April 18, 2011
William Wadé Harris and Other Christians You've Never Heard Of
When Clouds of Witnesses, the new book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, appeared on my desk recently, I was intrigued by the premise: an up-close look at seventeen Christians from Africa and Asia who lived remarkable lives of faith and leadership. I scanned the chapter list and was also interested to note that I had not heard of any of them. This was not the usual roster of Western heroes of the faith.
I have the extraordinary privilege of attending church with Carolyn and Mark, so I was excited to learn that they would be leading a six week Sunday School class based on the content of Clouds of Witnesses. After just one class I was hooked!
We explored the fascinating life of William Wadé Harris, an African evangelist/apostle who traveled the Ivory Coast during the early 1900s making converts to a unique brand of Christianity that sprung from his own mixed background: a combination of native religion, Methodism, Anglicanism—and a visit from the angel Gabriel in which Harris was supposedly commanded to wear a long white robe, burn all his tribal fetishes, perform Christian baptisms, carry a long cane, preach Christ everywhere and become a prophet like Elijah. He was eventually instrumental in establishing hundreds of churches along the Ivory Coast, many of which still survive today as “Harris churches.” He is also considered by many to be one of the originators of today’s prosperity gospel.
Harris is a controversial figure. Historians ask, “Was he truly Christian? Was he sane? (His wife thought not.) How did African indigenous religion and culture shape the Christianity that Harris practiced? What good did he accomplish? What evils resulted? How did his influence shape African and now global Christianity?”
After hearing Carolyn describe his life and legacy in more detail, I find those questions all the more perplexing. Perhaps the most interesting part of the story for me was this: when Harris moved on from one town to the next, he would create “churches” to continue his mission, appointing 12 apostles, often from recently converted fetish witch doctors. He instructed them to build churches and to “wait for a white man with a Bible,” someone who could come and explain to them the meaning of their conversion more fully.
And here’s the amazing part: they did—by the thousands! Imagine the scene when, after World War One ended, white missionaries began returning to Africa to resume their pre-war work:
“Ten years later British Methodist missionary W. J. Platt was among the early white arrivals on the scene. In town after town he found church structures full of people waiting for ‘teachers of the Book.’ In the meantime they had learned a few hymns from store clerks; some of their leaders had walked great distances to hear a Christian sermon, then walked back to repeat it as best they could to their own people. One of their few readers would select a single verse from the Bible and explain it over and over to those who listened. By 1924 thousands of people waited in and around these buildings for missionaries to continue the work that their Prophet Harris had begun.”
I get chills just thinking about it. And I ask myself, am I as hungry as they were to learn from the Bible? They waited for a decade for someone to teach them about God's Word. I have access to all kinds of resources and teachers, and yet I have to remind myself to study the Bible regularly.
I can’t say for sure that all of Harris’s theology was sound (at least by today's theological and cultural standards). He did get some major things wrong—like polygamy, for instance. But I believe the Spirit of God used him, with of all his syncretism and imperfections, just as he uses the strange blend of cultural influences and theology we all carry with us. It’s encouraging to think that if God could use a character like Harris, then he can use a broken, imperfect character like me. And it's humbling to realize how unaware most of us are of the history and contributions of the non-Western church, and how much they have to teach us.
There are many other fascinating figures just waiting to be discovered in Clouds of Witnesses. Ever heard of Watchman Nee? Yeah, he’s not in there. But the Chinese revival preacher Dora Yu, who was instrumental in Watchman Nee’s conversion to Christianity, is. I hope you’ll take the time to read about these more obscure—yet no less important—figures of Christian history, these stories behind the stories. May their lives give you cause to think, pray, marvel and hope in the God who is always at work bringing people to himself and accomplishing his purposes through vital Christian faith lived out in a diversity of global contexts.