Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Crowther, Samuel Ajayi (E)

Anglican Communion
Nigeria , Sierra Leone

Samuel Ajayi Crowther

His Childhood and Slavery

Ajayi was born in a little town called Osogun in Yorubaland around the year 1810. Osogun was said to be four miles in circumference with about 3,000 inhabitants [1]. His parents gave him the name Ajayi as a symbol of importance. They also consulted the Ifa Oracle to find out which of the four hundred traditional Yoruba deities he would grow up to worship. The Ifa priest was said to have warned them against dedicating him to any idol having foreseen that he would worship the Almighty God [2].

Ajayi’s father was a farmer and a weaver. From him, little Ajayi learned how to farm and shepherd domestic animals. He was noted for his courage and patience. He demonstrated this courage when he saved, at the risk of his life, his father’s idols when their house was being destroyed in a conflagration.

On a day that looked quite bright, Osogun, his town, was to have her turn of the sorrowful fate of ruin, desolation and deprivation caused by the inhuman trade in slaves. At about breakfast time, the alarm was sounded when enemies were seen approaching. It was at first mistaken for the slave raiders who usually passed by Osogun. Within a short time, the town was surrounded by the Foulahs, the “Yoruba Mohammedans”[3] and the slaves who had run away from their masters. It was estimated that they numbered about 2,000 on strong swift horses. The enemies came at a time when most of the able men and women of the town had gone on their daily rounds of work and those left at home could not cope with the task of beating back the enemies. Houses were ruthlessly set on fire and the inhabitants fled for their lives. Ajayi’s father seeing that it was a situation beyond his control, entered the house after ordering all his people to flee and he was never seen again. The whole town was in flames. Ajayi, his mother and two sisters, ran into the hands of two of the raiders, who put nooses round their necks.[4] They were led away to join thousands of others under the same affliction. They were later marched to Iseyin where Ajayi was exchanged for a horse. This was how he became separated from his mother and was taken to the town of Ijaye where he was sold to a Mohammedan woman. This woman was planning to take him on a journey to Popo from whence Ajayi knew he would never return. The very thought made him sick.

He unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide by strangling himself when he became fed up with the perpetual misery of slavery. In exchange for tobacco leaves and English wine, he was given to an Ijebu trader. He had suffered so much that in desperation he adjusted to slavery and was ready to accept any condition.

When Ajayi passed from the hand of the Ijebu man to the Lagos slave market and from there to the Portuguese traders, he thought his end had come. The Portuguese traders put him on a ship him with other slaves and set out to sea. Fortunately the British anti-slavery warship, the Myrmidon attacked the Portuguese schooner and destroyed it at sea. Ajayi himself later reported that 102 out of the 189 slaves on board the Portuguese schooner perished in the resultant shipwreck.[5]

Thus rescued, he travelled in the Myrmidon with all perseverance. He did not understand the language of the crew, which was English. He later discovered that the English masters were friendly. When they landed in Sierra Leone, rather than being treated as a slave, Ajayi was shown tremendous freedom and kindness. He was placed in a C.M.S. school where he was taught to read and write the word of God in the New Testament. Ajayi was a keenly watchful young man, who was very willing to learn. Within six months of his arrival in Sierra Leone, he had sufficiently applied himself to his studies that not only could he read the New Testament, he was also appointed a pupil teacher in a local school earning seven and half pence a month.

He was first introduced to learning by Mr. Weeks,–a trained carpenter and later Bishop of Sierra Leone,– who endeavoured to train black children as carpenters. From him Ajayi learned the art of carpentry. Ajayi was gradually introduced to the knowledge of God who, he believed, had won his freedom for him and he decided to devote his life to His service. In his own words, Ajayi noted that he was not saved from the slavery of man alone but also from that of sin. He decided he would now be a soldier for Christ, fighting against the world, the flesh, all spiritual enemies and the devil [6].

On the 11th of December 1825, he had a rebirth by baptism and he named himself after the vicar of Christ’s Church, Newgate, London - Samuel Crowther, who was one of the pioneers of the C.M.S.   Samuel Ajayi made his first visit to London in 1826 and this left a wonderful impression on him. On getting back to Sierra Leone, he was employed by the government as a teacher. Ajayi became engaged to a former slave girl named Asano on his return. She could read and write and was eventually baptized with the name Susan Thompson. They later married and lived happily together for about 50 years. Ajayi was among the first students admitted into Fourah Bay College when it was founded in 1828 under Charles Harsel. He later taught Greek and Latin in the same school.

Mr. Samuel Ajayi Crowther’s baptism by the Rev. J. C. Raban in 1825, his journey to England with the Rev. and Mrs. Davey in 1826 and the few months’ stay in the Parish School in Islington in 1827 prepared him for the life ahead. He assisted Rev. Raban in collecting the vocabularies of the Yoruba language in addition to his study of Temne, a local language. Ajayi quickly acquired a considerable measure of importance and prestige. He strongly advocated the establishment of a model farm and agricultural society. He showed the required leadership in progressive matters and faced practical evangelism seriously. He lived a blameless life both at home and in public.

In 1841, the celebrated Niger Expedition was sent from Britain. The C.M.S. was authorized to send men to join the party. The Rev. J. F. Schon, a linguist, and Mr. S. A. Crowther were chosen. Unfortunately, the Niger Mission did not succeed and, of the 145 people in the expedition party, 40 out of the 45 Europeans died of malaria.

This experience prompted Rev. Schon, in his report to the C.M.S., to strongly recommend that Africans be used for evangelism amongst their people. Ajayi was consequently invited to London.

