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Bishop Francis Burns, missionary bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Liberia, 1858-1863. Photo courtesy of the Liberia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Photo courtesy of the Liberia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church

Bishop Francis Burns, missionary bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Liberia, 1858-1863.

Ask the UMC: When was the first African-American bishop elected?

 

When did the church first elect an African-American bishop?

In 1858, Francis Burns was elected and served as a missionary bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Liberia.

His early life was spent in Greene County, NY. His family was poor, so at the age of 4, he was indentured to a Methodist farmer. He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church at 15 and was interested in the ministry, but was not free until age 21. He was first licensed to preach in Windham, NY, still an active circuit in the Catskill Hudson District.

He served as a missionary teacher and leader in Liberia for many years before and after his election as bishop. In declining health, he returned to the United States and died in Baltimore in 1863, three months after the Emancipation Proclamation. His body was returned to Liberia where he was buried.

United States
The first African-American bishops to serve in the United States were Robert E. Jones and Matthew W. Clair Sr., elected in 1920 in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Jones and Clair were elected as full general superintendents, not limited to work in Africa like Burns.

Bishop Robert E. Jones founded Gulfside Assembly (Waveland, Miss.) in 1923, the first training and retreat center for African-Americans.

Photo of Bishop Roy C. Nichols, 1969, courtesy of the World Council of Churches Archives.

Photo of Bishop Roy C. Nichols, 1969, courtesy of the World Council of Churches Archives.

Clair served in Liberia and Kentucky. He gave the public prayer in 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the statue of Francis Asbury in Washington, D.C. Clair is the first bishop to have a son, Matthew W. Clair Jr., also elected bishop.

Central Jurisdiction
In 1940, W.A.C. Hughes and Lorenzo King were the first bishops elected by the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction, established with the creation of The Methodist Church in 1939.

Bishop Hughes was ill at the time of his election and died 19 days after his consecration.

King, a member of the Northeastern Jurisdiction and pastor of St. Mark's Methodist Church in Manhattan, was the first bishop elected by another jurisdiction.

The United Methodist Church
Roy Nichols became the first African-American bishop elected in The United Methodist Church after the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction in 1968. He was pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in Manhattan when he was elected bishop by the Northeastern Jurisdiction. He served the Pittsburgh Area and retired after serving as Resident Bishop of the New York Area. He is remembered as a strong advocate for social justice.

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This content was produced by InfoServ, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.

First published Feb. 5, 2018.