Rt. Revd. Professor Dapo Asaju is a Bishop theologican and Provost of the Crowther Graduate School of Theology, Abeokuta, Ogun State Nigeria. In this interview with Gbenga Osinaike, he gives insight to the advent of the church in Nigeria and the exploits of Ajayi Crowther.
The starting point of Christianity in Nigeria
No one can definitely say when the first contact with Christianity was established in Nigeria because we are an ancient people and Africans in their various locations had contact with Christianity right from the early days of the Christian era. It was not only the northern Africans who contributed to the evolution of Christianity. But they played a prominent role. Egypt is very central. Jesus was a refugee in Egypt. He had an African childhood. Garden of Eden is connected to Africa if you read Genesis chapter 4. The theologian that built up Christianity at the early period like Saint Augustine, Anthony, Tertullian, Uranius, Arternicius several of them were Africans.
In the 15th century, some people called the Capuchin Monks from Portugal came to the Niger Delta for trade purpose and there were Christians among them who probably would have attempted evangelism but they did not establish the Christian faith in the official sense of the word. But it is assumed that these Christians who were Roman Catholics came to Warri, Sapele and Benin. So if we are talking about 15th century the Warri people can lay claim to having the first contact with Christianity.
What influenced missionary activities in Nigeria?
In the history of the Anglican Church, the lay people played a very significant role. The lay people established the Christian Missionary Society CMS not the clergy ( It was initially known as London Missionary Society) William Wilberforce was an Anglican layman who fought the evil of slave trade and said it could no longer be condoned. He went to the parliament and ensured that the law against slave trade was scrapped. It was the effort of this man that led to the interception of the ship that was conveying Samuel Ajayi Crowther and a host of others. When they were intercepted, they were taken to Fourah Bay, Sierra Leone. He became free. Crowther was never a slave. Eventually, Samuel took the name of the master that trained him, which is Crowther. He was sent to Fourah Bay for studies and he was ordained. He was taken to England where he became a priest. I was at the place where he was consecrated in Canterbury a few years ago.
But the genesis of Christianity in Nigeria was the invitation extended to the London Missionary Society to come and help them evangelise Nigeria. Some of the returnee slaves who were in Abeokuta and Badagry also wrote to Freetown inviting missionaries to come and help spread the good news of the gospel that they had experienced in Freetown.
So missionaries came through River Niger. The very first missionary enterprise was in 1841. The ship that brought them was called Wilberforce and in that ship was Samuel Ajayi Crowther and a host of other priests. They came through the River Niger and they got to Lokoja.
Lord Lugard ruled Nigeria from Lokoja. He was at Lokoja when he amalgamated the northern and the southern protectorate. The first headquarter of Nigeria was at Lokoja. The first primary school, Called Holy Trinity Primary School, built by Samuel Ajayi Crowther and the other clergyman was at Lokoja. It was built in 1841. I attended that school.
They got to Idah and gave an Arabic Bible to the king of Idah. So they had started evangelizing. Unfortunately, there was no experience of malaria so the white men that came were dying. Because of that, quinine was found to be prophylactic but before the discovery, they had cancelled the mission and returned home. When they returned home there were further appeal for another team of missionaries in 1842 to come to Abeokuta and Badagry but Abeokuta people were more vociferous in their call for missionaries because they had been exposed at that time.
They first came to Badagry
The instruction given to the missionaries was that they should go to Badagry and proceed to Abeokuta. When they were preparing to come there was this competition between Methodist and the Anglican Churches. You must appreciate that the Methodist movement was started by Wesley but he was an Anglican until the day he died. He never started a church. He only started a revival movement. It was after his death that the Methodist movement became a church.
When they made the call, Methodists were to come first. They sent a black man in the person of Robert Freeman. He arrived Badagry in September 1842 by December 1842, Henry Townsend, Ajayi Crowther and C. A Goldman a German came. It was Goldman who built the first story building. They were coming to Abeokuta but when they got to Abeokuta they discovered there was war. It was King Sodeke who invited them. Sodeke was killed in the course of the war. So since there was war they stayed back at Badagry and from there translated the Bible there.
They had Christmas in Badagry unfortunately after some years there they found out that the Badagry people never wanted Christianity. They started persecuting Christians and killing them. If you go to the early Christian cemetery you will see where they were buried. Because of the persecution of the Christians, they had to leave and they put a curse on the land and moved on to Ota before getting to Abeokuta where they were accepted.
Ajayi Crowther was a star
But there was a problem. Henry Townsend was not comfortable with the company of Ajayi Crowther because Crowther was a star in the team. So, the CMS sent a message to Townsend to stay at Ake while Ajayi Crowther was asked to stay at Isale Igbehin in Abeokuta. The house where we are having this interview is where Ajayi Crowther lived. (the building is in Crowther Graduate School of Theology in Abeokuta) He used to fish in a pond in this compound. He lived in this place. This is from where he moved to evangelise the east. He brought Christianity to Igbo land. He was the Bishop of Onitsha. He was able to speak the Igbo language.
He translated the Bible to Igbo for the first time. Ajayi Crowther welcomed the Roman Catholic Church. He took Christianity to the whole of Igbo land. After that, he went to Niger Delta. The throne of Ajayi Crowther as a Bishop is at Bonny. He was Bishop of Niger Delta. He brought up his own son called Dandeson Crowther to take over from him. He moved away from there up to the north until the Muslims stopped him. He was the one that singularly evangelized the whole of Nigeria from Abeokuta.
This building is very historic. (Where we are having the interview) This was where the Anikulapo family were born and lived. The women of Abeokuta who marched on the king of Egba and removed him gathered in this building at the instance of Fela’s mother. They took pictures here.
The Egba people were more receptive. Henry Towsend was the first to start a newspaper called Iwe Iroyin. As far as established mission is concerned Abeokuta can claim to be the place but in terms of places where Christianity first had contacts, Lokoja, Niger delta, Badagry can make such claim.
Christianity in the whole of Igbo land was introduced by the Yoruba man. Unfortunately, he died a miserable man. He died of a stroke. His work was never appreciated until he had died.
But how charismatic was Ajayi Crowther?
Who is talking of charisma? Somebody who had no motor car evangelized the whole of Yoruba land, went to Niger Delta, went towards the north. Is charisma speaking in tongues? Charisma is the ability to exercise leadership, vision and get the church moving. For instance, people can’t understand what we are doing here. We are just about four years old yet we have trained well over a thousand ministers. 17 bishops of the Anglican Church are studying here, about five bishops of the African bishops are here. Pentecostal ministers are also here. What God is using us to do here is a silent revolution that is being sponsored by the Church of Nigeria. Talking of charisma Crowther was a man of prayer and vision. There was the story of a python that was being worshipped in the Niger Delta but God used him to pray against the python and it died.