Betsey Stockton and Her Love for God’s Image-Bearers

Betsey Stockton and Her Love for God’s Image-Bearers

            Whatever Betsey had imagined her foreign mission to be, it was not this. The group of Hawaiian men who came rowing toward her ship in their canoes was frightening: “Their appearance was that of half man and half beast—naked—except a narrow strip of tapa round their loins,”[1] she said. To a young girl brought up in a conservative American family, this sudden encounter with “the Other” was a sight no book could have prepared her to face.

            “The ladies retired to the cabin,” she continued, “and burst into tears; and some of the gentlemen turned pale: my own soul sickened within me, and every nerve trembled. Are these, thought I, the beings with whom I must spend the remainder of my life!”[2]

            The culture shock didn’t last long. Her mind, trained to understand reality through the lens of Scriptures, found an immediate, steadying response: “They are men and have souls—was the reply which conscience made.”[3]

Growing Up Slave

            She had waited long for this moment. Her desire to become a missionary sprung soon after her baptism in 1817, but the opportunity arose five years later, when some friends of her family, the newly-married Charles and Harriet Stewart, were accepted as missionaries to the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii). She asked if she could go along.

            Her request was unusual. She was single, and the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions had never sent a single woman on a mission trip. She was also a former slave.

Born around 1798 to a slave in the household of Robert Stockton, in Princeton, New Jersey, Betsey was still young when she was sent to Philadelphia to work for Robert’s daughter, Elisabeth. Elizabeth was married to Ashbel Green, a Presbyterian minister. The couple had three sons, Robert, Jacob, and James.

            Elisabeth died when Betsey was nine years old. Betsey continued to stay in the Green family and was tutored by Ashbel and James. Once she had learned to read well, she took advantage of the Greens’ well-stocked library.

            As a principal author of the 1818 anti-slavery resolution of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church, Green was opposed to slavery as “as totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ.”[4] His emancipation of Betsey, however, came only later in her life. She remained a slave at least until the family moved to Princeton, when she probably became an indentured servant.

This delay might have had something to do with her behavior. According to Green, she was “wild and thoughtless, if not vicious,” although she always “manifested a great degree of natural sensibility, and of attachment to [the Greens], and a great aptitude for mental improvement.” [5]

This behavior might also have been a reason why, in 1813, Green sold three years of her service to a relative and fellow-pastor who lived in Woodbury, New Jersey. Later, Green explained his motives as an attempt to “save her from the snares and temptations of the city.”[6] If so, he might have made the decision some time before, because by 1813 he had already moved to Princeton, a small college town with limited “snares.”

Betsey returned to Princeton in 1816, was baptized, and received her independence, although she continued to live with the Greens and work for them for a salary.

Missionary Work – From Dream to Reality

            Ashbel Green supported Betsey’s desire to join a mission team. As a member of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, he wrote a glowing recommendation. “She has been, for a good while, exceedingly desirous to go on a mission and I am willing that she should. I think her, in many respects, well qualified for this.” He listed some of her qualifications. “There is no kind of work in a family at which she is not very expert. She is an excellent nurse. But I think her well qualified for higher employment in a mission than domestick [sic] drudgery. She reads extremely well; and few of her age and sex have read more books on religion than she; or can give a better account of them.”[7]

Betsey received another recommendation by Michael Osborn, a student at Princeton Seminary who had been her Sabbath School teacher for the past eighteen months: “I would say in general, as the result of an intimate acquaintance with her, that I think her pious, intelligent, industrious, skillful in the management of domestic affairs, apt to teach, and endowed with a large portion of the active preserving, self-sacrificing, spirit of a missionary . . . I am of the opinion that few pious young ladies of her age will be found to equal her in knowledge of the Bible, and general theology.”[8]

These testimonies allowed Betsey to fulfill her dream. Her contract stated that she was going to be part of the Stewart family, with the particular task of helping Harriet, who was pregnant at the time of their departure. “In this family,” the contract specified, “she is to be regarded and treated neither as an equal or a servant – but as a humble Christian friend.”[9] She was also to employ her talents and experience as teacher in the local schools founded by the missionaries. 

On November 19, 1822, at twenty-five years of age, Betsey left on board of the brig Thames with thirteen other missionaries and about the same number of sailors. She was the first black woman and the first unmarried woman sent by an American missionary society.

Amazement, Fears, and Reflections

            On the ship, Betsey kept a diary and wrote letters to her friends at home. While the originals of these writings have been lost, Ashbel Green published some excerpts in the Christian Advocate, allowing us to follow Betsey on her trip to the Hawaii.

Betsey recorded every aspect of her journey, including her worsening seasickness and her amazement at the beauty of the ocean, with its variety of colors and its flocks of flying fish, playful dolphins, and spouting whales.

 “If it were in my power,” she wrote, “I would like to describe the Phosphorescence of the sea. But to do this would require the pen of a Milton: and he, I think, would fail, were he to attempt it. I never saw any display of Fire-works that equalled it for beauty. As far as we could see the ocean, in the wake of the ship, it appeared one sheet of fire, and exhibited figures of which you can form no idea.”[10]

The long trip around South America was for Betsey a time of discovery. She enjoyed tasting new foods and bathing in the warm waters of the ocean, was captivated by the work of the fishermen. It was also a time of self-examination, particularly during the most frightening times, when the waters entered her cabin and especially when Harriet gave birth sooner than expected.

While the ship’s cramped quarters and the frequent shouts of the sailors were not conducive to personal reflection, she had plenty of time to examine her heart and her motives for going on the mission. “I find my heart more deeply corrupted than I had any idea of,” she wrote. “I always knew that the human heart was a sink of sin, and that mine was filled with it; but I did not know, until now, that the sink was without a bottom.”[11] Each time, however, she found comfort in the Scriptural promises, which she sprinkled in every page of her diary.

