Note: This article includes quotes of racist comments. Wycliffe Bible Translators condemns this language, and the practices that went with it. We include them here in order to portray with integrity some of what Samuel Ajayi Crowther experienced and how he overcame great obstacles, and to celebrate the wonderful things God accomplished through him.
‘...the “Sword of the Spirit” [the Bible], placed in the hands of the congregations, in their own tongue, will do more... than all our preaching, teaching and meetings of so many years put together’ – Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Dr Samuel Ajayi Crowther was the first African bishop in the Anglican Church and the first African Bible translator of the modern era.
In 1889, the 80-year-old Crowther celebrated 25 years as bishop. Yet just a few years later, when the World Missionary Conference opened in 1910, there was not one African amongst all the missionaries gathered in Edinburgh. Plans were drawn up to ‘carry the Gospel to all the non-Christian world’, but those plans apparently did not acknowledge that in most areas of church growth on the African continent, the vast majority of missionaries were black. For example, in 1906, the Church Mission Society (CMS) had 8,850 missionaries known at the time as ‘native agents’ compared to 975 ‘European missionaries’.1
Widely known as a gentle, modest man, Crowther was responsible for successfully opening up the Niger to the gospel as a missionary bishop for CMS. He employed a compelling dialogue approach, using local languages and the Scriptures. Indeed, he translated the entire Bible into Yoruba (spoken mainly in West Africa, including Crowther’s home in what is now Nigeria). Yoruba was, after all, his mother tongue.
These facts alone deserve celebration. His Bible translation was also remarkably effective, and his approach to the study and practice of mission was way ahead of its time – even more cause for re-appraising his extraordinary life.
At the age of 12, Ajayi (who hadn’t yet taken the name Samuel Crowther) was captured by Fulani slave traders from his home town of Osugun in what is now Oyo State, Nigeria. He ended up in the Lagos slave market, where he was sold to Portuguese traders who put him on a ship.
This ship was then attacked by a British anti-slavery warship. Of the 189 enslaved people on board, 102 died in the attempt to rescue them, but Ajayi survived and was taken by the British navy to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Here he was placed in a CMS school, where he learnt English and was taught the Scriptures. Along with many others, he decided to follow Christ and, in 1825, was baptised. At that time it was common to take a new name at baptism. Indeed, missionaries were known to insist on it.2 It was at this point that Ajayi took the name Samuel Crowther after a CMS pioneer.
Crowther briefly attended school in Islington, London, before returning to Freetown, where he entered Fourah Bay College in 1827, the year of its founding. He later taught Latin and Greek there. It was at this time that he met Asano, the woman who was to be his wife of 50 years, a Muslim-background believer who had also been enslaved. She had taken the baptismal name Susan. He also helped the CMS missionaries in their study of African languages. His reputation grew such that when, in 1841, CMS decided to launch its Niger Expedition, Crowther was asked to be part of the company. However, the expedition was considered a disaster. Europeans could not yet safely venture inland, and 40 of the 45 Europeans on the expedition died of malaria.
This experience prompted James Schön, a CMS linguist, to recommend in his report that ‘Africans be used for evangelism amongst their people’. Crowther was consequently ordained in London in 1843 and then returned to Abeokuta in what is now Nigeria. Here he was reunited with his mother and sisters, who he had not seen in 24 years. He now applied himself to the Yoruba spelling system, and then started translating the Bible.
In 1843, he published his first Yoruba grammar and vocabulary and in 1852 he published a translation of four New Testament books. Crowther and his assistant, Thomas King, continued to work on the Yoruba translation of the Bible for much of the rest of his life. He also researched and promoted significant work in Nupe, Igbo and other languages. His research eventually led to his receiving a doctorate from Oxford University. The whole Yoruba Bible was published in 1884.
