A sinuously nuanced pursuit of a Southern Christian missionary couple’s conflicted journey from slaveholding Savannah, Ga., to West Africa.
In the thoroughgoing fashion of his Bancroft Prize–winning Dwelling Place (2005), religion historian Clarke devotes enormous care to delineating every aspect of the world known to his protagonists: Jane Bayard, from Savannah, and John Leighton Wilson, from Black River, S.C. The two well-to-do products of white plantation culture had made a marriage of convenience in 1834 in order to fulfill their dream of embracing missionary work in Liberia, as part of the expanding evangelical work sponsored by the American Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. It was brave and dangerous work, especially since the pernicious miasmas (malaria) had felled most of the other white missionaries who arrived. However, the Wilsons survived, even thrived, setting up missions and schools for the colonists and native peoples. Newly freed—some of Jane’s own slaves from the Gullah community had been offered the choice to make a new life in Liberia—the African-American colonists were often riven by dissension, prompting the Wilsons to move father south to Gabon to start another mission among the Mpongwe. Curiously, with the election of Abraham Lincoln, patriotism resolved the couple to return to the South, believing “that the question of liberty was at the heart of the crisis.” Clarke underscores the irony of their use of the word “liberty” (as in the liberty of the North “to impose its will on the South”): This wise couple, who had fought the international slave law and worked fervently to educate and uplift the freed slaves, emerged from the war’s devastation mystified but committed to a moribund “Southern way of life.”
A florid yet thorough and compelling history of missionary work and the 19th-century African-American experience both in America and abroad.