On Trinity Sunday in 1843, Ajayi was ordained into the Holy Orders. He was priested the following October, barely 21 years after his freedom from slavery. A rousing welcome was organized for Crowther in Sierra Leone. The following Sunday, Rev. S. Ayayi Crowther delivered his first semon in English and another in Yoruba. He soon travelled back to Abeokuta with Rev. Henry Townsend and immediately applied himself to the mission’s task. He evolved the orthography of the Yoruba language and embarked on the translation of the Bible into Yoruba. Other missionaries joined Ajayi in his work on the Yoruba language. He was a man highly endowed with the gift of humility, who remained unruffled in the face of provocation by idol worshippers. He therefore won their moral consideration and some of them were converted. His people in Abeokuta saw him as the fulfilment of the hope they had nursed for many years.

Crowther was the main weapon used by Townsend for evangelization. His presence alone infused confidence in the listeners.

Within three weeks of his arrival in Abeokuta in 1845, Crowther learned that his mother, sisters and cousin were alive in a nearby village. He sent for them and could not believe his eyes when he saw them. He was embraced by his mother and both of them wept for joy, recollecting their sad parting some 25 years before. His mother was one of the early converts in Egbaland and at her baptism, she took the Biblical name “Hannah.” She had earlier been set free from slavery following the ransom of four pounds and ten shillings paid by her daughter [7].

Crowther showed himself to be an enterprising and energetic man, he had intelligence and was full of plans. During another visit to Egbaland he received an invitation from Palmerston, the British Prime Minister who learned a lot from him about Africa and particularly West Africa. The Queen and her husband also invited Crowther to the Castle at Windsor where, by means of maps, he explained the layout of West Africa,–especially Abeokuta and Sierra Leone,–to the royal couple. He also recited the Lord’s Prayer in Yoruba at the Queen’s demand and pleasure. He was invited to address the students of Cambridge College and enjoined them to come and work in Africa [8]. He met, once again, Sir Henry Luke, the captain of the ship that had brought him to freedom in Freetown. The Captain was happy to see him ordained. After a very successful visit, Crowther returned to Africa in June 1852.

In the same year, he published and revised his enlarged version of Yoruba Grammar and Vocabulary and the translation of four Books of the New Testament - Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistle of James and the Epistle of Peter. Crowther and Thomas King did an excellent and commendable translation of the Bible and the Prayer Book which are still regarded as works of high literary value today [9].

Slave Turned Bishop

The consecration of Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther as a bishop seemed to have been motivated by experimental tendencies. However, the experiment later turned out to be a big success to the disappointment of those who underrated the intelligence of the blacks and disparaged the “Negro” race. This success however was not easily achieved. We note the role of Africans like Rev. Crowther who gave the necessary leadership to the Niger Mission. Crowther proved that educated Africans were capable of carrying the Gospel successfully to the interior of the so-called “Dark Continent.” One cannot but further mention the indispensable contributions to the Niger Expeditions.

In 1856 Henry Venn wrote expressing the hope that the Niger would again be visited under the auspices of Her Majesty’s government to open up communication with the interior of the continent for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. Crowther was especially invited to join the expedition which was led by Captain Beecroft up the River Niger and River Nun to explore the Lake Chad and to find the two explorers, Barth and Vogel. Crowther accepted and went to the Island of Fernando Po to take the Steamer Pleiad. But Captain Beecroft suddenly fell ill and died before they set out. Dr. William Baikie, a Scot, took over the command. One of the most outstanding features of this expedition was that no European died of fever during the voyage which lasted 118 days.[10] This was the result of the quinine used for the first time as a prophylactic. As a result of Crowther’s selfless service, radical changes were made possible within a short time. Everybody in the Niger Delta area and beyond was aware of the fact that the area had developed to such an extent that it called for the supervision of a full-time bishop. The efficient and tireless efforts of Crowther coupled with his faith and courage recommended him for the high office. Henry Venn, the Church Missionary Society’s secretary had seen the problems of the Niger Mission and saw Crowther as the solution. But the question on the lips of every white man was “Is there anyone among the African clergy to whom so great a responsibility can, safely, be entrusted?[11]

It was now over twenty-one years since Crowther had been ordained. He was humble, dutiful and consistent in the ministry. He had laid the foundations of a diocese. He was unassuming, quiet, unostentatious and was known both in Africa and in England for being in possession of the necessary qualities that a would-be bishop needed.[12] Crowther had not only shown himself as having a thorough understanding of the Christian faith but also revealed a knowledge of the effective ways of communicating the same to his fellow countrymen. Neither the climate nor the language of Africa was an impediment to him. The University of Oxford had earlier on, in appreciation of his invaluable contributions to the development of Christianity in West Africa, conferred an honorary doctorate degree on him.

But with regard to episcopate, Henry Venn and Rev. Henry Townsend seemed to have worked in opposite directions. Right from 1851 Venn had started to advocate strongly the advancing of African clergy to the office. Rev. Townsend, however, embarked upon a counter policy of looking upon the indigenous clergy as misfits of potential rivals. Venn proposed that two more Africans, T. B. Macaulay (a graduate of Islington Theological Training, where Townsend himself had been trained) and Thomas King (a graduate of Fourah Bay College and a distinguished catechist who had assisted Crowther in translating the Bible), should be ordained any time the bishop of Sierra Leone came to Abeokuta. Townsend wrote to Venn on October 21, 1851 expressing his doubts about the abilities of black clergymen who, he said, would need more years of experience to stabilize their character. He would rather, he said, employ them as school masters and catechists.[13] When another proposal to erect an episcopal see at Abeokuta was made and Crowther was summoned to England, Townsend’s doubts developed into panic. He quickly announced he was conducting a referendum among his African staff to test the popularity of the idea of a black bishop. He drafted a petition against the proposal and cleverly obtained the signatures of Hinderer and Gollmer who being Germans were opposed to the episcopal policy on doctrinal grounds. In the petition, he contended that no matter what the worth of an African bishop would be, he would lack the respect and influence necessary for such a high office, He further maintained that the natives themselves accepted and treated their indigenous clergy (Mr. Crowther and others) as inferior to the whites. He claimed that as a result of the sectional jealousies and ethnic affiliation that had torn the country apart, not even the converts would accept the authority of an indigenous bishop. He positively held that God had given talent to the whites to be used for the good of the negroes who consequently had great respect for the whites. This trust, he warned, should not be shifted.[14]

