by Robert C. Cordon
At the InterVarsity Urbana 70 missionary conference, George Taylor chided missions because “very, very few” black Christians are represented on mission fields.
At the InterVarsity Urbana 70 missionary conference, George Taylor chided missions because "very, very few" black Christians are represented on mission fields.
How many is "very, very few"? William Warfield of the twenty-five-year-old Afro-American Missionary Crusade thinks that "very, very few" is less than one hundred. But, as I have found, accurate statistics are hard to come by.
If the contemporary scene is hazy, so is the historical picture. For all the facts in books about Negro contributions to American life, the subject of missions is conspicuously absent. Works on black religion and the black church barely, if at all, touch on missions.
What mainstream churches have known for some time is that there are very few qualified black candidates, and even fewer black missionaries. Just how many, we set out to find out.
My research shows that out of 30,000 U. S. missionaries, there are about 240 blacks serving in 30 foreign nations. This represents .8 of one percent of the total U. S. missionary force. These results, based on a random sample of known U. S. foreign missionary sending agencies, also indicate that 137 of 450 Protestant sending bodies have at least one black on their staffs.
To check the sample results, I queried North America’s 25 largest missions, as well as the major missions serving in Africa, but not contacted in the sample. Responses from a total of 56 missions account for 113 blacks, or 47 percent of the 240 total suggested by my sample. If these 12.44 percent of all mission agencies have almost half of our estimated total, it is possible my sample errs on the low side. For a conservative working figure, T suggest 250 as the number of U. S. black foreign missionaries.
This is considerably more than the "less than one hundred" figure offered by William Warfield. But although it is also probably considerably higher than most black critics of missions have in mind, it is still a disappointing drop in the bucket. Negroes constitute roughly 11 percent of our population, and church membership among them is considered to be somewhat higher than among the white population. Even allowing a higher than average drain for home missions and civil rights programs, it is not too much to expect that 10 percent (3,000) of the foreign missionaries from the U. S. to be blacks.
PRE-CIVIL WAR ROOTS: 1790-1860
Historically, black missionary involvement began about 1790 when Prince William was reported to have left Florida for work among the slaves in the Bahamas.1 It has been suggested that the first American woman missionary may have been a New Orleans Negress.2 But the early black mission effort gained momentum slowly, largely because prior to 1860, the number of free blacks between 24 and 35 never exceeded 86,000.3
Between 1820 and 1860, the main structure for black mission efforts was the Samuel Hopkins, Ezra Stiles inspired American Colonization Society which repatriated American blacks to Liberia. Though the repatriated blacks were expected to remain as colonists, one of the principal aims was missionary. Hopkins had urged blacks to "settle and improve all opportunities to teach the Africans the doctrines and duties of Christianity."4
Negro evangelization of Africa was based on the belief that Afro-Americans were obligated to return to redeem Africa because of: racial affinity, providential preparation, special adaptation, and divine command.
American black participation seemed particularly crucial as Africa quickly gained the reputation as the "white man’s grave." Early white missionaries barely set foot on African soil before they died. Believing the Negro better adapted to tragical climates, American boards began a search for black candidates.
The early graves of most of the missionaries already sent there, afford affecting evidence that the climate has hitherto been injurious and fatal to the white man. Shall the board therefore encourage white missionaries to go there? Or shall they rest the hopes of Africa as far as sending out as missionaries, colored men, whose constitution is s- much better adapted to that climate? Without deciding the first of these questions, they would advert strongly to the second. Surely among the thousands of colored communicants in the Presbyterian Church there must be many who, if properly educated, would make efficient missionaries to the land of their forefathers.5
But there was another reason that missions wanted to recruit black missionaries. The failure of the colonists to evangelize. If Africa was to be reached, trained missionaries, not colonists were needed.
POST-CIVIL WAR GROWTH: 1860-1900
The foreign missionary effort of American blacks increased following the Civil War when the number of free blacks between the ages of 24 and 35 jumped from 869000 to nearly 665,000.6 By 1868, twelve of the thirteen Presbyterian U.S.A. staff in Liberia were blacks.7 Blacks serving under the Protestant Episcopal Church outnumbered whites in 1876 by twenty-one to five.8
Negro churches in the Reconstruction Period established work of their own an Barbados, Cuba, Santo Domingo, Trinidad, the Virgin Islands, and British Guiana.
