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By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey Hardcover – October 8, 2013


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By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey + A Documentary History of Religion in America to 1877
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 488 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (October 8, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465002722
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465002726
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #179,981 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. (Oct.)

From Booklist

In 1832, a young missionary couple, both born and bred in the southern aristocracy, set off to Liberia, where a colony of freed slaves had recently settled. John Leighton Wilson and his wife, Jane, had inherited slaves of their own and faced the dilemma of what to do with them before sailing off to save souls in Africa. Writing from the perspectives of white missionaries and African Americans (enslaved and freed) as well as Africans, historian Clarke offers a complex portrait of the countervailing forces of the nineteenth century as America grappled with the profound contradictions of slavery. The missionary zeal to convert Africans to Christianity often lacked basic respect for them as humans, and the motivation of the colonizing societies often had more to do with ridding America of blacks than liberating blacks from slavery. The Wilsons spent two decades in West Africa, learning the language and customs and confronting their own biases as well as the contradictions they saw in the colony, witnessing racial and ethnic turmoil as vile as that under American slavery. Their story is one of good intentions and cruel consequences, and the enigma of human freedom in the midst of slavery and the contingencies of human life. --Vanessa Bush

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By David Wineberg TOP 1000 REVIEWER on October 7, 2013
Format: Hardcover
While very much the story of Christian Missions to Africa, and the spread of Christianity in Africa, the contradictions, both inherent and imposed, become the real central character of Erskine Clarke's biography of Leighton and Jane Wilson.

Our heroes are classically in denial of who they are: wealthy, entitled liberal patrons. Stateside, while declaring their anti-slavery stance, they debate whether their slaves have it within them to exist without their beneficent patronage. This despite the fact the slaves know and practice all the trades, build their own communities, and put up with incredible brutality of their enlightened masters. Then, when the Wilsons go to West Africa where ex-slaves are setting up colonies, they must ignore the constant passage of overloaded slaveships, carrying millions more bewildered natives to Cuban and Jamaican sugar plantations, American cotton and tobacco farms, and lifelong misery. The missionaries also have to ignore the natives' own established religions and customs as they try to convert them to Christianity. Even when they do, the Africans don't abandon their ways. They simply incorporate Christianity into their culture. The willful blinkers of the missionaries is stunning; they did great work despite their inner conflicts.

To their credit, they quickly understood that American ex-slaves would not naturally mix with native Africans, and that there would be trouble between them. They also realized the "colony" had no legal authority, and that their Mission should be as far away as possible from it. After seven years, it got so bad they moved to another country, Gabon, to get away from the colonists, who were treating the natives just like the Americans treated native Americans. They had vigilante gangs who would do credit to the Klan.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Douglas Carpenter on November 7, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In addition to By the Rivers of Water being a compelling story, it is a very important book about human nature and the power that cultures and environments have upon it. It also brings much understanding of the Atlantic Highways of the 19th century, race relations, slavery, missionary activity, and the Civil War. Erskine Clarke has a very sensitive and engaging style of writing. - Douglas M. Carpenter
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Maxine McLister on October 31, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
In 1836, John Leighton Wilson and his wife Jane Bayard volunteered to serve as missionaries in West Africa. Both were from prosperous southern families and both owned slaves. Yet, as staunch Presbyterians, they felt it was their duty to bring Christianity to Africa. They first went to Maryland in Liberia, a settlement of free blacks from the United States. The settlement was backed by the American Colonization Movement whose purpose was to aid free African Americans to return to Africa. The Colonization Movement was not an Abolitionist Movement; rather their goal was to maintain Maryland's `whiteness'.

The purpose of the Missionary Societies, however, was to minister to the African peoples. When friction arose between the settlers and the native Africans, Leighton found himself often in the middle of the frey but his sympathies were almost always on the side of the native Africans. The African Americans had absorbed western values which often clashed with those of the native Africans, especially on issues like land and property rights.

The Wilsons wished to free their own slaves. However, under Georgia law, if a slave was freed, they had to leave the state. Many slaves were married to others on other plantations and, if they left, they would have to leave their families behind. The decision was finally made to allow the slaves the choice. They could come to Liberia, move to another state, or choose to remain a slave but with the option to take their freedom later. Most chose to move to Liberia.

Underneath the Wilsons' actions, however, was a strong seam of racism. When problems arose in Maryland in Liberia, for example, they blamed it on the fact that the Colonization Movement had appointed a `coloured man' as governor.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Heidi'sbooks on February 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Right off the bat I want to say that this is a 5 star book. I've never seen or read anything like it. Seriously, it's almost a new genre. It is a history book; it's a missionary biography; it's micro-history; it's expansive history. I've read a lot of missionary biographies; I've read a lot of history books; but I've never read the two genres so closely intertwined.

Clarke wrote a densely-written, historical account of the missionary endeavors of John Leighton and Jane Wilson into West Africa. That's the framework of the book, but it is also an historical documentation of the African-American colonies in Liberia and Gabon, the Gullah people on the coast of Georgia, the beginnings of African-American churches in South Carolina, and an historical look at the Atlantic highway in the years immediately preceding and during the Civil War. Absolutely fascinating.

Leighton and Jane both came from large plantation and slave owning families in the deep south. This is their story of how they came together, and how Jane established schools in Africa, while Leighton fought the International Slave Trade and colonization, and translated portions of the Bible into Grebo and Mpongwe. However, when the Civil War started Leighton and Jane moved to the south to stand with their family.

The author takes Leighton to task for departing from his moral vision after the Civil War. I probably would have cut him more slack. Given the fact that Leighton's family were plantation owners, he had to overcome a lot of cultural biases against going to Africa in the first place. Schools and reading were against the law for slaves, yet he gave his life to those tasks. I guess we all wish that the Civil War didn't produce so much bitterness in the aftermath.
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