An Episcopalian Who May Not Be Your First Choice as a Banquet Speaker

Episcopalians are generally a pretty respectable lot.  Well-educated.  Self-disciplined.  Reasonable.  Dignified.  Prudent.   There is often a certain gravitas to them.

So, if you seated James Madison on one side of the table…….

Consider, for instance, the following list of Episcopalians:  George Washington, James Madison, T.S. Eliot, Eleanor Roosevelt, Buzz Aldrin, Sandra Day O’Conner, Colin Powell, Batman.

Not a single one of them would embarrass you at a dinner party.  If you needed somebody to lend dignity to a national event by saying a few words at the opening ceremony, any in this group would make you proud.   Install any one of them as president of a university, and the U.S. News and World Report rankings of the institution would automatically jump up ten places, even if it was already ranked at number five.

And then there is William Wadé Harris.

Sure, this African Christian started down the path of respectable Episcopalianism.  In Liberia in the 1890s, Harris served as a catechist and teacher for the Episcopalian mission near Cape Palmas.  Working for the missionary machinery that brought education, Christianity, bureaucratic government, scientific farming and modest clothing styles to Africa, Harris was an unimpeachable product of, in the terminology of the day, “the civilizing mission.”

At least that is what it could look like for a while, from the outside.  It became harder to see Harris as a respectable Episcopalian, or any kind of Episcopalian, for that matter, in 1910.

Harris was in jail that year.  He had been convicted of treason after raising the British Union Jack on the beach and yelling at the Americo-Liberians (black immigrants from the United States who dominated Liberia) to get out of his country.  But there is more.  While in jail, as Harris explained later, the angel Gabriel visited him in a trance.  The angel descended three times and felt like ice on his head.  According to Harris, Gabriel anointed him as a prophet like Elijah, Daniel, Ezekiel and John, and instructed him to burn fetishes and preach Christ, who was about to usher in the peace of a thousand years, as spoken of in the book of Revelation.

I’m pretty sure that this sort of thing never happened to George Washington.

… to Prophet Harris, what would the two talk about? The Book of Common Prayer?

And I can’t see Eleanor Roosevelt casting out evil spirits, miraculously healing the sick, adopting polygamy, or cursing dockworkers who worked on Sunday.  All these actions were attributed to Harris, though.  He sometimes engaged African medicine men in showdowns of supernatural power.  Some say he raised the dead to life.

So one does not know what would happen at dinner parties if Harris were invited.

Catholic and Methodist missionaries, who were almost as respectable as Episcopalians, did not know quite what to make of him, either.  His evangelistic tours through West Africa after 1910 brought hundreds of thousands of Africans to the faith, new Christians who followed his instructions to build churches and wait for white missionaries to arrive with Bibles.  The missionaries, of course, were pleased to see their churches overflow with converts.  But they were not sure if Harris’ baptisms were conducted properly.  They did not approve of polygamy.

This, of course, raised intellectual and theological challenges to the missionaries of his day.  But Harris also raises challenges to westerners today.  Some secular anthropologists like Lionel Tiger often assume that a certain kind of functional coherence exists in traditional religions.  They assume people of other cultures are content with their religious faith and values.  Yet traditional African religions, like religions in the West, are not as tidy as assumed.  Nor are their adherents necessarily content with them.  Many west Africans felt conflicted about the power for good and evil that they experienced in their traditional religions.  William Wadé Harris proclaimed that his African audiences could encounter a spiritual power – the power of Christ – that would release them from the power of their fetishes.  Hundreds of thousands jumped at this chance.

There is a challenge here to American evangelicals, as well.  It is easy, as an American Christian, to view African Christians as if they are American evangelicals with livelier music.  Harris, however, just might make some American Christians uncomfortable if he were to speak in their Sunday School.  Just what are we to do with polygamy and evil spirits, anyway?

We need to keep this in mind:  Christianity that has been transmitted to African soil often bears fruit that may look and taste different from what you’ve plopped on your plate at the Sunday potluck.  Variations of world Christianity can raise issues that many American evangelicals have not considered.  That is just one reason why western Christians don’t have all the answer to issues facing Africa.  As far as I know, the seminaries where we send our ministers don’t offer courses on African fetishes.

Nor do African Christians have all the answers, either.  The challenge, then, is to utilize our resources to collaborate and learn from one another.   The process will probably raise uncomfortable questions, but that happens in the Christian faith.  It can even happen to Episcopalians.




