Wednesday, November 7, 2007

An American Joseph?

I'm sure most of us are familiar with the story of Joseph, the Hebrew slave who, by his faithfulness to God, rose to become the most powerful man in the kingdom of Egypt. By his obedience, the people of God were preserved setting the stage for the creation of the nation of Israel. I'd like to tell you about another slave, who from humble beginnings, also rose to prominence because of his devotion to the same God that Joseph honoured.

Lott Carey was born into a slave family around 1780 on an estate located about 30 miles south of Richmond, Virginia. We know very little about his childhood, as the lives of slaves were not something their masters recorded, only their value and productivity. We do know that while his parents were illiterate, Lott's father was a respected member of the Baptist Church. And his mother, while not known to frequent any particular denomination, was regarded as a Godly woman.

Lott's recorded history begins about the age of 24, when as was often the custom, he was hired out by his owner, William A. Christian, to the Shockhoe tobacco warehouse in Richmond. Removed from the Christian influence of his father, he was soon given to drunkenness and profanity. However, the Lord obviously was watching over the young man as he came under the influence of one John Courtney, and in 1807 Carey converted and joined the Baptist church in Richmond.

The change in Lott was remarkable. He went from being an unreliable drunk, to a hard worker who could be left to his own devices without supervision. On hearing his pastor preach on the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, Carey became so intrigued by the story he determined to learn to read the passage for himself; it was not long afterward he learned to write and do fundamental arithmetic as well.

As time passed his efficiency, faithfulness and literacy earned him a promotion to shipping clerk in the tobacco warehouse. It became commonplace for merchants to tip him a five dollar note, a substantial amount for the day. In addition the owners of the warehouse allowed him to exercise his entrepreneurial spirit by letting him gather and process what was regarded as "waste" tobacco and sell it to his own customers. In this was Lott was able to amass a sum of $850 which he used to buy the freedom of himself and his two children. (His wife had died from illness a few years earlier.)

Carey continued to work at Shockhoe, only now, he got to keep his $800 annual wages instead of turning them over to his owner. He bought a house and was able to afford to educate his children. His value to the company and the community continued to grow. So much so that when he and a friend, Collin Teage (another free black), decided God was calling them to enter the mission field, the tobacco company offered him a raise of $200 a year to stay. He respectfully declined the offer.

In the early 1800's the U.S. government, in cooperation with the American Colonization Society founded the colony of Liberia. The idea was to provide a place for freed slaves who wished to return to Africa to settle and begin a new life. It was to this place that Carey and Teage wished to take the gospel message. They did so with the help of William Crane from New Jersey who assisted Lott in organizing a society to collect funds for mission work in Africa.

In 1822 Lott moved to Monrovia, capital of Liberia, about the same time as Jehudi Ashmun, a white man, who served as the colony's de facto governor. Ashmun was glad to see the two missionaries arrive and granted them permission to establish Providence Baptist Church--the first church in Liberia. Lott preached several times a week and gave religious instruction to native children, using his own money to maintain a charity school. He also established a school at Big Town in the Cape Mount region despite Muslim protests.

He also helped immigrants, mostly freed slaves from the U.S., to establish small farms where they could raise food for themselves. Determined to use the funds provided by the society back in the States for the mission work they were doing, he learned the coopers trade (barrel making) and used the income from this business to support himself. Things started out quite well.

About a year after the colony was founded the citizens of the colony had complaints about the manner in which land was being distributed. A resistance movement rose up against the colonial agent, Jehudi Ashmun, and instead of promoting calm and negotiation as Ashmun had hoped, Carey sided with the resistance. The U.S. sent an armed vessel to deal with the situation in the summer of 1824. After investigation, Jehudi Ashmun was kept on as the colonial agent; the Colonization Society withdrew Lott's license to preach. I know this sounds a little strange to us, but at this point in history every preacher had to be licensed to preach by a governing body almost everywhere in the world.

