William Howard Taft

Address at a Mass Meeting in Celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Methodist Episcopal Missions in Africa at Carnegie Hall in New York City

December 13, 1909

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am very glad to be here to bear witness to my very great interest in that which this meeting celebrates—the attack of the Methodist Church upon Africa. I like to think of Methodism among the denominations as an affirmative, aggressive, pushing, practical church militant, and it needed to be that to tackle Africa. Since I have had the honor to occupy public office, it has fallen to me to address meetings of many different churches, and I always seize the opportunity—when invited to any other church than my own, and I hope I don't leave out my own—to be present, because I like to feel and imbibe in my nature the sense of tolerance and increase in the feeling of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man among all the denominations of the churches; and my own reception by churches, not my own, makes me feel certain of the growing and wide catholicity of the Christian Church. Doubtless it is because I was not aroused to the importance of the missionary spirit and the great things that were being done years ago, that it seems to me that it is only within recent times that this missionary feeling has taken such a hold upon the people.

I have observed that each man dates the spread of public opinion on a particular subject from the time that he began to think of it; but the history of our country does offer a date and an epoch when it seems to me that people of the United States acquired a wider and a world feeling, and an interest and a responsibility for all the people of the world, as distinguished from those who enjoy our opportunities of living under the Stars and Stripes.

It is not perhaps appropriate to date a religious movement from a war, but it does seem to me as if our people acquired a world feeling from the time we undertook the responsibility of freeing Cuba and saying what should be done by our neighbors with reference to internal government when that internal government seemed to us to pass the bounds of what we thought to be civilized. We began our war expecting to finish it shortly, and we landed in the Philippines and we are still there. But our horizon has widened much beyond those gems of the Pacific Ocean by reason of the responsibilities which we have been obliged to assume with reference to the entire world. We are a great power in the world, and we may be, and hope we are, a great power for usefulness, a great power for the spread of Christian civilization, and we must be so if we would justify our success and vindicate our right to enjoy the opportunities that God has given us in this fair, broad land of building of wealth and comfort and luxury and education and making ourselves, what we like to think we are, the foremost people of the world.

There are those who would read the last words of Washington in his farewell message as an indication that we ought to keep within the seas and not look beyond; but he was addressing thirteen states that had much to do before they could make themselves a great nation and that might well avoid entangling alliances, or any foreign interference, or any foreign trouble, while they were making themselves a nation.

But now we are a nation with tremendous power and tremendous wealth, and unless we use that for the benefit of our international neighbors (and they are all neighbors of ours, for the world is very small)—unless we use that power and that wealth, we are failing to discharge the duties that we ought to feel as members of the international community. This world is very small. It is only 10,000 miles to the Philippine Islands, and I am carried back, as I look into the face of my brother, Homer Stuntz, to many a platform that he and I sat upon in the Philippine Islands and talked about the possibilities of what we might do in developing those islands and bringing those people to a realization of what good government was. I thought your church ought to have established a bishopric out in the Philippines, and we had a candidate out there. I haven't lost hope that you may know a good thing when you see it. But it is true that when you live in the Philippines, 10,000 miles away from here, and meet people coming and going, see people on the streets of Washington that you met in Mindanao, or in Luzon, or in Panay, or in Samar, and shake hands with them as if it were only yesterday when you last saw them, the world does not seem very big around. And so I can understand, though I don't quite have the feeling, that Africa is not so dark, is not so far away from anything that you would wish to be in when your interest is excited, when your knowledge is full of the needs of the 160,000,000 of people who are in that continent, and of the possibilities of developing them into a Christian people who shall learn after a time all the arts of peace, and learn to govern themselves.

I confess, if I were a missionary, I would prefer to try my hand in a country like China that has a history of two or three or four or five thousand years, than to go into Africa that hasn't any history at all except that which we trace to the apes. But you can not read the account of the missions that your church is carrying on in that continent without knowing that there is the seed which is to lead those people on to be useful citizens and useful members of the community and of the world. Now, as I understand it, the Methodist Church has taken the continent in front and rear at Madeira, at Algiers, in Arcola, in Portuguese East Africa, and in Rhodesia, and that there are missions and a stream of them in which the practical, sensible methods of modern missionaries have been adopted, and accompanying instruction in the Christian religion and the leading on to Christian civilization, of lessons in agriculture, in the simple mechanical arts, in primary education, and in leading them on to feel that debt of gratitude which reaches a native's heart as nothing else can, the ministrations of the physician when the dear ones of those native savages seem about to be taken away.

The mission is a nucleus and epitome of the civilization that is expected to widen out in that neighborhood. I have heard missions criticized. I have heard men say that they would not contribute to foreign missions at all; that we had wicked people enough at home and we might just as well leave the foreign natives and savages to pursue their own happy lives in the forests and look after our own who need a great deal of ministration. I have come to regard that as narrow-minded as a man who does not like music, who does not understand the things that God has provided for the elevation of the human race. The missionaries in China and the missionaries in Africa are the forerunners of our civilization, and without them we should have no hope of conquering the love and the admiration and the respect of the millions of people whom we hope to bring under the influence of Christian civilization.

