The 2023 Wilberforce Award recipient is Shodankeh Johnson, a pastor and church planter in Sierra Leone. The award was named after William Wilberforce, whose work as an English politician led to the abolishment of slavery in 1833 in the British Empire. There is an incredible link between Wilberforce and the role Shodankeh’s Sierra Leone played in freeing slaves.
The first Europeans to reach Sierra Leone were Portuguese mariners who arrived in 1462 and gave the region its name after a mountain that looked like a sleeping lion. Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, the territory of Sierra Leone, with its rainforests that sheltered it from other regions in West Africa, had been a haven for people fleeing violence and jihads.
However, in the 16th century, the warring Mane people moved into the area, bringing conflict among the various tribes, chiefdoms, and kingdoms in the region. By the 17th century, the Mane were selling prisoners of war to European slave traders, and the Freetown estuary became a major center for the Atlantic slave trade during the 17th and 18th centuries.
In 1745, an English slave ship called the Pegasus landed in Sierra Leone. Among its crew was a man named John Newton. Newton was so disliked that his shipmates abandoned him in Sierra Leone to a slave dealer named Amos Clowe. Clowe gave Newton to his wife as a slave, who abused him as she did all of her slaves. In 1748, Newton was finally rescued by a sea captain who had been asked by Newton’s father to look for him.
On his return to England on the ship the Greyhound, a tremendous storm broke out off the coast of Ireland. The ship was in danger of sinking. When Newton cried out to God for mercy, the storm began to die down. This was the beginning of Newton’s conversion from an “old blasphemer,” as he described himself later, to a Christian and eventually to an Anglican priest and hymn writer. The conversion took a while, and he continued to be involved in the slave trade for quite some time before becoming an ardent abolitionist.
A young man attended his church for a time named William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was so influenced by Newton that his parents became concerned he would turn into an evangelical and so left the church. Years later, when Wilberforce was converted, he went back to John Newton for advice. Should he continue in Parliament or join the clergy? Newton encouraged him to stay in Parliament and lead the fight for abolition.
The abolitionists wished to establish a colony in Africa to repatriate freed slaves. In 1792, after an earlier failed attempt, abolitionists from England established the Sierra Leone Company to bring a group of Black Loyalists who had backed the Crown in the American Revolution from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone. When they landed on the Freetown estuary, they cleared land, sang a spiritual, and listened to the first sermon preached by a Baptist on the African continent. They dedicated the land as “Free Town.” The town was laid out using an American-style grid pattern, with houses like those of the American South.
When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron patrolled the waters from Freetown to intercept ships engaged in the now-illegal slave trade. Any slaves freed from captured ships were repatriated in Freetown. In 1808, Sierra Leone became a crown colony, the second British colony in Africa, and Freetown became the capital of British West Africa. The colony gradually expanded inland to take up the entire territory of modern Sierra Leone.
Thus, Sierra Leone played a significant role in the conversion of John Newton, who would push the young William Wilberforce to challenge the slave trade, who would eventually help establish Freetown as a haven for freed slaves. A statue of Wilberforce stands today in Freetown, and a neighborhood in the city is named after him.
It is therefore appropriate that our Wilberforce Award winner this year is Shodankeh Johnson who, through his organization, New Harvest Global Ministries, has done extensive work in Sierra Leone and across Africa to found schools, heal and rehabilitate fighters from Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war, plant over 3,000 churches, and make Sierra Leone a model of good governance for Africa.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Glenn Sunshine. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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