This is an article from the March-April 2000 issue: The African American & Missions

Overcoming Obstacles

The Broad Sweep of the African American and Missions

Overcoming Obstacles

Also See: Marilyn's Tribute and Last Words

Since the latter 18th century, African Americans have displayed an interest in world evangelization. Some scholars have argued that this interest was due to escapism--a desire to leave the racist and hostile environment of America. Others have argued more positively that their involvement was motivated by a simple obedience to the Great Commission. While both factors were at work, obedience best explains the activity from the 1770s to the present day.

Why, for example, did Prince Williams leave the shores of America, travel to Nassau and establish a church? Without any biographies or autobiographies, we cannot make a definitive statement about his motive. But the church planted as the fruit of his labor makes escapism seem suspect.

Several years later, former American slaves and ministers George Liele, David George, Hector Peters, and Sampson Calvert sailed from Nova Scotia where they had established the African Baptist Church and journeyed to Sierra Leone to plant a new church.

By the 1800s, all of the major Protestant denominations in the United States had stations in Africa and utilized the African American as the "missionary of choice." A number of reasons contributed to this, including the belief that the descendants of former Africans could better adapt to the environment and were less likely to die from disease. Additionally, the majority of white missionaries were then looking towards the continent of Asia as a mission field--not towards Africa. At least seventy African-American missionaries represented these organizations, serving from 1790 to 1820.

After the establishment of the independent denominations AME and AMEZ, African-American interest in world evangelization grew--and they began sending missionaries. These denominations represented the first real independence movements in the African-American community. The conviction grew that they could and should send and sponsor their own missionaries. Being encouraged by the African-American church, the intelligentsia and newspapers, the community agreed that it was the "will of God" for them to become involved in mission, "to return home" and help in the evangelization of Africa.

But why would someone recently freed from slavery desire to leave comfortable surroundings, family, friends and material possessions to travel around the world to convert people to Christ? Few secular scholars understood or adequately conveyed the pull of the Holy Spirit calling individuals to serve on the mission field. The writings of the early African-American missionaries make it clear that the desire to fulfill the Great Commission was the motivating factor for missionary service--a God-given burden for the "uttermost parts."

Africa became the major field of service for early African-American missionaries. One obvious and very understandable reason was their affection for the land of their forefathers. But the continent was portrayed by the press, public, and people as being in "grave need" of workers. Africans selected Africa and decided that God had called them to bring Christianity and culture. The early African-American missionaries believed that if the Africans worshipped, obeyed, and submitted to the true God and accepted the best of Western culture, they would be able to control their own country, build their own nation and establish their own destiny.

Towards the close of the 19th century, white missionary presence in Africa began to rise. The writings of European discoveries emphasized the need of the African to receive salvation and a "civilizing lifestyle." Europeans were encouraged to come to Africa and serve in the missionary effort. The discovery of effective medical treatment and immunizations made the continent all the more appealing. Parallel to a growing interest in the spiritual state of Africans was the growth in commercial and colonial endeavors on the continent.

As Europeans entered Africa and established colonial governments they questioned the utilization of the African-American missionary. The common sentiment of colonial governments was that blacks from North America should not be allowed to enter into some areas--as they were "unduly influenced" by democracy and the Pan African and Back to Africa movements. Their fear: that they would encourage Africans to rebel against colonial authority. All of these fears--justified and unjustified--increased tension between missionaries and the colonial governments. The sentiment of some that African Americans did not make good missionaries--that they were ineffective in spreading the Gospel--did not help matters. Also, deaths on the mission field disproved the belief that the African American had any better propensity for adaptation to the climate and fighting disease.

Hence, by the turn of the 20th century, very few African-American missionaries were encouraged or sponsored by the white missionary groups. Rather, they were financed by African-American churches who felt a special burden for the evangelization of Africa. By and large, black mission work was done in nations controlled by colonial governments. An exception was Liberia--the only nation in west Africa not officially under colonial authority. Black missionaries there had a greater degree of liberty. Even if unofficially, they could serve in those areas undesirable for European settlers, such as east Africa. In southern Africa, they could serve but were not accorded the same respect as white missionaries. By the 1920s, African Americans were generally discouraged from--and at times a prohibited from--entering the African field.

