The Basel Mission bi-centenary celebration (1815 – 2015):…Origin, Heritage, Birth of Presbyterian Church Of Ghana
September 25, this year marks the 200th Anniversary of the Basel Evangelical Missionary Society (better known as Basel Mission). Missionaries of the EMS planted the now Presbyterian Church of Ghana in 1828. Other missionaries went to Russia (1828). India (1834), China (1847), Cameroun (1886), Nigeria (1951) and Latin America and the Sudan (1972, 1973).
This occasion must be of great significance particularly, to the descendants of the military alliance of the major European powers – Russia, Germany, Austria and Great Britain.
The alliance was determined to stop the conquering adventure of the dreaded French General Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, the defeat of Napoleon as a result of the christian soldiers prayer and solemn oath led to the founding of the then German Basel Missionary Society.
The people of Ghana, especially the Christian Community must be proud to be associated with the Basel Mission and go on to savour the bicentenary of such a pace-setting missionary institution which helped promote education in the rural communities agriculture, industrialisation, and…of the Ga and Twi languages into writing, as well as Bible Translations and publishing. The Mission introduced printing in the country and started the oldest existing newspaper in West Africa (if not in the whole of Africa), the
Christian Messenger, in 1883. Again, the oldest existing basic schools (Salem) were started at Akropong-Akuapem (1843) and Osu-Accra (1848).
Undoubtedly, it is fitting that the leadership of Mission 21 (the successor organization sel mission since 2001) has planned an elaborate International Symposium for 24-26 September 2015 in Basel, Switzerland. It is under the theme “The Basel Mission 1815-205: Reviewing History-Tackling the Future”.
And Ghana is blessed to have one of her sons as one of the key speakers. Presbyterian theologian, Rev. Prof. Cephas Narh Omenyo (Professor of African Christianity, University of Ghana, Legon) would deliver a keynote address on the topic: “African Perspective: History of the Mission as Mission Dei (God’s Mission) with shared roles”.
Birth of Basel Mission
Sadly, the negative perception of critics of European expansionism was that they colonised unfettered lands and used their missionary collaborators to either protect the interests of European capitalists or to forcibly proselytize (convert) the so called “backward communities to Christianity”. But this was not the case with Basel Mission.
They used the Gospel of Christ to help spread enlightenment or civilisation in rural communities, leading to superstitious beliefs and practices in most of those communities. The origin of the Basel Mission was by the ‘finger of God’. History has it that its founding was connected with the “despotic rule of the French Emperor, Napolean Bonaparte”.
The European nations were quaking (trembling) “under the boots” of the ever advancing but “relentless army of Napoleon in the early years of the 10th Century. To help halt his unslaught the major powers formed an alliance in 1814. This took place in Basel, a small community in Switzerland.
In a defiant reaction, the French General threatened to ‘blow up Basel to bits’.
Taken aback by the warning and to avert the threat, a group of Christian believers in the allied force met for a prayer session in Basel.
There and then they took a solemn oath that if the Lord would aid the united force to triumph over the Napoleon army and spare the city, they would form an evangelical, non-denominational mission to “establish a seminary, train missionaries, and preach the word of God to the world”.
God so good, in June 1815 Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The victory overwhelmed the soldiers so much so that in fulfillment of their oath they decided to form a missionary society. And on 25th September 1815, the new missionary society was born, originally known as “German Basel Evangelical Society”, under its first president, Rev. Nicholas Van Brunn.
According to Church Chroniclers, after the victory over Napoleon and the safety of the city of Basel about five Swiss and two German Christians met to found the Basel Mission. The original core mandate of the mission was to “spread the Gospel of peace and a ‘benevolent civilisation’ and make up for the ‘eternally seeming injustices’ of the slave trade”.
One of the cardinal aims of this initiative by the So-called pietist soldiers was to establish a theological institute to train young men to help carry out the message of peace to Eastern Europe, China, India and Africa.
Thus, on 26th August 1816, the theological college was opened under the auspices of the Mission Committee. Initially, the EMS collaborated with the Church Mission Society (Anglican Church) in London which supported the mission school financially. They sponsored between four and nine students per year.
