by Church Times

The year 1921 was a difficult year for the Johnson family with the death of both Venerable Nathaniel & Mrs. Eliza Zenobia Johnson. Their deaths came not too long after the deaths of Nathaniel’s younger brother, Dr. Obadiah Johnson, his sister Mrs. Sarah Margaret Cole, and her only daughter, Patience Genista Cole in 1920.

Late in 1919, Nathaniel and Obadiah embarked on a trip from Lagos to Sierra Leone because of Obadiah’s ill health. They were joined on their trip to Sierra Leone at Accra by their sister and niece who were also unwell and proceeded to Sierra Leone where, unfortunately, their sister, Margaret died in Hastings.

Obadiah’s wife, Mabel Emily Johnson later arrived in Sierra Leone, after which Nathaniel returned to Nigeria while Obadiah, his wife, and niece travelled to London, where tragically, Obadiah and Patience died, 10 days apart on the 12th and 22nd respectively of September 1920. It is probable that the deaths in the family between 1920 and 1921, may have been connected with the 1918 influenza pandemic which was declared officially ended in April 1920.

Nathaniel was the second of seven children born in Hastings in 1844 to Mr. Henry (Erugunjimi) and Sarah Johnson. His older brother, Henry (Jnr) was born on November 10, 1840. Nathaniel and his younger siblings arrived in Ibadan when their parents, at the invitation of Revd. David Hinderer left Hastings for missionary work in Kudeti.

He was then aged fourteen. Henry remained in Freetown where he was employed in the Grammar School as a tutor. They arrived in Ibadan on the 11th of February 1858 and their father Henry, unfortunately, died on the 10th of February 1865, while their mother Sarah, died on the 23rd of June 1876.

Nathaniel had his basic education in Sierra Leone. This was borne out by the fact that when their father returned from Kew Gardens in England where he had been sent to train as a horticulturist in 1853, both Nathaniel and his older brother Henry, vied to be the one to take down the letter dictated by their father to inform Henry Venn of his safe arrival in Hastings.

On their arrival in Ibadan, Nathaniel proceeded at the instance of Revd. David Hinderer to the training institution in Abeokuta, where he trained to be a teacher. The institution was then under the management of Rev. G. F. Buhler. He studied and trained there between August 1858 and May 1863.

He was then sent to St. Paul’s Breadfruit school as an assistant school master. The Church was then under the supervision of the Revd L. Nicholson. Early in 1864, he took charge of the Faji Day School. The Revd J. A. Lamb was then vicar of the Church. It was while he was here that he had the conviction to enter the ordained ministry.

In 1868 he was moved to the school of Trinity Church Ebute Ero, the Church then being under the supervision of Revd W. Morgan. In 1870, he was moved to assist in the Grammar School, then located on Broad Street, Lagos under the Principal, Revd. J. B. Macaulay and while there he assisted the Revd J. A. Maser in conducting afternoon services in the Palm Church station (now St. John’s Church Aroloya) in 1870. 

On the 30th of January 1873, he was made catechist at the Palm Church station, which was then under the supervision of the Revd. A. Mann. In a 3rd quarterly journal of 1874 written by Mr. Charles Nathaniel Young, also a catechist in the Palm Church station, he states: ‘Mr. Nathaniel Johnson is considered to have sole charge of Aroloya station, under the superintendence of Mr. Mann.’ 

Nathaniel Johnson continued with his duties as both teacher and catechist until when on the 12th of March 1876, he was made deacon, together with his fellow catechist in the Palm Church station, Mr. D. Coker and Mr. Charles Phillips (later Bishop whose younger sister Eliza, he married). He was ordained priest on the 2nd of March 1879.

In a similar report written earlier by Mr. Young dated August 31st, 1872, we learn of the return of Nathaniel Johnson with his new wife, Eliza Zenobia. They had been married in Sierra Leone, which it seemed, was still home for both families. Eliza Zenobia was born, sometime in 1853 in Abeokuta and she and her siblings had a difficult start in life.

