Cultural Resources


(Mission Work Abroad)


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Juan Floyd-Thomas, Guest Cultural Resource Commentator

Associate Professor of History, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX

I. Remembrances of My Introduction to Mission Work Abroad

I remember attending one particular Sunday worship service designated as Missionary Sunday when I was about ten years old. There seemed to be a special sort of excitement attached to these women and men missionaries as they stood before the congregation and shared their experiences in the mission field. As a child, I became fascinated by these people and their adventures in spreading the gospel in corners of the globe that I never knew existed, especially when they discussed the wonders of ministry in the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It was thrilling to listen to the missionaries describe how they understood and sought to fulfill the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19) by pledging themselves to engage in Christian missionary work and to make disciples all over the world.

In the many years since then, I realize how much the impact of celebrations such as Missionary Sunday helped to stimulate interest in places and people outside of the United States, as well as the possibility that they could share and embrace the same love of God’s Word as did the members of my home church. Most importantly, Missionary Sunday is important as a commemoration of the ways in which our prayers and donations help to support churches, hospitals, schools, and vocations in various countries. In other words, it is our chance to show love and solidarity with brothers and sisters around the world. Thanks to Missionary Sunday, congregations such as the one in which I grew up were better able to bring into perspective the significance of spiritual and material support to extend the reach of the church to the world.

II. The Historical Roots of African American Missionary Activity

There has been an enduring belief amongst African Americans that they have a divine mission to bring Christianity to Africa. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, numerous African Americans such as David George, Lott Carey, and Colin Teague (Baptist missionaries) as well as Daniel Coker (A.M.E. Church missionary) traveled to Sierra Leone with the express purposes of evangelizing the native population as well as establishing churches in West Africa. The great zeal to promote Christianity by African Americans has a twofold irony. First, as historian Gayraud Wilmore indicates in his venerable text, Black Religion and Black Radicalism, it is a fact that Christianity was one of innumerable indigenous religious traditions that had been part of African history and heritage long before European contact, and the ensuing enslavement and colonization of African peoples.1 Second, as much as the effort to spread Christianity to Africans may have been a sincere evangelistic effort on the part of African Americans, this vision of Christianizing Africa also presented a justification for the inhuman bondage suffered by people of African descent in America. Historian Albert Raboteau asserts that many early African American missionaries felt “that God was drawing good out of the evil of slavery by using the American descendents of African slaves to take Christianity to the lands of their ancestors.” 2

Alexander Crummell was one of the most influential African American missionaries, religious leaders and intellectuals of the nineteenth century. In 1853, Crummell went to Liberia as a missionary of the Episcopalian Church of the United States. Though Crummell was previously against colonization, his experiences in Liberia made him believe that colonization was a good thing for blacks in America and for Africa. As Crummell began formulating his Pan-African ideology during this period, he merged the concept of colonization with his vision of Christianizing Africans. This is most evident in his preaching that "enlightened" Africans (this is the thought and language of Crummell’s era) in the United States and the West Indies had a duty to come back to Africa with their knowledge of Western civilization. In this fashion, people of African descent from the Americas would ultimately help “civilize” and Christianize the African continent.

With interest in colonization waning, and the failure of "enlightened" blacks to perform the duty he had laid out for them, Crummell’s grand design never came to fruition. While he did successfully serve as both a pastor and professor in Liberia, Crummell was unable to establish the government and society of which he dreamed. After his return to the United States in 1873, Crummell continued working for the racial solidarity he had advocated for so long until his death in 1898. Crummell's legacy can be seen not just in his personal achievements, but in the influence he wielded upon other black nationalists and Pan-Africanists, such as Marcus Garvey, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W.E.B. Du Bois.3

Another perspective on the missionary appeal to Africa can be found in the work of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the A.M.E. Church. Following the Civil War, Turner became steadily more disenchanted with the lack of progress in the status of newly freed blacks in the United States. Following his service in the U.S. Army as a chaplain, Bishop Turner moved to Georgia and became involved in Republican politics. Not only did he help found Georgia’s Republican Party during the Reconstruction, but he was also elected to the Georgia State Legislature. After attempts to overcome certain Supreme Court decisions, Turner became disgusted and ended his attempts to bring equality to the United States. In light of his disappointment with the pervasive white supremacy within American society and culture, Turner became a fervent advocate of what has become known as the "back to Africa" movement. He traveled to Africa and was struck by the differences in the attitude of Africans who had never known the degradation of slavery. During the 1890s, Turner traveled to the African continent four times.

