Lott Carey

First Black Missionary to Africa

Just four years after the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in 1780, Lott Carey was born into the chains of American slavery.  Lott was born in Charles City County, Virginia, on the estate of William A. Christian.  Lott was an only child whose father was a faithful member of the Baptist church, and his mother although not active, was also believed to be a Christian.  It would be Lott’s grandmother, Mihala who would daily nurture him while his parents were working on the plantation.  Lott’s grandmother was a passionate follower of Christ and a Baptist who would tell him many stories about the suffering of the African slaves, how they crossed a great ocean from Africa to journey to America.  Mihala would regularly tell her grandson, Lott about the heritage of their people in Africa and how they did not know Christ.  She would passionately express how she longed tell them about the love of Christ.  Yet, Mihala knew that she was physically unable to return to her home land.  She would tell Lott “Son, you will grow strong.  You will lead many, and perhaps it may be you who will travel over the big seas to carry the great secret to my people.”

While it was common for most black families to be broken in slavery, in Lott Carey’s case his family roots were undisturbed.  His family heritage gave him a strong foundation.  Lott clearly learned how to be a man from his God-fearing father.  His strong masculinity and character would both guide him and challenge him throughout his life journey.

First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia

In 1804 at the age of twenty-four Lott moved from Charles City County to Richmond, Virginia.  His owner Mr. Christian sent Lott to Richmond to work as a slave laborer in the Schockoe tobacco warehouse.  Lott Carey’s reaction to the move was not positive.  He quickly developed new habits of profane swearing, frequent intoxication and violence over the next few years.  It was not until he came to know Christ that his life and behavior began to change.  In 1807 at the First Baptist Church of Richmond, a church with blacks and whites, slaves and free Lott Carey heard a message by Reverend John Courtney.  It was through his message on Nicodemus that Lott decided to accept Jesus Christ as Lord, and later that same year decided to be baptized.

Passion for Learning

Although Lott Carey had become a new follower of Christ, he still was illiterate. He did not even know the alphabet, much less how to read.  He knew that he needed to learn to read if he was ever going to study the Bible.  Lott became very passionate for learning and for truth.  His first step was purchasing a Bible and trying to read the story of Nicodemus that he had heard from the gospel of John.  One of his co-workers at the warehouse assisted him in his initial attempts to read.  Shortly after he began reading, he also learned to write.  The only education tool that slaves had during his life was that of reading the Bible.  The Bible was the only textbook being used to teach slaves in America.  His passion and pursuit of biblical studies became so intense that Lott enrolled in night school where he learned from his teacher William Crane who was also a deacon in the church.  Lott Carey and twenty other black men were in night school together learning to read, write, and study the Bible.  Mr. Crane’s teaching philosophy was instruction on the basics of education, economics and life skills.  Because of Lott’s growing education, he was eventually promoted at the warehouse from a common laborer to a shipping clerk.  This promotion gave him both added responsibility and pay.  Lott Carey was known as a hard worker and a man of integrity. In 1813, because of his growing success, Lott Carey was financially able to purchase his own freedom from slavery.  While living in Richmond, Lott Carey was married and blessed with two children.  Tragically, Lott’s first wife died after only few years of marriage and he remarried in 1815.

Licensed to Preach

While continuing to gain responsibility and salary at the warehouse, Lott never forgot his passion for studying the Bible.  He continued his night school with Mr. Crane for several years and read everything he could at work during the day and at night. He took every opportunity to expand his knowledge and education.  It was not long after Lott’s decision to follow Christ and study the Bible that he began to be led to do ministry among the black people of Richmond.  He would hold meetings to preach and teach black people about God’s wrath.  His teaching ability and gifting became so well known that First Baptist Richmond decided to license him to preach.  Lott believed the highest vocation to which he could be called was to preach God’s Word.  Lott Carey, a man with limited education, became one of the greatest preachers in American History.

