In 1910, a middle-aged African sat in a jail cell in Liberia. Locked up for political activism, he now found his mind turning to God. He little suspected something was about to happen that would make him one of the most effective evangelists Africa has seen and the founder of an influential denomination.

According to William Wadé Harris's later testimony, what happened was that the angel Gabriel entered his jail cell. With a sound like gushing water, the Spirit descended on the incarcerated Episcopalian.

"You are not in prison," the angelic messenger assured him. "God is coming to anoint you. You will be a prophet. Your case resembles that of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You are like Daniel." Gabriel instructed him to replace his western clothes with a white gown and to shun alcohol.

Harris's wife, Rose, hearing the news, assumed her husband had gone mad. Overcome by grief, she fell ill and died.

Who was William Wadé Harris, and why was he in jail?

Harris was a member of the Grebo ethnic group, a people of southern Liberia, closely related to the Kru. The Kru were famous as seamen. For centuries, every ship coming to trade on the West African coast would stop to take on board Kru seamen, who were fearless, skilled, and loyal. Wadé, pronounced Woddy, was his Grebo name. He was born between 1860 and 1865, and to understand his life we must know a little about the history of Liberia.

Liberia's ruling class were free black settlers from America. Only a relatively small number of African Americans ever took this step—17,000, some of whom were forced to emigrate, since they were freed on this condition. (There were about 200,000 free African Americans in the States in the early nineteenth century, and most of them chose to stay in the nation they and their forebears had done so much to build.)

The invisible Liberians

The first settlers arrived in 1822. In 1847, Liberia became an independent black republic; it was the only African nation to retain its independence throughout the colonial period. (Ethiopia, the other exception, was ruled by Italy for a short time.) The founders originally intended to call the capital of their new state "Christopolis," but in the end it became Monrovia, after the American president of the day.

The new state mirrored American political institutions—Capitol, Senate, and all. It had many weaknesses, some of them economic in origin. Under the True Whigs, who ruled from 1878 until a military coup in 1980, the settlers monopolized political power and controlled the economy. They rendered the indigenous peoples of Liberia invisible in the motto on their national crest; "The love of Liberty brought us here."

Meanwhile the Grebo and Kru, in particular, welcomed both Christianity and western education. Since the settlers were Christians already, white missionaries concentrated on this field, encouraging literacy both in English and in local languages. The Kru and Grebo were hostile to the settlers and their monopoly of power. In 1873 they had attempted to found an independent Christian state under the motto "In God We Trust." This was the world into which young Wadé was born.

His father was not a Christian, but he was brought up by an uncle who was a Methodist pastor. Harris became literate in English and Grebo. The name he adopted and the lifestyle of his uncle's household show how much the settlers and educated indigenous people had in common. Harris signed on as a sailor and made several coastal voyages as a youth, and in his old age would refer to himself humbly as a "Kru boy."

In 1881 or 1882, Harris was soundly converted in a Methodist meeting. In 1888 he became an Episcopalian and began working for that church as a teacher and catechist, and for the government as an interpreter. He lost both jobs because of his political activism. He landed in prison for raising the Union Jack. The Kru and Grebo hoped that their region would become a British Protectorate, though this never happened. When he was in jail, in fact, there was an unsuccessful Grebo uprising.

Drumming up a crowd

For several years after his vision, Harris preached in Liberia but had little impact.

Then on July 27, 1913, he set out on a remarkable missionary journey to the east. His goal was the French colony of Ivory Coast. A mosaic of ethnic groups, the colony was at that time primarily a Catholic mission field—but that church had had little impact.

Harris traveled with two female companions: Helen Valentine, an educated widow, and Mary Pioka, who later bore him a son. The women drew audiences by singing songs as they beat time with gourd rattles (see photo, p. 5).

The man who had once, as a respectable Episcopalian, ordered his shoes from the States now went barefoot. He wore the costume revealed to him—a white gown, with black bands or straps, and a white turban. Such distinctive garments, often though not always white, are characteristic of many African prophetic churches, a symbol of purity and a transformed life, and of separation from an unregenerate world.

Wherever he went, Harris also carried a Bible (the English Authorized Version), a cross-like staff, a gourd rattle, and a bowl for baptism. The staff may have been an echo of Moses; it was adopted independently by many other African prophets. Harris sometimes destroyed his staff and got a new one, afraid people would begin to worship it.

Harris's message was simple, much the same as that taught by the mission churches, but he struck a deep chord among his hearers. He asked them to burn the images of their traditional gods—"God has sent me to burn the fetishes," he said. Harris emphasized avoiding work on the Sabbath (Sunday) and keeping it holy.

Most important, he offered his hearers immediate baptism—a privilege denied by the mission churches. These churches required years of study and preparation before baptism, which meant that the new Christian felt vulnerable, without the protection offered by his old religious practices on the one hand, and by baptism on the other. During a single 18-month period during 1913-14, Harris baptized between 100,000 and 120,000 new Christians.

