THE MAN: THOMAS BIRCH FREEMAN (1809 – 1890)
Thomas Birch Freeman (December 6, 1809 – August 12, 1890) was a missionary of Anglo- African descent who established the Methodist Church on a firm footing in the Gold Coast and extended its work to Lagos and Badagry, in Nigeria.
He was born in 1809 in Twyford, near Winchester, Hampshire, England. His father was an African freeman called Thomas, and his mother was Amy Birch, an Englishwoman who had had three children by her first husband, John Birch. His father died when he was six and he lived with his mother in Twyford.
He was introduced to Methodism as a boy by a shoemaker on whom he and his playmates used to play tricks. Like his father, he first worked as a gardener, and was a keen student of Botany. He became Botanist and head Gardener to Sir Robert Harland at Orwell Park, near Ipswich in Suffolk. He had a good knowledge of Latin botanical names and read avidly.
Years later when he was in West Africa, he corresponded with Sir William Hooker (1785 – 1865), the first Director of Kew Gardens near London, the world’s leading botanical institution, on West African flowers and trees. Freeman also collected information on tropical fauna for Kew Gardens.
His enthusiasm for Methodism displeased his employer, Sir Robert Harland, who told him to choose between his job and the new religion. The Methodist Mission Society in England had just made an appeal for missionaries in Africa, and Thomas felt he had been called by God to go there. He left his job and after he had preached a good sermon at a Methodist conference in Leeds, England in October 1837, was appointed as minister, on a trial basis, at Cape Coast. He had been ordained in Islington Chapel, London on October 10, 1837. A few days later he married Elizabeth Boot, Sir Robert and Lady Harland’s housekeeper, and sailed with her for Cape Coast on November 5, arriving on January 3, 1838.
But Thomas fell ill and had to be nursed by his wife, who then died suddenly. Thomas recovered from his illness and from the blow of his wife’s death and started work. Freeman was the first Methodist Missionary to arrive at Badagry in Nigeria on September 24, 1842, accompanied by William de Graft and his wife. They were permitted to establish a mission there and had completed a mission house and a chapel there by the end of November and William de Graft was put in charge.
Freeman and de Grafts left for Abeokuta at the written invitation of the Alake (ruler), Shodeke. They were well received and preached in the palace courtyard. Freeman presented a Bible to the Alake.
Before retiring, Freeman supervised the building of several churches, held religious revival camp meetings and wrote a couple of books one of which is ‘Missionary Enterprise No Fiction’. Among other things he had to face opposition from a Muslim sect which came to the Fante area from Lagos, but neutralized its influence by opening a school in the area. He opened a new chapel at Mankesim, and baptized several converts with his son, Thomas Birch Freeman Jr. who had also been ordained a Methodist minister.
After being the principal preacher at the jubilee of the Gold Coast Methodist Mission, held in 1885, he retired, living in a small house near Accra until his 81 years. His final days were spent in the Methodist Mission House in Accra, when he died on August 12, 1890.