Samuel Ajayi Crowther was a remarkable man. He was an exceptionally gifted linguist, missionary, faithful minister, and the first African to be ordained as an Anglican bishop. Although a flawed sinner, like the rest of us, he was known for his godliness, humility, and patience. Yet very few Christians – African or otherwise – know his name today. This brief biography aims to rectify that unfamiliarity.
Samuel Crowther: His Early Life and Slavery
The story of Samuel Ajayi Crowther begins in about 1807 in what is now called Oyo State, Nigeria. He was actually the descendent of a king. But at around twelve years old Ajayi, his mother, and siblings were captured by Fulani slave raiders. The raiders sold Ajayi and his family to Portuguese slavers. Though Britain had officially outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 (The Slave Trade Act), the Portuguese and Spanish were still actively engaged in the trade.
Tragically, Ajayi was separated from his family. But, providentially, he was rescued from the slavers by the British navy
Tragically, the young Ajayi was separated from his family. You can read his own heartfelt account of the enslavement in a letter he later penned in 1837 here. He describes the experience in detail. Recounting that after many months of travel through the region as a slave, he was rescued from the slavers by a British Royal Navy anti-slavery patrol the area.
Crowther was then sent to Freetown, the capital of the West African colony, Sierra Leone. A place that would play a pivotal role in his life.
The Importance of Sierra Leone
Although Britain officially outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, it was only in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act began to result in the emancipation of existing African slaves. British Evangelicals were instrumental in the fight against this insidious trade, especially the “Clapham Sect” associated with William Wilberforce. Part of their campaign against slavery had been the idea to create an African colony for freed and rescued slaves.
Part of the campaign against slavery had been the idea to create an African colony for freed and rescued slaves
This colony would have three aims. It would (a) be a place where former slaves could live safely; (b) demonstrate that Africa could produce viable economic opportunities without slavery; (c) serve as a base for missionary enterprise. This dream became a reality when the British took control of the Sierra Leone colony in the early 1800s. And it was to this colony that Crowther was conveyed when rescued from slavery.
Crowther’s Education, Early Career & Marriage
Crowther’s arrival in Freetown changed the course of his life in more ways than one. On his arrival, he was taken in by the Church Missionary Society (CMS), one of many Christian mission agencies already working in Africa. The CMS had pioneered work amongst the Yoruba in today’s Nigeria, focusing on missions, literacy, and education.
It is in the merging of his faith and his love for languages that Crowther was to make such a significant impact
Crowther, a native Yoruba speaker, was taught to speak and read in English. This enabled his continuing education. He was an outstanding student who excelled in language studies. He even had the opportunity to further his studies in England. After he returned to Freetown, Crowther qualified as a teacher and taught at Fourah Bay College. This was a tertiary college established in Freetown by the CMS to train capable men for Christian service within Africa. He was assisted by Susan Asano, whom he later married.
Coming To Christ
Most crucially, it was during his time in Freetown that Crowther converted to the Christian faith. He was baptised into the Anglican Church in the December of 1825. He took the name Samuel Crowther at his baptism in honour of a CMS clergyman in England. It is in the merging of his faith and his love for languages that Crowther was to make a significant impact.
May I ever have a fresh desire to be engaged in the service of Christ, for it is perfect freedom!
His 1837 letter sums up his experience. “May I ever have a fresh desire to be engaged in the service of Christ, for it is perfect freedom! …Thus the day of my captivity was to me a blessed day, when considered in this respect; though certainly it must be unhappy also, in my being deprived on it of my father, mother, sister and all other relations.”
Africans Reaching Africans
Crowther’s missionary career began in 1841. He took part in the Niger Expedition, led by James Schön. His linguistic skills contributed significantly to the success of the mission. But, more importantly, his participation convinced him that any successful evangelisation of inland Africa must be carried out by Africans speaking African languages. This conviction led to further studies in England and his ordination to the Anglican priesthood in 1843.
Any successful evangelisation of inland Africa must be carried out by Africans speaking African languages
Returning to Africa, Crowther worked with the missionary Henry Townsend to open a mission in Abeokuta (presently the Ogun State of Nigeria). Because Yoruba was the language of the local people, the mission worked in Yoruba. Providentially, it was here that Crowther was reunited with some of his family. He was instrumental in the conversion of his mother and sister. It was also here that Crowther compiled his A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language (read free online here). He also began to translate the Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer into Yoruba.