In hindsight, she was grateful for the toughest times that kept her dependent on God’s mercy. “We have felt our helplessness,” she said, “and been made to adore and tremble.”[12]

All Things to All Men

            The natives Betsey had initially feared proved to be generous, welcoming, and eager to learn. They showered the missionaries with fresh fish, potatoes, taro, and coconuts, which Betsey found “very refreshing … after a voyage of five months; part of which time we had no other diet than meat and bread.”[13]

            There were still local habits the missionaries found questionable and even “disgusting,” such as eating baked dog and raw fish, often sitting on the floor surrounded by animals and flies. Shocked, Charles Stewart felt compelled to quote a poem, “Can this be man? Bone of the bone, and flesh of the flesh, of him whose majesty dignifies and crowns creation’s plan?”[14]

            But these perplexing sights didn’t deter Betsey from her vocation, as she learned “to become all things to all men, that we may gain some.”[15]

            Not all the natives believed the missionaries had come for their good. Some held high suspicions about their motives. At a council meeting, they decided to give the missionaries one year to prove themselves.

Their suspicions were not unwarranted. There was a large number of foreigners in the island, not all for the best of reasons. Some were well-respected merchants or property-owners, and others were runaway sailors or fugitives from justice who, according to Charles Stewart, thought they were finally “free from any restraint of God and men,”[16] and exercised a negative influence on the natives.

Betsey’s diary ends soon after her arrival on the Islands, but Stewart makes mention of her as their “humble friend,” who “daily proves more and more kind, affectionate, and faithful” and “an invaluable addition to our family.”[17] He described her valuable educational accomplishments – first as teacher to the royal family, and later as superintendent of a newly founded school for the local children. She was particularly qualified for this position, due to her experience and ability to learn the local language.

She was also able to put to use her experience in the medical field. Stewart remembered particularly one time when she rescued two infants from conditions that would have probably led to their death.

Teacher and Principal

            Betsey’s missionary venture was cut short on October 17, 1825, when Harriet became so ill that her husband decided to return to America. Betsey followed the Stewarts to Harriet’s hometown, Cooperstown, New York, where she remained for some time.

            From then on, her activities focused on education. In 1827, she opened a school for black children in Philadelphia. Two years later, she accepted an invitation to open a school among the native populations living on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario.

She returned to the Stewarts in 1830, after Harriet’s sudden death, and cared for their three children for five years, while their father, then a naval chaplain, served at sea. Three years later, she moved with the children to Princeton, where the oldest child, Charles, attended the exclusive Edgehill School. There too, she taught both in the local black community church and in the public school for black children.

Most accounts of her life fail to report the atmosphere of racism that surrounded her. The very idea of spending public funds for a school for black children was highly contested. What’s more, several students at Princeton, particularly those who came from the south, had adopted a condescending attitude (to say the least) towards the black population, and episodes of violence were not unknown.

There is no record of Betsey’s response to these challenges. Her life was devoted to a task she had found essential: the academic and religious education of children of all races. It’s probably safe to suppose that she continued to face each new circumstance with the same readiness to draw answers from Scriptures and the same humility, honesty, and trust in God’s care that she demonstrated in her diary.

She continued to teach until her death on October 24, 1865. Her gravestone read, “Of African blood and born in slavery, she became fitted by education and divine grace for a life of great usefulness. For many years was a valued missionary at the Sandwich Islands in the family of Rev. C. S. Stewart, and afterwards till her death, a popular and able Principal of Public schools in Philadelphia and Princeton, honored and beloved by a large circle of Christian friends.”[18]

[1] Betsey Stockton, Journal, April 4, 1823, in The Christian Advocate, vol. 3, ed. by Ashbel Green, Philadelphia: A. Finley, 1825, p. 39.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid.

[4] From the anti-slavery resolution of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church, as quoted in The Presbyterian Magazine, vol. 7, ed by Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, Philadelphia: Joseph L. Wilson, 1857,  p. 520.

[5] Ashbel Green to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Princeton, New Jersey, September 3, 1821, ABCFM archives, vol. 4, no. 210, as quoted in Eileen F. Moffett, Betsey Stockton, Pioneer American Missionary, Priscilla Papers, Vol. 10, N. 1, 1996, p. 1.

[6] Thomas French, The Missionary Whaleship, Vantage Press, 1961, p. 113.

[7] Ashbel Green to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, as quoted in Abigail Rian Evans, Faith of Our Mothers, Living Still, Princeton Seminary Women Redefining Ministry, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Contract, 1, quoted in Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, The Women’s Project of New Jersey, First Syracuse University Press, 1997, p. 88.

[10] Betsey Stockton, Journal, Dec. 31, 1822, in The Christian Advocate, vol. 2, ed. by Ashbel Green, Philadelphia: A. Finley, 1824, p. 234.

[11] Ibid. Feb. 6, 1823, p. 564.

[12] Ibid., Feb. 9, 1823, p. 565

[13] Betsey Stockton, Journal, April 4, 1823, in The Christian Advocate, vol. 3, p. 39.

[14] Charles Samuel Stewart, Journal of a Residence in the Sandwich Islands, London: H. Fisher, Son, and Jackson, 1828, p. 153.

[15] Betsey Stockton, Journal, April 4, 1823, in The Christian Advocate, vol. 3, p. 39.

[16] Charles Stewart. Journal, p. 160.

[17] Ibid., p. 46.

[18]Barbara Bennett Peterson, in African-American Lives, ed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 794.


Simonetta Carr