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History of The United Methodist Church in Africa

 

On the continent of Africa, the mission of The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies has developed through missionaries, mostly from the U.S. but also from Europe. With the exception of Liberia as a colony for freed slaves, there was no mutual benefit from migration towards and from the U.S. as in Europe or partly in Asia. The mission of the church in Africa was not limited to the preaching of the Gospel. Two other main elements were part of a holistic approach: educational endeavors in building up of schools, from elementary schools up to professional and university education; and health care with clinics and dispensaries. Churches, and among them the Methodists, helped to raise a generation of indigenous leaders in church and state. Linked to the poor economic, educational and health conditions, the mission in Africa has remained dependent on outside support in personnel and finances.

What follows will be limited to sub-Saharan Africa. The mission in North Africa always belonged to the European region. With the exception of Liberia (Methodist Episcopal Church, 1822/1832) and Sierra Leone (United Brethren, 1855), the Methodist mission from the U.S. in sub-Saharan Africa began towards the end of the 19th and the early 20th century.

In 1920, General Conference wanted to do away with missionary bishops whose jurisdiction was limited to their electoral region outside the U.S., but a similar limitation was re-introduced in 1928 when General conference gave authority to central conferences to elect their own bishops. In 1920, the Methodist Episcopal Church established a central conference for South Africa which comprised its conferences in the Southern part of Africa: Angola, Congo (today DRC, Southern region), Mozambique, and Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe). Liberia was not part of that central conference. The central conference first met in Old Umtali, Rhodesia, and the bishop resided in Cape Town.

After the merger of 1939, a provisional central conference met in 1943 which included all annual conferences in sub-Saharan Africa (Liberia was only present in 1943). In 1948, it became the Africa Central Conference. In 1956, it was subdivided into two episcopal areas. In 1960, a third bishop was authorized, but not elected. In 1964, the central conference subdivided into four episcopal areas: Angola, Congo, Mozambique, and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Liberia was authorized to organize into a central conference of its own and elect its bishop.

Up until the union in 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren Church supported ministry in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. In Sierra Leone the EUB mission became autonomous in 1968. In Nigeria, it began as cooperation with the Sudan United Mission, forming the Muri Church in 1965. In 1980, these autonomous churches in Sierra Leone and Nigeria joined The United Methodist Church. General Conference then authorized the creation of a West Africa Central Conference, comprising Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria.

In 1968, a single central conference was created for sub-Saharan Africa, called Africa central conference, with all the conferences from the former Methodist Church: Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Zaire (DR Congo). It met in Botswana in 1968. In 1984, the Evangelical Episcopal Church of Burundi joined The United Methodist Church and became part of the Africa central conference.

In 1992, General Conference authorized the creation of a Zaire (today Congo) central conference. The Africa central conference kept its original name, now comprising Angola, Burundi (today East Africa), Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. Thus since 1992, there are three central conferences in sub-Saharan Africa: (1) Africa; (2) West Africa; (3) Congo.

Africa Central Conference

The Central Conference of Africa kept its name from the time when there was one single central conference for all of sub-Saharan Africa. Today, it comprises five episcopal areas, two in Angola, and one each for East Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. (View map»)

In 1920 at the creation of the first central conference for the southern part of Africa, the South Africa Central Conference, the bishop was a general superintendent”, a U.S. citizen, residing in Cape Town, South Africa. The mission also extended to the Transvaal (Union of South Africa). In 1936, the central conference used its right to elect its own bishop, the U.S. missionary Springer.

After the subdivision of the central conference into four episcopal areas in 1964, each of the countries Angola, Mozambique, and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) were supervised by its own bishop for the first time, as was the Congo which became a central conference on its own in 1992. In Angola, a missionary from Norway was elected as bishop. Bishop Dodge (U.S.) continued in Rhodesia. In Mozambique an indigenous pastor, Zunguze, was elected as bishop.

Highlights
  • 5 episcopal areas
  • 10 annual conferences
  • 11 countries

With the creation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, all bishops became general superintendents of the church. The first session of the Central Conference of Africa was held in Botswana, 1968. The newly elected bishop for Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was also an indigenous pastor, Muzorewa.

In 1984, the Evangelical Episcopal Church of Burundi joined the UMC and became part of the central conference of Africa. Its bishop became a United Methodist bishop. Due to the political situation, he fled to Kenya in 1994. Thus, the mission of the UMC began to spread to Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Southern Sudan. These countries, except Tanzania, became part of the East Africa Annual Conference and episcopal area.

