Samuel Crowther's original African name was Ajayi. Born in Western Africa about the year 1807, he grew up in dangerous times. Islamic jihads (or "holy wars") and the ever present danger of raids by slave traders made for constant danger and uncertainty.
When Ajayi was about thirteen, his village was raided, apparently by a combination of Fulani and Oyo Muslims. Crowther twice recorded his memories of the event, vividly recalling the desolation of burning houses, the horror of capture and roping by the neck, the slaughter of those unfit to travel, the distress of being torn from relatives. The young man was bought and sold six times before being sold to Portuguese traders for the transatlantic market.
Finding Refuge in Sierra Leone
The African colony of Sierra Leone had been founded by a coalition of antislavery interests, mostly evangelical Christian in inspiration, and belonging to the circle associated with William Wilberforce and the "Clapham Sect" in England. It was intended from the beginning to be a Christian settlement, free from slavery and the slave trade. The first permanent element in the population was a group of former slaves from the New World. Following the abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament in 1807 and the subsequent treaties with other nations to outlaw the traffic, Sierra Leone achieved a new importance. It was a base for the naval squadron that searched vessels to find if they were carrying slaves. It was also the place where slaves were brought if any were found aboard. The Portuguese ship on which Ajayi was taken as a slave was intercepted by the British naval squadron in April, 1822, and he, like thousands of other uprooted, disorientated people from inland Africa, was put ashore in Sierra Leone.
A Worse State of Slavery
It was here in Sierra Leone that Ajayi became a committed Christian. He wrote eloquently later in life that about the third year of my liberation from the slavery of man, I was convinced of another worse state of slavery, namely, that of sin and Satan. It pleased the Lord to open my heart...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.
He was baptized by the Reverend John Rahan, of the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society, taking the name Samuel Crowther, after a member of that society's home committee. Mr. Crowther was an eminent clergyman; his young namesake was to make the name far more celebrated.
In 1827 the Church Missionary Society established Fourah Bay College to develop Christian leadership for Africa. It eventually offered the first university education in tropical Africa. Crowther was one of its first students.
He developed an interest in linguistics and was soon appointed a schoolmaster, serving in the new villages created to receive "liberated Africans" from the slave ships. A schoolmaster was an evangelist; in Sierra Leone, church and school were inseparable. He was an eager, vigorous young man who, at least at first, was highly confrontational in his encounters with representatives of Islam and the old religions in Africa. In later life he mellowed and saw the need to build personal relationships, and he developed the ability to listen patiently.
The Old Slave Ships Redeployed
Two important developments opened a new chapter for Crowther and for Sierra Leone Christianity. One was a new link with Yorubaland -- Crowther's native land in what is now Western Nigeria. A group of liberated African slaves banded together and bought confiscated slave ships. They began trading far afield from Freetown. Some of Yoruba origin found their way back to their native Yorubaland. They settled there but kept the Sierra Leone connections and the ways of life of Christian Freetown.
The second development was the Niger Expedition of 1841, the brief flowering of the humanitarian vision of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton for Africa. This investigative mission intended to prepare the way for an alliance of "Christianity, commerce and civilization" that would destroy the slave trade and bring peace and prosperity to the Niger. It relied heavily on Sierra Leone for interpreters and other helpers. The missionary society representatives also came from Sierra Leone. One was J. F. Schön, a German missionary who had striven with languages of the Niger, learning from liberated Africans in Sierra Leone. The other was Crowther.
Crowther's services to the extremely difficult expedition were invaluable. Schön cited them as evidence of his thesis that the key to the evangelization of inland Africa lay in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone had Christians such as Crowther to form the task force. It had among the liberated Africans brought there from the slave ships a vast language laboratory for the study of all the languages of West Africa as well as a source of native speakers as missionaries, and in the institution at Fourah Bay it had a base for study and training.
