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John Jea: An African Evangelist in Europe

Israel Olofinjana tells the extraordinary story of John Jea, likely founder of the first black majority church in the UK

John Jea, who was from Calabar in Nigeria, could be regarded as one of the pioneers of reverse mission. In starting a church in Portsmouth around 1805, he was also probably the founder of the first black majority church in the UK.
Image used with permission from A Journey Through NYC Religions http://www.nycreligion.info/

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!

So how did John Jea rise from an African slave to become an international evangelist?

Early life as a slave

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, which the African preacher published in 1815) he described his ordeal in detail as a slave in North America.

The slaves 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 spilt all over the place and bones broke.

If the slaves resisted 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”.

Christianity, contradictions

John Jea’s master appeared to have used Christianity to his own ends whenever it pleased him. He often told the slaves 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 they mourned the death of another fellow master, but rejoiced when the Americans killed lots of native Indians. His observation led him to conclude that something was wrong with their religion. This made him hate those who called themselves Christians - something he would tell his master and master’s sons.

For this he was beaten on several occasions and was ready to die. Part of John’s punishment was to attend a place of worship, which caused him to hate Christians even more. He even thought he was going to kill the minister one day.

Meeting God - and not knowing what to do

But after attending the church for a while John began to find his heart gradually turning to God. He started praying using the words he had heard from the priest. However, he became very frustrated as he made no connections with God. He gave God an ultimatum of one week to show up! John decided that if He did not show he was going to kill the minister because he had been telling lies.

Before the week ended, 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.

Not knowing what to do with this awareness, John was distressed. His master and his wife saw this 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 could be forgiven, but the minister told him to pray to God 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 poured from all over his body.

Transformation - and freedom?

One day, at the age of 15, 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. Aged 17 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 was his Christian duty to obey his master whether he was treated good or bad.

The miracle of reading John

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 he couldn't. John began praying to God  that he might be able to. 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 happened, 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, much 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 him. People came from all over New York to hear John read from John’s Gospel. John was taken to the magistrate, and as his master feared began 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, but could not read any other book.

Preaching the gospel and growing a church

The magistrate and the minister, convinced that this was God’s work, told John that he was now free to do whatever he wanted. 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 would 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. He left the church in others' hands and moved to Boston. He started preaching there as well and people were converted.

More preaching success - in the US and then beyond

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, the 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 returned to Boston or New York and travel from there to other places to preach. In order to survive, he became a seaman. This 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 Calvinists in Ireland who were trying to challenge him that God would 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.

Imprisoned in France

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 would 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 the 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 would not go back to America, nor fight England.

After a few years John was released through the intervention of a French mayor. John came back to Portsmouth and reunite with his wife. 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.

The Revd Israel Olofinjana is the minister of Woolwich Central Baptist Church and Director of the Centre For Missionaries from the Majority World

He is Nigerian with a Pentecostal background. He blogs and is the author of Turning the Tables on Mission

Israel Olofinjana, 30/06/2014
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