Johnson, James (D)

1838-1917
Anglican Communion (Church Missionary Society)
Sierra Leone

Multiple versions are available:

HIS EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND AND MINISTERIAL INVOLVEMENT NIGERIAN Churchman, a celebrated Anglican bishop. Born in Freetown to “Recaptive” parents, after completing studies at the Fourah Bay Institution (1857) he became a clergyman under the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). He worked with the CMS “Native pastorate” started in 1861 and believed strongly in it as a means for African advancement for he was a lifelong defender of Africans interests in Church and state. Although he was often in conflict with the missionaries, they saw him as being basically loyal to them and believed he could channel the nationalist feelings of Christians in Lagos and avert secession from the Mission. So he was transferred in 1874 to Lagos.

In Lagos he expanded the local Native Pastorate, including several Anglican parishes in it, such as that of St. Paul’s in Breadfruit Street. As person there he was for several years a leader of the Lagos elite. His strong opposition to imperialism and advocacy of the African initiative and autonomy in church matters aroused a wide following.

HIS POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT He joined the Lagos Colony Legislative Council in 1886 and constantly criticized the British government. He believed Africans must convert Africa without European conquest. A fervent and rigorous Christian, he feared no man and the West elite had their disagreements with him, as the missionaries did.

HIS LOYALTY TO HIS MOTHER CHURCH, CONSECRATION, ADVOCACY AND WRITINGS When in 1891 some Anglicans formed the Independent United African (INA) Church, Johnson refused to join them. He opposed the CMS’s action against the Niger mission of Bishop Crowther, but stayed with the CMS and worked with its Delta Pastorate in a part of Bishop Crowther’s former diocese. In 1900 he was consecrated Assistant Bishop of the Niger Delta. He was very popular in Nigeria then and there was at first strong support for his scheme to raise money for Africans to finance their own church organization under the CMS, but missionaries did not agree with Johnson’s nationalist view of the scheme. Bishop Johnson, who wrote a book “Yoruba Heathendom” in 1899, advocated greater recognition by the church of a good deal of Africa tradition; for example, he would baptize children with Yoruba names.

With the policy of the C.M.S. to train Africans to take leadership roles in the native churches, Johnson was invited to Great Britain in 1899 to be consecrated assistant bishop of the Niger. In fact, he was given a promise of being made full bishop if he could raise ten thousand pounds on his return to West Africa. Thanks to his enthusiasm and his charismatic nature Johnson raised six thousand pounds by the time he reached the Gold Coast on his way home from Britain. The first shock was that the authorities did not allow him to raise money when he got to Lagos in order to forestall the possibility of making him a diocesan bishop.

Before his arrival other arrangements had been made by the Church Committee to place another vicar at St. Paul’s Breadfruit without making any arrangements for where James Johnson would live and operate as the assistant bishop.

Through the wardens, the members of Breadfruit appealed against this action to the Lagos Church Committee, but it had no effect. The Church Missionary Society in London wrote a letter to the Church Committee in 1901 as follows:

Church Missionary Society

Salisbury Square

London E.C.

The Rev. N. Johnson

Secretary, Lagos Church Committee.

10th of April, 1901

Dear Sir,

We have been considering carefully what had better be done about the place of residence for Bishop Johnson on his return to West Afiica. Our committee have undertaken the responsibility of finding him accommodation as a permanent thing. But we feel we must take fair time to consider the whole question of the best place for him to be stationed at, and we cannot come to any decision without the concurrence of Bishop Tugwell who is at present difficult to reach with letters. Under these circumstances we have thought it best not to try to settle Bishop Johnson at any fresh place for a time. He would probably be visiting the Delta at intervals, but could live probably in the considerable part of the next six or 12 months at any home selected for him.

It has seemed to us that the best plan would be for him to remain in Lagos. And unless your committee sees strong reasons for his resignation from Breadfruit taking effect at once we have thought it might be a good plan for him to remain in charge of Breadfruit for the time but be free to pay the necessary episcopal visits to the Delta. To enable him to do this, we suppose it would be necessary for him to have some suitable fellow worker at Breadfruit and our committee is quite prepared to arrange with your committee what may be necessary to this end.

