Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Called and sent

United Methodists as missionaries
By Dana L. Robert*

The Book of John says that after Jesus’ death and burial, Mary Magdalene went to his tomb. because Jesus’ body had disappeared, Mary was weeping. But then, miraculously, the resurrected Lord appeared and called her by name! He sent her to tell the disciples she had seen him. That evening, as the disciples gathered behind shut doors, Jesus appeared again. He said to them, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his wounded hands and side, and he told them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:11-23)

In this passage, the resurrected Lord called the disciples together and then sent them out in peace in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the basis of mission—being called and sent. The word “mission” comes from biblical words meaning “sending.” A missionary, then, is one who is called by God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and sent into the world with the message of resurrection and new life.

Current Church and Community Worker missionaries, Shirley Townsend-Jones, an American serving with Bennettsville-Cheraw Area Cooperative Ministry in Bennettsville, South Carolina; Soraya De Arco, from Colombia, serving Esperanza Viva (Living Hope) Community Center in Mason, Ohio; and the Rev. Fuxia Wang, from China, serving the Chinese community in Norman and South Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. PHOTO: GLOBAL MINISTRIES

Because God calls and sends, everyone who follows Jesus Christ is in mission. Being in mission is thus central to United Methodist identity. “Making disciples for the transformation of the world” is one of the general ways that United Methodists express that identity today. Even so, down through our history, specific people have been called and commissioned by the church to be “missionaries.” Since all United Methodists are called and sent, to set aside particular people as missionaries means that they personally represent the missional identity of the whole church. To be a missionary, therefore, is to embody the deepest hopes of the people who share their calling—those who “pray and pay” to support them.

A missionary movement

The missional identity of United Methodism began with its founders. John Wesley and his coworkers felt called by God to spread the message of new life to the poor and working classes, to slaves, women, children, and others neglected by the established churches. As migrants went to the American colonies, they took their missionary spirit with them. In 1771, Wesley sent preachers to follow the people called Methodists. The greatest missionary story of early Methodism is how it spread across North America through the efforts of laity and preachers who traveled endlessly on horseback, in all kinds of weather, to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and “scriptural holiness” over the land. Early itinerant preachers were officially called “missionaries.” Under great leaders like Francis Asbury and Philip Otterbein, Methodism and related movements organized classes and conferences. Methodist churches spread so widely that by 1850, one of every three American Christians was a Methodist.

The first man Wesley appointed as superintendent over the Methodists in the United States was Thomas Coke, who made nine voyages to America.1 But Coke had a bigger vision of spreading the gospel to those who had never heard it before. He promoted missions to the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and Asia, and he sent preachers called “missionaries” to Canada. He died in 1814 on his way to Sri Lanka and was buried at sea. The missionary vision of Thomas Coke—to transform the entire world with the gospel—had a strong impact on the unfolding missionary tradition.

Founding of missionary societies

Instead of only referring to an itinerant preacher, the term “missionary” took on a more exotic meaning after the founding of the Methodist Missionary Society and the New York Female Missionary Society in 1819.2 With the founding of “foreign” missionary societies, the term “missionary” sharpened to mean someone supported by a group of like-minded church people to take the gospel to non-Christian peoples outside the boundaries of the United States, including to Native Americans. From the 1790s to 1820s, the idea of the voluntary “foreign missionary society” spread among Protestants worldwide. Thus, American Methodists were part of a larger Protestant movement when they banded together to support foreign missionaries and their works of church planting, education, and Bible translation and distribution.

The risky nature of missionary life can be seen in the first major overseas mission of the American Methodists—to Liberia in West Africa. Although African-American Methodist settlers in Liberia repeatedly requested missionaries from the United States, the high death rate from malaria deterred candidates. A volunteer was finally found in 1832 when the widower Melville B. Cox—who was already dying of tuberculosis—agreed to go. The Young Men’s Missionary Society of New York City supported him. Cox told a friend to write on his tombstone, “Let a thousand fall before Africa be given up.”3 Cox survived three months. Before he died, he had organized the Liberian church according to the Book of Discipline, planned a school, bought a building, and held a camp meeting.

