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York Clement
c. 1834 to 1875
Methodist Church
The Gambia

 

York Clement was the first Gambian to be ordained as a Methodist minister. Though illness cut his ministerial career short, he served the Methodist Church in the Gambia for about one and half decade as a local preacher, a catechist, an assistant missionary and an ordained minister.

Few particulars about York Clement’s personal life are known. Clement was a Wolof, born around 1833 or 1834. It is possible that he was raised a Methodist for there are no indications that he was a convert to Christianity or the Methodist tradition. He was married, but there are no details about Mrs. Clement. She probably did not work for the mission, as some of the wives of the first generation assistant missionaries had done.[1]

Clement began working for the Methodist Church as a young man. He seems to have served as a local preacher and a catechist for some years, before he was sent to the Wesleyan College in Sierra Leone for further training. This was probably before or around 1860, when Clement was in his mid-twenties.[2] In 1862, while still in Sierra Leone, he was recommended as an assistant minister on trial. The Methodist Conference however rejected the proposal; the reasons for the refusal are not known. The chairman at the time, William West (1861-1865), nevertheless spoke highly of him.[3]

Clement seems to have returned to The Gambia in 1863, because the Methodist Conference appointments list him as assistant missionary at MacCarthy Island for the years 1863-64.[4]  It is unclear when precisely Clement was accepted as a ministerial candidate. The minutes of the Synod of 1866 record that the chairman Benjamin Tregaskis was not satisfied with Clement’s study progress, but in a letter dated August 1867 Clement still self-identifies as an assistant missionary.[5] By 1869 the Methodist Conference appointments list him as "native minister," stationed at MacCarthy Island.[6]

Clement’s ministerial training, like that of most of his Gambian colleagues in the early days, consisted mainly of independent study and tutoring by senior colleagues. The archives suggest that Clement had little interest in reading theology. Benjamin Tregaskis repeatedly refused to admit Clement into full connection, because he did not meet the academic requirements. Clement, he wrote, had been supplied with books "but showed no sign of having read them." Never one to mince words, Tregaskis charged him with "discreditable indolence and unwarranted self-confidence." [8] The archival material seems to suggest that Clement had other priorities than studying; possibly he was just so caught up by parish work, that it left him little time to study.[7] In 1868 Clement was ordered down from Georgetown to St. Mary’s to study under the guidance of his British colleague Vetranio Tyas. As a result he was received into full connection in 1869. The year 1869 however did not merely bring the celebration of ordination for Clement. During the 1869-cholera epidemic that scourged Bathurst and surroundings in the months of May and June, killing about 25 percent of the population, he lost his father, his sister in law, her husband and a servant, all on one and the same day. [8]

Clement’s ministry ended tragically. In August 1874 Clement showed up in Bathurst, ill and confused and behaving peculiarly and defiant. In November 1874 it came to light that Clement had incurred debts. There were also allegations that Clement had developed a drinking problem. A petition by some of the members, "pleading leniency in view of his faithful service in the past," resulted in an arrangement to pay off the debt by deducting monthly payments from his stipend; Clement was given a fresh start.[9] A month later Clement was accused of and confessed to adultery.[10] Even his closest companion and co-worker Dodgin, the oldest church leader at MacCarthy, testified that "Clement was out of his mind" and "talking al kind of foolish things."[11] After an investigation and a physical check-up, Clement voluntarily resigned from the ministry in December 1874.[12] The doctor who had been consulted, diagnosed that Clement either had a drinking problem or suffered from an enlargement of the brain.[13] In May 1875, less than six months after his resignation Clement died; the burial register reads: "died from an enlargement of the brain."[14] Thus the life and career of the first Gambian Methodist minister came abruptly to an end. Clement was only 41 years old when he died.

Except for a brief interlude in Barra, Clement seems to have served most of his time in Georgetown where he endeavoured to revive the work at MacCarthy Island. The liberated Africans who had formed the majority of the Methodist congregation in Georgetown, had begun to move away; as a result also the West Indian regiment and most of the British colonial officers stationed at MacCarthy Island were transferred to the coast. In attempt to reach a new audience, Clement began evangelising the villages on the mainland near MacCarthy, preaching Nyabantang, Seca, Dormah, Sappo, Yarbutenda, Cantilicunda, Medina and Tankuar. He also stressed the need for Bible translation in the vernaculars to enhance evangelization.[15]

Following up on Clement’s evangelization work in and around MacCarthy, the Synod of 1877 decided to station catechists in all the villages he visited.16] A combination of the unrest caused by the Soninke Marabout wars, a lack of response to the gospel and the customary shortage of funds eventually caused all these stations to be closed down one after another; the catechists were recalled to Bathurst.

The few letters of Clement that are still extant suggest that he was a socially and politically engaged person.[17] In 1872 for example Clement clashed with Benjamin Tanner, the manager of Georgetown Island and highest British representative outside Bathurst, over the treatment of refugees. Tanner had issued a ruling, that Muslims and Soninke refugees, displaced due to the Soninke-Marabout wars, were prohibited from entering the island. Among the refugees seeking political asylum on the island, was the rightful owner of MacCarthy Island, the King of Kattaba. When Tanner refused the King of Kattaba and his wives entrance to the island, Clement and another liberated African Methodist Dodgin publicly protested, calling it "equal to murder." As a result the two men were imprisoned. The swift and personal intervention of the powerful chairman of the district, Benjamin Tregaskis, ensured their release and generated an apology from Tanner and the Governor.[19] Also in earlier years Clement had proven an advocate for refugees from the Soninke-Marabout war, petitioning for second hand clothing, education and government protection to restore peace in the war-torn area.[19]