By six years time, the institute became the biggest Seminary in Europe. And when more resources had been garnered, the Basel Mission decided to venture to Africa, the west coast of India and China. Their missionaries were first sent to Liberia (West Africa) in 1827 but had to abort the missionary in 1831 as a result of the very high death rate of the European Missionaries.
On the recommendation of the Danish Govenor – Cum, -General Manager of the Danish Guinea Trading Company, Major Christian Richeliue, the Basel Mission Home committee (Board), sent to the Gold Coast, Christiansborg-Osu to be précised, on 18th December, 1828 four young pioneer missionaries, namely, Revds. Johannes Philip Henke, Gottlieb Holzwarth, Carl Friedrich Salbach (all German) and Johannes Gottlieb Schmidt (a Swiss).
The missionaries were given a 5-point mandate in the Gold Coast, Viz. “Love the people with the Love of the Lord; Preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ; see Mission partly as a work of Restitution for the evils of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; take time and care to choose a suitable site for your Mission Station; and learn, study the language of the people, communicate with them, preach and teach in the language”.
Sadly, the climate, weather had a heavy toll on these young Europeans, as within just five months, three of them had died and buried in Great Ningo (which was once a prominent Danish territory and a lively palm oil exporting town for centuries).
By 1832 when the second batch of three missionaries arrived, the fourth pioneer missionary – Henke was also dead. But at the end of 1833 only one out of the three batches sent to the Gold Coast had survived. He was the Rev. Andreas Rus a former factory hand in Copenhagen, Denmark.
It must be noted here that unlike other missionary societies, the Basel Missionaries never attempted to forcibly convert the indigenous people, nor impose any ‘whiteman religion’ on them. Rather, they tried to enlighten (educate) the people, teach the Jesus principles alongside social humanistic and moral values.
Holistic Training for Holistic Mission
The Basel Mission Theological College produced graduates who made a difference wherever they were sent. Infact, the selection of candidates was rigorous, including series of interviews before one was confirmed as a ministerial student. One needed to be at least 20 years old before admission to the three- year programme.
The theological and ministerial formation was meant to make the graduates an all-round missionary who was expected to ‘give’ to the missionary community instead of ‘taking away’ from any gullible and unsuspecting seekers as we find in today’s ‘commercialisation of Christianity or the gospel’.
Aside promoting literacy or formal education to help bring about social and moral transformation in those mission stations, the college also groomed their products to be able to create job opportunities for the local people of the ‘mission field’.
In India, for instance, the Basel Missionaries taught printing, tile manufacturing, and weaving, and recruited people into those workplaces. The subjects offered included the following:
‘Theological Studies’- Bible Studies, Pastoral Care, New Testament, Faith and Morality, History of Christianity, Basic Homiletics and Mission History and Methods of Missionising.
‘Linguistic Studies’ – Philology (study of languages), and German, English and Dutch Grammar.
‘Skills Training’ – Arithmetic, Calligraphy, Orthography (writing and spelling skills), Map-making, Geography, Anatomy, Surgery, Botamy and logic.
‘Supplementary Instructions (Training)’ – Parish Record keeping, Drawing, Music, Singing, Reading and Technical work.
Obviously, the curriculum was carefully designed to help aging students, “drawn from artisanal and rural backgrounds” to impact their mission communities.
They must be confident in their interaction with local governments (authorities) and other religio-social organizations.
They must periodically “prepare reports, provide basic medical assistance, and also act as pioneer scientists, capable of drawing, map-making, recording languages (reducing them into writing) and geographical and botanical observations”.
The first Inspector (Director) of the institute was a German form Stuttgart, Christian Gottlieb Blumhardt (1779-1838).
Basel Mission Impact in Gold Coast
Education: One of the greatest legacies of the Basel Mission is General Education. Its first two basic schools were opened in 1843 at Akropong and Osu. Two Seminaries were established five years later in 1848 for Akan and Ga Dangme students to train as Teacher-Catechist.
But in 1856, the Osu Seminary was merged with the Akropong Seminary. All these were meant to provide education to the children of the Gold Coast. A significant milestone was chalked by the Mission nineteen years on, hewn in 1857 the Rev. Johan G. Auer, then a tutor of Akropong Seminary, and a musician and scholar designed the four-year ‘Middle School’ system to help bridge the academic gap between the six year Infant-Junior school and the four-year seminary course.
