Project Canterbury

Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

London: S. W. Partridge & Co., c. 1892.

Chapter X. The Boy becomes the Bishop

"Word of Life, most pure and strong,
Lo! for thee the nations long,
Spread, till from its dreary night
All the world awakes to light.

"Up the ripening fields you see,
Mighty shall the harvest be,
But the reapers still are few,
Great the work they have to do."--BAHNMAIER.

WE must now pass more rapidly in review the events of the next few years, in order to bring the narrative of Bishop Crowther's career up to the work in our own day.

In the closing months of 1858 we find Crowther once more starting from Onitsha for a canoe expedition up the river; and after travelling thus over three hundred miles, he reached Rabbah in safety, the place of his enforced stay after the wreck of the Dayspring. From this point he made his way across country to Ilorin, the Haussa capital in his native country, and Abeokuta, the famous city under the stone; and from [109/110] thence he proceeded to the coast, arriving at Lagos in the early part of the year 1859. The work, however, was destined to receive some opposition; and the trial of faith which meets all true labourers in the vineyard of God was to prove Crowther and his companions.

From Rabbah, where he had laboured so hard to prepare the way for a mission establishment, there came bad news during that year. The Rainbow passing up the river was informed by Dr. Baikie that the place was no longer open to Christian work, and as a proof of the hostility of the natives, the ship on its return journey was attacked, and two of its crew lost their lives.

For a time it seemed as though the work of toilsome years was to be undone, and the workers, baffled at every point, must retire to the mouth of the river to await another opening. But danger and disappointment brings a true Christian to his knees, and so feeling his utter helplessness and incapacity, he is strengthened and comforted by all the fulness of God. He whose work it is will in due time, if we faint not, open a way through which we may go up and possess the land.

Mr. Taylor came to England, and awakened a new interest in the Niger work, and returning, he, in conjunction with Crowther, established an important mission at Akassa, the mouth of the Nun river, which is the navigable entrance to the Niger. When the gunboat Espoir ascended the river to effect reprisals upon the natives for their hostility to our vessels, Crowther was on board, and was thus able to visit some of the stations, to their great encouragement and advantage.

[111] It was just at this time that Mr. Laird, to whoso energy and enterprise so much of the Niger exploration was due, died, and as a result his factories on the river were closed. This was a great loss to the mission, and rendered their work increasingly difficult. Still a new hope dawned in the hearts of the missionaries when the Investigator, a vessel fully equipped for exploring the rivers, took Crowther and a number of helpers on board on its way. Once more they reached Onitsha, leaving Mr. Taylor to resume his old work. Here we are told Crowther found no less than twenty-eight natives ready for baptism, and the services of the mission church were attended by a large number of people.

Passing on to the confluence, he revisited his old station at Gbebe, and to his joy found that although for this long interval the people had been under the care of a single native catechist, the work of the Lord had prospered, and with a full heart Crowther baptized a number of those who had believed to salvation. He tells us, "This day at the morning service, though with fear and trembling, yet by faith in Christ, the great Head of the Church, who has commanded, 'Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,' I took courage and baptized eight adults and one infant in our mud chapel, in the presence of a congregation of 192 persons, who all sat still with their mouths open in wonder and amazement, at the initiation of some of their friends and companions into a new religion by a singular rite, the form in the name of the Trinity being translated into Nupé, and distinctly pronounced as each candidate [111/112] knelt. Those nine persons are the first-fruits of the Niger mission. Is not this a token of the Lord to the Society to persevere in the arduous work to introduce Christianity among the vast populations on the bank of the Niger, and that they shall reap in due time if they faint not? More so when the few baptized persons represent several tribes of large tracts of countries on the banks of the Niger, Tshadda, Igara, Igbira, Gbari Eki, or Burnu, and even a scattered Yoruba was among them. Is not this an anticipation of the immense fields opened to the Church to occupy for Christ?"

The sunshine of a great prosperity came upon Crowther and his work, and with unremitting energy he passed hither and thither along the banks of the Niger, establishing at different points fresh centres of Christian enlightenment. Neither was he wanting in helping these poor heathen to help themselves by promoting commerce; his practical and business abilities prepared quite a market for the cotton trade in the district. He was anxious to show them that the Christians came to them with a message of peace and goodwill, and that the introduction of the cotton manufacture in the mission premises was to their advantage.

On one occasion king Masaba, of Nupé, sent to Crowther messengers, and these he conducted round his mission buildings at Gbebe, showing them the goods and their preparations for shipment to the white man's country. This is the message he sent back to the king: "We are Anasera (Nazarenea); there (pointing to the schoolroom) we teach the Christian religion; these (pointing to the cotton gins [112/114] are our guns; this (pointing to the clean cotton puffing out of them) is our powder, and the cowries (the little shells which are the currency of the country), which are the proceeds of the operation, are the shots which England, the warmest friend of Africa, earnestly desires she should receive largely."

The spiritual work also made the labourer's heart thankful as he saw these natives professing faith in Christ, and in their lives and death exhibiting the power of the Gospel. One young female slave who had been ransomed by Crowther, and had embraced Christianity, died happily in the Lord, and others followed with a like encouraging testimony.

When the old king, Ama Abokko, died, the mission at Gbebe lost a good friend; and although his last words to his sons were to commend the work to their protection, his decease marked its termination. One of those fierce tribal wars which are constantly ravaging the country swept over Gbebe two years afterwards, and the town with its mission premises was utterly destroyed. The Christian converts were scattered, and a new station was as soon as possible started at Lokoja, on the other side of the river. Other troubles fell upon the work. Idda had to be given up through the treacherous conduct of a chief, who made a prisoner of Crowther and his son, the present Archdeacon, and demanded from the English a considerable sum for their ransom. They were, however, rescued, but unhappily not without the loss of a valuable life, that of Mr. Fell, the English Consul, who was shot by a poisoned arrow and killed.

In the meantime the work in Yoruba was making progress, and Crowther had translated into his [114/115] native tongue not only the Bible, but other works, including the Prayer Book, and a Dictionary which will be of inestimable service to workers who shall follow in the field; others had translated the Pilgrim's Progress and the Peep of Duty.

The ancient capital of the Yoruba district was Oyo; and here, in 1851, Mr. Townsend and his devoted wife, accompanied by Mr. Mann, another missionary, had an interview with Atiba, king of Yoruba, and in the illustration which we give of the scene it will be observed that a sacrifice of four human beings took place in honour of the visitors. These Egbas are Monotheists, although the Supreme Being is known amongst them by a variety of titles, as Olurun, the Prince of Heaven; Eleda, the Creator; Alagbura, the Powerful One; Oludomare, the Almighty; Oluwa, the Lord; and Elami, the Prince of Life. Their salutations are reverent; and on parting with anyone they say, "I remember you, and commit you to the care of God." It is common amongst them to use the native equivalent for "God bless you."

Mr. Townsend says that these people never worship the stars or heavenly bodies, and that one day, pointing to one of their idols, he asked the chief, "Why do you worship that image when you know it was cut out of a piece of wood by a man? ""I know it was carved by a man. I don't worship it." "But I have seen you worship it." "I don't worship the image, but the spirit that dwells in it." "What does that spirit do for you?" "He is my messenger to carry my petitions to God." Sacrifices sometimes of human beings are made to [115/116] this idol, Shango. The illustration given on page 99, of the sacrifice of a sheep is singular, as after getting it to eat some plumtree leaves as a mark of acceptation, the animal is slain, and its blood scattered over the idol; also the brows of those performing this worship are marked therewith.

