Peter Stanford - the first Black Baptist Minister in Birmingham

Today, speaking of a black Baptist minister will not be much of a surprise, but when do you think Peter became a Baptist minister in Birmingham? What if I said it was in the 1950's, you may think that was a forward thinking congregation to call this man to be their minister, but it happened a long time before that. Peter Stanford became the minister of Hope Street Baptist Church in 1889. Now I think you will have to admit, that is remarkable. Long before many people in this country had even met a black man, Peter was a minister for a white working class congregation at Hope Street, Highgate, Birmingham.

Peter was born into slavery on a plantation in Virginia, America in 1858. For anyone who has read the book or seen the film 'Twelve years a slave', you may have some appreciation of the lives of slaves in America in the 19th century. Slaves were not treated as human beings, they were possessions who were beaten or killed without a second thought. This is the world in which Peter grew up. He was just three years old when the Civil War began and with the death of his father before he was born, and his mother being sold to Southern traders, he was an orphan.

For the first five years of his life Peter lived on the plantation until the abolition of slavery. A group of native American indians kidnapped him, but while he was with them he learnt their language, learnt to fish, swim, shoot and hunt. At the end of the war he was abandoned by the Natives, before being adopted by a Mr and Mrs Stanford who gave him his name. The Stanford’s maltreated him and used him like a house slave. Eventually he escaped by running away to New York, where he lived with the poor and destitute on the streets of the city. In order to survive Peter joined a street gang.

Peter was converted in 1872 through the kindness and preaching of Rev Henry Garnett. He was educated and given a place to live. Peter had to fight to overcome discrimination in order to go to college, however his fortunes changed and Peter was eventually ordained and became the Pastor of a small church in Canada. Stanford came to England in 1883 to raise funds for his struggling church. After visiting a number of towns and cities Peter arrived in Birmingham. At that time Birmingham was a thriving industrial city and was one of the centres of the anti-slavery movement. It was a place of social and racial justice, it was a good place to be, for someone like Peter who was prepared to work hard in order to improve himself. He thrived in the city and became famous, which was when Hope Street Baptist Church invited him to become their minister.

Stanford went from being an illiterate slave to someone who could preach, teach and write. He wrote his own life story, in a book called 'From Bondage to Liberty', and also wrote a book entitled, 'The tragedy of the Negro in America' in which he wrote about the terrible treatment of black Americans. He spoke at meetings in Birmingham town hall where prominent local people came to hear him.

Stanford left the city in 1895, returning to America to investigate lynchings of black people. He died in 1905. He was a man before his time, he was industrious and made a significant contribution to the Baptist witness in the city through his hard work and Christian commitment. He crossed the boundaries of race and class and this was recognised by the people of Birmingham.

If you ever visit Highgate Baptist Church, in the entrance hall you will see a picture of Peter Stanford. The current minister and congregation proudly remember the ministry of this remarkable man - he really is a Baptist hero, whose life and witness did a great deal to build bridges between people of different races. I also regard the members of the Highgate congregation as heroes for publicly demonstrating their belief that we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3 v 28), at a time when it would have not been regarded as acceptable or normal. God give us that commitment and courage.