From the Worldwide Faith News archives

"Messy" mission work leads Methodists to success

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 08 Oct 1998 16:40:05

Oct. 8, 1998	Contact: Linda Bloom*(212) 870-3803*New York      {580}

NEW YORK (UMNS) -- Methodist mission work has always been "messy,"
according to a professor of international mission at Boston University
School of Theology.

But the tension between expansion and consolidation, between the
following of the Holy Spirit and the need for order, has contributed to
the denomination's success, Dana Roberts said. 

She was the inaugural speaker Oct. 7 for a mission lecture series
sponsored by the general secretary of the United Methodist Board of
Global Ministries.

Focusing on "History's Lessons for Tomorrow's Mission," a concept
originated by the World Student Christian Federation in the 1960s,
Roberts noted that Methodism was spread so efficiently in America under
Francis Asbury that by 1850, 34 percent of the churchgoing population
was Methodist.

Reaching out to the poor, to immigrants and to frontier folk, the
circuit-riding pastors covered areas of 200 to 500 miles in

"The life of a Methodist preacher was so strenuous that over 60 percent
of them died before the age of 40," Roberts said.

By the 1840s, the American mission field was saturated, so Methodists
began seeking international converts. But how they went about this work
did not always conform to the conventional church's approach.

"The people who we honor today as pioneers...were always challenging the
system," Roberts explained.

An early success was John Stewart, a man of African and European
descent, who converted many Wyndotte Indians before officially being
licensed by the Ohio Methodist Conference. News of his work led to the
founding of two supporting organizations, the Methodist Missionary
Society in 1819, followed by the New York Female Missionary Society.

The women's group was an important supporter of mission work in Liberia.
But no experienced pastors would volunteer to go there because of the
notion that such a posting meant certain death for a white person. 

Finally, in 1832, Melville Cox, already ill with tuberculosis,
volunteered. He died after three months in Liberia, but managed to
organize a church and start a school. Later, Ann Wilkins, a teacher,
founded the first Methodist girls' school in Liberia. She stayed for 19
years, "despite a permanent haze of malaria and the deaths of all her

As mission became centralized in the church and Methodists themselves
more prosperous, the more unconventional preachers found they didn't fit
into the system, according to Roberts. They often founded independent or
Pentecostal missions instead, she said.

Others continued their call regardless of official sanction. John and
Helen Springer traveled from Zambia to Angola, scouting mission
locations, despite disapproval by the mission board. But their vision
was so popular and they raised so much money that the board relented,
Roberts said.

The lesson, she added, is that individual initiative often outran the
support structure of the church. This flexible approach has been used
recently in the Russia Initiative of the Board of Global Ministries, she

Education became an emphasis in Methodism not just because missionaries
saw a need for it but because the indigenous populations demanded it,
she said. Converts to Methodism linked their moral stirrings to
self-improvement through education and a "self-help" spirit.

By 1910, the Women's Foreign Missionary Society supported more teachers
and schools than any other mission group in the world. Although the
Great Depression in the 1930s brought an end to Methodist expansion in
education, the spirit was revived in 1992, when United Methodists
founded Africa University in Zimbabwe.

Often, Methodist missionaries practiced "pragmatic patriotism," pushing
for change within the political realities of a country rather than
advocating revolution from without, Roberts said.

For example, while they took advantage of the U.S. "imperialist
expansion" in places like the Philippines, Roberts said, they also
provided opportunities that helped lead indigenous people to

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