Glimmers of visionary spirit appeared in William Clarence Haas at an early age. Born in 1873 in Mendon, Michigan, William had an unusually keen mind coupled with a sensitive nature and outstanding abilities in music and linguistics. His thirst for the deep truths of God’s Word were insatiable, even before his salvation in his teens. Once saved, he offered his life completely to Jesus Christ.
A clear call to serve in Africa followed almost immediately. But for years he kept this call hidden from his invalid mother, fearing her reaction. When he finally told her in early 1895, she cried out, “God has answered my prayer! For years I have been praying that He would call you to Africa.”
But William first had to pass through a wilderness, a period of growth and tempering for Africa’s challenges. By his early 20s, he was becoming known as a gifted Bible teacher and evangelist. In October 1895, he married Alta Rippey, the choir director at the church he pastored. The couple had two daughters, but both died very young. In 1908, William also lost Alta to tuberculosis. Alone in life, William resigned his church to pursue missions.
He sought comfort from a dear childhood friend, Genevieve Armstrong. She was like him in many ways: a diligent student of the Word, passionate about prayer, and gifted in music. Despite her frail health, she possessed a strong call to Africa. They married in 1909, and their son, William Jr., was born the following year.
The Haases intended to embark for Africa as independent missionaries, but churches felt it unwise they go alone, so William and Genevieve joined a nondenominational mission agency, arriving in Kenya in 1912. William felt called to move interior to reach a feared cannibalistic tribe, the Zandes. His agency, however, felt his giftedness would be better used in translation work. Challenged with a difficult crossroads, William followed God’s call. He severed ties with his agency in 1914 and pressed inland to French Equatorial Africa in what is today the Central African Republic.
William, Genevieve, and little Billy set out alone with no agency and no access to a bank account, relying solely on God. On the long route, God fed them through kind Africans and sympathetic government officials. One thing they could not get, however, was permission to purchase land and build structures. Government officials were suspicious of this family without a mission society to speak for them.
William’s visionary spirit found an unprecedented solution. In the early 1900s, a growing number of Baptist churches were becoming independent, separating from Baptist conventions that no longer believed in the fundamentals of the Bible. Taking his family back to the US, William rallied independent Baptist pastors with his vision: create an independent Baptist missionary agency—the first of its kind—where missionaries could serve in full accord with their biblical convictions. The pastors united in this vision, and on October 15, 1920, they met in the prayer room of the First Baptist Church of Elyria, Ohio, to organize The General Council of Cooperating Baptist Missions of North America, Inc., the agency later known as Baptist Mid-Missions.
William spread the word in Bible colleges and churches. By November 23, 1920, he and his first five recruits sailed from New York Harbor for Africa: newlyweds Ferd and Ina Rosenau, Rowena Becker (saved three years earlier at a Billy Sunday meeting), and an evangelist and his wife, Arthur and Blanche Young, along with their two children.
In their earlier years in Africa, William and Genevieve endured steady bouts of life-threatening African fevers. Genevieve’s health became so compromised that she and Billy had to remain in the US. This separation was one of William’s great sorrows, but the only things they loved greater than each other were their Lord and His call to Africa. And so William threw his heart into his task. He introduced his recruits to the people of the Central African Republic (CAR) and taught them Sango, a local trade language. William translated hymns and portions of Scripture into Sango, laying the foundation for the Sango Bible that played a significant role in Sango’s becoming the official language of CAR.
William settled the new missionaries onto three stations: the Rosenaus at Fort Sibut, the Youngs at Fort Crampel, and Rowena Becker at Bangassou. God worked mighty miracles to establish His message. At Sibut, William prayed for the healing of an important chief. God healed that chief, who soon received Christ and drove all the witch doctors from his village.
At Bangassou, Rowena Becker found she had settled on a hill considered to be the resting place of the spirit of a deceased witch doctor, Bangassou himself. When the incantations of witch doctors all over the area were unsuccessful in driving out Rowena, the people concluded that her God was more powerful than theirs. Such a great door opened for the message of God’s Word that thousands gave their lives to Christ.
William’s colleagues marveled at his exceptional mind. Possessing a photographic memory, William had memorized virtually the entire Bible. When his recruits tested him with difficult passages, he never failed to recite the verse and its context. Linda Seymour, whom William recruited (along with her husband, Arthur), wrote, “You knew he was a Christian at all times. You just never heard anything else. His voice was kind, so kind and compassionate, and his way so loving, you felt as if you were in the presence of the Lord. He talked only of the most important things in life and interspersed every conversation with prayer, including Christ in an intimate way. He was interested in people, their families and their lives, but he did not engage in frivolous chatter.”
Two of William’s contemporaries were C.T. Studd and Alfred Buxton. Buxton wrote of William in his book, With C.T. Studd in Congo Forests, “Haas was a unique man in many ways, besides his restless zeal .… He had an active brain, constantly planning schemes for the advance of the Gospel.” William was never satisfied to limit his mission to one area; his vision was as large as the world. In 1922, his young agency appointed its first missionaries to Latin America, with more recruits signing on for Asia in 1923.
William no doubt took deep satisfaction in the expansion of the gospel far beyond Africa. Yet he saw only a small portion of what God would do through Baptist Mid-Missions. Weakened by years of African diseases, William grew ill with a violent attack of fever in February 1924 at Bangassou. He seemed to recover, only to sicken three more times, with severe heart trouble complicating his illness. By May 28, he was being attended by a French doctor, two missionary nurses (Margaret Nicholl and Laura Bayne) and Rowena Becker. As his life drew to a close, he spoke, “The Lord is my Shepherd … when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil …” His voice trailed off, too weak to continue. Rowena finished, “… for thou art with me.” William had spoken his last words, and he was soon in the presence of Jesus, whom he had loved and served so faithfully.
As William’s body was carried to his grave, the chapel bells rang over and over until the missionaries and Africans reached his gravesite. They set up a large, flat monument stone, and Rowena ordered blue and white enamel plates bearing his name and final words. The palm trees still surround his grave on the picturesque Bangassou hilltop.
Haas’s life was poured out like a drink offering, an act of supreme worship. Today in the Central African Republic, hundreds of churches and possibly five or six generations of Christians trace their spiritual roots to Haas and those who followed his vision. And thousands upon thousands of Christians on every continent live as new creations in Christ, thanks to the unstoppable vision of a man willing to sacrifice all that was precious to him to gain what was eternally priceless.