Brem-Wilson, Thomas Kawa

1855-1929
Sureway International Ministries (Pentecostal)
Ghana

Diaspora country of ministry: United Kingdom

Thomas Kowo [1] or Kawa [2] Brem-Wilson was from Dixcove, Ghana born in 1855 [3] to a wealthy family. Thomas was a schoolmaster of a missionary school in Ghana prior to his migration to Britain in 1901. His family was wealthy because he was a general merchant like his father, Thomas Birch Wilson. Brem established the first modern Black Pentecostal Church in Britain. Donald Gee’s perspective [4] and the centenary publication of Sureway International Christian Ministries [5] both asserted that the church began in 1906 while Ian MacRobert [6] and Cartwright [7] opined that the church started around 1907.

The Sunderland meeting in 1907 was a historical landmark, as one of the seventeen people [8] who were baptized in the Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues was a Ghanaian businessman named Thomas Brem Wilson. The British Pentecostal movement heralded the emergence of the first Black Church in Britain as a result of the gains of the Barratt meetings. Gee, in Pentecost, the official voice of the Pentecostal world movement, gave this synopsis of the founding days of the oldest Pentecostal church, Sumner Chapel:

In 1906 two coloured ministers opened an assembly in Sumner Lane, Peckham, and returned from Sunderland in 1907 baptised in the Holy Ghost. It was stigmatised as the “Black Man’s Church.” Led by Brother Wilson until his death in 1929, it was pastored by Bro. James, and Bro. P. [Peter] Van der Woude, until the present pastor [as at the date of this publication], C. [Charles] Corston, took over in 1940.[9]

Wilson was a man of tremendous spirituality as exemplified in one of the proceedings of the Sunderland meetings according to the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette of October 4, 1907:

By about 8.30 something like a hundred were present. Suddenly a dark gentleman started a revival hymn, which was taken up with vigour by the congregation. The hymn ended, the dark gentleman began in fervid tones to ask that the Spirit of Christ might enter the hall. While so engaged he burst into loud sounds and instantly the bulk of those present broke into exclamations. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! was shouted from all parts of the building. The excitement was intense.[10]

His spiritual fervor was quite distinctive, probably as a result of his leadership responsibility, as it was ascertained that in 1906 he had started the first “black man’s church.” Sumner Road Chapel was in transit from its founding days within Peckham Borough until 1920 as a result of tenancy and socio-religious constraints. Thomas Brem-Wilson’s church started at the site of the Blind Factory in Peckham through the initiative of the Surrey Association for the General Welfare of the Blind, established in 1857. The church later relocated to Rye Lane while they met under the railway arch for a year, then to White Hart Square in Kennington for another year before relocation to Walworth Road where the church was given the pejorative name the “black man’s church” with complaints that their meetings were too noisy. This must have been a result of the emotionalism associated with Pentecostal meetings as it was experienced at Azusa Street meetings. The church operated from the “red light district” of Castle Buildings in Mansion Street, Camberwell for a while. Then it moved to Elder Street that was the operational base of the church for four years. Finally it acquired the former Primitive Methodist Church on Sumner Road in 1920 according to the centenary anniversary brochure of Sureway International Christian Ministries.[11]

The Apostolic Conference held at Peckham Assembly (Sumner Chapel led by Brem-Wilson) was covered by the July edition of Riches of Grace [12], the British Apostolic Church magazine edited by D. Williams. He noted that “the power of God was greatly manifested in the salvation of precious souls, and a good many were baptized unto the Holy Ghost.” Brem-Wilson was photographed along with some of the Apostolic Church officers during the annual 1923 convention. Brem-Wilson was listed as the Overseer of Peckham Assembly (Sumner Chapel) in the official directory of the Apostolic Church of Britain published in the July edition of Riches of Grace magazine.[13] Peckham Assembly was the hub of the united monthly meetings of Apostolic Church assemblies from Hammersmith, Dulwich, Peckham and the City assemblies, according to the testimony of L. Charlton in the December edition of Riches of Grace.[14] The Church was received into fellowship with 30 other assemblies recognized by the General Presbytery in 1939 during the annual Presbytery Conference of Assemblies of God held at Weston-Super-Mare with 150 presbyters in attendance and J. Viden as the pastor after the demise of Brem-Wilson.[15]

