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Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther: The First African Bishop

The 150th anniversary of Samuel Ajayi Crowther’s ordination in England’s Canterbury Cathedral as the first African bishop was June 29.
While this is worth celebrating, it is important to understand Samuel’s life and learn from his pioneering role.

He was born Ajayi in a little town called Osogun, now Oyo State, Nigeria in 1810.

One afternoon while he was still young, Osogun was raided by slave traders. His father was probably killed during this raid, as he never saw him again.

Ajayi was captured with his mother and two sisters and sold to different slave masters.

He was eventually sold to Portuguese traders at the Lagos slave market in southwest Nigeria.

As the Portuguese were shipping him with other enslaved Africans, their ship was intercepted by a British anti-slavery warship.

Ajayi and the other people rescued were taken to Sierra Leone, where he was treated very well and was placed in a Church Missionary Society (CMS) school where he learned to read and write.
He had a great passion for learning and applied himself to learn everything that he could. Within six months of his arrival, he became a teacher in a local school.

Through his studies, Ajayi began to learn about God who he believed won his freedom, not only from slavery but also from sin, and, therefore, decided to devote himself to God’s service.

On Dec. 11, 1825, he was baptized, and named himself after the Vicar of Christ’s Church in Newgate, London, Samuel Crowther.

He became a government teacher in Sierra Leone and married a former slave named Asano, who was baptized with the name Susan Thompson. Asano was also educated and could read and write.

Ajayi enrolled as one of the first set of students in Fourah Bay College in 1827, the first higher institution in West Africa, where he would eventually teach Greek and Latin.

1841 marked the beginning of what is popularly known as the “Niger Expedition,” as CMS was interested in expanding its mission work in the Niger-Delta region.

James Schön, a CMS missionary, was sent with Ajayi and a company of other missionaries.

The mission did not succeed due to malaria, rejection of white missionaries, and other factors.

This failure led Schön to recommend that CMS send Africans to evangelize their own people.

To this end, Ajayi was invited to London in 1843 and was ordained into the Holy Orders of the Church of England and was made a minister in 1844.

When he returned to Sierra Leone, he was given a rousing welcome. He preached his first sermon in English and another in Yoruba—a prominent language in West Africa.

Soon after his return, he went to Abeokuta, Nigeria, with Henry Townsend, another CMS missionary, and began work among the Ijebu people.

During this time, Ajayi began translating the Bible into some of the African languages. One example is the Yoruba Bible called Bibeli Mimo.

CMS leader Henry Venn recommended Ajayi to be consecrated as bishop of the Niger-Delta.

While he initially refused on the basis that he was not seeking any honor but only wanted to serve Christ, Venn eventually persuaded him to accept.

Ajayi was consecrated the first African bishop on June 29, 1864, at the Canterbury Cathedral.

The same year, in recognition of his missionary contributions, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford.

Toward the end of his life, Ajayi’s missionary work in the Niger-Delta was called into question by two younger churchmen.

Accusations of fraudulent practices were reported and investigated in Ajayi’s diocese.

This investigation sidelined Ajayi’s authority and concluded that while he was innocent, the people he had trained were not; therefore, they were dismissed.

This deeply troubled Ajayi; he died not long after that in 1891.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther remains an iconic church leader in Africa and beyond due to his pioneering role as the first African bishop.

He operated at a time when black people were seen as inferior based on the pseudoscience of the 17th and 18th century.

He challenged this perceptions and ideology by his publications, Bible translation and character.

Ajayi was a humble man who saw the goodness of God in redeeming him twice.

He believed that Africans needed African clergies to evangelize but also respected and spoke highly of European mission efforts to Africa.

He served as a bridge between Africans and Europeans, and most of the time was misunderstood by both groups. His lifelong goal was to serve God and that he did.

It is in memory of his pioneering of African Christianity and mission that the Ajayi Crowther Centre for African Mission was founded.

Israel Olofinjana is the minister of Woolwich Central Baptist Church in South East London and the director of the Centre for Missionary from the Majority World. He is Nigerian, coming from a Pentecostal background, and is the author of several books, including “Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in Britain.” A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.