First Black Missionary Sent Forth from America
Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,”
In 1780 Lott Cary was born into slavery and humble surroundings in Charles City County, Virginia, on the estate of Mr. William A. Christian. It soon became apparent that he was exceptionally bright and energetic.
In 1807 Cary joined the First Baptist Church of Richmond, originally a congregation of both whites and blacks, free and slave. He was baptized by its pastor, John Courtney. He began his education by learning to read the Bible; Cary later attended a small school for slaves. Its twenty young men were taught by Deacon William Crane. He had come from Newark, New Jersey in 1812, opened a shoe store and joined the First Baptist Church. Crane's students met three evenings each week to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and the Bible.
As his education progressed, Cary rose from working as a common laborer to becoming a shipping clerk in a tobacco warehouse along Tobacco Row. Because of his diligence and valuable work, Cary was often rewarded by his master with five-dollar bills. He was also permitted to collect and sell small bags of waste tobacco for his own profit.
In 1813, his first wife died. With the money he had earned, in 1813 Cary purchased his own freedom and that of his two children for $850. As a free man, he continued to be both industrious and frugal. He and his family stayed in Richmond; jobs were available and there was a growing free black community. Also in 1813 Cary was ordained a Baptist minister. In 1815 he was married a second time. He now received a regular salary, which from time to time was increased; until the year before he left the warehouse, it amounted to $800 per year. During this period, he also made frequent purchases and shipments of tobacco, on his own account: in one instance to the number of twenty-four hogsheads.
In his life the ennobling influence of the gospel is pre-eminently seen. Not only is he snatched as a brand from the fire of perdition, but his whole moral and intellectual character became most astonishingly elevated. He began to feel the true dignity of his station, as a redeemed sinner, and to be inspired with a holy ambition to make his “influence beneficially felt in this apostate world.”
Some time about the year 1815, he was, to a great extent, instrumental in an awakening among his colored brethren in the city of Richmond, and a lively interest on behalf of the spiritual condition of Africa. This was shortly after the formation of the Baptist General Convention. Missionary writings were at different times placed within his reach; and his own heart becoming affected by the miserable condition of the heathen world.
He soon communicated something of his own feelings to those by whom he was surrounded. This resulted in the origination of the Richmond African Missionary Society, which for several years contributed from one hundred to one hundred and fifty dollars for the African mission. But he was not satisfied with these efforts. The solemn responsibility of carrying, in person, the words of everlasting life, was most deeply felt by him.
The word of the Lord was like fire in his bones, and it could not be resisted. The struggle between worldly advantage, and an intensely compelling sense of duty, was long and desperate. On the one hand, he was comfortably settled in his native state; was the possessor of a small farm, and, high in the confidence of his employers. He was receiving for his services a handsome salary; beside, he was the object of universal affection, as a preacher among the people of his own color; they exercised almost unbounded confidence in him.
On the other hand, the facilities for laboring in Africa were far from being numerous; the climate was sickly, and there was a strong probability that he would early fall victim to the African fever. But none of these things moved him; he was willing to leave all, and to venture all for Christ, and for the sake of those who were perishing for lack of vision, in a far distant land.
When a ministering brother inquired, why he could determine to “quit a station of so much comfort and usefulness, to encounter the dangers of an African climate, and hazard everything to plant a colony on a distant heathen shore;”--his reply was: "I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct, and respectable my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race."
He seemed to have taken in the sentiment of Paul, and to have had a great heaviness and continual sorrow in his heart, for his brethren, his kinsmen according to the flesh. When it was ascertained by his employers, that he was contemplating a removal to Africa, they offered to raise his salary to $1000, if he would remain in this country. But this inducement had no influence in changing his views of duty.
By 1821, Cary had accumulated a sum to pay the expenses for he and his wife as members of the colony sent to the African coast. In cooperation with the First Baptist Church of Richmond, the American Baptist Foreign Missions Society, and the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society, of which he was a founder, Cary became the first black American missionary to Africa.
In the new colony of Liberia, Cary served the leadership as a counselor, physician, having with doctors while in Liberia he became a lay medical practitioner and pastor. His second wife died shortly after they arrived in Africa. In 1825, the New York Observer noted that he had, at Cape Mesurado, since lost a third wife, "the daughter of Richard Sampson, from Petersburg, Virginia.” Cary established Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia [which celebrated its 185th anniversary in 2011], and several schools. In 1826, he was elected vice-agent of the ACS.
Early life in the Colony of Liberia was full of danger. Native Africans resisted the colonization and expansion by the American settlers, which resulted in many armed conflicts between them. The colonists were also at risk of attack from slave traders, who would have sold them into slavery.
In August 1828, Cary became acting governor of Liberia. He had been designated the successor by the previous governor, who died. Later that year Cary's role in Liberia was cut short. He died on November 10, 1828, two days after an accident while making bullets. Expecting an attack by slave traders, Cary and other men were making musket cartridges. An explosion of materials fatally injured Cary and seven of his companions.
The remarkable story of Lott Cary is an inspiration. Despite starting life as a common slave in a rural county with few apparent opportunities, Cary became educated and industrious, bought his own freedom, became both a minister and a physician, and helped found a new nation.