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Bühler, Gottlieb Friederick
1829 to 1865
Anglican (CMS)

Gottlieb Friedrich Bühler, a German missionary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) who trained early Yoruba pastors and evangelists at the Abeokuta Training Institution, was born on July 3, 1829 into a large Christian family at Adelberg in Württenberg, Germany. Bühler trained first as a schoolmaster and had brief stints as a teacher in various institutions in his homeland before enrolling in the Missionary College at Basel in 1851. His decision to turn to mission might have been influenced by his eldest brother who had trained at the college and was serving in India at the time. [1]

Preparing for the Missionary Vocation

The Missionary College at Basel was undergoing a period of ideological change when Bühler enrolled there. From the inception of the college in 1816, Christian Blumhardt's liberal ethos that affirmed cultural sensitivity towards indigenous peoples in the missionary encounter held sway. Blumhardt's philosophy of mission was a product of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century German thought on language and nationality, especially as posited by Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Since, according to them, whatever is conceived in one language cannot be exactly duplicated in another, national identity is rooted in people's language, thought, and culture. They should, therefore, not only be preserved as their genius but should also be cultivated and nurtured in order to increase self understanding and national vocation. [2]

As the nineteenth century wore on and Germany joined other European powers in exploring lands overseas in the spirit of the age, Blumhardt's mission philosophy came under attack from the growing rank of German colonists. Knowing that missionaries were in the vanguard of overseas enterprises, these adventurers sought to win them over. They achieved their quest for a new direction in mission philosophy when Blumhardt was succeeded in 1850 by Joseph Josenhans who led the Missionary College until 1879. [3] Under the new leadership the underlying philosophy of missionary formation at Basel changed from facilitating beneficent civilization to propagating German-Swabian civilization. Economic aid and transfer of German material culture through trade became an integral part of mission. Moreover, Western civilization, particularly as represented by the German culture, was seen not only as a tool for communicating mission; to do mission was to civilize. [4]

The new mission direction at Basel seminary could not have become fully operational in the years of Bühler's enrolment. And whatever accretion he brought to Islington of Basel's new way of seeing indigenous cultures in relation to those of Europeans could only have shrivelled under Henry Venn's pro-Blumhardt mission philosophy that affirmed indigenous cultures. Yet, as his training program at Abeokuta would unfold from 1858, Bühler had taken the best of both Blumhardt and Josenhans and would use them eclectically to shape the minds of his students in the mission field.

Mission to the Yoruba Country

On completing his three year training at the Missionary College, Bühler entered the service of the Church Missionary Society. In 1854, he was at the Church Missionary College, Islington, where he acquired proficiency in English. He was ordained a deacon by the bishop of London on June 3, 1855. Bühler departed for the Yoruba Mission of the CMS on October 24, 1855 and arrived in Lagos at the end of the year. He soon proceeded to Abeokuta where he was stationed until August 1856 when, in the company of Mr. Hoch, he went to Ibadan to relieve Mr. and Mrs Hinderer. [5] The missionary couple had returned to England to recuperate their health.

Bühler moved to Lagos the following year after his stint at Ibadan to take charge of the chapel at Breadfruit. [6] In 1858, he finally returned to Abeokuta to take charge of the Training Institution from Mr. Maser. [7] The society had been struggling to establish the institution since 1853 but had had to contend with the twin forces of Mr. Henry Townsend's prejudice against liberal education for Africans and the untimely death of European agents sent out to establish it. [8] Although Bühler reluctantly accepted the assignment, the need to train personnel for the mission was glaring. According to him, "I myself saw how necessary it was to instruct the young men who were waiting almost two years for regular instruction. We want more agents; there is no want of young men, they only want to be instructed." [9] At Ake, Abeokuta, where he was stationed, he ran the institution and also assisted in church work. There he was also ordained into the priesthood on Sunday, March 20, 1859, by Bishop Bowen of Sierra Leone. [10]

In 1860, Bühler married Sophia Mary Jay and returned with her to Abeokuta on December 8. She did not survive her seasoning fever as she died on January 4, 1861. He remarried in 1863 to Miss Annie Norris who survived him. [11]

