Classic DACB Collection

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

Wilhelm, Andrew

Anglican Communion (Church Missionary Society)

An Egba recaptive in the vanguard of the homeward migration of his Christian compatriots from Sierra Leone to Abeokuta in 1843, Andrew Wilhelm was born around 1802 in Kesi in pre-war Egbaland. [1] He was captured during the slave raiding war waged against the Egba people at the early stage of the confusion that troubled the Yoruba country in the nineteenth century. He and other victims of the war were on their way to the plantations of the new world as slaves when the British patrol squadron intercepted their ship and rescued them. Wilhelm thus became one of the early Egba arrivals in Sierra Leone, where, under the benevolence of the British government, they began life anew.

The antislavery crusade of the British government was in full force when Sir Charles McCarthy was appointed governor of Sierra Leone. He found that as his predecessors had made no plan for settling the recaptives, Freetown had become congested with these displaced people. He therefore designed a plan to organize them into Christian villages under the supervision of missionaries. To this end, his government bought part of the Sierra Leone peninsular from Temne chiefs. In 1819, after the Napoleonic wars, the headquarters and five companies of the British West India Regiment in Freetown, made up of Africans, were disbanded. The development made it necessary to create a settlement for the soldiers, hence the colonial administration’s need to acquire more lands from indigenous chiefs.

According to the treaty made with Koya Temne for an annual fee, the remaining southern three quarters of the peninsula became the possession of the colonial administration. Some of the villages acquired were renamed and used to settle the soldiers and, subsequently, the recaptives. One of the old Temne villages tucked among the hills, Robump, was renamed Hastings after the British Commander-in-Chief in India. [2] In 1822, three years after the colonial acquisition of this village, Andrew Wilhelm arrived in the colony and eventually settled there. [3] As it turned out, many of the future evangelists to Yorubaland were raised in this village through the activities of Church Missionary Society (CMS). Andrew Wilhelm was one of them.

Early Years in Hastings

Not much is known about Andrew Wilhelm’s early years in the colony, either in terms of conversion to Christianity or family life. But missionary journals offer glimpses into the society in which this young Egba man was rebuilding his life. Since they were at the center of life in the new villages that Sir Charles conceived as parishes of their societies, their records make it possible to retrieve aspects of the religious and social life among the recaptives.

Although Christianity was part of the governor’s civilizing mission, things did not work out as well as was intended. First, there were not enough missionaries to serve in the colony. This was indeed the major issue. Second, with the untimely death of the governor in the Ashanti campaign of 1824, he was succeeded by a series of governors whose commitment to his vision for the liberated population varied from lukewarm commitment to indifference. Moreover, the opposition of the West India interest in British parliament to the running of the colony weakened the government’s commitment to its welfare.

The first agent of the CMS stationed at Hastings was James Lisk who served as the first schoolmaster for about a year in 1820. [4] Andrew Wilhelm arrived in Hastings when there was no schoolmaster to run the school, as Mr. Lisk had left before his arrival in the village. Moreover, there was no recognized minister to lead church services there. Worse still, the people did not receive much attention from the Liberated African Department, although the village had a significant population. This state of affairs lasted six years after Lisk left Hastings. The village witnessed a little improvement from 1827 to 1831 when the mission had an intermittent presence there through its schoolmasters who doubled as religious ministers but whose lengths of service were often short. [5]

This is not to imply that there was no expression of Christian worship in Hastings before the CMS mission began to regularly assign ministers there. West Indian Methodism, brought to the colony in the waves of migration from the new world, was present with its spontaneous and loud worship. It provided the atmosphere of worship for the early converts to Christianity from among the liberated Africans in the village. It is not clear if Andrew Wilhelm ever participated in this movement. However, with the increasing availability of CMS missionaries to serve the village from 1827, the Methodist church came under the criticism of the missionaries for their rowdy worship and internal rivalry for leadership and authority.

By 1830 attendance at the worship being organized by the agents of CMS was considered poor by John Gerber, the resident minister. His view was informed by the fact that the number of people at worship, four hundred, was less than 25% of the total population. The church facilities too were in a poor state. When in March 1830 the acting governor, Captain Fraser, stopped at the minister’s residence, he expressed pity at his “miserable dwelling” that was “unfit for a pig-stable.” He immediately gave order that the government house be completed and made comfortable for the minister and his family to move into. [6] Nothing resulted from the instruction.

The apparent neglect of Hastings by the mission and the government was put to advantage by the people who were largely of the “Aku” nation, that is Yoruba people. It allowed the many divinities of their country to flourish in their land of freedom. Their outward zeal towards the church concealed the pervasive presence of these traditional divinities, and it was not until a minister took residence among them that their allegiance to them became known. John Gerber wrote, “The longer I am a resident in this Colony the more I come to know the people among whom I labour, the result of which teaches me to place but little confidence on outward appearance.” [7] The result was that he suspended eight communicants in the second quarter of 1830, a decision that appears incongruous with the missionary object of seeing more people admitted into church life. [8]

The problem of “lords many, gods many” which dogged Hastings, its problem of poor facilities, and its harsh climate, all became sources of discouragement to the minister in the months that followed, making him desire a better place of service if he could justify it. Being unable to do so, he felt there was little use for his service. [9] Nevertheless, it was not all bad as the minister himself could see. There were rays of hope that transformation could still be effected among the people. But having observed inconsistencies among his flock, Mr. Gerber decided to exercise more restraint in baptizing his candidates. The result was that by the last quarter of 1830, he had as many as seventy-five people who had been on trial for a year and above waiting for baptism. The number increased and instructing them became difficult.

