Roberts, George A.

Methodist Episcopal Church

George A. Roberts was born April 24, 1882 in Marathon, Iowa, where his parents raised him in the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). In 1904, while in college, he had a conversion experience at the YMCA in Ames, Iowa. He received his B.S. in Agriculture in 1906 from Iowa State College, and later that year became interested in foreign missionary service through a YMCA convention in Nashville, Tennessee. As mission leaders John R. Mott, Robert E. Speer, and others spoke of the need for missionaries, Roberts sensed God’s call to missionary service. At that same convention, he met Joseph Hartzell, MEC missionary Bishop of Africa. The following year Bishop Hartzell requested he serve as a missionary in the newly-opened field of Southern Rhodesia.

Prior to the YMCA missions convention in Nashville, British Imperialist Cecil Rhodes had personally invited Bishop Hartzell to establish agricultural and industrial missions in Southern Rhodesia. This occurred shortly after the first Chimurenga (Shona and Ndebele insurrections against Rhodes’ British South Africa Company in 1896-1897). Both Rhodes and Hartzell viewed agricultural missions as part of an Anglo-American “civilizing” mission to Africa. In 1897, Old Umtali was the first MEC mission station established in Southern Rhodesia. George Roberts arrived ten years later to begin agricultural mission work. In 1912, he married Bertha Fowles, a missionary teacher at Old Umtali school. Twins Tudor Rhodes and Thomas Fowles were born in 1915, and a daughter, Mary Elma, in 1920. In 1957, Bertha Roberts died. George Roberts subsequently married missionary Lulu Tubbs.

Agriculture played a central role in MEC mission theology that was grounded in a Christocentric model of mission. The heart of mission was God’s offer of abundant life to all through Jesus Christ (John 10:10). Methodist missionaries followed a four-fold model of mission reflecting the work of Jesus Christ in the gospels through his preaching, teaching, healing, and feeding ministries, with these four activities taking institutional forms: churches, schools, hospitals, and mission farms. [1]

From the beginning, Bishop Hartzell’s strategy was to create a central mission station at Old Umtali to serve as a blueprint for establishing mission stations around it. Preaching and evangelistic circuits radiated from Old Umtali and other major stations. Students received a basic western education alongside Bible instruction and were sent out as preacher-teachers to out-stations. Agricultural and industrial training enabled preacher-teachers to be self-supporting. By 1923, the MEC had established six agricultural mission stations: Old Umtali, Mutambara, Headlands, Arnoldene, Glenada, and Nyadiri farms.

Like many Protestant missionaries of his era in Africa, George Roberts had little understanding of traditional religion and its close relationship with indigenous farming practices. Neither could he control his students’ reception and application of his agricultural lessons. In his research on MEC agricultural work in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1960, Todd Leedy asserts that “despite careful missionary attempts to manage the outcomes, individuals with their own agendas absorbed and transformed these policies. Local farmers utilized imported agricultural knowledge for their own purposes and did not conform to the expressions and expectations of American trained agricultural missionaries.” [2] George Roberts simply did not understand the role of Shona chiefs, earth priests, marriage customs, and the gendered order of labor in relation to traditional agricultural beliefs and practices. Thus, agriculture became a contested battlefield for discerning the truth and superiority of competing religions.

Despite exhibiting little awareness of indigenous religion and farming culture, George Roberts contributed greatly to the improvement of agriculture in Southern Rhodesia. He authored textbooks adapted to local conditions and conducted important research on livestock diseases and cures, often in partnership with colonial agriculturalists. His experiments on new and improved grains and vegetables improved the health and economic well-being of those he served. Roberts’ agricultural schools entered annual agricultural fairs sponsored by the colonial government, earning numerous awards including a silver medal for the most meritorious exhibit in 1910. He improved breeds of livestock, introduced farming methods such as use of organic fertilizer, the plow, irrigation, and contour ridge farming. His contour ridge method conserved enormous amounts of soil that otherwise would have washed away in the rains. He also engaged in some tree planting efforts. His agricultural work helped mission farms, schools, and graduates be self-supporting while providing famine relief to communities in times of drought.

George Roberts’ active participation in the International Association of Agricultural Missions promoted global networking among agricultural missionaries. He also fostered agricultural missions on a continental level while serving as Vice President of the Association of Agricultural Missions in Africa. Finally, his work laid the foundation for the establishment of the United Methodist Church’s Africa University at Old Mutare, Zimbabwe in 1992. The university opened with a school of theology and a school of agriculture, right in line with George Roberts’ adage that “good religious teaching goes much further and better with good agriculture which ensures an adequate food supply.” [3] George Roberts died in his hometown of Marathon, Iowa in 1973.

Richard S. Darr


[1] Nathan Goto, “A Great Mission: The Legacy of the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe,” Methodist History 35 (1994): 16-17.

[2] Todd Leedy, “A Starving Belly Doesn’t Listen to Explanations”: Agricultural Evangelism in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1900 to 1962,” Agricultural History 84 (2010): 479-505.

[3] George A. Roberts, Let Me Tell You A Story (Bulawayo: Rhodesian Christian Press, 1965), 22.


Darr, Richard S. “Protestant Missions and Earth-Keeping in Southern Africa 1817-2000.” Th.D. diss., Boston University School of Theology, 2005.

Goto, Nathan, “A Great Mission: The Legacy of the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe.” Methodist History 35 (1994): 14-25.

Leedy, Todd “A Starving Belly Doesn’t Listen to Explanations”: Agricultural Evangelism in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1900 to 1962.” Agricultural History 84 (2010): 479-505.

Roberts, George A. Let Me Tell You A Story. Bulawayo: Rhodesian Christian Press, 1965.

This article, submitted in May, 2022 was written by Rev. Dr. Richard S. Darr. The author researched George Roberts and several other missionary earth-keepers in his dissertation, “Protestant Missions and Earth-Keeping in Southern Africa 1817-2000,” Boston University School of Theology, 2005.