But even with these increases, the supply of black missionaries was never enough. In 1882, Howard University had to reply to a query from the Livingstone Inland Mansion (British) by pointing out that American agencies absorbed all available candidates. Particularly acute was the lack of male candidates.
The Presbyterian U.S. ,Southern) was among the most successful in recruiting blacks during this period. Between 1890 and 1950, a total of fourteen served on the Congo field pioneered by a black, William Sheppard.9
Though statistics are sketchy, they are suggestive of far greater participation than the number of American Negroes would seem to warrant.
The contribution of the American black missionary during this period was not merely numerical. Many, like the Rev. Joseph Gomer of the United Brethren in Christ in Sierra Leone, "acquired wide influence among the native African tribes, frequently acting as umpire in their differences and sometimes even settling wars between opposing chiefs."10 During the first ten years of Southern Presbyterian work in Congo, "there were times when almost the whole burden of the work was borne by them."11
There were failures, of course. But overall, one gets the impression that the success of black missionaries was largely determined by the same factors that influenced the success of their white colleagues.
In this connection, we must examine two fallacies that both contributed to the initial increase in and the eventual decline in the number of black missionaries.
First, we need to consider the supposed racial adaptation possessed by blacks. It was relieved that they were constitutionally better adapted for life in Africa. Was it so?
History gives us the names of men like Thomas Birch Freeman, a mulatto who outlived several white colleagues, the Rev. Joseph Gomer (21 years), Mrs. James Thompson (30 years), and the record shattering 40-year ministry of James Priest. But history also records the names of blacks whose overseas ministries were measured in mere months. Wilber Harr, in his dissertation entitled The Negro as an American Protestant Missionary in Africa (University of Chicago, 1945 ), on the basis of Presbyterian mission records, was able to compare the longevity of black and white missionaries. He found that the blacks in his sample averaged 6.7 years to 5.5 for the whites. The ten blacks with the longest records averaged 20.7 years, while their ten white counterparts averaged 18.8 years. Hardly an overwhelming advantage for blacks.12
It appears, then, that the belief that the black was better able to endure the rigors of the African tropics way something of a myth.
Second, we need to look briefly at the supposed cultural adaptability of American blacks to traditional African cultures. It was the opinion of George Washington Carver that American blacks "In their language and religion and customs… are American, as much so as the Europeans who have come here from the earliest days to the present time…"13
Testimony of recent black missionaries tends to bare this out.
In my desire to learn Bulu well, I only demonstrated how very "White" I was. Many began to see me as a European …. One day a fellow missionary told me that one of the Africans she was working with wanted to know what `that black white lady’s work’ was – referring to me.14
Probably most black missionaries have had the experience of Kermit Overton.
Upon my arrival in this country, the Africans gave me the impression that they expected me to take up their habits, customs, and language without difficulty …. After a while they concluded that I was not one of them. The result is that they accepted me as any other missionary.15
20th CENTURY DECLINE
Though it is not yet possible to graph accurately the black involvement in foreign missions, it appears that there was a significant decline shortly after the beginning of the 20th Century.
The Protestant Episcopal Church which had boasted over four times as many blacks as whites on its Liberia staff in 1876, was all white by 1943.16 Southern Baptists, who had sent blacks to Nigeria (1855 )and to Jamaica, had in 1949, a policy against appointing blacks.17 The Presbyterians (U.S.), even though well satisfied with the work of their black missionaries, nonetheless, found American Presbyterian Negro interest lagging. As a result, "the number of Negro missionaries for the Congo declined sharply after 1915 . . ." 18
There were exceptions, of course. Blacks on the Congregationalist staff numbered 10 percent in 1943, and their contribution was so valuable that they were being sent to non-African fields.19 And the Colored Churches of the Southern States pioneered the Galangue station in Angola in 1922-23. As late as 1945, it was still manned entirely by blacks.20 Some American missions, it is true, passed rules excluding black candidates. But by and large, as Harr concludes, "mission boards seemed interested in the rode of the American Negro as a Protestant missionary."21
Why then the serious decline in black missionaries? We suggest seven reasons.
First, we must note the growth of independent Negro churches following the Civil War. In 1859, there were probably between 26,000 and 30,000 blacks in independent Negro churches.22 But by 1916, the figure had risen to slightly over 4 million.23 Initially at least, the membership for the newly formed Negro denominations came from the established white denominations, particularly the Methodists and Baptists. Latourette estimates that within a few years of the close of the Civil War, the Methodist Episcopal Church South had lost more than half its 215,000 black members.24 This represented a period of great vitality for black Christians, but at the same time, it effectively cut off the Negro community from the mainstream of missionary concern in America.
