AFRICAN MISSIONARIES IN THE 1890s
The following account, with photographs, is contributed by Connie McCord Pula, presently of Angola, a descendant of Richard Rue Cox.
A Strong and Spiritual Woman; Sara Emma Cox
I remember being a small child, sitting on the lap of my great-aunt Mabel Johnston, eating M&Ms from her (always full) candy dish. She would always tell the most adventurous stories, and I never tired of her enthusiasm or her imagination. There were tales of feather masks, shoes of animal skins, painted faces and stories by the firelight. My memories of visiting her home in Iowa weren’t appreciated until 30 years later, when the full impact that these just weren’t stories, they were memories. It caused me to admire the dedication she made to preserving our family’s history as well as recording her personal experiences as a very young child.
Upon the death of my father, Allen Rue McCord, I humbly accepted the task of continuing to record our incredibly detailed family history. When I looked into the old boxes of pictures, letters, and “foreign” items, I discovered I had an overwhelming desire to know more about who my ancestors were, where they came from and why I became the person I am today. I remember my grandmother telling me that she was born in Africa, so I used to tell my friends that I was ¼ African (I was blonde haired, and blue eyed). Needless to say, my father had to explain the circumstances, and my grandmother would just smile with that ever present twinkle in her eye.
My great-aunt Mabel was the sister of my grandmother, Estelle Johnston, daughter of Sara Emma Cox, daughter of Joseph Rue Cox, who was the son of Richard Rue Cox, who was the son Joseph Cox. It has been a great pleasure to see so many cousins who have named their children “Rue” throughout the generations. I am happy that this tradition continues today with the birth in 1981 of my niece, Jamie Rue Bader, daughter of my sister, Kathleen Rue McCord Bader.
My ancestor, Joseph Rue Cox, was born January 15, 1835 and was a Civil War soldier when he married Miss Elizabeth Thomas on January 3, 1866. They had a short marriage lasting until November 8, 1869, when Joseph Rue Cox died. They had three children, Sara Emma Cox, born in 1867, Mary Grace, born in 1868, and Josephine Rue, born after his death in 1870. Upon the death of her husband, Elizabeth moved her three girls to College Springs, Iowa, where she ran a boarding house for college students.
My great-aunt remembered her grandmother, Elizabeth Cox, as a quiet woman, but having a rare sense of humor and a kind and gentle nature. Considering the hardship of raising three daughters alone, she always found time to open her home to family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. The incredible strength of this woman would become a huge influence in the future lives of her daughters.
My great-grandmother, Sara Emma Cox married Henry W. Johnston on January 19, 1887. Henry was a deeply spiritual man and when he was 22, they bought The Weekly Index. He did not know how to run a newspaper, but went right ahead with it, changing the name to The Crank. The young couple faced financial struggles forcing them to board with Sara Emma’s mother and two sisters. They led a very active life, and met such persons as Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard. They joined a group that went about the city, preaching from “a gospel wagon” and they worked in the Central Union Mission. He notes in his dairies that Sara Emma was always “patient” with the trouble they ran into because of his radical views.
After Sara Emma gave birth to their first child, Irvin Frederick, born September 24, 1888, Henry was approached to become a missionary in Africa, but this decision was not hastily made. There were many preparations, hardships to consider, and funds to be raised. Because they were so young, Henry had to make himself look older by growing a beard (he was 26).
After accepting a position to establish the Kunso Mission outside of Freetown, Sierra Leone, Africa, they made the first of many voyages arriving in January 1890. Thus, they began the tremendous challenges of finding a site for the Mission, securing the funds, establishing a home for Sara Emma and Irvin, and initiating the construction of the mission itself.
Both Sara Emma and Henry kept detailed journals of their experience in Africa. While reading a copy of the American Wesleyan Mission of Sierra Leone, West Africa, I noticed that Sara Emma herself wrote one of the first chapters. Here is a brief description of her first impressions of the Dark Continent.
