John Baker was one of the first two founding Wesleyan Methodist missionaries to the Gambia. He was commissioned a reverend minister of the Church in 1818 in England  before being sent out by the General Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (GWMMS) to Sierra Leone (1819-1821). Baker was redeployed to St. Mary’s Island, The Gambia, and was expected at his new station in January 1821. In the event, Baker fell ill, was delayed, and could only arrive in March 1821, about a month after his younger colleague, the Reverend John Morgan, had landed.
Baker was the first Apostle to the liberated African settlers and recaptives in St. Mary’s Island. He evangelized in both English and Krio, the “created” language of the liberated Africans. In their outreach to the natives of the adjacent mainland at Mandinary in the Kingdom of Kombo, The Gambia, Baker attempted to preach and teach in English and Mandinka.
In accordance with the recommendation of Brigadier Sir Charles Macarthy, Governor of British Settlements in West Africa, the Committee of the GWMMS of London directed missionaries Baker and Morgan to establish a base at the south bank settlement of Tentabar (Tendaba) in the Kingdom of Queenella (Kwinella), about 110km from St. Mary’s Island [see Map 1]. Given Baker’s emaciated and medically unfit state at the time of arrival, it was therefore determined that Morgan should go alone to meet the Mansa of Kwinella to request permission to settle, build a base, and evangelize in the kingdom.
Melville-Town Society Station
Despite his poor condition upon arrival, Morgan observed that Baker was “ardently devoted to his work, (and) immediately commenced preaching to the natives”  at a liberated African village  by the (Oyster) Creek, since identified as Melville-Town [see Map 2]. At his inaugural preaching session with the community, Baker formed a Wesleyan Methodist society and station and encouraged them to erect a booth for the purpose of teaching, preaching, and healing. By the next Sunday, a provisional chapel had been erected, using mangrove and other plant branches, and the edifice was situated within the locality of the residential huts of the settlement. This particular liberated African community was found to be not so well-off but was self-sufficient and independent. They were engaged in a variety of legitimate services such as farming, burning lime from oyster shells, cutting mangrove firewood for sale, fishing, ferry-boating, and “making bricks for sale to the people of Bathurst.” Here, it was reported that Baker “preached regularly in broken English [meaning Krio, the dialect of the liberated African community] and made many converts, some of whom had already made contact with missionaries in Sierra Leone.”
According to Morgan’s eyewitness testimony, as Baker delivered the gospel message to the congregation:
… not only reached their understandings but their hearts also. In several, anxious care for salvation was awakened, and expressed in words familiar to all Christians: “What must I do to be saved?” 
Clearly, Baker’s preaching had a profound effect on his audience and led to conversions. The inquirers increased and large numbers of between 100 to 200 persons continued to be attracted to his preaching. The thought occurred among the missionaries, then, that such success “might indicate the will of God respecting the place of their settlement…” Indeed, it was soon discovered that during the temporary absence of the missionaries, “the members have been united and faithful; endeavoring to supply the lack of ministerial labor by prayer-meetings among themselves.” This engagement with the Station continued until a tornado hit St Mary’s Island in the rainy-season of 1821, creating extensive destruction at Melville-Town, which included the collapse of the provisional chapel. Some of these internally displaced liberated Africans were settled in the New-Town ward of Bathurst (1821), establishing the seed of the now existing Bethel Society and Station [see Map 2]. Some purchased land at Bakau- Kombo St. Mary’s and settled there (1821). Others were moved to a newly acquired Island territory of Macarthy Island (Janjanburay), 300 km from St. Mary’s (1823) [see Map 1 & Map 3]. And still, others were settled at Berwick-Town on the Ceded Mile in the Kingdom of Barra on the northeastern bank of the River Gambia (1826) [see Map 3].
Exploratory Mission Attempts at Tendaba and Bakau-Fajara
Following the return of Morgan from his unsuccessful reconnaissance trip to investigate the prospect of Tendaba as a mission-based, the missionaries, together with some well-informed merchants at St. Mary’s Island reviewed the situation thoroughly. They concluded that in the absence of guarantee by the Mansa of Kwinella, Tendaba ought to be ruled out as a potential mission base. Instead, they pursued the possibility of an alternate site in the Kingdom of Kombo, which was not too far from the already established spearhead mission base at Melville-Town on St. Mary’s Island. To further explore this possibility, Baker, Morgan, and some merchants requested and obtained an audience with His Majesty the Mansa of Kombo. His Majesty granted the missionary’s choice site of convenience. A cliffside facing the Atlantic Ocean was preferred, suggesting the Bakau-Fajara area. However, the residents of the small settlement found nearby did not welcome the missionaries.
