Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Harris, William Wadé (D)

Harrist Church
Liberia , Ghana , Côte d’Ivoire

William W. Harris

God Made His Soul a Soul of Fire

In 1911 Monsignor Jules Moury, vicar apostolic in charge of the Roman Catholic mission in the Ivory Coast, frankly despaired of the future of the church in the neglected French colony. The priests of the Missions Africaines de Lyon had arrived on the Gulf of Guinea in 1895 and after more than fifteen years with the help of brothers and sisters from two orders had expended a number of lives and much charity to build a chain of eight major stations along the eastern coast of the Ivory Coast. But they had yielded a slim harvest of only 2,000 baptized souls, and the tribal peoples along the coast were clearly not turning to the Light of Christ.

By contrast, three years later in his annual report of 1914, Moury was almost lyrical:

Space is lacking here for exposing the external means which Divine Providence has used for the accomplishment of His merciful designs. I must thus limit myself to exposing the effects. These effects–it’s a whole people who, having destroyed its fetishes, invades our churches en masse, requesting Holy Baptism.[1]

The means that Divine Providence had used was the Glebo prophet William Wadé Harris, who had left Cape Palmas, Liberia, on July 27, 1913, and headed east across the Cavally River, which separated Liberia and the Ivory Coast, in obedience–as he maintained–to Christ’s commission in Matthew 28:19. Accompanied by two women disciples–excellent singers playing calabash rattles–he visited village after village, calling the coastal people to abandon and destroy their “fetishes,” to turn to the one true and living God, to be baptized and forgiven by the Savior; he then taught them to follow the commandments of God, to live in peace, and organized them for prayer and worship of God in their own languages, music, and dance, to await the “white man with the Book” and the new times that were to come.

In 1926, when missionary methods and their effectiveness were discussed at the international conference at Le Zoute, Belgium, Dr. Edwin W. Smith, former missionary to Rhodesia, wryly remarked:

The man who should have talked at Le Zoute about preaching to Africans is the prophet Harris who flashed like a meteor through part of West Africa a few years ago. Africa’s most successful evangelist, he gathered in a few months a host of converts exceeding in number the total church membership of all the missions in Nyasaland now after fifty years of work. What was his method?[2]

At the time of Smith’s writing, the prophet’s legacy was still a recent and almost unbelievable fact in Western missionary experience and literature: more than 100,000 tribal Africans baptized within eighteen months, with many of them ready to be taught by the “white man with the Book” ten years after the event. It is not altogether inappropriate to take a new look at the prophet and his mission, described quite recently by one Catholic historian as “the most extraordinarily successful one man evangelical crusade that Africa has ever known.”[3] In earlier years C. P. Groves [4] had pointed to “three notable missionary figures” during World War I in French Africa: Charles de Foucauld in the Sahara, Albert Schweitzer in the rain forests of Gabon, and the prophet Harris evangelizing the pagan tribes of the Ivory Coast. The first two are well known through their writings, their work, and much that has been written about them by their interpreters. But of the African Harris, who left no writings except a half-dozen short dictated messages, the legacy is written only in the historical consequences of his work and ministry; the perspective of seven decades is most helpful in understanding it.

Who Was William Wadé Harris?

In the immediate wake of his ministry of 1913-14, Harris’s work was cursorily dismissed by the Catholic missionaries as that of an unscrupulous charlatan carrying out a “Protestant plot” against the mission. In the Gold Coast, Methodist missionaries and African pastors were divided in their appreciation of the man about whom they knew practically nothing, save that he had earlier related to the Methodist church in Liberia. The 1924 arrival in the Ivory Coast of the English Wesleyan Methodist missionaries and their assumption of Harris’s succession made them the major source for knowledge of the man. Research in recent years has filled in many gaps of information and understanding, and we now have a fuller understanding of the man behind the prophet.[5]

Until the age of twelve years, Wadé (who was born around 1860) lived in a traditional Glebo village on the littoral east of Cape Palmas, Liberia. Son of a “heathen father,” he claimed to be “born Methodist,” indicating that it was at a time when conversion meant leaving the “heathen village” for the Christian village on the other side of the lagoon at Half-Graway. Wadé’s mother quite exceptionally lived her life of faith in the midst of traditional family life with its sacrifices, divination, witchcraft, and the influences of the “country doctor.” The other major exposure to Christianity during this traditional period was the common but ineffective evangelistic foray into the village by Episcopalian missioners.

