- Francis Burns
Francis Burns (1809 – 1863) was an American
Methodistminster who served as a missionary in Liberia. He was the first Missionary Bishop, and the first African American Bishopof the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was elected in 1858.
Birth, enslavement and early education
Francis was born
5 December 1809in Albany, New York. He was said to be "thoroughly Africanin his complexion." New Yorkwas still a slave stateat this time. Francis' parents were so poor, such that at the age of four they placed their son in service with a farmerin Greene County, New York. At the age of eight, Francis was indenturedto a Mr. Atwood (a farmer) to learn the farmingbusiness.
Francis was kindly permitted to attend
schoolwith the other childrenof the neighborhood, during the winter season(which is when most early schools were open, the farm choresbeing fewer during the winter). Two years later, however, his health becoming poor, Francis was sent to the district school during the entire summer.
Early religious life and ministry
The Atwood family was respectable and eminently
pious.The Atwood family lived in Ashland, New York in a house now owned By Samuel Creech. Francis attended the North Settlement Methodist Church, County Route 10 Ashland. Mrs. Atwood was a Methodist class-leader. One who knew her said she was "a holy and zealous woman." At fifteen years of age Francis was converted to the Christian faithunder the influence of Miss Stewart, a white teacher, the daughter of a Baptistpreacher. At seventeen Francis felt that God required him to preach. Yet he refrained from doing so because he was bound to his master until the age of twenty-one.
educationwas insufficient from Francis' own perspective. And there appeared no field in which he might labor in answer his calling. When the way finally opened, he felt unwilling to enter it. But possessing an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, Francis employed all his efforts to obtain it. While attending a high schoolhe began to hold religious meetings, and to exhort. He also began to teachschool. Indeed, Francis is said to have been "the first coloredstudent in a white school," the Academy at Lexington Heights, New York. He is also said to have been "the first colored teacher in a white school," in his own community, where he received marked respect. He was subsequently licensed as a local preacher on the Windham circuit.
Matthew Simpsonsaid of Francis Burns, in reflection::"By his intelligence, his consistent piety, and by the force of his character, he rose above the disabilities of his color, and commanded the respect of all that knew him."
The Rev. Francis Burns became noticed as a
pastorand a preacher. A Dr. Terry of the Mission Rooms was chiefly instrumental in leading him into missionary work. He encouraged Francis to enter upon a course of study, that he might be ready to go to Liberia or elsewhere, should the door open. In 1833 Dr. Terry secured for Francis an interviewwith Bishop Hedding. In 1834, when the Rev. John Seys was about to sail for Liberia, it was arranged that the Rev. Burns should accompany him as a Missionary Teacher. Sailing in September of that year, they arrived in Monrovia18 October.
The Rev. Burns' first appointment in Liberia was as at
Cape Palmas. For two years he suffered from the dreaded fever. He joined the Liberia Annual Conferencein 1838, and in 1840-42 was an assistant Preacheron the BassaCircuit. During 1843 and the early part of 1844 he was appointed to Monrovia. In due course he was elected to orders. Then ten years after arriving in Liberia, returning to New York, Francis Burns was ordainedby Bishop Janes.
The Rev. Burns performed hard and difficult work in the missionary field. He also occasionally occupied the post of
teacherin the Monrovia Seminary. He served as Editor of the "Africa's Luminary," doing so with marked ability.
The Rev. Francis Burns returned to the U.S. in 1844. He was ordained
Deacon 16 June 1844in Brooklyn, N.Y.. He was ordained Elder in the Mulberry Street Church in New York Citythe same day, with Bishop Janes officiating at both services. The Rev. Burns returned to Liberia later that year.
When, at the 1849 session of the Mission Conference, the work in Liberia was divided into districts, the Rev. Burns was appointed
Presiding Elderof the Cape PalmasDistrict. For six years of the ten that he was Presiding Elder, he also served as Presidentof the Conference, reporting clearly and comprehensively the business of the mission to the Missionary Board in New York. In 1851, Burns also was sent to open an academyin Monrovia and to superintend the Mission there.
The 1856 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church made provision for the first time for the election and consecration of a
Missionary Bishop(for the African work). Accordingly, in January 1858 the Liberia Annual Conference elected the Rev. Francis Burns as their first Bishop. He returned to the U.S.A.for consecration. This took place 14 October 1858 at the session of the Genesee Annual Conference, meeting in Perry, Wyoming County, New York. Bishops Janes and Baker presided at the consecration.
Bishop Simpson, quoting Dr. John Robie (who was present at the Conference), described the proceedings::"Though of ebony complexion, he had gained wonderfully on the affection and respect of all who had made his acquaintance, and especially of those privileged to an intimate association with him. His manner is exceedingly pleasant, and his spirit is as kind, sweet, and good as ever beamed from human heart or disposition. He seems to be lacking in none of the qualifications of the
gentlemanand Christian minister. He possesses also an intelligent and cultivated mind, speaks readily and fluently, and even eloquently, and is in all respects a model African. Such is the man whom the Liberian Conference has selected for a bishop, and such the one the highest authorities of one American church have set apart for the sacred and responsible position."
Bishop Burns returned to
Africaalmost immediately following his consecration, where he devoted himself to the work which devolved upon him for the next nearly five years.
Failing health and death
Bishop Burns' health began to fail. He was therefore directed to take a
sea voyage. On the advice of his physician, Bishop Burns then returned to the U.S.A. He died 18 April 1863within three days of his arrival in Baltimore, Maryland, a mere three months after Emancipation in the United States. Bishop Burns was buried in Monrovia, Liberia.
* Trafton, Mark, Lives of Missionary Bishops, Flood and Hamilton, 1882.
* "Francis Burns" in Cyclopaedia of Methodism, Matthew Simpson,
D.D., LL.D., Ed., ("Revised Edition.") Philadelphia, Louis H. Everts, 1880. [http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyctr/books/0701-0800/HDM0720.PDF]
Thomas, James S.Methodism's Racial Dilemma: The Story of the Central Jurisdiction. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.
*Leete, Frederick DeLand, Methodist Bishops. Nashville, The Methodist Publishing House, 1948.
List of Bishops of the United Methodist Church
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
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