Students who excelled in their studies and did a 5th year at the seminary qualified as teacher-catechists.
The standard seven level education equipped the graduates with knowledge and skills in reading and writing in a Ghanaian language and in English; Arithmetic, Religions knowledge, History, Geography, Civics (Social Studies), Nature study, gardening, singing, physical exercises, spelling correctly, correct calculation – written or oral sums involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, weights and measures, as well as correct spoken (oral) English.
These tuition prepared the graduates to land employment in government departments, civil service, commercial firms and self-employed vocational trades in carpentry masonry, goldsmith, etc. aside job opportunists, some of the well graded standard seven leavers built on that educational foundation to acquire higher certificates. For instance, the famed Dr. J.B Danquah (BA, BL, PhD) furthered his education in the United Kingdom after his standard 7 certificate education at the Basel Mission Middle School at Begoro. And several others also did that too.
The introduction of the Middle School system by the Rev. Johan G Auer played a significant role in the nation’s development from 1867 to the 1980’s when the Junior Secondary School (Junior High School) model replaced it after 117 years.
Artisans ‘Training Institute: The Basel Mission again established an Artisans Training Institute at Osu whose products provided fruitful services to the Gold Coast and West Africa, as a whole.
The European and trained African instructors, groomed the church’s young men to become carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, road builders, clock repairers, piano and organ builders and repairers, printers and bookbinders, horticulturists and farmers, tailors and shoe repairers, and this enabled the graduates to earn a modest living in the Gold Coast. Others sought greener pastures abroad, including the legendary Tetteh Quarshie who went to the Spanish West African colony, Fernando Po. He was a trained Basel Mission product who imported six ripe cocoa pods that gave birth to the cocoa cultivation industry in 1879.
Girls Education: The Basel Mission also introduced Girls schools – Osu (1843), Abokobi (1855), and Krobo Odumase (1859) under the pioneering superintendence of Mrs. Catherine Ziamerman.
Aside the general education schools, the Mission also established Girls’ Institutes at Osu, Abokobi and Aburi. For example, the Abokobi Girls’ Institutes produced well educated and trained young women as prospective wives of local Ministers, Teacher-Catechists, Evangelists and other men in the congregations. Church agents and responsible families rushed to the Abokobi institute to choose life partners thus, formed its introduction in 1860 up to 1905 when it fizzled out, the Abokobi Girls’ Institute produced ‘competent resourceful, industrious wives and mothers for church and country. This was long before the renowned scholar, Dr. J.E Kwegyir Aggrey expoused his girl-education concept.
Teaching Training College: As part of their mission to promote education in the country to help drive out ignorance and illiteracy, the Basel Mission, within four years established two seminaries, one stationed at Akropong to cater for the Akan-speaking congregations and one at Osu for the Ga-speaking people. On 5th July 1848. Basel Mission Seminary was opened at Akropong-Akuapem which was followed by one at Osu in 1850.
The Akropong Seminary, with Rev. Dieterle as its first principle later metamorphosed into a Teacher-Training college, but the Osu institute became moribund. The Seminary was mandated to train suitable students to become teachers to work class rooms as well as do church work both in the mission station and in the wider community outside the salem or Christian quarters in their capacity as teacher-catechists.
The Akropong teacher training college started in 1848 was second in age to the Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone church opened by the Anglican Church Missionary Society in 1827. Like Fourah Bay, the Akropong Seminary standard could be compared to that of a University college in the U.K. One unique characteristics of the Basel Mission/Presbyterian schools and colleges was to train the students to later use their ‘3-Hs’ Head, Heart and Hands’ for their own good and that of society.
Agriculture Industry: Rev. Johames Mohv, a Basel Mission expert in charge of plant and crop development introduced coffee and cocoa seeds form Surinam (West Indies) and planted them at Akropong in the 1850s. the coffee survived and thrived, whilst the cocoa died out.
Tetteh Quarshie’s cocoa from Fernando Po were first planted at Mampong-Akuapem in the 1870s or so. In April 1843, the Basel Mission brought into the Gold Coast Black Missionaries from the West Indies. Aside the promotion of education, they promoted agriculture, particular improving upon farming in the country.
