West African Anglican church leader.
Johnson was born in the former Sierra Leone colony. Educated at the Fourah Bay Institution (later college), he joined the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1858 and was ordained an Anglican minister in 1863. He labored for eleven years as missionary and pastor in the prestigious Christ Church, Pademba Road, Freetown, where his piety and aggressive evangelism earned him the accolade “Wonderful Johnson”; later his reputation for being a highly genuine West African Christian earned him the sobriquet “Holy Johnson.” Uncompromising, forceful, and in many ways an enigma, he became a champion of the native pastorate ideal advocated by Henry Venn. He was also an advocate of African nationalism, though his calls for an independent African Church–underlined with vigorous denunciations of ethnocentric European missionary control and enterprise–sat uneasily with his lifelong and deep-seated loyalty to the CMS.
Johnson was transferred to Nigeria in 1874, where he gained a reputation as an outspoken defender of his race, a capable administrator, and an indefatigable missionary. He played a leading role in forming and developing the Lagos Native Pastorate Church. During his brief elevation as superintendent of the CMS Yoruba Mission (1877 - 1879), he endeavored to expand that mission with characteristic zest, but his demand for ecclesiastical independence was a significant factor in the short-lived secession of the Niger Delta from CMS control in the 1890s. He was considered for the episcopate as early as 1876 and was eventually consecrated assistant bishop of Western Equatorial Africa in 1900, with oversight of the Niger Delta and Benin.
Johnson’s life reflected the conflicts and ambiguities of his age. Thus he failed, to realize his dream of an independent, nondenominational, African church, even when the opportunity seemed to present itself. Yet he stands like a colossus among nineteenth-century West African clergy. His vision and militancy challenged both mission and church.
Jehu J. Hanciles
E. A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria, 1842 - 1914: A Political and Social Analysis (1966) and Holy Johnson: Pioneer of African Nationalism, 1836 - 1917 (1970); C. Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone (1952): Jehu J. Hanciles, “The Sierra Leone Native Pastorate (1850 - 1890): An Experiment in Ecclesiastical Independence” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Edinburgh, 1995); Lamin Sanneh, West African Christianity: The Religious Impact (1983) and Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (1989).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, copyright © 1998, by Gerald H. Anderson, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.