Independence man writes story of ancestor who worked for human rights as a missionary

Mike Genet
The Examiner
Independence author John Morrison wrote ‘Kuonyi Nxila’ to tell the story of a relative’s missionary work and human rights advocacy in central Africa in the early 20th century. Morrison has the Bible carried throughout his great-uncle's work, as well as a noisemaker gifted to Morrison’s father from his uncle.

One of the last wishes of John Morrison's mother was that Morrison write the proud, century-old story of a relative from a family perspective. 

John's great-uncle, William McCutchan Morrison, was a Presbyterian Christian missionary who served in colonial Congo more than 20 years from 1897 until his death in 1918 at age 50. Because of his work to try to improve the lives of indigenous people grossly exploited by Belgium's King Leopold for rubber collection, William Morrison is considered one of the first internationally recognized human rights advocates. 

John Morrison, a lifelong Independence resident, wrote “Kuonyi Nxila” to fulfill his mother's wish, to tell William's story and, he said, to hopefully provide some solace for people in what have been a crazy few years. The biography has recently been released by Dorrance Publishing. 

The book's title comes from the name that local people bestowed on William, who was born in Virginia. It means “Don't let our paths be blocked,” but Morrison said his great-uncle also believed it to mean “Consider the ramifications of what you do.”  

“The last couple years, things have been such a mess,” Morrison said. “He just seemed like he was a guy who only cared about helping people, and there's not a lot of that going on anymore.” 

Morrison, 74, said a great piece of wishful thinking is that someone hears the meaning of “Kuonyi Nxila” – or some similar phrase – and rethinks a potentially violent act. He said William told the story of a girl saved from potential great harm because she uttered the phrase continuously. 

“It's an important thing to get in your head,” he said. 

An earlier biography of William McCutchan Morrison was written decades ago by a fellow missionary who inherited William's diary and added his own recollections. Morrison said he used that book when a teacher at William Chrisman High School requested a book report from students on a book she had not read.  

“We assumed she'd read every book there was,” Morrison said, but his great-uncle's story fit the bill. 

When the teacher read Morrison's report, she asked Morrison to lend her the book, and she composed her own book report and gave it to Morrison. 

Besides that book, Morrison's source material included published letters written by William's wife Bertha (they met and married during William's first furlough from mission work back in the United States) and a prized heirloom – the Bible carried by William throughout his mission work. 

That Bible was a teacher's copy, with blank opposite pages for the owner to add notes and personal reflections. It had been passed down to William's namesake, Morrison's father, along with a toy noisemaker drum gifted during a later furlough in 1913. William carried the book everywhere he went, including treks by foot of up to 1,000 miles through the heart of Africa. Morrison’s chapter titles come from pertinent Bible passages. 

“This Bible has seen many, many, many miles,” Morrison said. 

Morrison said William's human rights advocacy became known because of the letters he wrote to King Leopold from the home mission in Luebo, as well as the weekly newsletters he composed using a small printing press. Those newsletters reached mission homes and churches in Europe and the United States and piqued the interest of, among others, author Mark Twain, banker J.P. Morgan and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes), who helped bring the plight of the Congolese to the public eye. 

Morrison said missionaries were a “grossly underappreciated group of people” for their willingness to answer a call, give up home conveniences and travel to live in a foreign land. 

“He just wanted to introduce the natives to God and improve their lives,” Morrison said. “We, as a family, are proud of his accomplishments.” 

“The world needs a lot of good vibes,” Morrison said, reiterating his desire to write his great-uncle's story now, “and too many times the choice is something else.” 

“Kuonyi Nxila” is available in paperback and eBook and can be purchased online at bookstore.dorrancep