Independent-minded Englishman Joseph Booth had a missionary idea for W. A. Spicer, secretary of Adventism’s Foreign Mission Board.
Adventism’s first African American missionary family in Africa
By De Witt S. Williams
Independent-minded Englishman Joseph Booth had a missionary idea for W. A. Spicer, secretary of Adventism’s Foreign Mission Board. As he listened, Spicer became convinced that it would be a great blessing to the work in central Africa. The region, Booth insisted, would benefit dramatically from “colored” workers. As Spicer wrote, they would be able to “render special service, where the white face could not get access.”1 Besides, Booth had at his disposal an estate of 2,000 acres, with buildings, that could serve as the mission compound, and much more. Seventh Day Baptists, owners of the US$25,000 property, had agreed to transfer it to the Adventists for just $4,000. But somebody had to run the mission outpost, manage the compound, and develop its potential.
Thomas and Henrietta Branch
The Colorado Conference recommended a “colored” family. If the General Conference would pay their transportation, the Colorado Conference would sponsor them by paying their salary while in Africa. Thomas H. Branch was born in Jefferson County, Missouri, December 24, 1856. Henrietta Paterson was born March 12, 1858, at Roanoke, Missouri, the youngest in a large family. They met and married on December 7, 1876, in Kansas City, Kansas. Their first child, Mabel, was born in 1878. They joined the Adventist church in 1892. By that time Mabel had been joined by Thomas (June 1887) and Paul (March 1891). Robert would come later (January 1896).
When the Colorado Conference chose them, the Branch family were already pioneers. Henrietta had received some training as a nurse and would gain extra training to be able to serve as a missionary doctor. Thomas was an able speaker, a diligent Bible student, and enthusiastic lay worker in Pueblo, Colorado. Today the seeds he planted a century ago have borne ample fruit in four large African American churches in Pueblo and Denver.
The Branches were older than most missionaries sent out by the church: Thomas was 46; Henrietta, 44. Their unmarried daughter, Mabel, had just turned 24. The three boys were 15, 11, and 6, and eager for the new experience. We find no evidence that the oldest son, Thomas, accompanied his parents and the rest of the family on their adventurous expedition.
Since no other Black person from the Adventist Church had been sent to Africa, the Branches were again going to be pioneers. They had no role models to copy. It took courage, bravery, and great faith in the providence of God to accept this Macedonian call. But they were glad to go. The Colorado Conference ordained Thomas Branch on May 22 and the account of their departure is recorded. “Immediately taking leave of brethren and fellow laborers, and of those for whom we labored, we went to Denver, our former home, to make ready for the journey. . . . We packed a few necessary articles, and bidding our friends goodbye, we left for Chicago. Elder Spicer met us there, and gave us all needed instructions for our journey.”2
Off to Africa
The Branches sailed for London, England, Wednesday morning, June 4, 1902, arriving June 12. Their first Sabbath in England they were guests of the Duncombe Hall church, where they were “given a hearty welcome by all the brethren.”3
A fortnight after arriving in London they sailed again, in the company of the single-minded Joseph Booth, whose initiative and ideas had started them on this journey. Before them was a seven-week voyage from Southampton to East Africa and service for the Lord in a new field of labor. They had left the world behind, but could say with assurance, “We know there is a great harvest field to which the dear Lord is taking us and we are glad for a place in His vineyard.”4
Booth the Maverick
At the mouth of the Zambezi River the British Consul detained them for nine days, which apparently allowed the Branches to find out who Joseph Booth really was and what he had got them into. Booth, it turns out, was an enthusiastic advocate for highly pro-African political and social ideas. Officials already worried that the teachings of some Black Americans induced a spirit of independence, even insubordination among Africans: Ethiopianism, a movement of African nationalism, began in South Africa around 1890 when independent African churches started forming, based on their reading of the biblical promise that Ethiopia would one day “stretch out her hands unto God” (Ps. 68:31, KJV). Colonialists equated Ethiopianism with educated American Negros, though it was Joseph Booth the Englishman, not Thomas Branch the African American, whose ideas and action were to be associated with this thinking.
Booth had written Africa for the African, in which he outlined a program for abolishing British colonialism. Booth believed in complete racial equality, and felt called by God to speak against inequalities. His industrial mission was a way to develop financial and educational independence for Africans. Spicer and the Adventists knew nothing of this when Booth first charmed them with his estate initiative. Booth had mentioned nothing of it. It took some effort to convince the authorities that the Branches were not involved in
Plainfield Mission, the estate outpost, involved great problems between Branch and Booth. The Branches were not interested in Booth’s proposals, but in teaching and preaching the gospel. Booth was always involved in some project and never had enough money to pay the mission bills or the Branches’ salary. After just six months the Foreign Mission Board recalled Booth and asked him to become a colporteur in England.
Leading at Plainfield
With Booth gone, Branch labored alone as the director of Plainfield Mission until the Mission Board sent Joseph H. Watson with his wife and son to join Branch. But in less than a year the climate had ravaged Watson. He passed away at age 33, was buried on the grounds of the mission station, and his wife and son returned home. Branch continued as director, and on July 14, 1906, organized the first Adventist church in Malawi.
Branch continued to direct the mission until another missionary, Joel C. Rogers, renamed the mission Malamulo (meaning “commandments”), and the Branches went to South Africa in 1907 seeking a better climate and to put their boys in school. To their great disappointment, their boys could not attend White Adventist schools. This, along with challenges to Henrietta’s health, led them to return to the United States the next year. Thomas was placed once again in charge of the colored work in Denver.
Branch left at least one more pioneering mark on the work when he was called to the East Pennsylvania Conference in 1911. There he organized and pastored the First African Seventh-day Adventist church of Philadelphia. Later the church was renamed Ebenezer, and it became the mother of nearly a dozen African American churches that exist in the Philadelphia area today. Henrietta Branch died in Philadelphia on April 4, 1913.
The Branches were pioneers, in Colorado, Malawi, and Philadelphia. Rather than focus on politics and prejudice, they proclaimed the gospel and brought true liberation to many. Their amazing legacy to the Adventist Church stands as an inspiration and path-breaking model of the church’s international mission by everyone, from everywhere, to everywhere, until the whole world knows.
1-W. A. Spicer, “The New Missionary Enterprise: Nyassaland,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 27, 1902, p. 17.
2-Mr. and Mrs. T. H. Branch, “Called to Africa,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 15, 1902, p. 20.
4-Thomas Branch and Family, “On the Ocean,” Echoes From the Field, Sept. 3, 1902, p. 2.