Though few in number, the African-American missionaries made strides in the propagation of the Gospel in the key places they served--west, central and southern Africa. Beyond the planting of churches, medical facilities and schools were established; social reform movements and Bible translation began as well as a growth in industrial and commercial enterprises. All the while, African Americans gained tremendous knowledge of traditional African life. And the example of the African- American missionary certainly provided the African with the visible hope that self-government is a possibility.

The Reverend William Sheppard took great care in understanding the habits, customs and culture of the BaKuba.

The Golden Age of Missions

As every movement has its ups and downs, the period 1890-1910 may well be seen as a Golden Age. Some 200 African Americans missionaries were serving throughout the world--mostly throughout Africa-- but also the West Indies. At this time the two large supporting blocks were the African-American church and white missions organizations.

This era witnessed the establishment of the Presbyterian Congo Mission station, a station that was manned by African Americans and led by an African American, William Sheppard. This is also the era of Emma Delaney, a National Baptist missionary who assisted in the establishment of mission stations and educational sites. Another dynamic figure of this Golden Age was Bishop Henry Turner of the AME denomination who supported African missions and "felt led of the Lord" to encourage blacks to enter the mission arena, supporting the Motherland, Africa.


1920-1930 could be referred as the Hindrances Period--with a number of factors discouraging the entrance of African Americans into missionary work. Colonial governments that refused to accord equitable treatment to the African-American missionaries provided the primary obstacle for mission service. Labeled as "undesirable aliens," they felt that the rise of Pan Africanism, Marcus Garvey and questions of equal rights in America might "unduly" influence Africans. Missionaries such as Sheppard, Delaney and James East dealt with treatment that was clearly discriminatory and racist. In several publications, African Americans complained that no matter how trained they were they could not find access to the missionary field of Africa.

In 1920, the Portuguese government changed its missionary regulations, insisting that all future missionaries serving in its colonies know Portuguese (as taught in Portugal) and be assigned by the colonial government. Another hindrance came from the refusal of white missionary organizations to utilize the African American in world evangelization, so as not to offend the colonial governments. Understandably, the black missionary felt unwelcome and unwanted in Africa. The American government complied with the colonial governments' preference by not granting passports. The colonial governments refused to grant visas to certain areas.

By the mid 1930s the African- American missionary was virtually absent from the field. Several missionaries were still serving--including Montrose Waite--but for the most part, African Americans understood that they were not welcome.


The Period of Redefinition--1935-Present--has occurred in the African-American church itself. Maybe in part a response to racism and discrimination, the leadership of the church developed a "protective mechanism" for missionary participation. The church changed the definition of missionary. Missionaries were no longer those who journeyed to another country or culture to take out the Gospel. Now, a missionary was defined, essentially, as "a woman who did good works and who taught the Bible in small women-led groups." Missionary work included all of the things that women did in the church--visiting the sick, cleaning the church and feeding the homeless. However, none of those activities involved taking out the Gospel. All of these endeavors ought to be considered "good works," but not missions proper--as spoken of in Matthew 28:18-20.

What happened in the African-American church? The change in definition allowed it to demonstrate that it still had "missionaries"--though they were home-based. Cross-cultural, foreign missionaries vanished completely. Very few African Americans carried the Gospel into another land even though there were hundreds of missionaries in every denomination. Missionaries were those who worked at home. White missionaries traveled, but African-American missionaries worked in the community because "the needs are so great here."

In the early sixties, another redefinition occurred in the African- American community: the formation of black-led missionary organizations outside of the church denominational groups. These new organizations restored the Biblical perspective and ignited vision for missions. For the first time missionary organizations such as Carver International Mission, Have Christ Will Travel, and eventually Ambassador Fellowship were established to assist in the thrust of world evangelization. African Americans now have missionary organizations with dedicated missionaries and missiologists focusing upon the task of world evangelization.

The Great Age

Today, in the year 2000, we have seen the groundwork laid and are expecting another wide thrust of African-American involvement in world evangelization. This period may be called the Great Age of Mission. My belief is that it will be larger and greater than any other involvement of the African-American community. It will focus upon all areas of the world--not just Africa. Youth as well as adults will enter into missionary endeavors. This period will witness the increased involvement of short as well as long-term service. African Americans are now looking seriously at the 10/40 Window and they are planning how they can be involved. The possibilities are exhilarating.


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