Project Canterbury

Within the Green Wall
The Story of Holy Cross Liberia Mission 1922-1957

By the Rt. Rev. Robert Erskine Campbell, O.H.C.
Formerly Prior of Bolahun and Bishop of Liberia

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, [1957]

Reproduced online by permission of the Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross, 2006.

Chapter 3. Family Trees

LET US go back to the early years of the nineteenth century to see how certain active philanthropic groups both secular and religious tackled a knotty problem. In this, what is now known as the Republic of Liberia played a leading part as our sole American attempt at colonization overseas.

We have already noted the merchant adventurers from Europe nosing their way, cautiously at first but with increasing vigor, into the waters of the Grain Coast. They came for trade in gold, spices, red cam wood for dyes, ivory, civet for perfumes, hides, indigo, and finally for slaves. Those must have been roaring days when the only law was to barter by fair means or foul. The cheapest of firearms, liquor, hardware, cloth and pretty trinkets were swapped for cargoes of fabulous wealth. We have no wish to stigmatize all these traders as cheats and scoundrels, for among them were surely men of high principles and moral integrity. It is said that in his earlier years Christopher Columbus was one of them, and that Vasco de Gama too--he who later [13/14] sailed on to India--was among those adhering to principles too upright to permit them to stoop to unethical dealings with the natives. The fact remains however, that for many of the bold merchants both religion and morals were left behind in Europe.

While the slave markets of the Egypt of antiquity are known, and for centuries Africa formed an overflowing reservoir of "black ivory" to supply the demand as far away as India in the East and America in the West, it was the Arabs in East Africa who brought this shameful trade to what we now call "big business." In West Africa it was the Fula and Mandingo chiefs who by raiding nearby weaker tribes sold their captives to the Europeans. In 1502 no one less than the Dominican Friar Bartholomew de las Casas encouraged the importation of Guinea slaves to Haiti to save the native Indians from extermination. These Indians seemed unable to survive the rigors of mining or farming under their Spanish masters. Thus began the forced migration of tens of thousands of chained Negroes to the New World and the dreadful "middle passage" across the Atlantic.

Be it said to the lasting crcdit of the Quakers, the first prophetic voice to be raised against this iniquitous traffic was that of George Fox in 1670 on the Island of Barbados in the West Indies. By little and little the Christian consciences of men in Europe and American were aroused to see the enormity of slavery in any form. Denmark first renounced the slave trade in 1792, followed two years later by the United States. England added her weight to the movement in 1807, and nearly all the other European nations fell in line shortly after. The English freed all their West Indian Negroes in 1834, giving in every case adequate compensation to their owners. At the height of the Civil War, January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Emancipation, which put an end to slavery in the United States forever. Because it was considered a necessary bit of strategy in time of war, no provision was made for any compensation to the owners.

[15] By the opening of the nineteenth century there had become a sufficient number of freed slaves in the United States to create a pressing economic problem. Free black labour was in competition with free white labour, and to relieve the tension obviously something had to be done. For some little time thoughtful men had been discussing the possibility of returning these freed Africans to their homeland, or perhaps of colonizing them in some unoccupied area of the far West out beyond the Mississippi. It was claimed that all these suggestions were made in the interest of the Negroes themselves, even though in the background there hovered a grave concern for the peace and economic welfare of our own infant nation, as it then was. Finally something was done, and none too soon.

Under the able leadership of men of no less stature than Henry Clay, Robert Finley, Francis Key and Elijah Caldwell the American Colonization Society came into being. That was in the city of Washington, D. C., on the fourth of December i8i6. This movement to repatriate displaced Africans caught the popular imagination and spread rapidly to various State Societies. Money flowed in not only to the parent society, but to the other philanthropic organizations as well--all with the identical objective. Hence, in spite of much bungling and many misunderstandings, the first party of 89 colonists sailed from New York February 6, 1820, in the "Elizabeth," a ship of 200 tons burthen. Their destination was the West Coast of Africa.

When the ship reached Freetown, Sierra Leone, these would-be settlers from America received a chilly welcome. The British officials had troubles enough of their own with another group of freed Africans sent from Nova Scotia and the West Indies, along with an unruly lot of European traders, some of whom served as pirates and "under-the counter" slave dealers. The American colonists soon moved farther to the East to Sherbro and the Banana Islands. Many of the company died there because the climate proved unhealthy. Further exploration along [15/16] the coast to eastward brought Cape Mesurado to their attention. At the invitation of a European trader already settled there the survivors landed January 7, 1822, on Providence Island in the Mesurado Lagoon. There the settlers stayed.

