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By Reginald Smith

African-American Methodist missionaries from Arkansas photographed in New York City on their way to Liberia; circa 1898.

 

One of the key features of later Abrahamaic religions—Christianity and Islam—is their emphasis on conversion of non-believers to the faith. Throughout history this has been done in a variety of ways from the humble missionary work of the earliest Christian apostles to the violent and forced conversions by Charlemagne and the later Holy Roman Emperors. As the European Age of Exploration dawned, the missionary zeal extended beyond the European continent to native peoples of colonies or faraway lands. As the African-American population became dedicated Christians from the 18th century, it is not surprising that they would engage in missionary work with similar zeal as their White counterparts.

Their focus, however, was tied into the world in which they arose with fractious racial politics and oppression, debates about Back to Africa movements, and the expansion of Europe into Africa after the Congress of Berlin. The focus of most efforts abroad was Africa. After the Civil War and freedom, this impulse became more marked. Though there had been Black missionaries to Africa earlier, such as Lott Carey and Colin Teague who went to Liberia as missionaries in 1821, the rise of independent Black churches after the Civil War set up a formal framework for future work. However, one of the greatest impetuses for this work was the violent and damaging loss of rights and dignity that accompanies the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. Many looked to Africa as a promised land that could go to and help ‘civilize’ and ‘Christianize’ the local people and find a home for themselves.

Many of the key figures in this movement are familiar to those acquainted with the history of the Black Church and nationalist movements. They included Henry McNeal Turner, the firebrand pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church who was later made bishop of Africa for the AME. After being expelled from the Georgia legislature, en masse with the other Black legislators at the end of Reconstruction, he became a passionate advocate of Back to Africa Movement. Also there was Alexander Crummell, and countless others who championed such causes to the extent that in 1895 there was a conference in Atlanta dedicated to the cause.

Though there were countless personalities and organizations involved in the missionary movement and that Blacks were missionaries for both White and Black organizations, here we will give four short vignettes from different parts of the continent that illustrated the work and experience of the missionaries.

l: Lott Carey, c: Henry McNeal Turner, r: Alexander Crummell

 

Alfred Ridgel – Liberia

The Reverend Alfred Ridgel of Monticello, Arkansas was a prominent AME preacher in his local community. At age 23, he was selected to travel to the annual AME state conference in 1884 and met Bishop Henry Turner and became acquainted with the drive for mission work in Africa. In 1893, he decided to leave his family and Arkansas and depart for Liberia via New York City. En route, he met Fannie Worthington (also from Arkansas) and the two were married in an act that would later cause him trouble in Liberia. They met Bishop Turner in New York and sailed to Liberia on board the vessel Majestic. On arrival, Rev. Ridgel commented on how much Monrovia, Liberia (originally settled by freed slaves) reminded him of Helena, Arkansas where he was from.

Ridgel eventually became one of the most well-known Black missionaries in Liberia because he wrote many lengthy letters of his experience back to congregations and Black newspapers in the United States. With Bishop Turner he published a booklet “A Pen Picture of the Republic of Liberia, West Africa”. However, he was soon beset by charges of bigamy after the news of his second wife became known. Defended by Bishop Turner, he later was able to obtain a not guilty declaration from a trial of Liberian colleagues.

Ridgel was sometimes known as a larger-than-life figure amongst the Liberian missionaries and also died so. He fell off of a river boat, whether by suicide or accident is unclear, and drowned.

This photograph is most probably of Rev. Alfred Lee Ridgel, A.B. (seated, center), Presiding Elder of the Liberia Annual Conference African Methodist Episcopal Church with other clergy.

 

Reverend R.A. Jackson – South Africa

R.A. Jackson, an Arkansas resident but originally from Mississippi, prepared to leave for Africa the same year as Ridgel, 1893. However, he took his wife along and had a much different destination—South Africa. After several years of organizing and raising funds, he landed in Cape Town in 1896 claiming he had already baptized seventy Africans in a ceremony by the sea soon after landing. Within two years, Jackson’s congregation had swelled to over 400 members and he began branching out to other parts of South Africa. African leaders from his congregation formed their own churches in Queensland, Port Elizabeth, and Natal. In 1898, Jackson’s church received the gift of a large chapel bell from the First Baptist Church of Helena, Arkansas.

