Why would the twelve-year-old son of a Church of England clergyman join the British Navy? Of course, this was a different time, and people seemed to be constituted of sterner stuff. And besides, what twelve-year-old wouldn’t be filled with romantic notions of sailing the high seas? Leonard Strong (1797-1874) soon found out what it was like. This fearless young man served as a midshipman in the French and American wars. Many times his ship saw battle.
We make a mistake if we think that men like Leonard Strong, who have seen death up close, have become too calloused, too hard. But while on duty in the West Indies, he almost drowned when his shore-going boat upset in a squall. During the rescue, this hard-bitten sailor saw that maybe he wasn’t so tough after all. His sins rose before him, and he cried to God for mercy. He was like a man pulled out of a coma. Once awakened, he resolved to serve God. He left the Navy and enrolled at Oxford in 1823. Evidently he thought that to be ordained as a minister would be a safe start on the voyage for heaven. In his time at Oxford, he saw the truth of the Gospel and was definitely converted. Now his ambition was to be a missionary. It may be at this time that Strong first met Anthony Norris Groves, who would also become a pioneer missionary. Strong left Oxford without taking a degree. Although he was ordained in the Church of England as curate of Ross-on-Wye, he did not stay there long. He went out to the area where God first awakened him during his naval service in the West Indies, to British Guiana in 1826, as rector of St. Matthew’s, Demerara.
The coastland is flat, marshy and well forested. The three rivers, the Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice and their innumerable tributaries make it “the land of the waters.” The heavy seasonal rains must be seen to be believed.
Farther inland there are stretches of savanna merging into the mountainous area, with ranges which rise 9,000 feet. Parts of this area are still unexplored. “Parrots are screeching, monkeys are chattering, cigales are piping on a high note which suggests a shrill steam whistle, insects innumerable are chirping and whirring; while, at times, there comes a noise like a muffled crash of thunder, which tells that some ancient giant of the woods has fallen at last . . .
“There are myriads of butterflies on wings of crimson and gold, darting hummingbirds, with ruby or emerald breasts gleaming in the sunlight; fireflies which come out at dark, and flit to and fro with their soft twinkling lights in the warm night air that is heavy with the breath of flowers.”
These inland foothills are the source of forest products and minerals. In the savannas and part of the coastal plain, sugar cane was the principal product. Here slaves labored and deplorable stories are told of the fate of those hapless Africans.
Slavery was not outlawed until 1834, so Leonard Strong witnessed the atrocities of the trade. Rendle Short tells of the slaves’ lot on the sugar and cotton plantations in British Guiana: “They lived in filthy huts like kennels. They had no furniture except an iron pot and one blanket per person. Their food was salt fish and vegetables. At six every morning the slave-drivers turned them out with the whip to work till six in the evening, or sometimes longer. They had no rights and no redress. For every infraction of a command they were brutally beaten. If they died of the punishment, no one cared. Their moral life was low and degraded, but in this respect their white masters were little better. Their religion was much like that of the heathen African of today. Obeahism (African sorcery and ritual magic) played a large part in it . . . Such a welter of misery and degradation it would have been hard to find elsewhere in the world.”
Strong devoted himself to work among the slaves, braving the wrath of the planters, who were so enraged they threatened to shoot him. Because of his work among the slaves, he was forced by the planters to leave his position and to move to Peter’s Hall and Georgetown, where he began his work again. Disillusioned by the pride and apartheid which confronted him, Strong began to question the scriptural authority for an established church. While examining the Scriptures, he saw practical truths about worship and service that he could not reconcile with his position in the Church of England. In 1827, he made a costly decision to give up his lucrative living, (about #800 per annum), and to meet for simple worship with the several hundred new converts.
Venturing out in dependence, God’s hand was with Strong from the beginning. Meetings were held in a large shed used for drying coffee and as many as 2,000 attended. An assembly commenced at Peter’s Hall in 1827 and another at Georgetown in 1840. Strong’s life and labors provided a pattern for the missionary effort which spread through the West Indies, where a vigorous work continues to the present day.
When news eventually reached believers in Britain and Europe, Strong’s story confirmed what had previously seemed for many to be only a theory. No one could imagine how a lone missionary like Strong could have been materially maintained with no set salary and no organizational backing for so many years. It was in 1842 that George Muller heard of him and was able to provide some help. Here was a missionary working on scriptural principles whom Muller was delighted to support with gifts from the funds of the Scriptural Knowledge Institution.
Strong’s furlough in England made interest in British Guiana deepen. Muller recorded in his Narrative that on August, 31, 1843, Mr. and Mrs. Barrington of Bristol sailed with Strong for Demerara. Eleven months later, one of the pillars of the congregation at Bethesda followed; fifty-two-year-old Mr. Mordal, a father of a large family. Mordal died of fever on January 9, 1845, only three months after arriving.
Mr. Strong left Demerara for good in 1848 or 1849. He settled at Torquay, on the south coast of England where his ministry was valued. He wrote several beautiful tracts and books, including one on Daniel. He was a welcome speaker at the meetings held in London on prophecy, and was one of the first writers in the well-known missionary periodical, Echoes of Service. The cries of perishing souls in the regions beyond seemed to ring in his ears and burn in his heart. A gifted and gracious man, he was greatly beloved. He died in London in 1874, aged 77, but was buried in Torquay, where he had lived and labored faithfully since leaving the West Indies.
Much of the material for this article has been taken from the following sources:
Brethren: The Story of a Great Recovery by David J. Beattie, pp. 316-317
Chief Men Among the Brethren compiled by Hy. Pickering, pp. 22-23
A Modern Experiment in Apostolic Missions by Rendle Short, p. 40
The Origins of the Brethren by Harold H. Rowdon, pp. 185-187
That the World May Know, Vol. 2 by Fredk. A. Tatford, pp. 265-271