MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the story of an overcomer.
Betsey Stockton started life as a slave in New Jersey. She became a missionary and a groundbreaking educator. WORLD Radio’s Paul Butler has her story.
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Betsey Stockton was born sometime in 1798. She never knew her father, and her mother was a slave. Betsey was still a child when her master, Robert Stockton, gave her to his eldest daughter. She had just married Abel Green, a Presbyterian minister.
Green eventually served as president of Princeton University. During a campus revival, Betsey placed her faith in Christ. In 1817 she became a member of the church, and the Greens granted her freedom. She stayed on as paid staff—faithfully attending Sabbath school and reading many theology, geography, and science books in the expansive Green library.
She wanted to become a foreign missionary and eventually settled on going to the Sandwich Islands, better known now as Hawaii. Her Sunday School teacher wrote a forceful reference letter, describing her as: “pious, industrious, apt to teach.” He added that Betsey was more acquainted with sacred history than almost one he knew. Abel Green also lobbied on her behalf.
At the time, the Presbyterian and Congregational mission board didn’t send young, single women to the field. To get around that, the agency allowed Betsey to join a missionary family—the Stewarts—as a nurse for their first child. The mission contract demanded Betsey was not to be treated as a servant, rather, as a co-laborer sharing in the mission of teaching.
Betsey Stockton became the first single woman appointed by the board, and the first African American missionary to serve.
On November 20th, 1822, she, along with 13 other missionaries, left New Haven, Connecticut. Stockton kept a journal during their five month journey to the islands, published as a serial by Abel Green.
Myrna Brown reads one of her earliest entries:
STOCKTON: At 10 o’clock I went on deck: the scene that presented itself was, to me, the most sublime I ever witnessed. How, thought I, can “those who go down to the sea in ships” deny the existence of God?
Her reflections are part travel log, spiritual diary, and occasional field journal.
STOCKTON: December 31st — If it were in my power I would like to describe the Phosphorescence of the sea. But to do this would require the pen of a Milton: and he, I think, would fail, were he to attempt it. I never saw any display of Fire-works that equalled it for beauty.
A few months into their voyage they hit stormy conditions, and contrary winds. It took them more than three weeks to navigate around Cape Horn. Some days, they made little or no forward progress, just tacking back and forth.
STOCKTON: February 9th — We cannot write or read with comfort; and if we attempt to eat, sitting on chairs that are not lashed, the chance is ten to one that we are thrown across the cabin, before the meal is over. I have had several pretty hard blows on my head
During some of these challenging days, Betsey was overwhelmed with her own spiritual battle—even more fierce than the waves and wind around her.
The morning was pleasant, but I could not enjoy it—I was wretched—I could not enjoy my friends, because I could not enjoy my God.
Once the ship reached Pacific waters, the trip became much more pleasant. Betsey writes that God lifted “the dark cloud” from her soul—feeling as “peaceful as the ocean” that calmly stretched before her.
When the Stewarts had their baby, her journal became more irregular:
The little fellow beguiles many of my lonely hours; and you must excuse me if my journal is now weekly instead of daily. From the first moment that I saw the little innocent, I felt emotions that I was unacquainted with before.
On May 4th, 1823, the band of missionaries finally reached the Hawaiian islands. They were welcomed by locals dressed only in loincloths.
May 4th — When they first came on board, the sight chilled our very hearts. The ladies retired to the cabin, and burst into tears; and some of the gentlemen turned pale: my own soul sickened within me, and every nerve trembled.
But Stockton, and the others, soon softened.
We informed them that we were missionaries, come to live with them, and do them good. At which an old man exclaimed, in his native dialect, what may be thus translated—“That is very good, by and by, know God.”
Betsey stayed in Hawaii for two and a half years. During that time she served as unofficial mission nurse. She also organized and ran the first school on the islands open to locals.
Her ministry was cut short by Mrs. Stewart’s poor health and they returned home. Betsey moved to Philadelphia where she started a school for blacks. She then joined a mission in Canada, where she began a school for Native American children. Later, she moved back to Princeton, New Jersey, and opened a school for black children there. She also started a Sabbath school and faithfully taught every weekend for more than 25 years. She never married, but surrounded herself with children every day of the week.
Betsey Stockton died in 1865, and the president of Princeton college led her funeral. She was a favorite of the faculty and community.
Here’s Myrna Brown again with one last journal entry from 1823:
I would not, I could not, I dare not, look with longing eyes towards my native land. No sir, my hand lies on the plough, and if my poor wretched heart does not deceive me, I would not take it off for all the wealth of America.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.