The growth of the little colony, its failures and brilliant successes, has been told in detail by others. Suffice it to say that by 1847, when the Republic of Liberia proclaimed itself a sovereign and independent state, it had nearly 300 miles of coast line and claimed by purchase territory 40 miles back into the interior. Ten years later, 1857, the Maryland Colony on and about Cape Palmas joined the Republic, thus lending dignity and strength to the fascinating experiment. Here for the first time was presented the spectacle of a civilized government manned and operated solely by American Negroes. The constitution adopted by the founding fathers had been framed by Professor Simon Greenleaf of Harvard Law School. The first President, and for thirty years the guiding hand was Joseph J. Roberts, whose portrait still hangs conspicuously in the reception salon of the executive mansion in Monrovia. The general outline of the government is that of the United States. One peculiarity is that none but those of African descent may hold title to land, excepting that missionary and philanthropic agencies may acquire the actual sites of their respective activities. It is worthy of note that now the indigenous tribes of the Hinterland send elected representatives to the national legislature. For perseverance in the pursuit of their ideals, for clarity of aims we doubt if there is anywhere an equal to the Liberian Government.

Nothing but praise can be given to those devoted men who have made such a valiant effort to preserve the independence of their nation. Hampered as they were by poverty at home and ridicule from land-hungry powers without, by occasional incompetence within and political pressure from aliens, this nation shines today as a tribute to the adaptability of its people, their integrity and worth. We can express nothing but admiration for [16/17] the persistent efforts ever to improve agriculture, health, financial economy, education and native administration. It is a long story of a hard uphill pull. The present Chief Executive, President William V. S. Tubman, has faced former administrative weaknesses honestly and is making noteworthy progress in rectifying them. Liberia today is not only progressive and prosperous, but looks forward confidently to a long, peaceful future.

From the outset missions and the representatives of various Christian groups have played an important part in the religious and educational development of the Republic. In the early days the money and supplies brought in by missionaries helped greatly to stabilize the local economy. Schools and medical work with a measure of industrial training came as an integral part of the Christian message. Liberia's greatest need has been some solid economic base. When coffee beans, palm kernels, piassava, palm oil or cocoa are shipped their value depends on the fluctuations of world markets. 'When prices are high, the people have plenty of ready cash, while low prices discourage them. Consequently, when the Firestone Rubber Plantations began operations in the middle '20's it came as an economic boon to the entire nation as well as a relief to the burden carried uncomplainingly by various missionary societies for a century. More recently the iron mines at Bomi Hills and other enterprises from abroad have brought added prosperity.

What we wish to stress is that the faith of the early missionaries--faith in God, faith in the people of Liberia--has not been misplaced. More and more there is evident among the people at large both the ability and the will to support local institutions, ecclesiastical as well as secular. The time has not come for missionary enterprises to be curtailed as yet, for there are but 50,000 Christians out of a population of one and a half millions rendering allegiance to the lone-star flag. By far the greater number of these Christians live along the seaboard. Holy Cross Mission, the subject of this sketch, was we believe the very first venture [17/18] of any sort to establish a permanent station among the Bandis and Kisis in the far Hinterland. This in no wise disparages the work of those heroic early missionaries along the coast, for in those days the interior of the country held terrors incalculable; and heathen there were a plenty tight at their front doors.

The Liberian Government itself operates the University of Liberia in Monrovia, the Booker T. Washington Industrial School at Kakata, and approximately sixty other schools scattered all over the Republic. Recently there has been started a literacy campaign for the benefit of the indigenous tribes. By law, all classes must be taught in English, thus supplying a much- needed national unity of speech. In view of the fact that we meet over twenty dialects belonging to several distinct language groups, it will be seen how wise a provision this is. Health programmes, agricultural and industrial programmes are still in their infancy, but will doubtless expand to effective proportions as greater economic stability takes place. Of able lawyers, preachers, teachers, politicians, and diplomats Liberia has always enjoyed a full supply. The day has dawned for the raising up of needed mechanics, scientific farmers, doctors, as well as merchants and others of the "white collar" occupations. Thus and thus only will it be possible to fill in adequately the social and economic structure for the common welfare.

To return to missionary activities, we have noticed that until about 3 years ago these were limited to within a few miles of the Atlantic coast. The Hinterland was for the most part quite unknown. Frightful stories of turbulent wars and bloodthirsty cannibals filtered to the coastal stations with enough persistence and circumstantial evidence to deter even the most enthusiastic promoters of the Christian Gospel. Add to this the life-and- death struggle of the little Republic for survival, and we begin to understand the real reasons for apparent indifference to the multitudes of heathen dwelling in the hostile forests or tucked in the rugged hills.

[19] Before the good ship "Elizabeth" sailed from America in 1820 bearing the first company of colonists, there was organized the Providence Baptist Society. In Monrovia, as soon as they could, they built a church-house and engaged as their pastor that remarkable leader, the Reverend Lott Carey. He was the rallying center for the struggling colonists, but was unfortunately killed by an accidental explosion of the stores of gunpowder in 1828. Thus the Providence Baptist Church, still in existence, is the earliest Christian effort in this land.

