Prophet and leader of a West African mass movement.
Wadé (his original family name) was born in the village of Half-Graway, near Cape Palmas, Liberia, a quarter of a century after the arrival of missionaries and black American colonists. The son of a heathen father, he nevertheless claimed to have been “born Methodist,” presumably in reference to his mother’s faith. In 1888, after marrying Rose Farr, daughter of a teacher at the U.S. Episcopal Church’s Half-Graway boarding school, he accepted employment with the Episcopal mission. From 1892 to 1908 he rose on the mission staff, teaching and evangelizing among the people. All the while the Liberian bishop, Samuel Ferguson, shifted from a pro-Glebo stance to identification with the immigrant black authorities. In 1899 Harris became the official interpreter for the Glebo population and his loyalties were severely tested. His deep differences with Ferguson, his embracing of the apocalypticism of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the influence of Dr. Edward Blyden led to collaboration in a pro-British plot. Condemned as a traitor and dismissed by the Episcopal mission, Harris was imprisoned during the disastrous Liberian-Glebo war of 1910, which he had abetted. There an anointing of the Spirit during a trance visitation of the Angel Gabriel provoked obedience to Christ’s Great Commission and transformed him into “the prophet of the last times.”
Accompanied by women singers, he saw himself as a black Elijah “in the last days” before Christ’s return, on a mission of power confrontation, charged to bring in a reign of peace. White-robed, turbaned, barefoot, and bearing a cross-staff, Bible, calabash rattle, and baptismal bowl, he proclaimed the power of God and the cross of Christ, calling for repentance and the destruction of all fetishes. Refusing money for his ministry, he baptized, cast out spirits and healed. He taught the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and strict observance of Sunday as a day of prayer and rest. He sent thousands of baptized persons to Catholic and Protestant missionaries for teaching. Where missionaries were not available, he named “Twelve Apostles” from the local population, promising that “whites with the Bible” would come as teachers.
Beginning in 1924, in Ivory Coast, the Methodist Mission Society’s William J. Platt established the Methodist Church on some 160 such congregations with over 32,000 adherents. Harris’s power confrontation and symbolism found its greatest continuity in Ghana’s Church of the Twelve Apostles and Ivory Coast’s Harrist Church under Ebrie John Ahui.
David A. Shank
Gordon Mackay Haliburton, The Prophet Harris: The Study of an African Prophet and His Mass Movement in the Ivory Coast and the Gold Coast (1971); John Hargreaves, ed., and tr., “The Prophet Harris,” in France and West Africa (1959), pp.257 - 262; David A. Shank, The “Black Elijah” of West Africa (with abridgment by Jocelyn Murray; 1994) and “William Wadé Harris,” in Gerald H. Anderson et al., eds., Mission Legacies (1994), pp. 155 - 165; Frank Deaville Walker, The Day of Harvest in the White Fields of Africa (1925); Sheila S. Walker, Religious Revolution in the Ivory Coast: Prophet Harris and the Harrist Church (1983). Harris left no writings and only a couple of signed letters.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, copyright © 1998, by Gerald H. Anderson, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Harris Movement