While very much the story of Christian Missions to Africa, and the spread of Christianity in Africa, the contradictions, both inherent and imposed, become the real central character of Erskine Clarke's biography of Leighton and Jane Wilson.
Our heroes are classically in denial of who they are: wealthy, entitled liberal patrons. Stateside, while declaring their anti-slavery stance, they debate whether their slaves have it within them to exist without their beneficent patronage. This despite the fact the slaves know and practice all the trades, build their own communities, and put up with incredible brutality of their enlightened masters. Then, when the Wilsons go to West Africa where ex-slaves are setting up colonies, they must ignore the constant passage of overloaded slaveships, carrying millions more bewildered natives to Cuban and Jamaican sugar plantations, American cotton and tobacco farms, and lifelong misery. The missionaries also have to ignore the natives' own established religions and customs as they try to convert them to Christianity. Even when they do, the Africans don't abandon their ways. They simply incorporate Christianity into their culture. The willful blinkers of the missionaries is stunning; they did great work despite their inner conflicts.
To their credit, they quickly understood that American ex-slaves would not naturally mix with native Africans, and that there would be trouble between them. They also realized the "colony" had no legal authority, and that their Mission should be as far away as possible from it. After seven years, it got so bad they moved to another country, Gabon, to get away from the colonists, who were treating the natives just like the Americans treated native Americans. They had vigilante gangs who would do credit to the Klan. They were also trading with the slavers, which thoroughly disgusted the missionaries. They were creating an authentic copy of the USA in Africa. But then, it turns out the basis for this entire adventure was racist all along.
Their sponsor, the American Colonization Society and its state offshoots were secretly all about "whitening" America. They received state funding to help control and reduce the number of blacks in the states. When the number of blacks increased anyway, it caused exposure, a scandal, reduction in funding, and repercussions in the colonies. It was all about getting blacks out of the USA, nothing more. For a sincere Christian missionary, this took some rationalizing.
With the Wilsons back in the USA, the Civil War broke out, and they were torn between taking a stand, defending their southern homeland and being religiously apolitical. It was one thing to be against slavery, but quite another to go to war to enforce it. Leighton left his New York position in the Presbyterian Church, moved back to the south to help found the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America, which by definition was politically motivated and defined, and against the principles of universal Christianity. Then after the war, he had to fight the invasion of the northern division of his (former) church, as well as blacks fleeing in entire congregations to create their own churches.
Meanwhile in Liberia, the natives had learned from their Western missionaries and organized armies to battle the American colonists - singing Christian hymns as they marched. In the mission schools, black teachers received less pay than whites, despite repeated inquiries and protests - which were simply ignored. This eventually led to a split and a new church in Gabon.
The Wilsons were absolutely the ideal couple for the job. They both wanted it passionately, were willing to put up with all the rigors and challenges of darkest Africa, were enormously patient and flexible, and schooled whole generations, whose parents knew the value of foreign languages and customs - in advance. Leighton Wilson's priority was to master local languages, while Jane promoted English. Leighton created alphabets and dictionaries, and translated scriptures. He became as much an ethnographer as a missionary, publishing his works to great acclaim. But he was justifiably torn by what he was doing. Wherever they went, they did good work, but they also sowed the seeds of future unrest and endless struggle in a land already reeling from the bad influence of European slavers. These went from rum to syphilis to torture, and much in between.
One of the Wilsons' greatest successes was with an ex slave named BVR James. They encouraged him, educated him and trained him, and he became the printer for their works in Africa, publishing tens and hundreds of thousands of pages a year in Liberia. He went on to government positions, recognition and respect. His perception of the whole contradiction is eloquent: "How true it is, the greater the injury done to the injured, the greater the hatred of those who have done the injury!"