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By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odysseyby Erskine Clarke
Synopses & Reviews
In early November 1834, an aristocratic young couple from Savannah and South Carolina sailed from New York and began a strange seventeen year odyssey in West Africa. Leighton and Jane Wilson sailed along what was for them an exotic coastline, visited cities and villages, and sometimes ventured up great rivers and followed ancient paths. Along the way they encountered not only many diverse landscapes, peoples, and cultures, but also many individuals on their own odysseys--including Paul Sansay, a former slave from Savannah; Mworeh Mah, a brilliant Grebo leader, and his beautiful daughter, Mary Clealand, at Cape Palmas; and King Glass and the wise and humorous Toko in Gabon. Leighton and Jane Wilson had freed their inherited slaves, and were to become the most influential American missionaries in West Africa during the first half of the nineteenth century. While Jane established schools, Leighton fought the international slave trade and the imperialism of colonization. He translated portions of the Bible into Grebo and Mpongwe and thereby helped to lay the foundation for the emergence of an indigenous African Christianity.
The Wilsons returned to New York because of ill health, but their odyssey was not over. Living in the booming American metropolis, the Wilsons welcomed into their handsome home visitors from around the world as they worked for the rapidly expanding Protestant mission movement. As the Civil War approached, however, they heard the siren voice of their Southern homeland calling from deep within their memories. They sought to resist its seductions, but the call became more insistent and, finally, irresistible. In spite of their years of fighting slavery, they gave themselves to a history and a people committed to maintaining slavery and its deep oppression—both an act of deep love for a place and people, and the desertion of a moral vision.
A sweeping transatlantic story of good intentions and bitter consequences, By the Rivers of Water reveals two distant worlds linked by deep faiths.
"In 1834, a devout newlywed couple sailed from their native Georgia for Liberia to spread the Gospel. Most missionaries to Africa died, but the couple survived and persevered, working tirelessly if not always successfully to do good and returning to America in 1852, where their antislavery views did not prevent them from supporting the South as the Civil War loomed. Despite his subjects' unimaginable piety, Clarke (Dwelling Place), professor emeritus of American religious history at Columbia Theological Seminary, clearly admires John Leighton Wilson and his wife Jane. Hoping to educate as well as convert, they studied indigenous tribes, tried to understand native cultures, and treated those they encountered as equals. This contrasted ironically with thousands of freed black Americans who were persuaded to return to Africa during this period. These freemen considered themselves superior to the natives whom they misunderstood, brutalized, and exploited — exactly as white European settlers treated American Indians. An original history that tells the engrossing story of two white missionaries and their often stormy relations with their mostly black fellow countrymen, against the background of America descending into Civil War. 30 b&w illus., 7 maps." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
In late 1832, a young missionary couple sailed from the Chesapeake Bay, headed for western Africa. John Leighton Wilson and his wife, Jane, were traveling to the colony of Liberia, where they—and their fellow passengers, mostly liberated slaves and freeborn African Americans—hoped to find an alternative to the inequality of the American South. Soon after their arrival, though, conflict erupted between the settlers and their Grebo and Mpongwe neighbors, shattering the Wilsons utopian dreams. The true nightmare, however, came when they returned to the United States. Confronting an onrushing war, the Wilsons were forced to make a terrible choice, revealing with tragic finality where—and with whom—they felt they truly belonged.
A sweeping transatlantic story of good intentions and cruel consequences, By the Rivers of Water offers a humane portrait of two very different worlds, both riven by war and racial hatred and sustained by deep—and, occasionally, shared—faiths.
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