Samuel Morris was an instrument in the hands of the Holy Ghost...
- Stephen Merritt, A Holy Ghost Life or Samuel Morris: The Kru Boy, pamphlet, n.d.
Lots of Christian missionaries went about in the 1890s. Most of them came from developed countries. They usually headed to developing countries with their message. Often, their message included, besides religious precepts, the idea that Western Civilisation was superior to any other way of life. It was a given in their thinking that their job was to shed light on the persons 'sitting in darkness'. Many stories have been told about these missionaries.
This is not one of them.
Prince Kaboo, who changed his name to Samuel Morris, was a missionary from Liberia in Africa. He went to New York City, at great effort and danger to himself, to talk about God. Then he ventured into the interior of a country, at what he considered to be the call of the Holy Spirit. He changed lives. There are statues bearing witness to what he did in his 20 years on Earth. This is his story.
What Happened in Liberia?
Getting the story completely straight is hard, even though there have been books and pamphlets and at least two movies. Like most hagiographies1, the details vary a lot in the telling. Surprisingly, the facts that the tellers agree on are the hardest for materially-minded readers to believe. All of the accounts agree that what started our subject on his journey was, frankly, a miracle.
His name was Kaboo, and he was a prince of the Kru people, an ethnic group that lives along the coast of Liberia. In the 19th Century, the Kru were widely known as competent seafarers (this fact will be important later). Unfortunately, the Kru had an enemy: the neighbouring Grebo. The Grebo routinely raided their villages and took hostages of the relatives of important Kru leaders. They staked these hostages, called 'pawns', to pillars in the centres of their own villages, and abused them physically until the Kru came up with enough trade goods and foodstuffs to pay the demanded ransom. If the ransom failed to materialise, the Grebo killed the 'pawn' in a slow and tortuous way – by beating with poison vines and leaving the victim on a driver anthill to be eaten alive. This fate almost befell Kaboo. He was kidnapped by the Grebo because he was a prince. Now he was a 'pawn', and his people couldn't come up with the ransom.
We know this part of the story is true. In 1930, the League of Nations investigated the business of 'pawns' in Liberia, over that government's protests, and found it to be a widespread practice. By that time, the 'pawns' were being sold into slavery. The irony of the fact that Liberia was a country founded by freed slaves from the United States was not lost on the League.
What Kaboo said happened was this: in the midst of what was to be his final beating, in a starved and emaciated state, Kaboo (and the perpetrators of this atrocity) saw a bright flash of light. Kaboo heard a voice, distinctly: 'Run, Kaboo, run!' His bonds loosened, and he ran for his life, with no idea how he found the strength. He eluded his captors by hiding in a hollow tree. For weeks he travelled, somehow, through a hostile jungle – where both nature and other humans were a danger to him – and reached the only place where he could count on law and order to protect him: Monrovia. How he managed this, he didn't know, but later, he said it was God's doing.
Kaboo didn't know how old he was at the time, but his friends estimated that he was about 14 or 15. He ended up working at a coffee plantation. There he healed, made friends, and learned English. He also went to church.
On his first visit to the church, Kaboo heard a remarkable story from the Bible told by a missionary, Miss Knolls. The story was about Saul of Tarsus. Saul saw a bright light and heard a distinct voice...
Kaboo jumped up and shouted that this had happened to him, too. That effectively stopped the meeting. After Kaboo became a Christian, he followed the example of Saul of Tarsus by changing his name – not to Paul, but to Samuel Morris. Samuel Morris was the name of Miss Knolls' benefactor, who had paid for her education at Taylor University in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (This fact, too, is important. Save it for later.) As Samuel, Kaboo felt reborn: he regarded God as his Father, and Jesus as his brother, and he told the story to anyone who would listen. Many did: Samuel's enthusiasm was infectious. We know that for a fact.
On to Lands Unknown
Samuel, like Jesus before him, 'increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man2.' He worked on the coffee plantation, and studied English and Bible with Elizabeth MacNeil, another missionary. Samuel had a favourite research topic: the Holy Spirit. There wasn't enough about the Holy Spirit in the Bible for Samuel's taste. He wanted to know more, and he prayed a lot about it. Aloud. To his Father. He asked Miss MacNeil so many questions, she finally had to admit she didn't know any more.
'Who does?' Samuel wanted to know. Miss MacNeil opined that her mentor, one Stephen Merritt, knew more. Samuel immediately decided to go and talk to Reverend Merritt. There was only one problem: Rev Merritt lived in New York City.
Never mind: Samuel would go anyway. He packed his few belongings and headed for the docks. He said his Father told him to go.
The ship's captain wasn't so sure, but since he was short of crew members, he took Samuel on. The captain was mistaken in his ethnic assumption: even though he was a Kru, Samuel had no clue how to sail a full-rigged ship. Samuel was terrified aloft in a storm, the captain was furious, and things were rocky until Samuel proved himself invaluable in many other ways. Allegedly, he calmed down a shipboard fight and prevented murder. Demonstrably, he converted half the highly international crew to Christianity, even some Muslims, Hindus and animists. By the time the ship docked in New York City, they were all the best of friends. The captain wanted to adopt Samuel, but Samuel said no: he had to find Stephen Merritt. So he said goodbye, stepped off the boat, and asked the first man he met in a city of 1.5 million if he happened to know Stephen Merritt, and where he could find him.
And the man said, of course, 'Yes, I know Stephen Merritt. I'll take you to him for a dollar.'