You might think that this was the end of Carey's involvement in the colony, but such was not the case. Even though he could no longer occupy the pulpit, he still proved his worth. Letters written by Ashmun to his contacts back in the U.S. indicate that he fully understood why Carey would take the stand he did. They also indicate that the colonial agent considered Lott Carey an invaluable resource. Which is why he and Lott quickly reconciled and got back to the task of making the colony work.

He made Carey his vice-agent, and assigned him the task of readying a local militia to protect the colony from the surrounding tribes and the Spanish slave-traders who objected to the existence of a free black anything. On one occasion, when a slave ship attempted to trade for food and water under the guise of a wheat ship, Carey fired a well placed cannon shot across the ships bow and gave its captain one hour to get out of the range of his guns. The captain did.

Carey proved himself to be something of a polymath, that is a person who succeeds at a number of divergent endeavours. Already proving himself to be an able businessman, preacher and administrator, he now took on the challenge of being a doctor.

When the ship Cyrus arrived from the U.S. with one hundred and five emigrants, seemingly in good health, and within four weeks, all were smitten with an unknown disease, Lott Carey stepped up. The colony did not have a permanent physician of its own. Wrote one observer, "in this deplorable state of things, the only individual who could act the part of a physician, was Lott Cary, whose skill resulted entirely from his good sense, observation, and experience. He had gained much knowledge of the human frame and of medicine, from scientific practitioners, who had, at various times, visited the colony. His attentions were rendered successful in the restoration of almost the whole number."

In 1828 Jehudi Ashmun returned to America, leaving Liberia's management in Lott's hands. Ashmun urged Lott to become the permanent agent for the colony. But before Lott could do so, he was mortally wounded in a munitions explosion, while preparing to undertake an expedition to rescue one of the outlying settlements from raids by hostile Muslims. He died two days later.

On hearing of Lott Carey's death, Jehudi returned to the colony and continued to govern it until his death in 1841. At this point Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the colony's first black governor took over. Liberia declared its independence from the United States in 1847. The American government officially recognized the new African Republic in 1862.

The munitions explosion that ended the life of Lott Carey, a man born a slave who rose to the second highest position in what would become a free and democratic republic, happened on November 10th, 1828 - 179 years ago this week.

1. Taylor, James B. Biography of Elder Lott Cary, Late Missionary to Africa. With an Appendix on the Subject of Colonization, by J.H.B. Latrobe, #p92. < >
2. "Liberia." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 7 Nov. 2007 <>.
3. Photo credit: <>

Other events this week in Church History:

November 5, 1605: Guy Fawkes who, with a number of others, sought to destroy the government of Britain by planting explosives in the basement of the House of Lords, is discovered and arrested before the plan can be carried out. A Catholic, Fawkes and his co-conspirators felt the Protestant domination of politics spelt the end of a free Britian. They hoped that by destroying parliament on the day of the throne Speech, they would send the nation into sufficient disarray that a Catholic coup might succeed.

November 6, 1935: American revivalist Billy Sunday, a baseball player who became one of America's most famous evangelists before Billy Graham, dies at age 73. More than 100 million people heard him speak at his evangelistic crusades, and about 300,000 of them became Christians.

November 7, 1837: Presbyterian minister and abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy is murdered in Alton, Illinois. A newspaper editor whose press was destroyed by vandals three times, he was accused of inciting slaves to revolt when he defended a black man burned at the stake by a mob. When another mob tried to burn down his warehouse, Lovejoy was shot trying to save it. His death helped to galvanize the abolitionist movement.

November 8, 1308: John Duns Scotus, the hard-to-follow Scottish theologian who first posited Mary's immaculate conception (that she herself was born without original sin), dies in Cologne, Germany. Mary's immaculate conception was declared dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

November 9, 1522: Martin Chemnitz, theogian who drafted the Formula of Concord, a document that eased rifts between various factions of the Lutheran movement, thus saving Lutheranism from falling apart, is born.

November 11, 1855: Danish Christian philosopher Síren Kierkegaard, regarded as the founder of existentialism, dies at age 42. Trying to "reintroduce Christianity to Christendom," he believed that Christianity was far more radical and difficult than did his Danish contemporaries.

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