A Forgotten Legacy
Just recently, an editorial assistant at Christianity Today sent me some stories asking for my assessment regarding their “newsworthiness.” I love it when historians get asked to comment on contemporary issues. One of the stories appeared in the October 6, 2010 edition of christianpost.com. The article, “Black Christians Largely Absent from U. S. Missionary Force,” focused on the lack of African-Americans in world missions.
This particular issue “lives on my street.” As a historian, my focus is on the history of African-American Baptist missions in Africa during the 19th century and early 20th century. When I embarked upon this study as a doctoral student in the early 2000s I realized that there was an alarming lack of attention on world missions in my home church and in my national convention, the National Baptist Convention USA. The article on christianpost.com affirmed my observations. In stark terms the article states: “According to the 2007 African American Missions Mobilization Manifesto by Columbia International University, blacks make up less than one percent of the total number (118,600) of U. S. missionaries.”
The contemporary lack of attention fails to correspond with a historical lack of attention. As I read general histories of African-American Baptists I found that there had been African-American Baptist missionaries in Liberia, Nigeria, the Congo, and southern Africa during the 19th century and early 20th century. With my concentration fixed on African-American Baptist work in southern Africa, I became familiar with the stories of men and women such as R. A. Jackson, Emma Delaney, and James East. One residual effect of my work, hopefully, will be to spark some sort of revival among African-Americans regarding sending missionaries overseas, especially to Africa.
Just recently I presented a paper at Calvin College, my home institution, on the pioneering Baptist missionary to Africa, Lott Carey. Born into slavery in Virginia around 1780, Carey became a Christian, an ordained minister at First Baptist Church in Richmond, and in 1821 a missionary and colonist representing the Baptist General Convention and the American Colonization Society, respectively.
In the paper, I began by showing how Carey’s influence still rested upon African-American Baptists one hundred years after he began his work in West Africa, Liberia particularly. In the summer of 1920, the monthly organ of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention, the Mission Herald, announced that the third Sunday of January 1921 would be the observance of Lott Carey’s sailing to Africa. From this, it is clear that Lott Carey’s legacy was alive and well. This fails to be the case today.
One can point to a plethora of reasons why African-American churches, in general, and the National Baptist Convention, USA (NBC-USA) in particular has lost a zeal regarding missions to Africa. To be just, the NBC-USA still maintains presence in Liberia and parts of southern Africa;”>With that stated, African-Americans in the 19th century and early 20th century were comparably worse off economically and educationally than in the last 25 years. This is something that is assumed and rightly so. Is there a legitimate excuse for the lack of money that flows to the Foreign Mission Board of the NBC-USA? According to the aforementioned article, the NBC-USA reported that the average church member gives 40 cent to foreign missions work as of 1993. This is simply a neglect on the part of local churches, district associations, and state conventions all of which can funnel monies to the Foreign Mission Board.
Though Lott Carey and his family left for Africa in January 1821, he helped to organize a missionary society in 1815, the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society. By this time, Carey had purchased his freedom by saving his money earned by being “hired out” to work in tobacco warehouse in Richmond. Other members of the Richmond Society were slaves, who offered their “mites” for the hope of sending a missionary to Africa.
This group was concerned that American Baptists overlooked Africa as a potential mission field; their attention was on India and the Far East. A fledgling missionary society composed of primarily poor African-Americans endeavored to send the gospel to their “homeland” even though these Africans were born in America. For such a purpose, the society gave $700 to Carey and his party as the left for Africa. This was no mean accomplishment.
What made the difference then compared to now? Judging from my research, African-Americans both slave and free had a strong belief that the same God that allowed their suffering under the lash of slavery would fulfill his word in Psalm 68:31, “Princes shall come out of Egypt;”>This was evident in Absalom Jones’ famous sermon preached in January 1, 1808. The day and year marked the United States’ termination of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and caused celebration among African-Americans, especially Christians. Jones, an Episcopalian minister who had been part of the group of African-American worshipers that left St. George’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1791 after receiving prejudicial treatment, wrestled with the providential meanings of African slavery and the abolition of the Atlantic Trade. From his Philadelphia pulpit in St. Thomas’ Church, Jones asserted with a hint of caution:
It has always been a mystery, why the impartial Father of the human race should have permitted the transportation of so many millions of our fellow creatures to this country, to endure all the miseries of slavery. Perhaps his design was that a knowledge of the gospel might be acquired by some of their descendants, in order that they might become qualified to be the messengers of it, to the land of their fathers.
These slaves and free African-Americans had a vision of hope that lay beyond freedom for freedom’s sake. They envisioned their freedom in order to engage in Christian service. Carey exemplified this sentiment when he responded to a person who asked him why he desired to become a missionary in Africa. He said, “I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct, and respectable my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, and not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race.” This sentiment seems to be largely missing among African-American Baptists, this connection between themselves and Africa and Africans, alike.
This is an academic problem as well as a church problem. One large question that looms for me is: is there still a type of grassroots Pan-African spirit among African-Americans in general, but among African-American Christians?
A sense of historical and cultural connectedness with Africa and all persons of African descent was key motivating factor that led to African-American missions in Africa. Is there a connection with the seemingly lack of such spirit now and the lack of African-American missionary presence worldwide but also in Africa? These are questions worth exploring.