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Rescued from the slave-traders

04 July 2014

Duke Akamisoko tells the story of the first African bishop, consecrated 150 years ago

ON THOSE whom God loves, so a saying goes, he leaves his mark before they are born. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a Yoruba, later to become Bishop of Western Equatorial Africa, and the first African to be so honoured, was such a one.

He was born in 1806, in Osogun, in the present Osun state, south-west Nigeria, and was named Ajayi. He was captured at the age of 15 by slave-raiders, who intended to move him, and others whom they had captured, to Lisbon.

The vessel carrying Ajayi was, however, intercepted by a British anti-slavery patrol boat. All the captives were freed, and sent to Sierra Leone. It was there that the young Ajayi was converted to Christianity, and baptised in 1825. He received as his new name Samuel Ajayi Crowther, after a notable member of the Church Missionary Society (CMS).

While in Sierra Leone, Crowther attended Fourah Bay College, Freetown, as one of the pioneer students, where he displayed excellence in his studies. It was not long before he became a teacher with the CMS, later establishing a Yoruba language service in Freetown.

It soon became obvious to the group of missionaries who were Crowther's benefactors that to educate him only in Sierra Leone would be doing him an injustice. To educate him properly was outside the scope of the teachers and institutions of West Africa. He was therefore dispatched to a parochial school in Islington, London.

On completion of his education in Britain, he returned to Sierra Leone, to the place where the slave ship had taken him. It was a turning-point in his life and career: he found himself given pride of place among English - and some African - missionaries, who were setting out on an expedition with a two-fold mission: the abolition of the slave trade, and the bringing of Christianity.

BECAUSE of his commitment and hard work, when the Niger expedition began in 1841, Crowther was appointed one of the CMS representatives. He was also on the 1854 and 1857 missions.

While on the 1841 mission, he became convinced that the evangelisation of the interior of Africa must be carried out by Africans themselves, if that goal was to be realised.

In 1843, Crowther was ordained in London, and was appointed as a member of the Yoruba mission in Abeokuta, in Ogun state, south-west Nigeria. He was also instrumental in the introduction of schools, native agents, and medical services in the hinterland in 1857. He worked with the various traditional rulers to spread the gospel.

In recognition of his uncompromising service to God, Crowther was consecrated at Canterbury Cathedral as the first African Anglican bishop in sub-Saharan Africa at 8 a.m. on the feast of St Peter, 29 June 1864.

A year later, he established the first primary school in Lokoja, where his evangelical drive led to the conversion of eight adults, in 1862, who were baptised together with an infant in Gbobe, opposite present-day Lokoja, in Kogi state. The school was the first in what was then the northern protectorate of Nigeria.

There is no ministry work without its attendant challenges. The same was true of Crowther's ministry, but even when faced with difficulties - especially with his African staff on the Niger mission - he still achieved a great deal.


AS FAR back as 1873, there were functioning churches at Onitsha, the Niger Delta region, Lokoja, Eggan, and Kipo; members of the congregation numbered between 50 and 260.

A tree cannot make a forest, so the saying goes. This could have prompted Henry Venn (1776-1873) to help Crowther in his work. Venn was then a strategist at the CMS, and an advocate of African Mission. His position as the secretary of the CMS, from 1841 until 1873, was of immense value to the work and life of Crowther.

After Venn's death, however, Crowther no longer enjoyed the good will or support of the CMS authorities in London. This led to the crisis in the Niger mission in the 1880s, which marred Crowther's ministry and missionary efforts to evangelise Africa.

There were accusations and counter-accusations that some of the missionary workers who were working with Crowther were involved in sexual immorality, illegitimate trading, and slave-dealing, and that they were inefficient, and suffered from alcoholism. These rumours were sent to the CMS parent committee, in Salisbury Square, London. They were also published in British newspapers to discredit Crowther and his co-workers.

Committees were set up to investigate the case. At the CMS, the parent committee found Crowther not guilty. But even though he had been declared innocent of all charges, there was an indelible implication that the shepherd had faltered, and the sheep had wandered. The incident cast doubt on his administrative ability and leadership style, and on his gifts and calling.

Crowther's personal sacrifice, and his unflinching devotion and loyalty to his employers and his people, were put on trial and brought into disrepute by the CMS headquarters in London.

What a great irony: a man who was baptised at the age of 19, ordained priest at 37, and consecrated bishop at 58, experienced a crisis in his seventie which nullified the positive contribution that he had made to the CMS. He was humiliated out of office, when he ought to have been celebrated. What a sad end.

YET the name Samuel Ajayi Crowther continues to resound today, not only in Christian churches and homes but throughout our society. We came across it in Sunday-school lessons, and drank in the written words about him at school from a very young age.

His task did not end at Abeokuta; it spread farther afield, into the Niger Delta. As he went along, the spread of Christianity gained the upper hand, and the sale of his fellow Africans to foreigners diminished before his eyes.

Not a man happy to rest on his laurels, he marched on, making friends and bringing them into the fold until his death in 1891. No wonder, then, that his name remains fresh in the memories of every African.

The fruits of Crowther's work are many. The geographical area of his episcopal oversight was vast. Today, it comprises more than 150 dioceses, and yet he was able to administer the area despite frugal finances, limited infrastructure, few capable human resources, and bad communication networks.

Today, in Nigeria, Crowther's name resonates in areas such as evangelism, church-planting, translations of biblical and other Christian literature, health-care, social welfare, conflict resolution, ecumenism, and politics. He is the subject of interdisciplinary research in many institutions.

The Nigerian government and the Church have named many monuments after him, including the Church of Nigeria's Ajayi Crowther University, in Oyo; Crowther Graduate Theological Seminary, Abeokuta; Crowther Radio, Abuja; Crowther diocese . . . and there are Crowther colleges, streets, etc.

Monuments connected with his life and ministry are the most popular tourist attractions for the Church in Nigeria today.

The Rt Revd Duke Akamisoko is Bishop of Kubwa, in Nigeria.

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