Samuel Ajayi Crowther: the unsung hero

It is time to tell again the long-neglected story of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, writes Gareth Sturdy.

If you know the name, it probably resounds as that of a hero. Such heroes, unacknowledged in their own time and then ignored by their immediate successors, end up being the Really Important Ones. Their stature is so great that it is missed entirely up-close, gets larger the more distant you are from it, and can only been seen in its true glory from space.

If the name is unknown to you, then you are the victim of a cover-up. How else can you have missed one of the most important Africans of the modern era?

It is an opportune moment to reassess Crowther in the light of new understanding. A light that glares at the cover up and reveals a significance greater than that so far ascribed to him by even his most loyal champions.

Where attention is paid to Samuel Crowther by history books at all, it is because he was the first black Anglican bishop. Professor Andrew Walls of Edinburgh and Princeton, perhaps the pre-eminent authority on Crowther, goes further, calling him “the most outstanding African Christian of the 19th century.”

Walls’s magisterial body of work has identified Crowther as the representative of an “African Christianity-in-waiting”, and shows how this was not understood or recognised by the Church at the time. However, for me, even Walls isn’t going far enough today.

In the early years of the Third Millennium, it is a new generation which must evaluate Samuel Crowther. We are defined by a global story that had yet to unfold when Walls was developing his understanding of the man.

That story goes something like the following. The famines of the 1980s prompted the Live Aid concerts, which built into the Jubilee debt-cancellation campaign and then a wider trade justice movement, culminating in the Live 8 / Make Poverty History franchise. Complex international development issues are now part of popular culture as a result. The figurehead is Nelson Mandela, the first truly global African leader; he represents one of the last great idealistic victories, before the failure of human ideals in Rwanda, and lately, Darfur. Ideals are now under attack, on one side from radical Islamic mass terrorism born in North Africa, and on the other from the new imperialism of an unopposed and interventionist American super-power. Meanwhile China is brewing a second Scramble for Africa, which more than anything highlights the desperate state of climate change and global sustainability. Africa seems unable to rise from the curses of corruption, debt and the AIDS and malaria pandemics. It fails to capitalise on an astonishing world-wide digital telecommunications revolution, which spreads a uniform, mass-media youth consumer culture based on the American Afro-Caribbean urban experience, increasingly interested in its African genealogy and haunted by slavery and colonialism.

This is the context in which the new generation approaches the idea of mission. It is in urgent need of a hero: not a Christian popstar or best-selling author, but a life.

If we care to look hard enough we will see that Crowther is standing in the middle of that maelstrom, the elements of his story echoing within ours, even though he has been dead for over a century. It is time for a new generation to take Crowther as their hero, to get inside that life, seek out his neglected written works, re-publish and distribute them, take up his ideas, be guided by his technique, take him onto Google, into blogs, into podcasts, make him their own. In finally recovering that vision of mission discarded by his so thoughtless ‘elders and betters’, and in discovering just how far that vision can penetrate, they will see that Crowther is a man of our time.

As Walls says, “His story represents the hopes and disappointments that were felt about Africa by the missionary movement as a whole. He also represents the independent African Church and the way in which these hopes were crushed by the colonial period.”

“The experience of slavery is critical for him, he never forgets that,” Walls adds. “His picture of his village burning; his picture of what it was to be torn away from his family, to see his father for the last time as he rushes in to tell them to flee; of the eventual separation from his mother and sister; of the successive sellings from person to person before he reaches the coast and is put into the baracoon [captivity enclosure] where people of uncertain nationality are selling slaves to the ships; the business of being taken on the ship and then the awful fear, after days at sea when they are intercepted by the Royal Navy, that after all this war on land there will be war at sea too, and then the mystery as the slaves are released and come on deck. That experience of trauma is very clear.”

When Ajayi is set down in the new order of the Province of Freedom around the British anti-slave trade base in Sierra Leone, he responds to the trauma by taking up a new identity (which will eventually be called Samuel). “But he hasn’t lost contact with the previous society, he remembers it well, he speaks the language intimately,” says Walls. “There is a connection with a still unbroken African world-view.” This is a completely different psychology to those who were slaves in the Americas, which ultimately makes for a completely different approach to Africa.

Crowther can redeem slavery. His life’s work was to patiently transform the chaos of that hecatomb into something living and vibrant: the creation of a new nation by extending the new identity he found to a whole people, starting in the melting pot of Sierra Leone and then working up the Niger eventually into the heart of his homelands. By uniting them in a single consciousness, cementing it with a single language, and strengthening ties with other African peoples, he can be said to be the father of the Yoruba nation.

The characteristics of it were self-support and self-government underpinned by strong education, and a religion fulfilling the traditional one of the past but free of its rigid structures. The Niger missions began to offer a viable post-slavery model for Africa, by Africans.

“Certainly he’s the representative of a new way of life, which is shown by Christian worship, and dress, and other things,” says Walls, “but it doesn’t interfere with a sense of belonging, of congruence with local society. He’s not a stranger in that society.”

Cotton trading was introduced by him to stop Africans slave-trading. There was solidarity with the locals when they were invaded. Crowther travelled to London and presented the people’s case to the Queen and government ministers.

Walls says, “Here was a man in a position to stand up to his European colleagues. He was certainly a humble man, certainly not an awkward customer, but there are things he knows and which his colleagues recognise he knows.”

Here is one of Africa’s first great modern (Christian) leaders. For us today he is able to liberate Christianity from its association with colonialism, revealing it to be a worldly force able to undo the evil of slavery and rebuild society according to spiritual principles. He proves that everything you were told about the missionaries and the empire is wrong.

Crowther is also the great peace-maker, who fosters good relations with Islam and is able to win the respect of imams on their own terms. They send people to hear Crowther preach. He shows enormous humility, advising those that follow him to learn from the Muslims. Walls says, “He’s guaranteeing for the future that the average Niger Christian will know his Bible better than the average Niger Muslim knows his Qur’an.”

By 1875, the colonial era was beginning and within 16 years Crowther had died a broken man, his work abandoned and buried. His superiors appointed a European in his place, believing that Africans lacked the capacity to rule. The Yoruba turned to nationalism and sectarianism in response.

His Yoruba Bible still survives though, as does his codification of the language, and the Yoruba cultural identity which it created and which is of dramatically increasing importance to today’s diaspora. A magnificent legacy, but still not equal to his achievements.

Then there is the authentically African Church which, in Crowther’s day, was still only a tenuous presence in most places in Africa. It grew, doubling its numbers every 12 years or so.

“It’s an amazing story and one that hasn’t been told in its entirety,” says Walls. “It’s an African story, about Africans, which happens in Africa, but which inter-meshes with the rest of the world. It’s a long narrative, which British Christians need to know about, but also, in my experience, a lot of African Christians need to know about too.”

Crowther would certainly balk at being thought of as hero, still more so at a title like ‘father of a nation’. He did everything in the most humble way, the opposite of what he called “enthusiasm”. “I do not despise the day of small things,” he said, believing such things were the stuff of God. Crowther’s time in mission in Africa was a day of small things; so small it was trodden underfoot. But if we today can avoid despising it in the way his contemporaries did, his unique and incredible project can, at last, be put back on track and we may yet see a beautiful dawn break over his homeland.

Andrew Walls was interviewed by Jeremy Woodham at CMS’s Partnership House in London in January 2007. This article was first published in a special edition of Yes magazine celebrating Crowther in May 2007.

Published 20 June 2014

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