Bühler's training program at Abeokuta evolved and expanded with years, and his thought shows that he appreciated the need to situate the minds of his students in both the immediate and the wider contexts of their vocation. Recognizing the immediate context of culture and ministry, and the fact that some of the students did not understand English, he began teaching Scripture history in the Yoruba language to the thirteen enrolled pupils in April 1858. [12] To this end, among his early requests for teaching materials was Pinnock's Analysis of Scripture History in both the Old and the New Testaments. Six months into his new assignment he reported with satisfaction that, "In my teaching I laid particular stress upon Scripture History to give them a good & practical knowledge of it & they, to my great delight showed a great increasing interest." [13] His emphasis on Scripture is a recognition of the pivotal nature of the Bible to their calling as ministers. But in teaching the subject in Yoruba, Bühler was meeting the need to situate learning also in the context of the pupils' culture. His regret was that much of the Bible had not yet been translated into the Yoruba language.

When in 1861 the supervision of the day schools in Abeokuta was added to his responsibility, Bühler was disappointed with several aspects of the method of instructing the children. He particularly considered it "a great disadvantage" in the mission that there was "too much teaching in the [English] language which retards the progress considerably it being for most of the children an unknown tongue." Moreover, he reported:
Reading & numbering in engl. confuses them & they [the monitors] read them what they do not understand. The consequence is that they also read Yoruba without thinking. But the worst is that it takes them an enormous time four, five & even 6 years [sic] before they can read their own tongue fluently. I have now commenced at working out a plan for our schools in which I intend to lay down as a rule not to teach engl. until they can read their own language...Scripture history should always be given in their own Mother Tongue, otherwise I am afraid the result will never be so satisfactory as might be expected. [14]
In the meantime Bühler had been adding other branches of knowledge to his training programme at the institution. Within the first six months he added "Catechising, Reading (English and Yoruba) & Writing, Geography, especially biblical Geography, history, & the Art of teaching..." [15] In another six months he had expanded the programme:
In general history we had the history of Rome to Constantin... for Geography, Europe, in Bibl. Geography Paul's Missionary journeys. In Natur. Philosophy-- the rudiments; In Natur. History--the animal kingdom. In Arithmetic, fractions & applications thereof. In reading translating of verses, portions or whole chapters from engl. into Yoruba & from Yoruba into engl. was frequently practiced...[sic]. [16]
Two years later, Bühler could still report that he had added the histories of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, the Jews and Alexander the Great to his general history, and his geography lesson now incorporated Africa. He had also introduced new subjects in the sciences- elementary astronomy, electricity, "mammalia"--and in the arts--singing, calligraphy & orthography and "a small beginning...in playing the harmonium." He even ordered for a machine to demonstrate the principle of electricity to his pupils, who came from "this country where the god of thunder & lightening is worshipped." [17]

If Bühler's teaching of Scripture history in the mother tongue could be said to be consistent with Blumhardt and the CMS's missionary ethos, his continuous introduction of liberal arts and aspects of the growing physical sciences of European civilization would qualify as the expression of the civilizing mission of Josenhans. In this interaction, the latter could not but restrain the romantic tendencies of the former while the former served as the control valve for the ideological pressure the latter might seek to exert.

But the introduction of the liberal arts, in particular, has a deeper significance. Bühler's 1859 introduction of these subjects into the training program of the institution was an implicit recognition of the wider context that shaped the faith now being bequeathed to the pupils. But more than this, and in the face of the growing expansion of Europe through the activities of the missionaries themselves and the colonists already at work on the coast, Bühler needed to help his pupils to appreciate the antecedents to the world presently encroaching on their primal society. As agents of change in the making, this was a necessary preparation for their service with the Society for in another two years the process of colonization would burst on them in the 1861 annexation of Lagos to the expanding British possessions in West Africa, with all its complexities and unsettling challenges. Perhaps more than the teacher himself realized, these future agents of the Society needed this enlargement of perspective to be able to function in the emerging cultural environment where they would carry out Christian ministry. In this light, the whole process of what Bühler was doing could only have been providential, for it was going to be a small window that would soon close in his premature exit from the scene.