Her older brother, Charles Jnr. (later Bishop) had been born in Freetown Sierra Leone on April 16th, 1847, and while still a baby, aged five months and nine days was brought to the Yoruba Mission. Their father, Charles (SNR) was of Egba heritage, captured as a slave but liberated in Freetown. He served an apprenticeship under one Mr. P. Edward Phillips of Gloucester and was later admitted into Fourah Bay College in 1840.

In 1842 he was sent to teach in the village of Gloucester till he joined the Yoruba Mission in 1847. When he arrived in the Yoruba Mission field he was sent to Ake as school master till 1852 when he was sent to Ijaye region to work with Rev A. Mann who opened a mission in the town. He remained there till 1858 when he was recalled to Abeokuta to take charge of Owu Station where he died on the 14th of September 1860.

At the time of his death, four children survived him, Charles (Jnr) being the eldest. Five months after their father passed, their mother, Eliza too passed away in Lagos on the 5th of February 1861 where she had gone for medical attention. A week before she passed, while still in Lagos, the youngest child too died in Abeokuta. Of this family tragedy, Charles (jnr) writes:

The family was reduced by death to 3 helpless orphans; viz myself only 13 years and 10 months; Eliza Zenobia (8 years and 4 months), who was taken to England by the Revd. J. A. Lamb in 1869 and who was married to Mr. Nathaniel Johnson in 1872; and Adolphus (6 years and 3 months) who has recently been appointed a 2nd school master to the Faji school.     

Nathaniel’s trip to Sierra Leone for his marriage and the trip late in 1919 with his brother Obadiah, are the only trips we know for certain that he took after the family’s arrival in Yoruba Country in 1858; though it is also very likely that he did make a trip to London, as one of his daughters, Marian Ebun Zenobia, told her children and grandchildren that her first trip to Europe was made with her father.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that unlike his brothers Henry (Jnr) and Obadiah, Nathaniel did not have the opportunities and exposure they had. Henry (Jnr) his older brother, had been trained and ordained for ministry in London between 1865 and 1869.

In March 1873 he returned to England travelling from there on the 4th of December 1873 to Palestine for two years to learn Arabic. He returned to England on the 28th of April 1876 before finally arriving in Lagos on January 7th, 1877 to take up the incumbency of St. Paul’s Church Breadfruit Lagos.

He travelled again to England to receive in person on the 12th of November 1885, the award of an honorary M. A. degree of the University of Cambridge in recognition of his many translations and linguistic work. He was presented the award by the Vice-Chancellor, the Rev. Dr. Ferrers, Master of Gonville and Caius College. 

Nathaniel also probably did not have the opportunity of a university education which his younger brother, Obadiah had. Obadiah, together with Isaac Oluwole, gained entry into Fourah Bay College in 1876, the year the College was affiliated with the University of Durham.

They graduated in 1879 having obtained their B. A. degrees. Obadiah later gained admission into King’s College London to study medicine, graduating in 1884 and becoming a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons. His medical studies were concluded with a year of studies at the University of Edinburgh where he was awarded the Doctor of Medicine degree (MD). He eventually returned to Lagos in 1886 and joined public service before later setting up a private medical practice.

 To his credit, Nathaniel yearned to develop himself, and his quest for further education, learning, and exposure was expressed in a letter dated 29th January 1867, written to a certain H. V. G. (unknown) probably requesting help in attaining his aspirations:

I feel extremely my deficiency in learning. I weigh myself in the balance of education and find myself in a great measure, wanting. The thought of what shall become of me overwhelms me. It speaks incessantly to my shame and regret and having not any means of acquiring knowledge unless, from my own private insufficient studies, I arrive at the conclusion of making my wants known to you if (solely) you would sympathise with me and may make one such provision as would qualify me for the work.

