It’s not every day that the United Methodist Church gets to honor one of its leading lights before her years of history-making have passed into memory.
Yet, on April 29 the top legislative body of the denomination paid tribute to Eunice Jones Mathews--a living legend in the church’s history of mission. The 998 delegates to General Conference and hundreds of visitors honored her 90th birthday with a "Happy Birthday" chorus and a reception at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Legislative proceedings were suspended as an energetic Eunice Mathews was warmly introduced to the international assembly by the Rev. R. Randy Day, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. She received a standing ovation.
Between intermittent applause and appreciative shouts, Mrs. Mathews expressed gratitude for the conference’s recognition and the reception that followed. "I will certainly remember it for the rest of my days," she said.
After emphasizing her respect for her parents, "whose combined missionary service totaled 108 years," and her pride at having served with her husband in five different episcopal areas, Mrs. Mathews made a statement that displayed the freedom of spirit inspiring her lifework and myriad achievements.
"I do not have to be identified as the daughter of (evangelist) E. Stanley Jones, nor do I have to be identified as the wife of my husband (Bishop James K. Mathews)…but I do have permission to be myself, and this is in the freedom of Jesus Christ."
Mrs. Mathews’ birthday marks another milestone in the life of the denomination, as a record 188 delegates from outside the United States are attending the 2004 assembly. This landmark figure is an indirect tribute to Mrs. Mathews’ life of missionary work.
She was born on April 29, 1914, to Methodism’s premier missionary couple of the twentieth century, E. Stanley Jones and Mabel Lossing Jones. Growing up in Lucknow, India, young Eunice witnessed her parents plant the seeds of God’s word and nurture them into sizable, self-sustaining Methodist communities. Among these was a boys’ primary school in northern India launched by Eunice’s mother, a pioneering woman whose efforts flouted her generation’s strict gender restrictions and paved the way for women instructors to teach male students in the region.
Her mother taught Eunice English to supplement her native Hindustani, and her mother served on the governing board of Asia’s first Christian institution of higher learning for women - now known as Isabella Thoburn College, after its founder, another gender-breaking Methodist missionary.
Soon after attending Wellesley Girls School in Naini Tal, India, and American University in Washington, Eunice began her career in humanitarian work and missionary service. She assisted her father, whose lectures and writings took him around the world, and revolutionized missionary thinking by encouraging individuals to receive Christ within the framework of their indigenous contexts. It was while accompanying her father on a lecture circuit in India that Eunice met James K. Mathews, whom she married June 1, 1940.
Sixty-three years later, Mrs. Mathews and her husband, a retired bishop and former associate general secretary at the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, have proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ on six continents, ordering their lives by the scriptural mandate, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19).
She and her husband fashioned their marriage as an equal partnership; Bishop Mathews wrote in his autobiography, A Global Odyssey, that "these very memoirs should be titled, We Did It Together." The couple have three children and six grandchildren.
Together, Bishop and Mrs. Mathews have advocated for peace and good will, moving among personages such as President George and Barbara Bush; President Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton; Pope Paul VI; Mahatma Gandhi; Indira Gandhi; and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
King once told Mrs. Mathews of his deep appreciation for her father--who was a personal friend and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi--because it was reading Jones’ biography that prompted King to adopt a doctrine of nonviolence in the civil rights movement.
Mrs. Mathews counts among her distinctions an independently researched and written book, Drug Abuse: Summons to Community Action, a second book co-written with her father, The Divine Yes, and a professorship established in her and her husband’s name at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
Mathews’ lifelong call to mission beckons her still, and she continues to respond. In 2001, she and her husband traveled back to Naini Tal, India, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Sat Tal Christian Ashram, a religious retreat founded by her father.
McNeal is a staff writer with the Communications Department of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.