This Sunday 29th of June will mark the 150 years anniversary since Samuel Ajayi Crowther was ordained as the first African bishop in the Canterbury Cathedral in England. While this is worth celebrating, it is important to understand the life of Samuel Ajayi Crowther and learn from his pioneering role.
Samuel Ajayi was born in a little town called Osogun, now is Oyo State, Nigeria in 1810. His parents gave him the name Ajayi as a symbol of importance. On one sunny bright afternoon, his town was raided by 2,000 strong men on horses who were 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 were sold to different slaves masters. He was finally sold off to the Portuguese traders at the Lagos slave market. As the Portuguese slave traders were shipping him with other enslaved Africans, their ship was intersected by the British anti-slavery warship. The Portuguese ship was attacked and destroyed.
Ajayi was one of the people rescued and he with the other people rescued were taken to Sierra Leone. He was treated very well and was placed in a Church Missionary Society (CMS) school where he learned to read and write. Ajayi had a great passion for learning and he applied himself to learn everything that he could. Within six months of his arrival at Sierra Leone, he became a teacher in a local school. Ajayi began to learn about God who, he believed won his freedom for him therefore he decided to devote himself to His service. Ajayi noted that he was not only saved from slavery but also from sin. On the 11th of December 1825, he was baptised and he named himself after the Vicar of Christ’s Church, Newgate, London (Samuel Crowther). Ajayi made his first visit to London in 1826 and this left an impression on him. He returned to Sierra Leone becoming a government teacher and got engaged to an ex-slave girl, Asano. Asano was educated as well as she could read and write. She was baptised with the name Susan Thompson. They got married and lived happily for about 50 years.
Ajayi enrolled as one of the first set of students in Fourah Bay College in 1828, the first higher institution in West Africa and Bible College. He later taught Greek and Latin at the college. 1841 marks the beginning of what is popularly known as the Niger Expedition. CMS was interested in expanding its mission work in the Niger-delta region in Nigeria. Rev Schon, one of the CMS missionaries 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. Rev Schon recommended to the CMS that Africans should be used in evangelising 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. He went back to Sierra Leone and was given a rousing welcome. He preached his first sermon in English and another in Yoruba. He went to Abeokuta in Nigeria with Rev Henry Townsend and began missionary work among the Ijebu people in Abeokuta. He also began translating the Bible into some of the African languages. One example is the Yoruba Bible called Bibeli Mimo.
Henry Venn, one of the CMS leaders recommended Ajayi to be consecrated as Bishop of the Niger-delta. Ajayi refused arguing that he was not seeking any honour but only wanted to serve Christ. After lots of appeal and persuasion from Venn, Ajayi accepted and was consecrated the first African Bishop on the 29th of June 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. Towards 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 where reproted and investigated in Ajayi’s diocese. This investigation sidelined Ajayi’s authority and concluded that whilst he was inocent, the people he had trained were not therefore they were dismissed. This broke the heart of the Bishop and he died not long after that in 1891.
In conclusion, Bishop 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 pseudo sciences of the seventeen and eighteen century. He challenged this perceptions and ideology by his literatures, bible translation work and character. He was a humble man who saw the goodness of God in redeeming him twice. While he believed that Africans needed African clergies to evangelise, he always respects and speaks highly of European mission efforts to Africa. He was the bridge between Africans and Europeans and was most of the time misunderstood by both. His lifelong goal was to serve God and that he did. It is in memory of his pioneering of African Christianity and mission that Ajayi Crowther Centre for African Mission is founded and is organising a conference (Missio Africanus) on the 27th of June at Crowther Hall, Birmingham Christian College in Selly Oak to celebrate his consecration as the first African bishop.