Project Canterbury

Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

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

Chapter XI. Bonny a Bethel

"O come thou radiant Morning Star,
Again on human darkness shine;
Arise, resplendent from afar,
Assert Thy royalty divine:
Thy sway o'er all the earth maintain,
And now begin Thy glorious reign."--Anon.

After the passing away of Captain Hart and his persecuting wife, there came to the infant church at Bonny another season of peace and prosperity. The native schoolmaster sent to Bishop Crowther a joyful report, thanking God that "Bonny has become a Bethel." The destruction of Captain Hart's idols made a salutary impression upon the minds of his friends and neighbours. "His household--men, women, and children--came with great joy to the house of God."

While in times past the church had been harassed by the animosity of such a Jezebel as the late chief's wife had proved to be, it was now comforted by a woman of considerable position and influence in the [126/127] place, who, receiving the Gospel in her heart, lost no time in helping the good work with all her power. In her house, every morning and evening, a large concourse of people, chiefly of her own establishment, met for family prayer. So greatly did the mission extend that another church was built, and these were both crowded, at every service, by people thirsting for the Word of God.

This important station was placed under the care of Bishop Crowther's son, the Archdeacon, and he gathered the chiefs together and endeavoured to persuade them to exercise at any rate toleration towards the mission. An event, however, of considerable importance occurred about this time.

The titular king of Bonny, George Pepple, had gone to England for his health; and during his stay on our shores had been everywhere received with respect and enthusiasm. He made friends with the Lord Mayor of London, was even introduced to the Prince of Wales, and gave several addresses upon the subject of his country's welfare, and the pleasure he felt at being so well received. The most important feature of his visit, however, was the interest evinced by all with whom he came in contact in the mission work at Bonny, and he was not slow to show his earnest appreciation of its value and success. He must have felt some twinges of conscience when he remembered the persecutions the Christians had been subjected to, and which no doubt he might have repressed had he not stood in such fear of his chiefs. But now that with renewed health and so many pleasant recollections he was about to return to his native land, be determined to take up a definite position as the [127/128] protector of, and sympathiser with, the work of Christianity in his kingdom. So this royal convert sent the following letter in advance to Archdeacon Crowther, announcing his return:

"Forgive me for not writing you prior to this. I will make it all right when I meet you in Bonny. People have made inquiries about you, and I have given them the best possible account. I shall be coming by next steamer, if it please God to allow me, and I wish you to get ready for a special service at the Mission church in Bonny. From the steamer (d.v.) I will proceed to the church to offer my thanksgiving to God."

In due time he arrived; and at the service which he attended, a special prayer of thanksgiving to God was read, and an earnest and impressive discourse preached by Archdeacon Crowther on the text from the Psalms: "Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul."

The people, greatly encouraged by this action of their king, flocked to the mission, and worked with a will to erect fresh premises. In its after experiences, Bonny became one of the most encouraging stations in the district of Lhe Lower Niger. On the pastoral visit of Bishop Crowther, a service was held in St. Stephen's Church, which, as described by his son in one of his reports to the parent Society, can only make the reader exclaim, "What hath God wrought?

The Formosa had steamed from Brass, and had the Bishop on board. Then we are told, "Notice had already been given at the church the last Sunday of the expected arrival of the Bishop, who would preach, and a public examination of the children at school [128/129] was to take place afterwards. The following Sunday (24th) came, the morning opened gloomily, but the feathered songsters warbled out their praises to God so cheerfully that morning, as if indicative of the many voices which would be raised in jubilant praises to God in His once neglected sanctuary.

"The tones of the church-going bell announced the approach of the hour of service, and hardly had the first bell stopped ringing when I saw on my way to St. Clement's, by the beach path from Bonny, scores of people hastening to St. Stephen's to secure seats before the sound of the second bell. I returned from St. Clement's, and found the Bishop preaching. [129/130] Turning to the congregation, a sight never witnessed before at Bonny met my eyes. The church was densely crowded--seats provided, and extra ones, closely packed to the pulpit and reading-desk, were filled. The pews filled, the gallery well occupied by the children, and the steps to the gallery lined with people. King George was present with his sister, Chief Fine Country, and other minor ones were there also, with the rich woman already spoken of, who, though ill during the week, yet was present at church. No less than 503 persons were attentively listening to the sermon, the Bishop telling them of the wonderful works of God among the people in the interior countries of the River Niger.

"At the mention by the Bishop of such names as Mkpo, Umu-oji, Nknere nsube, Aron, Elugu, etc.--that the people of these places are sending messages to the mission at Onitsha, and that our agents are now travelling thither occasionally--one could notice the smiles and nods of approval from these poor listeners, many of whom had been caught and sold from the towns mentioned, and hence the joy to know that the Gospel will some day reach their own country.

"In the afternoon the Bishop again preached; and though the tide was high, above knee-deep over the beach path, yet there were 419 persons present."

