Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Abeel had begun medical studies when a religious conversion turned him toward the Christian ministry. He graduated from New Brunswick Seminary and was ordained in 1826, serving at Athens, New York, until ill health forced him to spend the winter of 1828-1829 in the West Indies. Feeling a call to foreign missionary service, he was appointed a chaplain of the Seamen’s Friend Society and sailed for Canton in October 1829 with Elijah C. Bridgman, first missionary to China of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). After performing his chaplaincy duties in Canton for a year while studying Fukienese, Malay, and Siamese, his appointment by the ABCFM as a missionary to China was confirmed.
Abeel went to Java to visit the Dutch Reformed Churches there in 1831, then traveled to Singapore and to Bangkok, where he undertook exploratory work for the ABCFM. Returning home for health reasons in 1833, he traveled via England, Switzerland, France, Germany, and Holland, speaking on behalf of missions and attending conferences. In England he helped found the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East. From 1835 to 1838 he actively promoted interest in missions within the Dutch Reformed Church. He arrived again in Canton in 1839, but with the first of the “Opium Wars” then in progress, he elected to visit Dutch Reformed Churches in Borneo. Returning to China in 1841, he established a mission at Kolongsu, a small island at Amoy, one of the five ports opened to missionaries. In 1844 he was joined at Amoy, destined to become a major mission of his church, by Elihu Doty and William John Pohlman from Borneo. Ill health compelled him to return to America in 1845, and he died the following year at Albany of the pulmonary tuberculosis which had long hampered him. His influence in the early missionary movement was greatly increased by his writings.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- David Abeel, To the Bachelors of India, by a Bachelor (1833); A Narrative of a Residence in China (1834); The Claims of the World to the Gospel (1838). Abeel also wrote a number of tracts and pamphlets, and articles in the Chinese Repository.
- J. L. Good, Famous Missionaries of the Reformed Church (1903)
- G. R. Williamson, Memoir of the Rev. David Abeel (1848).
- For obituary see Missionary Herald 42 (1846): 354.