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Samuel Crowther, the first African Bishop in the Anglican church
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.

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 enterprise.

"…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 him.

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."
Joseph 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.

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 Dominions.

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 Ake.

"… 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.

"…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 upon…"
Letter from Anglican missionary, Henry Wright Duta Kitakule, to a missionary in Zanzibar, April 1892.

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.