Crowther was consecrated in 1864 as the Anglican bishop of ‘West Africa Beyond the British Territories’ (a region around the Niger River). There was opposition to this, even from close collaborators. One such, Rev Henry Townsend, drafted a petition stating that ‘no matter what the worth of an African bishop would be, he would lack the respect and influence necessary for such a high office’. He held the appalling belief that God had, in his words, ‘given talent to the whites’.3
Even the argument ‘for’ making Crowther a bishop was expressed in ways we would find unacceptable: ‘men such as Crowther, with British habits and education grafted upon their African constitutions, will become pioneers throughout Africa, and raise the emulation of their brethren by showing them that ability, though covered with a black skin, was appreciated and rewarded.’4
These achievements were all discarded by those who followed
Crowther was successful in many different ways, but colonial and racist attitudes were in the ascendancy by the 1880s. The Berlin (‘Scramble for Africa’) Conference had taken place and the discovery of quinine to treat malaria meant Europeans were no longer dependent on local people to travel inland. Rev J A Robinson had been appointed secretary of the Yoruba and Niger Missions in 1887. He wrote in a report that ‘the Negro race lack every sign of ruling prowess’.5 In 1890, Crowther resigned in protest at comments like this. He died the following year. An Englishman took his place as bishop.
This ending to Crowther’s story is all the more disturbing because everything in the 1820s seemed to point in a better direction: rescue from slavery, completing a fine education and stepping into church leadership and translation work. These achievements were all discarded by those who followed. In the next 90 years, there would be less progress in Bible translation in Nigeria than there had been in the previous 30.
‘With the use of African languages in Scripture, prayer, worship, and study, Crowther formulated terms for Christianity as an African religion.’
Crowther, along with his friend and CMS General Secretary Henry Venn, acknowledged what they called ‘the vernacular principle’ in mission. That is to say, there is no special, sacred language nor one cultural expression of the faith. Towards the end of his life, Crowther reflected on his Bible translation work, ‘The more I think of it, the more I feel its importance, that it is the base of the spiritual success of all our missionary operations, for the ‘Sword of the Spirit’ [the Bible], placed in the hands of the congregations, in their own tongue, will do more to convince and convert them than all our preaching, teaching and meetings of so many years put together.’6
Today, speakers of over 200 languages are in need of Bible translation in Nigeria, but since the late 1970s vision and leadership has again been spreading across the nation’s vibrant churches. Wycliffe supports training in Nigerian graduate institutions and partners with a range of national organisations to help meet these needs. Click here to read about some of the work of Bible translation in Nigeria today.
The late Dr Lamin Sanneh succinctly summed up Crowther’s achievements as follows: ‘With the use of African languages in Scripture, prayer, worship, and study, Crowther formulated terms for Christianity as an African religion.’7
1. Brian Stanley, The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Nottingham: Apollos, 1990, p71f.
2. Ihechukwu Madubuike, ‘Decolonization of African Names’ in Présence Africaine, No 98, pp39–49. Online: JSTOR, 1976, jstor.org/stable/24349783.
3. J F Ade Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841–91. London: Longman, 1969, p181.
4. Quoted in Jean Herskovits Kopytoff, A Preface to Modern Nigeria: The “Sierra Leonians” in Yoruba, 1830–1890. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965, p7.
5. Quoted in article on Samuel Ajayi Crowther by Dr Matthew Oluremi Owadayo. In: online Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Online: DACB, 1990, dacb.org/stories/nigeria/crowther4-samajayi.
6. Dandeson Crowther, The Establishment of the Niger Delta Pastorate, self-supporting, during the Episcopacy of the Rt. Rev. Bishop S. A. Crowther, D.D., 1864–1892. Thompson: 1907, p31.
7. Lamin Sanneh, ‘The C.M.S. and the African Transformation: Samuel Ajayi Crowther and the Opening of Nigeria’. In: Kevin Ward and Brian Stanley (eds), The Church Mission Society and World Christianity, 1799–1999. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 2000, p184f.