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Thomas L. Johnson (Thomas Lewis), 1836-1921
Africa for Christ. Twenty-Eight Years a Slave
London: Alexander and Shepheard, 1892.


Little is known about the life of Thomas Lewis Johnson (1836-1921), other than what is contained in his own narrative, Africa for Christ. Twenty-Eight Years a Slave. According to his mother, Johnson was born August 7, 1836 in Rock Raymond, Virginia. The names of Johnson’s parents are unknown; his father was a free octoroon—a person with one great grandparent of African descent—and his mother was a slave. Johnson spent the first twenty-eight years of his life—until the end of the American Civil War—in slavery to a family named Brent. With his newfound freedom, Johnson became a Baptist minister and dedicated his life to spreading Christianity throughout Africa. The date of his death is unknown.

The first portion of Johnson’s narrative is devoted to the experiences of his life as a slave in Virginia. While Johnson was still very young, his father attempted to purchase his freedom as well as the freedom of his mother, but Brent refused to sell them. Despite the fact that it was illegal for slaves to educate each other in any way, Johnson’s mother taught him all that she knew, which consisted of the Lord’s Prayer, the English alphabet, and how to count to one hundred. However, this meager education only whetted Johnson’s appetite for knowledge, and he struggled through the process of teaching himself how to read and write. Throughout the narrative, Johnson describes hardships that stimulated his passion for those things which that important to him, including education, personal conversion, freedom, and of course preaching the gospel.

At Brent’s death, Johnson was deeded to his son Arthur Lee Brent, but was then sold in 1853 to Arthur’s brother, William, who lived in Richmond, Virginia. Because of the cruel manner in which the Brents treated their slaves, Johnson longed to escape. One of the most prominent of Johnson’s life experiences occurred around 1857, a period which he entitles: “When Jesus found me” (p. 21). At this time, Johnson met a free African American man named Stephney Brown, who was instrumental in his conversion to Christianity. Johnson later remembered that after his prayer to God for salvation, “Everything appeared to be different to me . . . Then I had a free soul” (p. 21-22). Following this experience, Johnson and his mother were baptized and joined the Baptist faith. Johnson goes on to explain that after his conversion and baptism, he “felt a deep desire to preach the Gospel” (p. 23).

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, Thomas Johnson gained his freedom and left Virginia for New York but unfortunately discovered that in New York, “there was almost as much prejudice against [his] race as in the South” (p. 27). Consequently, he made his way to Chicago with his wife and worked as a waiter until the local Baptist congregation asked him to serve as a missionary in Denver, Colorado. Johnson willingly preached in the western United Sates, but all the while his heart was set on preaching the gospel in Africa “to [his] own long-benighted people,” and he resolved to go to Africa as soon as he had earned the sufficient funds to pay for his passage (p. 28). Johnson maintained faith that if it was God’s will for him to preach in Africa, then God would provide the means for him to travel. And in 1876, Johnson received letters from Mr. Stroud Smith and Mr. Hind Smith of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Manchester, England promising that if he could pay for his passage to England, Johnson would have the opportunity to attend the Pastor’s College for further education and then to travel to Africa to preach.

Johnson’s perseverance, dedication, and faith helped him to graduate from college and allowed him the opportunity to preach in Africa, as was his dream. On November 23, 1878, Johnson and Rev. C.H. Richardson and their wives reached the west coast of Africa and began their missionary service there. Their company spent time in Sierra Leone and Liberia while on the way to their destination in Victoria, Cameroon, from which point they would travel to the interior of Africa. From Victoria, their company traveled to the Cameroonian village of Bakundu where Johnson stayed during the remainder of his time in Africa.

While in Bakundu (February-November 1879) Johnson and his companions spent their time teaching the people about God and the Bible, as well as instructing the children of the village on how to speak, read, and write in the English language. However, the greatest challenge that these missionaries faced was in convincing the people they taught to disbelieve their native spiritual traditions. During their struggle to introduce Christianity to Bakundu, Johnson and his wife both became severely ill. He relates, “I do not think I spent two weeks in succession of good health” (p. 66). In July his wife passed away, but Johnson remained to preach until he was sent back to England due to the severity of his illness.

On his return to England, and eventually to the United States, Johnson became an advocate for the missionary effort to Africa and in 1882 served as the financial agent (1882) for the Baptist General Association of the Western States and Territories for the African Mission. He was also nominated in 1889 to be the U.S. Consul to the Republic of Liberia.

Although the time that Johnson spent in Africa was relatively short, it was arguably the most important period of his life, as his missionary work influenced his preaching for the rest of his ministry. The entirety of Thomas Lewis Johnson’s narrative revolves around his missionary effort on the African continent. Through his own search for both physical and spiritual freedom as well as his devotion to promoting the spiritual freedom of others, Johnson works to convince others to make the spiritual freedom of Africa a priority in their own lives, as it was in his. To quote Johnson himself, “For over fifteen years the one desire and prayer of my soul has been, that in some way I might be instrumental in helping to carry the Word of God to Africa . . . The one motto of my soul has been—’Africa for Christ’” (p. 94).

Kelly Badger

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