Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Prophet William Wade Harris (1860-1929) : Translator of Christianity in West Africa by Chris White

Prophet Harris

Lamin Sanneh in his book Whose Religion is Christianity?,  makes the case that Christianity is always a translated religion.  What he means by this is that the autographs of the Gospels were not even written in the original language of Jesus and thus from the start the message and religion of Jesus Christ was not the property of any particular people or geographic locale.  Instead, it should be considered normative that Christianity is going to have a vernacular quality as it enters the different cultures of our world while at the same time transforming individuals and social structures.  In this article I reflect upon the ministry of William Wade Harris of Liberia and what it tells us about God, ourselves, and the need for a translated Christianity. 

Liberia in western Africa
A brief sketch of Liberian history is required to appreciate the context of William Harris.  Liberia (Latin for “Land of Freedom”) was founded in 1822 as an independent colony for the repatriation of slaves from North America and the West Indies.  Space does not permit much detail here but Liberia has never been able to live up to its name or objectives.  First of all the majority of slaves who did come died within three years having no natural immunities to the tropical diseases of the region.  Secondly, the government they established took American freedoms and hypocrisy to another level.  Liberia has over 16 indigenous peoples who were far greater in number than the colonizing former slaves, yet an unjust system was put in place where virtually all political power and economic opportunity resided with the newcomers.  Ironically, even within Liberia there was also a replication of American racism.  Mulattos held the highest position in society and actually had a policy of separation, while others, former slaves or indigenous had their place in society determined by the shade of their skin.  Liberia was a land of freedom but some were freer than others.

William Wade’ Harris was born in Liberia around 1860.  His parents were of the Grebo tribe which was one of the larger indigenous peoples living in the colony.  By the time Harris was a teenager war broke out between the Grebo tribes and the Liberian government.  The conflict started when the Grebo tribes wanted to secede from Liberia and confederate into their own kingdom which would enable them to begin trading with the outside world.  The United States was called in to negotiate the conflict (which, given the Civil War and the subsequent misdeeds of Reconstruction seems laughable) and their emissary was able to negotiate of compromise where the Grebos would be given full citizenship and allowed to participate in the economy but they must remain as Liberians. In the end the Americans went home with a warm feeling in their hearts and nothing was to change in Liberia.

One of the good aspects of the Liberian constitution was that it recognized and protected religious freedom.  Although Christianity held a predominate place in the thinking and structures of their society, the African traditional religions were also allowed to be practiced by their adherents.  Space was also made for many Christian missionary endeavors to the indigenous peoples who eventually touched the life of Harris as he was fully converted and baptized a Methodist in his mid to late twenties.

Eventually Harris was to leave the Methodists and join the Episcopalians where he later became a catechist and school teacher in one of their mission church schools.  In time he also held a second job working for the Liberian government.  But his conversion to Christianity did not make him apolitical.  By his late 40’s Harris became active in a group that was trying to get the British government of neighboring Sierra Leone to make the Grebo lands of Liberia a protectorate.  While not offering them the autonomy that their earlier plan of secession did in 1875,  Harris and the others felt the English would rule them with more equity than the Americo-Liberians did.  Nothing of this plan ever materialized; however, Harris miscalculated the situation and was caught flying a Union Jack instead of a Liberian flag.  For his activism, William Wade’ Harris now around 50 with a wife and children, found himself unemployed and a political prisoner.

 While in prison, Harris has a life transforming experience of epic proportion.  Harris claims to have had a visitation from the angel Gabriel who comes to him and commissions him as a prophet.  I can’t resist inserting here that Jewish and Catholic traditions regard Gabriel the Lord’s first minister of encouragement and consolation which seems quite apropos for someone in Harris’ position.  Different accounts of this event yield different details but the essence of the divine encounter is that God  anointed Harris as a prophet sent to prepare hearts to follow Christ and be ready for His second coming.  Part of this prophetic commission was to discontinue dressing in western style clothing including the wearing of shoes and to shun all alcohol.  One source suggests that the rejection of European dress was to be the sign of his conversion and the symbol of the simplicity and humility of the Gospel.

Apparently Harris was quite ready to obey his new commission as he adopted a new wardrobe which included a long white robe, a white turban for his head, a tall cross made of cane, a calabash to fill with baptismal water, a gourd rattle, and a Bible.  The white clothing, according to Isichei[i], was a symbol of purity and separation from the world. 

Unlike the prophets of Israel, it was not apparently completely clear to Harris who his audience was to be.  He started preaching in Liberia, but like all before him, he was a prophet without honor in his homeland.  Actually, Liberia was heavily Christianized and more likely his message of turning from the ancient religion to the living God didn’t apply to many people.  The story does get interesting when Harris crosses the border to the Ivory Coast and begins going village to village preaching to a largely non-Christian audience.   Harris would be accompanied by two or three women who would sing, dance, and play the rattle as an accompaniment to his preaching.  His basic message was that:
1.      God and Christ came to vanquish and replace the spirits of tradition
2.      Christ’s Second Coming was imminent
3.      Preparation for the Parousia required keeping the Ten Commandments, observing a Sunday Sabbath, accepting the authority of the Bible, and the rejection and burning of fetishes.
4.      Be baptized immediately.