No one would fail to understand from this that Townsend was on the verge of frustration. He was actually being lured away by the love of office. King and Macaulay were ordained, to his disappointment, in 1854. But Crowther, in his own case, cared less for the post, honour, responsibility and power that Venn had in mind for him. Venn knew that Crowther lacked a bickering spirit, did not engage in the struggle for power and did not have the desire for office but he saw in him a dependable counselor with remarkable tact and knowledge of human psychology. Crowther had the greatest possible regard for the European missionaries. He saw them as having sacrificed all things for the sake of the black man. He even wrote to Venn in 1860 in protest against what he termed a cheap publication ascribed to him in certain English newspapers in connection with the vacant bishopric of Sierra Leone. He declared that “as a man he knew something of the feelings of men.”[15]

Although the actions of two African clergymen who refused to work on the Niger (their own country) might have given force to the claims of Rev. Townsend and prompted him to oppose native leadership, but it was the same Townsend who dissuaded two German catechists who had been staying in Abeokuta from accompanying Crowther to the Niger. Townsend wrote Venn warning against what he saw as the danger of sending white men in an inferior position because the white men, (he believed) should always be in an advantageous position, in religion and other human endeavors. He concluded that black men were not fit to be leaders. The European missionaries realized that their success depended on the prestige and influence they could wield. The emigrants however soon realized too that these foreign missionaries were constituting themselves into a force which sooner or later might be very difficult to resist let alone remove. Thus they mounted a strong campaign to resist Townsend. From Sierra Leone to Lagos and Onitsha in the Delta area, the people stood solidly behind Crowther asserting that any bishop appointed other than the Rev. Ajayi Crowther would not be a popular choice.

In 1864, the C.M.S. (London) invited Crowther to an urgent meeting. He left in such hurry that he forgot a change of clothing. He was met by Henry Venn in London. When Crowther was asked about what difficulties he encountered in his area of ministry, he mentioned the need for more missionaries to work in outstations. He answered questions with such frankness that he left his listeners deeply impressed. Venn announced that he was recommending his consecration. Crowther declined with all humility, claiming he was not worthy. Venn was, however, persistent and advised Crowther to spend a quiet time with his old friend Schon at New Brompton. Schon too advised Crowther to accept the offer. When he later returned to Venn however he still did not look convinced. Venn finally assured him that his consecration would symbolize the full development of the native African church in their attempt to be self-supporting and self-propagating. He told him that his work had qualified him for the high office. Venn appealed passionately to Crowther, “My son Samuel Ajayi, will you deny me my last wish before I die?” [16] Ajayi shed tears, and solemnly accepted the bishopric of the Niger,–the first African to be so honored.

Before 8.00 a.m on the 29th June, the Canterbury Cathedral was filled beyond capacity. Admiral Luke of the Myrmidon anti-slave trade fame was present. The consecration of Crowther was solemn and the sermon was preached by the Rev. H. Longueville Mansel, Professor of Philosophy from Oxford, choosing his text from 1 Peter 5: 2-3, on being “example to the flock” [17]. This seemed to be the crowning glory in the life of Bishop Crowther who was then fifty-four years of age. The press saw it as a good and promising step in the right direction against the “taunts of certain professors who maintain that the cerebral development of the negro shows that he is disqualified from intellectual pursuits and that he cannot be lifted out of his congenital dullness” [18] This shows how severely a certain section of the white race underrated the intelligence and ability of the black man. Bishop Ajayi Crowther proved them wrong.

The bishop lost no time in returning to his field of labour in Africa. He left England on July 24 and arrived Sierra Leone on the lOth of August where a mammoth crowd enthusiastically accorded him a rousing welcome. After a day’s rest, Bishop Crowther paid a courtesy call to the staff and students of his alma mater, Fourah Bay College. There, the Church Missionary agents and native pastors presented a welcome address and another address was also read by the authorities of the college. The speeches were full of praises for him and listed his achievements, both in the colony, Abeokuta and on the Niger.

In his response Bishop Crowther reminded them of the old times,–specifically about how the European missionaries in obedience to the injunction of our Lord “Go, and teach all nations” had brought the Good News to that land. He therefore urged his listeners to take on the same spirit and propagate the Gospel beyond the colony. He later moved to Lagos where he held his first ordination service admitting Mr. Lambert Mackenzie to the order of deacons.

Labor and Difficulties

Following Crowther’s consecration in 1864, Henry Venn wrote to Mann in April 1865 appealing to all missionaries to place themselves under the bishop’s juridiction and enjoining them to cooperate and work with him like brothers. He assured them that the bishop had been destined for great works by God.[19]

The consecration of Crowther bothered Townsend and almost at the final moment in a letter to Venn, Townsend gave an opinion that bordered on religious secession. He claimed that he “could not see any necessary connection between the episcopal office in a foreign country and the Crown of England.” Venn was initially a strong admirer of Townsend’s political judgment but seeing the problems that ensued between him and Governor Glover, Venn censured the language of his letters and became suspicious of his ambitions. Venn had known that Townsend did not approve of Crowther’s consecration when he forged ahead to make him bishop. Townsend was even reported to have written to his Methodist colleague, Thomas Champness, describing the depressing situation in his area and reporting the appointment of “a bishop {Crowther} of the Niger to reside at Lagos and to have nothing to do with us.” He added: “I believe it will be done if the C.M.S…. can do it, but it would be a let down.”[20]

This was the remark of a personal friend and one time co-worker of Bishop Crowther. The obstacles that beset Bishop Crowther and his mission ranged from personal animosity to dark and superstitious customs of the people.

