On July 22, thousands of Baptists will assemble in Durban, South Africa, for the 21st Baptist World Congress.
When they stand on African soil – some for the first time – they will joyfully recall the efforts made by certain Baptist Christians in the African diaspora who were convinced that part of their Christian obligation was to fulfill, in their ancestral homeland, the mission mandate the Lord has given to the church.
In 1883, English Baptist historian, Ernest Payne, said, “The real evangelization of Africa will be done by men and women of the African race (sic).”
Forty-six years before Payne made that claim, John Clark, a Scot, who was an eminent Baptist missionary serving in Jamaica, said, “Jamaica will be honored in sending forth a band of holy and devoted men to penetrate into the interior of the ‘fatherland’ and diffuse the blessings of the gospel among their kindred.”
Decades before Clark said this, William Knibb, that outstanding English Baptist missionary to Jamaica, claimed that the formerly enslaved Africans in Jamaica were the most qualified people to take the gospel to Africa.
Knibb made this declaration in 1842, when Baptists in Jamaica formed an African Missionary Society, one of whose “objects” was “to send the Gospel to Africa.”
It is noteworthy that during the 18th and 19th centuries, Baptists of Jamaica were among the Africans in the diaspora who desired to evangelize people in their motherland and to contribute to the development of the continent.
Other Africans in the diaspora were convinced that they also had a similar responsibility.
David George, who arrived in Sierra Leone in 1792, and Lott Carey, who went to Liberia in 1821, are among the best-known African American Baptist missioners who contributed to early Baptist witness on the continent.
George, like his mentor, George Liele, from whom he adopted his “last” name, had been an enslaved person in the United States.
After coming to faith in a congregation in Georgia, he fulfilled a preaching ministry, sometimes alongside Liele, before he sailed with other formerly enslaved persons to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
After spending 10 eventful years in the Canadian Maritimes where the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia is part of his legacy, George and some of his church members sailed to Sierra Leone, where they planted the first Baptist church in that country.
Lott Carey was born to enslaved parents and purchased his freedom while living in Richmond, Virginia. Carey was a pioneer in the establishment of the African Baptist Missionary Society of Richmond in 1815.
In 1821, together with a group of fellow Christians, Carey journeyed to Sierra Leone saying, “I am an African and, in this country – USA – however meritorious my conduct and respectable my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, not by my complexion, and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race (sic).”
In 1822, Carey moved with some of his fellow African Americans to the colony of Cape Montserado, which was renamed Liberia in 1825.
Thanks to groundbreaking research undertaken by Beryl Russell, Horace Russell, Las Newman and Lloyd Cooke, much is known of the service of missioners from Jamaica who went to Africa to fulfill their ministry.
Bioko (now an island in equatorial Guinea), Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – to use their current names – are among the places in Africa where Africans in the diaspora planted Baptist churches.
The Jamaican Baptists were not alone in their Africa mission commitment. Other Jamaican denominations also sent pastors, educators and medical/nursing personnel to serve on the continent.
The long list of churches and places of service includes Presbyterians in Nigeria; Moravians in Ghana; Anglicans in Nigeria, Zambia and the Gambia; and Congregationalists in Zambia.
The remains of many missioners from these Jamaican churches, whose lives were spent in service to African Christian mission, lie in marked or unmarked graves in Africa.
In more recent times, missioners from organizations formed by evangelical churches have been serving in Ivory Coast, Liberia, Zambia, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
The Jamaica Baptist Missionary Society, Baptist Missionary Union, the American Livingstone Island Mission, the Swiss Basel Mission and the Baptist Missionary Society of London (BMS) are among the bodies that sponsored the missioners from Jamaica to Africa.
How wonderful it is to see many African Christians today planting and serving church congregations in several European countries, including the United Kingdom, Portugal, the Netherlands and Ukraine. And their mission work extends beyond the shores of Europe.
Jacob K. Olupona of Harvard University has claimed that the estimated 1 million Africans who have migrated to the United States over the last 40 years are serving as “reverse missionaries” in their adopted homeland.
Neville George Callam, a Jamaican, has been serving as general secretary and chief executive officer of the Baptist World Alliance since his election in Accra, Ghana, in 2007. A version of this article first appeared in the April-June 2015 edition of Baptist World – a magazine published by the BWA. It is used with permission. Callam blogs here, and you can follow BWA on Twitter @TheBWA.