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Reverend Jennie Johnson (1868–1967)

Reverend Jennie Johnson. © Courtesy of the Canadian Baptist Church Archives.
Reverend Jennie Johnson certificate of ordination, 1909. © Courtesy of the Canadian Baptist Church Archives.

For the week of Monday, June 6, 2022.

On June 10, 1886, residents of the small rural community of Chatham Township (now part of the Municipality of Chatham-Kent) in southwestern Ontario gathered to see the cornerstone laid for the new Union Baptist Church. It was here, as part of this congregation, that Jennie Johnson took her first steps on a path towards spiritual and community leadership.

Johnson was born in July 1868 to Charlotte and Isaiah Johnson in Chatham Township. Chatham-Kent had a large African-descended population and was an important terminus on the Underground Railroad in the 19th century—an activist network of Black abolitionists and their allies that helped tens of thousands of freedom-seekers escape enslavement in the United States. Baptist and Methodist churches founded and led by ministers of African descent, such as the Amherstburg First Baptist Church, the Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, the R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church and the Sandwich First Baptist Church, received, sheltered, and supported freedom-seekers throughout southwestern Ontario, and played an important role in building community and advancing the goals of the abolitionist movement. 

Jennie Johnson grew up in the Anglican Church and felt drawn towards religious life as a child. In the winter of 1885, Baptist clergyman Samuel Lynn helped found the Union Baptist Church at her schoolhouse in Chatham Township. She joined the Baptist Church in February and spent several years as Lynn’s assistant. When the Union Baptist Church moved into a new building in 1886, she began preaching there at the age of 17. 

In 1892, Johnson enrolled in the theology program at Wilberforce University in Ohio, which was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Johnson worked several jobs to pay for her school expenses. Unable to secure missionary work in Africa, she returned home in 1894 to continue her religious work and participate in the growing religious revival movement. 

In 1909, she became the first Canadian woman to be ordained as a Protestant minister finding fellowship with the Free Will Baptist congregation in Michigan during her travels to the United States. With their support, in 1915, she revived the Prince Albert Baptist Church near Dresden, Ontario. She led the church for a decade, establishing herself as a religious and community leader. She subsequently moved to Flint, Michigan, where she founded a Christian centre that served as a settlement house and a place of worship. She had become a respected elder by the time of her retirement in the 1940s. Reverend Jennie Johnson died in 1967. 

Sandwich First Baptist Church, Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopal Church, and  Amherstburg First Baptist Church are designated national historic sites. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, complexes of buildings and cultural landscapes.

The Underground Railroad was designated as a national historic event in 1925. The HSMBC advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

Related links

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.

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