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Jean Kenyon Mackenzie and the "Tribe of God"

March 11, 2013

As we celebrate the contributions of women to our history this month, we recognize the ministry of African missionary and author Jean Kenyon Mackenzie. Mackenzie believed that all those who followed Christ were, in her own words, part of the “tribe of God” who shared a common humanity, heard the same voice, struggled toward the same ends, and rejoiced with the movements of the soul.

Mackenzie’s life journey began in Elgin, Illinois in 1874 and ended in New York City in 1936. Over the course of those years, she attended Van Ness Seminary in San Francisco, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and earned a graduate degree from Smith College. She spent more than a decade serving as a Presbyterian missionary in West Africa, exploring areas that would have been arduous for strong, robust individuals, let alone someone whose health was always tenuous.

Over the years, many of Mackenzie’s letters from Africa to her family were published in the church’s missionary magazine, Woman’s Work for Woman. Following an accident in 1914, she decided to retire from missionary service to devote herself full-time to writing about her experiences. However, World War I disrupted Mackenzie’s literary career. After the takeover of Cameroon by the French, mission staff asked Mackenzie to return to Africa. She arrived back in 1916 after a harrowing trip through waters infested with German submarines. She spent the next 18 months serving as a diplomatic liaison between the French government, mission personnel, and the Bulu people.

After the war, Mackenzie continued to write and serve the church.  In 1923, she was appointed to the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and she later served as its representative to the Africa mission conference in Le Zoute, Belgium. As for her writing, Ellery Sedgwick, editor of Atlantic Monthly, constantly chided her for wasting her vast literary talent on missionary literature, a charge she dismissed with humor and an expression of concern for his exclusive preoccupation with “worldliness.” Mackenzie used her creative and literary gifts to articulate and interpret African culture not in a sentimental or condescending manner but from a perspective of appreciation and respect. 

Jean Kenyon Mackenzie never gained the same degree of public notice or acclaim as her contemporary Pearl Buck, who also wrote extensively about her missionary experiences. But in her writings and through her service, she exemplified the church’s commitment to evangelism and education, offering a powerful witness not only to the PCUSA, but to America, Africa, and the world.  Though few of her unpublished personal letters have survived, many of her books and writings have been preserved at the Presbyterian Historical Society.