The Swiss Protestants opened their Basle Mission in 1829, but because of the untimely death of many of their staff, soon abandoned the work. Then in 1832 came the Methodists under the leadership of the Reverend Melville W. Cox. For many years they were the largest, strongest body in Liberia. Always diligent evangelists, they began raising and ordaining an indigenous ministry, so that they grew rapidly. Outstanding as a school to this day is the College of West Africa in Monrovia, and many know of the world-famous medical mission under Dr. Harley at Ganta in the interior among the Mano people. Earnest preachers of righteousness and of the love of God, they exert a powerful influence for personal dedication to lofty ideals.

The Presbyterians arrived in 1834 with their devotion to moral integrity and sound learning. This mission was formally relinquished in 1895 for what seemed adequate reasons, the chief of which are reported to have been the high mortality of their workers and results not commensurate with the cost. There is still a Presbytery of West Africa with a few congregations under Liberian ministers and supporting themselves.

It would present a tedious task to spread the efforts of each of the denominations, but we must mention the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. Of these last, several American priests landed in Cape Palmas in 1842. They suffered so many deaths of members of the staff and received such poor support from home, that the two fever-wasted survivors relinquished their [19/20] work four years later. Then a company of French priests known as the Holy Ghost Fathers settled in Monrovia in 1884 and began what seemed like constructive advance work. But in about ten years this effort collapsed also from reasons presumably the same as those bringing failure at Cape Palmas. In 1906 there arrived some of the Priests of the African Mission with headquarters in Lyons, France. This group is stationed chiefly in Monrovia and along the Kru Coast, though they operate a few stations in the interior. In Cape Palmas they have opened Our Lady of Fatima College under Mgr. Carroll. Their Vicar Apostolic in Monrovia is Bishop John Collins, a veteran missionary of over 40 years service, and widely loved and respected.

The Lutherans came in 1860 under the leadership of Dr. David Day. For many years their work was centered at Muhlenberg Mission about 20 miles from Monrovia up the St. Paul River. There they erected substantial buildings for their schools, boys on one side of the river, girls on the other. Their really excellent hospital for years has made an incalculable contribution to the health and physical welfare of thousands of helpless sufferers. During the past 35 years their emphasis has been laid with increasing vigor on evangelizing the Hinterland. Their headquarters are now at Zorzor, a four-day trek to the east of Bolahun, where their policies for work are about the same as ours, but with much better equipment--motor cycles on which to get about, and, at one time anyway, a small airplane with which to fly to Monrovia. A more intelligent, consecrated band of missionaries would be hard to find.

To come now to an account of our own Episcopal Church, it is difficult to relate such an extended, rather complicated story in a few words. One of the first interests of our Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society in 1820 was Liberia. Several abortive attempts during the next few years were made to send out qualified missionaries, but misfortune and death combined to block every move. Finally on November 1, 1836, the Reverend Dr. [20/21] Thomas Savage sailed from Baltimore on the brig "Niobe." His parting words to friends and relatives were, "Well, I am going home." He who uttered this brave sentiment was a native of Connecticut, and was a physician and schoolmaster as well as a priest of the Church. He landed at Cape Palmas on Christmas Day, our very first Christmas present to Africa.

In Cape Palmas a small school had already been started by Mr. James M. Thompson and wife, both colonists, both Episcopalians. He had earlier that same year been appointed by the Board of Missions as teacher. He had opened the school at Mt. Vaughan, a bit of high land not too far back from the Cape. It is of great interest to note that the Church opened its work in West Africa with emphasis on education, and religious education at that. Our Church Schools have been the foundation of all our activities in this land ever since, and are, under God, the source of our strength to this day. It required courage, vision and patience on the part of those early missionaries to establish schools wherever they operated. Many of the natives did not want schools, but only trade goods and gin. It was the slow way to propagate the faith, but very sure and with lasting results, the benefits of which we are still reaping.

It is heart-rending to read of the trials of those early missionaries; their faith in the face of discouragement, their bright hope and will to carry on when death played such havoc among them, their unquenchable love for God and His African children. "Never give up," were the last words of the Reverend Launcelot B. Minor of Virginia, who in the late '30's was one of many of our church heroes to succumb to the dreaded African fever. Persevere these dedicated missionaries did, despite dreadful hardships due to slow communications, inadequate supplies from home and an incredible opposition from the very people they had come to help. No common men and women were these looking for an exciting vacation abroad, but carefully trained workers, many of them of high social position.