Yet, in spite of this handicap, Nathaniel was able to develop himself to the best of his ability and rise to become a senior clergyman in Lagos. He arrived in Aroloya in 1870, and he worked there as teacher, catechist, and priest becoming the first Vicar, until 1901. His children (12) were born in the Aroloya vicarage, but most did not survive to adulthood. Two of his sons were engaged in full-time church mission work. His eldest son, Henry Charles Nathaniel was a catechist at Kudeti, Ibadan.

He, unfortunately, died on the 10th of March 1902. His second son and fourth child, Revd Canon Horatio Victor Emmanuel, was born on the 24th July 1881 and died on the 16th of November 1941. He was ordained priest and was also vicar of St. John’s Church Aroloya and St. Paul’s Church, Breadfruit, Lagos.

He too would have his children in the Aroloya vicarage, including my father. Another child, Marian Ebun Zenobia, was born on the 29th of January 1887 and died on the 2nd of July 1983. She married Mr. Ephraim Michael Ekundayo Agbebi Esq. Incidentally, this year too marks the centenary of his swearing-in as a lawyer. They were both able to attend the ceremony which took place in England on the 26th of August 1921. 



Marian Ebun Zenobia Johnson (later Mrs Agbebi) in her pram in 1887



Another daughter, Virginia Oyekunbi Kehinde, was born on the 26 th of September 1892 and died in May 1977. She married a Baptist minister, Mr. Williams. Her twin brother, Eugene Oyewole Taiwo died in childhood. Baptismal records at Aroloya attest to the fact that they were baptised on the 16 th of November 1892. There was another son named Albert and he died in the 1930s.

Nathaniel laboured faithfully and as well as being the vicar of St. John’s Aroloya, he also served as secretary to the Bible Translating Committee. The late Mr. B. B. Lewis, in his History of St. John’s Aroloya, notes that it was Nathaniel himself who had suggested the name St. John’s and that it was during his incumbency that the brick building, which survived till the 1960s, was built as a place of worship.

The foundation stone laying ceremony for that building was held on the 28th of February 1889 and was laid by Mr. J. A. Payne, Registrar and Taxing Master of the Supreme Court of the Colony of Lagos. Mr. Lewis also notes that Nathaniel was musically inclined and that it was both Nathaniel and Rev. A. W. Howells (later Bishop) who usually sang the litany during ordination services.

Nathaniel’s inclination for music as noted by Mr. Lewis is important for two reasons. First, the musical tradition in the family continues, and secondly, in an article written by Prof. Tunji Vidal about Dr. T. K. E. Phillips, the third of Bishop Charles Phillips’ children, he writes:

At Lagos he lived with his paternal aunt and her husband, Archdeacon, and Mrs Nathaniel Johnson who was vicar of St. John’s Church Aroloya, Lagos from 1876-1901. While at St John’s… he served as choir boy…. He received his first organ lesson from his uncle Rev. Johnson. At the age of 18 in 1902, Phillips was appointed Organist of St. Paul’s Church, Breadfruit, Lagos, the same Church where Nathaniel was then serving as vicar…’. 



(Venerable Nathaniel and Mrs. Eliza Zenobia Johnson and family. From Rt.-Lt. Horatio Victor Emmanuel; Virginia Oyekunbi Kehinde, Marian Ebun Zenobia, and a close relative.)


Nathaniel’s tenure as vicar of St. John’s Aroloya ended in 1901 with his transfer to St. Paul’s Church Breadfruit as vicar which was one of the reasons that led to the crisis and split within St. Paul’s Breadfruit and the formation of the African Church.

The dispute had nothing to do with him personally but had to do primarily with the agitation for natives to have more of a say in the running of the church. He, therefore, had a very difficult start as vicar in St. Paul’s Breadfruit, but to his eternal credit, he was able to overcome this, settle down and make his contributions to the church.

