The Missing Black Missionary

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 14, 2004

My topic tonight is the history and future of African-American missionary work. I meant to give this Window on the World back in February, at the end of Black History Month. But when everyone started talking about The Passion of the Christ, I decided it had to wait. In a way it’s a good thing, because it has proven much more difficult to get information than I expected, which is a topic in itself.

I begin with a telling statistic. It is estimated that some 22 million African-Americans identify themselves as believers in Jesus Christ. Do you know how many of them serve as cross-cultural missionaries? Only 300. This number is so small that it isn’t even statistically significant. To understand why, it helps to know a little history.

African-American missionary work is usually considered to have begun early in the 19th century, when northern missionaries–including some African-Americans–traveled south to evangelize slaves living on southern plantations. This missionary work was expanded at the time of the Civil War, when black chaplains in the Union army seized the opportunity to preach the gospel in the South.

But throughout the nineteenth century, the attention of black missionaries also turned overseas. In 1821 the Reverend Daniel Coker helped to found the American Colonization Society and took a group of missionaries to Africa. In the same year the Baptist missionary Lott Carey began work in Liberia, which because of its close ties to America, long remained a country of special concern for black Christians. In the middle of the century men like James Pennington and Alexander Crummell argued that African-Americans had a special calling to reach their brothers and sisters in Africa with the gospel. Strong connections between the two continents would regenerate Africa and, in time, also elevate the condition of blacks living in America.

Overseas missionary work accelerated in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, when some black missionaries returned from Africa to report on their work, raise support, and recruit new workers. By 1880 some one hundred and fifty black delegates were meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, for the first Foreign Mission Convention. The gospel was spreading. Through the costly sacrifice of black missionaries, some of whom lost their very lives, Africans were coming to Christ. One obvious result of this evangelistic work was a noticeable decline in inter-tribal slavery on the continent. It seemed like the dawn of a new era for the gospel and for the worldwide community of African descent.

Sadly, these hopes proved to be short-lived, because by the end of century most African-American missionary agencies had disbanded. Carl Ellis has identified three traumas that all but destroyed the African-American mission to Africa. The first was the end of reconstruction. When the United States Government removed federal troops from the South in the late 1870s, African-Americans faced new forms of white supremacy and racial oppression, with the result that they were unable to establish strong communal institutions like missionary boards. The second trauma was the industrial revolution in the North. This led to prosperity for some Americans–especially European immigrants–but white unions and other forms of systematic exclusion kept blacks out of the skilled labor force. This left the Africa-American community with limited resources to invest in global missions.

The third trauma was the European colonization of Africa. In the 1870s and 80s, the European powers seized control of Africa and carved it up into colonies. In addition to all the other trouble this caused, it had a harmful effect on missions. Most African-American missionaries were expelled from the newly formed African colonies, and any new black missionaries were denied entrance. Thriving missionary work suddenly came to an end, and African-American missionary organizations were forced to disband. There were still missionaries to Africa, of course, but the continent lost its close and natural connection with the African-American church. Even worse, African-Americans began to associate missionary work with trauma and defeat. In subsequent years, the noble history of black missions was largely forgotten, which explains why it is so difficult to learn about today.

Like so many results of our racist past, the effect of these traumas has lasted for more than one hundred years. Throughout most of the twentieth century, white missionary boards continued to reject black candidates. Eventually black churches established their own missionary boards, especially in the 1950s and afterwards, but they generally lacked the resources to carry the work forward with power and influence. All of this has led to what black theologians in the 1960s started calling “the Missing Black Missionary.”

Today there are encouraging signs that African-Americans are re-engaging with the global work of the gospel. For example, through their work for Campus Crusade for Christ, our own Charles and Rebecca Gilmer host an annual conference at which more than a thousand students of color are challenged to give themselves to God for missions and other forms of Christian service. This is important, because black Christians have unique contributions to make to cross-cultural missions. For one thing, their experience of minority oppression can help establish a connection with the suffering church in difficult parts of the world. For another, black Americans may be more effective in places where white Americans are increasingly unwelcome.

Perhaps the twenty-first century will begin a new era in African-American missionary work, not just in Africa, but in many places around the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of these new black missionaries were sent out by Tenth Presbyterian Church, and by other congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America? This is something we pray for every year: that God will send out new missionaries from Tenth Church–missionaries from all kinds of backgrounds, going to all kinds of places, with the one true gospel of Jesus Christ.

[Information for this Window on the World comes from William L. Banks, The Black Church in the United States (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1972), and from lectures by Carl Ellis at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia]

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