Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther was born in Osogun (Oshogun) (now western Nigeria), of Yoruba descent. Christian missionaries knew that if Christianity was to flourish, Africans would have to be ordained. Samuel Ajayi Crowther was one of the most famous African representatives of a European church (in this case the Anglican Church). He was the first African Bishop in the Anglican church. And he was a formidably able man. He had been taken as a slave around 1822, but the slave ship in which he was held was intercepted and he was taken to Freetown. He was educated and baptised and sent to London for further instruction. He kept his own name Ajayi, but also took the name Crowther from a member of the Church Missionary Society (CMS).
He was commissioned by the CMS to set up the Niger Mission; the first expedition to do so resulted in the death of a third of the party, all of which Crowther carefully documented in his journal. He supervised the setting up of a mission in Badagry, and later Abeokuta, (both in the south west of Nigeria), steering a difficult path between rulers in the region, some hostile to Christianity, some of whom were in conflict with each other. He later met Queen Victoria and read the Lord’s prayer to her in the Nigerian language of Yoruba, which she described as soft and melodious. His missionary work expanded outside Yorubaland in south west Nigeria, founding a mission station in Onitsha, in the East of the territory.
He published many works including the first written grammar of the Yoruba language and first Nupe grammar. In 1864, against considerable opposition from jealous fellow missionary Henry Townsend (another Niger Mission missionary), Crowther was made Bishop of ‘Western Equatorial Africa’ beyond the Queen’s Dominions.
A generation after Samuel Crowther, another formidable African churchman emerged in Nigeria: the Anglican priest, the Reverend J. J. Ransome Kuti. He carried out his ministry in defiance of the traditional priests with total confidence, as vividly described by Wole Soyinka in his autobiography Ake.
“… Rev J.J. was away on one of his many mission tours. He travelled a lot, on foot and on bicycle, keeping in touch with all the branches of his diocese and spreading the Word of God. There was frequent opposition but nothing deterred him.
One frightening experience occurred in one of the villages in Ijebu. He had been warned not to preach on that particular day, which was the day for an egungun outing, but he persisted and held a service. The egungun procession passed while the service was in progress and using his ancestral voice, called on the preacher to stop at once, disperse his people and come out to pay obeisance. Rev J.J. ignored him.
The egungun then left, taking his followers with him but, on passing the main door, he tapped on it with his wand three times. Hardly had the last member of his procession left the church premises then the building collapsed. The walls simply fell down and the roof disintegrated.
Miraculously however, the walls fell outwards – anywhere but on the congregation itself. Rev J.J. calmed the worshippers, paused in his preaching to render a thanksgiving prayer, then continued his sermon…”
Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther Full Biography and Profile
Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Yoruba linguist and the first African Anglican bishop in Nigeria, was born in 1809 in Osogun, in what is now southwestern Nigeria. A Yoruba, he was the descendant of tribal chiefs; the date of his birth is not known precisely. When he was about 12 years old, he was captured by an Islamic tribe and sold to Portuguese slave traders, but an English man-of-war, hunting for illegal slave traders, captured the ship that was carrying him, and Adjai was taken to Sierra Leone to a refuge for slaves. On December 11, 1825, he was baptized a Christian, taking the name of Samuel Crowther, an evangelical vicar.
Capture and Slavery
The time of Samuel Ajayi Crowther birth was characterized by various tribal wars as well as slave trade. It was the time when the major commerce of the day was selling and buying people as slaves. Early in the year 1821, the army of the Mohammedan Foulah tribe invaded the Yoruba land and marched to Oshogun the town of Ajayi. It was in the morning when women were preparing for breakfast and the men had gone out to work in the farm. These fierce warriors attacked the town and broke through its six gates. Jesse Paige (1892) described the pandemonium that followed this siege in the following words: “Terrified women caught up their little ones, and bidding the elder children to follow, tried to escape in the bush” (p. 24). But “The Foulahs swiftly pursued them, flinging glasses over their heads and drawing them half choked back into their hands” (p.24).