A second period, with intense exposure to “civilization,” came during his adolescence. This included six years with his maternal uncle, the Rev. John C. Lowrie, who took him as a pupil and apprentice into his Methodist pastor-schoolmaster’s home in Sinoe, among the immigrant Liberians, outside Glebo territory and outside the influences of traditional life. Lowrie was a former slave, converted and educated at Freetown, and was a remarkable preacher as well as teacher. He baptized Wadé, no doubt gave him the name of William Harris, and taught him to read and write both Glebo and English. Though unconverted during this period, Harris was marked permanently by Lowrie’s faith, piety, discipline, and biblical culture as well as his role in society as a man of the Bible. This period concluded with four trips by Harris as a kroo-boy (a crew member, sometimes of Kroo ethnic background) on British and German merchant vessels going to Lagos and Gabon, and a stint as headman of kroo-boys working in the gold mines inland from Axim in the Gold Coast.

During a time of revival in Harper at Cape Palmas, when he was about twenty-one years of age, Harris was converted in the Methodist church under the summons from Revelation 2:5 (“Remember from whence thou art fallen and repent”) by the Liberian preacher Rev. Mr. Thompson. “The Holy Ghost came upon me. The very year of my conversion I started preaching,” he reported many years later. This new Christian period was marked by his Christian marriage in 1885 to Rose Farr, the daughter of Episcopalian catechist John Farr, from the Christian village of Half-Graway. Harris, a stonemason, built their home in the village, and it bore all the marks of a “civilized Christian”: sheet-iron roof, second story, shuttered windows, fireplace, and so forth. In 1888 he was confirmed in the Episcopal church by the first Liberian bishop, Samuel D. Ferguson. At the time, the Methodist church was weakening and was chiefly Liberian, while the Episcopal church was financially strong and worked especially among the Glebo. Indeed, Harris later was to condemn his action, taken “for money.” But with additional schooling, and a breakthrough in 1892 when the tribe agreed to observe the Sabbath (the bishop called it “the sharp edge of our Gospel wedge”), Harris was appointed assistant teacher and catechist to his native village.

In a context of upward mobility with “civilization and Christianity,” Harris was to be a regularly paid agent of the Episcopalian structures for more than fifteen years, until the end of 1908. First a simple catechist, then charged with a village Sunday school, he became a lay reader and eventually a junior warden in his church; in the school he moved from assistant teacher to teacher and thence to head of the small boarding school where his father-in-law and brother-in-law had preceded him. Outside the mission and church circles, he became official government interpreter in 1899 and enjoyed the prestige of go-between for local Liberian officials and the indigenous Glebo populations.

Tragically this whole period was marked by intensive conflict between indigenous and immigrant Americanized blacks. If at the beginning Harris was committed to the “civilizing” pressures of the Episcopal church and the foreign patterns of the Liberian republic, it is also quite clear that halfway through the period a major shift in his loyalties was starting to take place. In 1903 he was temporarily suspended as head of the school and then reinstated in 1905, but his sympathies were very clearly in favor of the Glebo people against the Liberian regime, which was fully supported by the bishop despite its unreadiness to assimilate fully the “Glebo dogs.”

Two important patterns of thought were at work in Harris during this evolution. The highly influential Dr. Edward Blyden, born in the Virgin Islands and prominent in Liberia–the best-educated and most articulate black of that period–constantly belabored the ineffectiveness and cultural imperialism of Western missions and firmly promoted an autonomous pan-African church; at the same time he was convinced that the political salvation of Liberia could come only by way of a British protectorate. And in Cape Palmas, Blyden’s friend, the secessionist priest Samuel Seton, had created already in 1887 a separatist “Christ church” under the influence of the United States religious leader Charles T. Russell, founder of the group later to be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose apocalyptic writings were flooding the region despite the opposition of Bishop Samuel Ferguson.

During the last half of 1908, calling himself the “secretary of the Graway people,” Harris engaged in threats and violence and the use of the occult in order to manipulate local Glebo chiefs in favor of the British, against the republic. In February 1909, when a coup d’état involving Blyden failed in Monrovia, co-conspirator Harris–at the risk of his life–was flying the Union Jack at Cape Palmas in expectation of the immediate British takeover for which he had labored. His arrest, imprisonment at Harper (Cape Palmas), Liberia, trial, and condemnation for treason led to a $500 fine and a two-year prison term, for which he was paroled after making monetary payment for all the penalties against him. But he had lost his job with the Episcopal church and with the Liberian authorities for whom he had worked for nine years.