Richmond African Missionary Society

William Crane, Lott Carey’s teacher, was very intentional about instilling a heart for missions in each of his students.  Mr. Crane specifically had a heart for West Africa.  Frequently, Mr. Crane would read updates on Missions in America, and the work of the American Colonization Society in West Africa.  In 1815, the Richmond African Missionary Society was founded and Mr. William Crane was elected president and corresponding secretary of this new agency.  Mr. Crane’s role would become critical to the agency as Virginia became a hotbed for discontented blacks.  Therefore Mr. Crane would lead and facilitate the meetings, because blacks were not allowed to hold private meetings unless white people were present.

Lott’s Decision to “Go”

After much debate about Lott’s decision about going to Africa, the voice of Lott’s soul began asking him “Am I satisfying God’s requirement of me as a preacher of the gospel? Was my grandmother right when she suggested I would carry the great secret to my people?”   The possibility of carrying the gospel to the African people was both exciting and overwhelming to Lott.   He heard a voice in his soul:  “Come over and help us.”   Yet, it was only after he reflected on the collective voices of the African Mission, his grandmother, William Crane and the report from Burgess and Mills that he made a final decision to go to Africa and see the country for himself.  When his employer at the warehouse had learned of his decision to go to Africa, they offered to raise his salary, just to keep him from leaving.  But the offer would not influence his decision. One of the agencies that Lott Carey would partner with was the American Colonization Society.  In 1818 Samuel J. Mills (Haystack Prayer Meeting), Messrs and Ebenezer Burgess were commissioned by the American Colonization Society to acquire information and make decisions on the purchase of territory in West Africa.  Territories were to be purchased for the re-colonization of African-American slaves to Africa.  There was already a British presence in West Africa in the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone.  The British were present both to spread Christianity and European civilization.  The American Colonization Society was created to provide political, economic and humanitarian aid for West Africa.

Sierra Leone, West Africa

Lott Carey would become one of America’s first missionaries and the first black Baptist missionary to go to Africa.  The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on the Nautilus was a long forty-four day journey.  Lott Carey, with his family and missionary church, would arrive in Freetown, Sierra Leone in March of 1821.   When Lott arrived the land had still not been purchased through the American Colonization Society.  Through this and other experiences Lott realized the cause of Christ was not always best advanced through an alliance with political agencies.  The connection of the American Colonization Society with the African mission was a detriment to the missionary cause in Africa.  Carey’s missionary spirit was also being challenged again by the fatal sickness of his second wife.

Governor of Liberia

Later that same year Carey led a pioneer missionary team to Liberia that engaged the people in evangelism, education, and health care.  After just a few years of ministry and building strong relationships in Liberia, Lott’s friend and Governor of Liberia died in 1828, it was Lott Carey who was chosen to become the new Governor of Liberia.  This new position enabled Carey to carry out a multitude of responsibilities.  However, as his influence increased his pastoral duties never suffered. During this same period Carey started the first Baptist church in Liberia, known as the Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia. In 1826 Lott started a missionary society in connection with his growing church and Lott was elected president of the new agency.  His purpose was to instill a missionary spirit within his church.  In the church he created an environment of shared responsibility and developed leaders to carry out the work.  Carey became a well-respected and gifted governmental leader. Lott Carey continued to gain respect and influence in Liberia until his death in 1828.

Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention

The mission and memory of Lott Carey have been kept alive through the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, based in Washington DC.  The movement was founded in 1897 by African-American Baptists who were passionately committed to foreign mission thrust in Africa.  The founders believed that nothing should distract the church from executing its primary objective of advancing God’s mission throughout the world. Since the founding, Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention has continually invested in Christian missions around the world.

Resources used and for further research

Fits, Leroy, Lott Carey, First Black Missionary to Africa, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania:  Judson Press, 1978.

Walston, Vaughn J. & Stevens, Robert J.,   African-American Experience, In World Mission:  A Call Beyond Community, Pasadena, California:  William Carey Library, 2002.