AMERICAN SLAVERY TO ENGLISH MINISTRY: THE REVD. PETER THOMAS STANFORD (1860-1909)
Submitted by Rev. Paul Walker of Highgate Baptist Church, Birmingham.
In 1995 I was investigating the history of Highgate Baptist Church, when a friend brought me details of an article he’d noticed in, Birmingham Faces and Places: An Illustrated Local Magazine, April 1894. I went to Birmingham Central Library and found the magazine. My first reaction was amazement, followed by disbelief! The article, entitled ‘The Revd. Peter Thomas Stanford, “Birmingham’s Coloured Preacher”, said that Stanford, an African American ex-slave, was the minister of Hope Street Baptist church, the forerunner of my present church, between 1889 and 1895! An African American ex-slave the Baptist minister in Victorian Birmingham? Surely, there must be some mistake!
The Birmingham Faces and Places article mentioned that Stanford had written a narrative of his life, From Bondage to Liberty, which was in Birmingham central library’s local history collection. From Bondage to Liberty told the story of Stanford’s life up to 1889, when he became the minister in Highgate. Stanford was born in Hampton, Virginia in 1860 and like other America slaves was freed at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. This was the beginning of an amazing life of travel and adventures. The orphaned child was captured by American Indians, who he lived with for a few years. They eventually passed him to a group of Quakers, who took him to Boston where he was adopted by a Mr and Mrs Stanford. They treated him as a slave rather than an adopted son, so he eventually ran away, jumped on a train and arrived in New York City. Alone and friendless he ended up living on the streets, part of a children’s gang who slept rough and made a meagre living collecting old clothes, polishing shoes and selling matches.
A few of these urchins went to see the famous Christian evangelists Moody and Sankey. Stanford was challenged by their message and became a Christian. He then came to the attention of a group of influential New York Abolitionists, Revd Henry Highland Garnet and Revd Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stow, author of Uncle Toms Cabin, amongst them. They helped him go to a Baptist college and he was eventually ordained in Hartford, Connecticut in 1878 and became the pastor of a church serving the small black community there.
In 1880 Stanford went to London, Ontario, in Canada, where he became a minister in the African Baptist Association. Later, following in the footsteps of many escaped and ex-slaves, he travelled to Britain, arriving in Liverpool in May 1883. After a few weeks he went to London, where the editor of the Christian Herald, Rev. Baxter, found him work as an evangelist. He travelled to Leeds, Barnsley, Keighley and spent some time living in Bradford. He settled in Birmingham in 1887. On August 13th 1888 he married Beatrice Mabel Stickley, at Smethwick Baptist Chapel. They both became members of Victoria Street Baptist Church, Small Heath, and Revd. Charles Joseph, the minister, became a friend and supporter.
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