African pioneer

Daily Reading for December 31 • Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Bishop in the Niger Territories, 1891

The person who made the crucial conjunction between the religion of the settlers and the mass of the African people was a Yoruba recaptive, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the foremost churchman of nineteenth-century Africa and a pioneer of the cause in his native Nigeria. . . . Born around 1806, the year before the abolition of the slave trade, Crowther came from the Yoruba town of Oshogun, where he was captured by invading Yoruba Muslim forces who sold him as a slave to a Portuguese slave ship in Lagos. By a series of remarkable coincidences he was eventually rescued, in April 1822, by the British Naval Squadron and brought to Freetown, where he came under missionary instruction. . . .

Crowther’s leadership was momentous for African Christianity: his translation of the Yoruba Bible was the first such translation into an African language. In addition to Yoruba, Crowther wrote in the Igbo, Hausa, and Nupe languages. On his visit to London in 1851 at the instigation of Henry Venn, Crowther had interviews with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and such was the effect of his meetings that he was able to move a reluctant British government to intervene in Nigeria against the continuing slave trade. British policy at this time was set by Lord John Russell’s government, and it was against further expansion in Africa. . . . Against the background of such official reluctance Crowther was commissioned to lead the missionary expansion beyond Sierra Leone. Ordained in London in 1843, he was authorized to resume the Niger Mission and, in effect, to become the leader of the outreach to Nigeria. . . .

Few events have changed the religious picture of Africa as significantly as the Niger Mission. With Sierra Leone as the launching stage, the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and in the 1890s the Roman Catholics all entered the delta because Crowther’s heroic exploits had demonstrated that it could be done. . . . Thousands of Africans began to enter the church, and although numerical expansion even in those days was impressive, in retrospect such expansion was only a trickle compared with the massive influx in the second half of the twentieth century, at the rate of 6 million annually, or 16,500 every twenty-four hours.

From Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa by Lamin O. Sanneh (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

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