As all this was going on, a father rushed into his hut and pleaded to his familyto flee and went back to the front door to die from defending them from beingcaptured as slaves. His wife, with her little niece and three children ran to thebush to hide. But her child, a boy of twelve and half years old took his bow andarrows to protect the family from being captured. According to Jesse, “This little fellow was Adjai, the future Anglican Bishop of the Niger” (p. 24). All of them were captured and led out of the town. At midnight they reached thetown of Iseyin where they were untied from their ropes and brought to the chiefwho allotted them as slaves and spoil of wars to his warriors. Ajayi and hissister became the property of the chief while his mother with her infant wereallotted to others. Hence for the first time, Ajayi and his mother wereseparated.
Dispersion and Emancipation
The captured slave boy, Ajayi, was sold to a Mohammedan woman who took him to Popo country where the Portuguese came to buy slaves. Ajayi out of frustration and anger tried to kill himself than being sold to white men. As much as he attempted this the more it became futile. Page (1892) commenting on this writes, “but a merciful God, who had marked him out as a chosen vessel in His service, overruled and prevented the rash intention” (p. 28). At last, he was sold to a Portuguese merchant along with other unhappy captives for the transatlantic market. But in the midst of this helplessness and hopelessness came the providence of God.
During this period of his slavery, the colony of Sierra Leone had been foundedby a coalition of anti-slavery interests who were mostly evangelical Christianand who belonged to the circle associated with William Wilberforce and the “Clapham Sect”, the group of evangelical Christians, prominent in Englandfrom about 1790 to 1830, who campaigned for the abolition of slaveryandpromoted missionary work at home and abroad (Walls, 1992). Therefore, afterthe abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament in 1807 and thesubsequent treaties with other nations to outlaw the traffic, Sierra Leoneachieved a new importance. It became a base for the naval squadron thatsearched vessels to find if they were carrying slaves. History has it that SierraLeone became the place where slaves were brought if any were found aboard.Fortunately, the Portuguese ship on which Ajayi was taken as a slave wasintercepted by the British naval squadron in April 1822, and he, likethousands of others were carried to Sierra Leone.
The Faith of Samuel Ajayi Crowther
After a while, Ajayi who has now become a free man received the total or spiritual freedom from sin through his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The following are the factors that contributed to the faith of Samuel Ajayi Crowther.
Education and Conversion
History has it that after his first day at school, he went to the town and begged for a half penny from one black man to buy an alphabet card. And later became a paid monitor in that school. He was receiving a monthly allowance of seven pence and a half penny. It was at this place that the word of God that will totally liberate him from sin came to him. Ajayi did not hesitate to respond to the word of God by exercising his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He was baptized on December 11, 1825, by the Reverend John Raben, of the (Anglican)Church Missionary Society, and took the name Samuel Crowther, after a member of that society’s home committee. Along this, Ajayi Crowther passionately devoted himself to study and reading. This fact is replete in his quest for learning and education. Although Ajayi was a carpenter who was very skilful in the use of chisel, “his mind began to drink with avidity from the stores of human knowledge and education” (Page, 1892, p. 34). In 1826, he was taken to England by his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Davey. And during his four months stay in London, he “became a pupil in the parochial school at Islington” (Page, 1892, pp. 34-35). In1827 the Church Missionary Society decided, for the sake of Sierra Leone’s future Christian leadership, to provide education to a higher level than the colony’s modest schools had given.
This proposed “Christian Institution”developed and gave birth to the college known as Fourah Bay College, whichprovided the first university education in tropical Africa. Samuel AjayiCrowther was one of its first students.Ajayi Crowther began to make tremendous progress in this college and becamean assistant teacher in the college. It was during this time that he met his wife,Susanna, and married her. The marriage was blessed with 3 boys and 3 girls.Later, Ajayi became the principal of the college. This promotion and newposition made him to invest some of his knowledge in others. It was while inthis college that he developed his aptitude for languages which would pave wayfor his major task in life. Samuel Ajayi Crowther saw the hands of God in allhis educational attainment in this foreign land and hence he commented:From this period I must date the unhappy, but which I am ever taughtin order respects to call blessed, day which I shall never forget in my life.I call it an unhappy day, because it was the day on which I was violently turned out of my father’s house and separated from my relatives, and in which I was made to experience what is called slavery. With regardto its being called blessed, it was the day which Providence had marked outfor me to set out on my journey from the land of heathenism, superstition andvice, to a place where the Gospel is preached (from Page, p. 36).
