It All Began with a Bishop's Dream
On March 24, as people gathered for the 20th
anniversary celebration of Africa University in Old Mutare, Zimbabwe, few, if any, knew that 115 years earlier (on March 24), an event occurred in London that would ultimately determine the location of the school.
On that day, Cecil Rhodes – of Rhodes Scholarship fame – deeded 16,000 acres of land to Joseph C. Hartzell for Methodist mission work in Southern Rhodesia, which Rhodes was trying to develop through immigration of white people from South Africa. Rhodes had secured large tracts of land from tribal chiefs. Hartzell was the Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church assigned to Africa and the gift of the land – given with strings attached – furthered Hartzell’s interest in mission work in southern Africa.
Joseph Hartzell was a product of Methodism, born and raised in Moline, by devout parents, who felt the call to preach at 15. He rejected the advice of elders suspicious of educated preachers and instead, headed for Illinois Wesleyan University and Garrett Bible Institute for further education. He excelled there and graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 1868 at Illinois Wesleyan.
His first full-time pastoral appointment was at Pekin, after which he and his wife, Jennie, accepted a call to Ames M.E. Church in New Orleans, La. Their efforts to improve race relations were not well received and Hartzell created an uproar in the church by allowing a black preacher in the pulpit. He survived the crisis and later served as District Superintendent and Executive Secretary of the Freedman’s Aid Society, a post-Civil War creation of the Methodist Episcopal Church aimed at improving race relations in the South.
Hartzell traveled extensively preaching, teaching and establishing schools. He served on the New Orleans Board of Education for a number of years and was co-founder of New Orleans University, organizing a lobbying effort for federal financial aid for education which attracted hundreds.
In 1896, Hartzell stood before the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and made an impassioned speech urging the Conference to elect a black to succeed Bishop William Taylor. On the second ballot, Hartzell was elected bishop. He was so taken aback he sought to gain his composure and in keeping with his belief that with the call of the church, it was his duty to respond and his prayer that he would have 20 years to serve the church there was answered.
It is in Africa we can take up his friendship with Rhodes. In our politically correct culture, it is somewhat of an embarrassment to find a European colonizer and an American Methodist bishop working together. However, Rhodes had a problem. In anticipation of the railroad reaching Southern Rhodesia from South Africa, Rhodes established a village called Old Umtali in Southern Rhodesia. The railroad, when completed, did not end in Old Umtali, but on the other side of the mountain. When Rhodes was asked what he was going to do with his village, he said, “I”ll give it to the Methodists for a mission.” But Rhodes’ offer had strings attached.
Hartzell was to start a school for white children to encourage migration from South Africa. He started a school which was taken over by the government after which, with some opposition, Hartzell turned his attention to black children. The British Prime Minister even lectured him about racial clashes if black people were educated. Hartzell believed it was his duty to provide them an education and did so!
Hartzell writes in his diary of climbing Mt. Charimba, which overlooks the valley where the mission station and school were located and had a vision of children from all over Africa coming for education and training to lead Africa. So, the dream was in Hartzell’s heart and lay dormant many years until resurrected by African General Conference delegates asking why the church had not developed higher education in Africa.
With the dream renewed, the Zimbabwe Conference offered Africa University 1,500 acres across the road from the original mission station founded by Hartzell.
In 1984, two African bishops, with the support of thousands of African Methodists, issued the call to create Africa University. Bishop Emilio J. M. de Carvalho of Angola and Bishop Arthur F. Kulah of Liberia challenged their colleagues at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to support the establishment of a university in Africa. A committee then worked for nearly three years on feasibility studies and conversed with African church leaders about educational and vocational needs. A plan for the United Methodist-related university was presented to the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in October 1987. Prompted by United Methodist plans to establish a continent-wide university in Zimbabwe where no private universities existed, President Robert Mugabe formed a government commission in 1987 to study the country's higher education needs and make recommendations about the role of private universities in the nation's overall education scheme.
At the 1988 General Conference, United Methodists overwhelmingly accepted the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry's proposal to begin the university. On April 6, 1991, thousands of people from throughout Zimbabwe watched as the groundbreaking ceremony took place and one acacia tree was planted at the Old Mutare Mission site of Africa University. In January 1992, President Robert Mugabe granted Africa University’s Charter by official proclamation. This is an African initiative, with
African Methodists serving with United Methodists from all over the world to develop an institution for all of Africa.
(Rev. Wayne C. Hess is a retired IGRC clergy member and for many years, served as co-chair for the conference’s Africa University Task Force. Material for this article was the culmination of many hours of research in the 1990’s by Rev. Hess, as well as a research paper by Kare Eriksson, published by the Zimbabwe Conference in 1963 and “The Lord’s Carpetbagger,” a doctoral thesis by Barbara Swartz, New York University, 1972.)