Racial tension in mission

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Racial tension in mission: reviewing the Niger mission crisis (1875-97) and its implications for mission

by Emmanuel A.S. Egbunu


The sustained replanting of Christianity in Nigeria in 1842, which went beyond the coastlines to the interior, was like light penetrating darkness, bringing the transformation of the gospel to spiritually unenlightened world views.1 CMS was the most visible player in this venture, and the acronym CMS still evokes nostalgia among many native communities in Nigeria as the midwife of Christianity with its associated benefits of western education and health facilities, among others. The earliest generations of elite and nationalists – both Christian converts and those who stuck to their religious beliefs – have traced their formation to these initiatives. CMS therefore enjoys the undisputed reputation of a benefactor institution.

Furthermore, the recaptives (liberated Africans) saw the rehabilitation efforts by CMS, sequel to the abolition of slave trade, as the restoration of their humanity from the shackles and dehumanisation of slavery – that blot on the African and western consciences.

Sooner or later, however, history always places events in the dock, and the sweet and the sour, the sentimental and the unsavoury, are cast in inescapable motifs that constrain a rethink. The Niger Mission Crisis is no exception. That dark period in the otherwise laudable CMS Niger mission encounter has been described as “the turning of the tide” (Ade-Ajayi), that period in the 1880s being “a transitional period, a decade of conflict and bitter racial feeling, of schismatic movements in all the existing missions, except of course, the Catholic”.2 Olaseinde Ajayi refers to the period 1873–85 as “the end of an era… the gathering storm”,3 highlighting the early administrative issues that insinuated that the African mission agents were unfit for any meaningful work in the mission. Lamin Sanneh refers to it as “the debacle… years of turmoil”, highlighting how, by some unusual appointments, Edward Hutchinson, as lay secretary of CMS, undermined the legitimate roles of Bishop Crowther and virtually scandalised the enormous goodwill extended to the CMS by the native converts who were the chief beneficiaries of their intitiatives.4 Jesse Page writes about “storm clouds” and “the crucible” but considered it needless to recount issues that had passed with time.5

The hopeful years and the first signs of racial tensions

Two key players come into focus in the administrative contrasts that played out – favourably at first, and tragically at a later stage. They are Henry Venn (CMS general secretary 1841–1873) and Hutchinson (lay secretary 1872–82), whose roles were critical in the events that have shaped history in different directions.

Henry Venn’s three-selfs principle of a native church that would be self-propagating, self-financing and self-governing advocated that the foreign missionary should move on to the regions beyond, which would allow “the euthanasia of a mission”.

The rescued slave boy Samuel Ajayi Crowther became the principal actor in this hopeful venture. He kept close to his heart the unrepayable debt of gratitude he owed to CMS. He was rescued on 7 April 1822 by an English patrol ship (men-of-war) and nurtured by CMS in Sierra Leone. Whatever he became thereafter he owed to the kind-heartedness of CMS. They taught him the gospel, baptised him (on 11 December 1925), trained him, put him on the second Niger expedition in 1841, and influenced his ordination in 1843 and his subsequent consecration as bishop in 1864. Venn, the CMS general secretary, might well be called the chief architect of much of these developments. There was much goodwill and commitment from the supporting churches in England as reports from the mission field acquainted them with the progress and needs of the mission. His charge at his first synod in 1866 captures much of this.

The momentous drama in which Bishop Crowther was intended as the sacrificial victim had been confidently staged on the dismantled policy of Henry Venn, with missionary lightweights propped up to challenge Crowther’s Episcopal authority and alienate his achievement.

As the possibility of Crowther becoming a bishop crystallised, Henry Townsend, also a pioneer CMS missionary, based in Abeokuta, mobilised every possible effort to resist this on racial grounds, until it became unconcealed rivalry and hostility. His correspondence with the CMS home office was filled with arguments emphasising white supremacy over the black man, sometimes using inflammatory language, sometimes even contradicting himself. According to him, “Native teachers of whatever grade have been received and respected by the chiefs and people only as being the agents or servants of white men…”6

Townsend was so strong in his distrust of black leadership that he opposed the ordination of even people like T. B. Macaulay, who had been trained at the same CMS training institution at Islington where he himself had been trained. The same objection was extended to Theophilus King, who had been a capable catechist at Lokoja in 1841 and had trained at Fourah Bay College, becoming Crowther’s able assistant in translation. As Townsend put it, “I have great doubt of young black clergymen. They want years of experience to give stability to their characters; we would rather have them as schoolmasters and catechists.”7 His views were shared by most of the white missionaries, and at a point the CMS home office felt constrained to caution about the tone of his letters, which had become unworthy of his vocation.8

