In early November 1834, an aristocratic young couple fromSavannah and South Carolina sailed from New York and began a seventeen-year odyssey in West Africa. Leighton and Jane Wilson sailed along what was forthem an exotic coastline, visited cities and villages, and sometimes venturedup great rivers and followed ancient paths. Along the way they encountered notonly many diverse landscapes, peoples, and cultures but also many individualson their own odysseys—including Paul Sansay, a former slave from Savannah;Mworeh Mah, a brilliant Grebo leader, and his beautiful daughter, MaryClealand; and the wise and humorous Toko inGabon. Leighton and Jane Wilson had freed their inherited slaves and were tobecome the most influential American missionaries in West Africa during thefirst half of the nineteenth century. While Jane established schools, Leightonfought the international slave trade and the imperialism of colonization. Hetranslated portions of the Bible into Grebo and Mpongwe and thereby helped tolay the foundation for the emergence of an indigenous African Christianity.
The Wilsons returned to New York because of ill health, buttheir odyssey was not over. Living in the booming American metropolis, theWilsons welcomed into their handsome home visitors from around the world asthey worked for the rapidly expanding Protestant mission movement. As the CivilWar approached, however, they heard the siren voice of their Southern homelandcalling from deep within their memories. They sought to resist its seductions,but the call became more insistent and, finally, irresistible. In spite oftheir years of fighting slavery, they gave themselves to a history and a peoplecommitted to maintaining slavery and its deep oppression—both an act of deeplove for a place and people and the desertion of a moral vision.
A sweeping transatlantic story of good intentions and bitter consequences, By the Rivers of Water reveals two distant worlds linked by deep faiths.