Those who go for mercantile purposes into those distant lands, I am sorry to say, are quicker to catch the savage tendencies than the savages are to catch from them the basis of our Christian civilization, and if they had to depend for their belief in the good that is to come to them from embracing Christianity and accepting a civilization that we offer them, to that which they learn from the adventurers who go far into the interior to buy things from them at a price much too low and much below what ought to be paid, we should never succeed at all. I speak that with all the sense of moderation that I know I ought to have in dealing with countries so far from here and in saying things that can not be contradicted. If there is anything that promotes lying and the abuse of imagination, it is the impunity that a man enjoys in telling a story about something that happened 25,000 miles away, in a country that you can not reach and from which you don't hear more than once a year.

Now, as to these statements that missionaries have an easy time, which have been made by a good many travelers, I remember that a leading correspondent of one of the newspapers wrote a book in which he sought to illustrate and prove it. I am glad to say he has taken it back now, but he described the great houses that the missionaries lived in, the number of servants that they had, and the comfortable life generally that they led, which he said was much more comfortable than that which they would have had at home; but he did not go into the lives that they really lead; he did not see the work that they had to perform; he did not encounter, he did not know that terrible drain upon the vitality of being so many years away from home and from the people you love, from the communities you love, and the surroundings you love, and if he had been talking about African missions he would not have been able to describe their large houses or their comfortable quarters. A man who goes into Africa as a missionary goes into a place where he must be content to put up with all sorts of sacrifices and a very possible death from the malignant fevers that he is constantly exposed to, unless he goes clear into the interior onto the tablelands. I admire the missionaries who go to India and China and the Philippines, because I know they are doing good work, and I know that they have many sacrifices to make; but the men whom I wish most to commend are those who in the face of all the obstacles that certainly tend to discourage the bravest, enter the dark continent of Africa in an attempt to win those people to Christianity and civilization.

Of course, there has been great improvement in Africa; that is, they have surveyed it enough and investigated it enough to divide it up between the European nations. Well, I hope that is an improvement. I have no doubt it is. I have no doubt that their governments there have defects as other governments have, and have the natural defects that governments so far removed from civilization must have. But it is a sign of progress that the boundaries have been fixed throughout Africa, and that European nations are becoming responsible for the governments in that country. The United States has not any territorial interest there. We did make an experiment, or encouraged an experiment some seventy odd years ago in Liberia, and we do have that interest that we ought to have in trying to preserve the integrity of that little Negro republic that was begun so many years ago. But you know, and the nations of the world know, that we are not in Africa to spread our territory. We have enough. Some people think we have a good deal more than enough, but certainly there is no one quite so imperialistic as to desire to share a part of the dark continent; but because we are not going in there to assume the powers of government does not furnish the slightest reason why we should not in every way possible encourage such movements as this under the auspices of other governments, to aid those governments, and to aid the people under those governments in the progress toward Christian civilization. We have the money here and we have the men and women who are willing to make the sacrifice; and those of us who sit back and come every two or three years to hear the stories of what has been done there by representatives of this country, may well afford to be generous in helping out that movement

It is curious to see how the Almighty works His ways. Our interest in Africa for many years was the interest to suppress the slave trade. We were all responsible—New England got out of it a little earlier than the rest—for a time in the encouragement of that trade. And now we have living with us ten millions of people who are descended from the slaves that were taken by force—the Negroes that were taken by force from that dark continent, taken with all the cruelties incident to the middle passage; and yet no one would say that the descendants of those people thus brought here are not to be congratulated on the fact that their ancestors were brought here, so that they have been able to enjoy the proximity to civilization and are a hundred years in advance of their relatives in Africa; and yet they came here by the greed and the sin of those for whom we, by reason of ancestry, must be responsible. I think that is a very curious working out of the ways of God that no one could have anticipated. It is natural that the Negroes of America, who have had the advantage of an association in a Christian country, with modern civilization, so that they are civilized and educated, should yet retain an intense interest in the development of the continent from which their ancestors came; and I am glad to note the fact that there is an interest among the race, both as to Liberia and the maintenance of that republic, and this missionary movement through the dark continent, to bring all the black races into Christian civilization.

Now, my friends, I ought not to have spoken at all tonight on this subject, because I haven't any information about Africa which you do not have; but I have acquired the habit of speaking at foreign mission meetings, and the managers of the meetings think that there is something missing in the support of the Government unless I appear to testify in my insufficient and inadequate way to the interest that the country all has in the success of this movement. Now, my dear friend, Bishop Hartzell I hope has realized what he came here to bring about, and I hope he will take back in his pocket that $300,000 that is necessary to aid him in the great work he is there carrying on. I wish he had $3,000,000 instead of $300,000, but it is a good deal easier to wish it than to get it; and if we have secured $300,000, we ought to be as smiling and as happy as possible in the thought of the good which that will do.

William Howard Taft, Address at a Mass Meeting in Celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Methodist Episcopal Missions in Africa at Carnegie Hall in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365203

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