Meanwhile, the seminary teacher was not unaware of the peril that accompanied his teaching as he acknowledged that "[t]here is much temptation for them [i.e. his pupils] to pride, on account of their acquiring more knowledge than many of their companions, & the other temptation is to leave missionary work & to engage in trade which seems to offer much more profits." [18] Three years later, in 1861, experience at home continued to impress upon him the pitfalls inherent in his training program and the "much evil" that is inadvertently introduced with civilization:
Privileges which others do not enjoy, superior knowledge, the prospect of becoming the teachers and leaders of the people, to be looked upon as wiser, more pious, in more favorable circumstances...is quite sufficient to upset a Christian young man at home, why not much more here where they have fewer equals and where by far the majority are inferior, at least in knowledge. When I therefore rejoice I rejoice with trembling. [19]
By implication, the dangers were not valid enough to keep the pupils ignorant of knowledge that could prove beneficial to their service. The prospects were more encouraging than gloomy. [20] And what is more, there are means of grace available to the conscientious to withstand the temptations learning could bring; he wrote:
On the whole I am thankful to say that there is unmistakable evidence of progress in their studies as well as in their moral tone...In the majority an important work of the Holy Spirit is going on whilst some of them, I may confidently say, are pious young men who live in prayer & carry on a good warfare. This is a great encouragement for me as well as for the future prospect of our Mission. [21]
In addition to this movement of the Spirit among his pupils, Bühler himself consciously exerted his influence on them through his "friendly, fatherly appeal to their conscience." [22]

Contending with Opposition

Bühler's evident concern for the effect of his training program on his students is a reflection of the pressure he was going through in the Yoruba mission. Mr. Townsend, the most influential CMS missionary at Abeokuta, disapproved of the liberal content of the training. The Englishman from Exeter, as some other English missionaries of the CMS also demonstrated later, [23] did not value much book learning for African converts and agents of mission. In Sierra Leone, he had seen the supposed baneful effects of book learning among the colony born young people and had, apparently, concluded that anything that exposed Africans to European values, made them proud. [24]

When, early in 1862, a letter arrived from the Parent Committee in London transferring Bühler from Ake to Ikija, the seminary teacher pointed finger at Townsend as the originator of the proposal. Townsend still ensured that Bühler did not relocate to Ikija but to Igbein by posting Rev. Jonathan Wood to Ikija before the Finance Committee deliberated on the instruction of the Parent Committee. [25] Ikija having been thus occupied, a difficult station like Igbein remained the only vacant place for Bühler to occupy with his training institution. The pastorate there had become vacant as a result of the untimely death of its indigenous returnee pastor from Sierra Leone, Rev. Thomas King.

In a letter to the secretaries of the mission in London, Bühler both protested against the implicit undertone of the proposal [26] and argued his case for a robust training program for the intending agents of the mission. In his words:
I entirely disagree with Mr. Townsend when he says too much instruction is given to the youths; we always differ on that point. Our work is progressing and we want more agents, but shall all our agents be good Christians only who can just read such portions of the Bible as are translated and nothing else? There can be no doubt such men are useful, but shall we set promising young men aside merely because the education of such young men has in other missions proved a failure? On several outstations our native agents cannot write and when they want to communicate with their superintendent they must come themselves. [27]
He argued further that:
Among my pupils are several very promising--especially as regards their spiritual life--they are well gifted, but shall they be left in ignorance? Again, every missionary asks for a good schoolmaster, but how & where can they be obtained if we do not train them up for it? The constant complaint of our missionaries of the inability of their schoolmasters should have led Mr. Townsend to another conclusion.... To get better schoolmasters we must first give them a better education. However, what the first class of my pupils learn at present can scarcely be called a superior education; in most things they would not come up to a schoolmaster in England. [28]
It was not enough for Bühler, who was still widowed at this time, to state his case. He made it known that he was grieved by the insinuation supposedly making the round in the missionary circle at Abeokuta. He felt he had his back on the wall as he wrote with melancholy:
It is just now 4 years since I have been chosen for this important and responsible post. I have laboured with joy and have devoted all my strength and energy to this work; I have done what I could do to stir up a missionary zeal among the young men and I fully believe that my work has not been in vain in the Lord. I have been most anxious to give a sound and practical knowledge of God's holy word which I trust will bear its fruit in due season....To be regarded by anyone of my Brethren as not doing my duty towards the work of the Lord in this land, or to be regarded as laying the foundation for the ruin of the young men by giving a somewhat superior education--and finally the ruin of the mission--would constantly prey on my mind, would make my life extremely unhappy and would surely undermine my health. [29]
At roots, Townsend's problem with Bühler's training program was not just the danger of giving the pupils too much knowledge. Ulrich Graf, with whom he worked briefly in Hastings, Sierra Leone, might have identified it when he was reflecting on his visit to the Yoruba mission in 1854. It was at a time the Society was in need of expertise to translate the Bible into Yoruba. The process became mired in controversy as the missionaries could not agree on the convention to guide the process. Graf observed Townsend's skill in the Yoruba language and said of him:
Mr. Townsend is decidedly...the best speaker of the native language, he possessing a native instinctive tact in finding out the genius of the language; but being unaccustomed to scientific researches he is incapable to point out the Rules and Principles... [He] knows not "why" or "wherefore." [30]
This observation, by extension, placed the finger on the source of Bühler's problem. He was carrying out his training program under the shadow of a man who had no aptitude for theorization. Apparently considering that his colleague was indulging in superfluities because he had not enough work to engage him, Townsend organized his posting and that of his institution to Igbein Church in January 1863. Igbein was a problematic congregation where, he must have thought, Bühler would not be wanting of quarrels to settle and be better occupied. [31] On the other hand, Bühler and his pupils would be far from Townsend's "philistinism" and would freely engage in their intellectual pursuits. But the teacher and his students had to put up the mission houses and the buildings to house the institution. [32]