From a western perspective this message may seem imbalanced or even sub-Christian but taken from the milieu of African traditional religion this is on par with John the Baptist’s line “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!!”  Traditional African religion has several core beliefs.  One is that of a Supreme Creator who made all things and people and executes justice.  This god is far off and very distant.  There is also the belief in lesser spirits who dwell in all natural things and in close proximity to people and must be dealt with through ritual magic.  The spirits of ancestors must also be ritually honored. The presence of formal cults with temples and priests are not found in these cultures.  Traditional religion is more free-wheeling with local practices and practitioners. 
Fetishes like these are a part of traditional tribal religious practice

Such practitioners are called witch-doctors or shamans.  These have special skills in which they are able to get these lesser spirits to inhabit material objects either made by nature, such as a rock, or crafted by man such as a wood carving.   Known as fetishes, these then are inanimate objects that have the power of the spirits in them because of the shaman’s incantations.

In essence, the use of fetishes is prophylactic.  They are not objects of veneration or worship, but rather preventatives of evil or illness or misfortune of body or soul.  Their use offers a sense of security in an insecure world of good and evil spirits.  Burning them, would be making a decisive break with the lesser spirits and turning fully to the Creator God for your security.

Harris, with the chanting, dancing, shaking of the gourd rattle, the large walking stick with a cross, and long while robe, while looking quite weird to us, would not be too big of a reach for his audience who might look upon him as a new kind of shaman.  Given this context the message is strongly biblical:  There is no god but God and his Son Jesus Christ,  Jesus Christ is coming soon,  don’t be making up your own religion any longer but turn to the authority of God, and put your faith in the God who is sovereign over the world not in your ability to manipulate your circumstances through magic.

The burning of fetishes and immediate baptism are linked together.  In Harris’ day a convert to Christianity had to go through a long period of preparation before receiving baptism.  This long period of waiting would be a hindrance to conversion.  It could be a dangerous thing to live without the protection of your fetishes while you wait for the protection of God that would come from your baptism.  Thus Harris was also recognizing a cultural issue that missionary community was overlooking. 

 Like an authentic prophet, Harris was not on a church planting crusade.  In most instances he would direct those who responded and were baptized to join themselves to the congregations of the missionary churches.  Those who lived in areas where missionaries had not yet come were baptized and formed into congregations under the oversight of 12 elders or apostles.  They were told to wait until teachers came with the Bible for them.  Years later when Methodist missionaries reached Ivory Coast and Ghana, to their surprise and delight they had a whole group already waiting and eager to join their churches. 

The foray into Ivory Coast and Ghana which lasted only a year and a half was ended abruptly by his deportation back to Liberia by provincial authorities.  For the next 15 years he made many attempts but was never able to return.  He spent the remainder of his days in Liberia wearing his distinctive clothing and preaching but with little effect.  He passed away in 1929. 

During his brief ministry he baptized an estimated 120,000 converts.  Their fruit has remained and Harrist Churches are spread throughout Africa today.  Although not mentioned in this article, it should be noted that several other prophets were also working in Central Africa around the same time.  Like Harris they were not commissioned by any mission board or Church but from a divine call given in a supernatural way.  They were imprisoned and then they would have a brief but very successful period of preaching in which a great harvest would come in.  While not definitive proof of Harris’ encounter with Gabriel, when you see a trend it is difficult to ignore it or write it off. 

So what does this fascinating story tell us about God, ourselves, and the need for a translated Christianity?  Let me propose several ideas.  First of all while God does work through our structures of evangelism and mission work, in many cases He works in spite of them or even around them.  Jesus told Nicodemus that “the wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).”  The work of redeeming humanity is God’s responsibility and He will use whomever and whatever method He wishes.  This is not to suggest that all strategy should be abandoned in Christian ministry but those of us in the work should hold such things lightly and be open to the mysterious and surprising ways God works.

Harrist Church women today

This story also serves as a reminder that spiritual crisis often precedes our greatest usefulness to the Lord.  What happens to Harris in the crucible of imprisonment is a total transformation.  He is no longer the catechist of an imported Christianity wearing the clothing of an imported culture.  This previous life is stripped away and a new message and image emerge that is influential far beyond the size and scope of one man.  Many of us go through our toughest years around age 50 (as Harris did) and there is a need to look to God through the hard times and let Him remake us for His purposes.  The only other option in such times is to remake God to fit our disappointments and grow increasingly bitter and lukewarm towards him. 

 Finally, the Harris story reflects another truth concerning the nature of Christianity.  Christianity is a religion that has all the answers for mankind.  But mankind is not all asking the same set of questions.  To reference Dr. Sanneh again, Global Christianity seeks make Christianity one-size-fits-all, where World Christianity allows for central orthodox thought but a richness of difference that is in line with the tapestry of cultures that inhabit our globe.[ii]  Missionary work then must bring the message with as little distortion as possible but not try to control the outcome or implications of living out that message.  This is the work of the receiving culture.  As Chidester points out there was a rejection by the prophets of African traditional religion but also foreign missionary Christianity.  What the African prophets point to is the need to take Christianity and make it African.[iii]   This is true in every setting.


[i] Isechei, Elizabeth, “A Soul of Fire” 4 Aug, 2005, Christian History and Biography,
[ii] Sanneh, Lamin, Whose Religion is Christianity? : The Gospel Beyond the West, Grand Rapids:
                 Eerdmans, 2003
[iii] Chidester, David, Christianity: A Global History, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000. p. 419

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