By Richard J. Mammana
The Church of Nigeria is one of the largest and most influential components of the Anglican world. With more than 120 dioceses in Nigeria and a strong presence in diaspora, this church traces its roots to the life and ministry of one man: Samuel Ajayi Crowther.
Samuel Crowther’s Wisdom
On being freed from slavery
From a letter of Samuel Crowther, Sept. 3, 1841, pp. 5-6
I was sold to the Portuguese, at whose first touch I almost trembled to death. Being embarked from the town in canoes in an evening about seven o’clock, to be shipped early the next day, we gave ourselves up totally for lost.
We could not tell where our miseries would end, especially as we thought there was no safety in the land nor on the sea, particularly at sea. … In the morning, contrary to our prejudices against the English, we were all ordered up on deck and were surprised when our masters were found in irons and all their slaves were at liberty. As hunger rendered us bold, and we were not threatened at our approaching the coconuts and other fruit on the quarterdeck, we soon fell to devour up everything edible that we could get at to satisfy the cravings of hunger. We then began to entertain good opinions of our new conquerors.
After breakfast all the slaves were divided between two other brigs which were lying alongside of us. We six boys had the luck of being taken into the Myrmidon where we were very kindly treated. The number of all the slaves was I think 189, out of whom 102 perished in the sea. When we were landed at Sierra Leone, we were placed in a school under the care of the Church Missionary Society. There I was taught to read the Word of God which is able to make all men wise unto salvation. … It pleased the Lord to open my heart like that of Lydia. I attended unto those things which were spoken of by his servants, and according to my desire, I was admitted into the visible Church of Christ here on earth as a soldier to fight manfully under his banner against our spiritual enemies — the world, the flesh and the devil.
On missionary relations with native religions and Islam
From Samuel Crowther, The Gospel on the Banks of the Niger (London: Church Missionary House, 1859), pp. 237-39
Had we been obstinate [in opposing native religions] Christian Missionaries would long ago have been turned out of the country, the converts put to death, and the country would have been long barred against the message of salvation. But what is the result of the caution and prudence exercised? The whole country is opened to us, stations are occupied in different directions, churches are built, congregations are collected, and converts are numbered by hundreds: and yet we do not make the least compromise. … With the [Muslims] of this country cannot a like course be tried? They have great respect for the books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms, and, to some extent for the Gospel of Christ also, all of which they know mostly by name. If they be quietly referred to, these books, the Law of Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Gospel in all things concerning Christ Himself, we may thus have opportunity of bringing before their minds the wholesome substance of those blessed books.
Our undue rashness in quarrelling with, and our untimely exposure of [Islam], can do no good; but may irritate, and prove most injurious to the heathen population under that government with whom we have more directly to do. — They are perishing for want of the spiritual food of the Gospel. To have the bread and water of life taken away from them by our being turned out of the country in defense of [Islam], through an injudicious action, would be to them the greatest injury possible.
It should also be remembered that God, who has permitted the religion of Mohammed to remain so long, and to overspread the earth, can easily remove it when He pleases, without violence or rash proceedings on our part: the united fervent prayers of the Church, for whose correction perhaps God has permitted this religion to stand so long, may at last prevail. May it please Him to fulfill the promise made concerning His Son, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
He was born on an unknown date in Yorubaland, now part of southwestern Nigeria. (Nigeria was unified as a British colony in 1912-14; it became an independent country in 1960.)
The first verifiable date in Crowther’s life is his release from slavery in 1822. We know from autobiographical accounts that about two years earlier he had been taken captive during a raid on his village by Muslim traders, and that he had been sold in slavery at least six times. The young Ajayi’s final owners were Portuguese slave-traders who intended to sell him in South America or elsewhere in Portugal’s worldwide empire. He was freed when a British anti-slavery patrol based in Sierra Leone boarded a Portuguese ship, his welfare undertaken thereafter by English philanthropists.
Ajayi learned English quickly as a student in the Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission at Freetown; one account notes that he was fluent enough to read the Bible within six months. He was baptized in 1825, and took the name of Samuel Crowther, a prominent English priest who served on the Church Missionary Society’s home committee.
The next year, he studied at the CMS training college in London, and returned to Freetown as a lay teacher in 1827. Crowther served as a lay missionary, educator, and translator from this time until his ordination in 1843. He was not, as many accounts say, the first African to be ordained an Anglican priest. That distinction goes to the Ghanaian Philip Quaque (1741-1816), who was ordained in 1765 for work at Cape Coast.
In the end, Crowther served as a missionary of the CMS for nearly all his adult life. In addition to his extensive work as a Bible translator, he published hymns, grammars, and translations of the Book of Common Prayer into West African languages.
The final, sometimes troubled, chapters of Crowther’s life begin with his consecration as Bishop of the Niger in 1864 during a crucial period of England’s imperial activity in western Africa. The Niger Mission was an innovation for Anglican evangelism in its placement of Africans in most major positions of leadership, from the episcopate through administrators and catechists. This was primarily because of the influence of Henry Venn (1796-1873), one of the most forward-thinking mission strategists of his time, who argued that Christian missions should be self-supporting, self-governing, and “self-extending.”
Following Venn’s death, Crowther lost an important advocate in London, and English organizational control of his work on the Niger increased markedly. Crowther also faced more indigenous opposition to his missionary work as the Niger Mission became more successful, and as English regional interests diverged along political, economic, and missionary lines. So damaging was the extent of London-based objection to Crowther’s leadership — to indigenous African leadership — that the Niger Mission would be dominated by British clergy and administrators for the half-century following Crowther’s death in 1891.
Notwithstanding the overwhelmingly difficult personal situation of Bishop Crowther in the intertwining currents of European colonization, missiology, racism, and economics, at the time of his death his contemporaries understood the significance of his ministry. The epitaph on the bishop’s plain tombstone quotes Matthew 25:21: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
The Episcopal Church commemorates the life of Samuel Ajayi Crowther on December 31 in Holy Women, Holy Men, alongside similar commemorations in other Anglican provinces, and there has been a gradual development of new understandings of Crowther’s life and work. By 2014, Archbishop Justin Welby preached at “A Service of Thanksgiving and Repentance” on the 150th anniversary of Crowther’s consecration, noting the reason for the title of the liturgy:
“Thanksgiving for the extraordinary life which we commemorate. Repentance, shame, and sorrow for Anglicans who are reminded of the sin of many of their ancestors. We in the Church of England need to say sorry that someone was properly and rightly consecrated Bishop and then betrayed and let down and undermined. It was wrong.”
For further reading
The most substantial English-language biography of Crowther is still the unfortunately dated — but in its time very popular — The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger (1892), by Jesse Page. It is available online with other material by and about Crowther at anglicanhistory.org/africa/ng. A more recent biography, Jeanne Decorvet’s Samuel Ajayi Crowther: Un Père de l’Église en Afrique Noire (Paris: Le Cerf, 1992), is available only in French.
Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a parishioner and vestry member at Trinity Church in New Haven, Connecticut.