John Jea (1773-18?): The First African Evangelist in Europe

John Jea who was from Calabar in Nigeria could be regarded as one of the pioneers of reverse mission and possibly the founder of the first black majority church in the UK between 1805-1815. He was perhaps the first African preacher to travel Europe, North America and South America as an evangelist preaching the Good News of Jesus. He did this at a time when blacks were in slavery or were racially oppressed. He rose above his socio-economic conditioning and background to become an itinerant preacher. His ministry was modelled on that of Paul’s missionary journeys using Boston and New York as his Jerusalem. He preached in countries such as England, Ireland, Holland, Germany, France, Argentina and United States. He even had a successful prison ministry in France! How did John Jea rose from an African slave to become an international evangelist?
John Jea was born in Old Calabar in Nigeria in 1773. At the age of two he was sold as a slave along with his entire family to a North American slave owner. In his autobiography (The Life, History, and Unparalled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher published in 1815) he described his ordeal in details as a slave in North America. They would work in the summer from 2am in the morning till 11pm at night and at winter from 4am in the morning till 10pm at night. If they complained or murmur, they were beaten with a very thick weapon. If they complained of this punishment then they were tied to a four large pole and flogged until blood spills all over the place and bones break. If the slaves resist they were either killed or beaten to an unconscious state. After these sort of punishment the slaves were meant to thank their masters for the punishment he had been inflicting on them, quoting the scriptures, “Bless the rod, and him that hath appointed it”
John Jea’s master appeared to have used Christianity to his own ends whenever it pleases him. He often told the slaves that they were devils and that they were going to hell. They were not allowed to worship God or come near the chapel. John became curious of what kind of God they must serve and began observing his masters actions. He noticed that they mourned the death of another fellow master but rejoice when the Americans killed lots of native Indians. His observation led him to conclude; even at a young age that something was wrong with their religion and this made him to hate those who call themselves Christians. John Jea told his master and master’s sons that he hated them because they were Christians. To this he was beaten on several occasions and was ready to die. John thought when he is dead he will go back to his native country in Africa (This was an idea that was prevalent among the slaves then). Part of John’s punishment for saying he hated Christians was to attend a place of worship. This caused him to hate Christians the more and as he was continually forced to attend church every Sunday, he thought he was going to kill the minister one day.
After attending the church for a while John began to find his heart turning to God gradually. He began praying using the words he had heard the priest used on Sundays. John became very frustrated as he made no connections with God. This infuriated him the more and John gave God an ultimatum of one week to show up! John decided that if God did not show up he was going to kill the minister because he has been telling lies about God. Before the week expired, John had an encounter with God that would change the course of his life. He felt God in a way he had never before and suddenly became aware of his sins. John, not knowing what to do with this awareness was distressed. His master and his wife saw that he was distressed and asked him what was going on. John explained to them that he was a sinner and that he feared the consequences of being a sinner. At this the master began beating him to the point of death and told him he was possessed by demons. They stopped him from attending the church realising that John was now turning to God. This increased John’s pain as he did not know how to follow God and he feared God was going to kill him. He secretly found a way of speaking to the minister and asked him what he must do to be saved. John asked the minister to pray to God for him so that his sins can be forgiven but the minister told him to pray to God for himself. John became very confused not knowing what to do. He was in distress for about six weeks and whenever he asked his master to help him turn to God he was beaten until two of his ribs were broken and blood pouring from all over his body.
One day, at the age of fifteen, John found God and he felt the weight of sin left him. He began appreciating God and saw God as the provider of all things rather than his master. He became convinced that while his master’s family professed Christianity, their actions were far from that of a Christian. John began preaching to his master’s family and his own family as they were not converted. His family thought he was mad. At the age of seventeen John began preaching to everyone to the extent that he was sold to three different masters. While he was with his third master he was secretly baptised and joined possibly a Methodist society. When his master knew about it he was very furious and took him to the magistrate who questioned John about God. John told the magistrate his remarkable story of conversion. The magistrate was so pleased that he pronounced John a free man! But the master would not let John go. The master used the scriptures to convince John to stay with him arguing that it is his Christian duty to obey his master whether he was treated good or bad.