Sumner Chapel, also known as Peckham Assembly, hosted the first Apostolic Convention in London. This was held in June 1923, supported by “groups in Peckham, Dulwich, Hammersmith and Farringdon Street, Ludgate Circus. The speakers were Pastors D. P. Williams, A. Turnbull [publicly ordained as prophet by the laying on of hands at the New Year Convention in Glasgow in 1923], F. Hodges, H. V. Chanter, W. J. Williams and W. A. C. Rowe.”[16]

His Marriage

The actual age of Brem-Wilson could not be ascertained with certainty. It is said he was 39 years old when he married Miss Esther Cantor. However, this age contradicts the birth date (1855) from Iain MacRobert’s perspective. There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding his married life and his personal life had a dark side. He was formerly married to Hagar Brem before his marriage to Esther Cantor, a “Jewish stage artist,” aged 25 years on July 11, 1906 at Fulham registry.[17] Her father was Philip Cantor, a sponge merchant. Brem-Wilson resided at 21 St Oswald’s Street, Fulham in 1906 while the bride lived at 239 Shaftsbury Avenue, West End. Brem-Wilson was an admirer of Alexander Dowie and actually visited Zion City with a business proposition for him, according to Killingray who had the privilege of owning his personal diaries. According to Killingray,

[Brem-Wilson did] not marry her [Esther Cantor] in a Christian ceremony, which, as a member of the Dowie Zion Chapel in the Euston Road, would have been the usual course of action for a Christian. They had six children, three of whom (sic) survived to adulthood. The marriage was tempestuous and it is known, from newspaper reports [Asburton Guardian, November 19, 1920] that in 1920 Ettie [Esther] sued Brem-Wilson for assault. By 1923 the marriage had effectively ended and Ettie withdrew from the married home.[18]

In the past, divorce in Britain cost a fortune. Prior to the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, divorces could only be obtained through a cumbersome legal procedure. The 1857 Act allowed moderately wealthy men to divorce their wives but there was no mutual consensus for divorce before 1923. The dark side of Brem-Wilson never found its way into the public domain but his diaries have revealed he was a man living in two worlds because he concealed the painful, dark side of his private life from the public.

Despite his dysfunctional relationship with his wife, Brem-Wilson was quite succinct in the defense of his faith and church. The Ashburton Guardian of November 19, 1920 reported that Brem-Wilson was charged with assault at Lambeth Police Court along with four elders of his congregation. When asked by the presiding judge what sort of sect he presided over, Brem-Wilson said: “We are not Protestants and we are not Catholics. We are Christians within the meaning of the Word as it is written.” This is a familiar position for Pentecostals globally because they subscribe to the inerrancy of the Word of God, to experience, and to pneumacentrism. In the assault case instituted by Esther, she noted the pneumacentric emphasis of the church. When the court asked what his sect called themselves, she replied “They called themselves Holy Ghost people inspired by God.”[19] The case was dismissed by the court because of Esther’s lack of discretion in visiting Sumner Chapel to request more money than the four pence he had given her, against the directive of her husband. Brem-Wilson was given the benefit of doubt with respect to the appropriateness of force used to put his wife outside the church. The case was sensational probably because it was an interracial marriage and also because Brem-Wilson’s vocation attracted a lot of attention from a courtroom full of women.