One day two young converts appeared before Bishop Crowther at the mission-house for the purpose of purchasing some religious books in their language. In answer to the inquiry, "From where do you come?" they stated their place of abode was "the Land of Israel." In further explanation of this strange name, they told the Bishop, "You do not know what changes [130/131] are taking place at Bonny; yonder village Ayambo, is named the Land of Israel, because no idol is to be found in it. Though you may walk through the village, you will not find a single idol in it as an object of worship. All have been cleared out, and some delivered to the Archdeacon. So it is free from idolatrous worship; and if anyone who professes the Christian religion is not comfortable at Bonny town, he is invited to this village, named the Land of Israel."

The influence of the Christian religion was everywhere making way, and the good tidings of salvation were being carried up the country. About thirty miles from Bonny is the town of Okrika, where there is an important market. Here people, who had been to Bonny, carried the news of what God was doing amongst the people there, and the chiefs and natives of Okrika, although they had never seen a Christian teacher, built for themselves a church, with a galvanized iron roof, which would hold at least three hundred worshippers, and got a schoolboy from Brass to come and read the Church Service to them. They sent a pressing invitation to Bishop Crowther to come and visit them. His son, the Archdeacon, however, came in his place, and was received with enthusiasm, and preached to them in the Ibo language. A few days after he was shown over the town, and having brought a brick-mould from Bonny he got some clay, and explained to them the process of making bricks.

The results of his discourse on the choice between Elijah's God and Baal was soon seen. "A chief named Somaire, who had been hesitating, and happily was at church, came after service and shook my hands, [131/132] and said, 'Uka ogula tá,' 'palaver set to-day.' I asked him, How? He answered, 'You will know to-morrow.'

"On Monday morning he came m a canoe containing a large and small box full of idols and charms, four other chiefs who are church adherents were with me. We all stood by the wharf, and there he told me that he had decided to follow Christ, to throw away his jujus, and have nothing more to do with such folly. I answered, 'Good, may God strengthen your heart.'" But in course of time, the opposition and intrigue of the chiefs, who disliked the support which King George Pepple afforded Christianity, caused serious trouble once more in Bonny.

In 1883 a letter of complaint against the Mission was signed by a majority of the chiefs, and shortly afterwards this was followed up by open revolt, and the king was dethroned and exiled. The churches were ordered to be shut up and burned down, and the severest punishment was meted out to all those who would no longer sacrifice to the jujus or idols.

Such a persecution soon displayed the martyr heroism of the Christians of Bonny. Six women who would not recant, were put into a canoe and left helpless in the middle of the river, and several others were banished or murdered. Archdeacon Crowther was warned off from Okrika under pretence of a coming war, and it seemed for the time as though Satan had the work at Bonny helpless in his hands. But with deepest darkness the star of dawn appeared, and suddenly, in answer to many prayers, relief came. Her Majesty's Consul, E. H. Hewitt, Esq., arrived at Bonny in August, 1884, with a commercial treaty [132/133] signed by the chiefs of the oil rivers in the Gulf of Biafra, and in this was a clause giving absolute freedom to missionaries to establish stations free from molestation. This was signed by the rebellious chiefs of Bonny; and afterwards, at the suggestion of the English representative, a council of chiefs was established, which led to the unanimous reinstatement of King George Pepple as their rightful ruler.

The most important clause in the constitutional memorandum, drawn up and signed by the chiefs on the accession of their king, was that he should be "exempted from taking part personally in any ceremony that may be contrary to his religion." Thus there was peace once more in Bonny, and the kingdom of Christ continues to extend its gracious power among the people.

The kingdom of Bras3 is one of the outlets of the Niger, and it was in 1867 that Bishop Crowther first met with its king, Ockiya, on the river Nun. He was at once favourably disposed to Christianity, and begged for ministers and teachers to be sent to Brass to give the same blessings to his people as he had heard had come to his neighbours at Bonny, further up the stream. Here, then, Bishop Crowther laboured hard, and as a result many were added to the Church; and so prosperously did Christianity win its way among the people that the Juju priests, like those of Ephesus, soon began to realise that their gains were gone.

A visitation of small-pox in the district gave them the opportunity to blame the Christian teachers for it, and forthwith was initiated a cruel persecution, as bitter as that which we have seen was waged [133/134] at Bonny. Once more the spirit of faith and trust in God was exhibited amid trials hard to be borne. One of the converts was bound and dragged to a place where a sacrifice was being offered to an idol, and there his persecutors stood with a drawn sword over him demanding his recantation; but he did not give way. The king was powerless to curb this bitter outburst of his priests and chiefs combined. But after nine years of labour and more than one outburst of fanatical opposition, the Church at Brass was well established.

When in his latter days King Ockiya decided to make a solemn and public profession of Christianity, he paid a visit to Tuwou village to be baptized. This rite was administered by Archdeacon Crowther on the first Sunday in Advent, 1879, the king receiving the name of Josiah Constantine. But for years, this native potentate had shown himself very friendly to the introduction and progress of Christianity in Ids dominions. In spite of his juju men, he utterly gave up his idols, and the principal of these are to be seen in the Mission House, Salisbury Square. In our illustration these are as photographed at Lagos on their way to England. The two men, on either side of Bishop Crowther, are Josiah Bara and Jonathan Apiafe, of whose brave and patient loyalty to their Master we have already had evidence in these pages.