Defying the terms of his parole, William Harris preached vigorously against the Liberian regime, helping to stir up and arm the local population. When war broke out in January 1910, he was back in prison, no doubt for nonrespect of his parole. The war, won by Liberian troops supported by a United States warship, was a complete debacle for the Glebo–fleeing population, plundered villages, fines, forced resettlement–and the most expensive war the young republic had conducted. Harris was in prison, despondent over the turn of events, and it was there around June 1910 that his prophetic future was determined.

The Vocation of the Prophet Harris

A trance-visitation of the angel Gabriel in a wave of light was to William Wadé Harris like a second conversion. During three appearances, he was told that he was to be prophet of the last times; he was to abandon his civilized clothing, including his patent leather shoes, and don a white robe: he was to destroy fetishes, beginning with his own; he was to preach Christian baptism. His wife would die after giving him six shillings to provide for his travel anywhere; though he was not thereafter to have a church marriage, he believed God would give him others to help him in his mission. He then received in a great wave of light an anointing from God where the Spirit came down like water on his head–three times. “It was like ice on my head and all my skin,” he later reported.

The Gold Coast barrister Casely Hayford spoke with the prophet at great length in Axim, in July 1914, and was deeply impressed.

Of his call he speaks with awe. It seems as if God made the soul of Harris a soul of fire… He has learnt the lesson of those whose lips have been touched by live coal from the altar to sink himself in God… When we are crossed in ordinary life we never forgive. When God crosses our path and twists our purposes unto his own, he can make a mere bamboo cross a power unto the reclaiming of souls. God has crossed the path of this humble Glebo man and he has had the sense to yield. He has suffered his will to be twisted out of shape and so he carries about the symbol of the cross.[6]

The man who in 1908 used whatever violent or occult means were at his disposal to achieve the political autonomy of his people was said to have reported six and a half years later:

I am a prophet above all religions and freed from the control of men. I depend only upon God through the intermediary of the Angel Gabriel who initiated me to my mission of modern last times–of the era of peace about which St. John speaks in the 20th chapter of Revelation, peace of a thousand years whose arrival is at hand.[7]

The young man who had begun his civilized Christian faith and ministry together at the age of twenty-one had compromised it “for money,” for a future that led him finally into the morass of political duplicity and manipulation and the way of occult violence for achieving the liberation of his people. Stopped suddenly by events he had helped to precipitate, he was turned back, as it were, to his original task of preaching, but turned forward in absolute confidence of the coming peaceful kingdom of Christ. “Christ must reign,” he insisted. “I am his prophet.” But this time it was also as a liberated African to fellow Africans rather than as a “civilized” person to the barbarians.

Convinced through Russellite influences that Christ was soon to bring in the kingdom of peace, Harris predicted World War I as a judgment on the civilized world, and then announced a difficult period of seven years, before everything was to be transformed in the reign of Christ. Seeing himself as the Elijah of Malachi 4, he felt he had appeared before the great and dreadful day of the Lord in order to prepare the people for the coming kingdom of peace, during which he was to be the judge responsible for West Africa. His mission was to prepare his constituency through preaching of repentance and baptism and peace, so the Lord would know his own. He had renounced political machination and violence but not a political vision; rather, he had reordered its character and its means and was committed to advance through preaching what would come through the Lord’s own doing. He saw as his marching order Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20.

Except for his identification with Elijah, the seven-year dating of the arrival of the kingdom, and his own judgeship in it (none of which he imposed upon others), Harris had been caught up in the very un-African eschatological dynamics of New Testament messianism and its spirit, with which he was mightily empowered. The politician Casely Hayford insisted:

You come to him with a heart full of bitterness, and when he is finished with you all the bitterness is gone out of your soul… Why, he calls upon the living God. He calms, under God, the troubled soul. He casts out strife. He allays bitterness. He brings joy and lightness of soul to the despairing. This thing must be of God. He attaches no importance to himself… He is the soul of humility.[8]

Twenty years ago, when the historian Gordon Haliburton visited village after village in the Ivory Coast seeking out the old men who could tell him about their memories of the prophet Harris, more than once he was told, “He taught us to live in peace.”