Turner founded two newspapers (The Voice of Missions (1893-1900) and later The Voice of the People (1901-1904)) in order to help advance his vision of African American emigration. Notably, Turner secured the financial support of white businessmen from Alabama in order to help organize the International Migration Society to promote the return of African Americans to Africa. As a result of Turner’s emigrationist efforts, two ships with an estimated 500 people departed from the United States to Liberia in 1895 and 1896. A number of the African Americans returned to the United States a short time later complaining about disease and the lack of economic development in West Africa. Undaunted, Turner remained a devoted advocate of the back-to-Africa agenda but was unable to make any further progress in light of the mounting complaints and negative backlash of those who returned from Africa. Moreover, Turner also sought to promote the growth of the AME Church throughout Latin America and the Caribbean by sending missionaries to Mexico and Cuba. While Turner was on the verge of becoming a national leader in the mold of Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington, ultimately his outspokenness, particularly on the “back to Africa” issue, undermined his potential success. In the end, though Turner’s dream of a mass exodus of African Americans back to the African continent has never been realized, he helped awaken great interest among later generations of African Americans to reconnect with their ancestral homeland for the resurrection and salvation of their own better selves.4

III. African American Baptists and the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention

The Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention (LCC) became the first independent foreign mission society founded by African Americans. Organized in 1897 in Washington, DC, the LCC focused specifically on advancing the goals of Christian ministry, education, and health in Africa. The LCC was named in memory of Lott Carey, a freed black preacher and pioneering missionary sent to Liberia under the auspices of the African Baptist Missionary Society of Richmond, Virginia in 1821. In the late 1800s, however, black churches lacked the resources and were ill-equipped to sponsor large-scale Christianizing missions to Africa. Nonetheless, such efforts by African American Christians were important because they symbolized their bond with their ancestral homeland. Presently, boasting the participation of 3,000 churches and at least a hundred full-time workers overseas, the LCC serves as a premier African American missionary organization focusing on issues of healthcare, education, poverty, and spirituality in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, and Latin America.5

IV. The African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Women's Missionary Society

In Alice Walker’s famous novel, The Color Purple (1983), one of the main characters, Nettie, runs away from home in the segregated South in the hopes of becoming a missionary in Africa. The author portrays the slim prospects that confront Nettie as a young black woman in a world defined equally by racism, sexism, and elitism to keep her from living out her dream of being both a teacher and a world traveler. As the novel unfolds, Nettie gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to an unnamed African nation as a missionary and proves herself to be a wonderful teacher. In Nettie’s numerous letters written to her beloved sister, Celie, she describes all the awe-inspiring insights that she has had into their black heritage such as the extremely moving feelings she felt seeing the African coast for the first time or the fact that the Africans made it possible for Nettie to admire and even love anew her blackness both in terms of skin color and race. As the story reveals, Nettie expresses great joy because she now realizes that she is ready to help "uplift black people everywhere" after her experience in Africa.

This story sparked my imagination concerning the special power and significance that the training and utilization of black women as teachers and missionaries has had within the African American experience. A prime example of collective black women in international missionary and evangelistic efforts is the Women's Missionary Society (WMS). The WMS began as an organization of the African Methodist Church as far back as 1787 with the visionary work of Mrs. Sarah Allen, the wife of Bishop Richard Allen. First organized as the Women’s Parent Mite Society in 1874, and then as the Women’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society in 1895, and now as the Connectional Women’s Missionary Society, for more than 130 years this group has performed missionary efforts on behalf of the A.M.E. Church. Today the group has a membership of more than 800,000 worldwide. It is under the leadership of Bishops and Supervisors of the AME Church and has missionaries located in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, England, South America, and Africa.

V. Mission Work of the Church of God in Christ in Africa

Since the end of the Second World War, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) has been able to shift its vision of missionary work, from its strict attention on transforming home churches and storefront churches into permanent church edifices within the urban American context, towards a focus on international missions in Africa and the Caribbean. In their magisterial study, The Black Church in the African American Experience,6 sociologists C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya stated that, “if the COGIC succeeds in establishing relationships with . . . African independent churches, it has the potential of becoming the largest of the historic [black Church] denominations.” According to the 2006 Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life study, Spirit and Power: A 10 Country Survey of Pentecostals,7 Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religious movement in Africa, not only compared to other forms of Christianity, but even when judged against all other religious groups, including Islam. Furthermore, in a recent cover story Christianity Today reports that of Africa's 890 million people, 147 million are now proclaiming themselves to be "Renewalists" (a term describing African Christians who self-identify as either Pentecostal or charismatic. To put this into perspective, renewalists currently comprise more than 25 percent of the Nigerian population, more than 33 percent of the South African population, and a staggering 56 percent of the Kenyan population.8 The COGIC (and Pentecostalism more generally speaking), as an expression of African American Christianity, has made a profound impact upon brothers and sisters on the African continent in our own day and time. From wells, to building hospitals, schools, clinics, and churches, the mission work abroad of Pentecostals or charimatics is an example that many are seeking to follow.

