Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Regionalization and Connectionalism: The Colonial Mission Era

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the second in a five-part series based on a presentation by Dr. Scott to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries. 

In this and the next two posts, I want to lay out how questions of local relevance and trans-local connection and of connection and power within the church have played out for Methodists in three separate historical eras: the colonial mission era, the era of political independence and church autonomy, and the era of globalization and world Christianity.

The first era is the colonial mission era. This is the age, lasting from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, during which Methodism spread from North America to other places in the world, usually following the lines of secular colonial and commercial expansion.

European colonization of other parts of the globe stretches back to the late 15th century, but the period from the middle of the 19th century through the World Wars is often referred to as the period of “high” colonialism, the era in which Western colonialism achieved its furthest geographic spread and greatest degree of political and economic control over other lands.

Emblematic of this period of high colonialism was the “scramble for Africa,” the competition among European countries to control portions of the African continent, leading to the Berlin Conference in 1884-85, at which Europeans, without African input, agreed among themselves on how to partition Africa.

Of course, colonialism existed in Asia and Latin America as well, and indeed, European colonialism developed in these contexts earlier than it did in central Africa. And we must remember, too, that the United States entered the act of holding foreign colonies in 1898 with its victory in the Spanish-American War.

Along with the extension of European (and American) political control over other areas went the extension of Western economic networks. Often, political control and economic exploitation were deeply intertwined. This phenomenon of economic expansion was one in which the United States participated vigorously after its Civil War, especially in Latin America. As part of both colonialism and commercialism went the extension of various new technologies of transportation and communication: trains, steamships, telegraphs, and even postcards.

This was the context in which American Methodist missions began to spread, first to returned former slaves in West Africa, next to American businessmen in Latin America, then to immigrant homelands in Europe, and then to populous nations in Asia, and so on.

By 1919, when American Methodists from the North and the South celebrated the centenary of their mission agencies, Methodist churches had hundreds of missionaries and tens of thousands of converts in dozens of nations across five continents. Mission work included not only evangelism, but also education, healthcare, literacy, agriculture, and the promotion of democracy and Western culture. This wave of founding new branches of Methodism in new countries crested in the mid-1920s, when financial problems with mission fundraising and budgeting forced consolidation and retrenchment of mission efforts.

These missionaries organized their converts into new branches of their denominational structures, especially in the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South. As mission historian Wade Crawford Barclay wrote, “There is no record of the Missionary Society having given instructions to their missionaries to transfer to their respective fields the exact pattern of church organization existing at home. It was assumed by all, without question, that this would be done.” That is, missionaries, mission executives, and bishops all assumed that connections across geography must include structural connections.

Nevertheless, founding new branches of the church in new geographic and cultural locations did raise questions about the process of trying to establish “the exact pattern of church organization existing at home.” How exactly should these new branches of the church relate to existing branches? What should be done if local conditions made some elements of the home pattern of church organization impractical, or even impossible? How could the church maintain connection—and often, control—over long distances that made travel and communication slow?

The answers that the church developed, slowly, through experimentation, and often outside the boundaries of existing polity, reflected the means of connection and local relevance that characterized the early church. Missionaries were a form of itinerants and the most important link in holding the various branches of the church together. They were not the only such link—migrants, traveling preachers, and even tourists also made connections across geographic regions of the church.

Nevertheless, missionaries were the most important such link, both in their own travel to the mission field and home for furloughs, and in their voluminous amount of writing. They wrote letters, newspaper articles, magazine articles, books, pamphlets, even calendars, and this volume of writing served to communicate about the home field to those they encountered around the world and to communicate about mission, including the lives and customs of people on the mission field, back to their friends, family, and supporters at home.

Often inspired by visits and letters from missionaries, church members in the United States (and Europe) in turn sent money to the mission field, both through denominational mission structures and directly through personal relationships with missionaries. This generosity underwrote the development of the church around the world, though it also often established long-standing traditions of dependence. Some mission leaders such as William Taylor attempted to cultivate self-support on the mission field, opting for local relevance instead of international financial connection.

As the church outside the United States grew, the structures of the church grew there as well, including both conferences and bishops. Annual conferences outside the United States were formed quite early, already in the 1830s, though initially in an adapted form as “missionary annual conferences.” Central conferences were added later in the 1880s, originally on the local initiative of missionaries in India, though eventually adopted into the regular practice and polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and carried over to successor denominations, including the UMC. Jurisdictions in The Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church were modeled in part on central conferences.

Questions about episcopal supervision and the availability of ordination also arose from the church outside the United States, first in Liberia and then elsewhere. This led to a variety of polity experiments in providing episcopal supervision, including travel by general superintendent bishops from the United States, missionary bishops limited to areas outside the United States, and general superintendent bishops appointed to live outside the United States. None of these arrangements were fully satisfactory to both areas of the church outside the United States and to decision-making centers of the church in the United States.

Several branches of the church outside the United States, starting with Japan in 1907 and continuing through Korea, Mexico, and Brazil in 1930, became autonomous churches, structurally separate from their parent denominational bodies, though still connected through missionaries, writings, and money. The desire to unite separate branches of Methodism, local political considerations, and, in the case of Brazil, disputes over episcopal supervision motivated these moves to autonomy. These developments, however, did not initiate a new wave of rethinking the relationship between autonomy and connection. Instead, with the 1939 merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Methodist Protestant Church, the international polity of the new Methodist Church took on a settled character.

In the attempt to ensure both local relevance and trans-local connection, the Methodist churches of this era tended to emphasize trans-local connection over local relevance. Moreover, this was usually connection as a form of control by those in the United States, who in this era exercised dominance over other branches of the church, especially those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Methodists in the United States set the standards, and others were occasionally allowed to adapt those standards to a greater or lesser degree. But Methodists in the United States were slow to recognize the need to adapt the practices of the church to ensure local relevance outside the United States.

When adaptation did happen, it usually did so through American missionaries taking initiative outside the regular system of polity, and even American missionaries were often suspicious of local control by native leaders. American Methodists in this era spread the gospel to others around the world, but the relationships and structures they created to do so stressed connection as control instead of connection as an aid to local relevance.

The next post will look at the era of political independence and church autonomy.

No comments:

Post a Comment