Implication and Relevance
The faith of Ajayi Crowther was not just a saving faith but a serving faith. Commenting on his new freedom which came as a result of his faith, he said: “about the third year of my liberation from the slavery of man, I was convinced of another worse state of slavery, namely, that of sin and Satan. It pleased the Lord to open my heart … I was admitted into the visible Church of Christ hereon earth as a soldier, to fight manfully under his banner against our spiritual enemies” (Olsen, 2003, p.10). From this statement, we can conclude that the faith of Samuel Ajayi Crowther was based upon his spiritual, social, and physical liberation. Hence, his faith was not just a spiritual-subjective experience but a socio-spiritual-objective demonstration of it. In other words, his faith was a doing/active faith (pragmatic) and not just a passive/dormant faith. He saw his faith as a dynamic force of action rather than a docile word of confession. It was an evidence-based and result-oriented faith. It was a caricature of Jamine theology of faith, that is, a faith that is accompanied by work. And what type of work? It was both socio-cultural and socio-spiritual.
The Mission of Samuel Ajayi Crowther
A mission is specific task or duty assigned to a person or group of people. It is also a person’s vocation, assignment, an operational task. For Samuel Ajayi Crowther, it is what he was destined to be, to do and to accomplish in life. Thus far, Samuel Ajayi Crowther had accomplished three things in his life: liberation from slavery, salvation from sin, and freedom from ignorance. He had become a free man, a Christian and a learned or educated person. All this took place within the first thirty years of his life. It was in appreciation of all what he had achieved thus far that he determined in his heart that, as God would give him opportunity and ability, he would work among his own people, teaching them as he had been taught, and leading them also to the Savior who had manifested Himself to him (Page, 1892).
The Literary Mission
Realizing one of his missions, literary work, Samuel Ajayi Crowther continued to have contact with Raban, who had baptized him; and Raban was one of the few missionaries in Sierra Leone who took African languages seriously. To many of his colleagues the priority was to teach English, which would render the African languages unnecessary. Raban realized that such idea was a dead end; he also realized that Yoruba language, Crowther’s mother tongue, was a major language. Ajayi Crowther became an informant for Raban, who between1828 and 1830 published three little books about Yoruba. Apart from his devotion to master the Yoruba language, he also began study of the Temne language (a language of the Atlantic subfamily of Niger – Congo languages spoken in Sierra Leone), which suggests a missionary vision toward the hinterland of Sierra Leone. In 1842, Samuel Ajayi Crowther was recommended and recalled to England for ordination. It was during this journey that he gave himself to working on the grammar and vocabulary of the Yoruba tongues for the work of translations. It was while in England that he began and finished his first published literary work, Yoruba Vocabulary, in 1843 and a Yoruba version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer followed later. He also began codifying other languages. Following the British Niger Expeditions of 1854 and 1857, Crowther produced a primer for the Igbo language in 1857, another for the Nupe language in 1860,and a full grammar and vocabulary of Nupe in 1864. However, he continued to supervise the translation of the Yoruba Bible (Bibeli Mim?), which was completed in the mid-1880s, a few years before his death.
The Socio-Religious Mission
The first mission of Ajayi Crowther was dovetailed by the political mission of the Queen of England as well as the missionary outreach of the Church Missionary Society. In 1841, England was excited to explore the river Niger. The purpose of this expedition as well as exploration was to open up a new field for British commerce. Upon hearing about this, the Church Missionary Society, aka CMS, saw this as an opportunity to reach the Niger with Gospel. They proposed to send two representatives along with the Government officials. When the Government agreed to this, they appointed the Rev. James Schon and Samuel Ajayi Crowther to go with them. The former was a missionary to African people in Sierra Leone and was burning to preach the gospel to them in Niger. Ajayi Crowther saw this journey as a way of fulfilling one of his missions in life. No wonder he observed after his wife had given her approval to the journey: “I learned to understand anew that it was the will of God that I should engage in this important work. Hitherto the Lord has removed all obstacles, and has given me more than ordinary strength to prosecute my preparations for it” (Page, 1892, p. 40). This first missionary journey took them to Ibo land and was full of many perils.
