In these series of articles I want to reflect on the life and ministry of three black Baptist ministers whose immense contribution to mission deserves to be mentioned and applaud. They are, Peter Thomas Stanford (1859-1909), the first black Baptist minister in Britain, Joseph Jackson Fuller (1825-1908) and Thomas L Johnson (1836-1921) both pioneer missionaries in West Africa.
Peter Thomas Stanford: He was born a slave in Virginia in 1859 and was nameless for a long time. Both his parents were slaves and his father was sold off before his birth therefore he did not knew his father. His mother’s owner regarded Peter as an addition to his wealth. During the Civil War, his mother was also sold off to the Southern traders causing him to be separated from her. He was in care of another black woman. He was later kidnapped by Native Americans who cared for him for a little while before he was abandoned yet again. He was rescued by Quakers (Society of Friends) and was sent to an African American orphanage home in Boston. A year later, he was adopted by Mr Stanford who gave him the name Peter Thomas Stanford. Mr Stanford used him as an unpaid labourer and this led to Peter running away. He lived a wild life in street corners until 1872 when he met Rev Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of Shiloah Presbyterian Church. Rev Garnet treated him very well and assisted him in his pursuit of education. Rev Garnet also helped Peter to find a job as a yard boy at Suffield Baptist Institute. In 1874, he was converted at a meeting where the American preacher D.L. Moody was preaching. The job at Suffield Baptist Institute enabled him to join the College to train for the Baptist ministry. Joining the College as a black student was not without its challenges as there was discrimination based on his skin colour. He managed to finish his education in June 1881 and was given work as a missionary to the black community in Hartford, Connecticut. He did this work during the day and preaching in the evenings as well as taking Sunday services. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1878 and became the pastor of Zion Baptist Church, an African American church in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1882, he moved to Canada pastoring two different Baptist churches for a while before coming to Britain in 1883.
He came to Liverpool, England on 14th February 1883 to raise money for his struggling church. He also travelled to other places in England such as London, Leeds, Barnsley and Keighley in Yorkshire. In 1885 he moved to Bradford, but he was not welcomed there therefore in June 1887 he settled in Birmingham. In August 1888, he married an English lady by the name of Beatrice Mabel Strickley who was from West Bromwich. Stanford described Beatrice as one who had ‘an ardent zeal for Christ’. In June 1888, the Rev Stanford as he was now known attended the annual meeting of the Midland Baptist Association held at Stafford. He found Birmingham quite welcoming compared to the other places he had visited in England. On the 8th of May 1889, Rev Peter Stanford received a letter calling and inviting him to be the pastor of Hope Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Here is a copy of the letter:
Baptist Church, Hope Street,
Birmingham, May 8th, 1889.
To the Rev. P.T. Stanford.
Revd. and Dear Sir,
At a meeting on Wednesday, May 8th, it was unanimously decided that we, the members and congregation attending the above place of worship, invite you to become our pastor. You know our condition will not allow us to offer you a large salary, but we offer you our prayers, willing hearts, and hands. Remember, dear Brother, this call is from God, and He has promised to supply all our needs. Trusting you will see your way to accept our offer.
We are, yours faithfully,
Signed on behalf of the Church
JAS. CLARK, Secretary
He accepted this call and this makes him the first black minister in Birmingham as well as the first black Baptist minister in Britain. Despite the church’s eagerness to benefit from his ministry, the reality proved very different as he was libelled, slandered, ostracised, suspected and opposed. Through all these, he was, with the help of his wife and friends such as Rev Charles Joseph, pastor of Victoria Street Baptist Chapel and his lawyer A.T. Carr able to overcome these difficulties. He was able to praise God acknowledging that in spite of his birth as a slave and the colour of his skin he became a pastor in the great city of Birmingham. This he wrote in his autobiography which was published in 1889 titled, “From Bondage to Liberty: Being the life story of the Rev P.T. Stanford who was once a slave! And is now the recognised pastor of an English Baptist Church. He remained at Hope Street Baptist Church until 1895 and under his leadership the church grew having flourishing schools and organisations. When he retired the church presented him with a valuable gold watch.
After leaving Hope Street Baptist Church, he started an independent church naming it after the abolitionist William Wilberforce. The name of the church was Wilberforce Memorial Church. He was a chairperson at a lecture delivered by Rev J. Jenkin Brown, on the subject of ‘The Congo and its Martyrs’. This lecture led him to read the book published by the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), called “The Rise and Progress of the Work on the Congo River.” He came to the conclusion that black missionaries were the best people to be sent as missionaries to Africa. This created in him a burning desire to return and minister among his own people in Africa.
In concluding this story, Rev Peter Thomas Stanford was a unique individual who despite facing so many challenges from his birth managed to educate himself and became a Baptist minister. He is a pioneer as he became the first black Baptist minister in Britain thus opening doors for people like me today.
Killingray, David and Edwards, Joel, Black Voices: The Shaping of our Christian Experience, Nottingham, England, Inter Varsity Press, 2007.
Stanford, Peter Thomas, From Bondage to Liberty: Being the life story of the Rev P.T. Stanford who was once a slave! And is now the recognised pastor of an English Baptist Church, Smethwick, 1889.
Sturge, Mark, Look What the Lord Has Done! An Exploration of Black Christian Faith in Britain, Bletchley, England, Scripture Union, 2005