Evaluating the progress of the mission at the approach of its 65th anniversary, an article in the Church Missionary Intelligencer asks probing questions and provides hopeful answers. This evaluation saw much potential in the possibility of the African Christian being entrusted with the task ahead:
“Already the African Christian has been tried in this service. He has shown himself not only capable of understanding and receiving the truth of Christianity, but of communicating it to his fellow countrymen. On him the African climate exercises no malign influences; to him the languages of Africa present no impediment.”9

The writer became more specific in pointing to Ajayi Crowther:
“The native evangelist has been, tried and found to be reliable. We, at the first, doubted him, and feared to use him; but providential circumstances compelled us to bring him forward… He has been tried alone on the banks of the Niger. No white brother has stood by him there to counsel and direct him… Withdrawn from European superintendence, he has realized the presence of God, and walked conscientiously and in the fear of the Lord.”10

He asks where such an African clergyman could be found to be entrusted with the episcopal responsibility, and points to the positive testimony of CMS about the Revd Samuel Crowther, who by then had put in nearly 21 fruitful years of ordained ministry. “To delay any longer the native Episcopate would be unduly to retard the development of the native church.”

Crowther’s biographer, Jesse Page, remarks that on the day of his eventual consecration, 29 June 1864, it had been arranged that Crowther should be presented by the two colonial Bishops present, but in the palpable excitement of the event, “the Bishop of Winchester, with kindly thoughtfulness, stepped forward, and waving aside Bishop Nixon, took his place beside Crowther, so that on such an occasion a double honour should be rendered to the African prelate,” walking him up to the archbishop.11

Bishop Crowther’s ambiguous episcopal jurisdiction

Even though Henry Venn jubilantly called it the “full development of the native African church”,12 his enthusiasm was not shared by the other white missionaries on the field. Crowther’s jurisdiction was ambiguously delineated as “the countries of Western Africa beyond the limits of our dominions”. Unpacking that vague description, Ade-Ajayi traced it as “West Africa from the Equator to the Senegal, with the exception of the British colonies of Lagos, the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone”.13

In a diocese so vast, with a mandate so ambiguous, Crowther was based in Lagos for administrative convenience, and yet Lagos was not part of his diocese, for the whites were there , and it was not considered a good idea that white men should be seen to be under the authority of a black man.14 His work spread to Igboland but administrative problems and other difficulties like transportation and the lack of cooperation of the British traders and white colleagues like Townsend and the others in the Yoruba Mission made his ministry turbulent, especially towards the end. Venn had written, appealing to each of the European missionaries, “Be you a brother to Bishop Crowther. You will be abundantly repaid. God destines him for a great work. I should rejoice to be a helper, however, to him.”15 Townsend would have none of that, nor would any of the European missionaries. It was a shocking realisation for the Parent Committee.

Crowther faced other challenges, for most of the workers he recruited came from Sierra Leone and were more interested in comfortable conditions and their status than the sacrifices that the ministry demanded. Some of his assistants had serious moral lapses. In Bonny, for instance, a pioneer agent, J. K. Webber, raped a 10-year old schoolgirl, and there were similar cases about that same time. All these reflected badly on Crowther’s disciplinary competence.

Bishop Crowther’s humiliation

Things began to unfold very quickly as one thing led inevitably to another. The distrust in Crowther’s ability to run a “purely native mission” became louder.

When his mission supporters in England provided a steamer named Henry Venn for his missionary work, he placed it in the hands of an African merchant with the intention of making it pay its way by trading on the Niger and to provide for the mission from its profits. The European merchants insinuated that it would be used in competition with their business interests rather than propagating the gospel. Hutchinson, the sitting CMS lay secretary, overruled Crowther by appointing J. H. Ashcroft, a European lay agent to take over the financial and administrative responsibilities of the Niger mission. According to him, it was to relieve Bishop Crowther of the concerns about the temporal affairs of the mission and leave his “mind free for the more solemn and important spiritual duties”.16 It turned out to be actually a demotion for the bishop, for the steamer was hardly available to him even for his episcopal visits.

