The True Story of An American Missionary on Trial

william henry sheppard

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was just a 27-year-old lecturer at Berlin University, he made a bold move: denouncing the principles of the new German chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was one of the first Germans to publicly challenge the new fuhrer, criticizing Hitler during a radio address. But before he could finish his talk, Bonhoeffer’s microphone was cut off. (Some speculate the young theologian was one of the first targets of Nazi censorship—others attribute the sudden ending to a technical glitch.)

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Bonhoeffer’s Christian faith led him to spend his few remaining years taking a stand against the Nazis—leading an underground church movement, training new pastors, writing Christian books, and even plotting to assassinate Hitler. Twelve years after that broadcast, the Nazis executed Bonhoeffer at the concentration camp in Flossenburg.

Bonhoeffer’s story illustrates a profound truth learned time and again by Christians throughout history: when you make a bold stand against those in power, you may pay the ultimate price. American missionary William Henry Sheppard learned this the hard way when he stood up to the cruelties of the Belgian King Leopold II.

Tested by prejudice

william henry sheppardThough descended from slaves, William Henry Sheppard was born free in the last year of the American Civil War. As a boy, Sheppard was fascinated by stories of Africa. “When I grow up,” he boldly declared, “I will go there.” But his ambition would be tested by the lingering prejudices of early twentieth-century America.

As a minister in the South, Sheppard pleaded with the Presbyterian mission board to send him to to the “Dark Continent.” After two years with no clear response, a frustrated Sheppard boarded a train. He traveled to Baltimore, where he confronted the head of the Presbyterian mission board face to face. Sheppard was bluntly told the reason for the board’s persistent obfuscation: they would not send him to Africa without a white supervisor.

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To that end, Sheppard was paired with Samuel Lapsley, a wealthy young white minister with little experience. Together the Presbyterian missionaries set off for Africa. They quickly developed a bond and established a mission to the Kuba people in the Free State of Congo. Sheppard immediately took to the work, demonstrating a profound respect for African culture that was uncommon during this period.

A powerful enemy

The Free State of Congo had been under Belgian rule since 1885. King Leopold II lined his coffers with riches made from exploiting Congo’s natural resources. The state rubber company, which the king controlled, employed horrific techniques to ensure continued profitability. Leopold held the Congolese as slaves, forcing them to work in the rubber industry; when they failed to meet their production quotas, they were brutally mutilated or murdered. In 1899, Sheppard witnessed Leopold’s atrocities firsthand.

That year, Leopold dispatched men from the Zappo-Zap tribe to punish those who didn’t comply with the demands of the rubber companies. Sheppard heard of these atrocities, and trudged through the African landscape to investigate. He discovered that Leopold’s envoys had left piles of mutilated corpses in their wake. When Sheppard later undertook a lecture tour in the United States, he told the world what he had witnessed

When the Presbyterian preacher spoke out against Leopold’s crimes, the media made him a humanitarian hero. But in 1908, Congo’s state rubber company sued him for libel. The trial in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), Congo, drew intense media scrutiny, preventing the court from enacting the corrupt justice they intended; Sheppard was acquitted.

After the trial, the retired Presbyterian missionary withdrew from public life, but he’d made an indelible impression on Africa. The same year as Sheppard’s acquittal, Leopold was forced to relinquish control of the Congo.

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