Harris, William Wade

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HARRIS, WILLIAM WADE (c. 18651928), was the leader of a mass movement to Christianity in Africa that inspired creation of an African Christian church. The prophet Harris created the largest mass movement to Christianity in the history of the African continent and revolutionized the religious life of the southern Ivory Coast. He paved the way for the growth of the Catholic church and the establishment of the Protestant church and for the creation of several indigenous religious institutions. Most significant among these is the Harrist Church of the Ivory Coast, which institutionalized his teachings. His impact was unique among the movements to Christianity led by African prophets in that it reflected totally indigenous initiative in a population not previously Christianized by missionaries.

A Grebo from southeastern Liberia, Harris was familiar with Western customs and literate in both English and Grebo as a result of mission schooling. He became an Episcopalian lay preacher, taught in a mission school, directed a boarding school, and worked as a government interpreter.

When antagonism between the Grebo and the Liberian government broke out, Harris led several acts of rebellion against the government. In 1909 he was imprisoned for treason for leading an alleged coup d'état attempt. During his imprisonment he had a vision of the angel Gabriel that convinced him he was God's last prophet, charged with the divine mission of bringing Christianity to all those people not yet converted. In 1913, after his release from prison, Harris went to the Ivory Coast, where his message was well received. The Ivorians, who found their traditional spiritual guardians ineffective in warding off the colonial onslaught, welcomed Harris's message of a stronger spiritual force.

Harris told them to destroy the altars, masks, and other material representations associated with their indigenous religion and to worship the Christian god as he taught them. In little more than one year, he had baptized what colonial officials estimated at from 100,000 to 120,000 people; Catholic missionaries, who had been summoned by the colonial government to inculcate loyalty to France among its new subjects, had succeeded in baptizing only four hundred people in the previous two decades.

To complete the Christianization of those he baptized, Harris sent them to the Catholic missions and to his Protestant disciples from Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast (now Ghana) who were working in the Ivory Coast. In areas where there were neither missions nor disciples, Harris delegated village leaders to teach their fellow villagers what they had learned from him.

The Catholic missions were inundated with Harris's converts, and his African Protestant disciples continued to convert and teach multitudes in the prophet's name. When a Protestant missionary from Europe arrived in the Ivory Coast in 1924, expecting to find no Ivorian Protestants because there had been no European Protestant missionaries there, he encountered tens of thousands of Ivorians worshiping autonomously, calling themselves Harrist Protestants and exhorting him to send the "teachers with Bibles" Harris had said would come to teach them the word of God.

Although some of the Ivorians who had been worshiping autonomously were initially drawn to the Protestant missionaries, they became disaffected when the Protestants attacked fundamental social institutions such as polygamy and sought to undermine the power of Harris's disciples. In 1926 a Protestant delegation returned from a visit to Harris in Liberia with a message telling his converts to join the Protestant church, but in 1928 an Ivorian delegation went to tell the prophet of their grievances against the missionaries. This group returned from Liberia with a "last will and testament" from Harris that supported their desire to worship independently. John Ahui, the young member of the delegation whom Harris chose to continue his mission, perpetuated the prophet's teachings and founded the Harrist Church of the Ivory Coast, of which he remains the patriarch.

Harris's message to the Ivorians was both spiritual and secular. He urged them to stop worshiping the nature spirits that had failed to protect them from conquest by the French and instead to worship the omnipotent creator god who would bring them prosperity, a return to their state of sovereignty, and access to the knowledge and technology of their conquerers. He offered them his own example as an African who, as a result of his schooling and resultant professional positions, could function in the world of the Europeans and Americans as well as in an African milieu. Thus the unprecedented movement of religious conversion that missionaries characterized as a "tidal wave" or "avalanche" to Christianity also had a secular influence; Harris's movement inspired Ivorians to learn the pragmatic tactics necessary to regain their sovereignty and to create new institutions within which to do so.

Because he inspired Ivorians to such manifestations of collective indigenous initiative, which the colonial administration perceived as a direct threat to its control over its subjects, Harris was expelled from the Ivory Coast in 1914. Those who persevered in worshiping as Harris had taught them were persecuted by the colonial officials, often with the assistance of the Catholic missionaries.

The Harrist church appealed to Ivorians because it represented a form of Christianity based on indigenous organizational, conceptual, and ritual structures. Harris had such appeal to the Ivorians not only because he considered the conceptual structures and preoccupations of the traditional religion but also because he offered desirable solutions to the immediate problems engendered by the colonial situation. Additionally, Harris's style of presentation corresponded to the indigenous mold pioneered by priests of the traditional nature spirits.

That the prophet Harris was a native Liberian is significant because of Liberia's special meaning in Africa. Created by African Americans seeking freedom from the oppression of American racism, Liberia was a symbol of the possibility of the redemption of Africa from European exploitation by and for Africans and their descendants abroad.

Influential African American leaders in Liberia, such as Edward Wilmot Blyden, believed that African Americans could share with the Africans the benefits of Western knowledge and experience, to be synthesized with the Africans' own wisdom and techniques for the creation of a new sovereignty. It is therefore particularly appropriate that William Wade Harris, a symbol of African potential for the Ivorians, should have brought his message from Liberia, a symbol of African potential and freedom from oppression.

See Also

African Religions, article on New Religious Movements.


The Prophet Harris by Gordon Mackay Haliburton (London, 1971) is a biography of the Liberian prophet based on both the oral tradition and archival data. René Bureau's Le prophète Harris et la religion harriste (Abidjan, 1971) is a description of the current structure and functioning of the Harrist church today. My book The Religious Revolution in the Ivory Coast: The Prophet Harris and the Harris Church (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983) is the first complete analysis of the growth and evolution of the Harrist church out of the phenomenal mass movement to Christianity created by William Wade Harris. For an analysis of other religious movements that arose from varying interpretations of the prophet Harris's message by different populations and leaders (e.g., Crastchotche, the Deima church, the churches of Bodjo Aké, Jonas Zaka, Bébéh Gra, and Papa Nouveau in the Ivory Coast, and the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Ghana), see my study "The Message as the Medium: The Harrist Churches of the Ivory Coast and Ghana," in African Christianity: Patterns of Religious Continuity, edited by George Bond, Walton Johnson, and me (New York, 1979).

Sheila S. Walker (1987)

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