Minnehaha Clarke, Canadian missionary to Angola, was born in Guelph, Ontario, where her father, William Fletcher Clarke, was minister of the local Congregational church. At the time of her birth, one of her older brothers was dying, and he was given the privilege of naming his baby sister. The young child and his brothers and sisters were familiar with Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha, published nine years earlier, in which the hero marries Minnehaha, or Laughing Water. So it was that Minnehaha received her unusual name.
After Minnie Clarke finished high school and received instruction in teaching at the local Model School, she received a Third Class Certificate and began to teach. She wanted more preparation, however, and so at the beginning of 1889, she entered the Normal School in Ottawa. In the Congregational church in Ottawa, she met John and Henrietta Wood. John had been the Missionary Secretary of the Congregational church, and Henrietta shared his passion for missions. In 1885 she had been named convener of a committee set up to make recommendations about forming a woman’s missionary society within the denomination. A year later, when the society was organized in her Ottawa parsonage, she was chosen to be its first vice-president. Soon she led the women of her own congregation to form a local auxiliary of the new society. When Clarke went to Ottawa to the Woods’ church and home, she, too, was caught up in the enthusiasm for foreign missions.
So it was that while she was in Ottawa during the spring of 1889, Minnie Clarke applied to the American Board of Congregational Missions. She said that she was willing to go wherever they might send her, but she had a preference. The Congregationalists had begun to send married couples to West Central Africa; their first missionary in that field reported on the need for a single woman who could teach the girls at his mission station. It was Clarke’s particular desire to be that pioneering single woman.
The need in West Central Africa was clear, but something in Minnie Clarke’s family background may have prepared her for her interest in Africa. In 1859, five years before Minnie’s birth, William Clarke had received an urgent invitation from the Colonial Missionary Society of London, England, to become the society’s first missionary to British Columbia. He accepted the invitation and with his family he left his Wisconsin pastorate and moved to Victoria.
Things did not go smoothly. Clarke was always independent and outspoken, never one to compromise his principles. In Wisconsin he had become familiar with the slavery issue that was dividing the United States, and in Victoria he spoke out on behalf of the anti-slavery cause. As a result, some African-Americans began attending his services. Not all members of Clarke’s fledgling congregation were as welcoming as Clarke; some called for a “negro corner” to segregate the races during services. Clarke refused, and eventually he resigned. He and his family headed to what was soon to become the province of Ontario, and in 1860 he became pastor of the Congregational church in Guelph.
In July of 1889, Minnie Clarke was accepted as a missionary, and in September she learned that she had been assigned to the West Central African Mission, in the territory now known as Angola. Clarke had been granted her wish, but her decision was not universally applauded. Her parents were in poor health, and her mother was especially upset by her daughter’s application. Her assignment to the Angolan mission led others to express their reservations.
Most of the women and men who had left Canada for missions overseas had gone to those lands in Asia which were thought to have “higher” cultures. Clarke discovered that many of her friends laughed at her “for choosing so benighted a country” as West Central Africa. “All the more reason, say I, to go to its help.” To Henrietta Wood she wrote, “Everyone I meet in this country seems to think me very fool-hardy in going there—many regard it in the light of a huge joke, yet they are church members, many of them.
While many disdained Clarke’s choice because of cultural and racial prejudice, some had apprehensions for another reason: the West Central Africa Mission was an unhealthy place. The first Canadian Congregationalist missionary, Walter Currie, arrived there with his wife, Clara Wilkes Currie, in 1886. In only a few weeks after their arrival, Clara was dead. Hers was not the only death in the brief history of the mission. Clarke had made a dangerous choice.
Since she was not to leave for Africa until the spring of 1890, Clarke returned to teaching in the autumn of 1889, but in January she began to devote all her time to preparing for her departure. She attended the annual meeting of the Woman’s Board in Boston and was encouraged because there she found a much more positive attitude toward the Angola mission than the one she had met in Canada. After returning home, she received the welcome news that the American Board had found a physician to go to the mission. Although the posting was a hazardous one, at least there would be a doctor attached to the mission.
The date of Clarke’s sailing was postponed, so she was also able to attend the annual meeting of the Woman’s Mission Board held in Montreal early in June. On June 12, a few days after she had returned to Guelph, the people of the community gathered to say goodbye. There were the presentations, good wishes, and thanks common to such farewells. Then William Clarke took the floor and shattered the conventional piety of the evening. The next day, the newspaper reported Clarke’s speech: “He would gladly give his daughter to missionary work, but the Lord had not shown him the wisdom of her going to Africa … He and Mrs. Clarke never expected to see Minnie again on earth after Monday morning.” The chair of the meeting attempted to soften this somber turn of events, and the evening closed with the singing of “God be with you till we meet again.”
