Classic DACB Collection

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

Sawyerr, Harry Alphonso Ebun

Anglican Communion
Sierra Leone

Harry Alphonso Ebun Sawyerr [1] was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone on October 16, 1909. As the son of missionaries sent to the Mende heartland, Harry grew up in traditional Africa and never lost his love or fascination for the Mende language and traditions.[2] His father, the Rev. Obrien A. D. Sawyerr, served as missionary and pastor at Boma Sakrim. But, as a Krio of Sierra Leone, Sawyerr’s perspective included a long history of Christian identity and missionary activity. The English language and British institutions had been adapted into a cosmopolitan culture with a language of its own. Combined with his experience of the traditional African point of view–he was one of few Krios fluent in Mende–Sawyerr was uniquely positioned to see the strengths of a truly indigenized African Christian theology as well as possible solutions to the problems that arise.

As a youth, Harry attended the Prince of Wales Secondary School in Freetown. There Bishop T. S. Johnson discovered in him a bright young man suited to train for teaching. When Johnson began to teach at Fourah Bay College, he took Harry with him. Johnson instilled in Harry Sawyerr his vision for a comprehensive education, which included science, theology, economics and Greek. He considered science or economics alone insufficient for Sierra Leone to take its rightful place in the world. Ignorance of European intellectual streams would be more detrimental to African intellectual development than would be the idea that some such forms of study were irrelevant to Africa. Later, in following Johnson’s vision, Sawyerr also insisted on the necessity for Greek, classical theology, and biblical studies for the African student.

For over a century, Fourah Bay College, founded by the Christian Missionary Society in 1827, had been the premier educational institution in West Africa. Since 1876, it had been affiliated with University of Durham, preparing students for degrees at Durham, until 1970 when Fourah Bay College came under the University of Sierra Leone. Sawyerr first graduated from Fourah Bay College in 1934, later achieving his M.A. in 1936 and M.Ed. in 1940, both from Fourah Bay as well.[3] In 1943 he was ordained in the Anglican Church. He became tutor in 1933, then lecturer at Fourah Bay College, professor in 1961 and head of the theology department. He rose to vice-chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone in 1972.

Sawyerr studied at the Honours School of Theology at St John’s College in Durham, England from 1945 to 1948. He learned the biblical languages, the Latin and Greek fathers and immersed himself in the Anglican Catholic tradition of the school. Returning to Fourah Bay, he continued with Johnson’s vision of the necessity of incorporating theology within the university. Johnson assumed “the universal relevance of theology to all spheres of human activity, and of the responsibility of the churches to make their contribution in every sphere.”[4] Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1961-1974), writes: “When [Sawyerr] returned to Fourah Bay and set out on his long career of teaching and writing, it became fascinating to watch, in the subjects on which he wrote, the interplay of the Durham and the West African interests. He knows that Christianity is greater than any of its cultural forms.”[5]

No longer under the jurisdiction of the church due to financial crises and subsequent reconstitution, Fourah Bay took its place in the University of Sierra Leone. The theology department developed an ecumenical ministerial program, a license in theology, continuing education for clergy during vacation times and various publications. Sawyerr principally studied and taught the New Testament, becoming “a conspicuous figure at gatherings of the international (but at that time almost entirely Western) society of New Testament scholars, the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas.”[6] He edited the Sierra Leone Bulletin of Religion, was a member of the editorial board of the Journal of African Religion, and general editor and author of “Aureol Pamphlets” for fourteen years.[7] Because of his eminence in theology and education, and also because the link between Fourah Bay College and Durham was ending, Harry Sawyerr was awarded an honorary D.D. by the University of Durham in 1970,[8] marking a lifetime of service to theology and higher education.

Sawyerr promoted academic excellence for Africans. He insisted on the necessity of education in his young country in order for Africa to take its proper place in the world at large. Sawyerr was president of Milton Margai Teacher Training College from 1960 to 1969, a member of the Public Service Commission of Sierra Leone (1968-69) and chair of Sierra Leone Board of Education (1969-74). Among many other honors, Sawyerr was awarded the Grand Commander, Order of the Star of Africa (Liberia) in 1971.[9] He was a member of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches from 1962 to 1975. After he retired from teaching, he continued to serve the church and left Sierra Leone only to teach in Codrington College, Barbados. [10]

Sawyerr was loved and respected for his quick mind and gentle loving spirit. Friends considered Edith, whom he married in 1935, “an equal and amiable wife” [11] who together with Harry “radiated happiness amongst a wide circle of friends.” [12] He died in Freetown, Sierra Leone in August of 1986 at the age of 76.[13]

L. M. Miles


  1. Biographical information primarily from Andrew F. Walls, “The Significance of Harry Sawyerr” in The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (New York: Orbis Books, 2002), 165-173, and from Mark E. Glasswell and E. W. Fasholé-Luke, eds., “Introduction” in New Testament Christianity for Africa and the World: Essays in Honour of Harry Sawyerr (London: SPCK, 1974), 3-7.

  2. Walls, 166. “One of his earliest scholarly publications was an article on Mende grammar.”

  3. From “Honorary Degrees: Speeches of Presentation” delivered by Public Orator Professor W. B. Fisher, Castle Durham, July 2, 1970, and from “Harry Alphonse Ebun Sawyerr” in Contemporary Authors Online, 2003 ed.; accessed May 9, 2005; available from http:/

  4. Walls, 169.

  5. Michael Ramsey, “An Appreciation” in Glasswell and Fasholé-Luke, 1.

  6. Walls, 171.

  7. *Contemporary Authors Online. *

  8. Dr. M. M. N. Stansfield, assistant keeper, Archives and Special Collections, Durham University Library, Palace Green, Durham UK, e-mail to author, June 8, 2005.

  9. Contemporary Authors Online.

  10. Walls, 171, 173.

  11. “Introduction” in Glasswell and Fasholé-Luke, 5.

  12. Ramsey in Glasswell and Fasholé-Luke, 1.

  13. “Obituary” The Times, London. September 3, 1986.

Select Bibliography of Works by Harry Sawyerr:

Sawyerr, Harry. Creative Evangelism. London: Lutterworth, 1968.

——–. “The Earth-Goddess” in Founders of Religions: Christianity and Other Religions. Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1984.

——–. The Practice of Presence: Shorter Writings of Harry Sawyerr. Ed. John Parratt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

——–. “Sacrifice” in Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs. Ed. Kwesi Dickson and Paul Ellingworth, 57-82. London: Lutterworth Press, 1969.

——– and W. T. Harris. The Springs of Mende Belief and Conduct. Freetown: Sierra Leone Univ. Press, 1968.

——–. “Traditions in Transit” in Religion in a Pluralistic Society, ed. J. S. Pobee, 85-96. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976.

This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by L. M. Miles while a Masters student at Palmer Theological Seminary, 6 Wynnewood Avenue, Philadelphia, PA. She will start a Ph.D. program at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, in Fall 2006.