John Gerber left Hastings after serving there for a year, but the tension between religious syncretism and authentic conversion experience to Christianity among the inhabitants would be a perennial problem other ministers would have to grapple with. The list of these ministers includes John Weeks, Fredrick Schön, and John Ulrich Graf. John Weeks discoveries were as disappointing as they were sensational.

In the first quarter of 1831 the day school had ninety pupils on roll and average attendance stood at seventy-four; about fifty-seven of these were pupils in the alphabet class, less than four years in age. [10] Eighteen new pupils were enrolled in the third quarter; two among them were ten years old who could not pronounce a letter. [11] The missionary reported that there were many such colony born children in Hastings, boys and girls from seven to ten years in age, who had never been to school. [12] In a village of about 2,000 people, the missionary reported that he met only eight or nine adults who were able to read. [13] He hoped that parents would increasingly value instruction for their children and enrol them in the day school. [14] The situation could not have been different, as Mr. Weeks observed, “No European schoolmaster or schoolmistress having been here, except for a few months, since Hastings was established.” [15] This lack of facility for consistent education seems to have reinforced Andrew Wilhelm’s low literacy status.

On the religious front, Mr. Weeks was satisfied with the perceived consistency in the conducts of the members, but he lamented that many “are very ignorant of the first principles of our religion.” [16] Like his predecessor, his stay in Hastings came to an end after a year residence; but more that James Gerber, he came to a first hand knowledge of the pervasiveness of Yoruba religions in the village. The divinities have ably, as it were, served the spiritual needs of the people where mission had not been forthcoming with personnel to meet the spiritual need of the people. The governor set the stage for the revelation when in August 1831 he issued a circular forbidding anyone in the colony from sacrificing to idols. The constable of the village thereafter arrested six persons for flouting the order and brought them to Mr. Weeks as the “Justice of the Peace.” They had killed several fowls and offered them to “Headon,” a Yoruba divinity said to be in charge of the prosperity, preservation, and comfort of twin children and their parents. [17]

While the missionary was still expressing “sorrow and pity for these…people,” the constable told him “there were plenty Greegrees in Hastings.” He immediately ordered that all the idols to which people sacrificed be brought to him. He had more than enough as four baskets full of these religious icons were deposited in his premises by evening. His call for the persons from whom they had been confiscated yielded, the following morning, an attendance of about 150 persons who flocked his courtyard; “they were all of the Aku nation.” He gave them a long lecture on how they were indebted to the English government for their freedom and privileges in the colony and therefore had the obligation to “conform themselves to the English laws, and to the laws of the great God…” He thereafter explained to them the governor’s circular with regard to the matter. They were pardoned for claiming ignorance of it, and they promised not to indulge in sacrificing to idols again.

But before he allowed them to depart Weeks made enquiries about the divinities and, in the process, took from the people some lectures on the functions of some of the cults. Fagboo (Fagbure?), one of their priests, educated him on Shango, the god of thunder; Elegbara, the trickster who aids in concealing mischief; and Oshun, a river goddess. They were all meant to prosper and protect from evil those who consulted them. Over the years the various cults functioned in the village at the grassroots level and their priests were careful to maintain their invincibility to the government until the constable exposed them. Mr. Weeks’ closing sermon, in which he castigated their gods and read to them Psalm 115, ended with their promise to attend his church. [18] It did not solve any problem as later developments showed that the gods were only driven underground. [19] Weeks left Hastings at the end of the year and for the next four years the village was left without a resident missionary. These years of religious flux and uncertainty provided the background from which Andrew Wilhelm’s own religious formation emerged.

A positive change came for the colony when CMS began to recruit missionaries from Basel Seminary to serve in its field. This brought Mr. Schön to Hastings in 1835. In 1836 he was succeeded by Mr. Graf who made Hastings into the nursery for indigenous mission agency in CMS West Africa. Graf was a very strict missionary who was interested in everything about his parishioners at St. Thomas Church, Hastings. His demanding influence for discipline in the village was intimidating for both Christians and non-Christians alike. It was during his service that Andrew Wilhelm emerged as the foremost lay leader in the church.

A Christian Visitor

In his nearly four years of residence in Hastings, Graf had fought against the practice of African religions, which remained officially banned although the government was not policing the situation. The missionary was particularly disturbed that the ancestral faiths of these people were a constant source of temptation for them during moments of anxiety. He therefore endeavored to enforce the law against the practice of African religions in the colony. But he knew that it was not enough to wage war against the gods by removing them from the public eye. The war must still be waged in a more constructive and creative way. This led to his innovation.

