Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Education in the history of Methodist mission

By David W. Scott*

Education has been one of the most consistent features of Methodist mission from its beginning to its present outreach. Wherever Methodists have gone in mission, whether the coalfields of England, the American frontier, Asia, Africa, South America, and beyond, they have started schools. To give a sense of the connection between Methodist education and Methodist mission, this article will recount how Methodist understandings of mission have affected the educational work that was such an important part of that mission. Four eras of Methodist mission theology and practice correspond with four eras of Methodist educational institutions and philosophies. These eras can be thought of as shifts in emphasis between the Methodist slogans of “reform[ing] the nation” and “the world as my parish.” Those eras include an early era of domestic mission in Great Britain and the United States, an era of international mission from the West, an era of the decolonialization of mission, and a new era of global networking.

Education Ewha and IT.jpg
Above Left: First graduating class of Ewha Haktang, Seoul, Korea, 1914. Far right is Helen Kim, who later became the dean and president of Ewha University. PHOTO: GCAH KOREA #1, P. 95; Above right: A group of students and faculty, Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, India 1910s.PHOTO: GCAH INDIA #1, P. 13

Methodist education and domestic mission

The three earliest efforts for Methodist education were Kingswood School in Great Britain, Cokesbury School in the United States, and the Sunday school movements in both countries. These early Methodist educational efforts focused on domestic groups, especially the children of the poor, and all three reflect the missional nature of early Methodism.

Methodism began as a reform movement intended to revive the Church of England. In particular, John Wesley gave close attention to evangelizing the poor and working classes who were generally ignored by the Anglican church establishment. Innovations such as field-preaching and small groups effectively engaged these neglected groups. While early American Methodism developed outside the Anglican establishment, the movement there also stayed close to the poor and working classes in focus, message, and organization. In both countries, the Methodist gospel of free grace and the Methodist pattern of disciplined, holy living were particularly appealing to those on the margins looking to move up in society.

In this context, Methodists understood mission in a holistic way. They focused on personal religious conversion, but that conversion accompanied the adoption of disciplined personal habits that led to greater individual prosperity. Wesley and his followers saw poverty as a problem for the suffering it caused and as a contributing factor in individual sin and social problems. While Wesley did not want Methodists to become rich, neither did he want them to remain poor. Moreover, Wesley and his followers believed that changes in individual religion, morals, and economic behavior would ultimately lead to improvements in society as a whole.

Following this holistic mission, each of the three early experiments in Methodist education was a mix of religious and economic reasons. At Kingswood, Wesley was concerned about poor children who could not afford school—and thus condemned to continue in poverty—as well as children who could only afford poor schools where they learned immoral behaviors. Kingswood sought to, in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Unite the pair so long disjoined, Knowledge and vital piety.”1 Similarly, Cokesbury sought to create a learning environment for preachers’ sons and poor orphans “where learning and religion may go hand in hand.”2 Sunday schools originally sought to teach poor children to read, both for the sake of reading the Bible and for the sake of the social and economic advantages gained from reading. In all three settings, Methodists saw the worldly benefits of education as profiting not only individuals but all of society.

When Methodists expanded into the realm of higher education in the United States, which was a major endeavor in the 18th century, they retained this holistic understanding of mission/education, while increasing their emphasis on “reforming the nation.” Scholars have emphasized the function of Methodist colleges and universities in serving the religious, social, and economic needs of Methodist members, caring for the poor of all backgrounds, and shaping the intellectual, economic, and moral development of the nation.3 Methodists founded more colleges and universities than any other denomination in the 19th century, including some that would go on to become internationally-renowned, such as Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Emory, and Boston universities.

Methodist education and Western foreign mission

The first Methodist schools outside of the British Isles and the United States opened in the mid-19th century, started by missionaries who wanted to duplicate the mix of religious education, socioeconomic self-improvement, and national reform that characterized Methodist schools at home. In this way, they continued the pattern of Methodist mission holism. At the same time, these schools reflected something new in Methodist mission: its participation in a colonial model of missions that spread Western culture along with the gospel. Methodist mission and Methodist education no longer sought to reform just the nation, but rather the whole world, albeit along a model of Western culture.

Methodist education was undeniably part of the missionary effort to promote not just religious but cultural change among non-Christian groups. Methodists agreed that the main purpose of mission schools was to produce converts to Christianity. Methodist schools included religious instruction as part of their curricula, and many Methodist converts did indeed come from schools. But in addition to religious instruction, the curricula of most Methodist schools presented a traditional Western understanding of necessary knowledge and academic disciplines. Debates over vernacular education ensued, and while some Methodist schools did operate in the vernacular, the primary emphasis around the world was on English-language education. The Anglo-Chinese schools that operated throughout China and Southeast Asia are a prime example of the sort of English-language, Western-oriented education offered by Methodist missionaries.

In the case of girls’ schools started by Methodist missionaries, the mere existence of such schools spoke to the intended aims of cultural change. Schools like Ewha School for Girls (now Ewha University) and Lucknow Woman’s College (now Isabella Thoburn College) proclaimed a vision of empowered, educated womanhood in direct contrast to how missionaries perceived women’s roles in traditional societies.

