The year 2006 marks the centenary celebrations of the first African Pentecostal Church in Britain. This Church, now known as Sureway International Christian Ministries, was founded by the late Rev. Thomas Kwame Brem-Wilson around 1906. The year 1906 is very significant in Pentecostal history as it was the year that the Pentecostal revival of Azusa Street in Los Angeles started, led by William J. Seymour. Some scholars and commentators see this event as the beginning of the Pentecostal Movement, while others will argue that it was in 1900/1901 at Topeka Kansas with Charles Parham that modern Pentecostalism originated. Pentecostals are best defined by the Baptism of the Holy Spirit with the emphasis of speaking in tongues. In addition, this Church movement is characterised by emphasis on gifts and move of the Spirit, healing, revival meetings, miracles, prophetic giftings and free and ecstatic worship.
A further debate associated with the history of Pentecostalism is whether Charles Parham (1873-1929) or William J. Seymour (1870-1922) is the founder of the movement. Those who prefer Parham do so on the basis that he formulated the Pentecostal theology of speaking in tongues as the initial evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. However others prefer Seymour on the understanding that the Pentecostal missionary movement and ecumenical vision which transcends racism started with Seymour’s movement in Azusa Street in 1906. Whichever our take, one thing is clear and that is that the origins of Pentecostalism in Britain are very much linked to the event in Azusa Street.
The Welsh Revival of Evan Roberts in 1904 was the catalyst of the Pentecostal Movement in Britain as it sowed the seeds and laid the foundation, however it was the influence of the Azusa Street Revival on the likes of T.B. Barratt from Norway, Cecil Polhill and Alexander A. Boddy that led to the start of Pentecostalism in Britain. Boddy (1854-1930), an Anglican priest at All Saints in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, has been considered the father of Pentecostalism in Britain because his Church from 1907 became a meeting point where different people came to experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit. One of the people that was baptised in the Spirit through his ministry was Smith Wigglesworth (1859-1947) a pioneer of faith. Another person who was baptised in the Spirit at one of the revival meetings in Sunderland was Rev. Kwame Brem-Wilson who was a Ghanaian business man and School Master at a missionary school in Ghana. He was born in Dixcove, Ghana in 1855 and came to Britain in 1901. In 1906 Rev. Brem-Wilson started Sumner Road Chapel in Peckham, South East London. As a result of his attendance and contribution at the revival meetings in Sunderland in 1907, Rev. Brem-Wilson developed relationships with Alexander Boddy and Cecil Polhill who were founders of the first Pentecostal missionary movement in Britain; the Pentecostal Missionary Union. He was also friends with the founders of the Apostolic Church D.P. Williams and W.J. Williams as he hosted an Apostolic Church conference in London in 1923. These relationships were very important at that particular time when it was not acceptable to be black or associated with anything black, and they reveal the Pentecostal significance of breaking down racial barriers. In addition, they also demonstrate the ecumenical dynamics of early Pentecostals.
Sumner Road Chapel had many problems with premises and for this reason they had to move about 8 times within 15 years of their early existence (1906-1920). Past locations of the Church have included a Blind Factory in Peckham, an archway underneath a railway station at Rye Lane, Castle Buildings on Mansion Street in Camberwell and Elder Street, East London. The church finally settled at Sumner Road Chapel (a Methodist Church building) in 1920. In 1950 an extension was added to the church to include a kitchen and nursery area. The ministry grew substantially while at Sumner Road, where multiple Sunday services were held to cater for the thriving numbers. Rev. Brem-Wilson passed away in 1929 leaving the Church without a leader until around 1941. During this void in the leadership the Church became affiliated to the Assemblies of God in Britain. In 1942 the white British Rev. Charles Cortson became the new minister and led the Church for about 10 years. From 1952 to the present the Church has had 4 ministers; Rev. William Golding (1952-1960), Rev. Lewis (1960-1962), Rev. Ronald Eske (1962-2006) and Rev. Steve Armah, incumbent minister. It is interesting to note that the current minister is also a Ghanaian and was the minister when the Church celebrated 100 years. In 2004, due to space, the Church moved from Sumner Road Chapel in Peckham to Higgs Industrial Estate, Herne Hill. The Church is now known as Sureway International Christian Ministries. It is a multicultural Church having more than 20 nationalities represented, and they are also involved in mission work in other countries.
The history of African Churches in Europe is a fascinating subject as new research work and discoveries are being found all the time. Churches such as the Celestial Church of Christ founded in Munich Germany in 1974, The Kimbanguist Church founded in Belgium in 1978, and the True Teachings of Christ’s Temple founded in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1976 by Rev. Daniel Himmans-Arday, were all formerly considered to be the first African Churches in Europe. To some extent these assertions, usually by the founders of these Churches, were partially true as they were the first African Churches in their respective European countries. This means that The True Teachings of Christ’s Temple was the first African Church in the Netherlands, albeit not in Europe. In the case of the UK, the first African Church was formerly considered to be the Church of Lord Aladura founded by Apostle Adejobi in 1964 in South East London. Marika Sherwood then wrote about Pastor Daniels Ekarte’s Church African Churches Mission founded in Liverpool in 1931 (Pastor Daniels Ekarte and the African Churches Mission, London, Savannah Press, 1994). However more light has been shed on the first African Church in Europe through Sureway International Christian Ministries documenting their own story, particularly for their centenary celebrations in 2006, and through the writings and research work of Ian MacRobert, David Killingray (currently working on a book about Rev. Kwame Brem-Wilson) and Desmond Cartwright. My sense is that there is still more to be revealed about the beginnings of African Churches in Europe.
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