Lee and Susannah Compere.
Lee was born to Anglican parents John and Grace Fox Compere in the English town of Market Harborough on November 3, 1790. Orphaned at age six, Lee and his younger sister, Betsy, were raised by a family of Baptists. Lee's fifteen-year-old sister, Jane, was left to care for herself. All three Compere children eventually embraced the Baptist faith, but none more actively than Lee, who devoted his life to ministry.
In 1815, the Baptist Mission Society (BMS) of England appointed Lee to serve as a missionary among the slaves in the British colony of Jamaica. While visiting a church shortly before he was to leave for Jamaica, twenty-five-year-old Lee was introduced to Susannah Voysey, the mission-minded eighteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy London family. Lee and Susannah married within weeks of meeting and departed for Jamaica shortly afterward, in late 1815.
After a successful but controversial mission effort in Jamaica, where they apparently angered the BMS by openly opposing slavery, Lee and Susannah made a new home in South Carolina in 1817. They still felt the call of Christian missions, and when Georgia Baptists called for missionaries to establish a school at the Creek Indian town of Tuckabatchee, near modern-day Tallassee, Alabama, the Comperes happily accepted the task. The Compere family, now including Lee's sister Jane, moved to Tuckabatchee in 1822 and opened their school, called Withington Station, in 1823.
The Comperes largely ignored official Creek opposition to Christian evangelism. As in Jamaica, when they found that politics and culture conflicted with their calling, they erred on the side of their calling. This inevitably invited controversy.
The first years of the work at Tuckabatchee held great promise. The Comperes taught their Creek students, ministered to small communities of Christians of various races living in the Creek Nation, and reported to their supporters what they learned about Creek culture.
Then, in 1825, a small group of Creek leaders claiming to represent the entire nation signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, selling to the Americans enormous tracts of Creek lands. The treaty was obviously fraudulent, and Lee openly denounced it. He also was falsely rumored to have been involved in the Creeks' subsequent killing of William McIntosh, the leader of the Creek faction that approved the treaty. The Comperes's Georgia sponsors were outraged by Lee's outspokenness in defense of Creek rights and withdrew financial support for his mission. Lee found new sponsors among Baptists in other parts of the country, but such fundraising increasingly forced him to take time away from his teaching and preaching.
The End of the Mission
Among the Creeks, as in Jamaica, the abolitionist Comperes found a receptive audience for Christianity among black slaves. The Creek slave-owners eventually responded by forbidding their slaves to visit Withington Station. The Comperes continued their ministry, but at a terrible cost to the slaves. While Lee was away from the mission in May 1828, a party of Creeks entered the station as Susannah led church services. The Creeks dragged the slaves into the yard of the station and tortured each in turn. When Lee returned, one of the Creek participants explained that the violence resulted from the extreme frustration and hopelessness growing in the Creek Nation. He said whites continued to come into the nation promising friendship and other benefits, none of which ever seemed to appear. There was no point in the Creeks accepting Christianity, the man told Lee, because it was clear that the whites would destroy the Creeks anyway.
The violence at the station was the beginning of the end of the Comperes's work among the Creeks. Lee became afraid to leave his family alone and in any case had long since grown weary of the fundraising, bureaucratic frustrations, and widespread opposition to his work, and increasingly clear was the fact that the Americans would soon succeed in parting the Creeks from their land.
Although Lee was suspicious of American intentions, he quietly advocated the voluntary removal of the Creeks--but not because he wanted Americans to have the Creek land that would eventually become part of the state of Alabama. Rather, he wanted the Creeks to be free from what he saw as the dangerous pressures of an encroaching, greedy, un-Christ-like culture and the internal political corruption he felt it bred among Creek leaders. His vision, essentially, was for a new Creek Nation in the West, where Creeks, under the protection of the U.S. government, could choose new leaders who would embrace Christianity.
The Path West
In 1829, the Compere family left the Creek Nation and settled on a farm near Montgomery. There, Lee and Susannah established another school, founded First Baptist Church of Montgomery, and served the Alabama Baptist Convention in a variety of ways.
In 1833, the Compere family left Alabama, stopping first in Benton, Mississippi, where Susannah died on September 6 of the next year while nursing victims of an epidemic. The family relocated to Tennessee for a year, then returned to Mississippi, settling in Holly Springs.
Lee married Sarah Jane Beck in 1836 and continued to preach while also farming and managing small business ventures to make a living. In his final years, Lee lived with his son Thomas in Arkansas and Texas, and died near Corsicana, Texas, on June 15, 1871.
Seven of Lee and Susannah's nine children survived infancy--Frances, Elizabeth Tobither, Nancy Jane, Susannah Voysey ("Muscogee"), Thomas Hichigee, William, and Ebenezer Lee. Each of the sons followed his father in ministry and education. Lee had at least one other surviving child, Sarah Channing, with Sarah Jane Beck.
Lee and Susannah Compere left to Alabama a remarkable legacy of courage and concern for what Lee called "the cause of humanity." Their willingness to speak out against injustice wherever they found it anticipated the civil rights struggles of the twentieth century.
Compere, Jane. Letter of Jane Compere to Ebenezer Lee Compere. Birmingham: Samford University Special Collection Department, ca. 1850.
Compere, Lee. Letters and Journals of Lee Compere. Valley Forge, PA: American Baptist Historical Society Papers (copy in Special Collection Department, University Library, Samford University), 1823-1833.
Flynt, Sean. "In Singleness of Heart: Origins of the First Baptist Mission to the Creek Nation." Birmingham: The Alabama Baptist Historian, 38, no. 2 (2002): 15-24.
Green, Michael D. The Politics of Indian Removal: Creek Government and Society in Crisis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Hickerson, Amy Compere. The Westward Way. Atlanta: Home Mission Board, 1945.
The Creek People http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creek_(people)
(1.) Adapted from Sean Flynt, "Lee and Susannah Compere," Encyclopedia of Alabama, http://eoa.auburn.edu/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1046, accessed July 2, 2008. Reprinted by permission from the Encyclopedia of Alabama. Copyright by the Alabama Humanities Foundation. www.EncyclopediaofAlabama.org.
Sean Flynt is the electronic newsletter editor at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.
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|Publication:||Baptist History and Heritage|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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