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Heroes of the Faith: Southern Baptists remember first African-American missionarycomment (0)

February 20, 2014

By Joanne Sloan

John Day Jr. (1797–1859) was the first African-American missionary appointed by the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention. He served as a dedicated servant of God for Southern Baptists in Liberia from 1845 until his death in 1859. February marks the 155th anniversary of his death.

Day was born in Hicks Ford (now Emporia), Va., on Feb. 18, 1797, into a family of free blacks. His mother was Mourning Stewart and his father John Day, whose white grandfather had owned a large plantation. His grandfather’s will freed 17 slaves.

The elder John Day was a skilled cabinetmaker who lost his business and property and left Virginia. His two sons, though, thrived. Thomas Day became a famous furniture and cabinetmaker in North Carolina. John Day Jr. became an ordained Baptist minister in 1821.

Day Jr. felt called to be a missionary in Haiti but received little support from Virginia Baptists. Consequently he left for Liberia in 1830 as part of the American Colonization Movement. Within a year of their arrival in Liberia, his wife, Polly Wickham, and their four or five children (sources differ on the exact number) died of disease.

He joined the Foreign Mission Board and continued to work closely among the Grand Bassa people. His ministry included preaching as well as setting up schools, churches and a seminary. By 1857, Day had grown a church with 220 members and had baptized 34 new members between 1855–1857.

Today the legacy of Day is evident. Grand Bassa County is 93 percent Christian, and the Bassa County flag has four stripes, one of which honors Day.

In addition to his work as a missionary, Day was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia in 1847. He also served as the second Supreme Court Justice of the country from 1854 until his death.

Day wrote more than 100 letters to the secretary of the Foreign Mission Board. These contain stories of his labors. In December 1848 he wrote: “As far as I have been, which is about 75 miles interior … 150 miles coastwise. … I have preached to say 1,000 persons … and, speaking low, could be heard by the whole. Not a whisper, not a stir, until I had finished; every ear attentive.”

He wrote also of his commitment even through suffering, “Nearly all of May and June, I was confined to my bed … in the midst of the rains, a season which for many years has injuriously affected my lungs.”

On Jan. 30, 1859, while trying to preach in Monrovia, he had to be carried from the pulpit because of a palpitation of the heart that incapacitated him. He died Feb. 15.

J.T. Richardson gave an account of his death. “Being asked by him as I approached his bedside … if I was well, I answered, ‘Yes.’ Question by me: ‘How are you?’ His reply: ‘If I speak with regard to the union subsisting between me and Christ, I am well, too.’… Without a struggle or groan he fell asleep in the arms of Jesus.”

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