Yar Yorlu, 14, does his homework in his family’s shelter in the Rhino Refugee Camp in northern Uganda. As of April 2017, the camp held almost 87,000 refugees from South Sudan. About 900,000 people from South Sudan have sought refuge in Uganda since South Sudan’s civil war began in 2013. PHOTO: PAUL JEFFREY

Despite their strong emphasis on the export of Western culture, Methodist schools remained an attractive option for indigenous populations around the globe. Many recognized the value of Western education within developing Western-dominated globalization and sought to reap its benefits while retaining their own cultures. As Dana Robert has stated, “The support for educational institutions exemplified the self-help spirit of American Methodism; by the 20th century that spirit appealed to people around the world who were seeking to control the forces of modernization in their countries.” 4

These new models for Methodist mission and education abroad suggested new models for Methodist education in the United States. Education, especially higher education, became a training ground and eventual requirement for American Methodists going out as missionaries. Colleges like Albion and Ohio Wesleyan were prime recruiting hubs for missionaries, while women’s schools like the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions were founded specifically to produce mission workers. Even though American Methodist education did not lose its earlier concern with the upwardly mobile domestic poor, it added another function as a means of training those Methodists dedicated to replicating this model, in its colonial form, around the world.

Methodist education and decolonizing mission

This embrace by indigenous Methodists around the world of Methodist education set up the next era in Methodist education. In the mid-20th century, there was a strong movement toward independence in colonial nations and autonomy in their churches. These trends resulted in a critical rethinking of Methodist mission, first among indigenous leaders, and then in the British and American “home bases.” Methodists, along with other Christians, sought to decolonize missions, even up to the point of declaring, “Missionary, go home!”

These developments in mission, church, and secular politics affected how Methodist schools interpreted and carried out their mission tasks. In most cases, Methodist schools, colleges, and universities formerly run by Western missionaries were taken over by local leaders. (In other cases, such as China, mission-run schools were taken over by secular governments.) This pattern of national control of Methodist education occurred as former mission churches became autonomous churches. It also occurred, however, even when national bodies remained affiliated with The United Methodist Church, as in the Philippines. This shift to local leadership did not always imply the complete absence of Western missionaries, but it did allow local leaders to design educational programs to be most relevant to reforming their particular nation, while generally retaining the holistic focus on religious and socioeconomic transformation.

In addition, indigenous Methodist leaders began opening new schools focused on local needs. United Methodist universities have sprung up in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Liberia, and elsewhere. These schools often include programs for theological training that continue the religious mission of Methodist education while also including vocational programs in business, medicine, agriculture, and government related to goals of personal socioeconomic betterment and national reform. Local initiative and control ensure the range of subjects taught is relevant to each nation’s context and needs.

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Marceline Bakaba Kongaiseko leads her class at the United Methodist Mangobo Secondary School in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS

Even within the United States, Methodist schools focused more on domestic needs and less on producing international missionaries, as the number of Western missionaries declined. Some prominent schools founded by Methodists, such as Northwestern University, dropped their religious affiliation to focus on serving a wider swath of students in a growing national market for higher education.

These developments did not put an end to missionary involvement in Methodist education around the world. Africa University stands as a testimony of a recently-founded school born through international, cooperative mission with a pan-African focus. Nevertheless, new, nationally focused trends overshadowed older models. The emphasis was once again mostly on reforming the nation, not on the world parish.

Methodist education and globally networked mission

We are now seeing a shift within Methodist mission from the national back to the international. Today, partnership, international collaboration, and institutional networking are of increased importance. Methodists around the world realize that many of the most pressing missional issues of the day, such as migration, climate change, women’s rights, and poverty, are too large for any one branch of Methodism to effectively address alone. Even starting new churches is often best done through international (and inter-Methodist) partnerships, as work in Cambodia and Honduras shows. Moreover, Methodists realize that partnership is not just a question of the amount of impact, but one of basic effectiveness. To the extent that mission is international, it must be done in partnership to be done well, and Methodists are developing a variety of organizational networks to facilitate such connections.

Parallel developments are underway within Methodist education, and the International Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges, and Universities (IAMSCU) is a sign of this trend. IAMSCU, along with regional Methodist educational networks, brings together Methodist educational institutions from around the world for networking and collaboration. The scope of these associations has grown since their founding a quarter century ago and continues to grow today. They have gone beyond merely serving a fraternal purpose to organizing significant discussions on how Methodist education can impact pressing global issues such as peacebuilding, poverty relief, environmental care, and global migration. In this way, Methodist education today has returned to the tradition of serving a world parish.

Methodist education is sure to take new turns in the years to come. But it is safe to predict that whenever and wherever Methodists are in mission, education will be an important means by which they seek to foster religious transformation, improve individual lives, contribute to national societies, and serve the world as their parish.

*Dr. David W. Scott is the director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries.

1 “At the Opening of a School in Kingswood (June 24, 1748),” quoted in Nascimento and Maia, p. 11.
2 Quoted in John Owen Gross, Methodist Beginnings in Higher Education, Board of Education of The Methodist Church, Nashville, Tennessee, 1959, p. 18.
3 See John Owen Gross, Methodist Beginnings in Higher Education; William Warren Sweet, Methodism in American History, Abingdon Press, Nashville, p. 954.
4 Dana L. Robert, “Innovation and Consolidation in American Methodist Mission History,” in World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit, ed. Darrell L. Whiteman and Gerald H. Anderson, Providence House Publishers, Franklin, Tennessee, 2009, p. 132. See also Robert, American Women in Mission.

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Fall 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.

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Education for children, youth, college students, and graduate students can be supported through The Advance. Going to the project pages and searching under education will yield schools and students across the globe that would benefit from gifts that help them obtain an education, and often, a Christian education. Search The Advance for ideas.

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