We must just add another instance to show the belief of these people in Divine Providence. There had been a fight between the warriors of Abeokuta and Ijaye and those of Ibadan, and the priest thus put it, the farmer, of course, referring to the defeated party:--

"A farmer went to clear a piece of ground on his farm for cultivation. Addressing a large tree that stood in his way, he said, 'To-morrow I will cut you down.' The tree, full of trouble, told God of it, saying, 'The farmer says he will cut me down tomorrow.' To which God replied, 'Be contented, he cannot.' The farmer returning home met with an accident, and was unable to resume his work for a long time. Then he repeated his threat, but with the same result; and now he was laid aside by a long illness. The third time he cleared his farm, and again addressed the tree, 'Tree, to-morrow, God willing, I will cut you down.' The tree, again addressing God, repeated the farmer's words, to which God answered, 'Did he say so? then he will do it.' On the morrow the tree was cut down." The point is that as long as the farmer trusted in his own strength he failed, but when he said, "I will. God willing," he succeeded.

We have now reached a point when we find Crowther once more in England. He had come to [116/117] plead his own cause on the platform of our English May Meetings, and was the principal attraction at the Annual Meeting of the Church Missionary Society at Exeter Hall. The excited interest of that immense gathering was in a great part due to the fact that a negro, one of the very race from the distant African regions, was to tell his own tale. And a plain straightforward and effective speech it was. It was a remarkable evidence of the power of Christianity, a unique blending of the pleader and the example of the good of the cause at the same time. In the course of his remarks he said:--

"On one occasion I was travelling with the late lamented Bishop Weeks, then a simple minister. I went with him on a visit to a friend in the country. While I was in the railway carriage with him, a gentleman attacked him, knowing that he was a friend of missions. The gentleman said, 'What are the missionaries doing abroad? We don't know anything about their movements. We pay them well, but we don't hear anything about them. I suppose they are sitting down quietly and making themselves comfortable.' Mr. Weeks did not say anything in reply, I having made a sign to him not to do so. After the gentleman had exhausted what he had to say, I said to him, 'Well, sir, I beg to present myself to you as a result of the labours of the missionaries which you have just been depreciating;' and I pointed to Mr. Weeks as the means of my having become a Christian, and having been brought to this country as a Christian minister. The gentleman was so startled that he had nothing more to say in the way of objection, and the subsequent conversation between [117/118] him and Mr. Weeks turned upon missionary topics. On the banks of the Niger, where we have not been privileged to be ushered in by European missionaries, native teachers have maintained their footing among their own people. Their countrymen look upon them as very much superior to themselves in knowledge and in every other respect, and listen to them with very great attention when they preach to them the Gospel of our salvation."

On St. Peter's Day, 1864, perhaps the most important event of his life took place, when in Canterbury Cathedral Samuel Crowther was consecrated as the first Bishop of the Niger. The scene was a memorable one, and is not likely to be forgotten by those who stood in the vast crowd which filled every aisle of the grand cathedral that day. The license of Her Majesty had been duly promulgated in these terms:--

"We do by this our license under our royal signet and sign manual authorise and empower you the said Reverend Samuel Adjai Crowther to be Bishop of the United Church of England and Ireland in the said countries in Western Africa beyond the limits of our dominions."

When the service began it was an impressive sight to see the Archbishop of Canterbury, attended by live other Bishops, enter the choir; and following them the three Bishops to receive the solemn rite of consecration, viz: the new Bishop of Peterborough, the new Bishop of Tasmania, and the new Bishop of the Niger. Remembering, as doubtless many did, the touching history of his childhood and early struggles as a slave, not a, few in that vast building were moved to tears as [118/119] the African clergyman humbly knelt in God's glorious house to receive the seals of the high office of Shepherd in His earthly fold. Most of all must one heart have been affected, that of Airs. Weeks, the missionary's [119/120] wife, at whose knee he received his first lessons in the way of the Lord.

