- Historic Sites
Champion Among The Heathen
An American Missionary Caught in South African Conflict 140 Years Ago
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
The tradition that they followed started toward the end of the eighteenth century, when fervor to spread Christianity gripped Protestantism in both Europe and America. In the United States the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Episcopalians were active in the mission field by the 1820's. They found targets close at hand in unchurched frontiersmen and Indian tribes, but they quickly reached across the oceans as well. Thousands of local missionary societies sprang up, and people flocked to three-hour sermons by missionaries returned from exotic lands. Sunday-school classes studied maps showing where the heathen lived, and young men and women who had never traveled farther than the county seat prayed to be sent to China or Africa. By the end of the century, more than four thousand Americans, representing some seventy organizations, were working abroad as missionaries.
The sponsor of George Champion’s mission to Zululand was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, founded in 1810 by New England Congregationalists. It was the first organization to send missionaries overseas from the United States. By the time Champion and his colleagues reached Dingaan in 1836, its missionaries were already established in India, China, Ceylon, Hawaii, and throughout the Middle East.
The board began recruiting for its mission to southern Africa late in 1833, after an official of the London Missionary Society wrote from Cape Town that the “Zoolahs” offered “a noble field for missionary labor.” The letter and an appeal for volunteers were published in the board’s monthly organ, the Missionary Herald . Champion, then in his final year at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, promptly applied to the board’s Boston headquarters and was accepted.
From a portrait painted just before he left for Africa, it is difficult to imagine Champion in the bush. Dressed in a highcollared black suit and a high white stock, he appears a pale, delicate young man. He was, in reality, frail and often sick. Nor would anything in his upbringing seem to have fitted him for rough living. He came from a wealthy landowning family in the village of Westchester in southeastern Connecticut, and he grew up in comfortable, even luxurious, surroundings. Before entering the seminary, he mingled at Yale with the sons of other prosperous families, and when he first broached the idea of going to Africa, his paternal grandfather, who played a large role in raising Champion after his father died when he was a boy, tried but failed to dissuade him by offering to make a large contribution to the American Board instead.
Champion had a bent for science; some of his notes on the geology of the Cape of Good Hope were published by an American scientific journal after his arrival in South Africa. But it was obvious early that his intense religious faith was to dominate his life. At Yale, where residents of rooms adjoining his could hear him praying late into the night, he decided to become a clergyman. At the seminary his missionary zeal was fueled by a student organization called the Society of Inquiry on the Subject of Missions to the Heathen. If he had any doubts about getting along in Africa, his zeal overrode them.
From the perspective of a more skeptical age, Champion’s zeal would also seem to have overridden common sense to a considerable degree after his arrival in Africa, making him oblivious when hostility began to mount among the Zulus to his preaching and to the very presence of whites. But even though his faith bordered on fanaticism, there is something appealing about him. Like his fellow missionaries, Champion viewed the world as a sinful place, but unlike some of them he did not go around as if the weight of all its sin were bearing down on him alone. “Oh ‘tis a happiness to be a missionary in Africa,” he exclaimed midway through his first year, and even when things turned darker, he never gave way to self-pity. Moreover, although he constantly reminded himself that Africa was “in a moral view a land of darkness,” he was thrilled to be there. The head-high grass, trackless as the sea, that parted before the ox wagons, or the sight of an African village on a hillside—the prized cattle in a central pen, the women making neat stacks of pumpkins and firewood by their huts, the cultivated green patches beyond the outer fenceimpressed him deeply.
Champion was one of six men appointed by the board to go to southern Africa. Three of the others were also clergymen. The remaining two were doctors, in keeping with the board’s view that medicine, like education, was part of the process of uplift. The other missionaries were perhaps less bookish than Champion and less out of place shouldering an ox wagon over the crest of a hill or fording a river where crocodiles lurked, but they also proved less acute observers of the African scene.