William Henry Sheppard (1865 – 1927) was born March 8, 1865, in Waynesboro, Virginia. A black whose father was a barber and whose mother was a maid in Virginia, He was taught from early childhood the Christian ideals of his parents. His early training and Christian nurture was at the First Presbyterian Church in Waynesboro where his father served for many years as sexton.
Eagerly seizing every opportunity available to him, he enrolled in Hampton Institute, at age fifteen, on a work scholarship and attended night classes. While working with the chaplain in a mission Sunday School, Sheppard decided his life should be spent in carrying the Gospel to the poor, destitute and forgotten people. He was taken under care of the presbytery and sent for training to Stillman Institute in Tuscaloosa.
He was accepted and graduated from Stillman in1884. After his ordination in Tuscaloosa, he served a church in Montgomery, Alabama for three years and then in May, 1887, accepted a call to the Harris Street Church in Atlanta, GA. It was here that he felt strongly the call to missionary work in Africa and began his correspondence with the Executive Committee of Foreign Mission.
Samuel N. Lapsley (1866 – 1892) was born on April 14, 1866 in Selma, Alabama. His father was a judge and an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Selma and later became a Moderator of the General Assembly. The power of religion was early manifested in the life of young Lapsley. He was admitted to Communion at Selma, First on his 10th birthday. He acted as superintendent of a Sunday School for black children in a little church in Vine Hill which was built by his father. The church was built out and away from town near the summer home of the Lapsleys - one reason was to avoid the summer fevers which plagued the southern towns in the summer months.
Sam Lapsley was a very talented young man and could be heard playing the piano and organ at the Vine Hill Church on summer evenings. He attended the University of Alabama and was instrumental, along with his brother James, in organizing the Young Men’s Christian Association at the University. He was employed during his senior year, when he was not quite eighteen years old, as an assistant professor, and was elected for the third time in 1886 to serve in that capacity, but declined for the purpose of entering the ministry. Sam came under the care of the Presbytery of North Alabama and joined the First Presbyterian Church of Anniston. It was while Sam was a student at McCormick Theological Seminary that the mission field in the Congo was opening up and he applied and received a commission to go to the Congo.
In 1889, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church voted to establish the Congo Mission, yet no one seemed willing to go. Two young men, Samuel N. Lapsley, a student at McCormick Seminary, and William Henry Sheppard, who had just completed his studies at Stillman College, applied for the positions. Lapsley wrote to the Secretary of the Foreign Missions Board and asked to be considered for the position of missionary to the Congo Valley in Africa. After traveling to London for briefing and obtaining equipment, Sheppard and Lapsley arrived at the mouth of the Congo River, May 10, 1890.
A dangerous trip far into the interior led to the choice of a site - Luebo, in the heart of the African jungle - the first site Sheppard and Lapsley chose. There in an open glade of the forest, some twenty minutes walk from the river, they pitched their tent on April 22 and set about making their home. On Sunday, May 3 they had their first communion — wine and cakes of manioc flour were the elements.
Traveling was difficult, and it soon became evident that a boat would be needed. When word reached the States of the need of a boat, the children of the First Presbyterian Church of Selma initiated a drive to raise money to build the boat - later called the S.N. Lapsley. The children wrote to the Christian Observer:
Dear Mr. Converse,
We, a class of Sunday School boys have started to raise money for a steamboat for our foreign missionary in the Congo Free State of Africa. Our teacher says the missionary was once a little barefooted boy like me and played on the very playground we play in and went to the same Sunday School where we go. He writes home that he does not see how his work can succeed without a boat. We ask every Sunday School teacher and pupil and Christian in the United States to give at least 1¢ to God to help get this boat. This boat would help all the other missionaries that go that far up too.
Your little friend,
Willie Nee Lapsley
And so the boat was funded - money from everywhere came in and on June of 1900, the boat was completed and dedicated in the shipyards of Richmond, VA. It was taken apart, packed in boxes and shipped across the Atlantic to Leopoldville
Rev. Lacklan C. Vass, grandfather of Julia Lake Vass Dudley, (wife of William E. Dudley, Memorial Presbyterian Church, and Montgomery) was serving as a missionary in the Congo, and was asked to re—assemble the ship which had been christened S.N. Lapsley.
Although not a shipbuilder, when Vass’ fellow missionaries urgently insisted that he undertake the task of re-assembling the Lapsley, he answered “with God’s help, I will do my best.” At Leopoldville he build his own slip-way, managed to unload the five carloads of boat parts, including the heavy boiler and engines, and with unskilled African help, set about the unfamiliar and terrible responsible task of re-assembling the boat.
It was completed by the end of March and on April 2, 1901, the S.N. Lapsley made her trial trip - which was successful in every way. Mr. Vass piloted the Lapsley safely to Luebo - through all the dangers of hidden rocks and sand bars, sudden storms, violent winds, and swift and powerful currents.
It was reported in the Kasai Herald, July, 1901 edition that “never before in the history of this country has a steamer been rebuilt and actually brought one thousand miles into the interior by a man who has previously had no experience in that work.” For eighteen months, the mission knew the joy of possessing her own steamer. Then disaster struck.
Mr. Vass had warned everyone that the Lapsley was better suited for American rivers than the Congo with its gigantic cauldron and whirlpools and deadly cross currents. On November 16, 1903, the boat was caught in a tremendous whirlpool and the waters boiled with tremendous force. The steamer was lost - with more than twenty-three missionaries and Africans drowned. The State raised the Lapsley and returned her to Leopoldville. Mr. Vass, who was barely saved himself from the disaster, returned to Leopoldville to attend to all business connected with the salvaging of the boat and cargo.
Money poured in from Africa, the missionaries themselves, and the churches and individuals in the United States who had given money to build the first Lapsley. The second Lapsley, built under the direction of Mr. Vass, was built in Scotland and dedicated there on December 15, 1906. She plied the Congo and its tributaries for more than twenty-five more years before she was retired.
William Sheppard and Samuel N. Lapsley worked together in the Congo for almost three years when Sam Lapsley came down with a fever and died on March 26, 1892. While on furlough in 1893 Sheppard married a graduate of Talladega College who was then teaching in Birmingham, Alabama. She too became a pioneer in mission. She began the first school in the Presbyterian Congo Mission at Ibanche; she was instrumental in having printed the first book, a Hymnal, in the Tshiluba dialect; she was the first foreign woman to enter the Bakuba Kingdom; and she was the founder of the first Woman’s Society of the Congo Mission.
William and Lucy Sheppard continued the mission work in the Congo for some twenty years after Lapsley’s death, working alongside other missionary pioneers from the States - many of these from the state of Alabama.