It was also a tragic irony of history that at the time Crowther was performing his first ordination service at Onitsha, there was still human sacrifice going on. The Obi of Onitsha had lost his son and to mark the burial, some people were buried with the corpse, among whom was an eight year old girl, who carried a pair of shoes and food stuff to serve as refreshment on the long journey to heaven and beyond. The Christians in a group, however, protested and warned the Obi of the dire consequences of human sacrifice and the displeasure of God to be incurred by this.

The Delta was a particularly difficult area to work in. Such practices as the destruction of twin children varied from one locality to another. While they were killed in certain places, their mothers were banished from the villages in other places. The bishop ruthlessly condemned the practice and the misery that the people inflicted on the victims. One Sunday he preached from Genesis 25:23, “And the Lord said unto her, ‘Two nations are in thy womb’“[21]. He further mounted a crusade against this evil during meetings, visitations, prayers and social talks.

The width of the riverine areas was about 120 miles and the waterless area covered some 140 miles. Idolatry was the order of the day. The bishop himself was reported to have said on April 22, 1867 that he agreed with some of the Bonny natives that a stop must be put to worshipping alligators as deities. The reptiles had become a menace in the streets, in the nooks and corners of the town but killing them was, however, locally prohibited. Bishop Crowther ordered them to be killed and their blood was sprinkled in the people’s drinking water to prove that they were no more then ordinary edible meat.

It is still a mystery how Bishop Crowther succeeded in bringing the light of the Gospel to supersede the darkness of idolatry in Bonny. It would never be forgotten how on Easter Day of 1867 the head chief renounced the worship of the giant reptiles and gradually but painstakingly put a end to the worship of the animal.

Crowther Kidnapped

Crowther was persecuted in his attempt to lay the foundation of the church or mission at Ghebe. He saw its position on the confluence to be of vital importance to the promotion of trade up the Niger. He noted in his journals that the people of Ghebe were willing to hear the Good News. He was very sad on one occasion therefore to learn from reports coming in from Lokoja that Ghebe had been plundered after being destroyed with fire. The report claimed that “Ghebe is now in a ruinous heap, and this important town has been swept away from the face of the earth.”[22]

This report took the bishop there for a assessment. He protested and warned the plunderers of the consequences of their atrocities with regard to the commercial advantages in industry and civilization. At about the same time, when Townsend was away in England on furlough for health reasons, there was trouble at Abeokuta. It must be remembered that the early establishment of Christianity in the area was not without trials. On Sunday, 13th October 1867, all the denominational churches in Abeokuta were not only attacked but the members who were ready for services were stripped.[23] This was nothing short of a rampage carried out in the manner that was outrageously immodest. It was called the Ifole War. The missionaries fled the town and moved to Lagos.

This wave of persecution soon spread to Bonny. The protomartyr of Bonny was Joshua Hart whose only offence was that he had renounced his idols to worship the only true God. He was arrested on his way to church on Sunday, tormented and was told to participate in idolatrous rites, to which he objected. Joshua’s hands and feet were tied and he was thrown into stream. He kept praying that God should forgive his persecutors. He was finally stabbed to death with a sharp pointed pole. There were other numerous cases of others who suffered privately.

While the flock suffered persecution, the shepherd did not go unscathed. Even Bishop Crowther once fell victim to the treachery of his one time friend Chief Abokko. He and his son Dandeson visited the Chief in his Oko-Okien village on one of his journeys up the Niger in 1867. Abokko ordered his men to clear Crowther’s boat of all cargo. His personal luggage and apparel were removed. Bishop Crowther and his men spent the night naked outside. Abokko claimed that he regarded it as an offence for the English merchants to refuse to recognize him as the superintendent of the board of trade in that part of the river. He complained that he had been slighted by their not giving him, as the owner of the river, any substantial gifts, whereas the Atta was given handsome presents. He thought that Bishop Crowther owned the ships and the establishments at Lokoja, Idah, Onitsha, Bonny.

Abokko was said to be an insatiable, covetous and greedy person. He was also vindictive, cruel and treacherous.[24] Bishop Crowther, Dandeson (his son, age twenty-four) and the other boatmen were thus detained for days. On September 23, 1867, four of his boatmen who were suspected of planning an escape were chained with irons. Abokko gave them rationed food at his pleasure. The following day at about a noon a messenger from the Atta of Idah came with a passionate plea for their release. This plea only earned Bishop Crowther the privilege of using a plate, a spoon and a fork,–something he had not done for seven days. No sooner had the messenger of Atta left for Idah, than Abbega, a messenger from the consul in Lokoja, arrived with an encouraging letter to the bishop and another for Abokko. Chief Abokko would release the bishop only on the payment of a ransom of two hundred slaves. After serious negotiation with Abbega, Abokko asked for the payment of one thousand bags of cowries,–the equivalent of one thousand pounds,–for the release of Bishop Crowther. He was said to have even contemplated asking for an equal sum for Dandeson’s release. When negotiations failed, Abbega left, only to meet Mr. Fell, the British consul, and W. V. Rolleston Esq. on the way. They were not prepared to pay any ransom as they considered the gesture would amount to reviving and encouraging slave trade. When all peaceful negotiations proved abortive, military force was used to effect the release of Bishop Crowther. In the attempt however, a poisonous arrow was shot at Mr. Fell and he died before they got back to Lokoja.[25]

The church at Lokoja wrote to commend the spirit of endurance that the bishop demonstrated and confessed that they had learned a great lesson from him.

