Freeman, Thomas Birch (1809-1890)

British Methodist missionary to West Africa

Freeman was born in Twyford, Hampshire, England. Little is known of his early life. His mother was English, his father an African freed slave. When he was accepted as a Wesleyan Methodist missionary in 1837, he had been head gardener on a Suffolk estate but had lost his post because of his Methodist activism. In 1838 he arrived in Cape Coast, Gold Coast (Ghana), where a Methodist church of indigenous origin was being tenuously supported by a succession of short-lived English missionaries. Freeman was unusual in surviving, despite a strenuous program. In his early months he built a church in Cape Coast, extending preaching and schools along the coastal plain, and identified a young Fanti preacher, William de Graft, as a suitable minister. He then made his way to Kumasi, capital of Ashanti, forming a promising relationship with the Asantehene and other important chiefs. In 1841, taking de Graft with him, he visited Britain to appeal for funds and recruits for the expanding work. The publication of his Kumasi journals made him a celebrity, and the then-current popularity of the African vision of T. F. Buxton favored his success. He returned with more missionaries, revisited Kumasi, and finding still greater promise, left a missionary there. Meanwhile some Yorubas who had become Christians in Sierra Leone and had made their way back to their homeland, had asked the Wesleyan mission for help. He had a cordial meeting with the Egba paramount Sodeke at Abeokuta, and on his own initiative he established a mission in Yorubaland, first at Badagri, with de Graft, later at Lagos, and eventually at Abeokuta. He never, however, obtained the resources for the large-scale mission he envisioned. He several times met Ghezo, the powerful king of Dahomey, and placed a preacher at Ouidah, but he could neither persuade Dahomey to abandon a slaving economy nor persuade his mission to underwrite evangelistic efforts there. Missionary mortality in the Gold Coast continued, deteriorating relations between Britain and Ashanti clouded the Kumasi mission, and tensions arose with his home committee over finance. In 1857 charges of overspending forced his resignation as general superintendent. To repay what had exceeded the budget, he took the thankless government post of civil commandment of Accra but was dismissed by a new governor in 1860. He remained in the Gold Coast, farming, writing, and preaching; he had married a local woman in 1854 (two previous wives had died soon after their respective arrivals in Africa). In 1873, at age 63, he reentered the Wesleyan ministry and became an active and innovative pastor, prominent in revival movements and skilled in conciliation.

Freeman was limited linguistically, and as he fully recognized, financially incompetent. But in forging relationships with African rulers, he was preeminent, and he also worked well with the more farsighted of British officials. His vision, tact, humanity, energy, and durability underlie the now substantial Methodist presence in Ghana, Western Nigeria, and Benin.

Andrew F. Walls, “Freeman, Thomas Birch,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 225-6.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


Digital Text

Milum, John. Thomas Birch Freeman: Missionary Pioneer to Ashanti, Dahomey, and Egba. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1893.


Freeman, Thomas. Journal of Various Visits to the Kingdom of Ashanti, Aku, and Dahomi in Western Africa: To Promote the Objects of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. With Appendices. London: J. Mason, 1843. Second edition with a new introduction by H. M. Wright. London: F. Cass, 1968. Third edition edited by John Beechan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

_____. Missionary Enterprise No Fiction: A Tale Founded on Facts. London: n.p., 1871. [semi-autobiographical novel]


Addo, Dora Yacoba. Lives of Five Great Ghanaian Pioneers. Accra: Adaex Educational Publications, cop. 1997.

Ajayi, J. F. Ade. Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891: The Making of a New Elite. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1965.

Bartels, F. L. The Roots of Ghana Methodism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965. Second ed., 2008.

Bielby, M. R. Alone to the City of Blood. London: Edinburgh House, 1941.

Birtwistle, Allen. Thomas Birch Freeman, West African Pioneer. London: Cargate Press, 1950.

Eagle Omnibus: Number Six: [A collection of short biographies of Joseph Hardy Neesima, Alexander Mackay, Thomas Birch Freeman, Robert Hockman, William Brett, and Kwegyir Aggrey]. London: Cargate Press, 1947.

Ellingworth, P. “Christianity and Politics in Dahomey, 1843-1867.” Journal of African History 5 (1964): 209-20.

_____. Thomas Birch Freeman. Peterborough: Foundery Press, 1994.

Flint, John. “Freeman, Thomas Birch (1809–1890).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Hoyles, Asher and Martin Hoyles. Remember Me: Achievements of Mixed Race People, Past and Present. London: Hansib, 1999.

Huston, Robert. Malicious Slanders Upon Wesleyan Missionaries Exposed and Refuted, in Three Letters to the Editor of the Cork Examiner: With an Appendix Containing the Vindication of the Rev. T. B. Freeman. n.p.: n.p., 1844. [copy in Pitts Theological Library of Emory University]

Igwe, E. “Thomas Birch Freeman: Pioneer Methodist Mission to Nigeria.” Nigeria Magazine no. 77 (June 1963): 79-89.

Kimble, David. A Political History of Ghana, 1850-1928. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

McCaskie. T. C. “Innovational Eclecticism: The Asante Empire and Europe in the Nineteenth Century.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 14, no. 1 (January 1972): 30-45.

Metcalfe, G. E. Maclean of the Gold Coast: The Life and Times of George Maclean, 1801-1847. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Milum, John. Thomas Birch Freeman: Missionary Pioneer to Ashanti, Dahomey, and Egba. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1893.

Mozley, Michael. “Thomas Birch Freeman: The Most Famous Wesleyan Missionary of West Africa You Have Never Heard Of.” In World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit, edited by Darrell Whiteman and Gerald H. Anderson. Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, 2009.

Omoyajowo, J. Akinyele. Makers of the Church in Nigeria. Lagos, Nigeria: CSS Bookshops Ltd. Pub. Unit, 1995.

Walker, F. Deaville. Thomas Birch Freeman: The Son of an African. London: Student Christian Movement, 1929.

Wright, Harrison. “Thomas Birch Freeman: The Techniques of a Missionary.” In West African History, edited by Daniel F. McCall, Norman Robert Bennett and Jeffrey Butler. Boston University African Studies Center. New York: Praeger [1969].

Freeman, Thomas Birch.” In Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Online. No pages. The article is reprinted there from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Vol. 1 Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1977 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Flint, John. “Freeman, Thomas Birch (1809–1890).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition, January 2008.


Found at the online Dictionary of African Christian Biography. No attribution.