Power evangelist

William Wadé Harris was larger than life—a biblical prophet in modern Africa. Many stories are told of his "power encounters" with the land's traditional religious specialists (diviners or priests of ancient divinities). His miracles of healing entered legend. It was said that he could call down rain from the heavens, and that he inflicted madness on some who resisted his message. On one occasion, people hid some of their religious statues in the bush, to avoid the bonfires—only to see them destroyed by a mysterious fire.

How did Harris communicate with these villagers? He did not speak French, but neither did they. Pidgin English was the lingua franca of the coast, even in French colonies, and he made much use of it. But he usually preached through interpreters, often young men living locally and working as clerks for trading firms. He relied on them to continue his work after he left, and he appointed twelve Apostles in each congregation.

The prophet and his companions got as far as Axim, in the far west of what was then the Gold Coast. It was there that he met a famous African lawyer and nationalist, Casely Hayford, who was so impressed by Harris that he wrote the first book about him, published in 1915. Said Hayford, "He is a dynamic force of a rare order—It seems as if God made the soul of Harris a soul of fire."

Many African prophetic leaders founded churches. Harris, however, did not intend to do so. Wherever he went, he told his followers to wait for "Christians with Bibles." Some who responded to Harris's message joined the Catholic missions—which saw their 80 baptisms in 1914 jump to 6,700 per year from 1917 on. In 1924, Methodist missionaries reached Ivory Coast. They found to their amazement that they were welcomed by thousands of Harris converts. Today the Methodist church there dates its foundation, not from 1924 when the missionaries arrived, but from 1914 when Harris did. Harris Christians contacted the Prophet, who sent a message urging those he had baptized to join the Methodists, not the Catholics.

Soon some difficulties developed. The missionaries, attempting to build up self-supporting churches, insisted that Christians pay a tithe—not an easy thing for an impoverished villager who also had to find money for taxes. The missionaries also opposed polygamy, and they questioned Harris closely on that issue (see sidebar, p. 25).

Precious legacy

The Prophet and his companions turned back at Axim and retraced their steps along the coast. By this time World War I had broken out, and colonial officials were anxious about potential disturbers of the peace. Ministering where his heart led him—in the Ivory Coast—Harris was stopped by authorities and deported to Liberia. Through the following years, he would make at least eight attempts to return. Always, he was turned back at the border.

Harris continued to preach in Liberia and made several missionary journeys to Sierra Leone, but he never again had the success of his Ivory Coast days. He continued to wear his distinctive dress and to marvel at what God had achieved through a "Kru boy." A missionary who met him in 1926 said, "He lives in a supernatural world in which the people, the ideas, the affirmations, the cosmogony and the eschatology of the Bible are more real than those he sees and hears materially."

William Wadé Harris died in his daughter's house, in extreme poverty, in 1929. Harris would live until 1929, but his prophetic mission lasted just those 18 months. This pattern—a brief but hugely effective ministry ended by the intervention of a colonial government—also characterizes the ministries of two great prophets who were his contemporaries. Garrick Sokari Braide, in the Niger Delta, was called by God in 1912, imprisoned in 1916, and died in 1918. Simon Kimbangu (p. 32), in what was then the Belgian Congo, had a public ministry that lasted less than a year, and spent the last 30 years of his life in prison. His followers compared this with Jesus' 30 years of hidden life and three years of public ministry.

Not all his spiritual children became Catholics or Methodists. In 1979, it was estimated that Ivory Coast, with a population of 5 million, had 1 million Muslims, living in the north, 200,000 Protestants, and 500,000 Catholics. (Most Ivorians were still traditionalists.) There were also 100,000 (the figure is now closer to 200,000) members of Harrist churches—strongest near the capital, Abidjan.

The largest of these was founded by amalgamating a number of different congregations under the leadership of John Ahui. Grace Tani (Thannie), who died in 1958, founded the Church of the Twelve Apostles in western Gold Coast. She was a traditional religious specialist whom Harris converted, and she considered herself one of his wives. This church strongly emphasized healing, and it carried on Harris's practice of denouncing traditional religion. It used the Bible in rituals (though it did not read Scripture in services) along with the cross-staff, rattles, and Harrist hymns.

The Deima Church, founded in 1942 by Marie Lalou, who died in 1951, is the second largest Harrist church in Ivory Coast. Lalou saw herself as Harris's spiritual successor; she believed that he had driven witchcraft away, but that it had returned, and that she was the one chosen to expel it again. Like Harris, her followers destroyed traditional cult objects.

William Wadé Harris was without a doubt the most successful missionary in West Africa's history. Unlike some other African church leaders, he concentrated totally on the conversion of non-Christians. His own favorite hymns, according to his grandchildren, included "Jesus Lover of My Soul" and "What a Friend we have in Jesus." A "shout" preserved from his public ministry runs like this:

"Let's try hard, so we will conquer
The devil and his kingdom,
That when Jesus comes
We will wear white robes."

Elizabeth Isichei is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand and an advisory editor of Christian History. She is author of A History of Christianity in Africa (Eerdmans, 1995).