The gospel arrived in Sierra Leone over 200 years ago, the first missionaries being former slaves from Britain. They strode up the shore from their ship praising and thanking God, and singing an Isaac Watts hymn: ‘Awake! And sing the song, Of Moses and the Lamb’.
Missionaries indeed – for many of these pioneers were descendants of slaves captured along the West African coast during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the providence of God these descendants, now free, would carry the gospel to Sierra Leone and much of West Africa.
Their first ship arrived in 1787. Another came in 1792, followed by many more – Methodists, Strict Baptists and members of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion. Later, foreign missionaries also arrived.
Visitors to the settlement in those days would wake up to the sound of praying and hymn-singing, as settlers prepared for the day’s work, acknowledging the grace and mercy of their sovereign Lord.
The Reformed faith was firmly rooted in the first churches in Sierra Leone. The first Governor, John Clarkson, was an active believer. Villages with names such as York, Aberdeen, Sussex, Kent, Bathurst and Gloucester still bespeak a British connection.
The gospel spread along the coast as local people heard and believed. It also spread slowly into the interior, but it was hard going.
Fast-forward 150 years! Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain in 1961, and any traces of the Reformed faith loved by those first settlers disappeared long before. Today, visitors are more likely to be awakened by the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.
Sierra Leone’s population has expanded to nearly five million (similar to Scotland), of whom the descendants of the first settlers are a small minority. The recent civil war was vicious and brutal, marked by killings, atrocities, use of child soldiers, and rape.
By 1994 all church-related missionaries had been withdrawn from the country. Villages and churches were destroyed and congregations scattered. Discipleship and other training programmes came to a halt and Bible colleges had to close.
Then in 1996 Alhaji Tejan Kabbah was elected President – the first Muslim to hold the post. Many of the UN peacekeepers came from Muslim countries and, following the declaration of peace in January 2002, these soldiers were active in repairing and building Islamic schools and mosques.
So Islam is steadily increasing in boldness and confidence and Muslims are zealous in their teaching and practice. Hezbollah has a presence in Sierra Leone and many study scholarships are offered by countries like Saudi Arabia.
Sierra Leone is the poorest country in the world, with the possible exception of Niger, but its spiritual poverty is the most heart-breaking. Years of mishandling the Word of God, little theological learning and no proper study of Scripture have taken their toll of Christian congregations. The false teachers of the ‘health, wealth and prosperity’ gospel have exploited the spiritual vacuum to the full.
Bible Training Centres espouse the errors and heresies of this faith-prosperity teaching and seduce many young people into believing that the Spirit is doing a ‘new thing’ in our day. This man-centred religion has deceived many people into thinking they are now in the Kingdom of God. Sadly, even some evangelical church pastors have embraced these ideas.
Pastors who resist have found their churches split. New ‘churches’ have proliferated in the wake of the prosperity gospel. Extravagant claims are made of healings, deliverance and victory over the devil. And if you did not get your healing the reason is simple – you did not have faith!
Some church leaders are alarmed over the popularity of this teaching and its style of prayer and worship, but few will speak out against it. They say nothing when their young people attend these new Bible schools. But there are some who see it for what it really is – a return to paganism.
The Reformed faith is unknown in Sierra Leone, except in some of the five Korean-led Presbyterian churches. Bible-centred church ministries are rare and there is a general lack of Bible knowledge among Christians and pastors.
The sins of the world – immorality and corruption – are seen far too frequently in the churches. Very few churches have discipleship programmes and, although the fast-growing prosperity gospel movement seems to emphasise the Bible, consecutive expository preaching is absent from its pulpits.
There are individuals and pastors who are deeply concerned about the current trends, but few realise that the best answer is a truly biblical, Christ-centred ministry. However, there are some encouraging signs.
Good evangelical reformed books are available at very low prices and are sought by an increasing number of pastors and students. Radio programmes are aired in Freetown and Bo (second city of Sierra Leone), with speakers such as John MacArthur and David Jackman. Some radio programmes are produced by Grace Baptist Mission.
An evangelical and Reformed Bible Institute has just completed its first year of operation. In the provinces there are two church planters who hold to the Reformed faith. An evangelical Lutheran church is quietly spreading the gospel in the villages and smaller towns.
This land that was once considered Christian is now in danger of becoming completely Muslim. This is a far cry from the dreams of those first British believers who set up Sierra Leone as the ‘Province of Freedom’ for settlers and freed slaves. So there is great need for preaching and teaching the truth as it is in Christ.
The opportunities are there, but where are the missionaries? There is only one missionary couple of Reformed persuasion in the country at present. Want to know more? Then contact UFM Worldwide, 145 Faringdon Road, Swindon SN1 5DL.