What we should like is to get your committee to kindly allow the bishop to remain in charge of Breadfruit and in occupation of the parsonage and be receiving such proportion of the stipend of the pastorate as the Lagos church feels right to give him, and we would then make up his stipend to the amount that we had pledged ourselves of his receiving, namely, two hundred pounds. The remainder of the pastorate stipend not paid to the bishop could go to find someone who could take up his work when he is away, either permanently paying a junior clergyman to work with him or someone to take charge in his absence.

I have consulted the bishop himself as to how this matter would be best for this proposal. We of course have no desire to write and make pass upon the kindness of the Church Committee and are in no way unready to fulfill the obligation we have undertaken viz, to see that the bishop does get his stipend of two hundred pounds a year, and house accommodation at our expense if necessary, only we thought that, all things considered, it would be a pity for the present to take him away from Lagos.

Kindly let us know at your convenience what your committee thinks of our proposal.

Yours faithfully,

(Sgd.) F. Baylis

Secretary, C.M.S.

Instead of replying to the wishes and request of the C.M.S. in London, the Church Committee passed a motion which terminated the appointment of James Johnson as vicar of St. Paul’s Church. The parishioners of St. Paul’s Church asked the Church Committee for an interview but were asked to withdraw their resolution which they did not. Three hundred members of the church signed a petition that was sent through J. K. Coker, the church warden, to Bishop Tugwell who was in Hausaland at that time. Bishop Tugwell had an interview with the signatories of the petition and told them that he had persuaded James Johnson to resign his incumbency of Breadfruit and that Johnson had decided to comply. He also said Johnson’s resignation would not normally be in effect until he had been settled and accommodation provided for him. The parishioners thanked the bishop and requested three things:

(a) A full and proper constitution for the church in place of the articles of arrangement governing it at that time.

(b) True love among the ministers.

(c) The raising up of young men for the ordained ministry.

The bishop promised to grant the three requests. But contrary to all his promises, the Patronage Board terminated James Johnson’s incumbency of Breadfruit Church without any arrangement for where he would live and Rev. N. Johnson was placed at St. Paul’s Breadfruit. It would be pertinent to understand the background of the requests being made by the parishioners.

First, the law that established the Patronage Board which they called Church Committee was made and implemented by the white missionaries. This gave the church members very little or no power to determine their fate on many issues including the appointment of the clergy to the parish. The second request was made because of the circumstances in which Rev. Oluwole was appointed assistant bishop. When the white missionaries thought that James Johnson was radical and was seriously seeking to become a full African bishop, Tugwell made a hurried effort to ensure that Rev. Oluwole,–who seemed more loyal to them,–was appointed assistant bishop, making him James Johnson’s rival. This view can be justified by an incident which occurred on September 30th, 1900 when his arrival caused a disturbance at Breadfruit during worship. Thirdly, only older school teachers and catechists who had already ministered during the most useful times of their lives and had no drive to go into the hinterland again, were being made ministers. To quicken the rate of evangelism, the members wanted young men to be encouraged to go into the ministry. But Tugwell did not grant them these requests. The late Leslie Gordon Vining, the first archbishop of West Africa, became the one who started the full scale recruitment of young men into the sacred ministry.

HIS DEFENSE AND LATTER YEARS Johnson was always a strong opponent of imperialism. He left the Legislative Council in 1894 after attacking the Ijebu expedition of 1901 - 2. He criticized the oppression in South Africa and Congo Free State. He and the dissident Baptist churchman Mojola Agbebi were prominent in the Lagos Branch of the London Aborigines Rights Protection Society (ARPS).

“Holy Johnson” as popularly christened died after years of active evangelization in the Niger Delta, in May 1917.

Michael, Belaynesh; S. Chojnacki and Richard Pankhurst


This article is reproduced, with permission, from The Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography, Vol. 1 ‘From Early Times to the End of the Zagwé Dynasty c. 1270 A.D.’ copyright © 1975, by Belaynesh Michael, S. Chojnacki and Richard Pankhurst, Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. All rights reserved.