collected principally by the missionaries of the Board. It is open for public inspection, has excited considerable interest, and is daily visited.”[i] The popularity and notoriety of the Cabinet secured funds for building projects at the ABCFM. The Missionary House was expanded so that the Missionary Rooms and Cabinet could “enable us to arrange and exhibit the collection to greater advantage than we now can.”[ii] The Board requested missionaries to donate maps, drawings, missive publications, idols, images, weapons, decorations, coins, relics, and more from mission fields. Donors were to ensure that each article was “distinctly labeled with its name, and accompanied with a complete description,” and packaged carefully for shipment.[iii] Missionaries fulfilled the Board’s demand and packed the Cabinet with idols.

“God of the Sandwich Islanders,” illustration of an idol from The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 11

“God of the Sandwich Islanders,” illustration of an idol from The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 11

The Missionary Cabinet led children through a case by case examination of idols in the Cabinet. The first idol that children examined in the book was “God of the Sandwich Islanders” (Figure 2). This idol is also depicted in the frontispiece of the book in the first image above (Figure 1). It stands in the middle of the image, behind the table, and in profile view. The idol is “one they [the Sandwich Islanders] gave to the missionaries to bring home” after their conversion to Christianity.[iv] The author instructed children, “Come, let us look at it a little nearer. It has legs, arms, and a body, and a head and staring eyes, and a big mouth. It is quite erect, and looks a very little like the image of a man; and yet it does not look like a man, for no man was ever such a hideous object.”[v] The author also exclaimed, “This is a god!…It was a God of the Sandwich Islanders, a god to whom they used to pray and offer sacrifices.” The idol enticed devotees to “leave their old sick parents to die alone in the forest” and “bury their little sick babies in the mud.”[vi] Idols controlled the “heathen” and commanded them do wicked things. The images of idols in this book enticed children to learn about idols and foreign missions.

The Missionary Cabinet also provided a virtual tour of portraits of famous missionaries and ABCFM board members in the Committee Room. After the virtual tour, the author asks children, “when our fathers and mothers, and all the good people who give their money and their prayers to help send out the missionaries, are gone, who will then do it?” The author called children to the missionary cause. The Missionary Cabinet and the actual Cabinet of Curiosities at the ABCFM headquarters suggests that Protestant adults employed real-life idols to mobilize children for the missionary cause. The ABCFM hoped that if children viewed idols at the headquarters or in this book, they would support the Board and their missions.

[i] David W. Forbes (ed.), Hawaiian National Bibliography 1780-1900: 1831-1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), 174.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Knight, The Missionary Cabinet, 18.

[v] Ibid., 10, 13.

[vi] Ibid., 10, 13.

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