Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell is associated with the beginning of the Methodist Episcopal Church, now the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). After arriving in Mutare on December 10. 1897, he organized the first congregation two days later on December 12, 1897 and forty people attended this first service which was held at a general dealer’s store, the present site of the Puzey and Payne garage in the city of Mutare at which the bishop preached. After applying for permission to start mission work for the church and subsequent to meeting with Cecil Rhodes, a business man and administrator of the British Colony of Rhodesia, who owned the property, the site for the Old Mutare Mission was donated by Mr. Rhodes.
The first Methodist Church for Africans was built in the town of Mutare and continues with the name of Hilltop United Methodist Church. The church soon began to spread fast in the villages due to the enthusiasm for the gospel and evangelism on the part of the newly converted African evangelists.
Soon after the conference was established here, the church quickly realized that the future and the strength of the church lay in the proper and adequate training of the African preachers. The first African preachers were ordained in 1942 and this move ushered in a new era in which Africans began to participate at the highest level of conference decision making. The first black Zimbabwean woman to graduate with a university degree was a United Methodist, a product of this program. Also a product of the church’s program was the first black Zimbabwean to qualify and graduate from university as a medical doctor. The first comprehensive agricultural
irrigation scheme in Zimbabwe’s poor villages was introduced and developed under the church’s rural development program. The church has been involved in extensive program of evangelization and rural development through comprehensive programs of education, medical and health care services.
From the time of Bishop Hartzell, a succession of bishops followed and great work was done. The appointment of Bishop Ralph Edward Dodge marked a turning point in the Africanization of the church and the Zimbabwean society. The bishop embarked on an intentional policy of sending young men and women to study in the United States, and upon returning home these became leaders in the church and in society. As a climax to this Africanization, Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa was elected the first African bishop in the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe. He espoused the concept of salvation for the whole person and became an avid critic of the colonial racist regime in the country. With a rapid turn of events the bishop became the first black prime minister of the nation of Zimbabwe.
The church currently runs three hospitals, several clinics, two nurses training schools, numerous primary/elementary and high schools (three of which offer junior college-level courses) and a teachers’ college. All are run by Africans except the hospitals which rely heavily on missionaries or doctors from overseas. The establishment of Africa University at Old Mutare in 1992, is a landmark achievement for all of Africa.
During the protracted war for liberation which ended in 1980 in Zimbabwe, the church was hated and its leaders were detained and harassed by the Rhodesian security agents. It was (ironically) during this period that the church grew very rapidly, mainly as a result of the new secret house churches which emerged and began to meet underground in vans as members traveled to and from work and in homes for prayer and fellowship and Bible study and holy Communion.
Because of continued growth and expansion the church is always short of adequately trained pastors for the fast expanding work. Membership continues to grow as there are more areas which must still be reached by the gospel. The present generation looks back and commends the faith of the founding fathers and mothers, and rejoices in what has been accomplished and hopes for more blessings to come. Year-long celebrations of its centennial in 1997 focused on personal holiness and the desire to spread the same throughout the land.