Missionary movements among African-American Christians in the United States can be characterized in a number of ways. First, the distinction should be made between domestic or home missions and overseas or foreign missions. Second, the missionary efforts of African Americans may be categorized based upon the activities of historically black denominations and agencies, or those of predominantly white groups, or some means of cooperation or joint endeavors between the two.
Third, mission movements are characterized by two dimensions, spiritual and temporal. The spiritual dimension refers to the efforts of Christians to convert others to the faith: preaching, religious instruction, and the construction of houses of worship. The temporal includes the educational, medical, and other humanitarian interests that cover the concerns of the body and not simply the soul. On a practical level it is often impossible to distinguish neatly between the domestic and the overseas, the various means of evangelizing, and the spiritual and the temporal. They are all often intimately related and interwoven, both organizationally and theologically.
The black missionary tradition derives from eighteenth-century evangelicalism. It was the evangelical type of Christianity that appealed to most blacks, whites, and Native Americans in the United States in that period. At the core of this religious approach was the conviction that God deals directly with the individual and that it was the sacred duty of every faithful Christian to share the faith with others. For black Christians and those whites committed to black and African evangelization, a scripture verse, Psalm 68:31, applied specifically to racial evangelization and uplift. According to the King James translation, princes were to come from Egypt, and Ethiopia was to extend hands to God. Egypt and Ethiopia together represented the totality of the African race, and this verse was understood to predict that the black race should and must be evangelized, as a result of which temporal progress would occur.
As the United States moved further from its Revolutionary era, the early antislavery ardor of many evangelical churches among Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and others declined. This reduction of active religious opposition to slavery was also occasioned in part by the fact that white evangelicals in the South increasingly became slaveholders and slave traders. In addition, the 1780s and 1790s witnessed a greater willingness on the part of white Christians to apply even stricter discriminatory measures against their black counterparts within the churches.
On the one hand, these antiblack developments led to the rise of independent black congregations and denominations. On the other hand, the rise in proslavery and discriminatory attitudes led some whites and blacks to conclude that African-American Christians would fare better on the mother continent, where they could, more successfully than whites, effect spiritual and temporal progress among their African kinfolk.
When black Christians began to secede from white-controlled congregations and denominations in the latter part of the 1700s, they sought greater freedom in worship and church leadership. They wanted to influence in a more organized manner the lives of fellow blacks, whom they considered to have been overlooked by white-controlled Christian bodies. Richard Allen, one of the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination, cited the need at an early point in his ministry for more evangelical attention to African Americans.
During the Second Great Awakening (1790–1825), many black congregations saw the same need. Thus, one of the first steps these new congregations and denominations took was the organization of outreach agencies for domestic and foreign missions. Through their church disciplines, religious publications, active involvement in antislavery activities, and establishment of schools and institutes, these black Christians often made it clear that they associated spiritual salvation with temporal betterment and physical freedom.
It would be a mistake, however, to view black evangelistic enterprises as confined solely to ministry within the race. It is true that Christianity in the United States spread more intraracially than interracially, but the latter was quite substantial and commonplace. Henry Evans, an eighteenth-century black Methodist minister, established the Methodist Episcopal Church in the Fayetteville, North Carolina, area with his influential preaching and pastoral efforts. At one point his church's black members were crowded out by whites, who, after initial opposition, responded in great numbers to his ministry. "Black Harry" Hosier, esteemed for his powerful preaching, was a frequent evangelistic companion of the famous white Methodist preacher and bishop Francis Asbury. He was highly regarded by Asbury, Freeborn Garrettson, Thomas Coke, and other eminent American Methodists.
The missionary labors of John Stewart indicate the profound impact that individual black Christians had upon white-controlled denominational and missionary endeavors. Stewart's missionary activities to the Wyandotte Indians in Ohio demonstrated not only the biracial but the multiracial character of American religious history. In addition, the racially mixed, but white-controlled, Methodist Episcopal General Conference of 1820, inspired by the work of Stewart, for the first time set up a separate denominational agency for missions. Blacks of other denominations also participated in ministry on an interracial or multiracial basis, including the Baptists William Lemon, Josiah Bishop, and "Uncle Jack."
