Sunday, October 3, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we remember the work of Missionary James Cameron in Madagascar.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 3rd of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Back in February, we told the story of Queen Ranavalona II of Madagascar and her baptism in 1869 that ushered in the legalization of Christianity on that island republic off the East Coast of Africa.

Today we will tell the story behind that story and it involves a Scottish Carpenter, a brick, a bar of soap, and a manual on the principles of Gravity, among other things.

A few things to remember about the 4th largest island that is not its own continent. “Madagascar” was the name given to it by European explorers following the lead of Marco Polo who confused it with the town of Mogadishu on the African continent. 

We can trace its inhabitants back to the 4th century when Austronesian settlers and African Bantu intermarried to create the Malagasy peoples. Significant contact began with the West when Portuguese Catholics landed on the island en route to India in the 16th century.

In 1810 Radama I was the first local chieftain to unify the island as the “Kingdom of Madagascar” and initiate diplomatic relations with western powers. At the time the London Missionary Society was a de facto arm of the British Empire and the first missionaries were sent to improve the education and infrastructure on the island. As we have seen before, missionaries- but especially 19th-century western missionaries- could fall prey to an emphasis on an adventure or imperialistic plots. But today we meet a simple Scottish carpenter: James Cameron, whose work would forever change the island republic.

Cameron was born in 1800 in Dunkeld- a delightful town in central Scotland on the River Tay. We know very little of his early life except that he took a liking to theology, the natural sciences, and carpentry. He moved to England and worked in wool and machinery while waiting to be accepted for a call from the London Missionary Society.

Cameron set sail for Madagascar in 1825 during the last years of King Radama’s short reign. When Radama died in 1828 his wife, Ranavalona I took the throne and began looking to expel westerners- especially western missionaries. Cameron was popular on account of his practical skills- he built his own home with local materials and soon helped many natives build sturdy homes with brick and stone. The bricks he taught the locals to make would become a staple of Malagasy architecture.

A printing press was sent to the island by the Missionary Society but the printer died upon arrival. Cameron figured out how to work the press and soon published, among other things, a short work on the principles of gravity. He would also print regular astronomical charts and an almanac. But Ranavalona I wanted nothing to do with the missionaries and threatened to expel them immediately. The missionaries needed to buy time to finish their translation of the Bible into Malagasy and Cameron figured he could present the queen with a gift in order to extend their time. Ranavalona I wanted something useful and Cameron manufactured two bars of white soap, with the promise that he could manufacture more. This pleased the queen who allowed the missionaries to stay (and in the 6 years before she changed her mind, they finished the Bible project).

Ranavalona I would expel Cameron and the others, and many went to South Africa to work and wait to hopefully make it back. But it would be 30 years before Ranavalona II would replace her deceased Aunt. But Cameron was still waiting and arrived immediately in 1861, and despite his advanced age he helped construct buildings and was present for the baptism of Ranavalona II and thousands more in 1869. Cameron would continue his work on the island that he considered home for another 6 years- dying on this, the 3rd of October in 1875. 

The last word for today comes the last verses of Malachi- the last words in the Old Testament:

4 The day of judgment is certain to come. And it will be like a red-hot furnace with flames that burn up proud and sinful people, as though they were straw. Not a branch or a root will be left. I, the Lord All-Powerful, have spoken! 2 But for you that honor my name, victory will shine like the sun with healing in its rays, and you will jump around like calves at play. 3 When I come to bring justice, you will trample those who are evil, as though they were ashes under your feet. I, the Lord All-Powerful, have spoken!

4 Don’t ever forget the laws and teachings I gave my servant Moses on Mount Sinai.

5 I, the Lord, promise to send the prophet Elijah before that great and terrible day comes. 6 He will lead children and parents to love each other more, so that when I come, I won’t bring doom to the land.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 3rd of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a connoisseur of the 3 animated Madagascar movies- his favorite is Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. He is Christoper Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who remembers walking the streets of Dunkeld with a sausage roll and Irn Bru. I’m Dan van Voorhis

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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