By Brenda L. Travis, ARMBA Historian
February is Black History Month—an excellent time to remember the sacrifices made by the founders that organized the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association (ARMBA).
ARMBA history begins before 1840 when people of colour were still enslaved in the United States. Having the privilege to worship and honour God openly without punishment and being treated humanely to work and support their families was what our ancestors wanted. In 1940, on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of this group of believers, my aunt, Dorothy Shadd Shreve, collected minutes and notes and compiled them into a wonderful history of ARMBA, Pathfinders of Liberty and Truth. Reading about their struggles to build a place of worship, finding land to build a church and finding a literate person to be the pastor is a story of faithfulness and strength.
Just imagine how it was in 1840. People lived in clearings and along riverbanks, lakeshores and streams to be able to have a source of water and to travel in boats to bring the world to them. People worked long hours to clear land, often using the trees they cut down to build houses. The “Underground Railroad” was a viable way for Blacks from the United States to get to Canada: the True North strong and free! They would cross at Detroit to Windsor or Amherstburg because the distance was shorter if they were coming in a small boat or walking on frozen water in the winter.
In their humble homes, two or three Black families would gather to give praise and honour to God who had made it possible for them to be free in this new land. With a strong desire to worship God openly and thank him for their blessings, they would often seek forested areas to hew logs and build their group a house of worship.
One of the first ordained ministers was Elder William Wilks. Born in Africa of the Congo tribe, Wilks came to Canada in 1818 when he was already past fifty years old. Wilks initially settled in the neighbourhood of Fort Malden, near Amherstburg, but moved to Colchester and built a meeting house (as it was called), so that believers could worship God. Full of a desire to please God, Wilks was uneducated, and neither ordained nor licensed to preach.
When two ministers, one from Michigan and one from Upper Canada, heard about him, they agreed to help Elder Wilks to organize a regular church in 1821, installing Wilks as the pastor then returning to their own congregations. Wilks continued to do God’s work there until his death in 1828.
There are many other interesting ministers, missionaries and leaders in Pathfinders of Liberty and Truth that show us that the desire to worship God, along with helping people of colour was core passion for them. Even though this book was written so long ago, it still gives us a real feel for what our ancestors went through to become free, working and living in harmony in their communities.
Today, the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association consists of nine churches, most of which have received plaques recognizing their importance in the history in our great nation. The churches are:
- Amherstburg First Baptist Church
- First Baptist Church, Chatham
- First Regular Baptist Church, Dresden
- First Baptist Church, Puce
- Sandwich First Baptist Church, Windsor
- Shrewsbury Baptist Church
- Union Baptist Church, Dresden
- First Baptist Church, Windsor
- Zion Baptist Church, St. Catherines