Missionary Work Among the Heathen Americans
The man, a homeless tramp, really did know Stephen Merritt, who ran a mission on the other side of town. When they got to the mission, an interesting meeting took place. We'll let Stephen Merritt tell it, because he is our most reliable primary source.
They reached the store just as I was leaving for prayer meeting, and the tramp said, 'There he is!'
Samuel stepped up and said: 'Stephen Merritt?'
'I am Samuel Morris; I’ve just come from Africa to talk with you about the Holy Ghost.'
'Have you any letters of introduction?'
'No – had no time to wait.'
'Well, all right; I am going to the Jane Street prayer meeting. Will you go into the mission next door? On my return I will see about your entertainment.'
'Say, young fellow,' said the tramp, 'where is my dollar?'
'Oh, Stephen Merritt pays all my bills now,' said Samuel.
'Oh, certainly,' said I, as I passed the dollar over.
- Stephen Merritt, A Holy Ghost Life
Letters of introduction or no, by the time Merritt got back to his mission, Samuel had made 17 converts among the men at the shelter.
Merritt decided to show his visitor the wonders of New York City. Of course, he assumed that Samuel, a mere African, would be extremely impressed. His reaction was not quite what the Reverend expected:
I said, 'Samuel, I would like to show you something of our city and Central Park.' He had never been behind horses nor in a coach, and the effect was laughable to me. I said, 'Samuel, this is the Grand Opera House,' and began to explain, when he said, 'Stephen Merritt, do you ever pray in a coach?'
I answered, 'Oh, yes, I very frequently have very blessed times while riding about.'
He placed his great black hand on mine, and turning around on my knees, said, 'We will pray,' and for the first time I knelt in a coach to pray. He told the Holy Spirit he had come from Africa to talk to me about Him, and I talked about everything else, and wanted to show him the church, and the city, and the people, when he was so desirous of hearing and knowing about Him; and he asked Him if he would not take out of my heart things, and so fill me with Himself that I would never speak or write or preach or talk save of Him.
- Stephen Merritt, A Holy Ghost Life
That was Stephen Merritt told. Meeting Samuel was a life-changing experience for every American he met: for the Sunday School kids whom he 'led to Jesus', to the professional religious persons whose practised ease he challenged, to the students and faculty at desperate Taylor University in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Ah, yes: Fort Wayne. We promised we'd get there.
Why There are Statues in Indiana
Samuel Morris had taught Stephen Merritt a lot that the Reverend hadn't known about the Holy Spirit. Morris couldn't stay in New York, though. He had another destination in mind: Taylor University in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Even in 1890, New Yorkers regarded Indiana as 'the West', and thought of it as the Back-of-Beyond. That didn't stop Samuel. Off he went on a train.
At this precise moment, Taylor University, a Methodist institution of higher learning, was in deep trouble. It was about to close its doors through lack of funds. The university building was about to be foreclosed on, and soon the faculty would be as homeless as the mission vagrants. The Long Depression was still going on, that period in the late 19th Century when farmers saved their land taxes a penny at a time. Nobody had any cash to turn the situation around, and the students were too listless to care – partly because they were hungry. The cafeteria kept running out of food.
Samuel showed up. He was as full of enthusiasm as a Wesley. Dr Reade, the president, sighed. Another mouth to feed. He was as prejudiced as everybody else in his day: he would have been impressed, perhaps, by a messenger who came across more like a successful, well-dressed, well-spoken and above all white college boy. Instead, the Holy Spirit sent him Samuel Morris.
The Holy Spirit knew what it was doing. A poor butcher named Josiah Kichler, not a church-goer, gave a hard-earned $5 to start a 'Faith Fund' to pay for Samuel's upkeep. They made enough to send for Samuel's first Liberian convert, a boy named Henry O'Neil. Samuel was about 18 years old – even he didn't know for sure, as the Kru didn't have birth certificates – but he read at a 7-or-8-year-old level. No matter: newly enthusiastic students forgot their hunger and volunteered to tutor him. He had other assistance, too. When he couldn't figure out a maths problem, Samuel was heard to whisper, 'Father, help?'
Samuel believed in miracles, and his belief was infectious. He converted skeptics and atheists, although first he had to understand that there was such a thing: even animists believed in some supernatural reality. He enthused and encouraged: people responded by overcoming their own prejudices and fears. The school found new property in Upland, Indiana, nearby. They raised money and began building a new school there.
Samuel loved America. He was fascinated by snow, which he found as much of a miracle as everything else. Alas, the snowy weather in Indiana was his undoing. He caught cold in the bitter January of 1893, and his condition steadily worsened in spite of the best medical care concerned university people could find. He told his fellow students, 'I have seen the angels. They are coming for me soon.' He died that spring, a few months before the new school he had helped build was ready. The whole town turned out for his funeral.
In 1928, the student body of Taylor University erected a monument to Samuel. It reads in part:
Samuel Morris 1873-1893
Native of West Africa
Famous Christian Mystic
Apostle of Simple Faith
Exponent of the Spirit-Filled Life
Taylor University's campus boasts a statue group dedicated to Samuel Morris. The university still has ties to mission and educational work in West Africa. Morris is honoured in his own country as a famous Liberian. In the US, he has been the subject of numerous biographies written for audiences old and young. A lot of people have heard about this young man with the short life and boundless faith. He probably wouldn't have cared about the statues, books, and films. We suspect he'd want to know if everyone was still listening to the Holy Spirit.