Bishop James K. Mathews died on Wednesday morning, September 8, 2010. Bishop Mathews was one of the longest-serving bishops in the United Methodist Church. His career spanned many continents, including India, Africa, and Asia.
Born in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, on February 10, 1913 Mathews was one of eight children born to Laura Mae Wilson Mathews and itinerant Methodist preacher James Davenport Mathews. Mathews received his B.A. from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee in 1931, working his way through college as a baker. He had originally intended to study medicine, but his brother, Joe, had just returned from the Olympiad of Religions in Los Angeles that ran in tandem with the 1932 Olympics, and convinced him to enter the clergy.
Mathews received his Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree from Biblical Seminary in New York City, earning his way teaching newly arrived immigrants at the Five Points Mission on the lower East Side. This experience sparked a life-long passion for mission work and evangelism. He was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1937. He then entered Boston University School of Theology, where he studied for his master’s degree in theology. During his first semester, he heard a lecture by Bishop Azariah of Dornakal Diocese in South India and decided to become a missionary. He withdrew from school, and in February, 1938, sailed for India on the Queen Mary, arriving in Bombay (now Mumbai). As part of his mission work, Mathews mastered several Indian languages, including Marathi, Hindustani, Urdu and eventually, Sanskrit.
In 1939, Mathews traveled to the Sat Tal Christian Ashram in northern India to hear the well-known evangelist E. Stanley Jones lecture. While there, he met Jones’ daughter Eunice. The two married on June 1, 1940, and celebrated their 70thanniversary earlier this year. In 1942, Mathews enlisted in the United States Army CBI Theater (China-Burma-India) in New Delhi, and was appointed First Lieutenant and assigned to the Quartermaster Corps, while Eunice worked for the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA.
Mathews and his wife returned to the United States in 1946 where he worked for the Methodist Board of Missions in New York City, eventually serving as associate general secretary of the Division of World Missions. As part of this position, Mathews traveled constantly, crossing the Atlantic Ocean 220 times, making more than 60 trips to India, 28 to Africa, 16 to Latin America, and a dozen to Korea and Japan during his lifetime. Throughout his life, Mathews maintained close ties with India, and remained close friends with Raj Mohan and Arun Gandhi, grandsons of Mahatma Gandhi.
After the war, Mathews enrolled in Columbia University under the GI Bill, where he pursued his PhD in theology. His dissertation was on Mahatma Gandhi, whom he had met in India, and who was a close friend of his father-in-law, E. Stanley Jones, whose book Gandhi: Portrait of a Friend, inspired Martin Luther King to embrace non-violence as the core principle of the Civil Rights movement. In 1955, Mathews moved his family to Cambridge, England, for six months, where he researched Gandhi’s earlier writings. The family lived in the village of Grandchester, in “The Old Vicarage,” made famous by British poet Rupert Brooke in a 1916 poem of the same name. Mathews’ dissertation on Gandhi was published as The Matchless Weapon: Satyagraha in 1994. In 2003, 90 year old Bishop Mathews was invited to discuss Gandhi and answer questions as the featured guest on an hour-long, live phone-in edition of Washington Journal on C-SPAN.
Mathews was first elected Bishop of the Methodist Church in 1956 in Lucknow, however he declined, suggesting that Indians should be ministered to by their own people. In 1960 Mathews was again elected Bishop by the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference in Washington, DC. This time, he accepted, and was assigned to the New England Conference, which included 755 congregations in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and parts of Connecticut and Vermont.
Bishop Mathews served on the boards of Boston’s Deaconess Hospital, Boston University, American University and Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D. C., and Santiago College in Chile. He was a member of the Methodist Council of Bishops, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, and the National Council of Churches, as well as chairman of the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief, and active in the ecumenical movement in the World Council of Churches. Mathews also belonged to the Cosmos Club in Washington D.C.
Bishop Mathews was active in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. As early as 1960, Mathews met with Jackie Robinson and other prominent African-Americans to discuss growing racial tensions. In 1963, Bishop Mathews was invited to join President Kennedy at the White House to discuss civil rights. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and was present at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. On Easter Sunday in 1964, he and African-American Bishop Charles Golden were barred from entering an all-white Methodist church in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1978, Bishop Mathews joined Mohammad Ali, Vice President Walter Mondale, Dick Gregory, Buffy St. Marie, Stevie Wonder, and Marlon Brando in “The Longest Walk” in Washington, D. C., which drew national attention to the plight of Native Americans.
Having served 12 years in New England, in 1972, Mathews was appointed Bishop of the Washington, D.C. area, with some 900 congregations in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and West Virginia. During the first Bush administration, Bishop Mathews was instrumental in the effort to construct an interdenominational chapel at Camp David. Bishop Mathews along with then Archbishop (later Cardinal) William Baum created an ecumenical initiative called the Inter-Faith Conference of Metropolitan Washington in 1978 which is now the most widely representative such body in the country.
At Bishop Mathews’s retirement service in 1980, addresses were made by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, John Brademas.
In 1985, Bishop Mathews was called out of retirement to replace Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Methodist bishop of Zimbabwe, who had to flee the country after challenging Prime Minister Robert Mugabe in an election. He served in Harare for a year, and helped to found Africa University. In 1987, he was recalled a second time to form a new area in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. He then served another two years as bishop of the Albany Area in upstate New York. His sixth and final assignment was to the New York City Area. He finally retired in 1996, sixteen years after his first “retirement”.
In May, 1995, Bishop Mathews was invited by the Department of Defense to join an ex-CBI military delegation to India and China to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. A few months later, he was invited by General Mick Kicklighter to fly to Honolulu on Air Force One with President Clinton to lead ceremonies at Pearl Harbor to commemorate the end of the war and to introduce President Clinton.
Bishop Mathews was the author of 9 books, including, South of the Himalayas, 1955, Eternal Values in a World of Change, 1957, The Road to Brotherhood, 1958, To the End of the Earth, 1959, A Church Truly Catholic, 1969, Set Apart to Serve, 1985, The Matchless Weapon: Satyagraha, 1994, A Global Odyssey, 2000, Brother Joe: A 20th Century Apostle, 2006.
He was preceded in death by sisters Daisy Mathews, Elizabeth McCleary, Margaret Hotaling, Alene Watson and Alice Neill, and by brothers Joseph Wesley Mathews, and Donald Mathews. Mathews is survived by his wife, Eunice, his daughters Anne Mathews-Younes, Director of the Division of Prevention, Traumatic Stress and Special Programs at the Federal Center for Mental Health Services and Janice Stromsem, a retired Federal civil servant and now a senior rule of law advisor on the Haiti Task Team at USAID, and son, J. Stanley Mathews, professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, as well as six grandchildren and soon to be three great grandchildren.