By the Rivers of Water

A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey


By Erskine Clarke

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In early November 1834, an aristocratic young couple from Savannah and South Carolina sailed from New York and began a strange seventeen year odyssey in West Africa. Leighton and Jane Wilson sailed along what was for them an exotic coastline, visited cities and villages, and sometimes ventured up great rivers and followed ancient paths. Along the way they encountered not only many diverse landscapes, peoples, and cultures, but also many individuals on their own odysseys — including Paul Sansay, a former slave from Savannah; Mworeh Mah, a brilliant Grebo leader, and his beautiful daughter, Mary Clealand, at Cape Palmas; and King Glass and the wise and humorous Toko in Gabon. Leighton and Jane Wilson had freed their inherited slaves, and were to become the most influential American missionaries in West Africa during the first half of the nineteenth century. While Jane established schools, Leighton fought the international slave trade and the imperialism of colonization. He translated portions of the Bible into Grebo and Mpongwe and thereby helped to lay the foundation for the emergence of an indigenous African Christianity.

The Wilsons returned to New York because of ill health, but their odyssey was not over. Living in the booming American metropolis, the Wilsons welcomed into their handsome home visitors from around the world as they worked for the rapidly expanding Protestant mission movement. As the Civil War approached, however, they heard the siren voice of their Southern homeland calling from deep within their memories. They sought to resist its seductions, but the call became more insistent and, finally, irresistible. In spite of their years of fighting slavery, they gave themselves to a history and a people committed to maintaining slavery and its deep oppression — both an act of deep love for a place and people, and the desertion of a moral vision.

A sweeping transatlantic story of good intentions and bitter consequences, By the Rivers of Water reveals two distant worlds linked by deep faiths.


  • Kirkus
    “A sinuously nuanced pursuit of a Southern Christian missionary couple's conflicted journey from slaveholding Savannah, Ga., to West Africa. In the thoroughgoing fashion of his Bancroft Prize–winning Dwelling Place (2005), religion historian Clarke devotes enormous care to delineating every aspect of the world known to his protagonists: Jane Bayard, from Savannah, and John Leighton Wilson, from Black River, S.C…. A florid yet thorough and compelling history of missionary work and the 19th-century African-American experience both in America and abroad.”

    “Clarke offers a complex portrait [of] the countervailing forces of the nineteenth century as America grappled with the profound contradictions of slavery.”
  • Jacqueline Jones, author of Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow
    “With a novelist's dramatic flair, Erskine Clarke examines a group of American Protestant missionaries who, in the 1830s, made the arduous journey to West Africa, where they sought to evangelize among various indigenous groups. In the process these Americans had surprising encounters with coastal merchants, African-American colonists, and traffickers in slaves. By the Rivers of Water seamlessly blends the history of religion, slavery, African colonization, and the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry to give us a compelling account of transatlantic connections among people and ideas; in the process this finely wrought story illuminates the complex political forces that shaped both the United States and West Africa.”
  • Lacy Ford, University of South Carolina, author of Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South
    “A worthy successor to his award-winning Dwelling Places, Erskine Clarke's By the Rivers of Water tells an epic tale of the nineteenth-century white Protestant mission to Africa and its relationship to issues of slavery and the slave trade in the United States. The primary protagonists in Clarke's compelling narrative are two well-born white southerners, John Leighton Wilson and his wife Jane Bayard Wilson, who possessed intimate first-hand knowledge of American slavery, and whose discomfort with slavery helped guide them to missionary work. With a rarely-matched sensitivity and unsurpassed knowledge of his subject, Clarke has written a must-read account of the effort to Christianize both recently colonized ex-slaves from the United States and native African tribes on that continent's west coast. Clarke has given us a riveting story that not only places the white missionary effort in the broadest possible perspective but also reveals how much white Americans contested and contorted views of slavery and racism in the antebellum republic. With this volume, Clarke enhances once again his stature as a pre-eminent historian of American religion and American slavery.”
  • Robert Harms, Yale University, author of The Diligent: Worlds of the Slave Trade
    “This is Atlantic history at its best. The missionary travels of John Leighton and Jane Wilson open a window onto one of the major contradictions in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world, where slave ships from Africa crossed paths with ships carrying freed American slaves back to Africa. Such contradictions were reflected in the internal struggles of John Leighton Wilson himself, who freed his own slaves in Georgia and fought a twenty-year battle against the slave traders on the coast of Africa, but still found his loyalties strangely torn by the American Civil War. We hear the voices of white and black missionaries, African American settlers, and African chiefs and merchants, all bound together in their quest to create a new kind of community based on freedom and their Christian faith.”
  • Dallas Morning News
    “[An] engrossing, elegantly written history…[Clarke] deserves another Bancroft for By the Rivers of Water, a memorable book.”

    Religion In American History
    “Erskine Clarke may very well be the best writer of narrative working in American religious history."

    Library Journal, starred review
    “Brimming with insights about interconnected individuals, peoples, and societies struggling with conscience and dignity to make moral choices amid clashing, if not collapsing, worlds, this work is required reading for anyone interested in a sympathetic understanding of early U.S. missionaries in West Africa, the perils of the U.S. colonization movement, Civil War tensions, or Atlantic world connections.”

    Publishers Weekly
    “An original history that tells the engrossing story of two white missionaries and their often stormy relations with their mostly black fellow countrymen, against the background of America descending into Civil War.”
  • America
    “If Seamus Heaney digs with his pen, Erskine Clarke casts his like an expert fly fisherman. In this book, By the Rivers of Water, chapters end with sharp forebodings of what lurks around the next bend.... Right when we find ourselves comfortable..., Clarke casts his line into deeper and darker waters.”

    Thomas Kidd, Patheos
    “Remarkable.... Clarke is one of the most gifted historians of American religion, with particular mastery of the antebellum southern Christian mind.... Clarke probes deeply and sympathetically into the culture of the Africans whom the Wilsons were seeking to evangelize, and does not shy away from addressing the sometimes brutal realities of both American and African societies in the nineteenth century.”

    Books and Culture
    “Most Americans hold firmly to the modern myth of self-renovation. We believe that anyone can slip off the deep rhythms of their earliest influences and become something else, something better. Among these influences, the power of a particular place — its geography, people, and customs — is perhaps the least well understood and the most deeply consequential. Erskine Clarke's latest book is about the power of another river in another place...and the story Clarke has to tell casts doubt on the question of whether we can ever escape our own histories or the places we come from.”

On Sale
Oct 8, 2013
Page Count
488 pages
Basic Books

Erskine Clarke

About the Author

Erskine Clarke is Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary and author of Dwelling Place, Wrestlin’ Jacob, and Our Southern Zion. The recipient of Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize for Dwelling Place, as well as many other awards, he has served as a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall College, University of Cambridge, and has lectured at Yale University, the University of Virginia, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Queens College, University of London.

Learn more about this author