My first full-length novel, All The Day Allows, was inspired by research about real-life Canadian missionaries during the early 1900s. It was a decade in the writing, and, with a major move from Collingwood to Muskoka in 2015, my protagonist’s hometown moved with me. The early versions had Marjory McAllister born and raised on Manitoulin Island, where the stark and stunning terrain felt exactly right for Marjory’s solitary nature. However, when I relocated to Muskoka, I realized that here, where much of the rugged landscape remains barely touched by civilization, is where Marjory’s life should begin. And so, Marjory McAllister was born and raised in Port Sydney, not far from my own real-life home.
The Founding of The Sudan Interior Mission—A Disastrous First Attempt
Dr. Rowland Victor Bingham, the only founder of the Sudan Interior Mission to survive to see the enterprise actually succeed, was born in 1872 in Sussex, England. Bingham was only thirteen when he and his six siblings lost their father to smallpox. When he was fifteen, Bingham became heavily influenced by the Salvation Army, founded in 1865 by Methodists William and Catherine Booth, whose mission was to take preaching out of the pulpit and into the streets. Bingham was only sixteen when he struck out on his own for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he worked as a labourer and joined a local Salvation Army corps. A year later he relocated to Toronto, once again joining a local Salvation Army corps and devoting himself to its evangelist efforts. In Toronto he was eventually hired by John Salmon, the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Canada. With Salmon as his mentor, Bingham pursued further study of the bible with great fervour.
In 1893, at Bethany Chapel where Bingham was working, he met a spirited Scottish woman who introduced herself as Mrs. Gowans. Over a home-cooked meal, where they were joined by several of the woman’s teenaged children, Mrs. Gowans gave her account of her two elder children, Annie, who served as a missionary in China, and her son Walter, a 25-year-old who had just struck out for Africa.
As Bingham later related it, his conversation with Mrs. Gowans was the vital seed of what grew into the Sudan Interior Mission. “My son feels particularly called to the Sudan,” Mrs. Gowans told him, “a great expanse of land south of the Sahara Desert and bounded on the west by the Niger River and on the east by the Nile. In this belt of land stretching some 2500 miles live 90 million people. There is not one missionary in all of the Sudan, and neither is there one Christian.” Mrs. Gowans went on to tell Bingham of “dark” pagan practices and corrupt Muslim leadership that held the people captive to fear, superstition and slavery in their own land.
Mrs. Gowans challenged Bingham to join her son Walter in spreading Christianity across that vast stretch of sub-Saharan Africa, known, at the time, to Europeans as the Sudan.
Meanwhile, in England, Walter Gowans was trying to secure sponsorship from missionary organizations for his Christian mission to Africa, without success. It took Bingham less than two weeks to raise the funds from like-minded Christians eager to help him join in Gowans’ plans. While waiting in New York for a ship bound for Liverpool, where Rowland and Walter would combine their efforts, Rowland serendipitously met Thomas Kent, who had attended the Reverend A. B. Simpson’s Missionary Institute in New York City with Walter Gowans. Kent was so enthusiastic about the plans Bingham described that he immediately settled his affairs and sailed for England with the 20-year-old Bingham.
It took the three young men five months to raise the funds to travel to Africa, but their exhaustive attempts to find sponsorship from any mission board were futile. Africa had earned its reputation as “the white man’s grave”, and the memory of four young men of the Church of England’s Church Missionary Society, lost in the spring of 1893 on their journey up the Niger River into central Sudan, was still fresh. But Gowans, Kent and Bingham were unfazed by such resistance, feeling they had been called by God to save thousands of souls who had never heard of Jesus Christ.
Shall we take a break from the facts of this history to examine the evangelistic fervour that influenced these young men, and the thousands of faithful Christians who believed in their cause?
What drove so many Europeans and North Americans to sacrifice comfort, security and even their lives to convert non-Christians to their own faith? To understand that impulse we need to look at the history of the missionary movement, which began as early at the mid-17th century, but didn’t really gain momentum until the anti-slavery movement began to fade in the 1830s. The fierce battle for the abolition of slavery in England took root in the last decade of the 18th century, achieving its goal in England in 1833 with the enactment of The Slavery Abolition Law. With that milestone reached, a proliferation of Christian societies channelled the enormous tide of Christian sentiment into other areas of good works.