Due to the political situation in Angola, General Conference 1988 authorized an additional bishop for the central conference of Africa. It allowed the creation of a second episcopal area for Angola. Thus, the central conference of Africa has five episcopal regions: West Angola, East Angola, East Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

The mission of The United Methodist Church and its predecessor Methodist bodies began in the following years: Angola (1885), Botswana (2001), Burundi (1984 joining the UMC), Kenya (1990), Malawi (1987), Mozambique (1892), Ruanda (1996), South Africa (1919 Transvaal), South Sudan (2005), Uganda (1990), Zambia (1984), Zimbabwe (1897).

Congo Central Conference

The central conference of Congo was established in 1992. Before that date, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly called Zaire) belonged to the central conference of Africa (after 1939), respectively the central conference for South Africa (1920-39).

Methodist mission in the DR Congo has several origins. In the Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Taylor started his plan for a self-supporting mission from Angola and also reached the Belgian Congo in 1886. But the mission endeavors came to an end in 1896. The U.S. missionary Springer traveled through Zambia and the Belgian Congo towards Angola on his way to the U.S. As he returned back to Africa, he opened a mission in the southern part of the Belgian Congo, establishing a first mission station in Lukoshi in 1911. In 1915, it became the Congo Mission Conference. In 1936, the central conference of South Africa elected Springer as its bishop.

Highlights
  • 4 episcopal areas
  • 14 annual conferences
  • 9 countries in the region surrounding the Democratic Republic of Congo

The Methodist Episcopal Church South entered the Belgian Congo along the Congo-river and established its first mission station in Wembo Nyama in the central part of the country. At the union of 1939, both mission fields became part of the Methodist Church and of the central conference of Africa under the leadership of Bishop Springer up to his retirement in 1944. Other U.S. bishops continued oversight for the next twenty years.

In 1964, the central conference of Africa was authorized to elect four bishops, one of them for the Congo. With John Wesley Shungu, it elected for the first time a Congolese pastor. General Conference 1980 authorized the election of an additional bishop. The southern part (Shaba, later Katanga province) became a separate episcopal area. In 1988, General Conference authorized again the election of an additional bishop. The Shaba (later Katanga province) was subdivided into two episcopal areas, South Congo and North Katanga.

All the other ten provinces of the country remained one episcopal area despite the extension of the mission to many new regions, including the capital Kinshasa. In 2012, General Conference authorized a fourth episcopal area for the central conference of Congo. Thus, the two episcopal areas of Central Congo and East Congo were created.

Each episcopal area of the DR Congo has also extended into neighboring countries: Central Congo into the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Gabon; East Congo into the Central African Republic; North Katanga into Tanzania; and South Congo into Zambia.

West Africa Central Conference

The central conference of West Africa was established in 1980. Before that date, the United Methodist presence in West Africa was reduced to Liberia.

The Methodist mission in Liberia is by far the oldest of all missions outside the U.S. It began in 1822 through initiatives of individuals among former slaves, under the auspices of the “American Colonization Society.” The name of the colony was Liberia in honor of the new found freedom. In 1833, it received support by the sending of a first missionary who unfortunately died within five months of his arrival. In 1856, General Conference made provisions for the election of missionary bishops, limited in their jurisdiction to their electing region. A missionary was elected in 1858. His successor as missionary bishop in 1863 was a former slave who had arrived in Liberia in 1829, John W. Roberts. After his death in 1875, the succeeding bishops again came as visiting bishops from the U.S. In 1904, General Conference elected an African American as “missionary bishop” who again took residence in Liberia.

Highlights
  • 4 episcopal areas
  • 6 annual conferences and 2 missions
  • 6 countries in Western Africa

Between 1898 and 1939, the Portuguese Island of Madeira became another place of presence for the Methodist Episcopal Church, at some time even as residence of the bishop having supervision for Africa. The 1940 General Conference of the Methodist Church authorized to establish a provisional central conference for Africa which included Liberia. But delegates from Liberia were only present at the first meeting in 1943. In 1964 General Conference authorized Liberia to become either an autonomous church or to form a central conference with the right to elect a bishop. The annual conference of Liberia in 1965 opted for the latter.

In 1980, the autonomous church in Sierra Leone (former United Brethren mission since 1853; discussing a union with British Methodists and Anglicans in the 1960s) and the Muri Church in Nigeria (a united church with former United Brethren mission since 1922) joined The United Methodist Church. General Conference therefore authorized the creation of a West Africa Central Conference, comprising Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. At first, it had two episcopal areas. In 1992, General Conference authorized an additional episcopal area and a first bishop for Nigeria was elected.

In 2004, the autonomous Methodist Protestant Church of the Ivory Coast (former British Methodist mission since 1914) joined The United Methodist Church. From 2008 onwards, the central conference of West Africa was officially comprised of four episcopal areas.

The mission of The United Methodist Church and of predecessor Methodist bodies began in the countries belonging to the central conference in the following years: Cameroon (2000), Ivory Coast (1914), Liberia (1822), Nigeria (1922), Senegal (1995), and Sierra Leone (1853).