On August 31, 1915, a black American Christadelphian fell asleep in the Lord. He was William T. Nelson of the Brooklyn, NY, ecclesia. Bro. C.C. Walker, then editor of The Christadelphian magazine, published the following: “his death was attributable largely to his indefatigable labour in the gospel on behalf of his people, by whom many have been brought into the Saving Name, not only in Brooklyn, but in Virginia, and in other nearby cities. He devoted most of his time in furthering the truth’s cause among the coloured race, establishing ecclesias, and preaching the Word wherever he could get a hearing. He left behind him an irreproachable record of Christlikeness in character and deportment of a very exemplary character”. Brother Walker commented that “New Testament Christianity compels us to ignore” distinctions of race and colour. Then he added this fascinating personal reminiscence: “we were ourselves baptized by a coloured brother, now deceased, whom we remember with much the same affection as we suppose Jeremiah could entertain for Ebed-Melech”.
Brother C.C. Walker was from Ballarat in Australia, and he was baptized in Melbourne. How did it come about that the second editor of The Christadelphian magazine was baptized by “a coloured brother”? Who was he?
For 200 years, West Indians have been leaving their poor, crowded islands to seek a livelihood, or just survival, in distant lands. The “coloured brother” who baptized Charles Curwen Walker on September 10, 1881, was one such West Indian migrant.
The Gordon family in the West Indies
Henry T. Gordon was born in 1834 in Roseau, the capital of the Caribbean island of Dominica. This is a rugged, volcanic West Indian island nation which would fit thirty-three times into Lake Erie. The island used to export Rose’s Lime Juice all over the world, but now specializes in nature tourism, including spectacular whale watching. During the Thatcher years in Britain, Dominica was led politically by Dame Eugenia Charles, known worldwide as “the iron lady of the Caribbean.”
Henry T. Gordon’s father was also Henry T. Gordon, and so was one of his sons, as we shall see shortly. The Gordon family in Dominica has been prominent and renowned for more than two hundred years. The surname originates from a distant Scots ancestor John Gordon, 16th Earl of Sutherland. But by the early nineteenth century, the cohabiting of Scotsmen with Africans in the Caribbean had resulted in a range of colours in the Gordon family from light brown to black. There are today many Gordons of great distinction in Dominica and throughout the world.
The glint of gold and the true riches
One day in 1852, Henry T. Gordon Jr. boarded an island schooner in Roseau and sailed away to seek his fortune, never to return. In his eyes was the glint of gold.
In the ten years after 1848, an estimated quarter of a million men sailed away from Britain, Europe and the eastern USA in search of gold. There were Bible Believers (to be called Christadelphians later) in the gold rush, and ecclesias were established in several gold-mining towns in Australia and South Africa. Among those in Australia were Beechworth, Bendigo, Ballarat, and Daylesford in the state of Victoria. Many other treasure seekers found the true riches and became Christadelphians after arriving at the diggings. Among these were Henry Gordon and Charles Curwen Walker.
Henry Gordon aimed for Bendigo, arriving early in 1853. The town was then in the throes of a wild gold rush. The Central Deborah Mine, which produced gold for a hundred years, can still be visited as a tourist attraction today. Bro. Robert Roberts penned a vivid and quite amusing description of his scary underground tour of the mine in October, 1895, 42 years after Henry Gordon tried his luck in the city.
In 1856, Henry married 18-year old Elizabeth Scott of South Australia. After their marriage, they lived in Bendigo and were there until 1881, when they moved to Melbourne. They had thirteen children, five boys and eight girls, some of whom later became Christadelphians.
There were a number of Christadelphians in Bendigo at that time. Bendigo was originally known as Sandhurst, and the ecclesia there was the Sandhurst ecclesia, sometimes called the Kangaroo Flat ecclesia, and for a time the Golden Square ecclesia. Henry Gordon came in touch with one or more of the Christadelphian brethren in Bendigo, and on December 16, 1877, both Henry and Elizabeth were baptised at Kangaroo Flat by Bro. Buchanan, then the leading elder of the ecclesia. Henry was 45 and Elizabeth 42. At this stage, eleven of their children had been born. Two more, Julia and Alice, were born after they were baptised. From the outset, Henry was active in ecclesial life. He often corresponded with Bro. Robert Roberts, submitting news from the Sandhurst ecclesia.
“The seed sprouts and grows”
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” Half a world away, Charles Sutcliffe was a young married man living in Haworth, a dour mill town in the north of England, already made famous as the home of the literary Bronte sisters. One day in 1880, he went to buy coal, and was given a copy of A Declaration by an unknown sister from the Keighley ecclesia, a short train ride away. Charles studied other Christadelphian books, and then decided to find the Keighley ecclesia’s meeting place. On his very first visit he requested baptism, was interviewed and immersed on the same day in August 1880.
A few months later, early in 1881, a 25-year old British-born Australian from Ballarat, one of the gold mining centres in Australia, visited the home of Bro. Charles Sutcliffe. The visitor was a Methodist, as his host had been previously. He was also wealthy. He was not a gold-digger, nor did he work underground, but was a professional. He is described as “a surveyor in the gold fields.” What he was doing in the remote Yorkshire moors is something of a puzzle, but this brief visit eventually led to two quite momentous events: his baptism into Christ, and his marriage.
Charles Walker studied his Bible thoroughly on the long ocean voyage home to Australia. Landing in Melbourne, he sought out the Christadelphians there before travelling home to Ballarat. There were upwards of 60 brethren and sisters in Melbourne. There was an ecclesia in the city centre, and a handful of smaller disaffected assemblies in the suburbs. Although Henry Gordon and most of his family had moved from Golden Square to the Windsor ecclesia only a short time before Charles Walker landed, this black West Indian brother had already become the natural leader of the ever-quarrelling Melbourne Christadelphians. He was, by all accounts, a very powerful lecturing brother. Some of his lecture topics have survived, and it is clear that he preferred straightforward, positive Bible topics rather than popular confrontational ones. He was quite a stickler for decency and order, but disliked and avoided controversy. Charles told Henry that he wished to be immersed, and that a future wife would soon be sailing from England to join him. Early in September, 1881, Charles made a visit to Melbourne. On September 10, “Charles Curwen Walker was immersed into the saving name of Jesus Christ. The baptism was conducted by our black West Indian brother, Henry Gordon, and took place in Bro. Gordon’s home in Windsor.”
All the ecclesias in the gold mining towns experienced rapid changes in membership, both up and down. A few months before Henry and Elizabeth’s move to Melbourne, Henry T. Gordon III, aged 17, described as “formerly Wesleyan,” was baptised at the Kangaroo Flat ecclesia. At the end of 1881, after the elder Gordons and some others had left, there were only four members in Bendigo, including young Henry III who was still a teenager. During 1882, there were five baptisms and an addition by transfer. According to the ecclesial record, “Bro. Gordon” stated that he was “re-organizing the [Golden Square] meeting on the basis of rules.” As we know that the elder Henry was living and meeting in Windsor, a suburb of Melbourne, throughout 1882, this Bro.Gordon has to be 19-year old Henry III, which is quite remarkable.
On June 19, 1882, 16-year old Elizabeth Scott Gordon was baptised in Melbourne by Bro. Gamble. In August 1882 sisters Ellen and Edith Sutcliffe of Haworth arrived in Melbourne, and very soon afterwards Charles and Edith were married. He was 27, she was 33. Charles moved from the family home in Ballarat, and the newly-weds set up home in the upscale Melbourne suburb of Prahran. Sadly, or wisely, depending on your point of view, within two years Bro. Charles and ten other brethren and sisters had withdrawn from Windsor ecclesia, which had previously come out from the Melbourne ecclesia. They formed the Balaclava ecclesia, meeting on the basis that “only those who are willing to accept the wholesome words of Jesus and conform their minds thereto are welcome, and no others.” He set up a Christadelphian book centre in Melbourne, and sent an order for literature to Birmingham along with a draft in payment which in modern terms would amount to £3,360. It was the largest single order the Chnristadelphian Office in Birmingham had ever received up to that time.
Bro. Henry Gordon contracted cancer of the stomach only five years after moving to Melbourne. He died at his home, “Clematis,” Victoria Street, Windsor, on August 11, 1888, aged 54. The cause of death is described as a tumour in the stomach for two years, and just a week before he died, he began to haemorrhage. He was buried at St. Kilda Cemetery on August 12, 1888, by Bro. Gamble of Ballarat (at Henry’s request).
“Full of zeal for the truth”
Henry was held in high regard by the Melbourne brethren and sisters. Soon after his death, the following report about him appeared in The Christadelphian magazine:
One of our oldest brethren, both in years and in the truth [this is an odd comment as he had been baptised only eleven years] has fallen asleep, viz., our brother Gordon, sen., aged 55, who on the 11th of this month succumbed to cancer. Death was more a friend than a foe to him, freeing him from pain and trouble, and has given him unbroken rest and peace, until the appearing of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, whose coming our late brother so greatly longed for and prayed for while he yet lived. He was ever full of the fire and zeal for the truth, which was his great source of comfort and hope to the end.
The next generation, Henry Gordon III, also became well known in Melbourne ecclesial circles, and was invited as a speaker on more than one occasion to other ecclesias. He moved to Adelaide, and in 1897, married Sis. Marion Oliver of Melbourne. They lived in Adelaide at first, but in March, 1898, moved back to Melbourne. From comments in his Diary, it is evident that during his residence in Melbourne, Bro. Robert Roberts greatly respected young Bro. Gordon’s judgement on ecclesial matters in Australia. During that residence, Bro. Roberts visited the Walker home in Ballarat, and spoke at length with Bro. Charles’ sister, but it seems she never followed her brother into our faith. By that time, Bro. C.C. Walker was living in England and editing The Christadelphian magazine.
Another connection with The Christadelphian
Bro. Charles A. Ladson of the Beechworth ecclesia, Australia, met Bro. Robert Roberts’ daughter Jane when she was living in Melbourne in 1897. In 1904, he migrated to Birmingham, England, where he married Jane and became Assistant Editor of The Christadelphian magazine. The stepmother of Bro. Ladson’s sister-in-law, Sis. Gertrude Ladson was Sis. Jane Gordon, one of Bro. Henry Gordon’s daughters and the sister of Bro. Henry Gordon III. Jane must have inherited her father’s dark skin, for the family has assumed she was Australian aboriginal. But we now know that her dark skin was because her father was a black West Indian. In 1899, Sis. Fanny Ladson, also of Beechworth, the sister of Bro. C.A. Ladson, moved to Melbourne and became nursemaid in the household of “Bro. Gordon,” presumably Henry Gordon III. While in service with the Gordon family, she met and married the great-uncle of our present Bro. Tim Galbraith of Hyderabad, India.
Bro. C.C. Walker was right: “New Testament Christianity compels us to ignore” race and colour. With us there is no Greek or Jew, barbarian, Scythian, British, Australian, or West Indian; “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
Ian Hyndman (Beechworth, Australia) and Alan Eyre (Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies)