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John Walmsley, Ninth Bishop of Sierra Leone

A Memoir for His Friends

Arranged by E.G. Walmsley, M.A.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1923.

Chapter IV. The Call to Africa

THE Diocese of Sierra Leone consists at the present time of the colonies of Sierra Leone and Gambia, to which is added the oversight of Anglican congregations in French Guinea, the Azores, Grand Canary, Teneriffe, Madeira, and part of Morocco. When it was founded, in 1852, it included also Lagos and the Gold Coast.

The colony, which gives its name to the diocese, has a romantic history. During Queen Elizabeth's reign an Act of Parliament was passed by which it became legal to purchase African negroes as slaves. The famous seaman Sir John Hawkins sailed promptly to a small peninsula in West Africa, named by the Portuguese Sierra Leone, and forcibly seized three hundred negroes, whom he carried across the Atlantic and sold. For the next two centuries this iniquitous traffic in human lives continued, and it grew to enormous dimensions. More than two millions of African negroes were imported into the British colonies in the West. Slaves came to form a customary part of the property of rich families in England. As late as 1772 the London newspapers would contain advertisements of negro boys and girls available for purchase. In the same year the matter was taken up by the reformer Granville Sharp; and in a test-case arising from an instance of exceptional cruelty, he secured a ruling from the Lord Chief Justice that the holding of slaves in the British Isles was contrary to the law of the realm. This did not mean the stopping of the slave trade between Africa and the Colonies--a result which was not achieved until half a century later--but it set free at once all the slaves who were actually held in the British Isles. The result, as may be imagined, was not immediately good. London was soon swarming with negro beggars. Granville Sharp had to deal with a new phase of the problem; and in 1786, with the help of the Government, he formed a plan for settling the freed slaves on congenial soil in Africa. By a curious turn of events, the spot chosen was Sierra Leone, which was the scene of Hawkins's shameful raid two centuries before. A first contingent of four hundred liberated slaves was shipped thither under English supervision; others followed; and the outcome is seen in the colony of Sierra Leone as we know it to-day, with Freetown as its capital, and with its large population of Christian negroes. [Eugene Stock, History of the Church Missionary Society, i. 46.]

The story of Church work in Sierra Leone during the nineteenth century does not belong to this record. It is enough to say that it was one of the earliest fields of labour to be undertaken by the agents of the Church Missionary Society, and one which, on account of the climate, made exceptional demands on the courage of those who went out. The first Bishop, Dr. Owen Vidal, was appointed in 1852, and died at sea two years later. In the course of fifty-seven years there were eight bishops in Sierra Leone, two of whom--Bishop Ingham and Bishop Taylor Smith--still survive. Bishop Elwin, the last of the eight, had held the see for seven years when he died somewhat unexpectedly in November 1909.

There were several months of delay before the vacancy caused by Bishop Elwin's death was filled. On April I3th, 1910, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was responsible for making an appointment, wrote on the subject to John Walmsley. The opening and closing sentences of his letter may be quoted here.

"It has been strongly pressed upon me by those who ought to be able to judge, that I should be serving the best interests of the Church in West Africa by inviting you to succeed good Bishop Elwin as Bishop of Sierra Leone. From all that I have heard, I can scarcely doubt that this advice is wise and kind."

The letter goes on to suggest an interview at Lambeth, in which the proposition might be thoroughly considered; and it concludes thus:

"In the meantime I shall not omit to pray God to give you, in every deepest and amplest sense, the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding, of Counsel and Strength, in regard to a matter so momentous both to you and to the Church."

The offer of the see was put by the Archbishop in its most definite form a few days later. It was readily accepted, as a clear call from God to take a responsible and exacting part in the work of building the Kingdom of Christ in Africa.

Looking back now over the story of the twelve years that followed this appointment, one feels that the Archbishop could not have been led to a better choice. The Diocese of Sierra Leone has characteristics which are all its own, and it demands a man with an exceptional range of gifts. The African Church requires a leader of marked humility, and possessing deep powers of sympathy, who will be able to accustom himself readily to the ways and outlook of a race different from his own. The up-country missions call for a man with the fervent zeal of an evangelist. The settlers from home, traders and officials, need a spiritual shepherd who has the faculty for knowing them one by one, and who can move easily and happily amongst his friends while always calling them to higher things. The islands need a Bishop who can make his presence and influence rapidly felt; for his visits to the remote parts of the diocese can be but brief and few. In regard to Churchmanship, the diocese requires a Bishop who regards with sympathy the Evangelical traditions established through its connection with the Church Missionary Society; but the spiritual oversight of so large and varied an area could never be effectively taken by a partisan. These varied demands were quite remarkably met by John Walmsley. Physically, too, he seemed to be the right man for the work. His capacity for endurance, which had already been displayed at home and in Switzerland, would find ample scope in a diocese which involved travelling on foot for hundreds of miles. Lastly, his lack of experience of work abroad was not wholly a disqualification. There was no necessity for the new Bishop of Sierra Leone to acquire knowledge of a strange tongue. He could face the problems of Africa with the freshness and buoyancy of one who encountered them for the first time, even though he might be liable to make the mistakes of a beginner. In dealing with matters affecting the constitution of the Church, he would have the advantage of a full working knowledge of the Anglican system in England. And the large circle of friends, whom he had already gathered round him in his parishes and elsewhere, would form the nucleus of a keenly interested body of supporters for his work.

On June 16th, a few days before his consecration, Walmsley was at Oxford, and received the degree of Doctor of Divinity honoris causa. He was presented by the venerable Canon Ince, who was at that time Regius Professor, and who, according to custom, made a speech in sonorous Latin appropriate to the occasion. Sierra Leone was described as virorum alborum sepulchrum, and the new Doctor was addressed as vir fortissime.

The Consecration took place in Westminster Abbey on St. John the Baptist's Day, June 24th, 1910. Two other Bishops were consecrated at the same time--Dr. Edward Lee Hicks as Bishop of Lincoln, and Dr. Cathrew Fisher as Bishop of Nyassaland. The sermon was preached by Bishop Welldon, who was at that time Dean of Manchester. Immediately afterwards Bishop Walmsley went to Torcross to spend a quiet holiday with his mother and sisters near the scene of his first curacy: and, as has been already mentioned, he preached for the first time as a Bishop in Chivelstone Church. From Devonshire he wrote a characteristic letter to his Nottingham parishioners about the service at Westminster:

"May I ask you to read over again the service for the Consecration of Bishops? It sets before us, I think, s beautifully what the work of the Bishop is to be--that c the guide and pastor; his authority is to be the authority of holiness and love; he is to be, not a lord over Christ's heritage, but a wholesome example to the flock, in word, in life, in faith, in purity. The last question seems to point out how it may be possible, thank God, often to do or say little things, which may mean more just because of the office which one holds: 'Will you show yourself gentle, and be merciful for Christ's sake to poor and needy people, and to all strangers destitute of help?'

"The service, so full of interest for the Church at home, as well as in Africa, seemed so especially appropriate for me. The Epistle was read by the Bishop of Hereford, my native place; the Gospel by the Bishop of Salisbury, who was my first tutor at Oxford, an old Brasenose Fellow.

"The new Bishop of Lincoln, who was consecrated with me, an old Brasenose man, had examined me at Oxford; while the other will be going to Africa. The two Bishops who presented me were the Bishops of Liverpool and Southwell, with one of whom I had been associated, first as a student, and then a tutor under him for over five years in Oxford, while the other we have learned increasingly to love as a true Bishop, in Nottingham. No man has ever had a warmer or more sympathetic God-speed to responsible work in the mission-field than I have had from him. And then among those who joined in the Consecration ceremony were Bishop Hamilton Baynes, who himself has presided over an African diocese in troublous times, and Bishop Taylor Smith, who is still full of enthusiasm for the work there. And there were many who, though not with us in body, were present in spirit, not only of old friends but of new. I received at the close of the service a message from my future diocese, sent off at 9.30 that morning, sending congratulations from the Commissary, Cathedral Chapter, clergy, and laity of the Diocese. Such a message at such a time was indeed most cheering and encouraging.

"Forgive me for talking so much about myself, but I must mention one other thing, a strange coincidence you may call it. On the day of my Consecration a letter came to me from East Africa, from an old choir-boy and Confirmation candidate, dated Trinity Sunday. In it he writes: 'I am out as a carpenter'--he worked for the Midland Railway in Derby, where his father was a foreman--' but we get plenty of chance for spiritual work: our Bishop, Dr. Weston, is staying with us. I sometimes feel that my first call to the Mission-field was at a lantern lecture you gave in the old days at Normanton on Sierra Leone; ever since then I have had a burning zeal for Africa that it may become Christian. I am now twenty-two, and yet it seems only like yesterday since I was a choir-boy at Normanton. Will you please pray for me?' And that letter was written without the slightest knowledge that I was so soon to go out to West Africa. I have no recollection of the lecture; I expect it was but poorly attended: but how little do we know when the seed sown may bear fruit!"

Bishop Walmsley remained in England until the last week in September. These were busy weeks; he still had the care of his large parish in Nottingham, and he addressed a number of meetings in different parts of the country with a view to arousing an intelligent interest in his future work. Perhaps the happiest incident of this period was the Confirmation Service which the new Bishop conducted for the first time on September I5th, in his own church of St. Ann. For the text of his address to the candidates he took the words, "I will go forth in the strength of the Lord God." With their twofold message of a call to duty and a promise of power, they applied at this moment no less forcibly to the Bishop himself than to the boys and girls who were being admitted to the full fellowship of the Church. On the following Sunday he said farewell to large congregations at St. Jude's and St. Ann's. For the evening service every inch of space was occupied. The Bishop spoke with the utmost earnestness from the text, "There remaineth yet very much land to be possessed." A few days later, on the very eve of his departure from England, he wrote a final message to the people of St. Ann's in his Parish Magazine. He seemed to be oppressed with a sense of failure as he laid down his work in Nottingham.

"Thank God for those who do know something of God's love, who are finding in the fellowship of Christ's Church opportunities of serving Him and of following Him. But one thinks of the multitude untouched, the hundreds in the parish who live

"'Just as if Jesus had never lived
Or as if He had never died.'

The saddest moments in my week were generally about three o'clock on Sunday afternoon, when I met crowds of men from public-houses or gardens. Oh! men! forgive me if there was something in my life which kept you from my Master! Despise me if you like, but don't despise my Master! May he who follows me succeed where I have failed!" [The Bishop's place at St. Ann's was taken by the Rev. M. J. G. King, Vicar of St. Gabriel's, Bishopwearmouth.]

The voyage to Sierra Leone was uneventful. The Bishop had the first sight of his diocese at Las Palmas, in the Canaries, where he was able to go on shore for four hours and to meet several of the leading Churchmen. He arrived at Freetown early in the morning of Sunday, October gth. On the following Sunday he preached to large congregations at the Cathedral and at Holy Trinity Church; and on St. Luke's Day, October i8th, the ceremony of enthronement took place in the Cathedral. The welcome, both from the African and from the white population, was a very warm one; and, the different stages of preparation being over at last, the Bishop settled down with a good heart to his new work.

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