Monday, April 8, 2019

United Methodist Mission Bicentennial Stories

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.

As a component of the United Methodist mission bicentennial celebration, I have been collecting and sharing stories of Methodists in mission on the bicentennial website. I encourage you to visit the website, read some of these stories, and submit a story of your own.

Reading the 250+ stories on the website has given me a real appreciation of the breadth of Methodist mission over the last two hundred years. Methodists have engaged in evangelism, social justice, health and healing, and education as forms of mission, among others. The wide variety of ways in which Methodists have participated in God’s mission is truly amazing!

Yet it is not surprising. We serve a God whose mercy is wide, whose power is great, and whose creativity is unbounded. Since mission starts with our God who is beyond all our abilities to describe and transcends all limits we may seek to place on God, it is a natural thing that mission should also be multifaceted, complex, and expansive.

I have been struck, too, by the breadth of those Methodists engaged in mission as well as the breadth of the types of mission in which they were engaged. Nowadays, Global Ministries speaks of missionaries going “from everywhere to everywhere.” Certainly, our corps of missionaries is increasingly international compared to previous decades.

Yet, if one looks in the right places, one discovers that mission has always been “from everywhere to everywhere.” Examples abound of people like Kanichi Miyama, a Japanese immigrant to the US in the 19th century, who converted to Methodism in San Francisco, founded Japanese-American Methodism in both California and Hawaii, and eventually returned to Japan as a missionary.

In mission history, as in other types of history, we are too often tempted by the “great man” version of the past, in which the past is a series of heroic exploits by leading individuals, usually men, and usually white Western men at that. Yet when we focus solely on such figures, we overlook the fact that mission has primarily been a women’s movement, both in terms of those who engage in mission and those who have supported mission. We also overlook the critical role that native leaders, usually unnamed and unnoted, have played in making disciples and in mobilizing the church to reach out to its surroundings.

At the bicentennial conference, we are still highlighting some of the great leaders of Methodist mission, but in a way that demonstrates the diversity of Methodists in mission by featuring the following stories (in approximate chronological order) on poster boards at the conference:

John Stewart
Nathan Bangs
Ann Wilkins
Wilhelm Nast
William and Clementina Butler
Mary McClellan Lambuth, Walter Russell Lambuth, and Nora Kate Lambuth Park
William Taylor
Amanda Berry Smith
James and Isabella Thoburn
Frances Willard and Katharine (Kate) Bushnell
Gertrude Howe, Ida Kahn, and Mary Stone
Francisco Penzotti
Lochie Rankin
Belle Harris Bennett
William Oldham
Teikichi Sunamoto
Henry and Ella Appenzeller
Dr. Marietta Hatfield, Dr. Mabel Silver, and Rotifunk Hospital
Andres Martinez, Kicking Bird, and J. J. Methvin
Herbert Welch
John R. Mott
Alma Mathews and Kathryn Maurer
Anna Eklund
Susan Collins, Anna Hall, and Martha Drummer
William Springer, Helen Rasmussen Springer, and Tshangand Kayeke
E. Stanley Jones
Justina Showers
Helen Kim and Prudencia Fabro
Vivienne and U.S. Gray
J. Harry Haines
Mai Gray
Theressa Hoover

Of course, by focusing only on the greats of whatever background, we miss the faithful, dedicated service of everyday people, ordained and lay, in mission. We miss stories such as Billie Rench of Michigan, who faithfully promoted mission among Methodists of the Detroit Conference for decades, or Rhodes Chimonyo, who served for a long time as the treasurer of Methodism in Zimbabwe as a Person in Mission, or Ed Ririe, who volunteered for 27 UMVIM trips in his life and died while on his last trip.

It is everyday people like this that have made up the bulk of Methodists involved in mission over the last 200 years; it is everyday people that make up the bulk of Methodists involved in mission today; and it will surely be everyday people that will make up the bulk of Methodists involved in mission in the future. We are all missionaries, and whether or not our deeds are written in the human annals of the history of mission, they will surely be recorded in the heavenly book.


  1. We make an error when we assume that mission American Methodist missions began in the early 1800s. Remember, Bishops, Asbury, Coke, and Whatcoat were all missionaries to the Americas. In fact, the evangelization of the the Deep South, the expanding frontier, and New England was accomplished by missionaries. That is what the Minutes call them. Early American Methodism had a self-understanding regarding this matter. We are wrong to ignore that. At its heart, American Methodism is and has always been a missionary movement. The circuit system was a missionary strategy. The vision for America was a missionary dream. When we properly grasp the missionary character, missionary zeal, and missionary structure of early American Methodism, we can realign the UMC with its mission. The fact that we are not aligned with the vision of Wesley or early American Methodism may explain why we are divided as a church and dying as a movement in America.

    1. Bill, of course you're right that Methodism has always been a missionary movement, and we should celebrate that. The bicentennial video we debuted at the bicentennial conference last night makes the point that Methodism has been missionary since its beginning and that we are all in mission still today. Asbury and others who were around before the Missionary Society was formed are in our story collection for the bicentennial: This year is also the 250th anniversary of Wesley sending Boardman and Pilmore to the American colonies, and I've recognized that elsewhere. The logic of institutional life prompts us to reflect on mission this year because it's the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Missionary Society, but it is my hope that this celebration of mission reaches much more broadly than just the history of one institution and instead is an opportunity to celebrate mission as a central part of the life of the church.

    2. It would be a fun article to describe our current malaise (American Methodism) in light of the exceptional progress of early American Methodism. I contend that we do not have the same mission and we are not the same church. Since mission made American Methodism what it was, to what extent is the UMC the heir of that glorious movement? We will not recover our identity until we reclaim our lost heritage. In terms of the apostolic nature of pristine Methodism, the African connection is truer to the Wesleyan ethos than the American connection. That may be one reason that they resist us so much. The fact that we have lost members at an astounding rate since the 1960s while remaining firmly fixated on issues about human sexuality should cause all of us to ponder.