In addition to denominational and local outreach efforts, Christianity spread during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through "camp meeting" revivalistic gatherings, to which people came from miles around to hear the preaching and exhortations of ministers of various denominations and races and both genders. The autobiographical accounts of nineteenth-century black female ministers such as Zilpha Elaw and Jarena Lee demonstrate the interracial character of many of these camp meetings, the powerful roles often played by women and blacks in them, and the crucial significance of itinerant preaching by black men and women.
By and large, the independent black denominations and associations were confined to northern, free states and territories prior to the 1860s because of the antipathy of the southern slave system to independent black enterprises. With the advent of the Civil War, this situation changed profoundly. Many northern missionaries went south to do missionary work among the freedpeople. These missionaries included both clergy and laypeople, blacks and whites, males and females, and individuals and agencies representing practically all of the major denominations, black and white.
Included among these northern missionaries and church organizers were black Christians such as Rev. James Walker Hood of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ), who organized and built a host of churches in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina during and following the Civil War. Charlotte L. Forten, a prominent laywoman in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, left a moving and insightful account of her life, The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten, which includes descriptions of her years of missionary service and teaching during the Civil War among freedpeople of the Port Royal, South Carolina, area.
It would be misleading, however, to leave the impression that all missionary work among freedpeople was conducted by northern Christians. Though pre–Civil War enslaved black Christians did not enjoy the advantages of independent organized groups, they nevertheless played the greatest roles in spreading the faith within their own communities. By and large, blacks who were enslaved received religious teaching from other blacks, clergy and laity—not from white plantation preachers, as is often assumed. Similarly, southern black Christians, such as Rev. Joseph C. Price, who founded Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, continued to play a major role in missionary outreach after the Civil War. These activities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries established or helped establish a host of churches, schools and colleges, hospitals and medical clinics, banks and insurance companies, farm cooperatives, newspapers, and social agencies dedicated to the uplift of the disadvantaged.
In foreign missions the greatest expenditures of time, resources, and personnel of the black churches were in Canada, the Caribbean, and Africa. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a number of blacks fleeing southern slavery and northern discrimination migrated to Canada. They sometimes took their churches with them, and sometimes they were followed by churches of various denominations, especially Baptists and Methodists. There was also a conscious expansion of Christianity by black North Americans into the Caribbean and South America during the nineteenth century, especially prior to the Civil War. Sometimes this extension was carried on by black denominations and associations. At other times, black missionaries representing predominantly white denominations, such as the Episcopalian James Theodore Holly, ventured to countries such as Haiti to establish Protestantism there.
The loyalties of some black Christians and/or their slaveholders to the British during the Revolutionary War had forced some of them to retire or be transported to either the British-controlled Caribbean or portions of Canada. George Liele, a Georgia Baptist, ventured to Jamaica and there established the first Baptist church on the island. David George, another Georgia Baptist, traveled to Nova Scotia, ministered there for a number of years, and then journeyed with a group of Afro-Canadians to the British colony for repatriated enslaved persons in West Africa, Sierra Leone. There he helped found the first Baptist church on the continent. Black Baptist denominational historians have traditionally accorded these persons the distinction of being the first two black American missionaries.
In many ways the African missions movement represented the most dramatic and sustained efforts of black Americans to evangelize other lands. All major denominations of black Christians—Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostalists—participated in missionizing the continent, especially in its western and southern regions. The Presbyterian William Henry Sheppard, a missionary to the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, represented two other types of black missionaries: those who ventured to other portions of Africa and those supported by predominantly white denominations. African missions among black Christians may be divided into three major periods: the colonization phase, from the latter part of the eighteenth century to the American Civil War; the independent organizational phase, from the Civil War to World War I; and the phase since World War I.