Ecumenical Engagement

Brem-Wilson’s church was well known not only among the Pentecostal visionaries of his day but also among leaders of historic denominations. He was visited by Alexander Boddy, vicar of All Saints, Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, accompanied by Cecil Polhill. The church must have witnessed many manifestations of the gift of the Holy Spirit because it was reported that, “T. Brem-Wilson is now having a great time of Blessing at Bethel Hall, Camberwell. The power and presence of God has been manifest in recent meetings.”[20] Brem-Wilson paid off the debt of the first edition of the first British Pentecostal Magazine, Confidence, published in 1908 by Boddy at the cost of £13, which was the equivalent of five weeks’ wages for a working man.[21] The obvious enculturation that brought about the pejorative labeling of Brem-Wilson’s church is reminiscent of what happened at Azusa Street. At Azusa Street, the movement was the approximation of the African American Christian tradition that had evolved since the days of slavery in the South. Similar expressive worship was prevalent in Brem-Wilson’s church. This involved shouting and dancing, as expressed by members of the Azusa movement. This was not only a feature of Appalachian Whites or Southern black Americans but a demonstration of the cultural fluidity in religious worship.

The church (Sumner Chapel) did experience racism from the prevailing British urban culture because the label given to the church was a pejorative term not born out of sociological considerations. But, like the Azusa Street movement, the members of Brem-Wilson’s ethnic minorities might have discovered “the sense of dignity and community denied them in the larger urban culture.”[22] The first Black-led church in Britain was not born out of social discontent. This fact repudiates Anderson’s perspective that African Pentecostalism emanated out of radical racial discontent.[23] Anderson’s assertions are much more appropriate for the description of the re-emergence of Black churches in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Roswith Gerloff also notes that there were traces of indigenous African Christian faith in Hornsey in the 1930s.[24]

His Writing

Brem-Wilson wrote an article entitled “The Palm” in the November 1923 edition of Riches of Grace.[25] His literary prowess and use of imagery in relation to his topic could not but be appreciated. The article has all the features of the present-day Black Majority church hermeneutics characterized by literalism and imagery. His African roots were demonstrated in this article, as he wrote extensively about the growth and distinctiveness of the palm tree as a tropical plant in relation to Christian maturity.

Transcultural Leadership

Sumner Chapel, the first Black-led African church in modern Britain was inclusive and had distinctive similarities with William Seymour’s movement in terms of the elimination of racial barriers and a strong sense of oneness between members and the prevalence of gifts of the Holy Spirit. This inevitably created an “ideal community” in contrast to the prevailing “larger urban community” that was distinctively racial and divisive.

Brem-Wilson’s church was a multicultural church. Among his associate ministers was a Dutch man known as Peter van der Woude (1895-1978), who was converted in the church on October 23, 1921. He was ordained as an assistant pastor in 1929, and migrated to Holland in 1934 [26] after the death of Brem-Wilson.[27] Peter Van der Woude was among the second generation of Dutch Pentecostals that included Piet Klaver (1890-1970) and Nico Vetter (1890-1945). Van der Woude was pivotal in the introduction of Pentecostalism in Rotterdam under the auspices of the Assembly of God.

Peter van der Woude most likely formed his transnational relationship with ministers under Brem-Wilson’s leadership. This was replicated in van der Woude’s evangelistic ties with British evangelists, which led to the establishment of a number of church outposts in Rotterdam. Peter van der Woude reignited the memories of first generation Pentecostal preacher Gerit Polman (1868-1932) through a Pentecostal periodical under the name Spade Regen, which was the name used by Polman in his heyday. The publication was continued under a new name, Volle Evangelie Koerier.[28]

Leadership Changes in Summer Chapel

Sumner Road Chapel, as the first Black Pentecostal church, appears to have undergone various phases of growth following its establishment in 1906. After the demise of Brem-Wilson in 1929, it seems there was a void in the leadership of the church from 1929 to 1941, according to the centenary anniversary brochure of Sureway International Christian Ministries (formerly Sumner Chapel). Donald Gee [29] provided guidance to the leadership of the church from 1929 to 1940. He asserted that the church was “then pastored by Bro. James [30] and Bro. P. Van der Woude until Pastor C. Corston took over in 1940” but the centenary publication of Sureway International Christian Ministries states that Rev. C. Corston’s leadership commenced in 1942. This instance of inadequate historiography is probably due to the shortcomings of oral transmission in which valuable historical information could be omitted or forgotten.