Harris’s Mission

After his liberation from prison in June 1910, Harris immediately began his prophetic ministry. Briefly reimprisoned, then released, he went up and down the Liberian coast preaching repentance and baptism with apparently only a limited success prior to his Ivory Coast and Gold Coast adventures. There, dressed in a white cassock and turban with a cross-topped staff in one hand and a Bible and baptismal bowl in the other, he cut a striking and original figure as he attacked the local spiritual powers, disarming their practitioners often in a contest where he proved to be the most powerful. In response all the village people would bring their religious artifacts to be burned; then they would kneel for baptism while grasping the cross, and receive a tap of confirmation with the prophet’s Bible. The prophet then taught the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and on occasion the Apostle’s Creed. Migrant Methodist clerks from Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast working in coastal commercial activity were stirred up to follow through with the ministry. Elsewhere the prophet instructed each village to build a simple place of worship, and he would name twelve apostles to govern the new religious community. Where there was a Catholic mission, or the very rare congregation of foreign Methodists, he encouraged people to go there to be taught by men of God. His ministry was accompanied by remarkable healings and strange wonders: the burning of a ship when kroo-boy laborers were not discharged from Sunday work; the deaths in rapid succession of the administrator who chased him out of the French colony into the Gold Coast, and of his sergeant who had beaten the prophet; the falling of a church tower after a Catholic priest had dismissed him haughtily; the sudden deaths of those who were baptized but had only hidden, not destroyed, their fetishes. As the rumors of Harris’s power and wonders preceded him, masses of people were prepared for his coming and sought him out. In the western Gold Coast, the British administrator could scarcely believe the moral and sanitary transformation that had taken place in villages that he knew so well.

Despite his having been arrested and imprisoned three times in the Ivory Coast, the prophet returned there from the Gold Coast because he felt that God had commanded him to do so. The masses flocked to him in Grand Bassam and Bingerville where again his baptizing was often accompanied by spectacular exorcism and healing. World War I had been declared in early August 1914, and in the French colony missionary priests and colonial administrators answered the call to arms. A religio-political movement was under way that was controlled neither by the Catholic mission nor by the French administration. Harris and his three women were arrested, imprisoned, severely beaten and, a month later (January 1915), expelled by the same authorities who had earlier recognized their public utility. The prophet had, in fact, preached submission to authorities under God’s law, denounced alcohol abuse, and had clearly affected the moral climate of the populations by his denunciation of adultery. Back in Liberia in early 1915, one of his singers, the young widow Helen Valentine, died as a result of the beatings she had received during her mission with the prophet.

Eight times Harris attempted to return to the Ivory Coast but was always stopped by the colonial authorities. But he went up and down the Liberian coast with his mission, often penetrating into the interior where missionaries had never gone. He went to Sierra Leone three times on foot: in 1917, 1919, and 1921. His ministry in Liberia, even if it gave problems to the Methodist missionary Walter B. Williams because of their differences over polygamous marriage, nevertheless provoked a mass “revival movement” in 1915 and the years following. Harris did not denounce polygamy but accepted it as a fact of African life, and this led to continuing problems with the Methodist groups and others.

In 1925 the prophet suffered a stroke, from which he only partially recovered; yet he continued his pilgrim ministry in the interior. When he was visited in 1926 by missionary Pierre Benoît from the Methodist mission, he had just returned from a mission where he had baptized over 500 people. Benoît’s contact grew out of the 1924 discovery by British Methodists of the fruits of Harris’s labors in the Ivory Coast, which opened a new chapter in missionary history: admitting the facts, accepting the responsibility for the legacy of the “Harrist Protestants,” restructuring and absorbing them, teaching and disciplining them. Not all the baptized accepted the new Methodist government of their church life, and Benoît brought back from the aging prophet a Methodist-inspired “testament” to clinch the succession and urge the hesitant into the Methodist fold.

