Irvin W. Underhill’s ministry was filled with firsts. The first missionary to Africa to establish a school for West African Pygmy tribes that had never before seen an outsider and the first black person to be called to an all-white Presbyterian congregation, Underhill broke ground on two continents.
Underhill was born in Galion, Ohio, in 1896. When he was fourteen years old, his mother died, leaving his blind father to support the family. Determined to receive an education, Underhill worked his way through Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and went on to work as a bank cashier and, later, a hotel waiter and shipyard worker. Amidst these various occupations, Underhill’s sense of vocational calling remained strong. He had a passion for ministry. Having served as a lay pastor for several years, Underhill enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1926, graduating in 1928 with his Master of Divinity degree. He was the only black student at the Seminary at the time.
In March 1928 Underhill was appointed as a Presbyterian missionary to Africa. Following this appointment, Underhill and his wife, Susan, went to Paris for nearly a year to learn French as preparation for missionary service in what was then the French Camerouns in West Africa (present-day Cameroun.) The couple also learned Bulu, the language of the Bantu natives with whom they would work.
Having familiarized themselves with the language, the Underhills spent the next eleven years serving in West Africa. There Irvin was the first outsider to come into contact with and establish a school for West Africa’s Pygmy tribes. Underhill’s work with these peoples earned him a lifetime fellowship in England’s Royal Geographic Society. In addition to his work with the Pygmy people, Underhill spent a month in 1935 working with Albert Schweitzer, the distinguished missionary doctor, at his hospital in Lambarene, Gabon. Underhill’s ministry was marked by successes but also by tragedy; his wife died at the age of thirty. Underhill later gave a collection of nearly seven hundred pieces of African art to Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University in her memory.
Underhill returned to the United States during the Second World War and was appointed director of the Richard Allen Homes, a housing project in Philadelphia. The draw of ministry was too strong for Underhill to resist, however. In 1957, the early years of the civil rights movement, he became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Nunda, New York—the first black pastor ever appointed to lead an all-white Presbyterian congregation. At the time Underhill was called to First Presbyterian, the head of Rochester Presbytery said that “we feel Mr. Underhill was chosen as a minister should be chosen, on the basis of ability, not race. We hope it will be the normal procedure for all Presbyterian churches.” Underhill guided the Nunda church in forming a federation with a local Baptist congregation, resulting in a new congregation—Trinity Church that still exists today.
Underhill retired as pastor of Trinity Church in 1967, shortly after the federation was formed. He spent his remaining years serving in interim pastorates and spending time with his second wife, Virginia, until her tragic death in a car accident in 1968. Underhill died on June 21, 1982, an “octogenarian” whose days had been filled with hardship but, more notably, “good health, great joy, and near-perfect peace.”
Photo: Underhill (left) with Albert Schweitzer (right), taken at Lamberene in 1934