In spite of the criticism that trailed his work, Bühler continued in his conviction of liberal education for the intending agents of the mission. And being satisfied with the balanced spiritual and intellectual growth of his students, despite the additional demand of manual labor on them, Bühler introduced the classical languages of Greek and Latin to the training program of the institution in 1863. He reported:
As most of the pupils of the I Class [that is Year 1] were sons of Sierra Leone emigrants they had a good knowledge of english [sic], but to improve it and to lead them deeper into the English language I thought a little Latin would do no harm, but would have many advantages...I do not regret to have made a trial, some of the pupils have profited by it; they have certainly seen the great difficulties in acquiring such a language and I do not think their little Latin has made them proud. I think it has humbled them. [33]
In September 1864, Bühler's health began to decline rapidly and he had to resort to Lagos for a change of environment. He improved a little, but it was evident that he could not continue to serve in the harsh tropical climate of West Africa. [34] He finally left Lagos for Europe on February 7, 1865. He died six months later, on August 14, 1865, at Schondorf, Germany, being only 36. [35]

Bühler's Legacy

Bühler's pain in carrying out his vision of the learning that should constitute theological training was another expression of the perennial conflict of whether Christian theological formation should go the way of Clement of Alexandria or Tertullian. The problem with the latter is that it does not challenge the mind of the learner and often take religious experience at face value. The risk here is that such theological formation often lacks reflective capacity for creative response in times of rapid change. [36] While the model of Clement tends to cultivate this capacity in its student, it also risks the dangers Bühler himself highlighted in fear and trembling. Yet, in a world of constant change, Clement's model remains the more viable option for the continuous relevance of the constant message of Christ. Buhler seems to have recognized this and, therefore, opted for it.

Of course, Bühler argued that the need for quality was the motive behind his adopting a liberal approach to his training. But in the typical fashion of nineteenth century Protestant missionary method, he also saw value in the careful use of education informed by enlightenment thinking to break the hold of superstitions on his pupils. By this method, he sought to free their minds from scruples that could lead them back to heathenism. Although the danger of this leading to the secularization of the mind was a present concern, he was confident enough that true knowledge would produce the character needed for the work of the ministry. Ultimately, the outcome of his training can be judged by the quality of the agents he produced. Two of such agents were Samuel Johnson and Andrew Hethersett Laniyonu, both of whom came with him back to Abeokuta to train at the institution when Bühler visited Ibadan in December 1862.