They brought with them some crops, seeds and agricultural implements. Missionary John Rochester, for instance, introduced mango seeds, anti-fever orange seeds, West Indian type of cocoyam -“all of which helped immensely to improve and enrich the nation’s economy and food (diet)”.
The Agriculture station at Abokobi had been preceded by an initiative of Rev. Andreas Rus in 1844. He brought about 144 acres of land for an agricultural project to cultivate food crops, cash and export crops, poultry, sheep, goats and cows. His original intention was to establish an inter-racial farming settlement of African and European farmers, in an effort to especially resettle ex-slaves and domestic slaves.
Religions Literature: The Biblical mandate of the Basel Missionaries is to carry the Light of the Gospel to all ‘darkened communities’ of the world, particularly in Africa. The famed motto of PRESEC-LEGON summarises their vision: “In your (God’s) Light we find light” (literally put). To this end, after reducing the vernacular into writing, the missionaries produced religious and academic publications to help disseminate that ‘Light’ to the world.
With the support of the Basel Mission House board (committee) and the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) Zimmerman’s complete Bible in Ga Language was published in 1866. It was the first local Bible in Africa. And his compatriot Rev. Johannes C. Christaller also completed the whole Bible in Akuapem-Twi in 1871. The pioneering role of the Basel Mission/Presbyterian Church of Ghana in the promotion of education in the Gold Coast/Ghana, cannot be under estimated.
The Legendary Presbyterian Discipline: A critical heritage of the Basel Mission legacy is the Legendary Presbyterian Discipline. Yes, all Salem or Basel Mission trained persons were marked out wherever they may be-workplace, home, community, etc-because of the traits of the so called ‘German’ or Presbyterian discipline.
The founders of the Mission were pietists from the Calvinist stock. But above all their ‘military’ background also made them brook no compromise on discipline and other vices. Other values of this heritage include: hardwork, respect for elderly, purity in word and in deed, honesty, probity, selflessness, sacrifices for the good of others, humility, the fear of God, and love for neighbour.
Graduates of the Salem Schools and inhabitants of the Salem communities should remember the Christian living regime they were taken through: morning prayers in church and houses, work in farms, and working to earn a living.
Tuesday evening church room Bible teaching with discussions, questions and answers, and the demand for exhibiting a Bible life, clean language, avoidance of high decibel noise at funerals, noisy brawls and quarrels, immoral living, the correct training and upbringing of children, swearing, adultery, fornication, stealing, litigation and drunkenness, among others. Indeed, that ‘Calvinistic’ Christian regime was the hall-mark of the Basel Mission heritage.
In those days morality was much evidenced in our society. Sadly, in spite of the spate of mushrooming of churches, we have a very high incidence of moral decadence. Need I write about the Missions contribution to medical services, sacred music, democracy, good governance, industrialisation and community services. No, time and space would not allow me to do just to these subject areas, may be at another time.
Moving on with Mission 21:
In conclusion, I must state that the Basel Missionary society was active from 1815 up to 2001 when it transferred its operative work to a successor organization called ‘Mission 21’. It works in collaboration with about 70 partner churches and organizations. Mission 21 services twenty countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. And the basis of its hope for these countries is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – The light of the world.
The Mission is currently spear heading about 100 projects that focus on poverty reduction, education, health care, peace work and the advancement of women. Through some of its initiatives, diverse forms of training and concrete support are given to people to enable them live in dignity and to engage themselves for a fairer or just society, wherever they find themselves.
Again, the personal and professional exchange programme between churches worldwide has been enriched with the sending of ecumenical co-workers (fraternal workers) on short-term assignments.
Actually, Mission 21 which council is chaired by Rev. Marianne Wagner is the missionary agency of the Reformed Churches in Switzerland. Its Board of Trustees consists of the Basel Mission, the Evangelical Mission in the Kwango, and the Moravian Church (the Brethen). The international partner churches and organizations have equal seats and an equal say in the Mission.
To God be the glory, for generations well served and a mission accomplished. May the 200th Mile-stone be the beginning of another fruitful adventure to the glory of God! Happy Anniversary!!!
By Rev. Francis Botchway