The next morning, Minnie Clarke began her journey, traveling first to Boston, next to London, and then to Lisbon. From there she sailed to Benguella on the Angolan Coast, arriving on August 19, 1890. Then Clarke traveled two hundred miles inland to Bailundu, the American Board mission station where she had been posted. It was her desire, and that of the Canadian Woman’s Board, that she work at the Chissamba mission founded by the Curries, but the Canadian women had a prior obligation to support a missionary in India. The women’s association was young and could not take on Clarke’s entire support at this time. Until they were able to do so, Clarke would serve in the mission at Bailundu, learning the language as she worked.
The following June, 1891, the Canadian women were able to guarantee her salary and so, although Clarke loved the girls and boys among whom she had been working, she moved to Chissamba in the late summer or early fall. She set up housekeeping and took over the mission school of about thirty boys between the ages of six and twenty. Ngulu, the first boy to join Walter Currie, became her especially devoted helper.
Clarke also began a school for girls. A few of them had shown interest in the boys’ lessons even before Clarke arrived; she built upon their interest and upon the missionaries’ desire to provide good wives for the young men who were influenced by the mission. Eight or nine girls would come from their homes a little after sunset and attend the evening service. The mission provided a house in which they might spend the night because it was too cold for them to cross the swamp from their villages early in the morning. Clarke began the school at seven in the morning; after classes the girls returned home to work in the fields. Clarke was much loved on the mission field. She delighted her hearers when she played the mission’s small organ, and she fascinated her students when, occasionally, she would let her golden-brown hair hang loose and allow them to touch it.
After less than a year at Chissamba, however, Clarke became ill. She had gone to Bailundu for a vacation, but soon after her arrival she was stricken by a severe fever. Those who nursed her recognized it as the same kind that had already carried off two missionaries. After a few days, however, she began to regain her strength. At the end of August Clarke reported to her parents, “I am so glad to be spared to work a little longer here. That was a dreadful fever, and I came very near to going to my Savior before I had done any work for him. You may thank the Bailundu friends, for their prompt measures saved my life there is not the slightest doubt.”
Reluctantly Clarke remained at Bailundu as she recovered from the resulting weakness, but she was impatient to return to her own students at Chissamba. Finally, in the middle of October her insistence overcame the prudence of the other missionaries, and she was permitted to return to Chissamba and to her school although she had not completely regained her health.
The missionaries’ concern was well founded. One Wednesday night in the following March she became ill with the same fever she had suffered in Bailundu. The missionary couple at Chissamba attended her all Thursday and Friday, day and night, but she continued to weaken, repeating hymns while she was able, to take her mind off her suffering. Early on Saturday morning, March 18, 1893, she died peacefully. She was buried in the garden of that missionary couple, beside the graves of their two children who had also died at Chissamba.
When the news reached Canada two months later, memorial services were held in the Congregational church in Guelph. At the evening service, William F. Clarke spoke a few words. “He still questioned whether his daughter had been correct in interpreting her call as a call to Africa, but he had no doubt of her loyalty in responding to Christ’s call.”
Marilyn Färdig Whiteley
Letter from Minnie Clarke to E. M. HILL, Feb. 7, 1890, Canada Congregational Woman’s Board of Missions Fonds 206, 80.012C 2- 6 and 80.0143C /TR, United Church of Canada Archives, Toronto, Ontario.
Letter from Minnie Clarke to Mrs. Wood, Mar. 10, 1890.
Guelph Daily Mercury, June 13, 1890.
Canadian Independent, Mar. 1893, 59.
Guelph Daily Mercury, May 29, 1893.
Canada Congregational Woman’s Board of Missions Funds 206, 80.012C 2- 6 and 80.0143C /TR, United Church of Canada Archives, Toronto, Ontario.
Canadian Independent, 1890-1893.
Guelph Daily Mercury, 1890-1893.
Missionary Herald, July, 1893, 272.
Whiteley, Marilyn Färdig, “The Cheerful Obedience of Minnehaha Clarke, Touchstone, Vol. 21, No. 3, Sept. 2003, 49-58.
This article, received in 2015, was written by Marilyn Färdig Whiteley, an independent scholar in Church history/women’s history based in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.