Prior to the Civil War a great deal of African missionary outreach by black Christians was carried out in conjunction with movements to establish free blacks on the continent of Africa; thus, most of the evangelization efforts were concentrated in Liberia or nearby regions. Shortly after the formation of the predominantly white General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination of the United States for Foreign Missions (or Triennial Convention) in 1814, a white Baptist deacon in Richmond, Virginia, William Crane, along with two black ministers, Lott Carey and Collin Teague, established the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society for the express purpose of sending the gospel to Africa. The efforts of the society coincided with the foreign-missions interest of the Triennial Convention and the rising colonization movement to repatriate free blacks to Africa. This was symbolized and represented by the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1816–1817. William W. Colley, Teague, and their families relocated in Liberia as a result of their own fund-raising activities and in cooperation with the Triennial Convention and the American Colonization Society. A similar scenario occurred with Rev. Daniel Coker of the AME Church. He ventured to Sierra Leone in 1820 as a colonist supported by the American Colonization Society. But while there he also received support from the AME Church in the United States and established mission stations on behalf of the denomination.
With the conclusion of the Civil War, black Christians were free (and usually encouraged by many of their white counterparts) to pursue independent ecclesiastical arrangements. Interwoven with this ecclesiastical independence was the continuing conviction that American black Christians had a providential role to lift Africa from religious "paganism" and cultural "barbarism." Thus, state, regional, and national black Baptist groups and the two major black Methodist groups began to establish institutional apparatuses that would be devoted wholly to, or focused heavily upon, African missions (e.g., Virginia Baptist State Convention, Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, Women's Home and Foreign Mission Society of the AMEZ Church). This second phase of African missions was sometimes related to, but usually not as directly dependent upon, the principle of black migration or colonization as the first period. William W. Colley, John and Lucy Coles, Emma B. DeLaney, and most other missionaries did not venture to Africa with the intention of renouncing American citizenship or encouraging others to do so. They were more strictly missionaries, not colonists.
In addition, African missions geographically broadened during this period. The first phase tended to focus upon West Africa, especially Liberia. The independent organizational phase continued that focus but also expanded to central and southern Africa. Though Henry McNeal Turner, an AME bishop, at the turn of the century renounced his American citizenship and called for some form of limited emigration to Africa, his focus on missionary work in southern Africa transcended his politics and helped to commit the denomination to intense involvement in that region. Emma B. DeLaney, a Florida Baptist, was a missionary in both southern and western Africa during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Her missionary activities indicate the presence of women on the mission fields, sometimes as partners with their husbands and sometimes, as with Delaney, as unmarried missionaries and evangelistic pioneers.
The Azusa Street Revival (1906–1909), which originated among black worshipers in Los Angeles, California, was the major impetus for the rise of most modern denominations of Pentecostalism. Blacks, whites, and others came from throughout the United States, around the world, and all walks of life to receive Pentecostal blessings in a crusade led by the black preacher William J. Seymour. Both in the domestic sphere and overseas, the Pentecostal movement gave rise to a host of missionary endeavors. The revival, therefore, played a great role in extending Christianity to Africa as well as other lands. It was the activities of this second period that most clearly established the foundation of African missions for black Christians.
The third phase, from the time of World War I, has been characterized by an expansion upon the earlier foundation, continued interaction between many black and continental African Christians, and a slow but steady recognition of greater participation of Africans in the denominational apparatuses of the American-based churches. The urgency for evangelism and sense of racial solidarity and commitment that characterized the former periods have significantly subsided from the African-American churches' missions programs, especially since World War II. To the extent that this is the case, it is partly related to the greater role continental Africans have played in both politics and religion, and increased opportunities for black American involvement in domestic matters.
Coker, Daniel. Journal of Daniel Coker. Baltimore, Md., 1820.
Drake, St. Clair. The Redemption of Africa and Black Religion. Chicago: Third World Press, 1977.
Jacobs, Sylvia M., ed. Black Americans and the Missionary Movement in Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Martin, Sandy D. Black Baptists and African Missions: The Origins of a Movement, 1880–1915. Macon, Ga.: Mercer, 1989.
Sernett, Milton C. Black Religion and American Evangelicalism: White Protestants, Plantation Missions, and the Flowering of Negro Christianity, 1787–1865. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975.
Williams, Walter L. Black Americans and the Evangelization of Africa, 1877–1900. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.
Wills, David W., and Richard Newman, eds. Black Apostles at Home and Abroad: Afro-Americans and the Christian Mission from the Revolution to Reconstruction. New York: Macmillan, 1982.
sandy dwayne martin (1996)