In 1927 the prophet received in his Spring Hill home a delegation of Adjukrou leaders from the Ivory Coast for counsel about accepting Methodist control, and Harris supported the latter against the traditionalist “prophet” Aké. But in December 1928 Harris received another delegation from the Ivory Coast complaining of Methodist disciplines in family and finance. At this final meeting the prophet clearly indicated his disappointment with the Methodist controls and charged a young Ebrié chorister, Jonas Ahui, from the village congregation at Petit Bassam to “begin again.” Harris dictated a message to Ahui’s father, the village chief, who had been puzzled about how to respond to the missionary presence. To the village chief, the prophet asserted the validity of polygamy if God’s law was followed, and denounced the taking of money for religious services performed. Harris was eager to return to the Ivory Coast but could not, for he was “about to go home.” But he predicted a new war for France, warned about going to Europe, and referred again to Malachi 4. “If you say you are for God you have to suffer many tribulations. Never give up your God… You must always have God before you. It is he who will guide you in all temptation: do not forsake or leave your God to save your life… I am yours in Christ.”

In April 1929 the prophet died at close to seventy years of age, worn out and in total poverty. It is said that the simple Christian funeral in the village of Spring Hill was presided over by the local Episcopalian minister. Five of his six children, and numerous grandchildren, survived Harris. Today, an improvised but whitewashed cement “tombstone” in the Spring Hill village cemetery bears the crude hand-engraved epitaph: “In loving memory of Propha Wadé Harris born–died in the year 1928 June 15 Erected by one Abraham Kwang in the year 1968.” The local word is that where before there had been only a simple marker, a man from Ghana had made the cement tomb marker out of respect and homage for the prophet who years earlier had raised up his mother three days after her death.

The Legacy

It should be pointed out as a preface to a summary of the Harris legacy that, when compared to other African prophets and their movements, his impact was exceptional: in its massive inter-tribal and inter-colonial character; in its precedence to or major contribution to missionary Christianity; in Harris’s initial positive attitude to both British and French colonial regimes, despite his preprophetic negative approach to the black Liberian regime. These unique features condition the legacy in unusual ways.

Harris’s work brought about a massive break with the external practices of traditional African religions all along the coast: disappearance of a variety of “taboos” about days and places; disappearance of lascivious dance; the “taming” of traditional festivals; disappearance of huts for isolating women during their menstrual periods; transformation of burial and funeral practices. Ten years after the passage of Harris, the English missionaries observed the great differences between the Ivory Coast and Dahomey or Togo, which they knew so well. It was described in 1922 by the colonial administrator Captain Paul Marty as a

religious fact, almost unbelievable, which has upset all the ideas we had about black societies of the Coast–so primitive, so rustic–and which with our occupation and as a consequence of it will be the most important political and social event of ten centuries of history, past, present or future of the maritime Ivory Coast.[9]

There was created a new indigenous lay religious movement covering a dozen ethnic groups and involving new patterns of unity in the midst of diversity: one God, one theocentric law (the Ten Commandments), one day (Sunday), one book (the Bible), one symbol (the cross), one baptism (break with “fetishes”), one place of worship, one institution (church leadership by “twelve apostles”). Here prayer, including the “Our Father,” and transformed traditional song and dance replaced sacrifice and fetish worship. Although different from European Protestantism and Catholicism, it was fed by foreign African lay Christians and constituted a reality so substantial that for Catholic missionaries in 1921 it “threatened” to make of the Ivory Coast a “Protestant nation.”

There was a “take-off” of the Catholic mission along the Guinea coast. By 1923 the Ivory Coast church counted 13,000 members and over 10,000 catechumens. The official report of 1925 recognized Harris as the instrument given “to operate the salvation of the Ivory Coast–or at least to begin it.” Father Bedal of Korhogo in the north lamented the fact that Harris had not got there to facilitate the evangelization of the Senufo. In Ghana, where there had been no baptized Catholics in Apollonia in 1914, there were in 1920 twenty-six principal stations and thirty-six secondary ones with 5,200 members and 15,400 catechumens. Roman Catholic missionary George Fischer spoke of the “divine fire lit by the grace of the divine Master,” but he made no mention of Harris. In Liberia where the Catholic mission had only rebegun in 1906, its prefect, Father Jean Ogé, wrote in 1920 that “the missions are going ahead by leaps and bounds…, due to the former teaching of the famous prophet Harris. The pagans, deprived of their old gods, stream to our churches and ask for religious instruction.”[l0]

There was a major breakthrough for Protestant missions. In Ghana the Methodist church was confronted with more than 8,000 people in the Axim area requesting church membership, with village after village requesting catechists and schools. In the Ivory Coast, the 1924 arrival of the British Wesleyans led within sixteen months to the reorganization of more than 160 chapels with more than 32,000 actual names on church registers. The “testament” brought back from Harris in 1926 increased that constituency. In 1927, in response to the Harris impact, the French Baptist Mission Biblique began its work in the southwest. The arrival in 1929 of the Christian and Missionary Alliance from the United States, eager to work with the fruit of Harris’s labors, led to their activities in the central Ivory Coast. These constitute three of the major Protestant churches today.