Crowther was a prayerful and good shepherd who endeavored to know every member. He did not enter into any man’s harvest but rather labored to prepare a rich harvest into which others entered. He allowed himself no idle hours; he had the knack for knowing what to do in cases of emergency. Even when his health was in danger, he worked with a consecration and persistence. It was said that he showed his friendliness to the king of Bida by presenting him with plates and explaining their use to keep flies away from the food. He thought that by this kind gesture he could win over the king to Christianity. The latter however rebuffed the kindness.

Bishop Crowther faced other difficulties. He had to cover a large area on foot and the conditions of most of the roads were bad. Transport was irregular on the river and he faced hostility from both the local natives and from the commercial companies. There was no adequate supervision in the upper Niger. The bishop’s last years in the episcopate winessed serious commercial struggles between the European companies, the Africa coastal tribes and the Sierra Leonian merchants. The African ministers inevitably took sides with their Brass and Bonny neighbors while the European missionaries supported their English compatriots in business. In other parts of Yorubaland - Egba, Ibadan and Ijesha - certain returning emigrants were trained priests and they became assets to the missionaries in their respective area. This was however not the case in the Niger area. Bishop Crowther was also confronted with problems. Except for two or three Ibos and one Ibadan minister who had to study the language, he did the translation himself. It was not easy for him to move his ministers. Bishop Crowther was not perfectly free. He had to take directives from the C.M.S. since he was paid by them. He had no independent revenue of his own. This was another reason why commercial interests tended to weaken Bishop Crowther’s support from London.

By 1890, work on the Upper Niger was feeble and at the pioneer stage. In the Delta, work was flourishing and there was a cathedral at Bonny. The immigrants formed the nucleus of the congregation at Onitsha, Lokoja and Egba. Between 1880 and 1890 antagonism grew between the European and African traders and the European and African clergy, especially as there were reports of low morale among the African clergy.

Workers connected with the beginning and progress of the church in Delta area were Bishop Crowther, Dandeson Coates Crowther (his son), James Boyle, John D. Garrick and Walter E. Carew. They worked together to build the Delta Church on the pattern existing in Lagos. They promoted native pastorate to minimize outside influence that tended to control the Delta Church affairs. Bishop Crowther regarded this as the “pulling down” necessary for “building.”[26] Bishop Crowther appeared to have lost confidence in further engagements with the C.M.S. missionaries. This prompted him to draw up on May 8, 1891, the Niger Delta pastorate scheme, which was inaugurated in January 1892. He informed the C.M.S. that Lagos and Sierra Leone were prepared to offer financial assistance to the Delta District to be self-supporting. He desired the Delta District to be made a native pastorate and to be financed through native agency. The Sierra Leone Committee and Lagos rose to the task and raised money to sustain the Delta pastorate.

His Education Strategies

The main weapon of Bishop Crowther’s evangelization was school. He regarded education as a means of enlightening the future generations especially where the texts used to educate were from the Holy Scriptures. All virtues could be inculcated and vices condemned. Through education, the superstition of idolatrous worship would be exposed.[27] He was sad to note that the persecution of 1872, in Brass, drastically reduced the number of school children from 31 to 16 and this he knew could undermine the potential support for the mission. He made Bonny school a model for neighboring states. Bishop Crowther pioneered the self-supporting local school system by introducing fees. He contributed to Macaulay’s effort to start the Lagos Grammar School. He was also very interested in the development of the Freetown Grammar School and the Fourah Bay College. When he realized that the local resources could not meet the needs for promoting education, he eagerly explored foreign aid where possible.

He combined literary education with industry and personally demonstrated this. He was a good carpenter and an educationalist. Thus, he sought to educate his people to be carpenters, mechanics, masons, artisans, etc. He encouraged local initiatives to recruit men as his staffmembers. He selected men of proven ability who had the respect of the local people. Bishop Crowther knew that salaries of thirty-six pounds and sixty-two pounds per annum for an evangelist and an ordained missionary respectively were inadequate to maintain families of five to seven members and that usually Church workers took keen interest in educating their children.

The wives of the clergy in many cases, had to supplement their husband’s income by trading. He considered liberal education for mission workers and their need to work under older and more experienced persons to acquire an understanding of the evil of the human heart and to learn how to deal with it when necessary.[28] Bishop Crowther demonstrated this by keeping his youngest child Dandeson with him for four or five years after the son’s secondary education at the Lagos Grammar School. Dandeson served as private secretary and copyist to his father as well as an understudy to him. Bishop Crowther dedicated his son Dandeson to missionary work. He preached the sermon and personally ordained Dandeson in 1870 in St. Mary’s Church, Islington, London. Dandeson was superintendent and later the archdeacon of the Delta and Lower Niger stations. He was himself a graduate of Fourah Bay College.

His Reforms

Bishop Crowther upheld the sanctity of Christianity and maintained that it had come to supersede and abolish all false religions and to direct mankind to the only way of obtaining peace and harmony with God. He did not want Christianity to destroy national assimilation but hoped it would correct any degrading and superstitious defects. Christians should approach political issues with caution, wisdom and meekness to generate mutual understanding between themselves and the powers that be. Christians should further fulfill their religious duty of rendering to God the things that are God’s.

The bishop refused to baptize polygamists. His son Dandeson declared the practice to be “slavery for wives.”[29] This opposition seemed not to have had any impact on the converts because Dandeson complained of prevailing sin of polygamy at Nembe (Brass) where the majority of the baptized chiefs had fallen into the sin.[30]

The bishop of Sierra Leone had to issue a license to Bishop Crowther when on an occasion, the Parent Committee enjoined him to visit Abeokuta. In January 1871, while Townsend was refused a visit to Abeokuta, because of the division caused by the struggle for chieftaincy title between Ademola and Oyekan, Bishop Crowther was however warmly welcomed by the two parties. He held a communion service for one hundred and sixteen people and later visited places. This journey proved that Crowther’s episcopate was accepted everywhere.