The mission work of the COGIC is expected to increase under the guidance of Reverend Charles E. Blake, who, in 2007, ascended to the position of Presiding Bishop of the more than seven million member Church of God in Christ. As founder and CEO of Save Africa's Children, Bishop Blake oversees the support of more than 200,000 children in 400 orphan care programs, throughout more than 21 nations on the continent of Africa.

In 2003, Bishop Blake was awarded the Harvard Foundation Humanitarian Medal for his work with Save Africa's Children and its mission to support orphanages throughout Africa. In December 2005, Save Africa's Children and Bishop Blake were featured in People Magazine and on CNN for World AIDS Day.

VI. Poetry

In his famous poem, “I Dream a World,” Langston Hughes eloquently establishes the humanitarian heights to which each of us should aspire as missionaries.

I Dream a World

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn.
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind--
Of such I dream, my world!9

VII. A Mission Song

Although written as the ultimate evangelism song, “Throw Out the Lifeline” has become a signal song for persons engaged in mission work. Holistic mission work requires that those doing missionary work first immerse themselves within the cultures to which they travel. This immersion is not first for the purpose of proselytizing, but to show respect to other cultures. The history of mission work, especially in Africa, is replete with stories of misguided missionaries who went abroad to save what they saw as “heathens,” even if it meant disrespecting the cultures of others, leaving them hungry, and without adequate medical care. Modernly, most missionaries now know that it is woefully insufficient and sacrilegious to take the Bible around the world without also taking bread, respect, and hope. The focus for holistic mission work is not only to save souls but the betterment of conditions for persons around the world.

Throw Out the Lifeline

Throw out the lifeline across the dark wave;
There is a brother whom someone should save;
Somebody’s brother! Oh, who then will dare
To throw out the lifeline, his peril to share?


Throw out the lifeline! Throw out the lifeline!
Someone is drifting away;
Throw out the lifeline! Throw out the lifeline!
Someone is sinking today.

Verse 2

Throw out the lifeline with hand quick and strong:
Why do you tarry, why linger so long?
See! he is sinking; oh, hasten today
And out with the life boat! Away, then, away!


Verse 3

Throw out the lifeline to danger-fraught men,
Sinking in anguish where you’ve never been;
Winds of temptation and billows of woe
Will soon hurl them out where the dark waters flow.


Verse 4

Soon will the season of rescue be o’er,
Soon will they drift to eternity’s shore;
Haste, then, my brother, no time for delay,
But throw out the lifeline and save them today.


Verse 5

This is the lifeline, oh, tempest-tossed men,
Baffled by waves of temptation and sin;
Wild winds of passion, your strength cannot brave,
But Jesus is mighty, and Jesus can save.


Verse 6

Jesus is able! To you who are driv’n
Farther and farther from God and from Heav’n,
Helpless and hopeless, o’erwhelmed by the wave,
We throw out the lifeline-’tis, “Jesus can save.”


Verse 7

This is the lifeline, oh, grasp it today!
See, you are recklessly drifting away;
Voices in warning, shout over the wave,
Oh, grasp the strong lifeline, for Jesus can save.10

  1. Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People. (1972) Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993. pp. 1-21.
  2. Raboteau, Albert J. Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. Oxford: Oxford University 2001. pp. 33-34.
  3. For instance, W. E. B. Du Bois considered Crummell a personal role model and saw Crummell’s contributions to the academic world, via his sermons and written works, as the preeminent example of an erudite and eloquent African American man who believed deeply and fervently in the Pan-African ideal, and strove throughout his life to achieve it. Du Bois ultimately wrote the memorable essay entitled "Of Alexander Crummell," the twelfth chapter of his 1903 masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, as homage to Crummell’s many achievements including earning a college education at the University of Cambridge, becoming an ordained Episcopal priest, and setting up the American Negro Academy, which are nothing less than impressive.
  4. Angell, Stephen Ward. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1992; Redkey, Edwin S. Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890-1910. Yale publications in American studies, 17. 1969; and Turner, Henry McNeal. Respect Black: The Writings and Speeches of Henry McNeal Turner. The American Negro, his history and literature. New York: Arno Press, 1971.
  5. Billingsley, Andrew. Mighty Like a River: The Black Church and Social Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. pp. 68-70; Floyd-Thomas, Stacey. Black Church Studies: An Introduction. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007. p. 21.
  6. Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African-American Experience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990. p. 90.
  7. Spirit and Power: A 10 Country Survey of Pentecostals. October 2006. Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life.
  8. Isaac Phiri and Joe Maxwell, “Gospel Riches: Africa's rapid embrace of prosperity Pentecostalism provokes concern and hope”, Christianity Today (July 2007), 23.
  9. Hughes, Langston, Arnold Rampersad, and David E. Roessel. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1994. p. 311.
  10. Ufford, Edward S. Throw Out the Life Line: And Other Hymns. Rockland, Me: [E.S. Ufford?], 1915.


2013 Units