In January 1839, Graf introduced change into his management of the church at Hastings. The population was increasing, and it was clear that two Europeans could not effectively manage the situation. To make “the labours of Europeans more extended and at the same time more energetic in this populous place,” he appointed from among his most consistent church members thirteen men and four women as district visitors. [20] Andrew Wilhelm was the first to be selected, because he had been performing this task before others were formally appointed to join him. Graf assigned him and others to separate districts of the parish “for the purpose of inducing their respective inhabitants, by frequent visits and by such means as they may find best suited to their country-men, to avail themselves of the public means of grace.” [21]

Beyond the vastness of the population, which justified his innovation, it would seem Graf intuitively felt his limitations as a European seeking to communicate a new faith and value orientation to his African parishioners. Although he never showed any flagging disposition in his vehemence against the traditional religious systems and was not disposed to compromise with them, he knew there was still a safe and tolerable threshold he could not cross in spite of his goodwill. But those he had won over, who were familiar with the mindset of the unconverted, could not only cross it but also find beyond it resonance with the aspirations of their unconverted kinsmen and women. At this threshold his trusted converts must now be allowed as the critical mass to identify and employ, in his own words, “such means…best suited to their country-men.” [22]

It was the same need Mr. Schön, his predecessor, had seen two years earlier: that native agency was indispensable to the effectiveness of the society’s mission effort in Hastings. [23] Whereas Schön was thinking the need could be supplied through society agents–an unrealistic expectation in a mission that was struggling with personnel and finance–Graf tapped into the potentials of the congregation by employing his members to fill the need. Although he does not appear to have been aware of the deeper significance of this innovation at the time, by it he struck the ultimate chord that would amplify his missionary efforts, three years later, when his parishioners would begin the exodus that would take mission back to their homeland in the Yoruba country.

The Movement of the People

By the late 1830s, some of the liberated Yoruba settlers in Sierra Leone had prospered economically and had purchased auctioned slave ships to shuttle between Freetown and Badagry. The enterprise stimulated the homeward return of the people, especially those belonging to the Egba sub-group. With the apparent diminishing interest of the British government in the colony, the desire to return home grew in the 1840s. In Hastings in 1842, Andrew Wilhelm and his compatriots requested that the CMS committee in Sierra Leone provide them with missionaries to accompany them to Abeokuta. [24] The new Egba town had emerged in the aftermath of the destruction of their ancestral homes in the 1820s, while those rescued at sea were being rehabilitated in the first British colony in West Africa.

The committee appointed Mr. Townsend, assisted by Andrew Wilhelm, the first Christian visitor in the colony, to undertake an exploratory visit to “Badagry & its vicinity” to prospect for mission. [25] The appointment of Wilhelm to serve on this team shows that after Samuel Crowther, at the time teaching at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, he was the next well known Yoruba convert in Sierra Leone whose commitment to faith and church life had marked him out as a missionary success. As time would reveal, their vocation in the service of the mission became intertwined when they served together in the Yoruba mission from 1846. However, Crowther’s towering stature as the foremost Yoruba convert in the CMS West Africa overshadowed the strategic role of this seemingly less endowed but equally dedicated Egba man in the emergence and subsequent growth of the Yoruba mission.

Meanwhile, the exploratory team went as far as Abeokuta where they had a promising welcome from Sodẹkẹ, the leader of the new settlement. [26] They returned to Freetown on April 13, 1843, having been away for five months. Their eventual return to Hastings was a very exciting event for the village. The resident missionary, Graf, noted that inquisitive crowds flocked to the homes of the mission explorers and throughout the night of their arrival in the village, people were firing muskets and shouting for excitement. He added that “The news of our friends’ favourable reception at Understone [i.e. Abeokuta] flew speedily from village to village and filled everyone belonging to the Egba tribe of Akus with the fondest anticipations of a speedy return to their country!” [27]

While people had been returning home in trickles over the previous three years, following the return of Andrew Wilhelm’s exploratory team in April 1843, it assumed a popular dimension. Even before their return, on April 10, nine children formally pulled out of the school at Hastings as their parents were set to return to their country. In a ceremony full of emotions they were awarded certificates and testimonials for the continuation of their studies should mission eventually come to their country.

However, the mass exodus did not take place until after the rainy season when, in November, Graf organized a farewell service at St. Thomas Parish for those intending to return to Abeokuta. On the occasion, the missionary singled out two lay leaders in the church whose departure he felt deeply– “Andrew Wilhelm, the visitor, and William Goodwill, one of the pillars of my church.” [28] In a “plain, but affecting address,” they spoke to the congregation on behalf of those leaving. Graf also “proposed a collection for our parting friends to enable them to form at once on their arrival a Church Relief Company” to prevent their becoming too intricately connected with their non-Christian country people. [29]

Before the two helpers left the village, they made donations to the church. William Goodwill handed over the sum of 4/- to Graf as his contribution towards the next missionary meeting, although he had a large family for which he must pay for their passage. Andrew Wilhelm and his wife donated to the society, rather than sell, their house and the big land on which it sat. Graf did not fail to perceive their sense of sacrifice. [30]

As they departed, Graf reflected on his time of close association with these men, like Paul at Miletus speaking with feelings to the elders of the church at Ephesus. He noted in his journal that both deeply pious men had arrived in the colony in 1822. Of Goodwill, he wrote, “He had been from my first visit to Hastings in 1837 a steady, upright and consistent member of my church…and] had proved to me in Church matters a most welcome help…[and] besides his sincere, deep piety, I may simply add that to all with whom he had to do he proved faithful to the character implied in his name.” [31]

Andrew Wilhelm was in the last party that left Hastings on November 27, and Graf did not fail to acknowledge him as having “assisted me at this station for several years as a Christian visitor.” Of his piety, he qualified him as, “Devoted to God with his whole heart, active and zealous in the promotion of his glory, fearless and undaunted by the persecutions from his heathen country people, he was a man of great usefulness, altho’ of limited natural abilities.” [32] It is not surprising that Graf mentioned Wilhelm as having suffered persecution from his countrymen in Hastings. His loyalty to Graf’s aggressive Christian ethos could only have placed him on a collision course with his unconverted compatriots who were on the defensive because they continued to practice their traditional religion.