Henry Venn & The ‘Three Self’ Slogans
In 1841, Henry Venn was appointed as Secretary of the CMS. Venn believed that African Christians should aim to take over the leadership, expansion, and funding of the African Anglican churches rather than being reliant on continued British missionary oversight and financial assistance. His thinking was summed up in the “three self” slogans: self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting.
Crowther supported Venn’s vision for the African Anglican church; Venn, in turn, saw Samuel Ajayi Crowther as the man who could potentially prove the viability of his vision. So, in 1857, Venn sent Crowther to set up and head a new mission on the Niger. The entire mission staff was African. A new day for the African church seemed to be dawning.
Samuel Crowther: A Reluctant Bishop
Venn knew that if the African Anglican church were to become truly independent it would need African leaders. As such, he was instrumental in Crowther’s ordination as the first African Anglican bishop in 1864 at Canterbury Cathedral. Crowther’s official title was “Bishop of the countries of Western Africa beyond the Queen’s dominions.” Crowther himself was reluctant to be a bishop. Yet he humbly accepted the appointment after much persuasion.
Crowther was reluctant to be a bishop, yet he humbly accepted the appointment
Highs and Lows
In many ways, the Niger Mission years were productive ones for Crowther. He performed his duties as bishop and head of the mission. Crowther also continued his linguistic work, completing his translation of the Bible into Yoruba in the mid-1880s. He likewise did significant linguistic and translation work in other African languages, including Igbo, Hausa and Nupe. Crowther was also successful in pioneering an early form of Christian-Muslim dialogue in some Niger territories. The mission also established many successful schools that provided quality education for west Africans.
The mission established many successful schools that provided quality education for west Africans
But it was not all plain sailing. Because of the “three self” policy’s emphasis on self-funding, the mission was often short of money and missionaries were overworked. Tensions were also present between the African missionaries and the parent body, CMS. By the late 1870s, Venn had died and an aging Crowther was facing increasing challenges to his authority.
An Opportunity Lost
A dispute between Crowther and a white CMS missionary in 1878 resulted in a CMS audit of Crowther’s mission. The audit charged fifteen of the twenty-five African staff with corruption and dismissed them. By the mid-1880s, after further conflicts, the CMS had dismissed, suspended, or transferred all African missionaries and replaced them with Europeans. European financial control of the mission was also reinstated. Crowther, humiliated and heartbroken, resigned in protest. When he died of a stroke in December 1891, he was succeeded by a European bishop.
There was less support for Venn’s vision of an independent African church… A key opportunity had been lost.
This fitted in with a larger change in the character of European missions that was gaining momentum toward the end of the nineteenth century. A new crop of British and European missionaries was available and eager to serve in African missions. As such, there was less support for Venn’s vision of an independent African church. At the same time, doubts about indigenous leadership were being raised. Crowther’s Niger Mission was cited as evidence that African Christians were not yet ready (morally or practically) to take effective leadership of their church. A key opportunity had been lost. As Adrian Hastings comments, this event “damaged black and white church relations for many years.”
The Legacy of Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Samuel Ajayi Crowther is a fellow saint who should be remembered.
Samuel Ajayi Crowther was an incredibly gifted yet humble man. He was a great scholar, a pastor, and a faithful missionary. As a gifted linguist, he made a significant contribution to language studies and translation work in several African languages. He pioneered a new missionary vision and was instrumental in providing quality education to west Africans. He is a fellow saint who should be remembered.
The Shadow Of Power
There is at least one unfortunate theme to be observed in Crowther’s life. This theme is regrettably prevalent throughout human history and the Christian Church and missions have not avoided it.
As we seek to send missionaries and plant churches we must be aware of the destruction our love for power can cause
Towards the end of his life Samuel Ajayi Crowther was a victim of politics and man’s seeming inability to surrender power. Power and politics tend to go hand in hand.
It is difficult to see the audit and ultimate dissolution of Crowther’s mission as little more than British Christians insecurely seeking to retain power over the African Church and mission. This has played itself out countless times throughout our continent and history. As we seek to send missionaries and plant churches we must be aware of the destruction our love for power can cause.
Further Reading Recommendations:
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Jesse Page (1890). Samuel Ajayi Crowther: The Slave boy who became bishop of the Niger. Biography with note from Crowther himself.
A.F. Wall (1992). Crowther, Samuel Ajayi: 1807-1891. International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 16, (1), p15-21.