Though Bishop Crowther was willing to welcome Ashcroft, the administrative anomalies of this arrangement became evident, for the latter saw this position as one that placed him in supervision over Bishop Crowther himself. When the brewing power struggle surfaced and escalated into a full-blown crisis, Hutchinson had more confidence in the account of the European laymen than in Bishop Crowther, who was their own man. The racial and commercial discrimination could no longer be concealed. By 1880 a Commission of Inquiry was set up to look into the affairs of the mission. Dismissal of many African agents, new appointments and restructuring were arbitrarily carried out without sensitivity to the African personnel. The person and position of the venerable old bishop was rudely assaulted and he was constrained to dictate his resignation. Ade-Ajayi makes this sobering and haunting comment on the scenario:

“Few scenes could have been more painful to watch than the grey-haired old Bishop of over 80 active years, tormented and insulted by the young Europeans, trembling with rage as he never trembled before, as he got up to announce his resignation from the committee.”17

Unknown to Bishop Crowther, Revd J. B. Wood, the secretary of the finance committee, wrote a damaging report which charged African mission agents with serious offences and scandalous crimes ranging from immorality to manslaughter. It soon became public knowledge in England, while the bishop was still unaware. The lack of consensus in opinion at the home office concerning these damaging allegations, with no input from the bishop himself, necessitated the setting up of an investigation committee consisting of Hutchinson and Revd J. B. Whiting to investigate the situation more objectively. Revd Whiting was more sympathetic to the African perspective and the need for fair hearing. The meeting was held at Madeira in March 1881, but Wood, who wrote the report, was himself absent. Bishop Crowther however had his opportunity to defend the allegations by placing the accusations in context. Far-reaching decisions were taken to redress the situation: a training institution was recommended for Lokoja, and a pay rise was approved to encourage the African agents’ wives to give up trading and be fully devoted to the ministry with their husbands. Hutchinson, Ashcroft and Kirk, who were the key collaborators, either resigned or were dismissed. Within this turbulent period, Bishop Crowther suffered the loss of his mother and the prolonged ill health and eventual death of his dear wife.

Bishop Crowther’s limitation as a disciplinarian

It must be conceded that the charge of administrative incompetence brought against Bishop Crowther had to do with the discipline of his workers. In Ade-Ajayi’s view, however, Bishop Crowther was a pastor at heart and was not inclined to hastily apply dismissal on erring staff. Rather, he preferred the gentle and hopeful option of suspension as an opportunity for reflection, repentance and restoration. He was more concerned about reclaiming the prodigal rather than losing them. Ade-Ajayi however concedes that “for a pioneer he was too reasonable, too soft a disciplinarian”. That notwithstanding, the insolence of the young missionaries who came to discredit Bishop Crowther’s longstanding achievements was inexcusable. Ade-Ajayi describes them as “able, young, zealous, impetuous, uncharitable and opinionated”; the oldest of them, the Revd J. A. Johnson, was only 29.18


The missionary enterprise, which had been struggling to extricate itself from the stranglehold of colonial complicity, found itself on a collision path with the eruption of nationalistic passions in the form of Ethiopianism – an African nationalist movement expressed through the medium of the church, inspired by Ps. 68:31: “Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands to God.” This was fast gaining ground in the period 1875– 90. According to E. A. Ayandele, its legitimacy was on solid ground:
“Unrestricted access to the Bible, with its notions of equality, justice and non-racialism, provided the early converts with a valid weapon which they were not reluctant to employ against the missionaries who brushed these ideas aside in church administration and in their relations with the converts.”19

A major feature was the assertion of racial independence in both politics and mission. Prominent Africans like James Johnson (also referred to as Holy Johnson) and Mojola Agbebi, who were highly educated, were frontliners even as key mission staff, the one CMS, the other Baptist.

There were other far-reaching effects of the humiliation of Crowther. The Nigerian Baptists, seeing what had happened, and with their Southern Baptist missionaries withdrawn during the American Civil War, asserted their control of the mission and, by 1888, broke away as the Native Baptist Church, taking with them the great African pioneers. Agbebi was the key player.

At Lokoja, where CMS had its strategic mission station in the Lower Niger Mission, the same factors of racism and high-handedness were played out, and Ayandele confirms the impressions about Christianity in Lokoja at this time from the perspective of the young breed missionaries:
“They branded all the converts in Lokoja adulterers and harlots and dismissed them from Church membership until they confessed their iniquities one by one; the Muslims were told that the African missionaries who had been working in Lokoja were not Christians but kafiris, that is, infidels.”20

This certainly was the picture of a house divided against itself and was by no means a positive image of mission.

G. O. M. Tasie’s work Christian Missionary Enterprise in the Niger Delta 1864–1918 takes a penetrating missiological look at the factors that have often been sentimentalised by social and political historians. For him, these nationalistic interpretations undermined the critical importance of a strong ethical foundation that was required in the encounter of Christianity with the indigenous world view that they sought to influence at this time. He pitched the issues against the fundamental ethics and teaching of Christianity. Beginning from the leadership question, he observes that even though Bishop Crowther was physically, mentally, psychologically and spiritually equipped for the difficult ministry terrain of the Niger Delta mission, he was clearly weak as an administrator and disciplinarian.

