John Leighton Wilson

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THE VENERABLE SECRETARY EMERITUS, REV. J. LEIGHTON WILSON, D. D., DIED AT HIS HOME, NEAR MAYESVILLE, S. C., ON THE I3TH OF JULY, 1886.

His death, says one who waited by him, was emblematic of his life—calm, peaceful, beautiful.

WilsonJohnLeightonWe are indebted to the pen of another for a sketch of Dr. Wilson’s life and character. He was born in Sumter Co., S. C., March 25th, 1809. He was graduated at Union College, N. Y., in 1829, and taught school one year at Hadnel’s Point, near Charleston, S. C. In 1833, he was graduated at the Theological Seminary, Columbia, S. C., being a member of the first class of that institution, and the same year was ordained by Harmony Presbytery as a missionary to Africa.

During the summer of 1833, he studied Arabic at Andover Seminary, Mass., and in the fall he sailed from Baltimore, Md., on a voyage of exploration to Western Africa, returning the following spring. As the result of his exploration, he decided on Cape Palmas, Western Africa, as the most promising place to begin his missionary work. In May, 1834, he was united in marriage to Miss Jane Elizabeth Bayard, of Savannah, Ga. In 1834, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson sailed for Cape Palmas, where they arrived at the close of the year. They remained at the Cape seven years. During these years, a church of forty members was organized, more than a hundred and eighty youths were educated, the Grebo language was reduced to writing, a grammar and dictionary of the language was published, the Gospels of Matthew and John were translated, and, with six or eight other small volumes, published in the native language.
In 1842, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson removed to the Gaboon River, 1,200 miles south of Cape Palmas, and commenced a new mission among the Mpongwe people. Here again the language was reduced to writing for the first time. A grammar, a vocabulary, portions of the Bible, and a number of small volumes, were published in the native language.

In the spring of 1853, owing to the failure of Mr. Wilson’s health, he and his wife returned to America. In the autumn of 1853, he entered the office of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in New York, and continued to serve as Secretary until the breaking out of the Civil War, when he returned to his home in the South. At the organization of the Southern Presbyterian Church, Dr. Wilson was appointed Secretary of Foreign Missions. This office he continued to hold until 1885, when the General Assembly, in view of his declining health, relieved him of the active duties of the office, and elected him Secretary Emeritus. During seven years of his active service in the office, the Home Mission work was combined with that of Foreign Missions, Dr. Wilson sharing in the care of both.

In 1854, Dr. Wilson published a volume of five hundred pages on “Western Africa, its History, Condition and Prospects.” Dr. Livingstone pronounced this the best volume on that part of Africa ever published.

In 1852, a strong effort was made in the British Parliament to withdraw the British squadron from the coast of Africa, under the impression that the foreign slave trade could not be broken up. Dr. Wilson wrote a pamphlet, showing that the impression was erroneous, and indicating what was wanting to make the effort to suppress the slave trade successful. The pamphlet fell into the hands of Lord Palmerston, and was, by his order, published in the United Service Journal, and afterwards in the “Blue Book” of Parliament. An edition of 10,000 copies was circulated throughout the kingdom. Lord Palmerston informed Dr. Wilson that this pamphlet put an end to all opposition to the continuance of the squadron; and in less than five years, the trade itself was brought to an end.

During his residence in New York, Dr. Wilson acted as editor of the Foreign Department of the Home and Foreign Record. In our own Church, he began The Missionary, of which he continued to be editor till recently. He published more than thirty articles in the Southern Presbyterian Review and in other literary and scientific reviews. While in Africa, Dr. Wilson procured and sent to the Boston Society of Natural History the first specimen of the gorilla known in modern times.

