by United Methodist News Service
The story of the Amistad, unfolding on movie screens nationwide, holds the seeds of a little-known piece of African history: the establishment of the United Methodist Church in what is now Sierra Leone. Steven Spielberg's film, Amistad, recounts the revolt of African captives on a Spanish slave ship in 1839 and their ensuing battle in U.S. courts to win their freedom. Their eventual return to Africa became intertwined with the origins of the United Methodist Church there.
"This is an enormous public relations opportunity for the church," said Darrell Reeck, executive secretary with the United Methodist Development Fund and a scholar who has researched Sierra Leone history. "The initial Amistad story has triggered a history of church enterprise and faithfulness and success, and that story should be celebrated."
However, Spielberg's film doesn't depict the church's role in the Amistad story. "Unfortunately, the film closes before the direct role of the United Methodist church begins," Reeck said, "so to capitalize on this, we have to make that connection."
Though largely overlooked in history books, the Amistad story gripped the nation in 1839. It began when African captives on the slave ship Amistad -- or "Friendship" -- overpowered their captors near Cuba. The Africans ordered the crew to sail for Africa, but the Spaniards navigated northward to New England instead. There, the ship was seized by the U.S. Navy.
A two-year legal battle followed in which the Africans, aided by American abolitionists, fought for their freedom from the slave holders. In the end, former President John Quincy Adams argued the captives' case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and they were freed.
At that point, Spielberg's movie ends - and the United Methodist chapter of the Amistad story begins. When 35 of the 53 former captives returned to West Africa in 1841, they were accompanied by representatives of the American Missionary Association. The missionaries set up an outpost where they preached the gospel and ministered to the needs of the local people. Disease and other adversities took their toll on the settlement, but the association's work paved the way for another organization that arrived in Sierra Leone in the 1850s.
The new group was with the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, and their work took root in the African soil. Nearly a century later, in 1946, the United Brethren in Christ merged with the Evangelical Church. That was followed in 1968 by the union of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church, creating the United Methodist Church.
With that merger, the Sierra Leone mission became the Sierra Leone Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Today, the congregation in the African nation has about 85,000 members, according to the General Board of Global Ministries.
The abolitionists were responsible not only for helping free the Amistad captives but also for sending the American Missionary Association to Sierra Leone. However, Reeck says the abolitionists aren't properly portrayed in Spielberg's movie. "There is an unfortunate aspect to the film in my opinion, and that is that it portrays the Christian abolitionists in a rather negative light," he said. The abolitionists are heroes in the real story, he noted. "But in the film, they come across looking awfully somber, awfully negative, and they appear to play a negative role.
"This was a critical moment in the abolitionist movement," Reeck said. Besides helping the Amistad captives, the abolitionists were a significant force in the liberation of American slaves in general, he said.
Pastors and other church leaders who want to educate their congregations about Amistad have plenty of resources available. The General Board of Global Ministries has a World Wide Web site with several pages devoted to the Amistad story. It includes a New World Outlook Online article by Reeck (http://gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/sierra-leone/amistad.html) and a separate page of links to related Web sites (http://gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/sierra-leone/amilinks.html). Photos are also available for downloading and use on church bulletin boards and in newsletters, provided the churches get permission from New World Outlook.
"The critical thing," Reeck said, "is that people are aware that this information is available, and that pastors and church school teachers and educators refer their congregations and their students to the material."
Jan. 16, 1998
The Spirit of Amistad in The United Methodist Church by Darrell Reeck, New World Outlook Online
Links to Historical Information, including John Wesley's "Thoughts Upon Slavery"; other Church Amistad Links, including a web discussion group; and Amistad, the Film.
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