King Ockiya was enabled by the grace of God to give up polygamy, a great sacrifice for a royal African to make; and his example as a Christian led to the conversion of several of his heathen priests, who are now baptised believers in the Saviour's name.

[136] Not only is there a great, spiritual quickening among the people, but their material prosperity is evident. When Bishop Crowther visited one of the chiefs, Samuel Sambo, he found his house beautifully furnished, in the European style, with every luxury. There was one apartment, however, more neatly garnished, in which a table and a number of forms were seen. This was the praying-room, where, twice a day, the chief gathers his large household for family prayer. This, too, in a land where at the time of Bishop Crowther's first visit, cannibalism and superstitions of the vilest sort reigned supreme.

These poor heathen, so lately possessed with a devilish worship and cruel practices, are now sitting clothed and in their right mind, a spectacle of the power of the grace of God, which is not without its lesson even to the English people at home.

A striking instance of the reality of the change is given by Archdeacon Crowther. These are his words. "A sailing vessel called the Guiding Star, with cargo consigned to one of the firms trading on the Niger, arrived outside the Nun bar. No pilot was sent out to bring her in, so the captain sent his boat with five men in to get one. The boat capsized on the bar, one of the sailors was drowned, and the rest clung to the boat. Being ebb tide they were drifted away to sea, past Brass; and by the time the flood set in they were away down by an opening called the Nicholas. Cannibals live in this vicinity, hence any unfortunate being cast on Nicholas shore must be given up as lost. These four sailors were drifted ashore there, and picked up by the natives. Providentially for them one of the Brass church converts, called Carry, had some [136/137] trade business with the Nicholas people; and his boys, who also attend church, were there at the time. They hastened and reported to their master about the sailors. At once Carry went, and after a good long talk, and showing them how God had turned the Brass people from such shameful practices through the Word of God, he succeeded in rescuing the sailors, and returned them to their ship at the River Nun. Carry's words when lie handed the sailors to the captain of the ship (with whom I had conversation two days after) were these: 'Had I not known God and have become a Christian, these poor men would not have been alive to-day; we thank God!' This is a testimony from the mouth of a captain of the effect of Christianity and the power of the Gospel."

The improvement consequent on the establishment of the mission at Bonny is exhibited everywhere. Several years ago Bishop Crowther, in his report to the Society, enlarged upon the gracious fruits of the work of God among the people. There has boon, from time immemorial, a custom of making sacrifices whenever an expedition of war canoes starts for the capture of slaves along the river. The blood of the animals thus sacrificed was sprinkled on the canoes in order to propitiate the god of war; but in this report we note that the Christian converts as one man, refused to carry out these observances. In one case a priest, who was not a Christian, objected to do what was required on the ground of the useless folly of the thing; but the head chief failing to compel him, told one of his slaves to take the whip and punish him. This, however, the slave declined to do, and again another refused. In a [137/138] great passion the headman took the whip himself, and with all his might and main fell upon the delinquent. After this, under the impression that the castigation he had inflicted had brought the priest to a more willing state of mind, he again ordered him to sacrifice, but this order he again disobeyed.

A short time after this the priest was admitted as a candidate for Christian baptism. We read in the words of Bishop Crowther that--

"Bonny is now wearing quite a new aspect in a religious point of view; great changes are taking place for the better; and notwithstanding the persevering efforts of some priests, backed by the influence of some loading chiefs, heathenism is on the wane: many sheds, sacred to the gods, are out of repair, and the great temple studded with human skulls is going to ruin, with little hope of its being repaired. 'Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee, and the remainder of wrath shalt Thou restrain.'

"Since the reaction took place at the death of Captain Hart--that great patron of idolatrous system and zealous supporter of this temple of human skulls--the people have learned more and more to think of the vanity of idol worship; especially when this great patron of heathenism could not conceal the fact which he had at last discovered at his dying hour, namely, that all the gods are lies: and withal, solemnly warned all his adherents against putting their trust in them any longer, as they were all lying vanities; and to exonerate himself as having been the great leader in their worship, he seriously commanded them to destroy all the images and figures of the gods which might be found in his quarter of the town [138/139] after his death, that they might not be a snare and an excuse to them through his former example in worshipping them; which order was executed to the very word. Thus God caused the wrath of this man, the great persecutor, murderer, and banisher of the Christians, to praise Him, while He restrained the remainder of wrath by his removal, that His cause may run and be glorified.

"After this, the threat from a persecuting influential chief, to confiscate the property of a convert, a rich woman of Bonny town, could not induce her to sell any article to this chief on the Lord's Day, though he had fully determined to punish her for thus refusing to grant his request, on the ground of religious persuasion of its being a breach of God's commandment. This persecution was designedly planned to ensnare her; but he was disappointed."

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