From the archival material it is a clear that Clement was a man who was actively engaged in the social and political issues of his parish. His work among refugees, his willingness to challenge the government (Tanner) over the right of asylum, his views on the effects of the Soninke-Marabout wars and his advocacy for the Liberated African community in Georgetown all suggest that Clement was a man who shared the gospel by doing as much as by preaching. The remembrance of his work is somewhat overshadowed by the tragic side-effects of his illness during the last year of his life. Nevertheless he seemed to have been appreciated as a minister and colleague. For a while in 1869 Clement was the only minister serving in The Gambia and was supervising the work in The Gambia. Tregaskis, a very demanding chairman, seemed to have had no objection to that. Also the 1874 petition by parishioners to WMMS on his behalf and the  humane way in which a solution was sought and found for Clement’s debts in 1874, seems to testify of affinity, consideration and compassion for Clement.

Considering that Clement starting working as a catechist for the Methodist Church around 1856 or 1857, Clement dedicated nearly half of his brief life to the advance of the Methodist Church in the Gambia.

Martha Frederiks


References:

 [1] There are two indications that Clement was married. First of all there is a record that both his sister in law and her husband died on the same day in 1869 cholera epidemic. See B. Prickett, Island Base, 105. Secondly, in 1874 Clement was accused of and confessed to adultery. Adcock to WMMS, St. Mary’s December 21 1874, Box 295 H2709 mf. 902. Note: the Box numbers refer to the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society archives (now part of Methodist Missionary Society Archives) at SOAS in London; the H and mf. numbers reference the IDC microfiche edition.
[2] In 1860 the British missionary James Peet mentions in a letter that a young man was sent to Wesleyan College to be trained as a teacher and assistant minister. Though Peet does not give a name, it is likely that the person referred to, was Clement, because it is certain that he was in Sierra Leone in 1862 and no others seem to have been sent to be trained at the College in this period.  Peet to WMMS, St. Mary’s May 24 1860, Box 286 H2709 mf. 941. The Wesleyan College at King Tom’s Point, Sierra Leone was a college for the ‘training native teachers and missionaries’. Wesleyan Juvenile Offering, Nov, 1846, p. 123.
[3] West to WMMS, Accra, Goldcoast November 25 1862, Box 286 H2709 mf. 954. For a short period in the 1860s Goldcoast, Sierra Leone and The Gambia were one Methodist District.
[4] Southern to WMMS, St. Mary’s June 18 1864, Box 287 H2709 mf. 960. See also The Magazine of the Wesleyan Methodist Church 86,2 (1863), 939.
[5] Synod 1866, Box 297 H2708 mf. 6; Clement to WMMS, Georgetown August 14 1867, Box 287 H2709 mf. 781; partially printed in Wesleyan Notices, October 25 1867, 171.
[6] There seems to have been no discussion whether Clement’s intellectual abilities prohibited him to complete his study. Prickett records Tregaskis’ evaluation of Clement’s attitude as "discreditable indolence and unwarranted self-confidence." B. Prickett, Island Base, 103.
[7] B. Prickett, Island Base, 103.
[8] B. Prickett, Island Base, 103 and 105.
[9] Adcock to WMMS, St. Mary’s November 6 1874, Box 295 H2709 mf. 901; B. Prickett, Island Base, 115.
[10] Adcock to WMMS, St. Mary’s December 21 1874, Box 295 H2709 mf. 902.
[11] Adcock to WMMS, St. Mary’s December 5 1874, Box 295 H2709 mf. 901.
[12] Clement to WMMS (Boyce), St. Mary’s December 18 1874, Box 295 H2709 mf. 902.
[13] Adcock to WMMS, St. Mary’s December 5 1874, Box 295 H2709 mf. 901.
[14] Adcock to WMMS, St. Mary’s June 6 1875, Box 295 H2709 mf. 902; B. Prickett, Island  Base, 115.
[15] Synod 1868, Box 297 H2708 mf. 7; Synod 1877, Box 297 H2708 mf. 12. Clement wrote: “The gospel does not spread in The Gambia as might be expected considering the length of time it has been promulgated here. Whether it is on account of the Bible not being translated in the different languages spoken by the inhabitants as in other parts of the world or not I cannot solve. If I had acquired some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to enable me to translate the Bible… [broken off].” Clement to WMMS, St. Mary’s December 6 1866, Box 287 H2709 mf. 977.
[16] Adcock to WMMS, MacCarthy June 2 1877, Box 296 H2709 mf. 909.
[17] Clement to WMMS, Georgetown December 6 1866, Box 287 H2709 mf. 977; Clement to WMMS, Georgetown August 14 1867, Box 287 H2709 mf. 781; Clement to WMMS,  November 29 1869, Box 295 H2709 mf. 896.
[18] Quilter to WMMS, St. Mary’s February 12 1872, Box 295 H2709 mf. 897; For the full story see B. Prickett, Island Base, 108. Note: The word "Soninke" in the Soninke Marabout wars indicates adherents of traditional religions.
[19] Clement to WMMS, Georgetown August 14 1867, Box 287 H2709 mf. 781.

Bibliography:

Martha Frederiks, We have toiled all night. Christianity in The Gambia 1452-2000, Zoetermeer: 2003
Barbara Prickett, Island-Base. A history of the Methodist Church in the Gambia 1821-1969, Bo [Sierra Leone], s.a.


This article, received in 2016, was researched and written by Martha Frederiks, Professor for the Study of World Christianity at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Research foci include West African Christianity, Christian Muslim relations and religion and migration. Frederiks worked in The Gambia between 1993 and 1999 as adviser of the Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa.