Samuel Ajayi Crowther was born in 1809 at Osogun, Oyo state, Nigeria. He was the first African Anglican bishop in Nigeria and also a Yoruba linguist. In 1821, he became a slave when he and his family were taken into custody by Fulani slave raiders.
At approximately age thirteen, Ajayi was captured by Oyo and Fulani Muslims who invaded Osogun. Ajayi was traded six times before he was eventually sold to a Portuguese slave-ship captain.
Slave trade abolished
However, Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and tried to suppress illegal traffic using Royal Navy patrols on the coast of Africa. In April 1822, a British patrol stopped and impounded the slave ship that conveyed Ajayi.
The captives on board were moved to the colony of Sierra Leone where they were liberated. Several years after landing in Sierra Leone, Ajayi experienced a religious conversion.
He recounted that “it pleased the Lord to open my heart,” and pursued membership in the Anglican Church. Ajayi was baptized by the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) and took upon himself the name Samuel Crowther after a prominent clergyman and member of the CMS’s home committee.
Fourah Bay College
Subsequently after his conversion, he became one of the first students to attend Fourah Bay College, a school founded by the CMS in 1827 with the aim of training Africans in Sierra Leone for Christian service. In 1841 Crowther started his first missionary work in Nigeria.
After this Nigerian Expedition, Crowther moved to England and studied at the CMS College in London. His studies there led to his ordination by the Anglican Church in 1843.
A new mission
After his ordination, Crowther and many others opened a new mission in Yorubaland. He made significant linguistic contributions, publishing A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language. Later he translated the Bible and The Book of Common Prayers into the Yoruba language.
Crowther returned to England in 1851 to publicize his missionary work. He ultimately gained support from the CMS to open a mission along the Niger River with a staff composed fully of Africans from Sierra Leone.
A new ordination
After the success of this mission, Crowther was ordained in 1864 as “Bishop of the countries of Western Africa beyond the Queen’s dominions,” making him the first African Bishop in the Anglican Church.
As Bishop, Crowther established Christian-Muslim discourse in the Upper and Middle Niger regions.
Over time, racial disposition and missionary policy in the Anglican Church shifted. European missionaries backed up by the CMS believed that the Niger Mission should be run by European missionaries instead of African missionaries.
They subsequently attacked Crowther’s mission, discrediting its work, until the staff was entirely replaced by white missionaries. Ajayi Crowther, distressed by the conflict, died from a stroke on December 31, 1891 and a European bishop replaced him.
Though Crowther’s ambitions were subdued toward the end of his life, his ordination as the first African Bishop in the Anglican Church was a milestone in nineteenth-century society.
His translations of the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer into Yoruba were instrumental in his pioneering of Christian-Muslim interactions in the Upper and Middle Niger regions and are still in relevance till today.