The First Black Anglican Bishop: Samuel Ajayi Crowther

Samuel Ajayi Crowther (LC 37, f.95)

With October 2020 marking the 60th anniversary of the independence of Nigeria from British rule, this is an opportune moment to reflect on the remarkable life of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first black Anglican bishop and a renowned linguistic scholar, who was born at Oshogun in Nigeria around 1807.

He was captured in war in 1821 and in 1822 he was sold to a Portuguese slave ship, only to be freed by the Royal Navy on the same day as he was sold. He was taken into the care of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), became literate in English, and was baptized as Samuel Crowther in 1825.

In 1826 Crowther travelled to England, where he attended Islington parish school. Returning to Africa the following year, he attended the new Fourah Bay College, founded by the CMS in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to train Africans as schoolmasters, catechists and clergymen. He was appointed tutor there in 1834.

He trained at the CMS Missionary College in Islington and was ordained by the Bishop of London in 1843. His scholarly work included the publication of his dictionary and grammar of Yoruba in 1843 and his translations of the Book of Common Prayer and Bible into Yoruba; he also made studies of other languages.

In 1864 Crowther was consecrated Bishop of Western Africa, presiding over African clergy in the Niger mission, since European clergy, refusing to serve under an African, remained under the white bishop of Sierra Leone. In his later years similar conflict, and the suspension of African clergy including his son, Dandeson Coates Crowther, Archdeacon of the Lower Niger, resulted in the Niger delta churches declaring themselves a self-governing pastorate within the Anglican Communion. Bishop Crowther died in 1891.

This image dates from 1888, and forms part of a series of photographs of bishops among the records of the Lambeth Conference. In addition to this and other photographs in the Library’s collections, there are items of Bishop Crowther’s correspondence among the records of the Lambeth Conferences, and among the papers of Archbishops Tait and Benson. Further papers are held among the records of the Church Missionary Society at Birmingham University.