New Arrivals in Liberia:

This Episode: Ethiopia Shall

Stretch Out Her Hands Unto God


by Terence L. Johnson

Former Professor, African and African American History

Former Field Archivist

United States


Link for Citation Purposes:


Author's Note: The following story is based on accounts of real events from various newspaper and journal articles. Some scenes in this story have been dramatized with fictional accounts. 


This Episode:  Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands unto God


I, Thomas King, did not let the illness that came with being in the new country called Liberia delay my exploration of my new homeland. In time, my family and I became acquainted with most of the settlers in Monrovia and even a few of the outer colonies. 


“There was much work to be done in the colony, but so few men who might be able to do the work.”


In the upper settlements away from Monrovia, all the emigrants engaged in some sort of farming.


The Liberian colony had the same type of problem as early colonies in the Americas: how to feed its population.  Colony stores were created that provided the colonists' rations of two pounds of fish or meat, corned pork or beef, and six pounds of breadstuff per week.  Many of the colonists even had to pay fifty cents per pound in silver for butter.


I had brought with me six-hundred dollars.  Consequently, my family and I never drew on the rations. The leaders of the colonies gave them out as far as they think them necessary. The goods and provisions in Liberia were fifty percent above the retail price. 


“Caroline, I just bought pork at twenty cents a pound.”


 “I wish we could get some coffee,” my wife said.


Coffee, which was rare in Monrovia in the 1830s was even beyond our means.


“It cost us cost forty cents a pound, very few people grow it my dear,” I said to Caroline.


Not having coffee was a lesser problem.


Many other colonists were poor and often had to stand on the streets to beg. We saw them. So many sat on muddy streets in dirty squalor.


“Some of these Negroes who came from America were dead weights, people ignorant and poor,” said my wife.


I smirked and responded glibly,


“When they get sick, they are a burden to the community.”


I grew angry when I saw how the colony stores treated the people. The colony stores did not always take the concerns and welfare of recent arriving colonists.  I remembered when the men and women from the ship LaFayett had many complaints, the colonists from that ship were denied provisions and hospital stores.


“These colonists were eventually given stinking fish and rotten meat. The governor at the time decided to use the stale provisions first before the more fresh ones would be used.”


My family did not suffer from such conditions.


I did not work as a laborer. I was able to buy property near the ocean. I was also able to buy a half lot as well.  I joined in partnership with two other men, Patrick Johnson and John Ward, and started a wholesale store. I traded only with dealers and factory men, except with a few natives who came to the town. My role in society as a wholesale store owner made me sought out by the most affluent of the settlers, while so many men and women were left poor and destitute.


I discovered from numerous colonists an important fact.


“The schools in the colony were more numerous in proportion to the population than in any other country in the world.”


They were free of expense, and furnished books, and in some instances clothing and dinners to the children, gratuitously, at the expense of the white benevolent societies from America. These white people in America and England believed that the colored populations needed to fulfill the prophecy of all Ethiopian people of Africa learning about the true God.  Ethiopia in the scriptures represented all the black nations and people of the earth.


The Liberian population not exceeding 1,500, were at that time about fifteen schools, being in that remarkable ratio of one to every hundred inhabitants, with an average of not more than fifteen or twenty children to each school.


My wife was working in Monrovia as a teacher, for in Columbia, South Carolina she had received training in Latin, Greek, Arithmetic, and English. One day she stood up from a fire in our chimney.


“In my school, we have supplies of paper, copybooks, slates, ink, and quills.”


“That seems to be a fine start,” I said as I stirred okra stew in the Dutch oven pot that simmered the chimney flames.


Suddenly, my Caroline came out with a horrendous laugh. 


“The qualifications of many of the colored teachers were perfectly contemptible. I do not believe that one of them could even spell correctly.”


Then she stopped her delightful banter and grew serious in her composure.


“Hardly any of them could read fluently, or write distinctly, but they all drew good salaries from charitable supporters of the schools.”


She moved toward me and took the large spoon that I used to stir the soup. She bent down and smelt the brew and then stirred it continuously as she continued her confession.


“The exceptions, more than forty children, of the wealthiest families, were attending a school supported by ladies in Philadelphia, and kept in a house hired by the Colonization society.”


Then tears finally rained down my Caroline’s eyes.


