William Millman was born in Wolverhampton on March 1, 1872 to devout Baptist parents: William Henry Millman and his wife, Jane. William and his younger brothers and sisters, Horace, Charles, Oliver, Emma, and Elsie, were to enjoy a strict but happy and deeply religious childhood. The Sabbath was stringently observed, the children were prayed with morning and evening, and their mother continually exhorted both holiness and diligent labor. William attended the Wesleyan school in Wolverhampton, a school of strict discipline and religious observance. In 1885 or 1886, aged about 13 or 14, William became a “Pupil Teacher,” which meant that he attended his own lessons but also taught classes of younger pupils. When the family moved to Leicester in 1888 William moved to the Hazel Street Board School, still as a Pupil Teacher. This “Pupil-Teacher” status proved to be highly demanding for such a very young man, but it also encouraged maturity and offered the experience of a method which would be of immense value to him when he later became an educator in Congo.
In 1891 William gained a place on a two year teacher training course at Borough Road Training College in London. It is at this time that his family says that he developed from being a “merry young man” into being a serious adult. It is at Borough Road that the young man, nurtured to study and search out truth, would have come into contact with the growing rationalism and “enlightenment” that was becoming popular at that time. He would have come across and probably studied Darwin’s 1859 publication “The Origin of Species.” There would have been heated discussions among the students as to whether the Christian message must now be amended or even abandoned. William was fascinated, as indeed he was encouraged to be by his parents, by the new world of science and discovery unfolding around him. Yet to the parents, the questioning they encouraged, the searching out of truth and knowledge, could never extend to the questioning of what they considered an unquestionable truth: the revelation of a Loving Father God through his son Jesus Christ. Their son belonged to a later time. The honesty the parents had nurtured would have to face the questions of rationality and discovery posed by the new era. The conviction of faith in which William had been so sincerely brought up would now be challenged by difficult and complex questions.
The honesty of mind, so innocently nurtured, meant that William did not then and never would take refuge in escaping difficult questions. It seems that it was around this time that he made his decision about the meaning of life and therefore about the direction of his future. Later discussions with his son-in-law revealed that it had not been a simple decision. Searching out truth meant facing the options with honesty. He could have chosen to ignore all the questions and all proposed answers and to get on with life in the way that suited him best. He could have decided to become an agnostic and keep an open mind. He could have concluded that the new ideas were proved and have become an atheist. Or he could take the leap of faith, committing himself to acting on this faith through prayer and action. There is no written record of when William made the commitment of faith – yet from his college days forward his life records such a commitment. Commitment to his faith in God was never again in doubt. However, his commitment to inflexibility of Biblical interpretation and to some of the certainties of doctrine was never as certain. Discipline ensured that he conformed - but in private, and with the friends he trusted, the honesty of his questioning always remained. William’s life became one of faith in the basic meaning of the Bible, expressed as: there are things I do not yet understand, things I am not certain about, but I will accept the promise that there exists a God of Love to whom I will commit my soul and my life. I will live by action, faith, and prayer. “I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.”
William returned to Leicester after completing his teacher training, confirmed now not only in his mission to teach but also in his belief and faith in the Christian message. He was appointed to the staff of Overton Road School, and he and a friend started a branch of the Christian Endeavor movement at their church, Clarendon Hall, spending Sunday afternoon around Leicester running outdoor services and standing up as witnesses of their faith. William’s sister Emma noticed how much time her elder brother now spent reading the Bible and theological books. She and William would spend Saturdays delivering the Church magazine, singing hymns as they did so.
In 1897 William became engaged to Cis Langley, a stylish young lady and devout member of the Kidderminster Baptist Church.
One Sunday, sometime later in 1897, William attended a BMS Missionary Meeting at the Clarendon Hall Church. The visiting missionary told of the deaths of the Comber missionary family in Congo, of the numerous ensuing missionary deaths, of the very recent death of Albert Wherrett, who had died only weeks after arriving to help Harry White at a tiny B.M.S. outpost called Yakusu. William’s immediate response was “I could fill that gap.” A postcard happened to be in his pocket, so he scribbled an application to the B.M.S. and posted it on the way home. He was accepted – much to the joy of his parents. That year he was ordained as a Baptist minister and trained for the Congo Mission, specifically to join Harry White at Yakusu to “fill the gap” left by the death of Albert Wherrett.
