Who were the first African-American missionaries sent out from the United States?
George Lisle, the first ordained African-American, went in 1782 to Jamaica with other freed slaves to begin a Baptist mission.
John Marrant, a free black from New York City, went to Newfoundland and preached to “a great number of Indians and white people” at Green’s Harbour. He later preached the Gospel to tribes of Cherokee, Creek, Catawar and Housaw.
The African Methodist Episcopal denomination, founded in 1816 by Richard Allen, sent missionaries to Haiti, San Domingo and Africa.
In 1823, Betsey Stockton, a young African-American woman, sailed with the second group of missionaries from New Haven, Connecticut, to Hawaii.
In 1821, Lott Cary and Colin Teaque were sent to Liberia, being the first missionaries sent out by an African-American organization, the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society.
In 1786, John Stewart, a free black of mixed race, was born in Powhatten County, Virginia. As a young man, John Stewart learned the blue-dying trade. He took his life savings and began traveling, intending to join his family in Tennessee, but was robbed along the way. Arriving destitute and depressed in Marietta, Ohio, John Stewart began to drink.
His story is recorded in Joseph Mitchell’s book, “The Missionary Pioneer, or A Brief Memoir of the Life, Labours, and Death of John Stewart, (Man of Colour), Founder, under God of the Mission among the Wyandotts at Upper Sandusky, Ohio” (New York: printed by J. C. Totten, 1827): “The loss of his property, the distance from his friends, the idea of poverty and disgrace, together with the wretched situation of his mind on account of his soul’s affairs, brought him to shocking determination that he would immediately take measures to hasten his dissolution. And for this purpose he forthwith commenced a course of excessive drinking in a public house. This was continued until his nerves became much affected, his hands trembled so it was difficult for him to feed himself.”
John Stewart tried to straighten out his life and worked in the country making sugar, as Thelma R. Marsh wrote in “Moccasin Trails to the Cross” (United Methodist Church, 1st edition, 1974): “Stewart … return to town, where, contrary to the most solemn vows and promises, which he had previously made to forsake sin and seek the Lord. … An occurrence here took place which much alarmed him: an intimate companion of his was suddenly called by death from time to eternity. With this individual he had made an appointment to spend one more night in sin; but death interfered and disappointed them both. Stewart’s convictions of mind were thereupon greatly increased, and he began to despair of ever obtaining mercy.”
The book, “John Stewart-Missionary Pioneer” (published 1827), stated: “One day while wandering along the banks of the Ohio, bewailing his wretched and undone condition, the arch enemy of souls suggested to him a remedy, which was to terminate the miseries he endured by leaping into the deep, and thereby putting an end to his existence. To this suggestion, he at first felt a disposition to yield, but his attention was arrested by a voice, which he thought called him by name; when on looking around he could see no person, whereupon he desisted from the further prosecution of the desperate project. … Then it was that the Lord was pleased to reveal his mercy and pardoning love to his fainting soul, causing him to burst forth from his closet in raptures of unspeakable joy, declaring what the Lord had done for his poor soul! … There being no Baptist church near … as he walked out one evening he heard the sound of singing and praying proceeding from a house at no great distance. It proved to be a Methodist prayer meeting. His prejudices at first forbade his going in but curiosity prompted him to venture a little nearer, and at length he resolved to enter and make known his case, which he did.”
The book, John Stewart-Missionary Pioneer (1827), continued: “Soon after this he attended a Camp Meeting, here he remained for sometime with a heavy heart. … He at length resolved … by taking a place among the mourners of the assembly, where he lay deploring his case all night, even until the break of day, at which time ‘the sun of righteousness’ broke into his dark bewildered soul. … He heard a sound which much alarmed him: and a voice (as he thought) said to him – ‘Thou shalt declare my counsel faithfully’ at the same time a view seemed to open to him in a Northwest direction, and a strong impression was made on his mind, that he must go out that course into the world to declare the counsel of God. …
“He set out without credentials, directions of the way, money or bread, crossed the Muskingum River for the first time, and traveled a northwest course, not knowing whither he went. … He was frequently informed would lead him into the Indian country on the Sandusky River, some times with, sometimes without a road, without a pilot, without fireworks, sometimes wading the waters and swimming the rivers.”
Abraham J. Baughman wrote in “Past and Present of Wyandot County, Ohio: a record of settlement” (Chicago: The S.J. Clark Publishing Company, 1913, Volume 1, page 39-43): “At Pipetown was a considerable body of Delawares. … At this place Stewart stopped, but as the Indians were preparing for a great dance they paid but little attention to him. … Stewart took out his hymn book and began to sing. He, as is usual with many of his race, had a most melodious voice, and as a result of his effort the Indians present were charmed and awed into perfect silence. When he ceased, Johnny-cake said in broken English, ‘Sing more.’ He then asked if there was any person present who could interpret for him; when old Lyons, who called himself one hundred and sixty years old (for he counted the summer a year and the winter a year) came forward. Stewart talked to them …”
John Stewart made it to the tribe of Wyandots, who were called by the French “Huron.” They previously had treaties with the French during the French and Indian Wars 1754-1763, and helped found Detroit. They later made treaties with the British during Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. John Stewart reached the home of Indian William Walker Sr., who first believed Stewart to be a runaway slave. Stewart convinced him that he had come to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the children of the forest.
Realizing that Stewart could not speak the Wyandot language, William Walker sent him to Jonathan Pointer, a black man who in his youth had been kidnapped by the Wyandots, adopted into their tribe and had learned the Wyandot language. Pointer served as interpreter for Stewart when he preached, but not wanting his friends to think that he believed, Pointer ended each interpretation with a remark “These are his words, not mine” or “That’s what the preacher says, but I don’t believe it.” Later, Pointer converted.
To read the rest of Bill Federer’s history of early black missionaries, click here.
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