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One of the strongest influences on the early years of the Methodist Missions in Ashanti was the movement of Evangelist Sampson Oppong.
Missionary work among Ashanti had slowed down considerably since Christianity was then considered as the religion of the victor, due to their successive defeats by the British in 1874, 1896 and 1901. On a missionary trip with W.G. Waterworth, the missionary who looked after the Methodists in Ashanti, the Ashanti Prophet, as Sampson Oppong was known, gave his message a dozen times, and the missionary, who had become almost heart broken over the apathy of former audiences, saw the people break down before the cross in hundreds. According to an enthusiastic Methodist missionary Sampson Oppong led 110,000 people to Christianity, of whom 60,000 remained faithful. Although later observers mention only 10,000 converts that in itself is very impressive. The story of his life is as sensational as the stir he caused.
Evangelist Sampson Oppong was born a slave boy in about 1884 to Yaw Kyerema in Akuntanim, a village in modern day Brong Ahafo. He was named Kwame Oppong and as he put it “God gave” him Sampson upon his conversion.
Earlier in his life Sampson Oppong was instructed in magical and healing powers by his uncle and as he became a healer (oduruyefo) and a magician (osumani).
In 1896 and 1901 when the British abolished domestic slavery Kwame Oppong was free to go where he wanted and that was when he had his first encounter with the Lord in a prison in the then French Ivory Coast. He tells his story of having ended up in prison for absconding with the wages for a gang he was supervising in railway works. In his cell he met an old Fante tribesman whose name was Moses. This Moses is to have prayed all the time and was released soon after. When he was leaving Sampson asked for money, but Moses said “I have no money but that which I have I shall give you. I commend you into God’s Keeping”. This made him very furious but later when his fury had died down he prayed, “God of Moses, have pity on me.” Later that night God revealed himself to him in a dream. In his dream, two Europeans came to his cell and one of them sawed through his chains and said: “I am the God of Moses. Burn your magic things and beat the gong for me (i.e. proclaim my word). He was released the next day by the French Commissioner. He however went back to his old ways after his release.
His interest in God was kindled again at Wankyi (Ashanti –Akim) when he went to work for a Christian woman who thought him the Lord’s Prayer and also introduced him to catechumens classes. He however grew tired of them as he had never been to school and was asked to learn to read and write. According to him he missed the income that magic formerly brought to him so he went back to his old ways.
His transition from ‘Sebewie’ (by magic he brings life) as he was known to Sebetutu (one who takes away amulets) as he became known eventually happened when he was approached by a boy with the promise of a lot of money to kill his uncle of whom the boy stood to inherit. On that fateful day, when he went into the forest to kill the man, the Lord revealed himself to Sampson again, according him “I was looking down eagerly to see whether the magic was succeeding when suddenly I heard voices behind me: ‘stand up’, they said. Two men were standing there. I stood up and suddenly I found myself in a large town with many Europeans. They were all hurrying towards a large square, and so was I. there I saw all my magic amulets and medicines heaped up in a huge pile, together with all the sheep and chickens I had acquired unlawfully by my magic. A big glorious-looking man came towards me and said: “I am the God of Moses, who freed you from prison in the Ivory Coast. Why are you still living in sin? Go, I am sending you… Take up my cross and preach about it to all the world.” “I can’t speak English, I can’t read. How can I preach?” “I shall go with you.”
He was l found lying in the forest upon a search for him. Upon arriving home he gathered all his magic things and burnt them, in doing so he declared that “Today I have found one stronger than you. God has called me into his service.”
After this experience Sampson had a cross and a white prophet’s robe made for him and he began to preach. He preached in many places and everywhere he went he told people to burn their fetishes and give up their magic, witchcraft and everything evil and many people were converted and burned their fetishes. Interestingly, Evangelist Sampson Oppong was thrown into prison for calling a certain woman a witch, while in prison the Lord according Sampson showed him a flat stone in the prison, by whose help the whole bible was revealed to him from Genesis to Revelation. He could therefore read the Bible through the stone though he had never been to school.
It was admitted that Oppong’s way of preaching was compelling. His preaching largely consisted of telling stories about various tribes, about magic and fetishism, and he was a master at making these look ridiculous. Once he had the laughing crowd on his side he took hold of it with an uncanny, fanatical, hypnotic power. His chief demand was the destruction of all fetishes.
The phenomenon of the Sampson Oppong movement however died down with time after which he retired to his village, Akuntanim. According to him the King of Dormaa summoned him to court and he being a subject of the King had to obey him.
He still had a leading position in the little Methodist Church in Akuntanim and did some preaching though not as extraordinary as before.
Although the movement of Sampson Oppong was relatively short lived, its impact on the spread of Methodism in Ashanti cannot be over emphasized. In fact it was said that the movement that Sampson Oppong kindled in the twenties was used by God to open the doors to the gospel in Ashanti.
This guest post is by Sarah N. Nkansah
An archivist at the Methodist Diocesan office Kumasi.