Second, the effect of the Student Volunteer Movement must not be overlooked. This dynamic movement was the crest of American missionary activity in the last 25 years of the 19th Century. But recruitment was aimed primarily at the university campuses precisely where blacks were least likely to be found.
Third, quinine. Africa’s reputation as the white man’s grave was due in large part to the deadly effect of malaria. Mass production of quinine in the 1890’s destroyed the terror of the "African Fever." And once that occurred, one very important reason for Afro-American missionaries vanished. White missionaries could now work and live in Africa.
Fourth, black dollar power never equalled that of the whites. The revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, backed by the booming American economy, insured a vital missionary outreach for white Protestants. But the loss of federal protection for blacks in the South in 1877 denied blacks a share of the prosperity.
Fifth, paternalism. We must remember that the black missionary was often expected to remain permanently in Africa. He was also frequently placed under white missionaries, and in many cases, assigned menial tasks. Though many were faithful teachers of the Word, and preachers of grew power, they were usually sent out as teachers or craftsmen. Then, too, they tended to be educationally inferior to their white colleagues.
Sixth, in some countries in Africa, black missionaries were not welcome. South Africa utilized obstructive tactics and legislation to exclude black missions, which they considered dangerous to the Bantu. In other nations, blacks were excluded for fear they would spread "Garveyism," the subversive "Africa for the Africans."
Seventh, growing Negro materialism effectively choked off concern for missions.
Negroes have never really tasted the economic fruits and are not certain that they are within their grasp. Denied so long, the Negro now believes that economic rewards are the ultimate values which he is psychologically unprepared to forgo.25 Mack theologian Joseph Washington in his book Black Religion, goes on to say, ". . . The socio-economically disinherited and undernourished Negro becomes the most materialistic of religious men . . ."26
The result of this materialism, according to Washington is that:
Negroes are fantastically difficult to recruit in any endeavor which includes sustained sacrifice for the well-being of others . . . . the Peace Corps, the Ecumenical Voluntary Projects . . . and even Crossroads Africa are each extremely hard-pressed to enlist Negro volunteers. The search of these organizations proves what the mainstream churches have known for a very long time.27
Washington sees the low level of black involvement in missions as something far more pervasive than reticence of white boards in accepting black candidates.
Certainly it is true that mainstream organizations eagerly seek out Negroes who are easily accepted, especially in these days of acute sensitivity and increasing guilt. Few missionary organizations or church boards would not welcome a roster of competent Negro men and women to bolster their effectiveness in the mission of extension. It is to be expected that few Negroes will be involved in white missions when even the predominant Negro institutions are near total defection in the realm of missionary endeavor.28
The lack of black missionaries, then, is not the result of discrimination in white boards, primarily. The problem is a lack of qualified Negro candidates. Mission boards do not crate candidates churches do. Mission boards do not train candidates – Bible schools, colleges, universities end seminaries do. To place the blame on the white mission boards is to charge the victim. Mission agencies, like the black community, are victims of the system.
BLACK MISSIONS OR INTEGRATION
Black evangelicals have been needling mission agencies for their failure to appoint black candidates. In view of the virtual lack of black candidates, this seems unfair. But beyond that, one questions if integrated mission hoards are really what blacks want. Beneath the furor for integration, one detects a desire for diversity with equality in the civil rights issues. Integration may very well be a transitional step to separate development.
This separate development has sound sociological, anthropological and psychological rationale. Thus is true for missions as well as for the larger society. Mission administrators are faced with a cultural distance between black and white personnel when they integrate their boards. Blacks have a distinct culture, and the distinctiveness may be intensifying. Add to the cultural differences the tension over civil rights, and there is a serious question regarding the advisability of mixing defensive blacks with guilt-laden white missionaries.
Dr. Donald McGavran believes, "Blacks, if they run their own program, could do an outstanding job." But desirable though multi-racial boards would be, now is not the time, he feels. He fears that multi-racial teams will be riddled with "cross-cultural adaptation problems. Until the brotherhood issue is solved in America," he warns, "the separate groups should be kept in separate missions, with their own jurisdictions: Don’t," he pleads, "put one black in with 95 whites."29 McGavran is not a racist. This position is absolutely consistent with his own mission practice and teaching during the past 40 years. His brand of "pragmatic sociology" stresses the value and effectiveness of working within fully functioning homogeneous units. For McGavran, not only race, but economic levels, educational attainments, cultural focus, language, all taken together, put black and white in separate groups.