No one could fail to see how God had called forth this native from the degradation of a boyhood of slavery, to become a chosen vessel in His service. He had proved himself as a true-hearted standard-bearer of the Cross in much toil and patient endurance, and it was meet that to him should be committed the spiritual interests of the district in which he had spent hitherto nearly the whole of his life since he became a Christian.

On his immediate return to the Niger, the work began afresh with renewed energy. Special attention was given to the Delta, for King Pepple, having been on a visit to England, made an application to the Bishop of London to send missionaries to his dominions. A more degraded district was not to be found in Africa. Although its trade was very flourishing, being one of the chief markets for palm oil, the people were sunk in the lowest vices and superstitions. At the time of which we speak, when Bishop Crowther was forming the Christian Church there, the shocking practice of cannibalism was not yet wholly given up, and the people were entirely under the power of the priests of the Juju or fetish worship. As in Dahomey, no regard for human life seems to have existed; men were sacrificed at every high festival, and at the burial of any of their chief men a number of poor creatures would be slaughtered. The ghastly spectacle of their temple, paved and elaborately decorated with human bones, showed the ferocity of their religion.

In the midst of this awful darkness came Bishop [120/121] Crowther and his fellow-helpers, bearing the light of the Gospel, and in due time many believed and were saved. It was as in the early Church of the first centuries, the adherents of the new religion were mostly slaves, and to escape their persecutors had to meet for worship and counsel in retired places. The little Mission Church of St. Stephen's was opened on the 1st January, 1872, and from time to time converts were baptized, and the little assembly of believers increased. But the superstition of the priests and their votaries constantly made the little church the object of their persecuting hatred. Again and again its members were compelled to meet in the secrecy of the forest for prayer. The hour of martyrdom had come; some few could not stand the test, but very many gloriously held faithful to their Lord.

One instance of this is the case of Isiah Bara and Jonathan Apiafe, who were important persons in their country before they embraced Christianity. From that moment, however, they were bitterly persecuted, and finally, for the crime of carrying the body of a poor Christian slave to burial, they wore publicly impeached by the Juju priests. Offered meat sacrificed to idols, they preferred death to such dishonour of their Lord. Then they were bound with chains, and put in a shed in the bush to die of starvation; but in secret some of their brethren conveyed to them a little food at the risk of their own lives. When tempted, first by offers of honourable and influential positions among the chiefs, and then by threats of horrible punishment, their replies are among the brave words of Christ's witnesses well worth recording: "I have made up my mind," said [121/122] one of them, "God helping me, to be in chains, if it so please the Lord, till the coming of the judgment day; "and said the other, fired with a like heroism, "You know I never refused to perform my duty; but as for turning back to heathen worship, that is out of my power, for Jesus has taken charge of my heart, and padlocked it, and the key is with Him." For twelve months these faithful ones endured this painful bondage, until relieved at last by the urgent appeal of some English traders; and they looked, on emerging out of their captivity, more like wasted skeletons than men.

Under such circumstances Bishop Crowther and his son, Archdeacon Dandeson Crowther, appealed to the Christians everywhere to aid the suffering mission with their prayers, and from all parts of the world letters of sympathy reached them, and in Tennyson's figure we may say, the golden chains of prevalent prayers bound once more the round world about the feet of God. A special prayer-meeting was held, too, at the Delta; and, after it, the Archdeacon hastened to the chiefs to ask them to withdraw the persecuting hand against the Christians.