There came about a stimulation of a mass movement into the established Protestant churches in Liberia. The Methodist Episcopal church wrote officially in 1916 of

the great revival movement among the natives with which God has blessed us. But for this our membership could not have made the advance it has. And yet we could not gather into the church all who professed conversion because we had not sufficient number of missionaries to instruct and train them. Many however went into other churches and were not lost to Christianity. Literally thousands, largely young people, have been swept into the kingdom of God. [11]

Dr. Frederick A. Price described it as a “real tidal wave of religious enthusiasm which swept hundreds of people into the Christian church… It was nothing else but Pentecost in Africa.” But he also pointed out that because of their refusal to abandon polygamy, countless numbers were also refused by the churches, obviously in contradiction to Harris’s understanding and preaching.

Many of these people may be members of the invisible church of Christ even though we cannot admit them into full membership in the local assembly… One remarkable feature about this great movement was the fact that tribes which seemed the most difficult to approach now became the most responsive to the preaching of the Gospel… The revival fire soon spread from one end of the coastline to the other and certain sections of the interior shared the wonderful experience of getting in touch with Christ.[12]

There was also the creation of the l’Église Harrist (Harrist Church) in the Ivory Coast, in 1931, as a result of the 1928 visit of the Ebrié leader Jonas Ahui, who was consecrated by the prophet, given his cross and Bible and the last written message from Harris. The church is today an important interethnic religious reality of perhaps 200,000 adherents, including communities in Ghana and Liberia. All seven weekly services (three on Sunday) are in the local languages and bear the distinct Harris stamp: strong anti-fetish accent on one God; prayer as a replacement for sacrifice; use of traditional music and dance; use of cross, Bible, calabash, and baptismal bowl as liturgical instruments; liturgical vestments following the model of Harris; traditional marriage practices, with preachers having only one wife; government by “twelve apostles”; self-supporting preachers chosen from within the local congregation. Ahui continued as spiritual head of the church until his death in 1992.

There was a growth of “prophetism”–a kind of third way between traditional religion and the mission-planted churches. The phenomenon has occurred constantly since Harris’s time in areas touched by his influence: in Dida country by Makwi, almost parallel with Harris; by Aké among the Adjukru and Abbey in the 1920s; by the prophetess Marie Lalou and the Déïma movement following the 1940s, along the northern edge of the areas influenced by Harris; Adaï among the Dida in the 1940s; Papa Nouveau among the Alladian in the 1950s; Josué Edjro among the Adjukru in the 1960s; Albert Atcho, from within the Harrist tradition, serving all of the lagoon peoples. Although Harris is a partial inspiration for the phenomenon, none of these leaders had the authentic Christocentrism of the prototype. Though the movements maintain a certain continuity, there is also a constant movement from them into Christ-centered communities. In Ghana, the prophet-healing accents of the Church of the Twelve Apostles places it somewhat in the same lineage, dating back to two of Harris’s actual disciples, Grace Thanni, who accompanied Harris from the Gold Coast, and John Nackabah.

A further result of the grassroots religious shift–coupled with the failures of the missions and churches to follow through (lack of staff, Western piety and disciplines, refusal to recognize polygamy) with the élan of Harris–is found among the many post-Harris autonomous “spiritual” churches of Ghana and Liberia in an evolving popular African Christianity.

An openness to modernity is striking. The opposition of the coastal peoples to the education of their children by the Western colonial schools was broken by Harris, who insisted: “Send your children to school.” In September 1915, less than a year after Harris’s arrest at the initiative of Lieutenant-Governor Angoulvant, the latter wrote:

At Jacqueville [on the Alladian coast where Harris ministered] the excellent upkeep of the village struck me again. But what I noticed most was the enthusiasm with which the children came to the school which I had just opened. And the great desire that they show for instruction once they have a trained and zealous master like the one I sent them. No school has ever had such success. And it was the chief of Jacqueville himself who furnished the building free of charge until the administration can furnish one.[13]

Those children and the many who followed in numerous other places were among the first cadres of an independent Ivory Coast in 1960: ministers of state, ambassadors, legislative deputies, directors of societies, and so forth.

