Footprints of Faith: Exploring Wesleyan’s Missionary History

By Myka Modeste ’27

The African Materials Cultures @Wes Initiative (AfriMC@Wes) focuses on the depth of the history of Wesleyan’s relationship with Africa. In the process of studying the African items in Wesleyan’s collection we are analyzing the consequences of the scope of our influence and wealth in the founding of an African country. Investigating Wesleyan through a colonial lens can raise uncomfortable questions about the institution, but it is important to understand the past to learn how to move forward. AfriMC@Wes brings together students and faculty to study this deeply consequential relationship by looking at African objects and other archives related to Africa in Wesleyan’s collection. Our objective is to ask, since the mid 19th century, what is Africa to Wesleyan and what is Wesleyan to Africa? 

Wesleyan University’s beginnings as a Methodist Institution was shaped by the first president Willbur Fisk (1831-1839) who was deeply invested in missionary work in Africa (and other world regions). It was during Fisk’s tenure that Wesleyan’s students and faculty began to collect material objects relating African life and history, including the first issue of Africa’s Luminary. Due to Willbur Fisk’s support of the American Colonization Society (ACS) Wesleyan received many items from the missionaries, and now has different kinds of African objects in the archive, ranging from a snuff grinder to gourd bowls. The first president of the university, Willbur Fisk (1831-1839) was a strong supporter of the resettlement of the formerly enslaved to Africa. Fisk was also an ardent supporter of colonization, even giving a speech in favor of African colonization. As the foundation of abolition started the potential mass of free black people in the United States began to be viewed as a problem, and many white missionaries thought of a solution, repatriation. The American Colonization Society (ACS), a group of white missionaries founded in Washington DC, began fundraising to send black people back to Africa, to a colony called Liberia centered on its capital Monrovia.  

After Monrovia was fully established by missionaries that emigrated to Liberia in the 1840’s they published the newspaper, Africa’s Luminary. The newspaper served two main purposes, to update colonists in America about the current events in Liberia and to encourage other free people of color to migrate. In the first copy of Africa’s Luminary they reprinted the constitution. It was fashioned after the American Constitution, but it explicitly prioritized the rights of the free people of color, not limiting it to only the formerly enslaved. In the 24th annual ACS report there is a mention of emigrants from the Chocktaw nation. At that time all Chocktaw people near Fort Towson had to relocate out of fear of slavery, and due to the colony’s broad citizenship approach, the first edition of the Luminary talks about its citizen eligibility, “None but colored persons shall become citizens of this colony”.While not the coveted formerly enslaved population, as a result of indigenous peoples’ status as “colored”, they were able to obtain citizenship in Liberia. 

The constitution is not the only place where American influence is extremely overt, it can be seen with the form of government and the flag, as it emulates the stars and stripes of the United States. The Liberian government is a constitutional republic with a legislative, judicial and executive branch. Positions of power including senators, roles such as president were supposed to be held by people of color. However, the minority of white missionaries maintained authority of the general black population, whether it be African or Americo-Liberians. Americo-Liberian is a term created to differentiate freed formerly enslaved people from the people already residing on the continent.

As the passengers boarded boats to go to Monrovia they accounted the going ons of the journey in order to inform their family back home and also to be used as propaganda to encourage other freed people to travel to the colony. There is a main narrative that is followed in the first copy of the Luminary that is housed in Special Collections & Archives. The unknown writer accounts for many eventful days like Christmas and the departure and arrival day, but also mundane days. The overarching narrative was that the journey to the colony was only marked as usually easy going, but had some moments where things got tumultuous. After a particularly violent storm on December 19th, it was said, “Blessed be God, we have been spared from a watery grave through His and kind providence. We have had as severe a gale of wind as I remember to have experienced.” For the most part travel narratives recall this time on the voyage as almost enjoyable as they commemorate significant days and events, such as the day they departed, New Years and arrival day. The passengers had a strong sense of faith, and would practice religious ceremonies on the voyage, which they believed got them to their safety.A day of Sabbath was remarked was, “pleasant”, and many other religious ceremonies were practiced on board like Christmas and Easter. However they did face one major issue, illness. On the Saluda, one of the first ships to make the journey to Liberia, 41 people had died of an unknown illness. However, there was always an undercurrent of hope and optimism emphasized by the fervor that the passengers celebrated occasions like Sabbath and Christmas.    

Despite being on a different continent, many of the problems present in America made an appearance in Monrovia. There were stereotypes based on misconceptions, corruption, illness, and manifestations of white supremacy. The white missionaries had replicated all of the injustices of American life on a newer African population. But the indigenous attempted to fight back As one of the colony’s white founders, Governor Finley was traveling; he was murdered by one of his companions, an indigenous African man. Members of the colony attempted to find the guilty party, were unsuccessful and further provoked the indigenous Africans who wanted them gone. This led to a couple of days of gunfire between the colonists and the indigenous Africans, called the Bassa War, it was initially documented on  March 15, 1939.  The Bassa War was recounted in the first issue that is present in Special Collections & Archives, and was then mentioned in an issue of the annual ACS report two years later on January 19, 1941. This war happened within the first couple of months of the colony and had ramifications for years to come. 

Monrovia, Liberia was viewed as a great success due to the propaganda of the Luminary and travel narratives. The story of George Seymour, is an interesting case, because he was a resident of Hartford before he left and tried to entice freed people in the states to come to Liberia. His writings were published in the newspaper the Liberian Herald and Star of Liberia and were republished in the states. His account talks about the beauty of Africa and its people and the advancement of African societies in almost all aspects, ranging from gender roles to trade. His praise of the “interior” of the continent still holds an air of Western condescension as he seems in awe that non-European “primitive” people could have such a complex and rich society.

Wesleyan has a more direct relationship with Liberia, as one of the first black students at Wesleyan, Wilbur Fisk Burns was the son of a prominent Methodist minister in Liberia. He graduated in 1860 and went back to Liberia, and sadly passed away not long after his graduation. Narratives similar to Seymour’s inspired a multitude of similar colonization societies to pop up all over the eastern seaboard of the United States. In spite of its positive reception, life in the colony was hard as the colonists were expected to establish schools, establish fair trade and run the government with minimal funds. Using Wesleyan and its relationship to Liberia to understand colonization and privilege is crucial to how the matrices of power function, as it was created as a solution to an American problem. Therefore exploring our relationship with Liberia is extremely important to understanding the privilege and reputation that an institution like Wesleyan can create, the existence of a physical copy of the Luminary in the Special Collections & Archives is a testament to Wesleyan’s influence overseas. 


Africa’s Luminary (Monrovia, Liberia), March 15, 1839: 4. Readex: World Newspaper Archive.

Fisk, Wilbur. Substance of an Address Delivered before the Middletown Colonization Society, at Their Annual Meeting, July 4, 1835. Printed by G.F. Olmsted, 1835.

Sims, James L., Seymour, George L., and Anderson, Benjamin J. K.. African-American Exploration in West Africa : Four Nineteenth-Century Diaries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Accessed December 30, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central. 

Twenty-fourth annual report of the American colonization society , January 19, 1841. ,16,