By Billy Hall, Gleaner Writer
A PROPER assessment of Jamaican missionary Joseph Fuller is yet to be made and when it is done the records will show that he ranks among the greatest of missionary pioneers to pre-colonial Africa.
Regrettably, the fact that he was black colours his assessment, for much of his great work tends to be attributed to a white missionary, Alfred Saker, a London dock worker who sailed from England to Jamaica, recruited by the Baptist Missionary Society, and from Jamaica sailed to Africa as a missionary.
Saker was put in charge of the Baptist Missionary Society in the Cameroon, and is said to have done such outstanding work that Eugene Stock in his History of the Church Missionary Society said that early Baptist missions in the Cameroon "had one name much honoured, that of Alfred Saker" (vol. IV, chapter 5, p. 53).According to official records, Saker was a great civilising influence. He is credited with many innovations and improvements to the African way of life. For example, in agriculture, he is said to have introduced crops such as breadfruit, mangoes, pomegranate, avocado, and mamee apple. Also, he spread the skills of ironmongery, bricklaying, printing, and carpentry, and translated the Bible into the popular local dialect. His herbal medicines were also effective and considerably improved community health. But the truth seems to be that much of the credit given Saker belongs to Fuller. In this regard, Las Newman of Jamaica, currently in London concluding a doctoral dissertation on Church History, says that Fuller's significant contribution has been "consistently ignored" by Church historians of the period. Newman says, "Much of what is claimed to be Saker's introduction and innovation in Cameroon life were in fact brought over from Jamaica by the Jamaican missionary group. Fuller played a key role in all this endeavour"
(A West Indian Contribution to Christian Mission in Africa: The career of Joseph Jackson Fuller (1845-1888)" Transformation, 18/4, October 2001, p.227)Fuller left Jamaica when 18 years old, in 1845. However, by then, he had been well-schooled in a life of Sunday school, church attendance, and foreign field missions motivation. As well, there was a spirit of adventure imbedded, for he grew up in a society of newly freed black people, bonded to each other as survivors, and challenged through the Gospel to change the world. Newman comments perceptively on the character-forming context of the young Fuller's life: "Fuller never forgot this context, which shaped his young imagination and the social context never forgot him" (Transformation, p. 230).
On arrival in the Cameroon in 1845, Fuller served for five years before becoming a full member of the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in Africa. During those years he improved his skills as well as acquired skills. For example, he learned to operate the printing press at the mission station, and at nights studied to master the native tongue. This linguistic skill led to his performing many diplomatic assignments and to an enriching of his communication of the Gospel, even to be engaged in translation work.
In Jamaica, he had developed the skill of bricklaying through working on constructing Baptist churches and schools. In Africa, this proved invaluable, as he did similarly, labouring with his own hands for the sake of Christ. In addition, he preached the Gospel, trained teachers and appointed deacons for various Baptist churches.
On the whole, says Newman, the mission work in the Cameroon was slow and the progress was at best incremental. Many died in the hostile physical environment. Fuller survived at least five field leaders. By 1860, the majority of the Jamaicans had returned to the West Indies.
Also, a significant shift had begun to take place in European missions. Explorers had begun to 'open up' the heart of Africa, and so missions too moved from being essentially confined to the coast. Therefore, vibrations were being felt for the abandonment of the coastal Cameroon Mission. Of course, Fuller protested strongly against such abandonment.
But political realities prevailed. In 1884 Bismarck annexed the Cameroon and the British withdrew, leaving the missionaries vulnerable. Therefore, the decision was made for the Basle Mission to purchase the BMS in the Cameroon, and Fuller was the appointed BMS representative to take the inventory, negotiate, and make all necessary arrangements for the transfer of assets. And so well did he carry out his assignment that the BMS commended him for acting "wisely and well".
Newman notes that this occurred at the end of his career, and in a context of high tension, for the Cameroon churches the BMS founded, which felt terribly 'let down'. Newman comments:
"Fuller, at the end of his career, was placed in a very difficult situation of having to defend the BMS against the charge from the Cameroon church, that the BMS had abandoned them to suffer at the hands of the Germans who summarily imposed unwelcome and unfamiliar confessions upon them. Fuller bore the brunt of the BMS backlash"(Transformation, p. 228)
In 1872, after 28 years on the field, he had served without a break of more than one month, for the purpose of visiting his in-laws in Sierra Leone. Therefore, the BMS had no hesitation in granting him his request for an extended furlough. Meetings were arranged for him all over England, where thousands gathered to hear him tell of the mission work in Africa. He eventually spent 18-months on furlough, and in that period, was able to visit Jamaica.
WELCOME A HERO
When he arrived in Jamaica, the Morant Bay Rebellion impact was still being discussed, and the plight of the newly freed cried out for justice. Nevertheless, many turned out to welcome home a hero from the spiritual battlefront, a 'son of the soil' and true revolutionary of the Gospel and its transforming possibilities.
According to the reports, a gathering of approximately 3,000 crowded the Phillippo Baptist Church in Spanish Town to see and hear him. Similar large crowds gathered wherever he went across Jamaica, to speak at meetings arranged for him by the Jamaica Baptist Missionary Society.
Newman, the Caribbean Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), and noted historian on Church Missions, in commenting on the significance of J. J. Fuller, says that he and the other West Indians who went to Africa have made an important but largely ignored contribution to the missionary enterprise in Africa. Newman says:
"Although the Cameroon mission was aborted by the intervention of European imperial powers during the 'scramble for Africa', and Fuller was left sadly to bring an end to forty years of hard struggle on the part of the West Indian church, the very presence of Christianity in the Cameroon today owes its existence to the role and contribution of J.J. Fuller and the missionaries from the West Indies-they helped to lay the foundation for the future reception of Christianity in that part of western Africa" (Transformation, p. 228).
Fuller on retirement from the mission field in 1888, lived out the rest of his years in England, where he died peacefully, in 1908, aged 83 years.