There was a general climate of peace and cooperative submission along with a deep inner rejection of colonialism with its brutal “pacification” prior to Harris and its conscription and forced labor after Harris. The climate, nourished by the important new autonomous religious grassroots, constituted a particular kind of nationalism, which led to “independence with France” under President Felix Houphouet-Boigny and made a significant contribution to the base of the modern-day so-called miracle of the Ivory Coast.[14] More than one well-informed observer has noted the relationship between the impact of Harris and the contemporary scene in the Ivory Coast, characterized by the African accents of hospitality and dialogue and by an absence of social and political violence. The president himself, in an early address to the national assembly, indicated his own awareness of the heritage from Harris that had preceded his own work.

Observations about Harris’s Missionary Strategy

In the measure that Harris had a very simple message, insisted on an African church, exploited indigenous values and structures, and respected traditional family structures, one could say that his strategy of African evangelization and church planting was very much that advocated by Blyden, the erstwhile Presbyterian minister who had given up his ministry and his hope for Western missions while retaining his faith in Christ and in the “God of Africa.” At one point in his thought, Blyden felt that Christianity in its initial impact upon “heathenism” should be quite similar to Islam in its simplicity of message, symbols, and ritual and in its adaptability to Africa. After an initial implantation, faith could deepen through Christ into a fuller understanding of the African God; even Islam itself could be such a stage forward to the fullness of the Gospel. It was a strategy not unlike that of the present-day Church Growth school with its terminology of “discipling” and “perfecting.” [15] However, beyond Blyden the sophisticate, Harris understood that the issue was not just that of simplicity, but rather, of power. Indeed, many have insisted upon a break with the old powers as a crucial factor in evangelism in Africa. Islam has often effected that break but has not yet fulfilled in any massive way Blyden’s hope for it in Africa. Harris in a similar way with Christocentric hope, symbolism, and congregation fulfilled the strategy from two points of view. First, Christianity in the lower Ivory Coast is rooted in African soil and it is African Christianity despite heavy Wesleyan Methodist and Roman Catholic overlays. Second, as Capt. Paul Marty observed in 1922, where Harris had left his mark Islam would probably have no appeal. The important presence of Islam in the lower Ivory Coast is due not to its influence among the coastal populations but to the massive immigrations to the prosperous south from upper Ivory Coast and countries to the north, especially under the effects of French colonialism.

The new dimension in Harris’s strategy was the administration of baptism immediately following the shift growing out of the power-confrontation; this was to keep people from returning to the old powers–a preventive measure. It was Trinitarian Christian baptism even if the people did not grasp that meaning. Father Joseph Hartz at Grand Bassam wrote: “One day I asked him not to baptise. He therefore brought hundreds of people to me to baptise myself. Upon my request to wait until instruction should have made of these people’s souls capable of grasping the character of Baptism, he answered me, ‘God will do that.’ [16] If one were to critique the strategy, positively or negatively, it must be done at this point.

In the measure that Harris accented the Sunday Sabbath-keeping as a continued sign of a break with the past, introduced prayer as a replacement for sacrifices, used the Bible in the chapel as a replacement for the collective fetish of the village, introduced new festivals to replace the old, he was simply carrying out a standard Episcopalian pattern that he had seen and practiced among his own people in the Cape Palmas area.[17] The new dimension in the strategy was the maintenance of the traditional music with a transformation of the words, rather than the introduction of a new and foreign hymnology, though his own favorites included “Lo, he comes on clouds descending,” “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,” and “What a friend we have in Jesus.” The use of calabash and dance was a part of that strategy, despite the ambiguities implicit in their maintenance. But it was crucial for a people in a tradition of orality, and Harris did not see literacy as a prerequisite to faith.

Harris’s strong awareness and expression of the power of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts (foresight, prediction, healing, exorcism, tongues, trance-visitations, empowerment of the word, wonders) was an appropriation of his own, of an important biblical and apostolic reality, which had been nurtured by a deep biblical culture begun under the influence of the Methodist John C. Lowrie. But with Harris the expression of those powers had its own African color and shape for which he had no other visual prototypes than the traditional “country doctors.”