Meanwhile, new local branches of missionary societies were popping up in the Northeast. In 1833, the Young Men’s Foreign Missionary Society of Boston sent an unmarried woman, Sophronia Farrington, to Liberia. Neither she nor other Liberia missionaries lasted very long. Then in 1837, the Methodist Missionary Society sent Ann Wilkins to Liberia. The most outstanding of the early overseas missionaries, Wilkins founded the first Methodist girls’ school abroad. “Despite a permanent haze of malaria and the deaths of nearly all her colleagues,” for 19 years Ann Wilkins was “sustained by her holiness piety and money, prayers, supplies, and correspondence” from the women of the New York Female Missionary Society.4

Left: Ann Wilkins founded the first Methodist girls’ school abroad in Liberia, West Africa. PHOTO: GCAH PORTRAITS #12, P. 19; Right: Representatives of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society at Quessua mission station, Luanda, Angola, 1910, Martha Drummer, Hedwig Graf, and Susan Collins. PHOTO: GCAH AFRICA #4, P. 46

The stories of the early Methodist missionaries inspired Methodists in the United States to keep pressing forward during the 19th century—first across North America, and then into “foreign fields” abroad. Other predecessor denominations of United Methodism—the United Brethren and the Evangelical Association—also founded missionary societies. The first report of the Evangelical Association’s Missionary Society in 1840 showed that it sponsored four “missionaries,” all of whom itinerated among German immigrants in the United States and Canada.5 The full range of the term “missionary” could still be seen in the title of the United Brethren in Christ missionary society, founded in 1853 as the “Home, Frontier, and Foreign Missionary Society.” The United Brethren Missionary Society not only supported the westward expansion of German-speaking churches, but in 1855, it sent its first foreign missionaries to Sierra Leone.

Mission work expands

By the late 1800s, Methodist home and foreign missionaries were going into “all the world.” As the “frontier force” of the Wesleyan-related denominations, their holistic vision included a wide range of activities designed to offer abundant life to people everywhere. Bible translation, sharing the good news, founding churches, and organizing conferences were key responsibilities for ordained male missionaries. With the founding of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1869, as well as women’s societies in 40 other American Protestant denominations, married and unmarried women partnered to open schools (ranging from kindergartens to colleges) and medical facilities, especially for women and children. Laymen focused on “industrial mission,” including printing, teaching agricultural methods, and assorted practical skills. In line with their belief both in vital piety and in education, Methodist missionaries excelled at founding schools everywhere they went.

As the mission force expanded into Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the range of work undertaken by Methodists also expanded. Just two examples of the many devoted missionaries serve to illustrate what it meant, a century ago, to be called and sent.

The life of Martha Drummer illustrates how medical work, education, evangelism, and advocacy intersected in the vocation of a woman missionary.6 Drummer worked her way through Clark College in Atlanta, then a home mission school for African Americans, by doing house cleaning and laundry. She entered the Boston Deaconess Training School around 1901. After five years of education in urban missions and nursing, Drummer became the first African American nurse deaconess. In 1906, at age 35, she was appointed as a missionary to Angola by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society. At Quessua mission station, Martha Drummer undertook a multifaceted mission. During the dry season, she itinerated with a helper through villages full of people suffering from tropical diseases, and she treated them for malaria, fevers, boils, and numerous other medical problems. Because she was the only nurse in the vicinity, she commented that by 1911, she had treated persons of 12 different nationalities and delivered many babies. On her visits to villages, she preached outdoors to hundreds of people. Her “regular” work during rainy season consisted of caring for and teaching orphan girls.

Martha Drummer was a fierce advocate for the education of African girls, and she sharply criticized the way they were treated in Angolan culture. She also chastised her white women supporters for their subtle racism. She grew frustrated because church women prayed by name for China, India, Mexico, the South Pacific, Japan, and South America, and then for “all the rest.” Drummer wrote in 1918, “There isn’t any all the rest but Africa…Call it by its name. Say Africa when you pray, and then maybe you will think to pray for it oftener.” After 20 years in Angola, Martha retired in ill health from severe asthma with complications. But her beloved Quessua Mission still exists today. Although it was destroyed in the Angolan Civil War, it was rebuilt by United Methodists in Angola, and now includes a theological seminary.

In 1907, shortly after Martha Drummer went to Angola, Eli Stanley Jones was appointed by the Methodist Board of Missions to serve in India. Over decades of service, his missionary vocation included evangelism, interfaith dialogue, writing 30 books, spiritual leadership of the global ashram movement, sacrificial support for Indian independence, and lobbying to end war. In 1938, Time magazine declared him the “world’s greatest missionary evangelist.” Friend of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, Jones supported the nonviolent resistance movement against British rule in India, and he worked against colonialist oppression elsewhere.

Jones’ fame as evangelist spread with the publication of his 1925 mission classic, The Christ of the Indian Road—which sold over a million copies.7 As he introduced Jesus Christ to Hindus and Muslims, Jones “naturalized” him in the Indian context, describing Jesus as a wandering teacher familiar with Indian culture rather than an arrogant western foreigner. In evangelistic meetings and lectures, Jones inspired thousands of people to stand and follow Jesus Christ.

