Bishop James “Holy” Johnson, a West African proto-nationalist, became the second African to be ordained an Anglican bishop and was a critical figure in preserving his church in the face of separatism led by independent churchmen.
Johnson was born in Sierra Leone to Yoruba parents, who had been taken in slavery but recaptured and released by a British antislavery patrol. He graduated from Forah Bay Institute, was ordained, and became a pastor of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) assigned to the “native pastorate.” He advocated the evangelization of Africa by Africans, under African leadership, and thus did not make an easy colleague for British missionaries. In 1874, due to his command of the Yoruba language and his popularity with African nationalists, he transferred to Nigeria to assume the Yoruba mission there.
Because of his views on African leadership, Johnson became a natural leader of the educated African elite in Lagos. He was an open critic of imperialism, encouraged educational opportunities for Africans, and promoted an autonomous, self-supporting church.
Johnson began to raise a £10,000 fund to endow the Niger Mission and end dependency on England. This effort so frightened his opponents that he was physically ejected from his parish.
Johnson argued that Christianity was the only value that Europe had to offer, and the sooner Christianity shed Western control, the better: “It is more helpful that a people should be called to take up their responsibilities…than be in the position of vessels taken in tow.” In 1886 he joined the Legislative Council in Nigeria, where he was a spokesman for African interests.
Johnson was a colleague of Samwel CROWTHER, the head of the Niger Mission. He was more flexible than Bishop Crowther in dealing with traditional religions and felt that Christianity could learn from them; he entered into dialogue with diviners and incorporated Yoruba religious names into Christian baptismal rituals. He drew the line at separatism, however, and oppposed every attempt at division within Anglicanism. The solution for Johnson was an Anglican church with African leadership, African philosophies, and African theology. He showed his Anglican loyalties after the deposing of Bishop Crowther when he accepted and supported the CMS decision.
In 1900, Johnson became assistant bishop of the Niger Mission, a position gained by his loyalty to the CMS and because he presented the only real hope for retaining the Nigerian elite, who were being attracted to the newly founded African independent churches. Johnson excommunicated his former associate Garrick BRAIDE and ultimately preserved the Anglican church during a time in which it might have disappeared in Nigeria. Personally rigorous and self-demanding, he became known as “Holy Johnson” for his personal piety and prayerfulness.
Norbert C. Brockman
Lipschutz, Mark R., and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Ewechue, Ralph (ed.). Makers of Modern Africa. 2nd edition. London: Africa Books, 1991.
Additional reading: Ayandele, Emmanuel. Holy Johnson: Pioneer of African Nationalism. (1970).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from *An African Biographical Dictionary, *copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.