[22] After a decade at Cape Palmas and the surrounding country, the need for a Bishop became increasingly obvious. If converts were to be confirmed, if there were to be an ordained native ministry, the mission must have a resident Father-in-God in episcopal orders. So it was that in i8i the Rev. John Payne of Virginia was elected and consecrated Bishop of Cape Palmas and Parts Adjacent. He had joined the mission in 1837, and was one of the few survivors from those early years. He ruled his jurisdiction for twenty years, organized and consolidated the various mission activities, extending schools and stations up the Cavala River as far as Webbo, and to Monrovia, 250 miles up the coast. He lived but a couple of years after his retirement, so prematurely old and broken was he.

His successor in office was the Rt. Rev. Johann Gottlieb Auer. He had come to the Gold Coast from Germany in 1860 to work with the Swiss Basle Mission. Like so many others he was smitten with the "African fever," and fortunately could be carried by ship to what was then the only hospital within reach, St Mark's, Cape Palmas. After convalescence, he married his nurse, Miss Mary Ball of Baltimore, and was soon confirmed and ordained by Bishop Payne. He became so expert in the Grebo tongue that his translations of scriptures, prayers and hymns are still in use among the native Christians in that area. So proficient did he become that they say he did not hesitate to come right down from the pulpit while in the midst of a Grebo sermon to box the ears of some sleepy head--to the delight of the rest of the congregation of course. He was probably the most popular Bishop Liberia ever had, for when in 1873 he died after an episcopate of one year, there was nearly an armed conflict at Cape Palmas to determine where he should be buried. By some diplomatic arbitration peace was finally restored and his mortal remains were laid to rest in the little cemetery hard by St. Barnabas' parish church, Mt. Vaughan.

His successor as Bishop, the Rev. Charles Clifton Penick, at [22/23] the time the Rector of the Messiah, Baltimore, was consecrated and sent out in 1877, after a gap of four years. He was lame and suffered from constant poor health, so that he felt forced to relinquish jurisdiction in 1884. He became greatly discouraged about the work, for the heroic giants and enthusiasts of former years had all gone to their rest. The very mission buildings seemed ready to tumble down from the ravages of termites and culpable neglcct. His doleful letters home make lugubrious reading, even yet. This does not mean however that he was merely an idle pessimist, for as far as his strength allowed he showed an astonishing activity. Cape Mount in the far western part of Liberia and several other stations, all flourishing now, were inaugurated by him. We shall do well to remember the financial crash of 1877 which affected even far-off Liberia. That that struggling young Republic was just then going through some of its darkest days politically and financially is a matter of history.

Then we meet Liberia's "Grand Old Man," Bishop Samuel David Ferguson. With his parents he had been brought as an infant to Sinoe in 1844 when they emigrated from Charleston, S. C. He attended school in Cape Palmas, where under the tutelage of Bishop Payne he was in due time ordained both deacon and priest. He was elected to the episcopate by the House of Bishops in 1884 and consecrated the next year. So many strides in the advance of the Gospel came to pass during his long episcopate of 31 years that it would be well nigh impossible to enumerate them. Cuttington College and Divinity School was opened at Cape Palmas in 1889; St. John's Industrial School for Boys at Cape Mount, along with the beginnings of St. Timothy's Hospital and the school for girls named the House of Bethany. At Bromley on the St. Paul River a few miles above Monrovia stands the Julia C. Emery Hall for girls. Substantial new churches sprang up in various centers, thus lending an imposing dignity to the diocese. Wide awake to fresh [23/24] opportunities, new stations were opened in many areas along the coast. But what more than anything altered the whole character and emphasis of the mission was moving the see city to Monrovia. Bishop Ferguson purchased the former Roman Catholic mission house, built originally by President Payne in the early '70's, but left standing empty when the White Fathers withdrew from the field. That is still the Bishop's House, the nation-wide official headquarters of the Episcopal Church in the Republic.

World War I was raging when Bishop Ferguson died in 1916. Any sort of communications were most difficult to arrange and generally dangerous too. Bishop Arthur Selden Lloyd, the beloved executive head of the Board of Missions in New York, managed to pay a brief visit to evaluate the work and report his findings back home. That was in igi8, and as a result the General Convention in Detroit the next year elected the Rev. Walter Henry Overs, Rector of Bradford, Penna., to become the fifth Bishop of Liberia. He was consecrated promptly and soon was in Monrovia. In his earlier years Bishop Overs had been a missionary in Nigeria. This experience left him in a wretched state of health which residence in Monrovia did nothing to improve. But he was a prelate with great vision and indomitable energy. Valiantly he set about to repair "the waste places of Zion," and with great success. He it was who turned his thoughts as well as his prayers towards the untouched Hinterland with its hundreds of thousands who had never so much as heard the name of Jesus. He it was who invited the Order of the Holy Cross to share in this compelling call.

That brings us to the opening of the Holy Cross Liberian Mission in 1922. We shall have to notice a few other things before launching into the story of the mission proper; but at least we have made a start. Masambalahun and the Bandi country were given to us as our special charge. But who were these Bandis, and from what were we bidden to convert them?

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