A month later, during my stay in my new country, I learned through invitations to various homes that many Liberians had in their possession of piles of large books, which I observed in different houses, sometimes in the poorest dives, which had the poorest constructed chairs and tables. 


One day, I saw some books piled on the ground in a field. I said to my son, Richard, who now stood nearly six feet tall and who favored in appearance my wife Caroline.


“These books at first suggested to me that knowledge was abundant in the minds of the colonist.”


The boy nodded as I went on to explain the disrespect of books by many of the colonists.


“These books are donated by the colonial society and those who bring their own books received from literate citizens that had died, or through theft. Other books some written in Hebrew, Latin, and other languages owned by deceased white missionaries in the colonies were auctioned off in the colony.”


Richard made an important observation.


“Most Negroes cannot read them. The books had not been read by their owners.  The books for most Liberians were useless due to the fact that many who own the books cannot read them, not even the ones in English. Those that can read somewhat, not one in forty is capable of understanding or appreciating the contents of books.” 


A grin came upon Richard’s face.


“Father, how do we intend to give the Africans our civilization, when many of us ourselves do not value learning and are not able to read?”


“Son, I do not know.”


I was taught that Africans were savages but must confess that even among people of color from America there were savages amongst us. While only one-third of the population could read and then only one-sixth of that number could even write, but in Monrovia, there existed a public library.


One day I came to a muddy road and saw a woman dressed in rags, who stood on the ground.


I asked her, “I need to find the library.”


She looked up at me, with her grimy face and her hot breath, and said,


“Go down that narrow street.  Continue to come to it. You will see it when we get to it.”


I did as she suggested.  I went down the dank, horse-manured street until I saw it. 


I found the library to be a solitary, wooden structure some twenty feet square.


I said to myself. It is surrounded by weeds and shrubs, with not even a pathway to it.


I saw miserable poorly-clad Liberians moving about around it.


“How can I get inside here?”


A woman in a long tattered shawl turned and said,


“Why did you want to go inside that filth?”


I said to her, “I need to see what is inside.”


She smiled and said, “Go to that government house.  It is there. But no one wants it.” 


I did what she said and then I found the key, which was kept in the kitchen of the Government house.  I returned to the shack that was called a Library.  With some little difficulty, I cleared the way and mounted the steps, opening the portal of this treasury of knowledge with some awe and apprehension.  Then it happened.


I jumped up in sheer terror.


“Oh my! Centipedes and scorpions!”


I knocked the deadly beasts off my frock coat. 


The small crawling beasts enjoyed free and full possession, literally feeding on knowledge of the past.


“Keats, Shakespeare, Plato! Covers of books. A morsel for these dirty maggots all!”


I found myself swatting in the recesses of what was once a library; swarms of the big, winged, African roaches, which fed on the remains of written passages of the ages.


Inside the hull of what was a place of learning, was barely enough room to roam around amongst the opened but half emptied boxes of books.


I thought to myself, there are generally Bibles from the good white people, and obsolete old school books from others.


On one side of the room were shelves, which were crammed with unsorted volumes; the floor and boxes holding the remainder of the volumes.


One of the volumes that I read on occasion was the African Repository.  This journal reported the efforts by the American Colonization society to eliminate the practice of slavery and to support Negro colonization.  It also reported the goings-on of exploration and missionary efforts throughout Africa. In these volumes, the life of Africans were also described. 


In the 1826 edition of the African Repository journal, I saw an article that articulated the very reason for me and my family's departure from the United States to this undiscovered country.


The article in the 1826 edition of the African Repository said in part, "The great impediments which obstruct the progress of civilization and Christianity in Africa, are the slave trade and Mahomedan faith. The former chains the body, the latter the soul: The first is ruinous to industry -- it exits perpetually, the most unholy and sanguinary contests, and dissolves all the bands of social union, while the last sanctions revenge and tolerates polygamy." 


Then that very same article articulated the solution to the African problem by stating, "The doctrines of Jesus are suited to the capacities and necessities of all men, and for all men were they designed. No human natures are too dark or too degraded to be enlightened and ennobled by the grace of God."


Education was of such value that a few sheets of paper to teach writing had more value than a Bible. In that library, I often saw something that would probably make the prince of peace mourn. 


I said out loud to the maggots, bugs, and all sorts of critters moving back and both below my feet feeding on the New Testament.


I said out loud.