The Niger Expedition had shown Crowther's qualities, and he was brought to England for study and ordination. Meanwhile, the new connection between Sierra Leone and Yorubaland had convinced the CMS of the timeliness of a mission to the Yoruba. There had been no opportunity to train that African mission force foreseen by Schön and Crowther in their report on the Niger Expedition, but at least in Crowther there was one ordained Yoruba missionary available. Thus, after an initial reconnaissance by Henry Townsend, an English missionary from Sierra Leone, a mission party went to Abeokuta, the state of the Egba section of the Yoruba people. It was headed by Townsend, Crowther, and a German missionary, C. A. Gollmer, with a large group of Sierra Leoneans from the liberated Yoruba community. These included carpenters and builders who were also teachers and catechists. The mission intended to demonstrate a whole new way of life, of which the church and the school and the well-built house were all a part. They were establishing Sierra Leone in Yorubaland. The Sierra Leone trader-immigrants, the people who had first brought Abeokuta to the attention of the mission, became the nucleus of the new Christian community. There was a particularly moving incident for Crowther, when he was reunited with the mother and sister from whom he had been separated when the raiders took them more than twenty years earlier. They were among the first in Abeokuta to be baptized.
In Sierra Leone the church had used English in its worship. The new mission worked in Yoruba with the advantage of native speakers and Crowther's literary gifts. But the most demanding activity was Bible Translation. The Yoruba version was a most important milestone. It was not the first translation into an African language; but, insofar as Crowther was the leading influence in its production, it was the first by a native speaker. In no earlier case was a native speaker able to judge and act on an equal footing with the European.
Pioneer of the Indigenous Church
In 1854 a merchant sponsored a new Niger expedition on principles similar to the first but with a happier outcome. The CMS sent Crowther on this expedition. Shipwrecked, and stranded upriver, he began to study the Nupe language and surveyed openings to the Nupe and Hausa peoples. The Niger Mission had begun. But it was a mission on a new principle. Crowther led a mission force consisting entirely of Africans. Sierra Leone was now evangelizing inland Africa.
The best-known aspect of Crowther's later career is also the most controversial: his representation of the indigenous church principle. He was the first ordained minister of his church in his place. Meanwhile, back in England, Henry Venn, then newly at the helm of the CMS, sought self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating churches with a fully indigenous pastorate. In Anglican terms, this meant indigenous bishops. The missionary role was a temporary one; once a church was established, the missionary should move on.
Venn had made a new sphere of leadership for Crowther, the outstanding indigenous minister in West Africa. But he went further, and in 1864 secured the consecration of Crowther as bishop of "the countries of Western Africa beyond the limits of the Queen's dominions." Crowther, a genuinely humble man, resisted; Venn would take no refusal.
The story of the later years of the Niger still raises passions and causes bitterness. Young liberal elements opposed Venn's principles. European missionaries were brought into the mission and then took it over, brushing aside the old bishop (he was over eighty) and suspending or dismissing his staff. In 1891 Crowther, a desolate, broken man, suffered a stroke; on the last day of the year, he died. A European bishop was appointed to succeed him.
Crowther was the outstanding representative of a whole body of West African church leaders who came to the fore in the pre-Imperial age and were superseded in the Imperial. But the Imperial age itself was to be only an episode. The legacy of Samuel (Ajayi) Crowther, the humble, devout exponent of a Christian faith that was essentially African and essentially missionary, has passed to the whole vast church of Africa and thus to the whole vast church of Christ.
Celebrating African Evangelism
In our previous issue (#151) we showed the unprecedented growth of the church in Africa in the 20th century from under ten million believers in 1900 to over 300 million by the year 2000. Never has the church witnessed such explosive growth over a continent within one century. A project known as The Dictionary of African Christian Biography (DACB) sponsored by The Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC) in New Haven, Connecticut, is a multi-year venture that will gather and preserve the multitude of biographies of African Christians who were part of this astounding spread of the Christian faith. For more information go to their website: www.dacb.org. We enthusiastically commend the DACB to you. We were delighted to help support its startup. It is not only international and interconfessional, but also nonproprietary -- no one is using this project to make money. It is available to one and all and will eventually be in four languages. Check it out. Use it often. Consider donating to OMSC for its continuation.
We are largely familiar with some of the great 19th century missionary heroes from the Western world such as David Livingstone and Mary Slessor. But there are also countless unknown stories of gifted and anointed African leaders whose ministries are a lasting legacy of the whole church. We plan to present stories from the DACB in Glimpses from time to time. In this issue we look at Samuel Crowther, one of the 19th century pioneers of African Christianity who was instrumental in paving the way for the astounding 20th century expansion of the church on that continent.