Johnson and Laniyonu lived with the Hinderers before resuming studies at Abeokuta in January 1863. On completing their studies in December 1865, they both returned to Ibadan and were recruited by the mission as schoolmasters. The two colleagues started well, Laniyonu at Ogunpa and Johnson at Kudeti. But Laniyonu had a character deficiency. He habitually indulged in adultery and was consequently dismissed in 1869. [37] He later joined the colonial service in Lagos where he was involved in the clannish politics of how to end the wars in the interior in the 1880s. [38]

Johnson, on the other hand, may be said to represent the best of Bühler's achievement. He confessed his teacher's strong influence on him when he was seeking ordination as a deacon in 1885. He wrote then that:
Separation from home, intercourse with students whose moral training was different from mine, the godly advices, warnings, and example of...Rev. G. F. Bühler...told much on me. The spirit was... powerfully at work...I spent hours in private prayers. As if not enough, I obtained the consent of a fellow student [Laniyonu]...to join me in these prayers, although I did not unburden my mind to him. It was then the Igbein Mission houses...were in building...here we have a private place within its bare walls, to retire for spiritual devotion. Not content with this I used to return sometimes quite alone. At this time I can date my real conversion. [39]
Obviously, Bühler was not the only influence on Johnson, but it was under his training that all the inputs of his fellow Basel trained missionaries in the CMS mission who had nurtured him came to final fruition. [40] Unlike Laniyonu who was expelled from missionary service, Johnson's positive impact on Yoruba mission and history cannot be overstated. For he brought his Christian witness into the volatile political environment of late nineteenth century Yoruba country as he carried messages between belligerents in the wars that devastated the country and the colonial authorities in Lagos. He therefore contributed significantly in bringing the wars to an end. But more relevant is the fact that he effected with the skills he gained under Bühler the hope of his mentor, David Hinderer, by documenting the history of the Yoruba people from the earliest times until the declaration of the British protectorate on the country. [41] Johnson's magnum opus redeemed the fading memory of his people but confounded CMS leadership in London at its completion in 1897. In the second half of the twentieth century, his The History of the Yorubas became a classic in the study of Yoruba history and culture and has been referenced in standard academic works abroad. Johnson's missionary and cultural achievements are the ultimate vindication of Bühler's theological curriculum decades after he had left the scene. [42]