With their departure to the Yoruba country, some of the workforce Graf had trained would be extending his influence beyond the colony to another sphere he would be privileged to visit in another twelve years as the Archdeacon of Sierra Leone. [33] But for the time being, Andrew Wilhelm and his compatriots left the colony with their wives and children.

A Forerunner to Prepare the Way

When Andrew Wilhelm left Sierra Leone in 1843, the secretary of the CMS mission there, Mr. Warburton, gave him a letter to Sodẹkẹ. The letter accredited him as the official representative of the CMS mission sent to prepare the way for the missionaries who would be arriving in Abeokuta the following year. The secretary pleaded that Sodẹkẹ

help him in whatever he wants your assistance. If he wants a house to live in, and a school house in which to instruct the children and people; or if he needs your protection from bad men, the missionaries beg you to help him, and they will esteem this kindness as if it were done to themselves. [34]

When the three agents transferred from Sierra Leone mission- Henry Townsend, Samuel Crowther and Charles Gollmer-arrived in Badagry in January 1845, they could not proceed to Abeokuta immediately. Sodẹkẹ died barely a week after their arrival in Badagry. They had to wait there until another leader was elected by the chiefs. The wait lasted nearly eighteen months after which Andrew Wilhelm sent them two letters. In the first, he advised them to proceed to Abeokuta immediately; but the second one, written on the order of Sagbua, the newly elected chief, advised them to wait still. [35] They proceeded, nonetheless, and arrived in the town in the first week of August. [36]

The contradiction implied in the messages of the two letters Wilhelm sent to his superiors in Badagry was evidence of the internal struggle going on among the chiefs at Abeokuta following the death of Sodẹkẹ. The late chief ruled Abeokuta as a warrior without recourse to the traditional Ogboni set up of traditional Egba civil administration. Although he was reasonable and forward looking, his decisions were heeded as if they were decrees. But this he earned for his courage and force of character, attributes that were lacking in Sagbua, his successor.

Sodẹkẹ’s death provided some influential chiefs the opportunity to attempt a reversal of his pro-missionary policy. On the one hand were pro-slavery chiefs who saw missionaries as a threat to their economic interest. The notorious war chief and slave raider Apati, who later became a friend and defender of missionaries, and the head slave trader in the town Akingbogun were the leaders of this group. [37] On the other hand were the guardians of Egba religious traditions who also saw the coming of mission as a threat to their vocation. Oluwoye, the civil chief of Itoku was the foremost opponent of mission in this group, and his district excelled in persecuting Christian converts in 1849 and subsequently.

Townsend has his own explanation for Oluwoye’s mortal hatred for Christianity and the return of the recaptives from Sierra Leone. He wrote that:

He was…the shrewdest of the Abbeokuta chiefs, & I am told looked with suspicion on the return of the S. Leone people & of our coming here, foreseeing the downfall of their ancient superstitions thro’ it. Many of the persons said to have been destroyed by Oro they secretly sold away, whether from motives of humanity or covetousness I don’t know, but such is the fact, supposing it to be impossible ever to return from the Oyibo’s country. Thus the return of the S. Leone people endangers their most guarded secrets, & brings to light some of their priest-craft that cannot be known but to the imminent peril of the whole system. [38]

The threat represented by the Sierra Leone returnees like Andrew Wilhelm to these influential parties in Abeokuta placed them in a serious jeopardy but from which they were providentially spared. Soon after Wilhelm’s return to the town in 1843, in response to the mandate given him by the mission in Sierra Leone, he began to gather the converts into the first Christian chapel in the Yoruba country, under the watchful eyes of Sodẹkẹ. In the first report Townsend sent home while he was still waiting in Badagry for the invitation from Abeokuta in 1846, he acknowledged the regular attendance of the people at the chapel as “encouraging evidences of a disposition to embrace the truth.” [39] This chapel became the original nucleus of the Ake church when the congregation eventually began to meet there in 1846 as the prime station of the Yoruba mission.

When on Sunday, March 21, 1847, the church building, which also served as a school house was opened at Ake, Wilhelm and his fellow Sierra Leone returnees saw the event as a reality not anticipated five years before. It was like a dream unfolding before their eyes as Townsend wrote:

The Sierra Leone people consider the erection of a house for the worship of God to be a sure presage of abundant good to their native country, an event much to be desired but scarcely to be anticipated, “Who expected,” they say, “to see a church house in our own country five or six years since?” [40]

Nevertheless, mid-nineteenth century Abeokuta was not all bliss for the Christian returnees. A society that has emerged from the throes of violence could not have been an easy place to draw out faith commitment. It is especially so when the message being commended preached restraint where survival was a basic personal and communal need. The native agents were therefore running against the prevailing value of a traumatized society. But perceptive people could appreciate the enormity of the change they were trying to effect in the country as Andrew Wilhelm once received encouragement from an elderly man. He told him “to speak without ceasing the word of God, & to make his word sharp like arrows to pierce the hearts of the people, for, if it be so done, the time will come when all will agree in receiving the truth of God.” [41]

Egba society at Abeokuta was also ambivalent on the applicability of country laws to the returnees from Sierra Leone. There was an understanding between the mission and Egba authorities that these returnees were British subjects and that they were not to be subjected to country laws unless they were criminally culpable. In the outworking of this agreement, the missionaries expected that the privileges implied by this arrangement would also apply to local Christian converts who did not have the Sierra Leone experience. For the missionaries, conversion was a matter of conscience, and those who embraced the faith that brought much good to Egba people should be allowed the freedom to practice it unmolested. But the reality is often different.