Three years afterwards the wife of a chief who called himself Captain Hart, died. She had been the very Jezebel of the persecution, and had urged her husband to kill many Christians. Vainly did Crowther seek access to her on her death-bed, the priests, to whom she had always given largely of money and presents, prevented this. When she had breathed her last, the chief, her husband, was inconsolable, and was grieved to think that his Juju idol had failed to save her. Crowther found him, and tried to [122/123] comfort the broken-hearted man. He says, "After expressing our sympathy, I added that all the words of comfort we can tell him will fail to heal the sore in his heart; but we who are believers in Jesus Christ have a 'balm' which heals such wounds; there is a Physician, above every earthly physician, who administers it into our hearts, and a change takes place for good. Should lie like us to tell him of that balm for his broken heart?" He answered, "Yes, tell me, and I will listen to you." After reading from the book of Samuel, of the punishment of David's sin, Mr. Crowther tells us he "turned to Psalm li., and carefully read the whole to him, and concluded by pointing him to Jesus Christ, who has shed His blood for us all, for him (the chief), for me, for every man, and he that believeth in His name shall be saved. I closed my Bible, he sighed and said, 'God's word is true and is good. Come at another time, and tell me more.' "

The death of his wife, the failure of his gods and priests to deliver him in his trouble, and, most of all, the good words of the Lord, had such an effect on the chief that some time afterwards, when, in his turn, he waited death, a striking scene took place. He renounced his faith in his idols in the most distinct manner, ordering them to be thrown into the river. This was done on the day of his funeral, and the people in a great fury wreaked their vengeance on the luckless jujus, dashing them into the river and breaking them up into fragments. Thus this Ahab died, and his household gods were scattered abroad.

The most popular of the gods of Yoruba is Ifa, and a very interesting account is given by the Rev. [123/124] James Johnson, the native African missionary, of the conversion of one of its priests or medicine men. The man was growing into old age when he appeared before the Christian teacher as a seeker after truth. He had been for years in the habit of using his idol Ifa as a charm against the diseases of the people, but he himself had a painful malady which his idolatrous offices failed to cure. It so happened, however, that Jonah Shekere, who was a communicant of the Ake congregation, met him one day, and told the disconsolate Babalawo Dosimu that prayer to God through the Lord Jesus Christ would be more likely to cure him than all his charms and divinations. By appointment they met, and these two natives knelt together to ask the Great Physician if it was His will to take away the affliction from which Dosimu was suffering. God was not inattentive to their cry, and soon afterwards the sickness abated, and the poor repentant heathen found that rest and sleep, which for so long a time had forsaken him.

His Christian friend read to him the story of Jonah, and this greatly impressed him; and, although at such an advanced age, he begged to be instructed how to read, that he might know for himself more of the wonderful teaching of the Word of God. He renounced his idolatry, and brought to the missionary his Ifa or idol, saying, "I cannot tell how much I have spent in vain upon this useless thing! I sought recovery from it in illness, and it promised it; but its promises and assurances have not been fulfilled. Prayer to God has been of real help to me. I renounce Ifa, and will follow Christianity, that the Lord may give mo perfect recovery."

[125] As the light slowly dawned upon his benighted spirit, he spoke in a manner of his former worship, which is not unusual with these heathen priests after their conversion. "Such answers to prayers," said he, "I have found to be not answers from Ifa, who I had prayed to, but from God Himself, whom I ignorantly addressed as the holy, sinless, and good One, when I addressed Ifa thus, and was pleased to apply to Himself the prayers and addresses offered in simple faith though in ignorance to a thing that could not help."

Mr. Johnson, the missionary, thus concludes his sketch of this striking change of heart and life. "Dosimu attributes his conversion entirely to God. 'What else,' he says, 'could have brought me?' His chief anxiety is to be baptized, 'pinodu,' as he calls it. Pinodu is an abbreviation of, 'Pa-ina-Odu,' to kill, or put out the fire of Odu. Odu is a companion of Ifa, and is represented by charcoal, powdered camwood mixed with water and mud. He is the god who afflicts mankind with sickness and other troubles, and is said to be always in wrath against them. This wrath is 'ina' fire. To put out this fire is to propitiate him, remove his wrath, and secure his favour, and exemptions from his inflictions. Propitiation is made in a priest's house with the blood of a goat or sheep, and fowls slain at night at the time of offering. When Dosimu says he wants to 'pinodu,' he means to dedicate himself to God in baptism."

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