Jackson worked successfully to merge both the AME and the local African founded Ethiopian Church and was a strident critic of the racial policies and prejudices in South Africa. However, he also worked with Bishop Turner to try to disprove rumors that the AME was a ‘destabilizing influence’ in South Africa. Bishop Turner traveled through South Africa and held meetings including those with Boer Republic presidents Paul Kruger and MT Steyn of the Transvaal and Orange Free State respectively. Many European missionary groups were both suspicious of the AME in that it would compete for converts and import ‘racialist’ ideas such as those influenced by Marcus Garvey to South Africa. The competition for converts was true as many Africans left discriminatory mainline congregations for the AME.

They also faced criticism from colonial authorities and some Black South African leaders. This ranged from mild from Prime Minister W.P. Schreiner who though ‘uneasy’ felt the movement was inevitable due to common discrimination to the more strident such as an unnamed Cape Colony Assemblyman who in 1897 said Black Americans presence would be disruptive since their rise to positions of achievement and influence in the US would be a disruptive example to local Africans. A popular book at the time, Prester John, that was written after the 1906 Zulu Bambatha revolt has as its antagonist, a militant Zulu preacher who was educated at an American HBCU. Also, there was criticism from Black South African leaders such as the prominent leader Tengo Jabavu who accused Bishop Turner of importing racialist doctrines into the country and planning to lead an emigration of American Blacks to South Africa.

South Africa held several formal inquiries into the AME’s activities in South Africa and despite the accusations, it found no evidence of either seditious behavior or a significant role in the 1906 Zulu Bambatha revolt. Despite these absolutions, over time the South African government continued to restrict emigration of Black Americans removing their honorary ‘White’ status which had allowed them to be exempt from laws against local Africans and finally making them, especially missionaries, persona non grata in South Africa. For more details see the previous article on Black emigrants to South Africa here.

 

Black Missionaries with the Southern Presbyterians in the Belgian Congo

One of the earliest victims of the scramble for Africa instigated by the Congress of Berlin was the area to be known as the Belgian Congo. Made a personal fief of Belgian King Leopold it would later be known for the atrocities committed by his agents which led to the forced labor and death of millions and inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Before the full extent of this, however, missionary work was the primary purpose of foreigners in the interior. The Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States was different from most other churches in the South in that it did not expel or segregate its Black members after the end of Reconstruction. Though Blacks were not fully equal members, the Church was anxious to use them to help with missionary work in Africa. Blacks were seen as more resistant to the tropical climate which killed many Whites. Though the massive numbers of deaths of Black migrants in Liberia put lie to this belief, it continued to persist for a long time. Originally focusing on China, the church turned to Africa and decided to send a pair of missionaries—one White, one Black—to Luebo, a trading post in the Kasai region in far Eastern Congo.

Samuel Lapsley, map of Belgian Congo tribal areas and William Sheppard.

This team was composed of Samuel Lapsley, a descendant of prominent Alabama slaveowners and William Sheppard, from a middle class Black family in Waynesboro, Virginia. Despite their different backgrounds, the two formed a great bond of friendship and trust in their mission in the Congo. Sheppard typically handled learning native languages, hunting, and interfacing with Africans while Lapsley, while also doing missionary work, interfaced with the colonial authorities. Both did well though conversion was often difficult since many local tribes were satisfied with their own beliefs. In particular, they were impressed by the Bakuba, who had a well-organized and centralized state in the region, complete with immigration controls. Having made his way to the capital to meet the Bakuba King, Sheppard commented highly on their civilization and their religion which had a monotheistic underpinning. Lapsley unfortunately later died of fever but Sheppard stayed on and then departed for a tour of the US.

The Lapsley Memorial Church in Inbaje, Congo, 1917.

He later returned, bringing more missionaries including several women, one of whom was his new wife. These women were Maria Fearing, Lillian Thomas DeYampert, and (his wife). All three showed great dedication staying with the mission from arrival in 1894 through the second decade of the twentieth century. Maria Fearing in particular saw part of her mission to be the education of younger girls teaching them to read and how to do what would now be called home economics. The three stayed on until the last two left in 1915. They were replaced by additional Black missionaries until 1941 when all missionaries after this time were White.

Sheppard family photo with wife Lucy Gantt Sheppard, photo on right: Maria Fearing

 

Max Yergan and East Africa

Max Yergan was a young graduate of the HBCU Shaw University when in 1916 he answered a call from the YMCA to be a secretary amongst British led Indian troops in Bangalore. After performing his service well here, he was transferred to East Africa where he repeated his work amongst African troops in British East Africa and worked to alleviate the sometimes appalling condition they faced. His performance was so lauded, the YMCA sent six other Blacks to assist him from the US. Like the experience of the Southern Presbyterians in the Congo, the YMCA missionaries in East Africa were marked by a high degree of interracial trust and cooperation amongst Whites and Blacks. This was crucial in these tumultuous times towards the end of World War I where East Africa was an active theater since the Germans held Tanganyika (now Tanzania).