In spite of this understanding, there was no lack of mischievous elements in Abeokuta who attempted to exploit the returnees when opportunity arose, especially if they were materially well-off. Andrew Wilhelm was to be their victim but the consul’s visit to Abeokuta in 1851 put an end to their schemes as Townsend opened up his case at a private session the consul had with the war chiefs.

Wilhelm had made efforts to wean his younger brother, a native without any Sierra Leone experience, from his waywardness. When Wilhelm did not succeed after several efforts, he gave up on him. Soon after, the man got involved in an adulterous relationship with a woman. The woman’s husband allowed the scoundrel to escape but held Andrew Wilhelm, his brother, liable for payment for the moral infraction. In presenting the case before the consul, Townsend argued that the demand was “contrary to common justice, & contrary to the agreement that Sodẹkẹ made with me, viz, that we should not be amenable to country laws.” [42] Townsend’s timely presentation proved to be the saving grace for the mission agent as the Balogun agreed with him and promised to ensure that the returnees were not subjected to such practices. [43] But the case reveals the social pressures Christians like Wilhelm had to face in a society where might was right and justice could not always be guaranteed.

The Yeoman

At the arrival of the missionaries in Abeokuta, Andrew Wilhelm took up several responsibilities that made their work easy. He combined Christian commitment with his cultural understanding of the Egba environment, and so was able to serve as a mediator between his missionary superiors and his compatriots. Townsend found Wilhelm particularly handy in facilitating communications with the chiefs whenever it was necessary to mediate between persecuted converts and their relations. [44] He was indeed everything to him: interpreter, message bearer to the chiefs, baptismal class teacher, pastoral visitor and counselor to church members, and substitute preacher whenever there was a shortage of personnel to lead any of the worship services at Ake or Itoku.

The most regular assignment Wilhelm carried out for Mr. Townsend in the missionary’s earlier years at Abeokuta was to interpret for him. He also regularly conducted pastoral visits and counseling for the flock under his care before the arrival of the missionaries, and he continued aspects of this after their arrival. Among the five candidates baptized on February 5, 1848–the first fruits of Yoruba mission–was Edward Bankole who joined the chapel Wilhelm organized before the missionaries arrived. [45] For several years, Wilhelm and his fellow returnees continued to assist Mr. Townsend in preparing candidates for baptism. [46] The missionary reported that “I have put on them the responsibility of recommending & instructing candidates for baptism & I feel satisfied with the result.” [47]

It was clear from the beginning that the school system was the main method by which the mission intended to establish its work in the country. However, after Sodẹkẹ died in January 1845 and conservative elements moved up in the administration of the town, it was no longer possible to count on Sodẹkẹ’s 1843 promise that he would give to the missionaries many children to teach when they began their work in Abeokuta. It was therefore an uphill task for Andrew Wilhelm to recruit children for enrolment at school. Not even Sagbua, in spite of his closeness to the missionaries, was willing to send his children to school. When Andrew Wilhelm approached him in 1847, he finally agreed to send one. But when his friend heard him promising that he would send a daughter to the school, he immediately reminded him that he had not many children and that those who survived infancy, three at the time, were the gifts of the gods, and so it was not proper for him to give any of them to the white people. Mr. Townsend noted that the caution “produced a total revolution in his mind & he refused to present her to attend.” [48]

Sagbua’s unfavorable example had a strong negative effect on other chiefs and leading men of the town, as well as on the ordinary folks. Townsend’s attempt to convince the chiefs by presenting one of the pupils before them to recite the catechism did not change things. [49] They saw everything from a religious perspective and were not yet sure what to make of book learning. It would seem also that, beyond the innocent recitation of the catechism, they saw the school as a system that made children renounce the local divinities. [50] The situation improved with the arrival of Mr. Philips, a schoolmaster from Sierra Leone sent to manage the school. Andrew Wilhelm assisted in the promotion that followed his arrival as he went round the town to encourage parents to send their children there. [51] His relentless campaign began to yield fruit five years later when parents gradually began to appreciate education for their children and the chiefs too began to turn towards agriculture rather than living by slave-raiding wars. [52]

Andrew Wilhelm also accompanied Townsend on some of his evangelistic outings in his early days in the town. [53] Still, during the early years when the mission had only Crowther and Townsend as resident missionaries, Wilhelm occasionally led worship on Sundays when one of the two senior missionaries was away from town. [54] One of such occasions required him to stand in for Mr. Crowther in 1847 at Itoku chapel, the second congregation in Abeokuta. The situation forced Townsend to preach his first Yoruba sermon in Abeokuta while it also made him to appreciate the additional advantage of the Sierra Leone experience for Yoruba mission agency. He noted that, “Preaching through interpreters here has not been attended with those disadvantages that have attended it in most infant missions, our interpreters having been instructed for years past in the Christian religion & well acquainted with the Bible; they are fellow workers with us in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [55]

