In 1910, a middle-aged African sat in a jail cell in Liberia. Locked up for political activism, he now found his mind turning to God. He little suspected something was about to happen that would make him one of the most effective evangelists Africa has seen and the founder of an influential denomination.

According to William Wadé Harris's later testimony, what happened was that the angel Gabriel entered his jail cell. With a sound like gushing water, the Spirit descended on the incarcerated Episcopalian.

"You are not in prison," the angelic messenger assured him. "God is coming to anoint you. You will be a prophet. Your case resembles that of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You are like Daniel." Gabriel instructed him to replace his western clothes with a white gown and to shun alcohol.

Harris's wife, Rose, hearing the news, assumed her husband had gone mad. Overcome by grief, she fell ill and died.

Who was William Wadé Harris, and why was he in jail?

Harris was a member of the Grebo ethnic group, a people of southern Liberia, closely related to the Kru. The Kru were famous as seamen. For centuries, every ship coming to trade on the West African coast would stop to take on board Kru seamen, who were fearless, skilled, and loyal. Wadé, pronounced Woddy, was his Grebo name. He was born between 1860 and 1865, and to understand his life we must know a little about the history of Liberia.

Liberia's ruling class were free black settlers from America. Only a relatively small number of African Americans ever took this step—17,000, some of whom were forced to emigrate, since they were freed on this condition. (There were about 200,000 free African Americans in the States in the early nineteenth century, and most of them chose to stay in ...

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