Kehinde Olabimtan


1. G. Möricke, "Bühler's Biography", Church Missionary Society (CMS) Archives, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, UK, C/A2/O24.
2. Klaus Fiedler, Christianity and African Culture: Conservative German Protestant Missionaries in Tanzania, 1900-1914 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 14-17.
3. K. Rennstich, "The Understanding of Mission, Civilization and Colonialism in the Basel Mission," in Missionary Ideologies in the Imperialist Era, eds. T. Christensen and W.R. Hutchison (Aarhus C, Denmark: Forlaget Aros, 1982), 96.
4. K. Rennstich.
5. G. Bühler, journal entry, July 6, 1856, CMS C/A2/O24/37.
6. G. Bühler, journal entry, May 7, 1857, CMS C/A2/O24/37; G. Bühler to H. Venn, August 3, 1857, CMS C/A2/O24/3.
7. G. Bühler to H. Venn, May 1, 1858, CMS C/A2/O24/7.
8. J. F. A. Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria 1841-1891--The Making of a New Elite (Essex: Longman, 1965), 150-151.
9. G. Bühler to H. Venn, May 1, 1858, CMS C/A2/O24/7.
10. G. Bühler to the Secretaries, April 2, 1859, CMS C/A2/O24/9; s.v. "Bühler, Gottlieb Friedrich," Church Missionary Society, Register of Missionaries, 100.
11. G. Bühler, Half yearly Report ending July 186, CMS C/A2/O24/44.
12. G. Bühler to H. Venn, September 30, 1858, CMS C/A2/O24/8.
13. G. Bühler, Report of Training Institution, September 30, 1858, CMS C/A2/O24/42.
14. G. Bühler, Half Yearly Report of Training Institution, January-July 1861, CMS C/A2/O24/44.
15. G. Bühler, Report of Training Institution, September 30, 1858, CMS C/A2/O24/42.
16. G. Bühler, Report of Training Institution, April 1859, CMS C/A2/O24/43.
17. G. Bühler, Report of Training Institution for Half Year ending December 31, 1861, CMS C/A2/O24/45.
18. G. Bühler, Report on Training Institution, September 30, 1858, CMS C/A2/O24/42.
19. G. Bühler, Report of Training Institution for Half Year ending December 31, 1861, CMS C/A2/O24/45.
20. G. Bühler, Report of Training Institution for Half Year ending December 31, 1861, CMS C/A2/O24/45.
21. G. Bühler, Half Yearly Report of Training Institution, January-July 1861, CMS C/A2/O24/44.
22. G. Bühler, Report of Training Institution for Half Year ending December 31, 1861, CMS C/A2/O24/45.
23. The Training Institution was later removed from Abeokuta to Lagos and later to Ọyọ in 1896. At Ọyọ, under Melville Jones, the institution's training program became activitistic. The students spent more time in evangelistic tours than in acquiring spiritual and intellectual formation for ministry.
24. Townsend did not believe that even his "best behaved youth" would not be lost to him if he sent him to London to learn printing. H. Townsend to H. Venn, February 28, 1960, CMS C/A2/O85/75.
25. G. Bühler to Secretaries, May 3, 1862, CMS C/A2/O85/16.
26. By giving him additional responsibility as a local church pastor, Bühler's critics were saying that he had not enough work to occupy him and that was why he could indulge in too much book work with the students.
27. G. Bühler to Secretaries, May 3, 1862, CMS C/A2/O85/16.
28. G. Bühler to Secretaries, May 3, 1862, CMS C/A2/O85/16.
29. G. Bühler to Secretaries, May 3, 1862, CMS C/A2/O85/16.
30. J. Graf, Report of Visit to the Yoruba Mission, C/A1/O105/63.
31. G. Bühler to H. Venn, December 2, 1862, CMS C/A2/O24/19; Annual Report, Igbein Station, December 1863, CMS C/A2/O24/47. 32. G. Bühler, Annual Report of Igbein Station, December 31, 1863, CMS C/A2/O24/47.
33. G. Bühler to I. Chapman, January 30, 1863, CMS C/A2/O24/21.
34. G. Bühler to Col. Dawes, November 7, 1864, CMS C/A2/O24/34.
35. G. Möricke, "Bühler's Biography", CMS C/A2/O24.
36. Tertullian himself fell a victim of the Montanist heretical movement.
37. D. Olubi, journal entry, February 25, 1869, CMS C/A2/O75/23; D. Olubi to J. Maser, March 11, 1873, CMS C/A2/O75/11.
38. A. Hethersett to W. Griffith, November 30, 1881, NAL CO 147/47, Despatch 16(3434), Enclosure 6.
39. S. Johnson to Secretaries, January 16, 1885, CMS C/A2/O 1885/67.
40. Johnson was born in Hastings, Sierra Leone, in 1846 under the pastorate of Ulrich Graf and was there until 1857 when he came to Ibadan with his parents. In Ibadan he came under the influence of David Hinderer both before his training at Abeokuta and afterwards.
41. David Hinderer was the first missionary to express, in 1854, the wish that the history of the Yoruba wars be written. Johnson might have been fulfilling this dream, hence his dedicating it to "the revered memory of The Rev. David Hinderer." D. Hinderer, journal entry, December 15, 1854, CMS C/A2/O/49/110.
42. R. Cust to the Secretaries, January 3, 1899, CMS G3/A2/O(1899)/3.



Archives of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, UK.
Colonial Office Records, National Archives London (NAL).


Ajayi, J. F. A. Christian Missions in Nigeria 1841-1891--The Making of a New Elite. Essex: Longman, 1965.
Church Missionary Society, Register of Missionaries.
Fiedler, Klaus. Christianity and African Culture: Conservative German Protestant Missionaries in Tanzania, 1900-1914. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996.
Rennstich, K. "The Understanding of Mission, Civilization and Colonialism in the Basel Mission." In Missionary Ideologies in the Imperialist Era, eds. T. Christensen and W.R. Hutchison, 94-103. Aarhus C, Denmark: Forlaget Aros, 1982.

This article, which was received in 2011, was written and researched by Dr. Kehinde Olabimtan, Coordinator of educational ministries, Good News Baptist Church and Adjunct Teacher, Akrofi-Christaller Institute, Ghana, and a recipient of the Project Luke Scholarship for 2010-2011.