William and Lucy Sheppard, Presbyterian Pioneer Missionaries in the Congo

William and Lucy Sheppard

William and Lucy were two of the earliest African-American missionaries sent by the Presbyterian Church Foreign Mission Board. This is their story.

In 1837 the Presbyterian Church established its own mission agency, the Presbyterian Church Foreign Mission Board. That was good, because by this means the Presbyterian Church sent hundreds of missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It so interesting that some 19th century Presbyterian leaders opposed the formation of the Presbyterian Church Board of Foreign Mission, averring that there is no biblical basis for mission agencies of any kind. James Henley Thornwell, a South Carolina pastor and president of South Carolina College, held this opinion. “Boards,” he wrote, “are directly subversive of the form of government embodied in the Constitution of our own church. They involve a practical renunciation of Presbyterianism.”[1] For Thornwell, even the Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board ran counter to Calvin’s view, that there is only one Christian structure in the New Testament, what we normally think of as the church. A separate board, in Thornwell’s way of thinking rends the church into pieces. Charles Hodge countered that this was “hyper-hyper-hyper High Church Presbyterianism.”[2] Hodge “contended that the presbytery could not handle the logistics for such responsibility and that there is a Christian liberty that allows the use of means appropriate to the situation.”[3] The use of means! Hodge borrowed a term from William Carey’s proposal, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Thornwell held that it would be better to send no missionaries than to establish a non-biblical structure that would divide the unity of the Church. Hodge, though, knew that the Presbyterians had just ended their relationship with very successful, board, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission, and, without its own mission agency, the Prebyterians would revert to the Protestant mission ice age that characterized the Reformed churches from the time of Luther and Calvin. Thornwell’s proposal was identical to that of the 17th century Dutch theological Voetius; of course it was! Both men admired Calvin too much to re-examine Calvin’s opinion that all Christian matters must be governed by what we normally think of as church. Thornwell was not “hyper-hyper-hyper;” his opinion was established Presbyterian doctrine. Hodge knew this, but conceded that an independent foreign mission board, “the use of means,” was necessary to administrate an overseas mission effort. Hodge had his way, and the Presbyterian Church Foreign Missions Board sent great missionaries such as William and Lucy Sheppard to “the regions beyond.” As it was in the beginning, Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission.

William and Lucy Sheppard spent 20 years in Africa, primarily in the Congo, at that time a colony of Belgium. William Sheppard is best known for documenting the atrocities committed by the Belgian colonial government against the Kuba people and other Congolese peoples. Sheppard took pictures with a Kodak camera. They are too sad for me to look at ever again. Sheppard’s letters and photos were published, resulting in widespread shock and outrage in the Christian world against the horrors inflicted on Africans by a European colonial government. With Roger Casement, Sheppard founded the Congo Reform Association, one of the world’s first humanitarian associations.

The Congo River

The Congo River is one of the great rivers of the world. With the coming of steam power it would be possible to travel up the river, a thing that had never been done. But how shall a boat big enough to transport people be brought to the Congo? Presbyterian Sunday School children raised the money for a ship to be built in New York. The ship was then disassembled and its hundreds of parts placed on board a ship. This ship sailed the Atlantic and arrived at the mouth of the Congo River in Africa. The hundreds of parts were offloaded, and reassembled. This ship was dedicated to God with prayers, and its engines roared to life. What a sensation to see it start sailing up the mighty Congo. But less than a year later the ship was overturned and sunk in a storm.

A sad ending, but not for long; The Presbyterian Church Board of Foreign Missions raised money for a second ship, and it too was assembled in Africa. This ship would provide transportation on the Congo River for many years.

“You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Leviticus 19:18

[1] James Henley Thornwell, “A Memorial to the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia on the Subject of Ecclesiastical Boards.,” The Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, no. 4 (1840). 147 quoted in David G. Dawson, “A Recurring Issue of Mission Administration,” Missiology 25, no. 4 (1997). 462

[2] Quoted in “A Recurring Issue of Mission Administration.” 462. Dawson is quoting from J. B. Adger, “The General Assembly of 1860,” The Southern Presbyterian Review, no. 13 (1861)., 370

[3] Dawson, “A Recurring Issue of Mission Administration.” 462