When the Diocese of Lagos was established on 10th December 1919, Nathaniel Johnson was appointed the Archdeacon of Lagos. He died on August 15th, 1921 and his wife Eliza died on October 26th, 1921. It should be noted that Eliza trained in England as a confectioner. She practiced this trade, of which basic skills and traits have been passed on to her descendants, even up to the 5th generation as yet. Their labour in St. John’s Aroloya was never forgotten, for after their death, a Memorial Tablet was erected in the Church building which served till the 60s. It read:


To the Glory of God and in loving memory of the Venerable Archdeacon Nathaniel Johnson, who laboured for over 30 years in this parish church as catechist and pastor of St. Paul’s Church Breadfruit. He became Archdeacon of Lagos in 1919 and died on August 15, 1921. Also of Eliza Zenobia his wife who was his fellow-laborer in the Lord’s vineyard for 49 years. She fell asleep on October 26, 1921. Also of Henry Charles Nathaniel their eldest son, who entered into rest on March 10, 1902, after having laboured in St. David’s Church Kudeti Ibadan for about 4 years. Jesus lives Alleluia.  


Nathaniel and Eliza’s work in St. John’s Aroloya was further recognised when on the Feast of St.  John the Evangelist, 27th December 2003, the vicarage building built during the period of my incumbency there was dedicated and named after him. I am privileged and blessed to have in my possession an almost complete set of Bible Commentaries which belonged to him, signed and dated 1876, the year he was made deacon. They were passed on to me by my late uncle, Mr. Henry Charles Nathaniel Johnson in July 1999, when I became vicar of St. John’s Church Aroloya.  


A Bible in four volumes presented to Nathaniel Johnson in April 1904 to mark his retirement after 25 years of service from the Secretariat of the Lagos Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society.


Indeed, the death of both Nathaniel and Eliza Zenobia Johnson about two months apart would undoubtedly have been devastating for the surviving children. In particular, the death of Eliza early on the morning of the 26 th of October 1921 would carry special significance in particular for their son, Revd. Canon Horatio Victor Emmanuel Johnson, my grandfather. It was the same day that he married his second wife, Miss Ruby Olympia Ademite Williams, (2 nd June 1896-14 th March 1991), the first child of Revd J. S. Williams, vicar of St. Jude’s Church,
Ebute Metta (1893 – 1901) and later the first Primate of the African Church (Incorporated).

Ademite’s maternal great grandfather was the Revd William Odusina Moore, the first Egba Anglican clergyman. Victor’s first wife, a Miss Eunice Robbin unfortunately died within two years of their marriage during childbirth and the child did not survive. He refused to remarry while his parents-in-law were still alive, in spite of all the pressure on him to do so. It is not known in what circumstance they both met, but it was sometime after Ademite’s return from finishing school in the UK. Victor’s parents were quite happy with the match and the date in October 1921 was set and both Nathaniel and Eliza his parents requested that the date should not be changed whatever happened.

Unfortunately, on August 15 two months before the wedding, Nathaniel died. After his funeral rites, Eliza reminded everybody that the date fixed for October should not, under any circumstances be changed. The day dawned and the service took place as planned. Everything ran smoothly but rather briskly. At the end of the reception, Victor whispered to his bride and explained that he would have to leave her there and then, just outside the hall where the reception had taken place. He was going off to bury his mother who had died that morning. He would be back to take her off for their honeymoon later that day!

The marriage was blessed with four boys, all born in the Aroloya vicarage just as Victor their father himself had been. They were: Mr. Henry Charles Nathaniel Johnson; Sergeant Adolphus Sylvanus Akinpelu Johnson (he joined the Royal Air Force during the second world war and was a Flight Engineer. He died in a crash aged 20 on the 24 th of July 1944 and is buried in Cambridge England; Master Obadiah Cornelius Akinlolu Johnson who died in his
early teens as a result of medical negligence; The Very Revd Samuel Hugh Akinsope Stowell Johnson my father, who is still with us. There was a set of twins, but they died in infancy.