Brem-Wilson led the “black man’s church” on Sumner Road, Peckham, until his death on Good Friday April 1929. [31] However, Killingray [32] says that Brem-Wilson died on March 29, 1929, at the age of 62, of acute bronchitis and influenza. His last known address was 3 Bridges Cottages, Penrose Street, Walworth, Southwark.

Post Wilson Era in Sumner Chapel

After the death of Brem-Wilson, the church leadership dynamics changed as white ministers took the helm of its affairs (Rev. C. Corston 1942-1952, Rev. Golding 1952-1960; Rev. Lewis 1960-1962, Rev. Ronald Eske 1962-2007). Affiliations with the Apostolic Church and Assemblies of God might have blurred the historical antecedents of the church as the first Black Pentecostal Church in Britain. The historical antecedents of the emergence of Black churches seem to have been misconceived because many sociologists and commentators have always attributed the emergence of Black Churches in Britain to social deprivation theory after the West Indies migrations of 1948, the 1950s and 1960s. However, this was due to the lack of consideration of several historical facts, because the first Black church evolved not as a result of racism but of divine initiative and missiology.

The church on Summer Road was refurbished in 1950 under Rev. C. Corston and another hall was added to it. The old Primitive Methodist Church property on Sumner Road that accommodated the first Black-led Pentecostal Assembly in Britain was sold to the New Testament Church of God (Annapolis) in 2003 after over eighty years of usage by the church established by Brem-Wilson. Sumner Chapel is now known as Sureway International Christian Ministries, still an affiliate of the Assemblies of God with affiliates in eight countries and two churches in the United Kingdom. The church is situated at number 1 Higgs Industrial Estate, Herne Hill, London. The leadership of the church is now vested in the hands of Stephen Armah, a Ghanaian.

Babatunde Aderemi Adedibu


Notes:

  1. MacRobert, The New Black-led Churches in Britain,” in Badham, P. (ed.), Religion, State and Society in Modern Britain (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen,1989), 138.
  2. Sureway International Christian Ministries, 100 Years of Centenary Celebrations: Our Journey So Far, London (Sureway International Christian Ministries, London 2006), 4.
  3. MacRobert, “The New Black-led Churches in Britain,” 138.
  4. Donald Gee, (ed.) Pentecost Magazine, in Cauchi, T. (2008) Pentecost. A complete run of 77 Pentecost magazines 1947-1966 (CD ROM) (1950), 12.
  5. Sureway International Christian Ministries, 100 Years of Centenary Celebrations, 4; S. A. Smith, British Black Gospel: The Foundations of this Vibrant UK Sound (London: Monarch Books, 2009), 46.
  6. MacRobert in R. Gerloff, A Plea for British Black Theologies: The Black Church Movement in Britain in its Transatlantic Cultural and Theological Interaction with Special References to the Pentecostal Oneness (Apostolic) and Sabbatarian Movements (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1992), 44.
  7. D. Cartwright, “Black Pentecostal Churches in Britain,” Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association (2007), Vol. 23, No. 2. 128-137,
  8. T. Barratt, When the Fire Fell: An Outline of My Life (Oslo: Alfons Hansen & Sonner,1927), 150.
  9. Gee, Pentecost Magazine, 12.
  10. Cartwright, “Black Pentecostal Churches,” 129.
  11. Sureway International Ministries, 100 Years, 4.
  12. D. William (ed.) Riches of Grace (1923) July edition (Bradford: Apostolic International Missionary Council), 24.
  13. Ibid, 31.
  14. Ibid.13.
  15. Redemption Tidings, 1939, Vol 15:6, in T. Cauchi, Redemption Tidings 1924-1939, Revival Library (CD ROM).
  16. G. Weeks, Chapter Thirty-two: A History of the Apostolic Church (Barnsley: Prontaprint, 2003), 84.
  17. David Killingray, telephone interview, November 23, 2009. David Killingray is retired Emeritus Professor of History at Goldsmiths College, London. David was introduced to the author by David Cartwright, the official historian of Elim Pentecostal, UK, in 2009 during the course of this research. Killingray delivered a lecture on February 2, 2010 at the School of Arts and Science (SOAS), London, entitled “An African Pentecostal Pioneer in Peckham; The Hidden life of Thomas Brem-Wilson (1855-1929).” He is duly credited for his contributions to my research on Thomas Brem-Wilson. Killingray’s first contact with Brem-Wilson’s historical antecedents coincided with mine at the preliminary stages of my literature review for my PhD thesis through MacRobert, “The New Black-led Churches in Britain” and Aldred, Respect, as the author noted that there was evidence of an organized Black Pentecostal Church in London as far back as 1907. Killingray, in his article on “African Research and Documentation” dated January 10, 2010, said, “two years ago [2008] I came across [Brem-Wilson’s] name in a footnote to an article in a journal which stated that he had helped found an early Pentecostal church in south London. Through the wonders of the Web, I contacted his grandson, who sent me photographs and mentioned that his sister had diaries. Another member of the family contacted me and produced more than one hundred letters and documents. I have now transcribed the diaries which run intermittently from 1899-1925. Although many entries are one-liners, they include names and places that, with a good knowledge of the contemporary Gold Coast as well as the black diaspora in Britain, enabled me to reconstruct the religious, commercial, social, and political networks that Brem-Wilson inhabited during the first decade of the twentieth century. The diary transcripts, with my edited notes, in due course will be deposited in a number of libraries and archives.” Killingray also noted that Thomas Brem-Wilson’s widow died in 1962 in Keston, Kent. For further reading see Killingray, D. 2010b, African Research and Documentation [Web] http://www.faqs.org/periodicals/201001/2166008011.html [Date of access: December 2, 2010]
  18. David Killingray, telephone interview, November 23, 2009.
  19. David Killingray, Ashburton Guardian, 1920, Volume XLI, Issue 9371, November 19, 1920: 4 [Web] http://www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=AG19201119.2.13 [Date of access: January 21, 2010].
  20. Cartwright, “Black Pentecostal Churches,”127.
  21. Cartwright, “Black Pentecostal Churches,” 3.
  22. R. Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (Peabody: Hendrickson.1979), 69.
  23. Ibid., 222.
  24. R. Gerloff, A Plea for British Black Theologies: The Black Church Movement in Britain in its Transatlantic Cultural and Theological Interaction with Special References to the Pentecostal Oneness (Apostolic) and Sabbatarian Movements (Frankfurt: Peter Lang. 1992), 44.
  25. William, Riches of Grace, 27-29.
  26. C. Van der Laan, “Discerning the Body: Analysis of Pentecostalism in the Netherlands” in J. Jongeneel, (ed.), Pentecost, Mission and Ecumenism: Essays on Intercultural Theology, Studies in the Intercultural History of Christianity 75 (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1992), 126.
  27. D. Cartwright, “From the Backstreets to the Royal Albert Hall: British Pentecostalism 1907-1928,” unpublished paper delivered at the First European Pentecostal Theological Association Conference, Leuven. December 28–29, 1981, p6.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Gee, Pentecost Magazine, 12.
  30. Viden, as recorded in Redemption Tidings.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Killingray, telephone interview with the author, 2009.

This article, received in 2018, was researched and written by Dr. Babatunde Adedibu (PhD in Missiology from North-West University, South Africa). He is a Research Fellow with the Department of Practical Theology and Missiology, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa and currently the Provost of the Redeemed Christian Bible College, Nigeria. Contact: [email protected]