Another phase of Jones’ work was as spiritual leader of a global ashram movement—modeled on a type of Indian intentional community, drawn together for prayer, study, and fellowship.8 Jones considered his true home to be the ashram fellowship, and he traveled around the world not only preaching, but leading retreats. Jones worked with Japanese friends to try to prevent the Second World War. Despite Jones’ fame as an international spiritual leader, the British government banned him from India because of his support of Indian independence.

Left: The Rev. E. Stanley Jones in 1907, as he entered missionary service. PHOTO: GCAH PORTRAITS #2, P. 11; Right: The Rev. E. Stanley Jones, preaching at the ashram in Sat Tal, India, 1950s. PHOTO: GLOBAL MINISTRIES

Today, Jones’ writings on the relationship between Jesus and the Kingdom of God remain classic formulations of the inseparability of evangelization and social justice.

Mission to and from everywhere

In 1963, the worldwide ecumenical mission movement met in Mexico City under the motto “mission in six continents.” With the independence of nations from western colonialism, Christianity began growing rapidly in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. The concept of the missionary grew also.9 When The United Methodist Church was founded in 1968, the idea of the missionary was in the process of being globalized. Instead of being an “ambassador” sent from the “west” to the “rest,” the missionary should carry the spirit of World Christianity and go “to and from all six continents.” United Methodist missionaries from the 1960s continued to share the gospel in new ways and in new places but in deliberate partnership with, and mutuality among, all the branches of the church.

Today, 200 years after the founding of the Methodist Missionary Society, the word “missionary” embodies the convictions not only of the U.S. church, but of United Methodists around the world. Called by God, missionaries are set apart specifically to represent the global identity of the whole connection, knit together through prayer and financial support. Yet it still takes all of God’s people, working together, to express the fullness of “grace upon grace” that is contained in the word “missionary.”10 Fulltime missionaries collaborate with short-term volunteer teams in Appalachia and Zimbabwe, in Haiti and the Philippines, in Russia and Brazil. Global Ministries, UMVIM, UMCOR, United Methodist Women, and local congregations all support people to partner with God in the way of Jesus Christ. The deeper lesson of the Methodist Missionary Society is that being a Christian means being called and sent: to be a United Methodist is to be in mission.

Dr. Dana L. Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission and director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission, Boston University School of Theology.

1 On Thomas Coke, see John Vickers, “One-Man Band: Thomas Coke and the Origins of Methodist Missions,” Methodist History 34:3, April 1996, pp.135-47; John Vickers, Thomas Coke: Apostle of Methodism Epworth Press, London, 1969.

2 The founding of the Missionary Society, see Wade Crawford Barclay, Early American Methodism 1769-1844, V. 1 Missionary Motivation and Expansion, the Board of Missions and Church Extension of The Methodist Church, New York, 1949. For women’s society founding, see Susan Eltscher Warrick, “She Diligently Followed Every Good Work: Mary Mason and the New York Female Missionary Society,” Methodist History 34:4, July 1996, pp. 214-229.

3 Cox, cited in Barclay, ibid., 330

4 Dana L. Robert, “Innovation and Consolidation in American Methodist Mission History,” World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit, eds. Darrell L. Whiteman and Gerald H. Anderson, Providence House, Nashville, 2009, pp. 127-137.

5 W.W. Orwig, History of the Evangelical Association, Vol. 1: From the Origin of the Association to the End of the Year 1845, Charles Hammer, Cleveland, Ohio, 1858, p. 298.

6 On Martha Drummer, see Dana L. Robert, “Faith, Hope, Love in Action: United Methodist Women in Mission Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” Unpublished paper delivered at Mission Forward Event, United Methodist Women’s Assembly, April 29, 2010, St. Louis, Missouri; Lily H. Hammond, In the Vanguard of a Race, Council of Women for Home Missions and Missionary Education Movement of the United States and Canada, New York, 1922.

7 E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road, Abingdon, New York, 1925 8 On Jones’ life see Anne Mathews-Younes, “E. Stanley Jones Biography: A Granddaughter’s Observations and Reflections.” On his relationship to ashrams, see “E. Stanley Jones, Missionary Extraordinary and Founder of United Christian Ashrams.”

9 See Dana L. Robert, “Shifting Southward: Global Christianity since 1945,” reprint in Paul Chilcote and Laceye Warner, eds., The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church, Eerdmans, 2008, pp. 117-134; Dana L. Robert, “‘Rethinking Missionaries’ from 1910 to Today,” Methodist Review 4, 2012, pp. 57-75.

10 See “Grace Upon Grace,” the official mission theological statement of The United Methodist Church, and reflections on it by professors of mission, in the blog UMGlobal,

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