Lott Cary

Lott Cary (1780–1828), the first African American missionary to Africa, was a man of great integrity and steadfast faith in God. Because of the depth of his character and his obedience to the call of God on his life, God used him mightily in Africa to spread the gospel of Jesus.

Lott was born in 1780 as a slave on the estate of William A. Christian in Charles City County Virginia.1 Both his parents and his grandmother, Mihala, were slaves on the same plantation. His father was a devout Baptist and his grandmother—with whom he spent much of his time—was also a strong Christian of the Baptist persuasion.2 He was the only child born to his parents and it is believed that “the admonitions and prayers of his illiterate parents may have laid the foundations for his future usefulness.”3

In 1804, at the age of 24, Lott was hired out as a common laborer to a tobacco company in Richmond Virginia.During his first couple of years working there he “became rather dissipated in his habits, being frequently intoxicated, and allowing himself to indulge in profane swearing,”5 but after hearing a rousing sermon by John Courtney on the conversion of Nicodemus in John 3, his eyes were opened to his utter depravity and he was immediately converted and baptized into the Baptist church. After his conversion it was said that “an immediate and remarkable change was discovered in his life.”6

He was so moved by the sermon that he painstakingly taught himself to read by studying John chapter 3 until he had mastered it.7 He continued to diligently study the Word and began to pursue other books in order to increase his reading skills and knowledge. At this same time he began to hold meetings for the African American community in Richmond. The more time he spent preaching and studying, the more he was noticed by his employers—he quickly became well respected and was promoted. Under his management, “the shipments were made with a promptness and correctness, such as no person, white or black, has equaled in the same situation. For this correctness and fidelity, he was highly esteemed and frequently rewarded by the merchant with a five dollar note.”8

Because of the favor shown to him by his employers he was able to save up a considerable amount of money. In 1813, shortly after the death of his first wife, he purchased his freedom and that of his two children for $850.9 He was remarried in 1815 and “began to feel the true dignity of his station, as a redeemed sinner, and to be inspired with a holy ambition to make his influence beneficially felt in this apostate world. He was, to a great extent, instrumental in awakening among his colored brethren in the city of Richmond, a lively interest on behalf of the spiritual condition of Africa.”10 Even though his rousing sermons inspired the foundation of more than one organization that gave money to help fund missionaries in Africa, his heart was not satisfied to just sit on the sidelines; he felt compelled to personally go and share the gospel with his brethren. He was so passionate about his convictions that “the word of the Lord was like fire in his bones, and it could not be resisted.”11 With the support of the Baptist Board of Missions, he gave up everything and moved his family across the ocean to be missionaries in Africa. Lott did not venture into the life of a missionary blindly: “He had counted the cost. He actually made a sacrifice of all his worldly possessions, and was prepared to meet even bonds and death, in carrying out the purpose of his heart.”12

His desire to preach the gospel to his African brothers and sisters was so strong that in his farewell sermon at his church he said, “I feel it my duty to go; and I very much fear that many of those who preach the Gospel in this country, will blush when the Saviour calls them to give an account of their labors in His cause, and tells them, ‘I commanded you to go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature;’ (and with the most forcible emphasis he exclaimed,) the Saviour may ask where have you been? what have you been doing? have you endeavored to the utmost of your ability to fulfil [sic] the commands I gave you, or have you sought your own gratification and your own ease, regardless of my commands.”13

Upon their arrival in Africa, their hopes for rapidly spreading the gospel were quickly diminished as they realized it would be no easy task to establish a colony. Instead of being able to begin their work as missionaries they were placed on a farm to work to help pay for their food and rent, but even in the midst of these setbacks Lott’s attitude was not deterred. He wrote in a letter: “Jesus Christ our Saviour when he came on his mission into this world, was often found with a broad axe in his hand.”14 Lott applied himself to working hard and soon he had established a mission within the Mandingoes, even while laboring to support his family.15

Shortly after this, his second wife died and Lott was left with three children to raise on his own. He then moved his family to Cape Montserrado to work among the natives, but they were so unreceptive towards Lott and the work of the colony that a fierce battle ensued, resulting in severe conditions for its inhabitants. Observing the great need for medical aid, Lott threw himself into learning as much as he could about the medical practice. Strengthened by his faith, he “made liberal sacrifices of his property to assist the poor and distressed, and devoted his time almost exclusively to the destitute, the sick, and the afflicted.”16

In the midst of all this persecution, Lott established a church and a mission school. He also became the colony’s only physician.17 As they came to see that Lott was there to stay, the natives became friendlier towards the colony and even began to send some of their children to the school.18 Word soon traveled about the colony and many came to be baptized and hear about Jesus—one man even walked from a town eighty miles away just to be baptized.19 The colony flourished under the leadership of Lott Cary and many came to know Jesus because of his evangelistic efforts. He was so passionate for his countrymen that “his heart did not become secularized by the numerous and pressing worldly duties devolving on him in his endeavors to sustain the colony and to promote its prosperity. The cause of his divine Master, and the eternal welfare of his fellow men, were at all times objects of paramount importance.”20

Lott Cary labored diligently for seven years in Africa to help spread the gospel. In 1828, shortly after being elected acting governor of the colony, Lott was sadly killed in a gunpowder explosion.21 Many were shocked and heartbroken that one of “the most gifted men”22 of their time was cut off in the prime of his life. Although Lott Cary faced many fierce struggles, he modeled Godly character throughout his life. His integrity and steadfast work ethic were greatly esteemed by everyone who met him.

1. Leroy Fitts, Lott Carey: First Black Missionary to Africa (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1978), 11.
2. Ibid., 12.
3. Ralph Randolph Gurley, Sketch of the Life of the Rev. Lott Cary (Chapel Hill, Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999), 147.
4. James B. Taylor and John H. B. Latrobe, Biography of Elder Lott Cary, Late Missionary to Africa (Chapel Hill, Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001), 10.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 11.
7. Ibid., 12.
8. Ibid., 13.
9. Ibid., 14.
10. Ibid., 14–15.
11. Ibid., 15.
12. Ibid., 27.
13. Gurley, Sketch of the Life of the Rev. Lott Cary, 149.
14. Taylor and Latrobe, Biography of Elder Lott Cary, 29-30.
15. Ibid., 33.
16. Ibid., 39.
17. Ibid., 43–44.
18. Ibid., 46.
19. Ibid., 48.
20. Ibid., 45–46.
21. Ibid., 92.
22. Ibid., 95.

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