The aftermath of the Niger Mission crisis

Kenneth Onwuka Dike provides a sympathetic assessment of this tumultuous time that has been prone to many frenzied interpretations:
“Throughout the last ten years of his episcopate, Crowther was painfully aware of the evils that assailed the Mission from within. It may be that as a leader he was too gentle, too soft for a pioneer, relying as he did on guiding his staff by persuasion and example rather than by strict disciplinary measures. But as already indicated he was working against heavy odds, and it is against the background of his immense difficulties that he must ultimately be judged. Looking back the historian is impressed not by the Bishop’s failures but by his successes: had Crowther been given the tools required for the job, most of the short-comings of his Mission could have been avoided.”21

Three strands appeared to have emerged from the crisis. CMS remained rigid about having nothing short of flawless native agents, while the native agents would not entertain any excuse about CMS actions being motivated by anything other than racial prejudice. Neither CMS nor the African agents seemed to have taken into serious account the shift from the earlier days of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (MP and advocate for the abolition of the slave trade) and Venn, who had faith in the contribution of the African to the missionary enterprise in Africa. While the new missionaries were obsessed with the urgency of evangelisation, the African elite were becoming increasingly nationalistic in their disposition, especially in the face of mass displacement of native agents.

Tasie concludes with the opinion that the African agents “were not dismissed because they were Africans but because their standards did not measure up to the responsibility they bore for the spiritual welfare of their congregations”.22

The matter of a successor to Bishop Crowther only protracted the crises, as the post went to Joseph Sidney Hill, who had earlier been a CMS missionary in West Africa. To assuage the bruised feelings and dashed expectations, two African clergy, namely Charles Philips and Isaac Oluwole, were made assistant bishops. That an African bishop was not appointed to replace Crowther confirmed the suspicion that the view of some missionaries about the racial supremacy of the Europeans was upheld. This had its fallout in many places, the most significant being the rapid spread of the African Church and the independent African churches. European missionaries became the main personnel of CMS in the Lokoja area for a long time, even though they did not all exhibit racist tendencies. Indeed, some of them blended so well with the indigenous culture in many parts of the north, like the Nupe and Hausa missions where, in later years, Revd J. L. McIntyre, Revd C. N. Daintree, Dr Walter Miller and Max Warren, among several others, became part of the communities. However, this scenario of white domination of the missionary scene in both CMS and sister mission organisations such as the SUM and SIM made the mission churches essentially foreign in outlook, and delayed the process of indigenisation.

One of the most succinct descriptions of Bishop Crowther’s life is given by no less a person than Eugene Stock, the CMS historian, in his preface to the biography by Jesse Page: “He lived in an atmosphere of suspicion and scandal, yet no tongue, however malicious, ventured to whisper reproach against his personal character. Some might criticize his administration; no one ever questioned his sincerity and simplicity.”23

Lamin Sanneh’s summary of the entire episode is quite sobering, if not indeed disturbing:
“The momentous drama in which Bishop Crowther was intended as the sacrificial victim had been confidently staged on the dismantled policy of Henry Venn, with missionary lightweights propped up to challenge Crowther’s Episcopal authority and alienate his achievement. Through irregular procedural arrangements, the CMS allowed Crowther to be outflanked until the substantive powers he held as bishop were effectively curtailed, his priestly stature was diminished and the man himself was reduced to a sorry sight.”24


Many reparatory steps have been taken since then, resulting in the recognition and reabsorption of the Niger Delta Pastorate, which had disconnected in the wake of the crises. There has been expansion of CMS work in other areas, such as the medical work at Iyi Enu from the 1890s, the founding of a teacher training college at Awka, then to Egbu and Patani, and Isoko by 1910. In western Nigeria the CMS bookshop was opened in Lagos. In northern Nigeria work among the Nupe, where Crowther had interacted considerably in earlier years, began in earnest by 1903. The hospital at Ado Ekiti opening in 1936 and expansion into Hausaland in 1905 by Dr Walter Miller all became the brighter side of the mission story.