“We cannot be long in Africa without coming in contact with her numerous secret orders. Leaving the coast and passing into the interior we notice at the entrance to a town, a farm, .. a bunch of grass fine splinters neatly tied and thrust upon the end of a pole. ..This sheaf is called a ‘poro’ and signifies that some action has been taken by the ‘Poro Society’...which is for men principally and in some parts….compulsory. ..When desirable men are caught they are carried to the Poro-bush and there branded with hot irons.
…The ‘Bundu Society’ is a society for women the ages of nine and sixteen. After they are admitted in the ‘bush’ a sort of female circumcision is practiced. ..I came upon a group of dancing Bundu women..giving a sort of play. ..She carried with her a country cloth containing rice, fish, kola-nuts, peanuts, beni-seed, corn, a rotten pawpaw…and various other little things. …She sat down on the ground and let them dance and sing around her for a while. ….Then ensued a very child-like conversation about the things, where she got them, and what they were for, with the dancing and singing. She had a smoke-blackened skull of an animal, which she handled lovingly, telling its name and what fine teeth it had…. feathers stuck into its mouth were the teeth. …The results of their incantation,s as they were announced will not be repeated here. …The Bundu Society for the women is a mate to the Poro Society for the men. Girls are initiated in the bush, and are kept there weeks and even months afterward. …The occasion for worshiping the Bundu devil, which preparations I witnessed, was that only two girls could be found in Kunso to present to the devil that year, and it was thought necessary to make a sacrifice to ‘beg’ him. I came home with a new sense of the darkness of heathenism.”
Several months later, in July 1890, my great-aunt Mabel was born in Sierra Leone. She was a small, fragile, 5-pound premature baby.
Sara Emma became so impaired that the doctors advised her return to America as the only means of saving her life. In December of 1890, Henry took his young family back home to Illinois, only to return himself when Sara Emma and the children were safely cared for. Sara Emma returned to Africa in 1892, strong and healthy, only to find herself expecting another child in the next year.
In March 1893, Sara Emma gave birth to my grandmother, Estelle, also born premature, but perfect and lively as a full term baby. Many family members begged them not to continue this mission in Africa, but despite Sara Emma’s lack of enthusiasm, she “followed Henry anywhere”. For most of their young lives, the family would endure many years of frequent illnesses.
In late 1893, while Henry was on a crusade deep into the bush, their young son, Irvin, took ill again, and passed away. Here is an excerpt from Henry’s diaries.
He had been sitting and reflecting on a few days before when he had entered the village and he saw his family. “I clasped again my wife and children to my bosom, but the central figure in the happy group was my little boy Irvin, who I could see dancing up and down with excitement.” After his reflection, and as his associate was preparing dinner, “a man from Kunso came in, and after saluting me…told them something in a low tone.” “It was a letter..stating that ‘Your darling little Irvin was taken at 3:15 this morning.’ The man had walked sixteen hours without stopping to get me the message. I could hardly believe it. I had felt such an assurance that the Lord would keep my little ones until I got back, and now my first born, the apple of my eye, my joy and pride, was gone, and I, two days and a half from home…..the bolder men volunteered to walk all night and..the next day and get me to the mission in time to help bury my child. …Upon returning to the village several days later he recalls ‘Found wife well and bearing up wonderfully. Everybody had been kind to her and her heart was rejoicing even under the rod’. A grave has been made and a life given for the salvation of Bombali land. We have done the best we knew. We leave the rest to God.”
Thus he became the first of many “white foreigners” buried in African soil in Sierra Leone. My great-aunt Mabel recalls not believing that her brother was dead and went out into the bush to look for him, causing much uproar until she was found quite a distance from home. Henry and Sara Emma never fully recovered from the loss of their son, yet they continued with their mission, despite fever and illness, a lack of funding, continuous construction and language problems, exhausting travel during the rainy season, and incredible heat. Despite these challenges, there were many happy memories for the family, playing with the other young village children, eating rice covered with palm oil and sleeping in hammocks. What it cost Henry and Sara Emma to plant that little mission at Kunso, most of us will never know, understand, or appreciate.