The Revd Canon Victor & Mrs ‘Demi Johnson and family. (CMS Photo)

Incidentally, the Bible Concordance given to the couple as a wedding present by the members of staff of St. John’s Aroloya and Massey Schools is in my possession and still in very good condition! 

Samuel Johnson: Author, History of the Yorubas 

J Rev Samuel Johnson

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of the magisterial work: The History of the Yorubas, written by Reverend Samuel Johnson, the third of five boys in the Johnson family. He was born on the 24th of June 1846 in Hastings and arrived in Ibadan with his parents and siblings in February 1858. He had his early education in Hastings, but in 1862, he too, just like his older brother Nathaniel, attended the Training Institution in Abeokuta during the tenure of Mr. Buhler as Principal.

In January 1866, he was appointed school master in Kudeti Ibadan under Revd David Hinderer and Revd J. Smith. In 1875 he was promoted to the position of catechist in Aremo, a position he left on the 23rd of June 1876. He was made deacon on the 6th of January 1886 and ordained priest on May 6th, 1888, and was stationed in Oyo. Together with his in-law, Bishop Charles Phillips, he served as emissary of the colonial authorities to the warring factions in the Kiriji war. This role and probably the fact that he was stationed in Oyo exposed him to Yoruba politics in the way his brothers never were. 

The writing of the book was a huge undertaking and for a man without a university education, it was a wonderful accomplishment. The quest to get the work published is described by Dr. Kehinde Olabimtan; in his thesis on  Samuel Johnson.

He finished his writing in 1897 and his brother, The Venerable Henry Johnson, sought the assistance of the Church Mission Society (CMS) in London to fund the publishing of the work. According to him, the material “contains much useful information of a kind, that will not be available after a few years owing to the rapid changes now going on in the country”. Unfortunately, R. N. Cust, the immediate recipient of the manuscript on behalf of the society, was ambivalent about it. In his words:

It speaks volume in favour of the degree of culture to which Negro missionaries have obtained when they can compose in so complete and orderly manner such a gigantic work. I look at it with admiration—no native convert of India [sic] could produce such work: unluckily it is so very prolix, and the subject matter so very unimportant both from a secular and religiou’s [sic] point of view, that I know not what to recommend….The SPCK would not look at such work: the book would not sell: the whole subject is painful to me, as I feel for the author.  

Cust, who had “expected a small manuscript for a pamphlet” acknowledged that he had not attempted to read the voluminous work due to his busy schedule, but what followed shows that the English missionary society, by treating the document as inconsequential to its half a century exertion among the Yoruba, failed to recognize their own moment of success.

By 1900, the manuscript was missing. If the CMS reported loss of the original manuscript in the custody of Cust and the emerging climate of European hostility towards the Yoruba in church and state in the closing decade of the nineteenth century are factors to go by, it is only providential that the History eventually saw the light of the day.

Samuel’s brother, Obadiah, who had been privy to the project all along as his editor observed that “this seemed to [him] and all his friends who heard of it so strange that one could not help thinking that there was more in it than appeared on the surface, especially because of other circumstances connected with the so-called loss of the manuscripts.” The responsibility to reassemble the material devolved on him, following the untimely death of the original author, Rev. Samuel Johnson, in 1901. In Obadiah’s words:

[I]t has now fallen to the lot of the editor to rewrite the whole history anew, from the copious notes and rough copies left behind by the author. But for many years after his death, partly from discouragements by the events, and partly from being appalled by the magnitude of the task, the editor shrank from the undertaking, but circumstances now and again cropped up showing the need of the work, and the necessity for undertaking it besides the almost criminal disgrace of allowing the outcome of his brother’s many years of labour to be altogether lost. 