Bethesda Society Station – Mandinary
So Baker and his colleagues returned to report their experience on the cliff to the Mansa. His Majesty immediately redirected them in the opposite direction, to a location at the riverine Muslim-traditionalist settlement of Mandinaree (Mandinary) [see Map 2]. Given their previous experiences at both Tendaba and at the Bakau-Fajara cliff, Baker and Morgan were determined to have few or no consultations with the local leaders but rather to press on based upon the royal authority given. A suitable site on relatively high ground was identified about 500 m from the Mandinary settlement. With the tacit approval of the Mansa’s messenger, who was present at the site, the missionaries embarked upon the arduous task of clearing the brushland, excavating, and cutting down trees for construction. Some of the leading villagers vigorously objected to their presence and to their project activities. Complaints were lodged with the Mansa claiming that the white men even posed a threat to their wives and children in the community. When matters came to a head, a local court session was held in the village to resolve the conflict between the residents on the one hand and the strangers on the other hand. Having listened to both parties in the dispute, Mansa Bojang ruled in favor of the missionaries. This enabled the wooden building project to progress and to obtain provisional completion by June 14, 1821, signifying the “planting” of the Wesleyan Methodist Bethesda mission station at Mandinary. As a result of the heavy exertions made to build the edifice, Morgan took ill in July, a month later, and had to be evacuated to St, Mary’s for emergency treatment. Meanwhile, Baker assumed full responsibility for the completion of the 12 m x 4.6 m, three-compartment wooden building and its formal opening ceremony as a mission station in August 1821. In spite of the frequent attacks of ague that he sustained, Baker summoned the “energy of his mind, and the vigorous remains of his constitution”  to endure up to January 1822 when he was finally transferred from Mandinary to a new station in the West Indies, via Freetown.
Baker was concerned that the core activities of preaching, teaching, and healing should be pursued without interruption. These activities were moderately achieved at Melville-Town by Oyster Creek Station on St. Mary’s Island. However, this was not the case for the Bethesda Mission Station in Mandinary where preaching and teaching was stalled. Baker reasoned that unless “we have learned the language” of Mandinka, there shall be no meaningful progress. Nevertheless, some public preaching was attempted, through the available Mandinka interpreters who were not yet converted to Christianity. It was soon discovered that their translations were unfaithful to the Gospel. Notwithstanding, Divine Service continued to be held in public, occasionally, under the shade of a tree in the village.
In his report to the London Committee of the GWMMS, Baker stated the general itinerary followed by the missionary team, whenever they were not incapacitated by illness:
We go to St. Mary’s every Saturday afternoon in a canoe, and return (to Mandinary) on Monday morning: we meet our little class (at Melville-Town) early on Sunday morning, attend the chaplain’s preaching (at Government House in the Bathurst Settlement) at ten A.M; preach at two P.M to about one hundred people (at Melville-Town), and in the evening at six (P.M), to frequently more than double that number. Our intermediate time on the Sabbath is devoted to visiting the poor people, and on Monday we have the opportunity to procure anything we want for ourselves or the (Mandinary) settlement. This, at present, is all our preaching, and must be, till the language is our own; and we hope by the end of the rains to have made considerable progress.
While they continued to preach and teach in Krio and English at Melville-Town, the missionaries worked hard to improve their knowledge and proficiency of the Mandinka language in preparation for resuming active preaching-teaching at Mandinary. During this period, Baker reflected on their obstacles and expressed his frustration in desperation:
The Mohammedans seem to be shielded against Christianity as perfectly as the crocodiles in the river were against the spear and the bullet. Preaching and school-teaching were alike unsuccessful. The young men manifested great aptitude for learning, and persons further advanced in life readily attended, but in a few days, they enquired how much they were to be paid for attendance. When informed they had put the boot on the wrong leg and that they should rather have asked how much they were expected to pay, though nothing was desired of them, they at once broke up the school. To the preaching, they generally refused to listen…
In effect, up to the time of his departure in January 1822 from The Gambia; Baker was convinced that unless missionaries could master the Mandinka language little progress could take place at Mandinary. Indeed, Baker believed that for some headway to be made in the area, students will have to live with their teachers for close supervision and to earn their cost of living through farming.