The commendable efforts at resolving the crisis notwithstanding, it still showed up in the diocese of Lagos. On the eve of Nigerian independence (1 October 1960), the parish where the governor general worshipped, then known as “St Saviour’s Church”, amended their constitution to ensure they were not under the episcopal oversight of a black bishop. By the inauguration of the Church of Nigeria as an autonomous province on 24 February 1979, they were still hiring and firing their clergy without reference to the bishop. This face-off continued until matters were resolved by the Nigerian military government, which decreed that all Anglican Churches come under the authority of the Nigerian bishop enthroned. The decree was gazetted (as Decree 26, 1991). Archbishop Joseph Adelitoye changed the name of the parish to Our Saviour’s Church, as a part of the diocese of Lagos.25

Several decades after, these issues have never been far from the mind of the African Christian leaders. A clear indication is the theme that was considered at the first African Anglican conference in 2004: AFRICA COMES OF AGE. The suspicion of unchanging imperialist tendencies remains an ever-present concern.

At the 150th anniversary of the consecration of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther in 2014, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, held a service of thanksgiving on 29 June 2014, with representatives of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) in attendance. In his sermon, he described Crowther as “the apostle of Nigeria”, a “hero” who had been “betrayed and let down and undermined” after being “falsely accused, not long before his death”. He went on to say the service was one of thanksgiving, but also of “repentance, shame, and sorrow for Anglicans, who are reminded of the sin of many of their ancestors”. The archbishop then warned the congregation not to condemn Crowther’s opponents without holding up a mirror to today’s Church: “Whom do we exclude by reason of race… or in our desire for power?”26

About the author

The Most Revd Emmanuel A. S. Egbunu, ably supported by Biodun, his wife, is the bishop of Lokoja diocese, where Gbebe, the first CMS station in northern Nigeria, is located. He has done doctoral research on the legacy of the CMS in the Lokoja Niger–Benue Confluence Area (1891–1941) and is the author of Signposts on Heaven’s Highway (on spiritual formation) and Birth Pangs and Other Poems.

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1 This relates to the general human depravity without the light of the gospel, rather than a wholesale condemnation of the African culture as savage.
2 J. F. Ade-Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841–1891: The Making of a New Elite (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 235.
3 William Olaseinde Ajayi, A History of the Niger and Northern Nigeria Missions, 1857–1914 (PhD diss., University of Bristol, 1963), 191.
4 Lamin Sanneh, “The CMS and the African Transformation: Samuel Ajayi Crowther and the Opening of Nigeria,” in The Church Mission Society and World Christianity, 1799–1999, Kevin Ward and Brian Stanley, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000), 192.
5 Jesse Page, The Black Bishop Samuel Adjai Crowther (New York Fleming H. Revell Company, 1909).
6 Cited in Ade-Ajayi, Christian Missions, 181: “Isaac Smith, Henry Townsend, David Hinderer and C.A. Gollmer to Major Strait, 29 October 1851; CMS. CA2/016.”
7 Cited in Ade-Ajayi, Christian Missions, 181: “Townsend to Venn, 21 October 1851, CMS CA2/085.”
8 Sanneh, “The CMS and the African Transformation,” 190.
9 The Christian Missionary Intelligencer: A Monthly Journal of Missionary Information, vol. XV (London: Church Missionary Society, 1864), 97–103.
10 Ibid.
11 Page, The Black Bishop Samuel Adjai Crowther, 188.
12 Cited in Ade-Ajayi, Christian Missions, “Venn to Lamb, 23 January 1864; CMS CA2/L3.”
13 Ibid., 206.
14 Jeanne Decorvet and Emmanuel Oladipo, Samuel Ajayi Crowther: The Miracle of Grace, (Lagos: CSS Bookshops, 2006), 102.
15 Cited in Ade-Ajayi, Christian Missions, 195: “Venn to Mann, 24 April 1865; CMS CA3/L3.”
16 Cited in G. O. M. Tasie, Christian Missionary Enterprise in the Niger Delta 1864–1918 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978), 89: “E. Hutchinson to S.A. Crowther, 26 April 1878, enclosed ‘Memorandum on the Financial Arrangements for the Niger Mission’.”
17 Ade-Ajayi. Christian Missions, 253. in 1879.
18 Ibid., 250.
19 E. A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria 1842–1914, A Political and Social Analysis (London; Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd, 1966), 176.
20 Ibid., 215.
21 Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Origins of the Niger Mission 1841–1891 (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1962); Project Canterbury, anglicanhistory.org.
22 Tasie, Christian Missionary Enterprise in The Niger Delta, 134.
23 Page, The Black Bishop Samuel Adjai Crowther, vii.
24 Lamin Sanneh, West African Christianity: The Religious Impact (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 169.
25 Amobi U Nmezi, From Colonial to Cosmopolitan: The Story of Our Saviour’s Church, Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos (1911–2011) (Lagos: Our Saviour’s Church, TBS, 2015).
26 Madeleine Davies, “Canterbury remembers Crowther,” The Church Times, 4 July 2014, https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/4-july/news/uk/canterbury-remembers-crowther.