The Ecclesiastical Mission
Upon return from the ill-fated first Niger mission, the second mission of Samuel Ajayi Crowther surfaced. He was recommended by Mr. Schon for ordination as a priest because of his usefulness, dedication, and commitment during the Niger mission. To corroborate his recommendation by Schon, one of Ajayi’s colleagues in Sierra Leone agreed by saying that, “There is no one more fit to be entrusted with ministry of the gospel, among his own brethren, than Samuel Crowther” (Olsen, 2003, p. 12).
However, the head of CMS at this time,Henry Venn, needed little convincing. He believed that overseas churchesshould be self-supporting, self-governing, and self-extending, and thereforewanted African priests and bishops to oversee the African churches. SamuelAjayi Crowther was an ideal candidate (Olsen, 2003). Therefore, on TrinitySunday, June 11, 1843, he was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of London,Dr. Bloomfield.After his ordination, Samuel Ajayi Crowther returned to Sierra Leone. Shortlyafter his arrival, he was sent to Abeokuta, Yoruba land (western Nigeria) with aGerman missionary named C. A. Gollmer, with other Yoruba Christians fromthe Sierra Leone mission as well as English missionary Henry Townsend, anexcellent linguist. Others included carpenters and builders who were alsoteachers and catechists. The purpose of this mission was to demonstrate awhole new way of life, of which the church and the school and the well-builthouse were all a part. They were to establish Sierra Leone in Yoruba land. Thusthese Sierra Leone trader-immigrants, the people who had first broughtAbeokuta to the attention of the mission, became the nucleus of the newChristian community (Walls). This mission marked a particularly movingincident in the life of Ajayi Crowther. This was when he reunited with themother and sister from whom he had been separated when the raiders tookthem more than twenty years earlier. They were among the first in Abeokuta tobe baptized.
The Socio-Economic Mission
Samuel Ajayi Crowther was not just a missionary and preacher of the gospel; he was also a social activist as well as economist. He used his position and connection to advocate for the social welfare of the people he was preaching to. He was not only concerned about their salvation but also with their socialization. No wonder someone observed that Ajayi Crowther was a practical friend and helper of his people. Ajayi Crowther “taught them handicrafts, and encouraged them in the civilization of cotton, for which there seemed a
wonderful opening in the way of trade” (Page, 1892, p. 71). He was also passionate for the total abolition of slave trade which was still rearing its ugly head in Lagos and around Abeokuta. To this, Ajayi Crowther went to London in1851 to present the cause of Abeokuta. He saw government ministers; he had an interview with the Queen and Prince Albert; he spoke at meetings all over the country, invariably to great effect. This grave, eloquent, well-informed black clergyman was the most impressive tribute to the effect of the missionary movement that most British people had seen; and Henry Venn, the CMS secretary who organized the visit, believed that it was Crowther who finally moved the government to action to totally eradicate slave trade in the area.
The Episcopal Mission
Samuel Ajayi Crowther was known for his representation of the indigenous church principle. We have seen that he was the first ordained minister of his church in his place. It was the policy of Henry Venn, then newly at the helm of the CMS, to strengthen the indigenous ministry. More and more Africans were ordained, some for the Yoruba mission. And Venn wanted well-educated, well-trained African clergy; such as Crowther’s son Dandeson (who became archdeacon) and his son-in-law T. B. Macaulay (who became principal of Lagos Grammar School) who were better educated than many of the home spun English missionaries. Therefore, Venn sought self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating churches with a fully indigenous pastorate. In Anglican terms, this meant indigenous bishops. The missionary role was a temporary one; once a church was established, the missionary should move on. The birth of the church brought the euthanasia of the mission. With the growth of the Yoruba church, Venn sought to get these principles applied in Yoruba land (Walls). To this, Samuel Ajayi Crowther was nominated to be ordained as the first indigenous African Bishop of the Church of England. Even though this nomination was vehemently opposed by Henry Townsend, nevertheless, it was overruled by Venn. In 1864, Samuel Ajayi Crowther was ordained as the first African bishop of the Anglican Church. That same year he also received a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University.
