Nicholas Timothy Clerk (1862-August 16, 1961) was an African-born missionary who engaged in pioneer work with the Basel Mission in what is now southeastern Ghana.
He was born at Aburi, 20 miles (32 km) north of Accra, the son of Alexander Worthy Clerk, a Jamaican who had been among the first group in 1843 by the Rev. Andreas Riis of the Basel Mission, who was on the Gold Coast from 1832-45. His mother was from the Gold Coast. He was educated at Basel Mission schools, and at the seminary at Akurupon, in the state of Akuapem, 32 miles (51 km) north-north-east of Accra, where he developed an interest in Christian missionary work. Upon leaving the seminary in 1884, he was sent to pursue his studies at the Basel Mission seminary in Switzerland.
At Basel he worked diligently and, in spite of nervous exhaustion, succeeded in passing his final examinations creditably, after which he was consecrated as a missionary in Basel Cathedral. He was ordained a pastor at Kornstal, Switzerland, in July 1888, and returned home a few months later.
His first station was at Anum, on the right bank of the Volta, some 50 miles (80 km) inland, where he arrived in October 1888. From December 2, 1889 to February 1890, he travelled to what is now northern Ghana, writing a good account of his journey in German, and having it published in the journal of the geographical society of Thuringia.
On February 26, 1891, he married Anna Alice Mayer of Christiansborg, a mulatto, and in August of the same year he left Anum to establish a mission station in the state of Buem in what is now the Volta Region of Ghana. He chose Worawora, more than 110 miles (176 km) from the coast, as his headquarters. Here he built several buildings, including a school, a chapel, and a house for himself. He opposed non-Christian practices, and attempted to persuade parents to send their children to school. He tried his best to persuade adults to join the church, but adherence to the practice of polygamy made his work difficult.
He had come to Buem at a time when it was still independent of both German or British rule, and when tribal wars were common. The younger inhabitants at first thought that he would side with them in their disputes with their elders, but found themselves disappointed, and so refused to cooperate with him. Despite various difficulties, by 1898 the Worawora mission station was making modest progress. When, in 1899, the inhabitants moved from the hill to the valley, Clerk followed them, and established a new mission station. By then Buem had become a part of the German colony of Togo, conditions of peace prevailed, and Clerk’s work had become easier. Before the German takeover of Buem, which was done by force, the inhabitants had wanted Clerk to persuade the British to annexe the area, while the German administration, based in Lomé on the coast, had sent a messenger to him to ask him to persuade the people of Buem to become German subjects, but he had refused to take sides.
With a wife and children to support, Clerk found it difficult to live on his stipend, and occasionally felt that he should seek a more lucrative post. Dr. Gruner, the German district commissioner at Misahohé, some 50 miles (80 km) to the south in what is now the Republic of Togo, had heard of this, and in 1893 had written to him, offering him a permanent post in the service of the German administration. Clerk nevertheless refused to quit the service of the Basel Mission. Yet even though he disliked the German way of treating the Africans, and made them aware of it, he was still highly regarded by the Germans.
Under German rule, parents were obliged to send their children to school, and cleanliness was enforced. Clerk taught his converts to plant cocoa, and his pioneering work in agriculture was to bear fruit years later. But since the German administration insisted that Ewe, and not Twi, should be taught in the mission’s schools, Clerk could not continue his work, as the people of Buem spoke Twi. In the year in which he left, 1904, the Basel Mission station was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Bremen Mission.
Clerk next moved to Merekum, near Suyani, about 80 miles (128 km) northwest of Kumase, in what is now the Brong-Ahafo Region of Ghana, and here he had intended to settle. But the chief and the inhabitants refused his accommodation, and would not help him build a house. After three years of fruitless efforts, during which time he had to bear insults, and also to combat ill health, he was transferred to Larteh, just south of Akuropon, where he found the work more congenial. Here Clerk and several Christians established cocoa plantations, and with the money that he got from his farm at Adawaso, a few miles to the west, he was able to give his children a good education.
But the European members of the Basel Mission were inclined not to treat their African colleagues as adults, and kept them out of the administration. Clerk resented this paternalism, and felt that the Basel Mission should become Africanized, a view which he communicated to the missionaries. The coming of the First World War (1914-1918) gave the African missionaries a chance to undertake heavier responsibilities, even though they had not been trained for them. When the Basel missionaries were expelled from the Gold Coast in 1917, and the Free Church of Scotland took over their work, a synod (a Presbyterian judicatory, composed of members from all presbyteries within its bounds) and a synod committee were established. Clerk became the first synod clerk, a post he held from 1918-32.
He was determined to succeed as an administrator. He preached self-reliance, and refused to ask missionary societies abroad for funds. This attitude was not popular in his home, since while teachers could then earn good government salaries, priests had to live on the modest stipends that the church could afford. He cooperated with the Scottish missionaries after he had got over his initial suspicion of them. As synod clerk, he stressed the continued use of local languages in church and school, and insisted on modesty in the lifestyle of Christians.
When the Basel missionaries were permitted to return to the Gold Coast in 1926, they cooperated with their Scottish colleagues, working together in a church that was renamed the Presbyterian Church of the Gold Coast. In the same year, 1926, Clerk returned to Basel as the church’s delegate, and was able to dispel any doubts in missionary circles that the Presbyterian Church had forgotten its debt to the Basel Mission.
In 1933 he retired, living at Adawso and at Christianborg (Osu). His wife died in 1924. After his retirement, he continued to take an active part in church work, and often preached in the Osu church until he reached the age of 90. While he was awarded a certificate and badge of honor by the Gold Coast government in 1934, his greatest moment was when the Buem people invited him to visit them in 1937.
L. H. Ofosu-Appiah
N. T. Clerk; The Settlement of West Indian Emigrants in the Gold Coast 1843-1943 - A Centenary Sketch, Accra, 1943; H. W. Debrunner,* Owura Nico - The Rev. Nicholas Timothy Clerk, Accra, 1965, *A History of Christianity in Ghana, Accra, 1967. See also The Christian Messenger, Basel, 1883-1917.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1997 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.