In the measure that he was driven by an eschatological urgency, confirmed by the “Armageddon” of World War I, and had himself become the point of power-confrontation in a major messianic breakthrough orientated to a kingdom of peace, Harris was involved in a quite un-African strategy influenced by the Russellite writings on the kingdom of God and the need for an Elijah-people to proclaim and live it faithfully until the end, despite opposition from political or ecclesiastical powers. The Protestant missionary milieux he had known had shielded him from this New Testament virus, which he caught from the sectarians.

Indeed, the Harris strategy, like the legacy, was a synthesis of many strands. But the legacy, unlike the strategy, has not maintained the central dynamic.

David A. Shank


  1. Archives of the Société des Missions Africaines (Rome), 12/804.07:28:761, 1914.

  2. Edwin W.S. Smith, The Christian Mission in Africa (London and New York: International Missionary Council, 1926), p. 42.

  3. Adrian Hastings, African Christianity (London and Dublin: Geoffrey Chapman, 1976), p. 10.

  4. C. P. Groves, The Planting of Christianity in Africa (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 4:41.

  5. See David A. Shank, “A Prophet of Modern Times; The Thought of William Wadé Harris.” 3 vols. (Ph.D. diss., University of Aberdeen, 1980).

  6. Casely Hayford, William Waddy Harris: The West African Reformer (London: C.M. Phillips, 1915), pp. 16-17.

  7. Translation from G. van Bulck, “Le prophète Harris vu par lui-même (Côte d’Ivoire 1914),” in Devant les sectes non-chrétiennes (Louvain: XXXème Semaine de Missiologie, 1961), pp. 120-24.

  8. Hayford, William Waddy Harris, pp. 16-17.

  9. Paul Malty, Études sur l’Islam en Côte d’Ivoire (Paris: Éditions Ernest Leroux, 1922), p. 13.

  10. Quoted in E. M. Hogan, Catholic Missionaries and Liberia (Cork, Ireland: Cork Univ. Press, 1981), p. 103.

  11. Liberian Conference Blue Book [Liberian Methodist Church] (Monrovia: College of West Africa Press, 1916), pp. 7f.

  12. Frederick A. Price, Liberian Odyssey (New York: Pageant Press, 1954), pp. 142-48.

  13. L’Indépendant de la Côte d’Ivoire [newspaper published at Grant Bassam, Ivory Coast] 137, Sept. 7, 1915.

  14. This is discussed in E. Amos-Djoro, “Les églises harristes et le nationalisme ivoirien,” Le mois en Afrique 5 (1966): 26-47.

  15. The comparison of church growth theory and practice with the ministry of Harris has received attention in J. Stanley Friesen, “The Significance of Indigenous Movements for the Study of Church Growth,” in The Challenge of Church Growth, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1973).

  16. See van Bulck, “Le prophète Harris,” pp. 120-24.

  17. The differences among community conversion, individual conversions through the Word, and individual conversions through the Holy Spirit power signs, in each of their social manifestations in the Ivory Coast, have been very carefully studied by Charles-Daniel Maire, “Dynamique sociale des mutations religieuses: Expansions des protestantismes en Côte d’Ivoire,” unpublished memoir at Paris/Sorbonne, E.P.H.E., 1975.


Friesen, J. Stanley. “The Significance of Indigenous Movements for the Study of Church Growth.” In The Challenge of Church Growth, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk. Elkhart. Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1973.

Haliburton, Gordon Mackay. The Prophet Harris. London: Longmans, 1973.

Hayford, Casely. William Waddy Harris: The West African Reformer. London: C. M. Phillips, 1915.

Shank, David A. Prophet Harris, the “Black Elijah” of West Africa. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994.

Van Bulck, G. “Le prophète Harris, vu par lui-même.” In Devant les sectes non-chrétiennes. Louvain: XXXème Semaine de Missiologie, 1961.

Walker, Sheila Suzanne. “Christianity African Style: The Harrist Church of the Ivory Coast.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1976.

——–. “The Message as the Medium: The Harrist Churches of the Ivory Coast and Ghana.” In African Christianity: Patterns of Religious Continuity, ed. George Bond et al. New York: Academic Press, 1979.

——–. The Religious Revolution in the Ivory Coast: The Prophet Harris and His Church. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1983.

This article, from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Oct. 86, Vol. 10, Issue 4, p. 170-176, is reproduced, with permission, from Mission Legacies : Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, copyright© 1994, edited by G. H. Anderson, R. T. Coote, N. A. Horner, J. M. Phillips. All rights reserved.

External link

Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Harris Movement