The commanding presence of Dr. Wilson, and his affable and courteous address, will be remembered by many in the Church. His features indicated physical and intellectual strength. His varied information made him the attractive centre of the social circle. He was just in judgment, wise in counsel, practical in methods. His public life covered more than fifty years. These fifty years have recorded wonderful progress in the Foreign Mission work. They constitute a great missionary age in the history of the Church. Amongst the great workers in this branch of Christian service, Dr. Wilson has stood with the first. By the grace of God, he served his generation nobly, received the loving veneration of the people among whom he lived, and will long be remembered among us as a prince and a great man.

[excerpted from The Missionary (Richmond, VA), vol. 19, no. 8 (August 1886): duplex insert between pages 113 and 115.

Works concerning the Rev. John Leighton Wilson:
Bucher, Henry H., Jr., “John Leighton Wilson and the Mpongwe: The ‘Spirit of 1776’ in Mid-Nineteenth Century Africa,” Journal of Presbyterian History, 54.3 (Fall 1976) 291-316.

DuBose, Hampden C., Memoirs of the Rev. John Leighton Wilson, D.D., Missionary to Africa, and Secretary of Foreign Missions (Richmond, VA : Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1893), hb, 336pp.; 20 cm.

Robinson, William Childs,  “John Leighton Wilson – Pioneer Foreign Missionary,” The Presbyterian Journal, 18.36 (6 January 1960): 9, 10-11.

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Sometimes You Just Need to Copy Someone.

A long week with a tiring end. And so today we turn to Alfred Nevin’s account of the Rev. Robert Wilson James…:

…who “was born in Williamsburg District, South Carolina, June 3d, 1793. His father, Captain John, and grandfather, Major John James, were distinguished for their patriotism in the war of the Revolution, and were also consistent members of the Presbyterian Church. He graduated at the South Carolina College in 1813. His theological studies, which were commenced and prosecuted for a time under Rev. James W. Stephenson, and Rev. Dr. M. Wilson, were completed at Princeton Seminary, in 1817. On the 3d of June, of the same year he was licensed by Concord Presbytery (in North Carolina), to preach the gospel, after which he labored for several months, as a missionary within its bounds, in company with the venerable Dr. Hall.”

“In May, 1819, he was ordained and installed over the churches of Indian Town and Bethel, in Williamsburgh District, S.C., where, during a pastorate of nine years, the work of the Lord, to some extent, was made to prosper in his hand, and particularly among the blacks, many of whom became hopeful subjects of grace under his ministry. He subsequently became pastor of Salem Church, in which relation he continued, faithful in labor, for over thirteen years. He died on April 13th, 1841.”

“As a minister, Mr. James was both doctrinal and practical. In his public ministrations he gave special attention to the African American portion of his flock. As a theologian, he was much respected by his brethren. As a member of the judicatories of the Church, his opinions were highly valued, and often determined the most important questions. His mouth and his purse were ever open to advance the institutions of religion and learning. As a man, he was truly benevolent, gentle and urbane, and possessed that kind of magnanimity  which led him cordially to despise everything that was envious, little, or selfish. As a Christian, he was exemplary, and enjoyed the comforts of that religion which he preached to others. His death was one of triumph.”

It should also be mentioned that Rev. James was the uncle of John Leighton Wilson, and that he had a very formative influence on John’s decision to pursue the ministry and more, to pursue the work of missions in Africa. From the Memoir of the Rev. John Leighton Wilson, we read that Rev. James was one of the eminent pastors in South Carolina, and of his influence on young John Leighton, that

“what more natural than that his uncle, so well known for learning and piety, should be to him a pattern he might safely imitate? He visited frequently at his home, had access to his rare and ample library, sat under his ministry, listened to his counsels, and spent one winter under his roof. The nephew was the minister’s friend and young companion. Blessed relationship !”

The Rev. Thomas R. English gave the funeral sermon for Rev. James. A Sermon:
Preached in Salem Church February 6th, 1842 in Commemoration of Its Late Pastor Rev. Robert Wilson James. (A. E. Miller, 1842), 23 p.

To view pictures of his grave site, click here.