Baker is remembered as the first Apostle to the liberated Africans and recaptives on St. Mary’s Island, The Gambia. He preached the gospel and taught in both English and Krio at St. Mary’s Island, and attempted to evangelize in both English and Mandinka at Mandinary. Baker is regarded as one of the initiators of mother-tongue hermeneutics in West Africa.
Baker is credited to have founded the first Wesleyan Methodist Society on St. Mary’s Island in March 1821 and was co-builder and co-founder of the Wesleyan Methodist Bethesda Mission Station-Mandinary which opened in August 1821.
Gabriel Leonard Allen
- www.mywesleyanmethodists.org.uk, accessed 20210218 0852hrs.
- Rev. John Morgan, Reminiscences of the Founding of a Christian Mission the Gambia (London: Wesleyan Mission House, 1864), 3; William Fox, A Brief History of The Wesleyan Missions on the Western Coast of Africa (London: Aylott and Jones, 1850), 266.
- Fox, 266.
- Morgan, 10.
- “The earliest liberated Africans located in The Gambia were pensioned soldiers of the Royal African Corps (which was disbanded in 1819) and of the 2nd and 4th West India Regiments. About 1820, Governor Macarthy sent the first batch of them ‘to form a settlement at a short distance from this town’ (Bathurst)… the small group of discharged soldiers located on the banks of Oyster Creek, which separated St. Mary’s Island from the south bank, was not so well off.” Asi Florence Mahoney, Creole Saga: The Gambia’s Liberated African Community in the Nineteenth Century (Banjul: Baobab Printers, Copyright 2006, 2nd Edition 2017), 53.
- Mahoney, 54.
- Mahoney, 54.
- Mahoney, 54.
- Morgan, 11.
- Fox, 268.
- Morgan, 11.
- Morgan, 56.
- Morgan, 56.
- The chapel in Melville Town (community from Goderich Village) was opened in 1834. (community moved again and settled in New Town)
- In response to Morgan’s request to build a house for mission in his kingdom of Kwinella, the Mansa said: “That is very good, too good: take the land, as much as you want, and where you please; but I advise you to build your house near the river, that if my people attempt to injure you, you may jump into a canoe and get out of their reach. Some of my people have been trading, and have got rich, and I cannot govern them.” Morgan, 15.
- This audience took place on May 3, 1821. Baker and Morgan took the opportunity to offer a scarlet cloth-covered horse as a present to the Mansa (King) of the Kombo Kingdom. Fox, 267.
- Morgan, 23-24.
- The lean construction team consisted of John Baker, John Morgan, George Lane, three liberated African couples from Melville-Town Society on St. Mary’s Island.
- Fox, 268.
- “Mr. Baker appointed a black boy to attend upon (Morgan) at the hospital. There (Morgan) continued about two months in a deplorable condition, all hope of his recovery been given up.” Morgan, 36.
- Morgan, 31.
- Martha T. Frederiks, We have toiled all night: Christianity in The Gambia 1456 – 2000 (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum Publishing House, 2003), 196.
- “A fever such as malaria marked by paroxysms of chills, fever, and sweating that recur at regular intervals.” Www.merriam-webster.com
- Morgan, 34.
- Fox, 267.
- Morgan, 27.
- Fox, 268.
- Morgan, 46.
- Frederiks, 196. Citing Baker, Bethesda May 26, 1821, to GWMMS, Box 293 H2709 mf. 823.
Fox, William. A Brief History of The Wesleyan Missions on the Western Coast of Africa. London: Aylott and Jones, 1850. Frederiks, Martha T. We have toiled all night: Christianity in The Gambia 1456 – 2000. Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum Publishing House, 2003. Mahoney, Asi Florence. Creole Saga: The Gambia’s Liberated African Community in the Nineteenth Century. Banjul: Baobab Printers, Copyright 2006, 2nd Edition 2017. Morgan, Rev. John. Reminiscences of the Founding of a Christian Mission the Gambia. London: Wesleyan Mission House, 1864.
This biography, received in March 2021, was written by Rev. Gabriel Leonard Allen, of the Gambia, a theologian, ecumenist, and interfaith activist Full Ministerial Connection with the Methodist Church in the Gambia. He is also a member of the DACB Editorial Board and a JACB contributing editor.