Champion Among The Heathen

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On January 16, 1836, the Reverend George Champion of Connecticut stood on a hill in Zululand and gazed down at a vast fenced oval enclosing almost two thousand grass huts. It was the kraal of Dingaan, king of the Zulus. Dingaan was a tyrant who ruled the most powerful black empire in southern Africa. Champion, a gentle, scholarly man of twenty-five who had graduated from a Congregational seminary a year and a half earlier, was a missionary. With two other young American missionaries, he had sailed up the Indian Ocean coast from the Cape Colony and then tramped inland more than 150 miles beside an ox wagon to ask Dingaan’s permission to preach the gospel in his land.

The missionaries spent a week in the capital of Zululand. Accompanied by their interpreter, a white youth from the Cape, they presented the tall, ponderous king with gifts-an umbrella, a razor, a tin trunk with a lock, handkerchiefs, and quantities of the white and yellow beads that only royalty could wear. Champion explored the town. He watched the making of ox-hide shields and brass ornaments, and he looked on disapprovingly as the Zulu warriors whiled away their time draining calabashes of native beer. When Dingaan took the missionaries on a tour of the cluster of big, beehive-shaped huts that constituted his private quarters, Champion counted about two hundred women. While a few were servants, the others, as he wrote discreetly in his journal, “evidently filled a different sphere.”

King Dingaan’s wide-ranging curiosity about white civilization was particularly aroused by a small lathe the missionaries had brought as an example of the mechanical marvels wrought by Christian nations. They demonstrated it by turning a snuffbox, and Dingaan subsequently tried his hand several times. He “succeeded very well for a beginner” except for one occasion when the elaborate trappings of beads and monkey tails that he wore dangled over the lathe and interfered with his work.

Initially, the missionaries met with less interest when they broached the purpose of their visit: the establishment of a mission. But on the last day Dingaan consented to discuss the matter. “Some short account of God’s word was given, & our object briefly stated,” Champion recorded. “A Testament was shown as a part of God’s word. He wished to know how many leaves it contained, & was surprised to hear us tell without counting them.” Dingaan also asked the missionaries to read from the Bible. This reflected his interest not so much in its content as in reading and writing. The idea that a man’s words could be captured on paper fascinated the Zulus, and the missionaries proposed to teach the people to read and write as well as to know God.

Even so, Dingaan and his counselors were uneasy. White traders and hunters had already settled at Port Natal (now Durban, South Africa), the starting point for the missionaries’ overland journey. Although Dingaan liked to exchange elephant tusks with these English settlers for such items as the elegant armchair he used while conducting business, he did not want them to make their homes in Zululand. But at last he announced that he would allow the missionaries to live just inside Zululand, at a site a few miles north of the Tugela River, the southern boundary of Dingaan’s country. “If you succeed I will bring the school right into the heart of my dominions,” he declared. “I will learn myself, & set an example to my people.”

As the missionaries departed to collect the other members of their party, Champion was exultant over Dingaan’s decision: “We left him feeling that unless we were greatly deceived the Lord had given to us to win the heart of the Heathen King.”

Dingaan’s heart was to prove elusive. Moreover, the missionaries were to become entangled in the collision between black tribesmen and whites making their first great thrust into the interior of southern Africa. But through all the trials, even when it appeared that he would be doing well to escape from Zululand with his life, Champion never wavered in his faith in the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God.

Such faith was the hallmark of the small army of men and women caught up in the missionary movement in the United States in the nineteenth century. They held an unshakable conviction that they possessed a message of inestimable value and that if the millions dwelling in darkness could only hear it, they would seize upon it. Armed with little else, they sailed off to strange lands to speak in strange tongues to people who often did not have the slightest idea of what they were talking about. They were always audacious and sometimes foolish, and they failed to achieve their goal, which, as countless missionary sermons and tracts put it, was nothing less than the “conversion of the world.” Yet they left their mark.