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
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.