In August of 1897 William set sail for Yakusu.
Eventually his boat reached Banana at the mouth of the Congo, but it had to wait for a pilot there. Bored, William asked to go ashore for a few hours. At the beach in Banana he found three rough graves, one of which bore the name “Harry White.” It was a worrying start.
Finally arriving at Bolobo, William met George Grenfell. Grenfell confirmed that Harry White had indeed died on his way home to England and that the future of the tiny mission outpost at Yakusu was now very much in doubt. It was decided that William should go to Upoto for a year whilst Yakusu’s future was decided.
Meanwhile a veteran missionary, Walter Stapleton, was asked to evaluate the potential of Yakusu, bearing particularly in mind the history of sickness and death among the pioneer missionaries that had been sent there. Stapleton, known in Africa as “Mangwete,” was an expert linguist and was happy to investigate the Yakusu area, both linguistically and as an appropriate environment for mission progress. The investigation appeared blessed. Mangwete was immensely helped in his research by his wife Edith’s much loved young Congolese companion, Salamo. Salamo had been rescued as a child from Arab slave traders.The story of her brief life is one of poignant tragedy and joy. It turned out that the Yakusu area was the area in which Salamo had been born and had spent her infant years. She was therefore able to help with the language and discussions with the local people. During the year he was there, Mangwete Stapleton became convinced that the Yakusu outpost should be retained and developed, and he specifically asked that William should be brought in to help.
In 1888, therefore, William arrived at Yakusu. By now he had acquired his African “given name” of Mokili. The name apparently has several meanings, but African colleagues said that it meant “he searches out the ground” or, “always searching, pushing on urgently to the next thing.”
The Stapletons took their furlough in 1889 and Mokili was left in charge for the next two years.
Yakusu was to struggle with constant problems for many years. The area continued to inflict sickness and fevers on the white missionaries and death was frequent. There were problems with misunderstandings with the local tribe, with language, with lack of staff. But slowly and surely, Yakusu began to flourish. Mokili and Mama Stapleton became responsible for education and soon there were flourishing schools, firstly for boys but soon for girls, their mothers and the workmen. It seemed that the education being offered met with an ever increasing response within the surrounding area. The people of the Yakusu area began to see education and literacy as the door to the mysterious new world unfolding around them. Yakusu also offered very basic medical care which could often save lives. It soon became clear that Yakusu offered order and certainty in a world thrown into disarray by the colonial influx. It seemed that the Yakusu Mission would survive.
In 1901 Mokili returned home for his first furlough and his wedding to Cis Langley. On his arrival in England, one snowy January Sunday, he experienced incessant problems which meant that he missed all that day’s trains to Leicester. Finally arriving at 3 a.m. on the Monday morning, he was greeted with joy by his mother. She confessed to have been praying all the day before that her son would not travel on a Sunday.
William, now almost always known as Mokili, was married to Cis on January 21, 1901. Intensely happy, he and his bride began their journey to Yakusu together in December of 1901. By January of 1902 they had reached Monsembe, a B.M.S. Mission station on the Congo River. Mokili was asked to return for a few days to Kinshasa for a conference but Cis stayed at Monsembe to help nurse the sick wife of a colleague. When Mokili returned, his own wife was ill, and she died two weeks later.
Back in Leicester Jane Millman’s spirit reached out to the Congo. She called her daughter, saying, “Emma, I have had a dream. But this one is a different one. I have seen my boy Willy standing by the Congo, holding out his hands, appealing to me. He wanted me. He was by the waterside.”