In the midst of his travels, Bishop Crowther did not allow his literary work to suffer. He once suffered a great loss when he returned to Lagos from the Niger and his house was destroyed by fire. He wrote to Venn to express his sorrow and regret at the loss of the manuscripts which contained nearly all the remaining books of the Pentateuch.[31] His collections of words and proverbs in Yoruba, the result of eleven years of constant observation were completely destroyed. This tragic loss consequently delayed the publication of his revised dictionary till 1870.

His Family

Crowther took care of his family by paying serious attention to their education. All of his six children were educated in England. Two of his daughters married clergymen and the third married a trader. His youngest son, Dandeson was later made the archdeacon of the Delta. The eldest son, Samuel was given scientific and medical training but he later took up trading. Josiah received industrial training in Manchester and later settled down as a business man.[32] These members of the bishop’s family and the immigrants with missionary training in Sierra Leone rallied together to resist the campaign mounted by Townsend who claimed that Africans were incapable of running their own affairs.

The Bishop’s Last Years

In a letter in 1867, the bishop claimed that he and his children contributed to the promotion of the interests of the West African Company Limited in their bid to develop trading on the Niger. He did not immediately realize what dire consequences such could have on missionary activities. Some unhealthy rivalry soon developed between traders and missionaries. Though Venn had earlier on expressed fear about losses nearing bankruptcy incurred in 1867, things changed later and by 1870 profits were recorded to the extent that Bishop Crowther suggested constituting the Onitsha Industrial Institute into a mission establishment.

The closing years of the bishop’s long career were beset with difficulties and suffering. He started growing weary towards the end though he was still full of selfless zeal. The mission under his episcopal care was very extensive with numerous stations all over the Niger area. He, like the great Apostle Paul, was saddled with the mission to the Gentiles and the fulfillment of this task exposed his life to innumerable risks. He suffered biting cold in stark nakedness and was constantly in peril among his country men.[32b]

One of the most painful events of his life was the death of Mrs. Crowther on October 19, 1880. The couple had suffered slavery together and shared the joy of freedom. They had just celebrated the golden jubilee of their wedding when she became ill, at a time the bishop was away on one of the long journeys to the Upper Niger. He returned only to find his devoted wife seriously ill. She later died in his arms.[33]

The bishop soon suffered another blow in the death of his mother. She died in October 1883 at the age of ninety-seven years. He was traveling up the Niger when she passed away. On her death bed, she warned her granddaughter, Mrs. Macaulay not to write to bother the bishop. This was in keeping with what she had earlier told her son, “You are no longer my son, but the servant of God whose work you must attend unto without any anxiety for me.”[34]

Finally, the death of Rev. Schon in 1889 was a personal blow to Bishop Crowther. It was Schon who had recommended that he pursue missionary work and was instrumental to his accepting consecration.

Other problems that perplexed the mind of the bishop towards the end of his life include the trafficking in liquor and the inordinate love for trade that caused unhealthy rivalry between the native African traders and Europeans. At this time Europeans were making claims and securing territorial possessions in Africa. The Niger and Benue were coveted waterways. Between 1877 and 1891, Nigeria became three separate British protectorates - Lagos, Oil Rivers and Territories of the Royal Niger Company. Inevitably, the change seriously affected the church and allowed Europeans to lord it over Africans. Different denominations began to grow. Missionaries who had been stationed on the coast moved into the interior. The Rev. James Johnson, a former lecturer at Fourah Bay College and who had been appointed to Abeokuta as a probable bishop, was recalled when this rivalry became tense. The clouds started to gather.

The decade beginning with 1880, was transitional and full of conflict and bitter discrimination. The mission-educated Africans, particularly those working on the Niger were discredited by European missionaries. The rumors of wrongdoing within the mission went into circulation and soon reached the ears of the committee in Salisbury Square. The committee comprising the bishop, three European missionaries, two native archdeacons and others, agreed to meet in Lagos and discuss the situation. The Rev. J. B. Wood was, however, said to have unilaterally gone to make an investigation. He claimed to have discovered that the level of Christianity of the agents was meager and that the wives of the clergy were mostly illiterate and were more interested in trade than their husband’s missionary work. Wood proferred charges of immorality against four ordained native missionaries; charged two with trading, and one with dishonesty. A lay agent was charged with brutally flogging a housemaid to death, others with immoral union with wives before actually contracting marriages; drunkenness or even general unfitness. Wood made his investigation and forwarded his recommendations to Hutchinson without making his findings known to the bishop, nor even calling on the accused to defend themselves. Hutchinson printed and circulated copies to members of the Parent Committee and Bishop Crowther.

Bishop Crowther, in his reply, accused Wood of attempting to break the mission on the Niger. As a matter of fact, Wood had mishandled the inquiry but the report had created some impression in the minds of the committee members. There were conflicting opinions about the mission of the Niger which was generally seen as a failure by some and a reflection of the inability of the natives to manage their own affairs. Others however sympathized with Bishop Crowther and his missionaries for not having been given a fair hearing. The Parent Committee appointed a deputation to ask Wood to substantiate his allegations. Wood was however unable to attend the conference that met at Madeira.

Bishop Crowther rejected the Wood’s report, but confirmed the case of the brutal treatment meted out to the housemaid and proved that other cases were hearsay, and tendentious. He pointed out the cases of two schoolmasters, Thomas and Joseph at Lokoja and Kippo Hill: he had compelled them to marry the girls they had put in the family way. The Madeira conference, however, emphasized the need for reforms on the Niger. Mr. and Mrs. John and Mr. Williams, who were found guilty of the death of the housemaid, were sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment each, by a secular court.