The Legacy of Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Even though the story of the later years of the Niger mission has often been told and variously interpreted, it still raises some mixed feelings. Many ugly things happened during the last years of the first Indigenous African Bishop. Things fell apart politically and ecclesiastically. At last, In 1891 Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a desolate, broken man suffered a stroke; on the last day of the year, he died. A European bishop was appointed to succeed him. Thus the idea of self-governing church and the indigenization of the episcopate became a nightmare. Samuel Ajayi Crowther is no more, but his legacy still lingers on. The contemporary mission always ascribes praise to Ajayi Crowther’s personal integrity, graciousness, and godliness. He has left indelible marks for all to emulate. Some of the legacies of Bishop (Dr.) Samuel Ajayi Crowther can be categorized as follow:
Being one of the first students at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, Samuel Ajayi Crowther did not use his acquired knowledge to benefit himself alone. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to impart the educational knowledge to his own people. Because of his influence and effort, The CMS Grammar School in the Bariga district of Lagos is the oldest secondary school in Nigeria, founded on 6 June 1859 by the Church Missionary Society and his son-in-law, Thomas Babington Macaulay, became its first principal. He was the father of Herbert Macaulay.
Since he became a Christian, Samuel Ajayi Crowther saw Christianity not just as a religion but as a way of life. Hence, he did not use his Christianity with all its social as well as political advantages to victimize, intimidate and harass his fellow ‘pagan’ brothers. Instead, he was tolerant, patient, and amiable to them. No wonder he was accused of being too lenient and soft with traditional African religion, customs and traditions, and Islamic religion. However, Samuel Ajayi Crowther was a replica of His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in his incarnational approach to Christianity. He preferred to belike them so that he could win them to Christ.
Missions, as in plural, is different from mission, as in singular. Missions can be said to be the mission of the church. And the mission of the church is to reach the unreached with the Gospel. Samuel Ajayi Crowther was a dedicated, committed, and passionate missionary to West Africa and mostly to Nigeria. He did not hesitate to help his people who were suffering physically, socially, politically, and spiritually. He could have settled down in Sierra Leone or England and began to enjoy with his wife and children. But instead, he believed that the best place to be the light was not among the lights but in the midst of darkness, in Africa. Even though white missionaries were already showing the light to them in Africa, but the difference was clear when a black man like them brought and showed them the light. No wonder, he was able to reach the then southern and northern protectorates of Nigeria and some parts of West Africa. No wonder he became the first black Anglican Bishop.
It will never be an overstatement if I call Samuel Ajayi Crowther the Martin Luther of Africa. Just as Martin Luther, the German reformer, believed that everybody must have and read the bible in his/her native language, so did Samuel Ajayi Crowther. He was never trained as a linguist or language expert, but he acquired the skill by himself so that he could provide Bibles for his own people in their native languages. And by the grace of God, he was able to translate the Bible into Yoruba language, prepare the primer and extracts from the Word of God in Ibo language, as well as helping in the translation of Bible into Nupe language. Apart from the Bible, the other translation he did included the Yoruba Prayer Book and Yoruba Dictionary.
The ordination as a clergy as well as the appointment of Samuel Ajayi Crowther as the Bishop of the Niger marked the beginning of indigenization of Christianity in Africa. Up till this time, Christianity has Christianized Africa but Africa has not indigenized Christianity. With his episcopal and sacerdotal elevation, it was now clear that Africans can head the African church. Therefore, the refusal to appoint an African successor to Ajayi Crowther after his death, despite the availability of outstanding African clergy, marks an important point in the history and beginning of African Independent churches, one of which I belong to.
Samuel Ajayi Crowther’s sense of patriotism can never be overestimated. Even though he was forcefully taken away from his home town as a slave, he did not allow the trauma of his early life to affect his concern for his country, town, and people. He became a free man in Sierra Leone and was always thinking about the freedom of his people. Like Nehemiah, the immigrant steward in the Bible, he used all his influence, connection, position, and status in a foreign land to pursue the rebuilding of social, economic, physical, and spiritual walls of his nation. Like Esther, the lady immigrant in Persia, he risked his life for the emancipation of his people. Even while he was living as an immigrant freed slave in Sierra Leone, he did all he could for the betterment of the country.
Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther died December 31, 1891.