“Some of the Negroes from America took parchment from the Bible used as food for worms or to clean the backs of colonists. But then again other Bibles in this colony library collecting dust because few of the colonists could not read them.”


I started to laugh at the total failures of we Negroes, and how we copied badly the civilization of the white men.


“I have seen this before.”


I giggled in an important revelation.


“The leaves of the Bible.  The ample leaves of the scriptures are being used as wrappers by the shopkeepers and sold to be used to scrape waste from the settler’s backsides. Below my feet,  mold, dust, Bibles, and other such books.”


As I left what was once a library, I thought about the fact that most of the Negro colonists did not read the Bible, but they did attend church.  Many of these ministers served as the principal politicians in the colony. In fact, with a few exceptions, most of the merchants of sugar cane were preachers. By the time my family and I arrived in Liberia, the colony had a dozen religious denominations.


There were all sorts of missionaries; three Presbyterian missionaries, two Methodist missionaries, and about seven colored preachers belonging to the colony who ministered in  barn-like churches. Even enslaved Africans rescued from slave ships and brought to Liberia set up their own churches.  Negroes both civilized and savage are naturally attuned to religion. They will cling, without reason, to whatever faith that they are taught. Church attendance for the wealthy people of color was a way of showing everyone their high fashioned clothes and status. 


In many churches in Liberia it became a place for gossip.  For the women, it was the place to find a husband with some degree of influence and affluence. I remember in my African Methodist Episcopal church how Pastor Alvin Slater drew many of the holy-rolly women of Monrovia into the congregation because of his rather light skin and wavy hair.  They all wanted to marry Reverend Slater, until one day, he announced that he would be marrying a native bush woman who often swept the church floors.  I remembered that day. Reverend Slater stepped out from his pulpit and made the surprising announcement.


"My fellow parishioners. I have been in courtship with Beulah Bopoto for many months.”


Several women in the congregation thought that the pastor was joking, but when they saw that he did not return a smile, they held a sudden hush.


Then came the words, women who desired the pastor’s company hoped to only hear with their name.


“I am happy to announce that on the third day of May this one thousand eight hundred and thirty-fifth year of our Lord, we shall both wed."


Suddenly, a shrill of screams invaded the little wooden church as women in high heels and long gowns stood up and marched out of the congregation, never to return. I remember the smiles on my mother's and my wife's faces as they saw how the women scrambled out of their seats.


"Serves the wenches right," said my mother who sometimes spoke her mind with crude words.


My wife laughed a little as she made a prediction, which often came true.


"Look how black Beulah is?  When they have a child, that baby will be as pitch as smut."


My mother giggled. I thought about what my wife had said and wondered if the reverend had taken advantage of Beulah and now was forced to marry her before her belly showed.


I gave a pretense.


“A man is entitled to marry whom may ever have him.”


My wife and mother again giggled.


Then Reverend Slatter went back to his pulpit and continued his sermon as if nothing had happened. 


He started his sermon.


"Mohammedanism, the religion of the sword, in this part of the world could easily be displaced by Christian influence, if Christian organizations would enter with vigor into this field. The most important Western value was the knowledge of Christ conveyed by the Holy Spirit. The religion of the Prince of Peace must succeed to the religion of the sword. Out of the Christian world there existed only one people that could displace the false religion of the Mohammedans and the pagans in all of Africa. That people, is us, the colored American."


The entire congregation all responded to Reverend Slater by saying, "Amen." 


Then Reverend Slater seemed to stiffen his back as he smiled.  He gave a command to us all as if he were a general and we were his army.


"I want you all to open up your Bibles to Psalm 68.31."


My mother, my wife, and me along with the rest of the congregation, took out our Bibles and found the scripture that explained our reason for immigrating to Liberia. Reverend Slater remembered the scripture by heart.


“Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands unto God.  My brothers and sisters, Ethiopia in the Bible does not refer to a people in one nation or someplace long ago. Ethiopia in ancient times to the Christian meant all of African kind. It refers to the entire African race. It refers to all of us. You, me, and my bride to be."


People in the congregation began to laugh and even cry joyfully. My mother stood up and cried.


"Praise the Lord!"


After that day, only the fateful servants of Christ entered the steps of the church.  But all creation in Liberia was not all kindness and light.  Many of the people did not heed to the word of the Lord. In Monrovia, I saw the best of Negroes and the worst of Negroes. I saw the demon known as alcohol rule the day and nights in our new home.



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