The Triumph and Tragedy of Anglicanism’s First African Bishop
Chances are you’ve never heard of Samuel Ajayi Crowther. His story has largely gone untold in the Western Church, and yet we could learn a great deal from his heart for the lost and his commitment to biblical missions. From the time of his boyhood conversion, Crowther understood the gospel at a deeply personal level and worked tirelessly to bring that gospel to his own countrymen. A rough contemporary of Spurgeon, Crowther became one of the most influential figures in African missions.
CROWTHER’S LIFE AND MINISTRY
Born Ajayi Crowther in what is now Western Nigeria, he was kidnapped as a 12-year-old boy by Muslim raiders and eventually sold to Portuguese slave traders. Shortly after his ship set sail for South America—where he was bound for a life of hard labor—it was intercepted by the British Navy, who rescued him and brought him to Sierra Leone. There, he was educated and converted in British missionary schools. Later in life, Crowther remarked that he was not only saved from a life of physical slavery, but also from slavery to sin. Displaying a particular affinity for Christianity and remarkable intelligence, he eventually left for England to continue his education and became a minister. Upon returning to Africa, he worked his way up the ranks of the missionary church and became the first black bishop in the Anglican Church.
Crowther worked closely with Henry Venn and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) to evangelize both pagans and Muslims in the region. He launched several wildly successful missionary expeditions up the Niger River, despite the dangers of both disease and violent retaliation from the natives. Like many missionaries before him, Crowther knew the spread of the gospel was worth the risk, so much so that he wrote in 1841: “Not more than two furlongs from us, are a people who know no heaven, who fear no hell; they are aliens from the covenants of promise, being without Christ and without hope in the world.”
Like David Livingstone before him, Crowther advocated the “Bible and the plough” missionary philosophy. This concept paired economic development with the propagation of the gospel. Crowther worked with British missionaries to establish churches and schools along the interior of Nigeria, offering natives education and manual training. He sought to develop locals who would be qualified to lead the church plants once the missionaries departed. As a result, an unparalleled number of Nigerians reached high-church positions. The CMS leadership quickly came to respect Crowther’s zeal for the gospel and love for his countrymen. In a colonial era not known for its ideals of racial equality, Henry Venn wrote of Crowther, “Here I felt to him as much drawing and knitting of soul as to my own brother… God destines him for a great work. I should rejoice to be a helper, however, to him.” The middle of the nineteenth century proved to be a fruitful era of cooperation between British missionaries and native converts.
Gradually, however, British mission philosophies shifted. Where Venn had insisted on his missionaries working themselves out of the job and leaving local clergy in their stead, younger missionaries grew too accustomed to the reverence they received as church leaders and consequently hesitated to abandon leadership positions they’d worked so hard to build. Not surprisingly, the British annexation of Lagos (modern-day Nigeria) and the introduction of colonialism also had a negative impact on missionary-native relations. It became increasingly difficult to preach the brotherhood of all men and women under Christ while simultaneously exploiting Africans for their natural resources. Sadly, missionaries slowly adopted the mindset of colonial conquerors who sought to liberate the natives from barbarism; they no longer saw them as fellow sinners in need of grace. Because of this, the notion of serving under an African on the mission field became untenable, and many British missionaries resisted the rise of a native pastorate.
Despite his missionary success and his well-respected reputation as a bishop, Crowther eventually became the target of racist sentiment. A younger wave of missionaries—upset with the gradual, consistent evangelism that Crowther perpetuated—publicly defamed and then successfully removed him from his office, even as the accusations against him were almost unanimously refuted. Crowther was certainly not perfect, but by the time people realized the allegations against him held little merit, it was too late; the damage to his reputation had been done. He eventually died, having never recovered his bishopric in Niger. What’s more, the man he recommended to replace him was ultimately rejected. Their stated reason for rejection has survived: “To place our own missionaries under the independent jurisdiction of a native bishop would certainly not be acceptable or convenient.”
LESSONS FROM CROWTHER’S LIFE AND MINISTRY
1. Upholding a biblical understanding of conversion might seem odd, but it’s worth it.
In his efforts to establish a native church, Crowther displayed uncommon restraint. He didn’t want to create a mass of loosely affiliated converts, nor did he concern himself with rapidity and reproduction. Instead, he looked for new converts to display genuine faith that manifests itself in repentance and obedience. In a move that may seem counterintuitive to our modern church-growth philosophies, Crowther required his converts to go through rigorous baptism classes before they could join the church. He knew how common it was for new believers to profess Christianity in exchange for the benefits missionaries could offer, only to disappear from church when it became inconvenient. Crowther offered no cheap grace; a convert needed to understand the gospel and what it meant to forsake all for the cause of Christ.
And yet, Crowther’s churches never seemed to be lacking new converts. The Nigerian church he established continued to grow into what is now the second largest province in the Anglican Communion. Today, nearly 200 years later, it remains deeply committed to Scripture over and against the growth of Western liberalism.
2. The goal is to equip local churches with local leaders.
Crowther believed a healthy native church required local leaders. He eagerly promoted Henry Venn’s four-part mission strategy: 1) evangelize the native population; 2) train leaders; 3) establish the native pastorate; and 4) move on to virgin lands. Every missionary’s goal was simple: make yourself unnecessary.
In many ways, this reflected the exhortations and example of the Apostle Paul who commanded Timothy and Titus to train and appoint elders in every town (2 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 1:5), and who himself appointed elders “in every church” on his missionary journeys (Acts 14:23). Once Crowther established a native pastorate according to this strategy, guess what? It worked! Due to their knowledge of local languages and customs and their immunity to tropical diseases, locals proved to be more effective witnesses to and ministers of the gospel. The CMS successfully created many self-sufficient local churches that were led local believers. All this helped to establish a distinctly African, orthodox Christianity.
3. Whatever you do, don’t forget the gospel.
According to Crowther, colonialism wasn’t the only factor that led to the philosophical downturn among British missionaries. Crowther believed his own countrymen were no more lost than the English. He knew that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and any alleged “superiority” of British morals wasn’t inherent to any man or nation. Simply put, the actions of early missionaries reflected a developed theology of original sin.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last, as a mass movement at Cambridge resulted in a new wave of well-educated, overzealous young men who entered the mission field more focused on finding fault with the natives than seeing their own need for God’s grace. These new missionaries elevated European cultural values and lamented that natives didn’t live up to their standards for what a Christian should look like. Many resisted both training and appointing local leaders because they considered themselves as vital to the success of their churches. The last stages of Venn’s plan were often neglected. Unsurprisingly, this change in policy strained relations between British missionaries and the natives, once accustomed to being treated as equals.
When we forget the gospel, the results will be disastrous. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3 that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” It can be tempting to overvalue our own contribution to the church and feel a sense of entitlement over our fruitful ministry, but we must remember God is not one to share his glory. He chooses to work through the weak and foolish to shame those who think too highly of themselves. Sadly, these nineteenth-century British missionaries seem to have forgotten all this—and in so doing they forgot the gospel
And yet . . . Christ’s church continued to prosper in Nigeria, just as it’s always done since the apostolic age. Crowther’s legacy eventually recovered, and he is now remembered as an imperfect man with a zealous desire to make Christ known among his people.
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AUTHOR’S NOTE: Below are some resources for anyone interested in learning more about Crowther. As I mentioned at the outset of my article, he is not particularly well known and so much of what has been written of him is only accessible through university libraries and CMS archives. Nevertheless, I would recommend any of these resources for further reading.