Bishop Crowther insisted on investigating the charges properly and proving them before disciplinary action could be taken. The committee, however, saw no need to prove the charges before declaring an accused unfit for the high and holy calling of a missionary. Many people, particularly the missionaries, saw the bishop as identifying himself with his agents even in their summary trial. One Rev. W. Romaine, in 1876, was reported to have recorded only one baptism throughout the year in Onitsha, and was consequently accused of drunkenness. A charge of adultery was difficult to establish against him and he was suspended for three months on the charge of drunkenness, which Crowther claimed was glaring as he had actually been seen in a scandalous state, under the influence of alcohol. He reinstated and transferred the accused to another station at the end of the three months. This, the bishop thought, was enough punishment to the wife and children of the accused who would suffer untold hardships if he were to face too long a suspension or total dismissal. He was said to have told the Parent Committee on his last visit to England in December 1889 that “a newly-made fire was bound to be smoky, the cook would do more good if he took a fan to blow it than to begin to search and pullout every stick that smoked. We are all weak and imperfect agents, faulty in one way or another, which need to strengthened, supported, reproved and corrected when not beyond amendment.”[35]

Different remarks have been made on Bishop Crowther’s role with reference to this episode. Ascroft saw him as being too soft a disciplinarian. But the Rev. J .A. Robinson, a Cambridge scholar appointed joint secretary of the Yoruba and Niger Missions in 1887, discovered a collective fault in the bishop. He saw him as the symbol of the Negro race who lacked every sign of ruling prowess. He impetuously and uncharitably darkened the last years of the bishop’s ministry with damaging reports. Robinson came in company of others like Graham Wilmot Brooke, a twenty-five year old freelance lay missionary. They arrived at Lokoja in 1889 and saw the building of the Preparandial Institution which was completed in 1887. They described it as the grandest building in West Africa and an obstacle to the progress of Christianity.[36] They thought the cost of the building would occupy the attention of the natives who regarded the white as wealthy, and able to expend money on trifles. They later sold the building to the Royal Niger Company. Robinson reported that if Bishop Crowther and Archdeacon Henry Johnson resigned, the Europeans would do the mission work better and more cheaply. Robinson further emphasized in his report to the committee that if Bishop Crowther, used to running the native mission, was offered the option of a good pension rather than losing his dignity and thereby avoiding his conflict with the authority of the committee, Bishop Crowther would agree.[37] Crowther was always prepared to labor as a pioneer, opening new ground for the mission and allowing his superiors and better managers to man the established stations, he noted.

For the last time, the bishop was invited to England little knowing what the outcome of the interview would be. The Rev. F. N. Eden was sent to succeed Robinson, who resigned in protest against the Parent Committee’s [38] compromise with the bishop. Robinson left for Lokoja to join the Sudan Party in January 1890. Eden left in February and Brooke in May. They convened the finance committee which examined the African pastors against whom different charges had been proferred. Eden overruled the bishop as the chairman and pronounced the pastors suspended. These two white clergy men and one white layman suspended three African clergymen in the presence of the African bishop who had ordained them. It was enough defiance! Archdeacon Dandeson Crowther was found guilty by the finance committee of making inconsistent statements to defend the accused. He was declared unworthy of his holy office and summarily suspended. Bishop Crowther got up trembling to dissociate himself from the decision of the finance committee on the grounds that the secretary claimed that he had powers as the C.M.S. representative to suspend any resolution of the committee.[39]

Archdeacon Dandeson Crowther declared also that due to the mishandling of things by the Europeans, he could no longer cooperate with the C.M.S. and he demonstrated this by declaring his archdeaconry of the Niger Delta pastorate independent of the C.M.S. within the Anglican communion. However, in the midst of all the clamor and criticisms of Crowther’s episcopal administration, the committee tried to keep his name stainless and his personality blameless, but the bubble had already burst. Even if the committee had told his Lordship that he had been exonerated of all charges, the implication was indelible that the shepherd had faltered and the sheep wandered or erred. The bishop seemed to be assured by these circumstances that by the estimation and in the eyes of the colonial masters who made him what he was, he might soon be outliving his usefulness. The native converts too were fast nearing the conclusion expressed by the late Henry Venn “that in the course of time the churches in the Niger Mission shall become self-supporting, as those in the colonies are.[40]

These hardships seemed to have caused the bishop’s indisposition from which he did not really recover thereafter. At last he broke down. He was said to have recorded his last attendance at the house of God on Christmas morning in 1891 when he went to Christ Church, Lagos. He suffered from a disease that affected his right hand and right foot. He however breathed his last on December 31, 1891 at a quarter to one in the morning, he was about 89 years of age.

His Characteristics Summed Up

Though the bishop died at a very ripe age, some memories of what happened in his later life cannot but linger with us. The storms and trials that cropped up in his ministry towards the end did not make him waiver or forsake his ideal. He consistently and persistently upheld the value of native agency. They must have given him painful experiences. Robinson and Brook who caused the bishop so much embarrassment were members of the student volunteer movement. They had been saturated with the idea of evangelizing the world during their generation. They showed ability and devotion and out of emotion, they were prepared to die as martyrs. They condemned the rank and file of African Christians from Sierra Leone to Nigeria.

As Professor E. A. Ayandele puts it, to these young evangelists, the people of Sierra Leone were “swarms of ragamuffins” and their mission was a “charnel house” while they termed the “converts in Lokoja adulterers and harlots” who deserved nothing short of dismissal from the church membership.[41] Their purpose was to change every pattern of Christian life already laid down in Nigeria including the message preached. They had no regard for natives’ cultural background. They insultingly called the bishop a liar and termed his mission that of the devil because it was built from the money collected from merchants who dealt in liquor trade. The venerable Dandeson Crowther and Rev. Charles Paul who had put in thirty-five years service to the mission were suspended by F. N. Eden who actually had no ecclesiastical right to do so. Robinson himself saw the deliberate ordeal to which he subjected the bishop, (using the committee) as a “cruel though inevitable wrong.”[42] To them the bishop was the dregs of his tribe, who though he had no stain on his character, had no ability to govern and lacked the qualifications of a bishop. They claimed that those who made him bishop (Henry Venn and others) allowed zeal to out-run discretion and sentiment to have greater weight than sober facts and reflection. Although protests were soon forwarded by the African nationalists led by J. Johnson to Salibury Square declaring that it was not only Bishop Crowther but the whole of Africa that was on trial and the Negro race was insulted, the repartee of Robinson and others had done too much to damage Brass, Bonny, Lagos and Sierra Leone.

