I recently read Erskine Clarke’s remarkable By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey, which tells the epic chronicle of John Leighton Wilson and Jane Wilson, antebellum southern missionaries to west Africa. Clarke is one of the most gifted historians of American religion, with particular mastery of the antebellum southern Christian mind. By the Rivers of Water is a natural sequel to his Bancroft Prize-winning Dwelling Place.
As I have written earlier, the nineteenth-century American missions movement was often driven by Calvinists (in this case, Presbyterian Calvinists) like the Wilsons. Clarke shows how Calvinism and the belief in God’s providence fit into the larger “coherent moral universe” of the Wilsons. He particularly considers how their slaveholding ethos was challenged, but not finally defeated, by evangelical faith and missionary work among west Africans.
The Wilsons freed their own slaves and fought for decades against the slave trade in Africa, yet when the crisis of slavery and secession came to America in 1860, John Leighton sided with the Confederacy and became a key player in the organization of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America – especially its missionary efforts. He engaged northern friends such as Charles Hodge in pointed exchanges about the necessity of secession. Wilson bemoaned how the North was “planting her heel upon the neck of the South,” while Hodge rued the “absurdities, abnormities, and evils which flow from secession.”
Once Lee surrendered to Grant in 1865, and white southerners were left standing in the wreckage of their former slave societies, deep questions lingered, perhaps especially among Calvinist believers. Clarke imagines them wondering, “How was it possible to suffer such a crushing defeat in a morally coherent universe?… Had the South – and the church, in particular – been terribly wrong about slavery?” Only later did Wilson ask himself whether he had “idolized my country and then my church. Perhaps [God] means to teach me,” the retired missionary mused, “that I should have no object but him.”
By the Rivers of Water does not lend itself to easy summary, and what I have outlined above is only a fraction of the narrative, which develops full characters of men and women, including African Americans and West Africans. Clarke probes deeply and sympathetically into the culture of the Africans whom the Wilsons were seeking to evangelize, and does not shy away from addressing the sometimes brutal realities of both American and African societies in the nineteenth century.
Some readers will find the book overly dense and difficult to follow, with its evocative details on everything from rice cultivation to Gullah culture to methods of preparing cassava, a staple of the west African diet. But anyone interested in the history of missions, or the history of slavery, will certainly want to read By the Rivers of Water. I do not know of a more revealing, well-researched case study from the “Great Century” of overseas missions.
See also Lincoln A. Mullen’s excellent review of Clarke at the Religion in American History blog.