Wilhelm’s contribution to early Yoruba mission was not limited to church life. As the missionaries were on the lookout for cash crops they could promote as an alternative to the slave trade, he too was on the alert for prospects. He informed Mr. Townsend about the availability of coffee trees in the Badagry wild. The missionary confirmed the find but he did not follow up on it to promote its cultivation. [56] However, when the Baptist missionary, Thomas Jefferson Bowen, began to promote the cultivation of tobacco, Wilhelm set up a model farm on the land adjoining the Ake church premises under his supervision. [57]

Wilhelm also contributed to some of the peace initiatives of the missionaries, sometimes accompanying them on their journeys. His cultural rootedness and understanding of the Egba mindset often proved helpful to the missionaries. [58] When in 1852 the British consul paid a visit to Abeokuta, Andrew Wilhelm served as his interpreter. “He found [him] to be of great service. All his intercourse with the chiefs of any importance was carried on thro’ him & after he had obtained an interpreter for himself he continued to give him his confidential work.” [59]

The decade of the 1860s was politically difficult for the Egba people. The Ijaye war trouble opened up a rift between them and Ibadan in 1860. Its complications undermined Anglo-Egba relationships, which hitherto had been mutually beneficial for the mission and Egba society. The mutual recriminations that developed between the two missions at Abeokuta and Ibadan affected Egba agents serving in and around Ọyọ, including Andrew Wilhelm’s son who had entered into the service of the mission in the 1850s as a schoolmaster at Ọyọ. It appears Andrew Wilhelm was already slowing down in his service during this period for reasons of age and the continuous arrival of fresh hands from Sierra Leone. The crisis between Egba authorities and the British colonial authorities in Lagos was also building up, but it would not flare up until Wilhelm’s death. In the first quarter of 1866, his health failed as he contracted fever that rendered him delirious. It appears he had a foreboding of his imminent end at the onset of this illness, for he began to complain to Mr. Townsend that he was the only one left among the first three returnees of 1842. [60] By the time Townsend left him at Abeokuta on February 28 for an assignment in Lagos, he had given up hope for his recovery. He died on March 3, 1866, happily well before the spontaneous destruction, in the 1867 house-breaking saga, of the properties of the churches he had so labored for. [61]

The Significance of Andrew Wilhelm

Wilhelm’s roles in church life, from Hastings to Abeokuta, clearly show him to be gifted with the spirit of help. John Graf’s testimony of his service at St. Thomas, Hastings, readily found confirmation in his contributions to the pioneering of the Yoruba mission at Abeokuta from 1843. His successful service with austere and demanding missionaries like John Graf and Henry Townsend and the esteem in which they held him show that he was a man of deep devotion. This may not be taken for character weakness in post-colonial Africa where people favored by missionaries are easily dubbed weaklings. For although he was not as gifted as some of his fellow returnees like Samuel Crowther and Thomas King who were better educated, his ability to stand for his faith and conviction alone and consistently among his unconverted brethren, at home and abroad, are proofs that he was not spineless.

The commitment of people like Andrew Wilhelm and William Goodwill was especially of great value in pioneering Christianity among their people. In the early years, in particular, Townsend could not but be thankful for these two agents who helped him to keep up with his weekly schedule of services at Ake, Ikija, and Itoku chapels. He noted with satisfaction in his journal that:

I am assisted in keeping these services by my native assistants A. Wilhelm & Wm. Goodwill, who interpret for me when I kept the services myself, or in my absence keep the services themselves, for which they are well qualified. God has greatly favored us in giving us such helpers. To bring forward our native helpers, & to make them chief instruments of communicating the truth to their country people, is, I think, a duty, for God has doubtless raised up them & many others in S. Leone for this purpose: to encourage & direct them seems to be the chief work of Europeans here. [62]

In effect, the people who actually tilled the hard ground of Yoruba country for mission were these quiet and largely unknown individuals, redeemed victims of the self-inflicted wars that plagued their country, whose identities were further obscured by their English names. To confirm his view of the situation, Townsend added that, “In conversation Mr. Philip, one of the schoolmasters just come from S. Leone, expressed great surprises at what he saw in this country far beyond, he said, what he could have thought of seeing.”

When Wilhelm’s former pastor in Hastings visited Abeokuta with Bishop Vidal in 1854, he noted in his report: “Andrew Wilhelm, altho’ possessing mighty influence with king & chiefs beyond any other native, yet still the same active, plodding, simple and humble man of God, seeming absolutely to care for nought beyond his Lord’s work and his nation’s good.” [63]

It may be safely concluded therefore that Wilhelm and his fellow Sierra Leone returnees were the critical connection between their Egba traditional society and the new world that was dawning on their people through the wars of attrition that troubled them and the advances in European discovery of the southern continents. Their significance lies in the role they played in the providential reversal of the woes that befell their people in the wholesale destruction of their ancestral homes in the 1820s. The atonement for this suffering of the Egba people began in the conversion of these victims and exiles in Sierra Leone. It proceeded in their homeward return with missionaries in the 1840s to share their experience of the new found faith with the remnants of their people at home who did not have the Sierra Leone experience. They, therefore, turned out to be the much needed critical mass of Christian converts through whom Yorubaland, not just the Egba people, would eventually be redeemed from its frenzied self-dissolution as mission took roots among the people. Andrew Wilhelm stands out in this redemptive history as the man who set up the first Christian chapel in the war-torn country in 1843. [64]

Kehinde Olabimtan


  1. It is difficult to establish the exact date of birth of the recaptives in Sierra Leone, since they all came from oral societies with time reckoning different from that of modern society. I have put Andrew Wilhelm’s year of birth around 1802 based on two criteria. One, according to Christopher Fyfe, “There was not much wholesale renaming of adults” among recaptives. Since the adoption of English names was the norm among young recaptives Andrew Wilhelm is likely to have arrived in the colony as a young man. Two, his profile as a man of modest learning may indicate that although he was a young man when he arrived in Sierra Leone, he was grown enough to find book learning tedious like many other adult recaptives who were not enthused with book-learning. Putting these two together, he might have arrived at the colony at about the age of twenty in 1822. Christopher Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone, (London: OUP, 1962), 170.

