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The history of Liberia, founded in the 19th century by the American Colonization Society (ACS), to enable former American slaves to live free in Africa, is very much interwoven with American Presbyterianism. The Society was established in 1816 under the leadership of Presbyterian minister Robert Finley, who died one year later. It was in 1847 that Liberia officially became an independent nation (more on this later). Ralph Randolph Gurley, a Presbyterian chaplain to the US House of Representatives, was another founder of the ACS.
Not all black Americans or black American Presbyterian ministers supported the idea. Theodore Sedgwick Wright and Samuel Eli Cornish jointly published a rebuttal to the project in 1840 titled The Colonization Scheme Considered. They were both editors at Freedom’s Journal, which had previously engaged in an 1827 dispute with Samuel Miller, who had transmitted to them a letter signed with the nom de plume “Wilberforce,” likely authored by Archibald Alexander, which was critical of the journal for its anti-colonization perspective. Frederick Douglass also engaged in a bitter dispute with African-American Presbyterian minister Henry Highland Garnet over this issue (and others). Garnet would go on to become the first black minister to preach to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1865, but also was appointed the first black American to serve a high-ranking federal position when he was appointed US minister and consul general to Liberia in 1881, where he died the following year.
It was Alexander who preached the ordination sermon for both John B. Pinney and Joseph W. Barr, the first foreign missionaries sent by the Presbytery of Philadelphia, in 1832, but Barr died before leaving for Africa (his funeral sermon was preached by Miller). Pinney served under the auspices of the ACS as missionary and Governor of Liberia. John Leighton Wilson was also sent to Liberia in 1833, and spent almost two decades on the mission field there.
Other black Presbyterians were eager to minister the gospel in Liberia, such as Armistead Miller, James Ralston Amos and his brother, Thomas Henry Amos, all of whom were ordained in 1859 by the New Castle Presbytery. James M. Priest, a former slave from Kentucky who was freed and sent to Liberia by his former owner, returned, studied for the ministry, and was ordained by the Presbytery of New York and sent as the first foreign missionary of McCormick Theological Seminary to Liberia. Eventually, he served as Vice-President of Liberia from 1864-1868, and later as a justice on the Liberian Supreme Court.
All of which brings us to Amos Herring. Born as a slave in North Carolina, Herring moved to Augusta County, Virginia as a child, where he came under the ministry of the Old Stone (Presbyterian) Church. After gaining his freedom at the age of 26, he took his family and emigrated to Liberia in 1833 under the auspices of the ACS. He became pastor at the Presbyterian Mission in Monrovia and was esteemed so highly that in 1847 he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on July 26, 1847 - a date which is celebrated annually as Liberian Independence Day. He was one of eleven signatories to the Declaration and the Constitution (hence, eleven bars in the Liberian flag). In 1871, after the disappearance and presumed death of the Liberian President, James Roye, Herring was one of three men appointed to a executive committee which temporarily took charge of the government. Herring himself died two years later on November 14, 1873.
The Liberian motto adopted in 1847 reads: “THE LOVE OF LIBERTY BROUGHT US HERE.” The Declaration of Independence, which Herring signed, unlike its 1776 American counterpart, contains an acknowledgment of God, and it tells the story of Liberia’s remarkable founding as well.
We the representatives of the people of the Commonwealth of Liberia, in Convention assembled, invested with authority for forming a new government, relying upon the aid and protection of the Great Arbiter of human events, do hereby, in the name, and on the behalf of the people of this Commonwealth, publish and declare the said Commonwealth a FREE, SOVEREIGN, AND INDEPENDENT STATE, by the name and title of the REPUBLIC of LIBERIA….
Our churches for the worship of our Creator, every where to be seen, bear testimony to our piety, and to our acknowledgment of His Providence.
The native African bowing down with us before the altar of the living God, declare that from us, feeble as we are, the light of Christianity has gone forth, while upon that curse of curses, the slave trade, a deadly blight has fallen as far as our influence extends.
Therefore in the name of humanity, and virtue and religion — in the name of the Great God, our common Creator, and our common Judge, we appeal to the nations of Christendom, and earnestly and respectfully ask of them, that they will regard us with the sympathy and friendly consideration, to which the peculiarities of our condition entitle us, and to extend to us, that comity which marks the friendly intercourse of civilized and independent communities….
It is our earnest desire that the affairs of this government may be so conducted as to merit the approbation of all Christendom, and restore to Africa her long lost glory, and that Liberia under the guidance of Heaven may continue a happy asylum for our long oppress ed race, and a blessing to the benighted and degraded natives of this vast peninsula. To secure which is our ardent wish and prayer.
With these profound words, the Liberian Declaration of Independence makes clear the nation’s early reliance upon Almighty God for its success. As Liberian Independence Day is observed in 2019, may American Presbyterians take note of this inspiring history, recalling to mind Amos Herring and the many who served as missionaries to Liberia, and continue in prayer for a nation that was founded by black Americans who sought freedom to live and to worship God in Africa.