19th Century Black Missionaries
At the beginning of the 19th century very
few people in Africa were practising Christians apart from Ethiopians,
Coptic Egyptians and people living in the remnants of the Kongolese Empire
(modern Congo Brazzaville and western DR Congo).
The abolition of slave owning in 1807 and slave trading in 1834, throughout
the British Empire proved to be two important turning points. Outlawing
the slave trade and converting freed slaves became a powerful motive for
setting up European Christian missions. Human compassion in Europe for
the plight of slaves meant that money could be raised to fund the considerable
expenses of setting up a mission.
FREED SLAVE COLONIES
Sierra Leone and Liberia, both colonies
set up by freed slaves, became important centres of Christian practice
in West Africa by the 1830's. The freed slaves who arrived in these colonies,
who came from America, were already Christians when they arrived. Liberia's
first President J. R. Roberts was a man of Christian piety as well as
"…The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.
He works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform, though it seems
hard at this time, God does all things well for them that love and fear
You cannot tell what cause he had thought proper to remove your husband
from this world of bustle and confusion, for his part, he is gone to the
realms above, he is gone to Abraham's bosom and expects to meet you there."
Roberts' letter to Mrs. Colson, the widow of his great friend and business
partner, Mr. Colson, on the occasion of that man's death in 1836.
THE FIRST AFRICAN BISHOP
Christian missionaries knew that if Christianity
was to flourish, Africans would have to be ordained. Samuel Ajayi Crowther
was one of the most famous African representatives of a European church
(in this case the Anglican Church).
He was the first African Bishop in the Anglican church. And he was a formidably
able man. He had been taken as a slave around 1822, but the slave ship
in which he was held was intercepted and he was taken to Freetown. He
was educated and baptised and sent to London for further instruction.
He kept his own name Ajayi, but also took the name Crowther from a member
of the Church Missionary Society (CMS).
He was commissioned by the CMS to set up the Niger Mission; the first
expedition to do so resulted in the death of a third of the party, all
of which Crowther carefully documented in his journal. He supervised the
setting up of a mission in Badagry, and later Abeokuta, (both in the south
west of Nigeria), steering a difficult path between rulers in the region,
some hostile to Christianity, some of whom were in conflict with each
other. He later met Queen Victoria and read the Lord's prayer to her in
the Nigerian language of Yoruba, which she described as soft and melodious.
His missionary work expanded outside Yorubaland in south west Nigeria,
founding a mission station in Onitsha, in the East of the territory.
He published many works including the first written grammar of the Yoruba
language and first Nupe grammar. In 1864, against considerable opposition
from jealous fellow missionary Henry Townsend (another Niger Mission missionary),
Crowther was made Bishop of 'Western Equatorial Africa' beyond the Queen's
A generation after Samuel Crowther, another formidable African churchman
emerged in Nigeria: the Anglican priest, the Reverend J. J. Ransome Kuti.
He carried out his ministry in defiance of the traditional priests with
total confidence, as vividly described by Wole Soyinka in his autobiography
"… Rev J.J. was away on one of his many mission
tours. He travelled a lot, on foot and on bicycle, keeping in touch with
all the branches of his diocese and spreading the Word of God. There was
frequent opposition but nothing deterred him.
One frightening experience occurred in one of the villages in Ijebu. He
had been warned not to preach on that particular day, which was the day
for an egungun outing, but he persisted and held a service. The egungun
procession passed while the service was in progress and using his ancestral
voice, called on the preacher to stop at once, disperse his people and
come out to pay obeisance. Rev J.J. ignored him.
The egungun then left, taking his followers with him but, on passing the
main door, he tapped on it with his wand three times. Hardly had the last
member of his procession left the church premises then the building collapsed.
The walls simply fell down and the roof disintegrated.
Miraculously however, the walls fell outwards - anywhere but on the congregation
itself. Rev J.J. calmed the worshippers, paused in his preaching to render
a thanksgiving prayer, then continued his sermon..."
In East Africa, Christianity was carefully
considered by the Kabaka Mutesa, who started out favouring Islam but turned
to Christianity in old age. His son Kabaka Mwanga was at first favourably
disposed towards Christians, but under pressure from factional intrigue
among his chiefs he constantly changed his mind about religion. He ordered
the murder of Anglican Bishop Hannington, who was on his way to see him,
and had a number of Christian pages murdered - the pages are sometimes
referred to as 'readers' because they learnt to read when they became
Christian. He was ousted from office for some years by his own chiefs,
later reinstalled and finally sent into exile by the British.
& CATHOLICS IN BUGANDA
"…Mwanga (Kabaka or King of Buganda in
exile) sent us a written proposal, saying, 'I wish to return to my
throne,' we invited him and he ran away from the Catholics and returned
to us and we restored him to the throne.
Further we assigned to all the Catholics a district of Uganda, viz.
Budu, and there they lived apart. We told them, 'we do not wish to
mix with the Catholics again.'
At the present time we Protestants have possessed ourselves of a very
large district and all the islands; and now the Mohammedans (Muslims)
are applying to us to assign them a district, where they may settle
and cease fighting with us: but the terms are not yet finally agreed
from Anglican missionary, Henry Wright Duta Kitakule, to a missionary in
Zanzibar, April 1892.
BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES
The line between Christian and African religious practice was not always very clearcut. In West Africa, a broad spectrum of religious beliefs emerged - traditional beliefs, Islam and Christianity flourishing side by side, sometimes in the same family. Nigerian politician, Chief Awolowo Obafemi, recounts the religious beliefs of his parents in the early 1900's. Of his mother he says,
"After her marriage to my father, even though
she attended church regularly with my father and discharged all her financial
obligations as well as rendering voluntary services to the church, she remained
unbaptised, and a mere proselyte at the gate.
It was a condition precedent to the consent to her marriage with father,
stipulated by her parents, that she should not be baptised, and admitted
to the Christian fold. Her mother worshipped the river god (Oluweri, i.e.
Owner and Ruler of the Rivers).
When she gave birth to my mother, she had dedicated her to this god of the
rivers, and she was not going to break her vow under any circumstances.
Though mother, after her marriage, learnt to read in the vernacular and
was, thereafter, able to read the Bible, the Prayer Book, and to sing hymns,
and though she continued to attend church after father's death, it was some
years after her own mother's death that I succeeded in getting her to break
her mother's vow to the river god, and become a baptised Christian."
The first African Catholics Bishops were
not appointed until 1939 - Joseph Kiwanuka in Uganda and Joseph Faye in
Senegal. Elsewhere African missionaries were appointed by the Presbyterian
Church in Cameroun in 1896. Many people went to study in America and came
back to preach the word of God. Often, like John Chilembwe, branching out
on returning home to set up an independent African church.