By Femi Macaulay

It was a striking weekend: the celebration of the 160th anniversary of the consecration of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther; the celebration, on June 29, of the 160th anniversary of the birth of Diocese on the Niger (Anglican Communion); and the announcement of release dates of a new novel by Biyi Bandele, about Crowther’s rise to celebrity, published posthumously.

The Bishop of Diocese on the Niger, Bishop Owen Chiedozie Nwokolo, noted that its anniversary celebration was unprecedented, and would henceforth be done yearly. According to him, Diocese on the Niger “is the first diocese in Nigeria, and Crowther was our first bishop.” He said Crowther, “the first ever African bishop in the world… brought the gospel of Christ to this part of the world in 1857, and through his ministry we became a diocese”; and he was consecrated Bishop, Niger Territories on June 29, 1864.

A life-size statue of Crowther, he said, would be unveiled by the Primate of the Church of Nigeria, adding, “It will be a significant landmark in Anambra State and in Onitsha.” He described Crowther as “the one that brought light here, that brought education, that brought development… there is no way we can put him aside.”

It was in Osoogun, in present-day Iseyin Local Government Area, Oyo State, that his life began as well as the story of his life. It was in his home town that Fulani slave raiders seized him in 1821. He was eventually sold to Portuguese slave traders at the age of 12. The young Ajayi of Yoruba ancestry was rescued by the British navy and taken to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Crowther had described his enslavement as “the unhappy, but which I am now taught in other respects to call blessed day, which I shall never forget in my life.” In his progression to priestly prominence, he took an unlikely path carved by unlikely destiny helpers. For him, slavery turned out to be a springboard to celebrity.

Crowther’s achievements were remarkable, considering his unremarkable beginnings. Following his conversion to Christianity and his baptism in 1825, he adopted the name of a prominent British clergyman of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). He studied in England and attended the Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone, where he advanced his exceptional interest in languages, which became of immense use in evangelism.

He made history when he was ordained as the first African bishop of the Anglican Church at a ceremony in England, in 1864. In the same year, he was given a Doctorate of Divinity by the prestigious University of Oxford.

His language skills produced the first Yoruba translation of the Bible, which was completed in the 1880s, and a Yoruba version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. These projects demonstrated how seriously he took his Christianity and his evangelism. He also produced primers for the Igbo language and the Nupe language.

However, Bishop Nwokolo observed, “something went wrong.” White missionaries who did not like Crowther because he was black, ironically, accused him of “encouraging idolatry.” “All his efforts, his work was played down,” he said, and for a long time after him no other black man was allowed to be bishop. He observed that the Church of Nigeria talked about Crowther, “but in written record, episcopally there is no record of the ministry of Crowther in the Church of Nigeria record.”

In 2015, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, publicly expressed remorse for the sin against Crowther at a ‘thanksgiving and repentance service’ in England. Welby is the leader of the Church of England and the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. His apology on behalf of the Anglican Church spoke volumes about Crowther’s place in history.

Welby said: “We in the Church of England need to say sorry that someone was properly and rightly consecrated Bishop and then betrayed and let down and undermined. It was wrong.” He also said in his sermon that Crowther, a victim of racism, had “evangelised so effectively,” and “led his missionary diocese brilliantly,” but “was in the end falsely accused and had to resign, not long before his death.”

Crowther died of a stroke in Lagos in 1891, which was possibly connected with his desolation.

“We are sorry for his suffering at the hands of Anglicans in this country,” Welby said.

There is no doubt about his extraordinary evangelistic role in the early years of Christianity in Nigeria. Not for nothing is he regarded as the father of Anglicanism in Nigeria. “Today, well over 70 million Christians in Nigeria are his spiritual heirs,” Welby said in tribute to his pioneering efforts.

It is commendable that Bishop Nwokolo, who is Igbo, displayed objectivity by noting that Crowther deserved to be celebrated, and the celebration should not be affected by his Yoruba roots. He said: “Yes, he was a Yoruba man, but what he did for us cannot be counted. So, we are going to show the world that something happened here many years ago.”

His life captured the imagination of Nigerian writer and filmmaker Biyi Bandele, who completed his novel Yorùbá Boy Running, which charts Crowther’s “miraculous journey” to prominence, just before he died in August 2022, aged 54.

The novel is described as “a many-voiced, kaleidoscopic portrait of an extraordinary man,” According to the blurb, “From the heart-stopping drama of Àjàyí’s last day of freedom to the farcical intrigue of the Òsogùn court; from a meeting with Queen Victoria; to his consecration as the first African Bishop of the Anglican Church, his journey, like all great odysseys, circles back to where he began.” The book has an introduction from Nobelist Wole Soyinka, who calls Bandele “a unique, all-responsive talent.” It will be released in the UK in July; and in the US in September.

However, the great man’s home town, Osoogun, needs to be developed, and should be an important tourist site. Interestingly, the so-called Crowther monument site in the town was listed by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) as one of the country’s 100 most important monuments during the centenary celebration of Nigeria’s amalgamation in 2014. The site includes the spot he and other captives were kept tied to a giant tree before they were sold into slavery, and ruins of a place said to have been his home.

The town continues to show signs of extreme neglect. It is a place of history, and deserves to be given attention by the authorities. Ultimately, it is a dishonour to Crowther that Osoogun remains unreflective of his greatness.

Culled From The Nation