Peter Thomas Stanford was born on a plantation in Virginia and kidnapped by Native Americans.
But from these unpromising beginnings, he would go on to become an educated and respected justice campaigner who crossed the Atlantic and thrived in the United Kingdom as minister of Highgate Baptist Church in Birmingham.
His story, with echoes of the Oscar-winning film “12 Years a Slave,” has now been made into a short film by History West Midlands (HWM), an independent organization focusing on the history of the people of the area.
HWM documented Stanford’s life after his name was added to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
The resulting five-minute feature contains a contribution from Stanford’s successor and Highgate’s current minister, Paul Walker.
“To think that back in the 1890s, an African American ex-slave was the minister of a white working class church is quite moving and profound,” Walker said.
Stanford spent the first years of his life on a plantation in the United States but was kidnapped by Native Americans following the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War.
He was subsequently adopted by a Mr. Stanford, where he received his name, but ran away after being mistreated.
He met a Presbyterian minister, who treated him well and assisted his pursuit of education. This resulted in going to Suffield College in Suffield, Conn., where he was converted to Christianity.
He was given work as a missionary to the black community in Hartford, Conn., and became a Baptist minister before moving to Canada.
He went to Britain in 1883 to raise money for his church but would settle there for the next 12 years.
After moving around England, he was attracted to Birmingham and in 1889 received the call from the Baptist church in Hope Street.
He faced some major obstacles in his ministry but would become a well-known public figure in the city.
His talks at the town hall were always attended by many dignitaries. Under his leadership, the church grew, having flourishing schools and organizations. When he retired, the church presented him with a valuable gold watch.
Stanford was a well-educated man and wanted his race to benefit from the blessings of education and religion, which he had himself received.
He resolved to set up an institution to train black men and women to be missionaries in Africa.
He returned to the U.S. in 1895 and died of kidney failure there in 1909.
“Stanford crossed boundaries of race and class,” Walker said. “He crossed the Atlantic. He was a very significant person in terms of bringing disparate people together.”
“There is a large picture of him at the back of the church,” Walker said. “Occasionally, I look at it and am stunned to think that guy walked the streets I walk and was committed to the same things. It is a privilege to be the minister of the same church.”
The History West Midlands film on Stanford can be viewed here.
Paul Hobson is the news editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain. A version of the news article first appeared in The Baptist Times and is used with permission. You can follow The Baptist Times on Twitter: @BaptistTimes.
Paul Hobson is editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain.