Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. This post originally appeared in altered form in the Fall 2018 version of New World Outlook.
Today is the bicentennial of United Methodist mission, commemorating the April 5, 1819, founding of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the first denomination-wide mission society in the American tradition of Methodism. The Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church is also the earliest forerunner of today’s General Board of Global Ministries. The bicentennial is thus both a chance to celebrate mission broadly in The United Methodist Church, its predecessors, and related traditions, and a chance to wish Global Ministries a special “Happy Birthday!”
By observing this milestone anniversary, I hope that reflecting on Methodist mission in the past will inspire and encourage us in the present to lay the groundwork for continued mission by Methodists in the future. In that way, this bicentennial is not just about what God has already done through the people called Methodists as part of God’s mission (missio Dei). It is about what God is doing now and what God will continue to do in years to come.
The Missionary Society was founded by white Methodist leaders in New York City, who were inspired by the work of John Stewart, a lay Methodist of mixed African-American, Native-American, and white heritage, who undertook on his own initiative to conduct evangelistic mission among the Wyandotte (or Wyandot) Native Americans of Ohio. Stewart, working with African-American translator Jonathan Pointer and native converts such as Chief Between-the-Logs, produced a significant movement of Wyandotte who converted to Methodism. It was the first time any native group had chosen to become Methodist in significant numbers, and it gave Methodist leaders hope that Methodism might have something to offer other groups beyond the borders of the developing American nation state.
While the founding of the Missionary Society makes a convenient point from which to measure Methodist mission history, designating a precise beginning to Methodist mission is difficult to do. Methodism has in been a missionary movement since its very beginning. The first Methodist mission work outside of the British Isles began in 1759 in Antigua. The first preachers appointed by Wesley to the American colonies were Richard Boardman and Joseph Pillmore, sent in 1769, 50 years prior to the Missionary Society. John Stewart himself started his work in 1816, three years before the Missionary Society.
Even when it comes to mission societies, Methodist origins are complicated. The first denomination-wide mission society in Methodism is the British Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS), approved by the British conference in 1818, the year before its American counterpart was founded (and two years before the 1820 General Conference affirmed that founding for the entire denomination). Yet British Methodists mark their mission history from the WMMS’s creation at the district level in 1813. In the United States, too, there were local and regional mission organizations before the creation of the Missionary Society.
If the Missionary Society was not quite the first mission organization, nor would it be the last started by Methodists. The Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS), Methodist Protestant Church, Evangelical Association, and United Brethren in Christ, all predecessors of today’s United Methodist Church, would found a variety of mission agencies over the course of the 19th century, which conducted a variety of domestic and foreign work. Of particular note were women’s mission societies. The first denomination-wide women’s mission society in Methodism was the MEC Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS), founded on March 23, 1869, 50 years after the Missionary Society. Thus, today’s United Methodist Women, heirs of the WFMS, are celebrating their 150th anniversary this year.
These many beginnings yield a conclusion and a corollary about mission. The conclusion is that mission is first and foremost an activity and only secondarily an organization. Mission begins with the activity of God, which churches and individual Christians join in. Yet even for humans, mission activity at least initially precedes mission organization. Thus, many of the great missionaries of Methodism, from John Stewart to William Wadé Harris to William Taylor, boldly went beyond the organizations of their time. Migrants in particular have consistently pushed the church into new forms of mission and therefore mission organization.
The primacy of mission as activity over organization also highlights a corollary: the organizations tasked with mission are always changing and growing. Global Ministries is now 200 years old, and I pray that it may continue to endure as a means of God’s mission for many years to come. But I also expect that Global Ministries will look different in 20, 50, 100, or 200 years than it does now. Such change is natural and a sign that Methodists are being faithful in following God to engage in mission with the world around us as it is currently, and not just as it was in the past.
When Methodists in the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South, came together to celebrate the Centenary of mission a century ago, the tone was different. American Methodists, riding the high of victory in World War I, took a decidedly triumphalist and nationalist approach to celebrating Methodism’s role in God’s mission in the world. Mission was more or less equated with the spread of American democracy. The language used to describe Methodism’s extensive mission work reflected a white, American sense of superiority over other groups, mingled with concern for their well-being.
Yet even in this high point of mission tied to the powers of the world, there were hints of how God was moving in mission among the margins. The first church to reach its financial pledge for the Centenary fundraising drive was not a big-steeple American church. It was a church in Buenos Aires. The group that gave most generously to that fundraising drive was an annual conference of German immigrants in the Pacific Northwest of the US. While the leaders of the Centenary were focused on endorsements from US President Woodrow Wilson, everyday Methodists around the world – in Korea, China, the Philippines, Norway, Denmark, Liberia, and more – used the opportunity to mobilize, to pray, to give generously, and to renew their commitment to follow Jesus in mission. Their work may have been of more enduring value than that of the leading lights of the day.
The world has changed a great deal in the last hundred years, and the church has changed much as well. It is perhaps easier now to recognize that the Holy Spirit is at work in places that were overlooked a century ago. The great growth of Methodism in Africa over the past century is perhaps the most striking example. Looking back over the past 200 years of Methodist mission shows us how God has led Methodists to do great things in mission before and the ways in which God is leading us on to perfection as we seek to do mission in ever better and more faithful ways. Thus, looking back inspires us, informs us, and impels us forward into the next centuries of Methodist mission.