John at this stage could not read or write but only speak English and Dutch. He realised that his master’s family could read the Bible but that he could not and so to this end John began praying to God for about six weeks that he might be able to read the Bible. During this period, John had a vision in which an angel came to him with the Bible and taught him how to read John’s Gospel chapter one. John not sure what had just happen to him went to see a minister and told him he could read the Bible. The minister knowing John was not educated at all and could not read or write gave him the Bible. John opened the Bible to John’s Gospel chapter one and read it to the minister’s surprise. The minister enquired how John came to be able to read the Bible. John explained that an angel taught him in a vision. The minister decided to give John other books to read but John could not read them except John chapter one. The minister was convinced that God had done something miraculous in John’s life and began to spread the word about. People came from all over New York to hear John read from John’s Gospel. John was taken to the magistrate as his master feared he will begin to teach other slaves how to read the Bible. The magistrate examined him by giving him the Bible to read and John read John chapter one as at other times but could not read any other book. The magistrate and the minister convinced that this was God’s work told John that he is now free to do whatever he wants. John became a freeman and began preaching the Gospel all over New York. Some listened to him and became converted while others mocked him. After a while John gathered about 500 people who had been converted from his preaching and started worshipping together in an open field. They will start their service on Saturday evenings after the slaves have finished work and end on Sunday evening. This church grew in numbers to about 1,500 people and some white Christians decided to help John buy a piece of land and build a place of worship. Some white preachers also visited the church sharing the preaching with John.
As the church continued to grow and having other preachers to lead the church, John decided to travel to other places as a preacher therefore he left the church in other hands and moved to Boston. He started preaching there as well and people were converted. He lived in Boston for three years and went back to New York. He got married in a Methodist church in New York but after two years of marriage, their relationship broke down. In the process they also lost their only daughter. After recovering from this trauma John continued preaching in different parts of the States. He travelled to Virginia, Baltimore, New Orleans and Maryland preaching the Gospel. Boston and New York became his head quarters as he always return to Boston or New York and travel from there to other places to preach. In order to survive, he became a seaman. This also enabled him to travel to other places and countries. He came to England and preached in Liverpool, Manchester, Sunderland, Halifax, Portsmouth, Southampton, Guernsey, Lancashire and Yorkshire. He had great success in his preaching endeavours as many people were converted filling many of the chapels he preached in. Many attempts were made to discredit him but John did not give up preaching. He went to Holland, Germany and France preaching the Gospel. He travelled to South America preaching at Buenos Aires in Argentina and possibly Venezuela. He had success in these places as well as people were converted.
John travelled to Ireland and preached in the cities and villages. He encountered Roman Catholics in Ireland who opposed his Protestant beliefs and wanted to kill him. He was protected by the Mayor of Limerick who had come to love John Jea. He also had arguments with Calvinist in Ireland who were trying to challenge him that God will only save those who have been elected. John refused to believe this and argued that all men deserved to hear the Gospel. While in Ireland he met another lady called Mary and they got married. This was his third marriage as his second wife passed away in Holland. From Ireland, John travelled to France leaving his wife behind at Portsmouth because she was ill. While in France he was caught in the middle of the war between America and England and was told to fight for America against the English. John refused saying he will not fight the English. John was a pacifist who believed in peace rather than war. He was put in prison in France and was there for about five years. He preached in the prison having about 200 converts! He was given opportunity on several occasions to leave France and go to America to fight England, but John argued that he was an African and that he will not go back to America nor will he fight England. After few years John was released through the intervention of a French mayor. John came back to Portsmouth and reunite with his wife after about five years. They settled down in Portsmouth and it appears that they started a church in their house. This church probably was the first black majority church in the UK! Nothing is known of John Jea after 1817.

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About israelolofinjana

Rev Israel Oluwole Olofinjana is an ordained and accredited Baptist minister and has pastored Crofton Park Baptist Church (2007-2011) and Catford Community Church (2011-2013). He is currently the pastor of Woolwich Central Baptist Church, a multicultural church in south east London. He is Nigerian coming from a Pentecostal background. He holds a BA (Hons) in Religious Studies from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and MTh from Carolina University of Theology (CUT). Israel is the editor of “Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in the UK” and author of “Reverse in Ministry and Missions: Africans in the Dark Continent of Europe” and “20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria” He has spoken in a number of conferences regarding reverse mission and Black Majority Churches (BMCs) and has also contributed to academic journals and Christian magazines on the subject of Black Majority Churches (BMC) in Britain. He is currently co-opted as a member of the Baptist Union Council. Israel is also one of the Directors of Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World an initiative design to train and equip pastors and missionaries from the South. He is a member of the Global Connections council. When he is not preaching or writing he is playing with Lego! He is happily married to Lucy who works as an administrator and research co-ordinator for the Evangelical Alliance. She is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), earning a BA in Social Anthropology and International Development. Lucy loves baking and watching movies!
This entry was posted in African Church History and Theology, Black Majority Churches (BMCs) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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