However much the YMCA praised their Black missionaries, though, like in South Africa they were looked on with suspicion by the local colonial authorities as natural rabble rousers. This became a problem for Yergan in 1920 when the English National Council of the YMCA selected him to be the National Secretary for the YMCA in East Africa. The colonial authorities blocked this, however.

A note from the private secretary of the Governor of Kenya wrote the English National Council that Sir Edward Northey, “did not consider it advisable to introduce into East Africa negroes of a different caliber from those to be found in East Africa itself”. Like in South Africa, an uprising in neighboring Nyasaland (Malawi), the Chilembwe Uprising led by John Chilembwe who had received education at Virginia Theological Seminary, a Black seminary in the US, made colonial authorities suspicious of any influence from Black Americans.

Next the YMCA tried to place him in South Africa but began running into similar obstacles. This led to remonstrations by well-known figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson about discrimination against American Blacks in Africa. This was practiced mainly by colonial governments but some of the churches themselves as well. The colonial authorities said they would only admit the ‘best type of Negroes’ which they vaguely stereotyped as the ‘Tuskegee type’. This led to reluctance amongst the churches and quickly ended the presence of most Black missionaries in East Africa.

 

Conclusion

Though the actions by these individuals were heroic, they were not without fault. In their missionary zeal, they often adopted the same denigrating attitude towards local Africans as White missionaries. Often describing them as ‘heathen’, ‘savage’, and ‘uncivilized’ they often created obstacles by disrespect of the locals and their cultures. Though there were exceptions such as William Sheppard, Tunde Adeleke of Iowa State University wrote an entire book, “Un-African Americans”, which fully analyzes the biases and superiority complexes of many Black missionaries and nationalists towards Africa.

Many believed in the ‘fortunate fall’ theology. This saw slavery in America as evil but a design by God to uplift Black Americans who would then be the vanguard leadership for Blacks back in Africa. They saw Africa as an area which they would civilize, Christianize, and enlighten to form a Black country at a time in history where there were almost none. Adeleke highly critiques elements of the doctrine which he says often held racist views against Africans not much different than the rest of the West.

The missionaries did have a profound effect though their numbers were small. They greatly influenced the Church in South Africa and the ideas they brought, such as those of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois would later influence many prominent African leaders and nationalists. Though stymied by local colonial governments, they are an important part in the history of Christianity in Africa.

 

Dr. Willliam Morrison (left) and Dr. William Sheppard (right) with Bakuba witnesses who traveled to Kinshasa for the Sheppard-Morrison libel trial in 1909.
Sources 
Adeleke, Tunde, Un-African Americans: Nineteenth Century Black Nationalists and the Civilizing Mission, University of Kentucky Press, 1998.
 Barnes, Kenneth C. “On the Shore Beyond the Sea”: Black Missionaries from Arkansas in Africa during the 1890s”, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Winter, 2002), pp. 329-356.
 Harris, Paul W. “Racial Identity and the Civilizing Mission: Double-Consciousness at the 1895 Congress on Africa”, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer 2008), pp. 145-176.
Jacobs, Sylvia M. (Editor) Black Americans in the Missionary Movement in Africa, Greenwood Press, 1982.
Articles therein referenced:
1. Williams, Walter L., “William Henry Sheppard, Afro-American Missionary in the Congo, 1890-1910.” P. 135.
2. Jacobs, Sylvia M., “Their ‘Special Mission’: Afro-American Women as Missionaries to the Congo, 1894-1937.” P. 155.
3. Page, Carol A., “Colonial Reaction to AME Missionaries in South Africa, 1898-1910.” P. 177.
Killingray D., “The Black Atlantic Missionary Movement and Africa, 1780s-1920s”, Journal of Religion in Africa, Volume 33, Number 1, 2003 , pp. 3-31(29).
King, K.J., “The American Negro as Missionary to East Africa: A Critical Aspect of African Evangelism” African Historical Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1970), pp. 5-22.
Williams, Walter L. Black Americans and the Evangelization of Africa, University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.
Photo credits: images are public domain and sourced from Wikimedia and blackpast.org

 

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