The Spirit of Amistad
By Darrell Reeck
Imagine that the year is 1839. Imagine a revolt by 53 weakened, enslaved African captives being transshipped around the island of Cuba. Imagine them overpowering their well-armed captors and setting sail for Africa-- and freedom. If you imagine these things, you'll be recreating history. With Steven Spielberg's film Amistad, released on December 12, 1997, you can do more than imagine; you can experience a modern retelling of an exhilarating liberation story.
United Methodists around the world have a vital connection with the Amistad incident. Today, in West Africa, The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone has more than 85,000 members. This modern Sierra Leone Annual Conference has important historical links with the Amistad revolt that took place 158 years ago.
Amistad: The Story
In 1839, the captives below decks wanted only to return to their homes in what is now Sierra Leone. After successfully overpowering the crew, they set sail for Africa. Inadvertently, however, they drifted north to Long Island Sound, where they were arrested by the US Coast Guard. There the foreign slaveholders caught up with them and demanded that the United States return the slaves to a plantation in Cuba.
Almost immediately, American abolitionists intervened on behalf of the captives. These activists in the name of Christ provided housing and education and helped the captives gain widespread publicity while awaiting trial. They also arranged a defense when the government appealed the case before the United States Supreme Court. There, none other than former President John Quincy Adams argued the captives' case, pleading for their acquittal and freedom. Subsequently, the Supreme Court freed the Amistad captives in 1841.
This stunning victory defined the initial spirit of Amistad--setting captives free in the spirit of Jesus Christ.
Amistad and 19th Century Mission Work
Even before repatriation, the abolitionists had empowered a religious organization--the American Missionary Association (A.M.A.)--to assist the newly liberated slaves. Representatives of the A.M.A. accompanied the Amistad captives to West Africa. There, they set up a support center and Gospel-preaching outpost named Mo-Tappan near the Atlantic coast in southeast Sierra Leone. Thanks to the A.M.A., the spirit of Amistad expanded to include mission: the introducing of indigenous Africans to the Christian faith, along with support for their economic improvement.
Even so, high hopes for early progress soon faded. The African repatriates dispersed to their own scattered villages. Disease also took its toll on both Africans and missionaries. And life in the coastal villages around Mo-Tappan continued much as before. Still, over the years, the A.M.A. won converts, built a small church membership, educated schoolchildren, and established small ancillary businesses, such as a sawmill.
Amistad and the United Brethren in Christ
In the 1850s, the Amistad story took a new turning. Back in the United States, the German-speaking Christians of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ were planning a missionary enterprise. As abolitionists, they were familiar with the Amistad incident and with Mo-Tappan. So, in 1855, they chose Sierra Leone for their new mission and located their first outpost adjacent to the territory of the American Missionary Association.
Difficulties of climate and disease almost killed their endeavor--and literally killed many of the missionaries who bravely sailed for West Africa. But in 1870, the United Brethren achieved a milestone when an African American couple, Mary and Joseph Gomer, arrived in Sierra Leone from Ohio. These missionary-diplomats stayed in Africa for 22 years. Almost single-handedly, they turned imminent failure into great success.
Illustration of Mary W. and Joseph Gomer adapted from a 19th century book.
As the United Brethren's mission program grew, the American Missionary Association decided to offer its entire franchise--with church buildings, schools, a farm, a sawmill, and an annual subsidy--to the United Brethren in Christ. Thus it was that, by 1882, the spirit of Amistad had infused itself with the United Brethren mission. Despite setbacks and challenges, the United Brethren in Christ established preaching points, churches, schools, and clinics in more and more villages.
Finally--as a result of denominational mergers in 1946 (joining the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Church) and 1968 (uniting the Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church)--the mission in Sierra Leone emerged as the Sierra Leone Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Amistad and United Methodism
Today, more than 85,000 United Methodist Christians in Sierra Leone look back to the Amistad incident as a sign of partnership with Christians in the United States. The Sierra Leone Annual Conference currently has the largest United Methodist membership to be found in any nation of northwest Africa.
In 1997, life in Sierra Leone became very difficult. On May 25, 1997, the democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup. Since that time, thousands of people--including church leaders and medical personnel--have had to flee the country. Rebels have destroyed or vandalized parsonages, churches, schools, clinics, and other institutions; and the people of Sierra Leone have faced soaring food shortages and a health crisis.
But fortunately, the spirit of Amistad is still alive in Sierra Leone after a continuous presence of more than 150 years. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), part of the General Board of Global Ministries, has brought official disaster relief to the citizens of Sierra Leone, complementing the efforts of individual Christians and congregations. In the current crisis, ministry in the name of Christ is possible because a long, continuous line of Christians has sustained and extended the spirit of Amistad, responding effectively to new challenges over time.
To United Methodists around the world, as the Amistad film is released by a studio called DreamWorks, the spirit of Amistad remains a dreamwork in progress, taking on flesh in a real place in our time.
Darrell Reeck is a scholar who has researched Sierra Leone history. .
Copyright 1997 by New World Outlook: The Mission Magazine of The United Methodist Church. Used by Permission. Visit New World Outlook Online at http://gbgm-umc.org/nwo/. For reprint permission, contact New World Outlook at firstname.lastname@example.org.