Samuel Crowther – The First African Anglican Bishop

Samuel Crowther – The First African Anglican Bishop

When a visiting missionary reunited with his mother in 1848, she must have hardly believed her eyes. It had been about 26 years since she had seen him. She had left him a young teenager named Ajayi. Now he was an ordained minister in the Church of England who went by the name Samuel Crowther.

Slavery and Freedom

            In his memories, Crowther recounts the events of the day when a group of Muslim slave traders raided his town. It was just before breakfast, when most men were out in the fields before the heat of the day. Helpless, the women and children ran for safety, but couldn’t get very far. The traders placed a rope around everyone’s necks and started to lead them away. Crowther and his family walked together for a while, then were separated. He never saw his father, who was not present at the raid but was later killed in another battle.

            Crowther was passed on from owner to owner until the following year, when he was placed with 190 other captives on a Portuguese slave ship near Lagos.

            The trip didn’t last long. The same evening, two Royal Navy ships which had been monitoring the waters in an effort to curb the slave trade (which had been abolished in Britain in 1803) intercepted the slave ship and freed the captives.

Preparing for the Ministry

            Taken to Freetown, Sierra Leone, Crowther was left in the care of missionaries of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). There, he learned to speak English and to read the Bible. In 1825, he was baptized as Samuel Crowther, after one of the first CMS members.

            Given his exceptional intelligence, he continued his studies, first at Islington parish school in London, then in the newly opened Fourah Bay College in Freetown. After graduation, he remained in the college as tutor. He also married a girl who had been on the same Portuguese slave ship, Asano, baptized as Susanna.

            The variety of nationalities among the liberated slaves in Freetown gave Crowther a chance to learn other African languages – a subject he found fascinating. In 1841, he was employed as interpreter for a missionary expedition in Lokojo, at the confluence of the Niger and Benue. The mission convinced him of his calling, so he returned to London to study for the ministry. He was ordained in 1843.

            At the same time, he worked on the Yoruba Vocabulary, meant to consolidate the Yoruba language and facilitate its study. This work, which standardized Yoruba spelling and included grammatical notes, is considered the first of its kind written by a native African, and laid the foundation for his translations of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer in that language.

Missionary and Linguist

            Soon after his ordination, Crowther joined the English missionary Henry Townsend on a mission to Abeokuta, in a Yoruba region of Nigeria. It was there that he unexpectedly saw his mother again. A few years later, he had the joy of baptizing her into the church.

            Although the mission encountered several problems, mostly because of the white missionaries’ difficulties with the environment and its diseases, Crowther’s abilities as missionary and linguist were noticed by CMS, and he was invited to England. Henry Venn, CMS’s Clerical Secretary, was particularly excited. Crowther was the perfect candidate for the realization of Venn’s vision of indigenous churches that are self-propagating, self-financing, and self-governing. Veen gave Crowther full authority over the Niger mission and staffed it entirely with Africans, mostly from Sierra Leone.

            In Britain, Venn filled Crowther’s visit with a long list of events, including a visit to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, in order to familiarize them with the missionary work in West Africa and request support. On that occasion, Crowther read the Lord’s Prayer in Yoruba, a language Queen Victoria described as “melodious.”

            Crowther’s missionary tour around Britain attracted much attention, and people crowded the churches where he spoke.

            In 1864, Crowther was ordained bishop of “Western Africa beyond the Queen’s dominion,” with the exclusion of Abeokuta and Lagos, where the European clergy refused to serve under an African. He was the first African bishop in the Church of England.

            Crowther’s mission prospered, particularly along the Niger delta, with new churches planted and even mass conversions. Wherever he went, Crowther opened schools and established a work of translation. He was also able to build good relations with the local rulers, including Muslim rulers, by using the treasury of experience he had built up in Sierra Leone. His notes on how he conversed with Muslims have been helpful to other missionaries.

A Difficult Twilight

While Crowther strove to live a blameless life, the same could not be said of some of the Africans he had appointed, especially in remote outposts where he could not exercise proper supervision. Because of this, some European missionaries who had nurtured doubts about Venn’s plan of indigenous churches obtained CMS’s permission to travel to Africa to reinforce Crowther’s mission.

            The new missionary group was led by Graham Wilmot Brooke, an energetic 25-year old who had been influenced by the quest for perfectionism and higher spirituality of the recent Keswick Movement. (If you hear Christians speak of “carnal Christians” and “spiritual Christians,” or of “getting saved” at one age and “surrendering to Christ” at a later time, they are following the Keswick movement, whether they realize it or not.)

            To Brooke and the other young missionaries in his party, Crowther’s emphasis on creeds, confessions, and education sounded outdated. They strove on creating the same excitement of the Keswick movement in the Niger delta, often disregarding cultural differences. They also laid numerous (mostly false) charges against Crowther and his African clergy, demanding his resignation.

            This criticism caused Crowther much heartache. In the end, it succeeded in persuading CMS that the methods envisioned by Venn (who had died in 1873) were impractical. While not giving in to Brooke’s demands for Crowther’s resignation, CMS came to a compromise by dividing the area and making Brooke the leader of the areas in the northern half of the Niger.

            When the European party persuaded CMS to suspend many African clergymen, including Crowther’s youngest son, Archdeacon Dandeson, the African churches had enough, and launched an all-out rebellion that ended in a secession from CMS. This resulted in the Niger Delta Pastorate, which declared itself self-governing within the Anglican church.

            The whole ordeal weakened Samuel Crowther, who was now in his eighties, and might have been partially responsible for the stroke that afflicted him in July 1891. Crowther died five months later.

            Ultimately, many of the new European missionaries fell prey of the same unfamiliar diseases that had killed other Europeans before them. Brooke himself died in 1892 of blackwater fever (a complication of malaria).

            Long forgotten, Samuel Crowther is now receiving new appreciation as church leader, linguist, and pioneer of missionary methods and approaches that respect religious and cultural upbringings without compromising biblical teachings.


Simonetta Carr