Mokili spent the next six years keeping as busy as he could, throwing himself into the work of Yakusu, writing home copiously, studying, translating the Bible, teaching, preaching, carrying out basic medical work as best he could, building, training, and supervising the growth of numerous village outpost schools. His immense energy and commitment were devoted entirely to his work for his God, to Yakusu and to the people of the Yakusu area, whom he came so intensely to love. It was at this time that he developed the system of pupil teachers, the teaching system of his own youth. It was to prove exceptionally fitted to adaptation for Congolese students and Yakusu’s educational provision flourished dramatically. In 1906, Mokili began the building of the Training Institute, a center to which “Pupil Teachers” would be brought in, in groups, for a few weeks at a time. They would be given encouragement, instruction in Bible study, literacy, general knowledge, and in practical skills. Then they would return to their own people to pass on their knowledge. The Training Institute was to have great success.
Meanwhile, Mangwete Stapleton’s health had seriously deteriorated and in 1905 he and his wife returned home again on furlough. Walter remained seriously ill and became particularly distressed after the death of his hero and friend George Grenfell in 1906. In December of 1906, Walter Stapleton himself died.
Mokili delayed his own furlough until 1907 in order to oversee the finishing of the building for the Training Institute. In 1907 he returned home at last and brought to Mama Stapleton the few belonging she had asked for. Mama Mangwete had joined her sisters in running a school for girls in Bristol and had become Edith Stapleton once again. However, she yearned to be back at Yakusu with the people she loved. Mokili was sent several times to Bristol to take meetings. During the year a deep love developed between the two Yakusu devotees, and in February of 1908 they were married. In March they both arrived back at Yakusu as Mokili and Mama Mokili.
Following Mangwete Stapleton’s death a considerable amount of money had been collected to be used as a memorial to one of the B.M.S.’s greatest pioneer missionaries. Mokili was now fully in charge of Yakusu and could decide how the money should be used. On the return journey they had passed the wilderness that had been the B.M.S. Monsembe mission, now abandoned because of the ravages of sleeping sickness. Mokili was certain that only a hospital could defend Yakusu from a similar fate. Mangwete had loved the peoples of both Monsembe and Yakusu. It seemed very clear that the money should be used as a Memorial hospital. In 1908 the building of the Mangwete Memorial Hospital, with dispensary, waiting room, and an eight bed ward, was commenced.
The following years saw success and failure, sadness and joy, but the Yakusu Mission grew rapidly.
In 1909 a daughter was born at Yakusu to Mokili and Mama. The local chief, Saidi, came to visit the newborn, offering a large fish, the traditional first gift of a marriage treaty. Saidi was a lovable rogue who had more than once tried to kill Mokili in the early days. But Mokili always retained respect for him. Saidi said that the child should be called Litwasi after his favorite wife. Litwasi means “the cause of war” – a high compliment to a Lokeli bride, as it inferred that many men had fought for her. The child was named Litwasi. Although it was unusual for a white child there at that time, she flourished, and at age four, she was brought back to England to remain with a foster family. She would be brought up in Rochdale by a wonderful and devout Baptist family, the Watsons.
Two more local chiefs were to become great friends of Yakusu. One, Bonjoma, had spent his early chiefdom eating only the flesh of his enemies. Bonjoma never became a Christian but he changed his ways to a great extent and sent many of his children to Yakusu to be educated. His son and successor, Yaele Bosimba, was trained at Yakusu and chose as his only wife Esther, a Christian Yakusu girl. Later, Yaele would become chief of all Wembi.
The other chief to become a great friend was Monje. Monje was to become the first baptized Christian chief among the Lokeli. The son of a chief involved in the Arab slave raids, a cannibal in his early years, Monje became a gentle and sincere Christian and a loyal friend to the missionaries.
By 1918 the total church membership was 2,700 and there were 25 superintendent evangelists. Already one per cent of the inhabitants of the 10,000 square miles in the area allotted to Yakusu had turned to Christianity. Between six and seven thousand inhabitants attended the village schools.
In 1919 Mokili pressed strongly for full-scale hospital facilities with a surgeon in charge. Probably to his surprise, the request was granted. In 1920 work on the new hospital was begun. Dr. Chesterman arrived to take charge of the new hospital and Mrs. Chesterman, a Froebel- trained school teacher, took charge of the kindergarten. An indication of the magnitude of Dr. Chesterman’s achievement is that by 1935 at Yakusu, only five cases of sleeping sickness were found in over 62,000 persons who were examined in that area, whereas formerly, over 20 percent of the inhabitants in many villages had been infected.