  2. Christopher Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone, 135, 136.

  3. This was about the time Samuel Crowther was also arriving in the colony. Wilhelm’s land asset at the time of his return with his Egba compatriots in 1843 seems to indicate that he arrived in Hastings early enough to acquire a sizeable land for his dwelling and, possibly, farming.

  4. Church Missionary Society (CMS) Archives, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, UK; Sierra Leone Call List C/A1/O138 identifies him as having been stationed there by this date.

  5. William Tamba, serving 1827-1828, and John Gerber, serving 1829-1830, were the only two agents of the CMS who spent more that a year in their assignments in Hastings between 1827 and 1831. Tamba was not a resident in the village as he was not assigned there exclusively; he attended to it along with John Pierce in 1827 and John Gerber in 1828. CMS Sierra Leone Call List C/A1/O174; W. Tamba, Report of Hastings for June 25, 1828, CMS C/A1/M5 (1828-1831)/8.

  6. J. Gerber, Report of Hastings for March 23, 1830, CMS C/A1/M5 (1828-1831)/302.

  7. J. Gerber, Report of Hastings for June 23, 1830, CMS C/A1/M5 (1828-1831)/356.

  8. Gerber wrote in his report, “It will appear strange that we have so much to do with excluding such who ought to be considered as having been brought from darkness to light; but it will be surprising to hear of the principal cause of it, which I have generally found to be the women’s not attending to the exhortation of St. Paul- I Cor. VIII, 5. Most of the disunion, quarrels, fighting, and adulteries among our people arise from that principal cause. Of this great evil most of the Missionaries coming out here are unacquainted with, and it is only by the confidence we gain among the people that we learn to detect that great evil which is one of the greatest hinderances [sic] among our Communicants… This evil is deep and generally rooted in the females of Western Africa.” J. Gerber, Report of Hastings for June 23, 1830, CMS C/A1/M5 (1828-1831)/357.

  9. J. Gerber, Report of Hastings to Christmas 1830, CMS C/A1/M5(1828-1831)/428.

  10. J. Weeks, Report of Hastings for the quarter ending March 25, 1831, CMS C/A1/O219/42.

  11. J. Weeks, Report of Hastings for the quarter ending December 25, 1831, CMS C/A1/O219/45.

  12. J. Weeks, Report of Hastings for the quarter ending June 25, 1831, CMS C/A1/O219/43.

  13. J. Weeks, Report of Hastings for the quarter ending June 25, 1831, CMS C/A1/O219/43.

  14. J. Weeks, Report of Hastings for the quarter ending December 25, 1831, CMS C/A1/O219/45.

  15. J. Weeks, Report of Hastings for the quarter ending June 25, 1831, CMS C/A1/O219/43.

  16. J. Weeks, Report of Hastings for the quarter ending June 25, 1831, CMS C/A1/O219/43.

  17. Edun is a species of primates indigenous to the forest of Yorubaland. Their agility and the fact that they were always born in twins may have commended them to the Yoruba people as Orisa Ibeji, tutelary deity of twins. Mr. Weeks described the image of Edun brought to him as “a rough figure made of wood tattuded all around the head, the hands are fastened to its side, its hight about 18 Inches [sic]”. J. Weeks, Report for the quarter ending September 25, 1831, CMS C/A1/O219/44.

  18. J. Weeks, Report for the quarter ending September 25, 1831, CMS C/A1/O219/44.

  19. The sometimes prodigious sacrifices and their economic implications in a colony struggling to generate funds for its survival might have been the reason behind the ban on sacrifices to “idols”. The desperate economic situation of the colony can be appreciated from the data requested in the censuses of 1828 and 1831, which included information on the livestock in possession of each household. The economic rationalization behind the ban on sacrifices could not have weighed with a people whose essence is founded on a religious understanding of life and reality. NAL CO267/111 and CO267/127.

  20. J. Graf, journal extracts for the quarter ending March 25, 1839, C/A1/O105/32a.

  21. J. Graf, journal extracts for the quarter ending March 25, 1839, C/A1/O105/32a.

  22. J. Graf, journal extracts for the quarter ending March 25, 1839, C/A1/O105/32a.

  23. J. Schön, journal extracts, CMS C/A1/O195/49b.

  24. “Aku members of the congregation at Hastings to the local committee,” October 1, 1842, CMS C/A1/M10 (1842-1843)/331.

  25. “Minutes of Special meeting,” October 4, 1842, CMS C/A1/M10(1842-1843)/331.