In actual fact, Bishop Crowther did not condone the delinquent behavior of his agents. He saw that in the attempt to uproot the tares, care must be taken so as not to harm the wheat. He knew that “the life of a Christian in this world is a life of constant warfare and watchfulness lest Satan take an advantage over us.” Townsend’s charge of his being too “native” cannot be supported by his actions as a missionary. For instance, we have Professor Ayandele’s observation that Crowther made a sentimental pronouncement on polygamy and thus misled the Lambeth conference of 1888 on the real position of polygamy in Africa.[43] Bishop Crowther saw polygamy as a form of slavery for women. In fact, he seemed to be too English on certain issues. He was always wearing English clothing and preferred teaching in English to using the local language. The reason for this might be his long stay in foreign land where he was schooled in foreign culture. He was an experimental bishop with a delicate role to play. Professor Ayandele has rightly explained that he would have shown the Negro race in bad light if he had used his position to encourage anti-white feelings, especially at a time when European help could not be discarded. If he had demonstrated earlier that he was not in harmony with Europeans who made him bishop, he might have been regarded as a rebel and the hope of African emancipation might have been dashed.

Professor Ayandele, however, identified one of the bishop’s major faults which was his non-residence in his diocese. He casually visited his diocese from Lagos and this was at the mercy of the traders who owned the steamers he used. In a way, it could be observed that his agents were mostly left to their own devices. His two lieutenants were Archdeacons Henry Johnson and Dandeson Crowther who ably shared the territory for administrative convenience in 1879.[44]

The bishop was a symbol of many responsibilities. The C.M.S. depended upon him for the evangelization of Africa. The natives relied on him for leadership and looked up to him for carrying civilization to the interior. The commercial companies relied on him for bringing Western goods to African households. Furthermore, Bishop Crowther was symbol of African scholarship and Christian faith. In the midst of all this, he battled resolutely with the internal traditional problems ranging from civil wars to idol worship and human sacrifices. If this man was seen as a failure, what hope of success was there then for the vast majority? S. Stock’s comment on Bishop Crowther would be a most appropriate concluding summary here.

Bishop Ajayi Crowther’s career was unique: kidnapped a slave in 1821, rescued a slave in 1822, a mission school boy in 1823, a baptized Christian in 1825, ordained in 1843, a first negro bishop in 1864, where is the parallel to such a life? He lived in an atmosphere of suspicion and scandal, yet no tongue, however malicious, ventured to whisper reproach against his personal character. Some might criticize his administration, no one ever questioned his sincerity and simplicity.[45]

M. O. Owodayo


  1. Some people have suggested this could be about 12,000.

  2. C.M.S. (Y) 4/3 10 Itan Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1925).

  3. S. A. Crowther, Bulletin issue, manuscript letter in Cape Town Diocesan Archives.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid.

  7. C.M.S. (Y) 4/3, 10 Omode Erukunrin ti odi Bishop (1925), p. 27.

  8. Ibid., p. 28.

  9. J. F. A. Ajayi, Christian Mission in Nigeria (Longman), p. 128

  10. Dike K. Onwuka, “Origins of the Niger Mission 1841-1891,” (A paper read at the Centenary of Mission at Christ Church, Onitsha, November 13, 1957).

  11. Jesse Page, The Black Bishop (S. A. Crowther), p. 185.

  12. Ibid., p. 186.

  13. Ajayi, op. cit., p. 181.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ajayi, op. cit., p. 187

  16. J. R. Milstone, Samuel Ajayi Crowther (Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 43.

  17. Page, op. cit. p. 187.

  18. Ibid., p. 189.

  19. Ajayi, op. cit. p. 195.

  20. Ibid., p. 194.

  21. Page, op. cit. p. 213.

  22. Page, op. cit., p. 213.

  23. Ibid., p. 215.

  24. Page, op. cit., p. 221.

  25. Ibid., p. 226.

  26. James Bertin Webster, The African Churches among the Yoruba (1888-1922), p. 21.

  27. Ajayi, op. cit., p. 219.

  28. Ibid., p. 233.

  29. Ibid., p. 225.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Ibid., p. 128.

  32. Ibid., p. 128.

  33. (32b) I Cor. 9:1-23, II Cor. 11:22-28.

  34. Page, op. cit., p. 349.

  35. Ibid., p. 350.

  36. Ajayi, op. cit., p. 250.

  37. Ibid., p. 251.

  38. Ibid., p. 252.

  39. The Parent Committee had set up this committee comprising the bishop, Archdeacon Crowther; one other African pastor; and 3 Europeans, to rule the lower Niger under Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther.

  40. Ajayi, op. cit., p. 253.

  41. Page, op. cit., p. 371.

  42. E. A. Ayandele, Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria (1966), p. 214.

  43. Ibid., p. 216.

  44. Ibid., p. 206.

  45. Ibid., p. 207.

  46. Ibid., p. 212.

This article was researched and written by Very Reverend Dr. Matthew Oluremi Owadayo as part of the book Makers of the Church in Nigeria (pages 29-53) edited by J. A. Omoyajowo (Lagos, Nigeria: CSS Bookshops Ltd., 1995). The author was dean of Immanuel College of Theology, Ibadan in 1990 when he wrote this article.