“Tainted Money": Wealth and the Financing of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1879-1920

Scott P. Libson

John D. Rockefeller, Sr.’s gift of $100,000 to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1905 produced a brief, but heated controversy that captured national headlines. While other scholars have examined the “tainted money” controversy in the context of Rockefeller’s life or changing understandings of philanthropy, this paper puts the gift in the context of American Board financing. The American Board was the oldest and one of the most esteemed foreign mission boards in the United States at the time. Its changes in financing between 1879 and 1920 fundamentally shifted its relationship with its constituency. Though always controlled by well-to-do, white, male New Englanders, the organization had previously depended almost entirely on support from parishioners, especially women. By 1920, the emphasis had shifted to focus on expanding their capital investments and building endowments for overseas institutions. This change facilitated the absorption of the Woman’s Board of Missions in 1927 and reduced the authority of local ministers, thus making the American Board less democratic. All of this occurred during the growth of “people’s philanthropy.” This story partly explains why the American Board recovered from the Great Depression more slowly than other mission boards. More broadly, the paper points to diversity among nonprofit organizations than scholars have previously acknowledged.