Dr. Arthur Glasser, former Home Secretary of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, and student of black affairs, is not convinced that multi-racial teams are impractical. But he suggests that the greatest contribution white boards can make to black mission efforts would be to accept blacks on an intern basis. Sensing a weakness in the ability of blacks to run international missions, he would bring blacks into white missions for short training programs. During this time, they would develop necessary skills and experience.30
This would be a creative first step in re-establishing black contact with the mainstream of Protestant foreign missions. It avoids the problem of isolating capable blacks in white boards, but sends them back into the black community to organize fox missions.
"Organizing for missions" in the context of the contemporary American black community means more than forming black mission societies. Societies without recruits are useless. Somehow, what Washington calls the "death knell of segregation" must be broken. Black leaders and white missions must work to re-establish mission contact with blacks on the congregational level, to establish foreign mission service as a life option for dedicated blacks.
Some black leaders, like the Rev. Joseph Jeter of Philadelphia, have taken on the challenge. Over the past five years, he has placed more than thirty black youths with established mission agencies from Liberia to Nova Scotia for summer assignments. He is also planning to establish a missionary training school geared to the needs of the black community where educationally deficient blacks with a call from God to serve can be assured of adequate training. "It will be the first school to be organized solely to train Blacks for missionary service."31
Almost, but not quite. A Foreign Mission School for Blacks was founded at Cornwall, Connecticut, in 1825. It closed its doors in 1827 for lack of a single black student.32 One prays it was a good idea 147 years ahead of its time.
But we can expect little change in the involvement of blacks in missions until their theology reads, "ye shall be witnesses of me in the slums of Harlem, in the barrios of Latin America, and unto the uttermost parts of the world." Only when black missionaries are free from the accusation of having copped out on their "soul brothers" will the Great Commission break out of the ghetto. Until then, Ghetto will be capitalized and Great Commission will continue to be spelled with a small "g".
1. Vivian Prozan, Master’s Thesis, Columbia Bible College.
2. Ralph Winter, Class lecture, "The Historical Development of the Christian Movement," Fuller School of World Mission, 1971. From R. Pierce Beaver, All Loves Excelling.
3. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1957, U. S. Bureau of Census, Washington D.C., 1960, p.11
4. Wilbur Harr, The Negro as an American Protestant Missionary in Africa (University of Chicago Ph. D. dissertation, 1945) p.13
5. Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1840, p. 16. Quoted in Harr, p. 29.
6. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1957, op. cit., p. 11.
7. Harr, op. cit., p. 31.
8. Ibid., p. 22.
9. Charles Ross, The Emergence of the Presbyterian Church in the Kasai, Congo (Fuller School of World Mission master’s thesis, l67), p. 33.
10. Daniel Burger, History of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (Brethren Publishing Co., Dayton, Ohio, 1897), p. 442. Quoted in Emmett Cox, The Church of the United Brethren in Christ in Sierra Leone: Its Program and Development (Fuller School of World Mission master’s thesis, 1969), p.60
11. Ross, op. cit., p. 33.
12. Harr, op cit., p. 120, 121.
13. From a speech recorded in Arthur T. Pierson, The Miracles of Missions (Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1899), p. 239.
14. Jean Davis, "Negro Missionary Reaction to Africa" (Symposium), Practical Anthropology, Vol. 11, No.2 (March-April, 1964), p. 63.
15. Ibid., p. 68.
16. Harr, op. cit., p. 23.
17. Ibid., p. 21.
18. Ross, loc. cit.
19. Harr, op. cit.. 18.
21. Ibid., p. 35.
22. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity; Vol. 4, "The Great Century: Europe and the United States" (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1970 ), p. 342.
23. Ibid., p. 356.
24. Ibid., p. 341, 354.
25. Joseph R. Washington, Jr., Black Religion (Beacon Press, Boston, 1964) p. 149.
26. Ibid., p.157, 153.
27. Ibid., p. 151, 153.
28. Ibid., p. 153.
29. Personal interview, Fuller School of World Mission, 1971.
30. Personal interview, Fuller School of World Mission, 1971.
31. Personal interview, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1972.
32. Clifton J. Phillips, Protestant America and the Pagan World: The First Half Centery of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1810-1860, (Harvard University Ph. D. dissertation).
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