Historian Geoffrey Moorhouse, in The Missionaries, describes:
“…a desire by pious Christians of Europe and North America, in a movement which gathered enormous momentum as the nineteenth century proceeded to bestow upon other races of the world the articles of their faith and what they took to be the benefits of their civilisation….So ardent was this Christian desire, starting from the most exalted of motives, that the gift was sometimes indistinguishable from an imposition even at the beginning of the modern missionary enterprise. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become inseparable from the purely secular motives of straightforward imperialism. . . .The Dark Continent was the very paradigm of the missionary story.”
Politicians and high society, including Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, pledged to repair the damage their race had inflicted on Africa. Sir Robert Peel declared, “Until this country rescues Christianity and the character of the white people from the grievous infamy of these sins, it never will be able to convince the black population of Africa of the moral superiority of their European fellow-men.”
If that were not enough, the example of celebrated English explorer/evangelist David Livingstone, whose call to Christians in the 1850s to convert the African population, convinced young people that high adventure awaited them. Never mind the trifling matter of extreme risk of death—Livingstone had done it, and thus made a place for himself in history. In this climate of high ideals and intense emotion, evangelism imparted literal meaning to the words of the bible that followers of Christ must “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.”
Whether or not we agree with the sentiments expressed, it’s not difficult to see why young men and women were swept up in the passion of “those fervent, patriotic, well-meaning, committed and slightly hysterical Christians” (Moorhouse, p. 27).
Let me bring you back, now to those three “fervent, well-meaning” young men, Walter Gowans, the eldest of the three, Thomas Kent and Rowland Bingham. Against all odds they arrived in Lagos, Nigeria in December 1893. Despite England’s ban of the slave trade, it was still going on, even as the century drew to a close. Bingham and his friends hoped to have an impact, too, on this and other horrifying practices, such as cannibalism, which their shipmates told them they had personally witnessed.
They landed in Lagos, into which, as a port without a harbour, they were paddled ashore in a small boat. Incredibly, they arrived without any arrangements for a place to stay. Within an hour, the enterprising Walter had found them a house to rent and off they trudged to set up their meagre gear in the small house. Within days they had made contact with a local Methodist mission, but at dinner with the superintendent they received discouraging news. “Young men,” he told them, “I would be neglecting my duty if I did not tell you that you are on a fool’s errand. You will never see the Sudan…Your children will never see the Sudan; your grandchildren might.”2
But instead of heeding the same advice they had already heard multiple times, Bingham recalled the words of David Livingstone, who had survived 32 years in the deepest, unexplored regions of Africa. “I will open up central Africa to the gospel,” Livingstone had famously said, “or I will die in the attempt!” The three men spent a week in prayer to help ensure the success of their mission. Having sold all their belongings and reducing their diet to corn mush and palm oil, the men believed their prayers had been answered when they received a donation of 500 British pounds from a group of supporters in England.
Before they could strike out for the interior, Bingham was stopped in his tracks by malaria. Barely surviving the illness, he stayed behind in Lagos from where he could forward supplies, as needed, to the other two who hoped to reach Bida, over 250 miles (410 km) from Lagos. Gowans and Kent left Lagos on February 23, 1894. Even the news that four of the six missionaries who had landed in Lagos just behind them had died, didn’t deter them.
In July, Tom returned to Lagos, sick with malaria. When he felt sufficiently recovered, he set out again to join Walter who had pressed on. Rowland had meanwhile been making headway with the gospel, preaching on short excursions around Lagos, and working part-time to maintain their income. When Tom left Lagos on August 29, 1894, he said goodbye to his friend for the last time. Tom reached Bida, only to succumb to a relapse of malaria. With no doctors to tend to him, he died and was buried by the two white missionaries who had cared for him in his last hours. Rowland received the note informing him of his friend’s death some weeks later.
A month later, Rowland received another blow, when he was informed that Walter Gowans had died in the town of Girku, on November 17, 1894.
Not knowing what else to do, Rowland spent the next five months preaching around Lagos, earning his passage home while still praying for guidance. Finally, in April 1895, heartsick and lacking direction, Rowland returned to Canada.
And now—remember young Marjory McAllister from Port Sydney, Ontario? How, you ask, did the Sudan Interior Mission survive to become the enterprise Marjory discovered in May 1934, with a host of missionaries, its own retreat centre and a home for missionaries’ children?
For that, my friends, you will need to stick with the story. All shall be revealed!
1 The Missionaries, Geoffrey Moorhouse. J. B. Lippincott Company, 1973. 2. Rowland Bingham: Into Africa’s Interior, Janet and Geoff Benge, YWAM Publishing, 2003.
The mission society originally founded as the Sudan Interior Mission is comprised today of multiple cross-cultural organizations combined into one entity known as SIM (Serving in Missions) International, with over 4000 workers in 70 countries.