In 1895, the family was given a much needed break, so they boarded a ship bound for home to rest in Wheaton, Illinois. They were not only emotionally exhausted, they were physically tired and weak. While attending a Conference in Fairmount, Indiana, in October, 1985, Henry suddenly took sick and died. Sara Emma was pregnant at the time, expecting a child in January and in honor of her late husband, upon her new daughter’s birth, she named her “Henrietta”.
In a strange twist of fate, Sara Emma Cox Johnstone found herself in the same position as her own mother, forced to raise three daughters alone. She was not only heartbroken, but short of money to live on, as they were not able to invest in life insurance as a missionary to Africa. But being the strong person that she was, she began giving illustrated lectures on Sierra Leone, usually in the Wesleyan Methodist churches. She was trying to regain her health, which had been weak since the birth of her last child, when she saw a sign for a doctor of Osteopathy. Sara Emma believed that she could regain her strength if she committed herself to the treatment, thus she made a life changing decision, and the result was that a door opened for her, allowing her to expand on the healing skills she learned while treating sick natives in Africa.
With the help of countless friends, monies earned from her slide presentations on Africa, and pledges from Wesleyan ministries, Sara Emma Cox Johnston attended Still College in Des Moines, Iowa. Trying to study and care for three children became too much for her and her two youngest daughters, Estelle and Henrietta, went to live for a while with her late husband’s family until her completion of her studies. As there were other Johnsons in her class, she added the ‘e’ to her last name. After graduation, ‘Dr. Emma Johnstone’ established and had successful practices in Marengo and Denison, Iowa. She died in 1947 with her daughters close, knowing she was blessed with many grandchildren.
As I continue to pour over volumes of correspondence, peel back layers of original photos, hold glass slides up to the light, strain to read old entries from my great-grandfather’s 12 journals, and gently open letters dated as far back as 1884, I treasure each word, picture, and memory. In the many documents in my possession, I found a “Cox Family Reunion” for 1936. My grandmother, Estelle and her sister, Henrietta had attended this reunion, and in 1960, my great-aunt Mabel, Estelle, my grandfather, and Henrietta attended the reunion in Burlington Junction, Missouri. Since the death of my grandmother, Estelle, her descendants lost this line of communication with the “Cox children”. It is only since the creation of modern technology that I was able to connect with my very distant cousins, all descendants of the children of Mary Rue and Joseph Cox. My admiration goes to those of previous generations who have preserved our family heritage. I am sure there are many, but I can only thank those who have had a direct influence on me; Mabel Johnston and Ruth Anna Hicks. I would also like to extend a special thank you to my newly found cousin, William (Bill) Utermohlen, who has taken on the challenge of this generation’s commitment to preserving our family tree.
In ironic circumstances, I find that I have been put into a similar position as my great-grandmother. I have also spoken the words, “I will follow him anywhere”. In 2003, my husband and I were given the unusual assignment of working in Luanda, Angola, and here I find myself today, 2004.
Here on the western coast of Africa, I am just hours from the very place of Henry and Sara Emma Cox Johnston’s lives and labors. Even though they were only in Africa 5 years, I am drawn to walk in their footsteps, but unfortunately, I am held back by the current political unrest and instability that is Sierra Leone. I am saddened by the loss of my great-grandparent’s foundations that have been destroyed and ignored. I know that would be grieving for the loss of the spiritual Mission that they helped to create.
So I look to the northern coast, imagine a kinder world, mutter of prayer of thanks. For a little while, I am with them in the heat, by the fireside, enduring the endless rains, and at praying at death’s door. What a legacy we have to treasure. I can only hope to remain half as strong as they were, and that I can pass on the knowledge and history I have learned to those who follow me. In the words of my great-aunt Mabel, “My best wishes to those unborn who will be interested in their ancestry”.
Connie McCord Pula
Daughter of Allen Rue McCord, son of Estelle Johnston, daughter of Sara Emma Cox, daughter of Joseph Rue Cox, son of Richard Rue Cox, son of Mary Rue and Joseph Cox.