Christians You’ve Never Heard Of, But You Should: William Wadé Harris

(It’s been a while since I’ve made a blog entry.  Is this something I should apologize for?  Explain?  Try to justify?  OK, here it is:  I’m sorry about that.  I’ve been flooded with papers to grade, institutional responsibilities, and scholarly projects that last few weeks……….

Hmm.  They say you should never begin a speech with an apology.  Maybe it’s the same for blog posts).

There are a number of reasons why Americans are fascinated with Abraham Lincoln.   He was a key figure in one of the more critical events in American history.  He

OK, we all know who this guy is……..

wore that funny stove pipe hat.  He wrestled with significant political, constitutional, racial and social issues.  He worked his way up from a log cabin to the White House. He was tall.

Most of this interest is deeply tied to our interest in the American nation.  That interest is fine, but I’d like us to consider something else.  While American Christians ought to be interested in the American nation, we ought to have a deeper interest in the Kingdom of God.  But here is the problem:  the Kingdom of God does not get a lot of play from Steven Spielberg, the History Channel, the Ford Motor Company, or our pennies.  So we have to do some work to bring stories about the Kingdom of God into our consciousness.

So let me make one small attempt to contribute to our interest in the Kingdom of God:  you should know something about William Wadé Harris.

William Wadé (pronounced “waddy”) Harris may not be as historically important as Abraham Lincoln.  But I would argue he’s more historically important than any number of American Presidents you have heard of, including Calvin Coolidge, James Monroe, and William McKinley.  (Some folks here in Canton would grumble at me for that last one).

Why would I argue for Harris’s significance over a good Canton man and Methodist Sunday School superintendent like William McKinley?  Besides the fact, that is, that the eight presidents from Ohio don’t exactly give us goosebumps?

Consider this:  there are more Christians in Africa today than there are people in the United States.  That development represents a significant change in world history.  And that change is worth some consideration.

There are many aspects to this story, which covers several centuries, eight hundred people groups and more than fifty nations.  William Wadé Harris, though, is as good a place to start as any.

Born in Liberia, Harris converted to Christianity as a young man and taught for an American Episcopalian mission for a number of years.  Then he set off on his own.

…..but do you know who this guy is?

Between 1910 and 1930 Harris traveled through what is today Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Liberia as an evangelist.  Around two hundred thousand Africans became Christians under this ministry.  His ministry also influenced and inspired numerous Pentecostal movements in West Africa, movements that have spread across the continent.  That kind of influence in itself should make us sit up and take notice.

But I also think we should know about Harris and understand him better because his ministry raises a number of important issues related to the Christian faith, culture and power.   For instance, many people today associate evangelistic missionary work with imperialism.  Some anthropologists like Lionel Tiger do more than associate the two.  He bluntly calls missionaries “frank imperialists.”    Tiger’s camp assumes that any action that addresses the spiritual or theological issues of someone from another culture disrupts the “fundamental ideals and values” of those people.  And there are many American Christians who, feeling uncomfortable with the idea of evangelism, take a similar stance.  For many, evangelism seems somehow be an inherently intrusive, imposing and self-righteous activity.  Interestingly, though, other forms of missionary work are seen as less intrusive and even helpful.  Lionel Tiger, like most of the people in the “Frank Imperialist” school of thought, does not object to outsiders providing water projects, modern medicine or education to people from other cultures.  He assumes that these actions do not disrupt fundamental ideals and values.  (Don’t they?  That assumption would be an interesting one to discuss some other time).

Tiger, and others, could use a better grounding in the history of world Christianity and the work of Harris, who operated without the guidance, support or direction of any missionaries.  Many of his travels took place in regions where no missionary or white person had yet visited.  In fact, ten years after Harris had itinerated through many inland villages in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, Methodist and Catholic missionaries were great surprised to arrive in villages to find thousands of Africans already claiming the Christian faith.  (This dynamic occurred in many places in Africa).  Would a ministry of a single African preaching to thousands of other Africans, far from the presence of Europeans, be considered imperialism, especially when these Africans voluntarily adopted Christianity?  It is hard to square this historical reality with simplistic claims of frank imperialism.

And there is more to Harris.  (What, for instance, is your stand on angelic visions?)  I’ll bring up a few more cultural issues in my next post.