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Eric Washington on African American Missionaries

Before William Carey founded a mission society, or Adoniram and Ann Judson sailed to Burma, a former African American slave had already become a missionary to Jamaica.

Eric Washington teaches history and directs the African and American Diaspora Studies minor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He researches African American church history and the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America. In this edited interview he talks about African Americans who became missionaries.

What do you wish more Christians knew about African American missionaries?

I grew up in a black church that was mission minded in terms of evangelism. By training, I’m an African historian. But it wasn’t until I studied 19th century missions in southern Africa that I found out that African American churches used to send missionaries to Africa and other places around the world.

George Liele was a slave to a Baptist deacon in Georgia. Before the Revolutionary War, his master freed him to preach full time in South Carolina and Georgia along the Savannah River. He co-founded the first black Baptist congregation in the U.S. in 1773. In 1782, his former master’s children wanted to re-enslave him, but he and his family borrowed money to sail on a British troops ship to Jamaica. He founded the first black Baptist church in Jamaica.

Who provided the support for African American missionaries in foreign missions?

Lott Carey was born into slavery in Virginia in 1780. He purchased his freedom from money he saved from being hired out to work in a tobacco warehouse in Richmond, Virginia. He and other slaves who earned money started the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society, because they were concerned that American Baptists were overlooking Africa as a mission field. Carey and his family became missionaries to Liberia in 1821.

When was the peak for African American missionaries?

There were never a lot of African American missionaries, maybe 23 in the field in the early 1900s. They were funded by African American churches that were less economically viable than black churches are today. From my research, it seems that the number of black missionaries dropped in the post-World War II era. There’s now only one American-born black missionary in Africa who’s sponsored by the [historically black] National Baptist Convention USA. The majority of African American Christians are Baptists.

Why are there relatively few African American missionaries now?

There’s plenty of work to do here in the U.S. Many black churches today are founded by an individual rather than planted by a denomination, so they aren’t part of a denominational mission board. There’s a lack of initiative and knowledge of foreign missions. And, financially, it’s still a struggle.

What reactions do you get from black Christians when you tell stories about black missionaries?

I attend a multicultural Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where I did a Sunday school series on Reformed missions in general, featuring African American missionaries in Africa and the Caribbean. But I’m not from Michigan, so I’m not well known in traditional African American churches in the area. As a Christian academic writing about black missionaries, I’d like the opportunity to get into black churches and share these stories.

Want to learn more about African American church development and missionaries? Eric Washington recommends reading Through the Storm, Through the Night: a History of African American Christianity by Paul Harvey and Black Livingston: a True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo by Pagan Kennedy.