Words to Live By:
The relationship of mentor to student does not always have to be a formal one, in order to be effective. Discipleship not only can take place in informal settings, but is probably all the more effective in the more real situations and places of everyday life. Growth in your own Christian walk is but one benefit of discipling or mentoring a younger believer. Pray that the Lord would give you the opportunity to share your faith in Christ.

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This Day in Presbyterian History:

 A Joshua to the Southern Presbyterians

To many Christians, the name of John Leighton Wilson might be a common name of no real significance.  But to Southern Presbyterian Christians, he stands out as a spiritual giant of the faith.

Born on March 25, 1809 to Scot-Irish parents who had come to South Carolina in 1734, John Wilson grew up in a Christian home.  Reared in the Bible and the Westminster Shorter Catechism, he attended Union College in New York, graduating in 1829.  Two-thirds of his class from that college entered the ministry, and John Wilson was no different.  Entering Columbia Seminary in 1830, he began to sense a call to be a missionary in Africa.  One reason for that call was that he believed the South as a people owed it to Africa to send the gospel there as so many of her black children were in bondage in the south.  That inherent hatred of slavery would be proven in his later years in Africa.

Marrying in 1834 Miss Mary Elizabeth Bayard, who was also committed to the missionary call, they were the first American missionaries sent to Africa.  They were to labor there in two locations for eighteen years, learning the language, translating the Bible into it, wondrously proclaiming the gospel, and writing about the land for future missionaries to follow their labors.

Two major accomplishments in addition characterized his work there.  While there, he noticed the slave ships carrying their human cargo away from the shores of their homeland.  Wilson wrote a friend in England concerning the situation and by God’s providence, the Prime Minister of England came into possession of a copy of Wilson’s letter and subsequently had printed ten thousand copies in pamphlet form.  As a result, English war vessels were sent, forcing slave traders to give up their business of buying and selling slaves.

The other accomplishment was his discovery of the existence of the  “gorilla,” a name which was given by John Wilson to this animal.

After eighteen years in Africa, Mr and Mrs Wilson came home to the Board of Foreign Missions to superintend the work of missions through the world.  That happy association was interrupted by the War Between the States in 1861.  Though John Wilson had worked for the abolition of slavery in Africa, he cast in his lot with his southern brothers.  Immediately, he was placed in charge of missions for the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy.  His spiritual vision, even in the midst of a war footing, and especially after that civil war,  went out to many nations, including the Indian tribes of the west.  The gospel was not limited in any way by what transpired on earth.

Around 1885, both he and his faithful wife entered the gates of heaven.  On his tombstone in South Carolina where he grew up, there is one phrase which stands out.  It says simply “The Foreign Missionary.”

Words to Live By:  John Wilson once wrote, “I would rather live in the lowliest hut with  the enjoyment of God than in the most resplendent palace on earth without a hope of heaven.” He fulfilled that desire by his life.  What are your desires for your life?  Have you considered in whatever sphere of life He calls you, to be among those who are used by Him for His glory and the good of others?

Through the Scriptures:  Ruth 1 – 4

Through the Standards: Christ’s Exaltation in His resurrection

WLC 52 — “How was Christ exalted in his resurrection?
A. Christ was exalted in his resurrection, in that, not having seen corruption in death, (of which it was not possible for him to be held,) and having the very same body in which he suffered, with the essential properties thereof, (but without mortality, and other common infirmities belonging to this life,) really united to his soul, he rose again from the dead the third day by his own power; whereby he declared himself to be the Son of God, to have satisfied divine justice, to have vanquished death, and him that had the power of it, and to be Lord of quick and dead; all which he did as a public person, the head of his church, for their justification, quickening in grace, support against enemies, and to assure them of their resurrection from the dead at the last day.”

Image source : The Missionary, vol. 19, no. 8 (August 1886). Scan prepared by the staff of the PCA Historical Center.

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