  26. Mr. Townsend’s journal of research to Badagry and Abbeokuta,” CMS C/A1/M10(1842-1843)/622.

  27. J. Graf, journal entry, April 18, 1843, CMS C/A1/O105/41a.

  28. J. Graf, journal entries, November 17 and 27, 1843, CMS C/A1/O/105/42.

  29. J. Graf, journal entry, November 13, 1843, CMS C/A1/O105/42a.

  30. Apart from those who took advantage of the homeward migration for mischief purposes, for example to elope with other men or women, it would seem some others, for one reason or another, left members of their families behind. William Goodwill left behind, but in the charge of Mr. & Mrs. Graf, his daughter Elizabeth who married in Hastings on April 21, 1851, “a respectable young man, a tailor and farmer by profession”. J. Graf, journal entries, November 17 and 27, 1843, CMS C/A1/O105/42; journal entry, April 21, 1851, CMS C/A1/O105/58a.

  31. J. Graf, journal entry, November 17, 1843, CMS C/A1/O105/42.

  32. J. Graf, journal entry, November 27, 1843, CMS C/A1/O105/42.

  33. J. Graf, “Report of Six Week’s Visit to the Yoruba Mission…at the Close of the Year 1854,” CMS C/A1/O105/63.

  34. J. Warburton to Chief Sodẹkẹ, November 1843, C/A1/M11(1843-1845)/136, 137.

  35. H. Townsend, journal entry, July 20, 1846, CMS C/A2/O85/233.

  36. H. Townsend, journal entry, August 3, 1846, CMS C/A2/O85/233.

  37. H. Townsend, journal entry, May 22, 1850, CMS C/A2/O85/241.

  38. Townsend further comments that “Probably had this been foreseen by the whole body, or the majority of the Oboni chiefs, their love to the old system in which their whole system of government is wrought, & upon which they live, sucking the life-blood of their country by their importance, they would have put a stop to the return of the S. Leone people sacrificing the ties of kindred & the real welfare of their country to their degrading system of government.” He continued, “But happily, the same providence that provided an asylum for so many of the stolen ones of this country provided the means for their safe return.” H. Townsend, journal entry, September 15, 1850, CMS C/A2/O85/242.

  39. H. Townsend to the secretaries, September 25, 1846, CMS C/A2/O85/233.

  40. H. Townsend, journal entry, March 21, 1847, CMS C/A2/O85/235.

  41. H. Townsend, journal entry, August 30, 1850, CMS C/A2/O85/242.

  42. H. Townsend to H. Straith, January 28, 1851, C/A2/O85/4.

  43. H. Townsend to H. Straith, January 28, 1851, C/A2/O85/4.

  44. H. Townsend, journal entry, January 1, 1854, C/A2/O85/256.

  45. Madam Hannah Afala, Mr. Samuel Crowther’s mother, was also among them. She had reconnected with her long-lost son on his arrival to serve as a missionary at Abeokuta. H. Townsend, journal entry, February 5, 1848, C/A2/O85/240.

  46. H. Townsend to H. Venn, May 17, 1853, C/A2/O85/16

  47. H. Townsend to H. Venn, February 4, 1864, C/A2/O85/271.

  48. H. Townsend, journal entry, October 18, 1847, C/A2/O85/239.

  49. H. Townsend, journal entry, October 26, 1847, CMS C/A2/O85/239.

  50. H. Townsend, journal entry, November 10, 1847, CMS C/A2/O85/239.

  51. H. Townsend, journal entry, December 25, 1847, CMS C/A2/O85/239

  52. H. Townsend to H. Venn, May 1, 1852, CMS C/A2/O85/11.

  53. H. Townsend, journal entry, March 13, 1847, CMS C/A2/O85/235; H. Townsend, journal entry, July 4, 1847, CMS C/A2/O85/238.

  54. H. Townsend, journal entry, July 4, 1847, CMS C/A2/O85/238.

  55. H. Townsend, journal entry, July 4, 1847, CMS C/A2/O85/238.

  56. H. Townsend, journal entry, March 24, 1848, CMS C/A2/O85/240.

  57. H. Townsend to H. Venn, July 29, 1852, CMS C/A2/O85/133.

  58. H. Townsend to H. Venn, August 23, 1853, CMS C/A2/O85/18.

  59. H. Townsend to H. Venn, May 1, 1852, CMS C/A2/O85/11.

  60. Wilhelm actually returned with his family in 1843, but he and other two Egba recaptives were among those who came in the 1842 official contingent sent to prospect mission in Badagry and its environs. While He was sent by the Sierra Leone committee of the CMS with Mr. Townsend, the church at Hastings sent with them two other persons, John McCormack and James Gerber, as “independent deputation.” Obviously, Wilhelm dated his return to this exploratory visit. J. Graf, “Report of Six Week’s Visit to the Yoruba Mission…at the Close of the Year 1854,” CMS C/A1/O105/63.

  61. H. Townsend to H. Venn, March 8, 1866, CMS C/A2/O85/138.

  62. H. Townsend, journal entry, December 25, 1847, CMS C/A2/O85/239.

  63. J. Graf, “Report of Six Week’s Visit to the Yoruba Mission…at the Close of the Year 1854,” CMS C/A1/O105/63.

  64. The second chapel was set up at Ikija by his colleague William Goodwill. H. Townsend, annual letter, March 1, 1867, CMS C/A2/O85/273.


Biobaku, Saburi O. The Egba and Their Neighbours 1842-1872. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965.

Church Missionary Society (CMS) Archives, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, UK.

Fyfe, Christopher. A History of Sierra Leone. London: OUP, 1962.

Records of the Colonial Office, National Archives (NAL), London, UK; Sierra Leone Files CO 267/111 (1831) and CO 267/127 (1833).

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.