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Race and Racism in Methodist Mission History: A Literature Review

Race and Racism in Methodist Mission History: A Literature Review

July 2020 | ATLANTA

A Literature Review on African Americans, Race, Racism, and Methodist Mission History

Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott’s own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.


As I discussed last week, black Americans are underrepresented in missiology. One corollary is that topics related to African Americans, race, and racism are neglected within mission history. Yet, these subjects are not absent. What follows is a literature review on African Americans, race, racism, and Methodist mission history. I hope it is of use in future teaching and research on the subject. If you are aware or resources not listed below, please add them in the comments.

I will start with the start of American Methodism. It is commonplace for scholarship on the first 50 years of American Methodism, before the organization of formal mission structures beyond the annual conferences themselves, to talk about race and evangelism among and by African-Americans. It’s almost de rigueur for books on this time period to have at least one chapter on black Methodism. Book length treatments are less common; the best and most recent is J. Gordon Melton’s A Will to Choose: The Origins of African American Methodism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). Part of what makes Melton’s treatment so good is that he foregrounds the agency of black Methodists. In his account, black Methodists (from all Methodist denominations) are not just the objects of white mission evangelism, but are active in carrying out mission evangelism themselves.

After the first fifty years or so of Methodist history, the literature diverges into several separate fields: histories of the development of American Methodism generally and its relationship with the broader society, histories of foreign mission, and histories of domestic or home mission.

Within the field of histories of the development of American Methodism generally, race is a significant theme. There is, of course, a slew of literature about race, slavery, and the Civil War, some of which deals specifically with Methodism. There are several good book-length treatment of predominantly white Methodism and race in the 20th century, such as Peter C. Murray’s Methodists and the Crucible of Race, 1930-1975 (Columbia University Press, 2004) and Morris Davis’ The Methodist Unification: Christianity and the Politics of the Jim Crow Era (New York University Press, 2008), though those these books do not interact with the literature on mission.

Ever since the “cultural turn” in mission studies forty years ago, it is common place to talk about the racial attitudes held by missionaries. When the focus is foreign mission, the discussion is usually focused on the prejudices missionaries held about the people with whom they work. Occasionally, connections are made to domestic racism in the United States and Britain, though not always. A few books draw parallels between U.S. missionary experience with and attitudes towards Native Americans and subsequent attitudes towards and techniques of foreign mission. William Hutchison’s 1987 classic
Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions (University of Chicago Press), but also newer books like Emily Conroy-Krutz’s Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2018). Both of these books are focused more on Congregationalists and Baptists than Methodists. I am not aware of a book that draws similar connections between domestic plantation missions and foreign missions, though Jay Riley Case’s An Unpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and World Christianity, 1812-1920 (Oxford University Press, 2012) touches on both topics (along with a discussion of AME foreign missions).

There is a bit more, though still too little, on African Americans as foreign missionaries. Jon Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2005), is an excellent study of a slave woman who became a Moravian missionary evangelist in the Caribbean and West Africa. It has inspired subsequent scholarship on the black religious linkages across the Atlantic, though not always with a missiological slant. Sylvia Jacob’s 1982 book Black Americans and the Missionary Movement in Africa (Greenwood Press) is the only thing approaching a comprehensive take on the subject of African American missionaries. Robert Stevens and Brian Johnson published the more recent Profiles of African-American Missionaries (William Carey Library, 2012), which includes a couple of stories of Methodists, including John Stewart, the self-appointed missionary whose work inspired the founding of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the earliest denomination-wide mission organization in American Methodism.

For Methodist foreign mission specifically, Eunjin Park wrote White Americans in Black Africa: Black and White American Methodist Missionaries in Liberia, 1820-1875 (Routledge, 2001), and Anne Streater Wimberly wrote a Methodist History article, “Called to Witness, Called to Serve: African American Methodist Women in Liberian Missions, 1834-1934.” There has been some work done on AME foreign missions, such as James T. Campbell’s excellent Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa (Oxford University Press, 1995) and Jay Riley Case’s previously-mentioned An Unpredictable Gospel.

There is more scholarship about race and home missions, though as indicated in my blog post last week, the boundaries of what is labeled home mission and what is labeled something else have often been drawn with implicit racial assumptions that have excluded many stories of African Americans as mission practitioners from being included in discussions of mission, with those ending up instead in community development, practical theology, social ethics, homiletics, and other fields.

Still, there is a decent body of scholarship on the pre-Civil War plantation missions, both Methodist and more broadly. Janet Cornelius’ book on the topic, Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South (University of South Carolina Press, 1999), has a chapter on Methodist efforts. Robert Sledge discusses those in his volume on MECS mission, “Five Dollars and Myself”: The History of Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1845-1939 (General Board of Global Ministries, 2005). Heather Rachelle White wrote an article for Methodist History entitled “’The Glory of Southern Christianity’: Methodism and the Mission to the Slaves.”

There is less scholarship about freed African Americans as a focus of home missions after the Civil War, though that was a significant phenomenon. The lack of any scholarship on the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Freedmen’s Aid Society is a major lacuna.

There is a bit more on race and home mission in the 20th century, especially as it relates to women’s work. John Patrick McDowell’s The Social Gospel in the South: The Woman’s Home Mission Movement in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1886-1939 (Louisiana State University Press, 1982), has a chapter on race. Alice G. Knotts wrote a book, Fellowship of Love: Methodist Women Changing American Racial Attitudes, 1920-1968 (Kingswood Books, 1996), on the role that Methodist women had in challenging racial hierarchies, much of that work done through the Women’s Society of Christian Service and the Women’s Division of the Board of Missions. Ruth G. Carter wrote a history of women’s mission leadership in the segregated Central Jurisdiction that was published by the Women’s Division: To A Higher Glory: The Growth and Development of Black Women Organized for Mission in the Methodist Church, 1940-1968 (1980?).

There is also some scholarship on race and domestic mission beyond women’s work. Christopher J. Anderson’s edited collection of speeches from the 1919 Methodist Mission Centenary, Voices from the Fair: Race, Gender, and the American Nation at a Methodist Missionary Exposition (Emeth Press, 2012), reprints several speeches from that event about how African American Methodists are serving in mission and how Methodists of all races are working to address social problems affecting black people, though without much scholarly analysis or commentary.

The General Board of Global Ministries published a short book in 1985 entitled An Enduring Legacy: Black United Methodists and the National Program Division. There are sections on the variety of community development and urban mission initiatives that Global Ministries and its predecessors ran in the Charles Cole series on Methodist mission history, but the lack of sustained research into this phenomenon is another significant lacuna. The books in the Cole series, especially Linda Gesling’s Mirror and Beacon: The History of Mission of the Methodist Church, 1939-1968 (2005) and Robert Harman’s From Missions to Mission: The History of Mission of the United Methodist Church, 1968-2000(2005), address mission and race more broadly as well, and there is an essay in the final book in that series, Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (2005) on “The Future of African Americans and Mission” by Anthony J. Shipley, a former Global Ministries staff member.