The Faith-Filled Missionary Journey of John Day

Editor’s Note: History offers stories of missionaries who have gone before us to take the gospel to the unreached. Names like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, and Lottie Moon are familiar, but there are countless other missionaries whose stories can encourage and teach us. Today we share one of those stories—of John Day, an African-American who served the Lord during the time of slavery.

At the end of his life, missionary John Day Jr., of Liberia, offered a moving summary of his life’s calling to overseas mission, preaching, and public service: “Let me but be in the path of duty, with the promises of God to sustain me and I can hope against hope and persevere, though mountains of difficulty oppose me. God is omnipotent, and he who is promised is faithful.” [1]

“John Day sought to bring the hope of salvation to African people he understood to be in desperate need.”

Day’s Influential Background

John Day was born February 18, 1797, at Hicks Ford, Virginia. A cabinet maker and preacher by trade, Day was an African-American colonist of Liberia who had experienced a world of harsh pain and division in America. He sought to bring the hope of salvation to African people he understood to be in desperate need.

Day’s parents and grandparents were free blacks and enjoyed many rights withheld by law from slaves of African descent. However, legal codes, introduced in response to a six-fold increase in the freedman population between 1790–1840, reduced those rights. [2]

In 1822, the American Colonization Society established a territory in Africa for free black Americans who were increasingly disenfranchised during this period of decreasing civil, religious, and social rights.

These individuals found themselves in the unique position of implementing their own model society from scratch, with the ultimate goal of integrating the region’s native peoples. Over the next five decades, twelve thousand American settlers made the transatlantic journey.[3]

Day’s Journey to Liberia

Initially hoping to witness and preach in Haiti, Day came to view newly opened Liberia and its vast, unreached population as the object of his evangelistic focus and talents.

Baptized in 1820, Day was licensed to preach the following year. He honed his craft by preaching alongside preachers and missions leaders such as Luther Rice [4] and James Chappelle Clopton, the distant cousin of Foreign Mission Board (FMB) missionary to China, Samuel Clopton.[5] He was a member of High Hills Baptist Church in Sussex, Virginia, the same church as Jeremiah Jeter, the FMB’s first president (the equivalent of today’s Chairman of the Trustees). [6]

In December 1830, Day, his wife Polly, and their four children immigrated to Liberia. Over the ensuing years, after his appointment by the Triennial Convention at Bexley, Grand Bassa in 1835, Day cultivated an amazing array of disciplines and talents, including the reading and application of the law, the practice of medicine, and the supervision of a mercantile house. [7]

The FMB selected Day as its inaugural supervisor and treasurer of the Field and Executive Committee for Sierra Leone and Liberia in September 1846. [8] Day became the first black official entrusted with field supervisory responsibilities, as well as the first administrator of any background to exclusively control budget and funding matters. [9]

“Day established churches and Sunday schools deliberately inclusive of both indigenous and colonist alike.”

Day’s Multifaceted Influence

On July 26, 1847, the colonists created an independent Republic of Liberia, issuing a Declaration of Independence modeled by the United States Constitution. A signee of the Liberia Declaration of Independence, Day also acted as chief justice of the Liberian Supreme Court and served as an elected member of the National Convention. [10]

Having cultivated the royal protection and alliance of thirteen local, indigenous kings, Day opened a Manual Labor School with fifty of the royals’ sons as scholars. Fanning out in a seventy-five- to one-hundred-mile radius to preach to ten thousand unreached Africans, Day established churches and Sunday schools deliberately inclusive of both indigenous and colonist alike.

In 1854, he established a national academy named Day’s Hope. The high school and its ancillary girls’ academy served to end “indigenous bonds and fears of witchcraft and superstition” so that “men of good character, enlarged minds, good common sense and warm hearts—glorious results may follow.” [11]

“I am preparing mothers,” he wrote, “to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, young kings to rule in righteousness, and a large company to carry the Word abroad.” [12]

Day’s Legacy

Sadly for Day, his earthly time of training young men called and qualified to preach the gospel was prematurely ended by an apparent seizure while delivering a sermon on February 15, 1859, at Monrovia’s Providence Baptist Church.

Day’s missionary service ended with the clear conviction that his mission to believers and broader Liberian society was being successfully fulfilled. “The natives are becoming more and more enlightened, see more clearly that God controls the affairs of men, and that they are accountable to him and must appear before his righteous bar.” [13] This understanding gave Day the strength to go forward despite the death of two wives and several children and enduring wars between the natives and colonists. He died assured in his call, trusting in a present, all-powerful God.

Jim Berwick currently serves as an archivist with the International Mission Board. Away from the job, he is a committed advocate for endangered Axolotl conservation and awareness.


[1] H.A. Tupper, The Foreign Missions of The Southern Baptist Convention. Richmond: Foreign Mission Board of The Southern Baptist Convention, 1880. p. 299.

[2] Elizabeth Flowers “A Man, a Christian and a Gentleman?”:  John Day, Southern Baptists and the Nineteenth Century Mission to Liberia. Baptist History Heritage. Vol. XLIII, Spring 2008, no. 2. p. 72–76.

[3] Ibid., 72.

[4] Ibid., 76.

[5]Research conducted by David Brady, pastor, Christ Community Church, Mt. Airy, N.C.

[6] Flowers, 77.

[7] Tupper, 294.

[8]Minutes of the Foreign Mission Board. May 6, 1846.

[9] Flowers, 80.

[10] Ibid., 71.

[11] Tupper, 299.

[12]John Day Jr. to James B. Taylor. October 6, 1849, IMB Archives, Richmond, Va.

[13] Tupper, 284.