Rewriting was not the end of the challenges that faced the publication. The uncertainties of the World War I years added their own troubles, but the publication was eventually undertaken by the local CMS publishing company in Lagos in 1921. By then, the editor too, Obadiah Johnson, had died the previous year. Neither the original author nor the later compiler/editor saw the published work.


The question remains as to why he wrote the book. In his preface to the work, having denied vain ambition as his motivation, he adduced his exploit to “a purely patriotic motive, that the history of our fatherland might not be lost in oblivion, especially as our old sires are fast dying out”. In other words, deaths and changing times added an ontological dimension to Samuel Johnson’s decision to write the history of his people and in doing so, he set out to rescue their fading memory.

The second stated reason, complementary to the first, which motivated him to write the history shows that Samuel Johnson had observed an inimical trend of false elitism among his fellow returnees from Sierra Leone. In his own words:


Educated natives of Yoruba are well acquainted with the history of England and with that of Rome and Greece, but of the history of their own country, they know nothing whatever! This reproach is one of the author’s object to remove. 

(Dr. Kehinde Olabimtan. Samuel Johnson of Yorubaland, 1846-1901).


Samuel Johnson was first married to Miss Lydia Okuseinde on the 19th of January 1875 and their first child, Clara, was born in Kudeti on the 6th of December 1875. They did have a son, Geoffrey Emmanuel born in September 1878, but he died in October 1879. Unfortunately, Lydia died in February 1888 and he would later, on the 20th of June 1895, marry one Miss Martha E. Garber in Christ Church, Lagos. The ceremony was performed by his older brothers, Henry and Nathaniel.


From both his marriages, Samuel was blessed with five daughters who survived him and at least four of them married clergymen. Clara, his first child, married The Reverend T. A. J. Ogunbiyi on the 23rd of December 1898. Clara’s daughter, Charlotte Adebisi married a son of Bishop Isaac Oluwole, Dr. I. Ladipo Oluwole and she had three children, among whom was the Very Revd T. A. J. Oluwole, a former Provost of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina Lagos.

One daughter, Victoria Agbeke married Revd. Samuel Gansallo, a vicar of St. Peter’s Church, Faji, Lagos in May 1902. Another daughter, Adelaide Zenobia married Reverend (later Canon) M. S. Cole, a former vicar of Christ Church Marina, All Saints’ Church, Yaba, and Founder of Oduduwa College, Ile Ife.

During Cole’s tenure as Vicar of Christ Church, the original building, which was completed and dedicated by Bishop Crowther on June 10, 1869, was pulled down in 1920. He initiated fund raising efforts for the current edifice. He was vicar when the foundation stone for the current building was laid in 1925 by HRH Edward Prince of Wales. He also translated the Koran into Yoruba. Another daughter, Lucretia married Revd James Adeneye Cole, a vicar of Christ Church Porogun in Ijebu Ode.

It is poignant to note that as the family marks and reflects on the 100th anniversary of the publication of this book and the other events of 1921, it is important too, to point out that April 29th this year marks the 120th year of Samuel’s death in Lagos. Indeed, we, their descendants have a goodly heritage, an abundance of treasured memories, and inspirational legacies – A Hundred Years Later! To God be the glory and thanksgiving!



Rt. Revd Akinpelu Johnson M.Phil.; AKC; FKC

Chairman: Venerable Henry Johnson Foundation for Theology and Social Transformation on behalf of the ‘Erugunjimi’ Henry Johnson Family. 




  1.  Venerable B. C. Akinpelu Johnson “As for Me and My House … The Story of a Levitical Dynasty”.
  2. Dr. Kehinde Olabimtan. Samuel Johnson of Yorubaland, 1846-1901. Identity, Change, and the making of the Mission Agent.  Peter Lang 2013. 


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1 comment

Suror Obada April 29, 2021 - 8:10 pm

Wow so much detail in one piece. A very interesting read. Wish we all knew soo much about our family roots like this…
A 100 years later. .. Kudos.


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