Yakusu was proud of its schools and of its’ hospital. Nonetheless, Mokili’s most lasting visible achievement might have been the building of the “new church.” The “old church,” built in 1903, had become too small and unsafe, and the construction of a new, larger one had become urgent. The B.M.S. had no funds available for such a large project, so the missionaries decided to raise the money themselves. Starting with contributions from their own tiny salaries, they moved on to sending requests to every friend and family member they could think of. Eventually, they had raised enough money to start. An architect friend, Mr. Roome, was asked to design a church for 2,000 people. No wood was to be used for dry rot or ants to destroy. His plan included and all-iron roof and reinforced cement pillars. The building would be two rows of pillars forty feet high, and the aisles ten feet wide on each side. The transept wings would be thirty feet square. All the members of the Yakusu community helped as they were able. The teachers and evangelists in training each gave an hour a day to help the six paid bricklayers, and the women brought loads of sand in their canoes from the sand bank on the other side of the island. The older schoolgirls cut firewood and carried it along to the brick kiln where its value was judged and entered in a little book they had, as a contribution to the building fund. The town’s men brought in tons of granite rock from Stanley Falls for the foundation.
Mokili’s fascination with the practical, combined with his energy and competence, were all called into use. According to Mama, Mokili’s authority in the building operations was absolute. The staff had asked him to see it through. All the constructive interests which he had developed since boyhood, all the experience he had had in brick-making, house-building, carpentry, drainage, and even his struggles with the burst boiler pipes of the “Grenfell” now seemed simply to have been practice exercises for this last great enterprise. For three years, he lived on ladders and on the dizzy heights of girders.
By 1937 the church was finished. It still exists in identical form today, and it is still in use.
The organizing of the funding and building of new church was perhaps Mokili’s most visible achievement. But he may have been even more proud of the educational access that he brought to the Yakusu area. He believed that literacy was a key that no one should be deprived of. To him, it offered access to learning and to the books that offered meaning to life, especially the Bible. It also enabled one to acquire skills and training that would offer access to earning an honest living in the strange new world that was developing. The fact that Yakusu later became a major educational center for the entire surrounding area would have given him real joy.
Perhaps his greatest joy, however, was a man named Lititiyo. He had first met Lititiyo in about 1904, as the man was rushing home with his supper, a human leg. Lititiyo, a chief’s son, was a young man of intelligent curiosity and a few days later he attended a Magic Lantern show that Mokili was giving in his village. Lititiyo was intrigued by a picture of an armed soldier asking a prisoner what he should do to be saved. The wrong man appeared to be asking the question. From that time on Lititiyo studied the Christian message and eventually asked to be baptized. He renounced the chiefdom when his father died and became instead a pastor to his own people. Lititiyo was the embodiment of everything Mokili wanted for Africa. He grew to become a great spiritual leader in his own right. To Mokili, Lititiyo was the living proof that his Lord was very present in Africa. When he retired, Mokili used to carry a letter from Lititiyo in his pocket wherever he went – a letter of deep and profound spirituality. It was the confirmation that his Lord was indeed at work in Congo.
Once the new church was finally completed in 1937, Mokili and Mama retired to England. In December of that year their daughter Litwasi was married to James Butterworth, a schoolmaster and lay Methodist preacher in Rochdale.
Mokili was to spend the next nineteen years doing whatever he could for Yakusu and the people of Congo, preaching at missionary meetings, raising funds, writing articles, talking to sixth formers and to any one interested in the Congo. After Mama’s death in 1952, he put her letters and reports into chronological order and collated them in order to present a picture of both her exceptional life and of her devotion to Yakusu.
