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A Ghanaian church built by Jamaicans
published: Tuesday | October 7, 2003

Dr. Daniel J. Antwi - Contributed

A LITTLE-KNOWN fact of Jamaican church history is that the Presbyterian Church in Ghana owes much of its origins to descendants of Jamaican families who went to that African nation a few years after slavery was abolished here.

On February 8, 1843, 25 West Indians of whom 24 were Jamaicans, set sail to Ghana (known then as the Gold Coast) to do missionary work. They arrived on April 17, 1843. They never returned to the Caribbean.

Their story is cited in the (B)International Review of Mission, Vol.87, No 344, January 1998.(P) The article was written by the Rev. Dr. Daniel J. Antwi, then principal of the Trinity Theological College, Legon, Ghana. The Rev. Dr. Antwi is at present the Dean of Graduate Studies at the Institute for Theological and Leadership Development - the main theological training arm of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

The story is also cited in the just-completed doctoral thesis of Las Newman, Regional Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. The thesis which was submitted to the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, in England is entitled, "Historical Missionology: A critical analysis of West Indian participation in the Western missionary enterprise in Africa in the 19th century."

Dr. Antwi's stepfather has geneaological roots in one of the families that came from Jamaica to do missionary work there in the 19th century.

He pointed out in his journal article that the initial vision for evangelising Ghana came from two missionary bodies ­ the Moravians of Germany and the Basle Mission of Swizerland.

As early as 1735, the Moravians of Herrnhut in Saxony, Germany, recruited an inhabitant of Ghana and trained him in the arts and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. But the man found that on his return to Ghana, he could barely speak his mother tongue.

A series of white European missionaries were sent by these missions bodies. Some died within a few years, others within a few months. One Danish missionary, Andreas Riis, adopted what turned out to be a revolutionary mode of doing evangelism at the time. He became an African to Africans.


According to Dr. Antwi: "Riis lived like the Africans, spending weeks in the forest, slept on palm branches and fed on pepper soup, snails and wormy fish."

After eight years on the mission field, Riis's ill health influenced his decision to return to Switzerland. In the eight years he had been in Ghana, he could not boast of a single baptism and this did not please the Basle Mission.

Dr. Antwi's article said: "The dawn of the new day for African missions appeared when contacts were made to involve African Christians from the West Indies in the mission to Africa. Already, such a suggestion had come to Basle from England, but the impetus for Basle's involvement must have come from Riis."

While in Ghana, Riis lived in Akropong in the Akuapem Mountains. He had endeared himself to the paramount chief, Nana Addo Dankwa, who is reputed to have told him: "When God created the world, He made a book for the white man and juju for the blackman. But if you could show me some blackman who could read the white man's book, then we would surely follow you."

It seems, Dr. Antwi continued, Riis, with the chief's words in his ears, managed to convince the Basle Mission to send Christians of African ancestry to Ghana.

Riis came to Jamaica, possibly about 1842 to recruit missionaries. When he got here, a Rev. Jacob Zorn, Superintendent of the Moravian Church on the island had founded a training institute in Fairfield, Manchester, for training natives for African missionary work.

Jamaican Christians were ready for such a challenge, Dr. Antwi reported. He noted that Riis went all over the island selling the idea of going to Africa to do missionary work. He recruited 25 families who went to Ghana as 'Returning Josephs' of Biblical fame.

Zorn's insisted on a proper contract between these Jamaican missionaries and the Basle Mission. The agreement stipulated among other things, that:

The form of public worship and the rules of the Moravian Church in regard to church discipline were to be maintained.

The West Indians were to undertake to serve the mission willingly. In return the mission would take care of all their needs for the first two years.

The Basle Mission would provide houses for the West Indians and give them land for farming on which they could work one day per week.

After five years, if anyone wanted to return to Jamaica, the Basle Mission would pay the passage, provided that they had not been guilty of moral aberration.

Dr. Antwi commented: "The provision which allowed the West Indian Moravians to use their own form of worship and discipline was an indication of the extent to which both the Moravians and the Basle Mission were prepared to go in order to enlist Africans in the mission... That was the commencement of a new and effective model in mission which had profound effects on the indigenous community in Ghana."

These Jamaicans, Dr. Antwi observed, were never during their lifetime accorded the respect as missionaries. They were instead seen by Europeans as having the same status as household helpers.

Dr. Antwi in speaking with The Gleaner, pointed out that during World War I, German missionaries left Ghana and Scottish Presbyterian missionaries came and served the Christians of the Moravian Church. Some time after WWI the Germans sought to renew their dominant influence but the Ghanians Christians declared their preference for the Presbyterian Church brought there by the Scots. The Presbyterian Church in Ghana, Dr. Antwi said, continues to maintain much of the Jamaican church liturgy, order and discipline that were imported to Ghana in the 19th century. The Presbyterian Church in Ghana, he said, is a strong missions-minded one.

Jamaicans then and Jamaicans today, he said, are highly suitable for missionary work as they have the capacity to excel in whatever they do. "They are innovative. They can survive. They have level-headedness," he said. - Mark Dawes

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