“I am happy to learn that the cause of freedom is doing so well, that God has heard the prayers of his people.” Lewis Chambers to George Whipple of the AMA, written from London, December 31, 1862, on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation’s coming into effect.
Lewis Champion Chambers
Reverend Lewis C. Chambers was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada (British Methodist Episcopal Church after 1856) and was an agent of the American Missionary Association in Canada during the late 1850s and early 1860s. He ministered at the British Methodist Episcopal Church in London.1
Chambers was a native of Maryland, born into slavery. In an interview with the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission in 1863, Chambers recalled the terms of his purchase of his own freedom for $1250, and his migration as a free man to Canada:
After I purchased my freedom, they drove me out of the State. I then came under the title of “worthless fellow.” I came to Philadelphia, and lived there sometime, working in a chemical establishment, and acquired a great deal of information, and then went to Jersey and purchased a small farm and accumulated a little means—some 6 or 700 dollars, & and then migrated to this country, with a company of fourteen, and bore the expenses of all of them, except one. I have been engaged here in missionary operations, and farmed at the same time.2
Chambers noted that he rented a farm of 50 acres near London, and that he preached in a string of churches and ministries in Southern Ontario, ranging from London, to Chatham, Dresden, and Ingersoll. Chambers believed in hard work, caring for others, and the word of God. Remarkably, Chambers noted that not only did blacks attend these ministries but whites too, and he was all the more pleased to get to spread the word of God to all, regarless of race.3 This is why, as Chambers noted, he would walk as far as 10 miles in a day to attend services and preach to people of all races.4
Chambers also taught at various Sabbath schools (5 in total) throughout Southern Ontario, and helped to organize other teachers to teach at these schools . The Sabbath schools were some of the best around as Chambers claimed “I have never seen better in the country nowhere that I have been” .5 Chambers also kept in frequent contact with the AMA during his time in Canada in order to make sure that the AMA knew of the work being done in Southern Ontario, and this is how much of the knowledge regarding Chambers survives today.
Chambers noted that Canada was not as welcoming to people of colour as some might expect: “The prejudice here against the colored people is stronger a great deal than it is in Mass[echusetts].”6 Chambers experienced this firsthand when he was driven out of a Canadian church, and his residence, because of his race. Chambers also noted building a house for himself only to have it torched (uninsured) to the ground the very day it was finished.
The work that Chambers did in London at the BME Church was appreciated by the members of the congregation, who thanked him for his service and dedication. Over the course of his ministry in Canada, he wrote 75 letters to George Whipple, the secretary of the AMA. The letters, a sampling of which are transcribed and digitized on our website, constitute a major contribution to the record of life in Canada West on the eve of the American Civil War.
- Chambers’ interview with the Freedmen’s John Blassingame, Slave Testimony (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1977) p.414.
- Ibid, p.413
- Letters from Lewis Chambers, American Missionary Association Collection, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University.