Even in retirement, Mokili retained his energy and single-minded devotion to Yakusu. But the conflicting challenges within his mind remained. He remained fascinated with science and discovery. He was delighted by the appearance of the slide rule for mathematical calculations and presented one to his eldest grandson. Rationalist thought continued to appeal to him, and it continued to sit uncomfortably beside his total religious conviction. He could preach with sincerity about redemption and resurrection, but he would have liked to know exactly what resurrection was and what it entailed. When his colleague Henri Lambotte had died, his wife had been away. Mama Lambotte insisted that at the very hour of his death, Henri had come and knelt beside her, told her that God had allowed him to come and say good bye, and that she had touched her husband. This Mokili found hard to accept, and he would concede only that Mama Lambotte had become aware of a spiritual presence.
He was equally very aware of inconsistencies within Biblical texts. He believed the Bible to be the Word of God, but how then did the inconsistencies and occasional contradictions creep in? All these things he would discuss with his son-in-law, James Butterworth. James was by then Head of Divinity at New Mills Grammar School. He and Mokili shared a vast mutual respect for each other and many an evening would be spent discussing these problems. Again and again, James reports, Mokili would confess, “We could do with a lot more information.”
Yet in his last days, information did arrive, and faith finally found justification.
Just before he died, Mokili told his daughter that he had had a dream of a wide staircase on which stood people he knew, beckoning him. His daughter suggested there might be significance in the dream, but this he was still not ready to accept. The next day however, when Litwasi offered to read to her father, he replied, “They are reading to me.” A few hours later, he died.
The writer of this short biography, Jane Marshall, is Mokili’s granddaughter and therefore grew up with the story of her grandparents’ lives in the Congo. Mokili lived until Jane was eleven years old. Every Christmas he would come to stay with his daughter Litwasi, his son-in-law Jim (James Butterworth) and their children: Harold, William, Jane, and Piers. The family would visit Mokili and Mama’s home in Worthing in the summer. Jane has published her grandmother’s letters and recently adapted and published her father’s biography of Mokili. To some extent therefore, it is difficult for her to separate what she heard and knew as a child, what she heard her grandfather say, what she was told, and what she has read. The present short biography is a distillation of all those sources, but there is no conflict – it is the same story.
The Millman Papers:
The Millman papers, many, many boxes of them, passed to Litwasi and Jim Butterworth after Mokili’s death. James Butterworth studied the papers scrupulously for the biography that he wrote. After the death of James Butterworth in 1974, the papers passed to me, his daughter. Those papers I felt relevant to manuscripts, I have retained. The remainder were given to the School of Oriental and African Studies (S.O.A.S.), and to the B.M.S. archives at Oxford, where they are available for research.
For Millman papers retained by Jane Marshall: [email protected]
For the S.O.A.S.:
The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London, WC1H 0XG, United Kingdom
For the B.M.S. archives, Oxford:
The Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Pusey St., Oxford, OX1 2LB, United Kingdom
- Butterworth, James, and Marshall, Jane. Mokili in Congo: A Biography of William Millman. AuthorHouse, March 2011. ISBN 9781456771041
[The above biography of William Millman is based essentially on James Butterworth’s biography of his father-in-law, written between 1957 and 1966. It was based meticulously on the Millman papers, on his own extensive discussions with Mokili, his discussions and interviews with Mokili’s Yakusu colleagues, and on his own experiences when he and Litwasi visited Yakusu in 1957. It was finished in draft form before James died in 1974. James’ daughter, Jane Marshall, has attempted to finalize and supplement the draft, and has added photographs, but the biography written by her father remains largely unaltered and only slightly rearranged.]
- Millman, Edith Rebecca. Mama. AuthorHouse, 2009. ISBN 9781438939964.
[Edith Rebecca Millman tells in her own words of her remarkable 1893 journey into Congo’s “Heart of Darkness” and how, as “Mama,” she gives the rest of her life to the attempt to spread Christian light.
These are the letters and reports originally collated by Mokili and presented and published by Jane Marshall in 2009. Apart from adding photographs and guessing at some few indecipherable words, these letters and reports are exactly as collated by Mokili and are believed to be exactly as Mama Edith wrote them. Many of the originals are still available.]
This story, received in 2011, is an abridged version of the book Mokili in Congo: A Biography of William Millman, written by his granddaughter Jane Marshall and son-in-law James Butterworth.