WITH the death at the age of 100 of William Platt, the Methodist Church has lost one of its great missionary pioneers.
Bill Platt was barely 23 years old when in 1916, fresh from ministerial training college in Manchester and not yet ordained, he was appointed to serve the Lagos District of the Methodist Church in West Africa. That district covered a vast area of what is now Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast. Platt spoke fluent French and as a consequence was sent to work in the French colony of Dahomey (now Benin).
From the beginning he showed a great zeal for missionary work. He came to Africa with the Good News of Jesus and he was intent on proclaiming that good news as widely as he was able. He was blessed with great physical stamina, organisational ability and vision; he was a born leader. He laid great emphasis not just upon 'church planting' but upon education, and particularly education for women and girls. Whilst in many respects the missionary attitude and approach which Platt epitomised belonged to the colonial era, in his belief in the importance of women in African society he was ahead of his time.
From Dahomey he paid two decisive visits to the Ivory Coast in 1923 and 1924, initially to intercede with the French authorities for the small Methodist community in Grand Bassam (then the French colonial capital), but later to follow up the mass movement which grew out of the work of the Liberian 'prophet' William Wade Harris who, between 1913 and 1915, had walked from Monrovia in Liberia through Ivory Coast into Ghana and back again, all the way proclaiming Jesus. His work had met with a 'success' unknown by previous missionary endeavour, particularly in Ivory Coast.
Harris left a legacy of tens of thousands of people waiting to be nurtured in the Christian faith, and it was these people whom Platt 'discovered' in 1923. He formed churches and schools, he bought land. It is small wonder that the Methodist Church in Ivory Coast looks upon Bill Platt as in a very real sense the father of their church.
So it was that he was invited to share in the autonomy celebrations of the Ivoirien Methodist Church in 1985. Although by then well into his nineties, Platt made that journey and enjoyed the privilege of sharing in those celebrations. It was there, indeed, in 1985 that I first met him, and saw for myself the love and respect, mixed with just a little awe, that the Ivoirien people felt for him.
Platt's missionary zeal, however, was not all focused on West Africa. In 1930 he had resigned from the Methodist Missionary Society over policy differences to serve with the British and Foreign Bible Society, first as field secretary for equatorial Africa, then successively as youth secretary from 1936, home secretary from 1937, assistant general secretary from 1946, and then as general secretary until 1960; he retired in 1961, well past the normal retirement age.
His wife Hilda, whom he had married in 1921 and with whom he shared his missionary adventures, died in 1975. Bill then moved to Burnham and finally to Windsor, where I was able to get to know him better over the last years of his life. The man I came to know saw himself as an ordinary Methodist minister, a worker in God's Kingdom, a man with gifts to be employed in the service of God and of His Kingdom. This he did to his life's end.