What role did African American missionaries play in colonial Africa? How did historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) contribute to such transatlantic engagement? In A Higher Mission: The Careers of Alonzo and Althea Brown Edmiston in Central Africa, Kimberly Hill addresses such questions with remarkable dexterity. Set during the overlapping periods of US Jim Crow and Congolese colonialism, Hill argues that the missionary careers of Althea Brown and Alonzo Edmiston reflected “the adaptation and merger of industrial education and classical studies for the benefit of African people surviving an oppressive colonial system” (1). In taking readers from American black college campuses to the Central African mission field, Hill’s study yields fruitful results.
A Higher Mission is divided into two parts. Part 1 concerns the couple’s educational goals throughout their career. In the first two chapters, Hill sets out to explain how the two missionaries sought to expand projects they had launched at the mission and analyzes the mission reassignments, managerial practices, and Belgian projects that challenged their work from their initial extended furlough until their last year of joint ministry. Alonzo Edmiston’s designation as a farmworker “placed his ministry at risk of serving the interests of the colonial government more than those of potential church members” (73).
Part 2 consists of the final three chapters and examines specific educational and ministry strategies. Chapter 3 interrogates the Edmistons’ educational projects with a particular emphasis on what they gleaned from HBCU curricula. The following chapter focuses on the Edmistons’ activities between 1916 and 1935 and explores how opportunities to learn from African students and villagers molded their work. In the fifth chapter Hill notes that the Great Depression raised concerns about the international economic exploitation of African-descended peoples, The Edminstons’ heart “for social justice through self-determination showed in the ways both missionaries made extra effort to place themselves within an ongoing tradition of black leadership before their careers ended” (128). In the conclusion, Hill reasserts her argument that the two African American missionaries established ministries based on their HBCU educations and used their classical-industrial training to help them engage the interests of their African neighbors.
There are many elements to praise about A Higher Mission. One point of particular importance is that it draws attention to the fact that the Edmistons—African American missionaries in colonial Congo--“became a convenient target for African criticism of imperialism” (158). For this author, learning this information recalled to mind one Philip Quaque, a Fetu missionary who worked in Cape Coast Castle for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Too “black” for the local English population and too “white” for the local African population, Quaque was in a counterintuitive position, just like black Americans Althea and Alonzo Edmiston two centuries later.
Due to the colonial state’s centrality in the history of race and racism, scholars like Timothy Longman and Clement Keto have noted that Christian missions were involved in the construction and implementation of racial and ethnic projects (in Rwanda and southern Africa, respectively). Given the realities of race-based oppression facing African Americans in the United States, the Edmistons’ participation in the African missionary enterprise—work closely linked with white colonial hegemony—is complex fodder for students and scholars of mission Christianity to explore. In a sense, one could approach A Higher Mission as an intimate examination of the experience of African American missionaries who faced the ills of racial discrimination on one side of the Atlantic and operated within a white-dominated African colony on the other side: a provocative perspective on non-African black actors in the history of Christianity in colonial Africa.
Another point that stands out is Hill’s mention of the influence that Africans had on the Presbyterian mission. From David Chidester to Elizabeth Elbourne, several scholars have shown how Africans reshaped the ideas presented to them to fit their own purposes and worldviews. Such scholarship has shown that Africans had agency, wielding the power to reinterpret the Bible alongside traditional beliefs and using Christianity to advance themselves within and against the colonial state. Greater attention to the ways that the Edmistons and Congolese influenced each other’s religious thoughts and practices may have added a bit more texture to the book. How did Brown and Edmiston deploy religious thought in their work? Which Bible passages held resonance in their evangelism and pedagogy? Another area that perhaps warranted explanation was the exclusive use of North American archives rather than those in Africa and/or Europe. A sources and methodology section may have provided clarity for those readers who, when sojourning through this rich history, may expect to see African archives given that the Congolese mission field plays such a crucial role in Hill’s narrative.
But such observations must not take attention away from the incredible scholarship on display in A Higher Mission, and what it represents for scholars in religious studies and beyond. Besides expanding knowledge of African American engagements with Africa, A Higher Mission’s greatest salience for scholars in religious studies rests in the areas of African American education and mission histories in colonial Africa. Richly instructive and rigorously researched, A Higher Mission is an important addition to the historiography of US mission work in colonial Africa.
Christopher Tounsel is associate professor of history at the University of Washington.
Date Of Review:
July 1, 2022
Kimberly D. Hill, assistant professor of history at University of Texas at Dallas, is a contributor to Alabama Women and Faith and Slavery in the Presbyterian Diaspora. She lives in Dallas, Texas.
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