THE Niger Mission had now entered upon a very difficult period that was to continue for more than a decade. It is so with most missions in all parts of the world; after the early triumphs there comes a period of reaction. In the early stages many of the converts are men and women whose strength of character enables them to stand for Christ almost alone and amid persecution. They are succeeded by larger numbers, too many of whom lack the devotion of the earlier converts. As time passes, some find the restraints of Christian moral law irksome, and the pull of the old life is something that cannot be understood by those who dwell in a Christian land. A slackness creeps in; the old heathen marriage customs are tolerated; sons or daughters are married to non-Christians; such functions as pagan funerals and dances are participated in, and drinking or immorality is indulged in secretly. Sometimes the expulsion of an unworthy member causes dissatisfaction in the church, and even the teachers or clergy may become involved in the quarrel.
It is not for us, who have behind us many centuries of Christian teaching and influence, and are protected by Christian public opinion, to judge hastily those who have neither our enlightenment nor our privileges, and are only a few years removed from raw paganism. In many cases their knowledge of Christian truth is very slight, and our code of morals puzzles them. It is easy for them to memorize the Ten Commandments, but it is much more difficult to learn to regulate their lives by them.
In ancient Greece and Rome religion and ethics were two distinct and separate things; the priests attended to the one and the philosophers to the other. There was no necessary connexion between them. What did it matter to the gods how a man lived? Enough for them that he offered sacrifice; his private life was no business of theirs. The popular conception might have been expressed in the words: "Religion is religion, and morals are morals," just as some Englishmen say: "Religion is religion, and business is business," two separate things. The beliefs of pagan Africa are very similar; religion is a matter of offering sacrifices, performing ceremonies, and observing taboos; what we call moral conduct has little or nothing to do with it. Stealing, adultery, and other wrongdoing are not regarded as sins against the gods or spirits, but merely as social offences against one's neighbours. A man's standing with his god is not thought to be impaired by the fact that he practises immorality or dishonesty, though such things may involve him in trouble with his fellow men.
Brought up with such ideas, it is easy to see how very difficult it is for the convert from paganism to grasp the new (and to him startling) conception of a God Who demands purity of heart and life. "Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy," is to the African an absolutely revolutionary proposition, and usually it takes time and careful training to enable him to adjust himself to the demands of his new and exacting religion.
Training, not merely telling, but training in the new life, is what is required. To teach these converts to repeat the Commandments is not nearly enough. Just as our own children, in spite of repeated telling, sometimes err, and have to be corrected and patiently trained in what is right, so those who turn to God from raw heathenism need to be patiently and lovingly trained in this holy way. To them the ancient prayer: "Teach me to do Thy will for Thou art my God" should have a new and deep significance.
Unfortunately, in too many instances, this all-important task of training the converts has to be left in the hands of the workers least fitted to give it, the catechists and teachers; and this is one of the greatest weaknesses in a mission. We may be thankful that many of these subordinate workers are men of experience and established Christian character. But others, though earnest, are painfully ill-equipped for their task; and in the emergency of a rapidly-growing movement it often happens that untrained men are used. Sometimes such men, under careful supervision, make good and do fine work; but some fail disastrously, and occasionally fall into open sin and have to be dismissed. Again, let us not judge them too harshly. Let us remember their meagre equipment, intellectual, religious, and moral, and their limited experience. Often they are faced with temptations before which many a young Englishman has fallen.
Such dangers and difficulties of pioneer missionary effort can only be guarded against by (1) constant supervision, (2) by seeing that the catechists are well trained, and (3) that they are married to girls who also have been trained for Christian service. It is necessary to keep all these considerations in mind while we survey the Niger Mission during the 'eighties.
The shadows of evening were beginning to gather around the grand old bishop. He was then considerably over seventy years of age, and the death of his wife brought deep personal sorrow into his life. [Assuming him to have been born about 1806, but the exact year of his birth is not known.] He was growing a little weary with the heavy burdens he was carrying. Yet his responsibilities continued to increase. The African clergy, catechists, and teachers of his immense diocese were stationed so far apart that it was difficult to exercise sufficient oversight. To aid him in this work, two African archdeacons had been appointed to share with him the burdens of office; one was his own son, the Rev. Dandeson C. Crowther, and the other the Rev. Henry Johnson, who had had charge of a church in Lagos. The former was appointed to the charge of the delta region, and the latter of the Niger from Onitsha to Lokoja and beyond. The aged bishop received still further help from Mr. J. H. Ashcroft, the English lay missionary in charge of the Henry Venn, who assisted in the business affairs of the Mission.
For the moment the outlook seemed brighter. But new troubles constantly occurred at the stations or outposts. In the delta, things were going fairly well and progress was made, but up the river difficulties arose with some of the catechists. Traders and other Europeans brought stories of incapacity and even of moral failure. Probably some of these tales were untrue and others greatly exaggerated by white men who were unsympathetic or even hostile to the Mission, but there was enough in them to cause Bishop Crowther and the C.M.S. Committee gravest anxiety.
There can be no doubt that at some places the workers, left for long periods without oversight or encouragement, had grown slack. Either through inefficiency or laziness, or through ordinary human frailties arising from isolation and loneliness, they were not instructing their people as they should have done in the moral duties of the Christian life; and in their eagerness to report progress they were bringing forward for baptism or confirmation, men and women who were not ready for so important a step. Lax discipline led inevitably, in some places, to churches being more or less filled with people whose manner of life proved them to be ignorant of the first principles of the Gospel. Some of the catechists themselves were overcome by the temptations around them.
Under the conditions obtaining--the stations scattered over so large an area, the uncertainty of travel, and the general difficulties of oversight it was not easy to discover slackness and failure at any given place until things had reached a very serious pitch and could no longer be concealed. Every missionary and African clergyman knows how exceedingly difficult it is to be sure of what is actually going on at his outposts, unless he is able constantly to visit them and maintain close personal touch with workers and people. When an outpost is so far away that it can only be visited once or twice a year, and then only for a few hours, it is impossible to look below the surface. A visit from the bishop or archdeacon naturally draws a large congregation; the church is full, the responses satisfactory, the singing good, and the attention all that can be desired: everything appears to be going well. A week's residence in the place, or even a monthly visit, might reveal a very different state of affairs.
Such were the conditions on the Niger during the unhappy period we are dealing with. With fine spirit the heroic old bishop strove to restore discipline in his huge diocese, and he was well supported by his archdeacons and clergy. But it soon became evident that a crisis had arisen and that they could not deal effectively with so extensive a work. It was necessary either to limit the sphere of operations or to strengthen the staff. The latter course was decided upon, and after long and very thorough investigation the Committee, with the concurrence of Bishop Crowther, resolved to reinforce the Niger Mission with a few European missionaries.
The first European to be appointed was Thomas Phillips, an Irish business man, who took a theological course at Islington and was ordained priest by Bishop Crowther, who was in England at the time. It was the first instance of a European receiving ordination at the hands of an African. He then went out to the Niger in the capacity of secretary to the Mission, to help the bishop as adviser and friend. His term of service was very short, and he was succeeded by the Rev. James Hamilton. A medical mission was planned for Lokoja, but Dr. Percy Brown, who was sent out to take charge, died before the work was established. Three lay missionaries, sent out to run the Henry Venn, did useful service. A more notable recruit was the Rev. John Alfred Robinson, a Cambridge man.
By this time very important political changes were taking place throughout West Africa, changes that are usually known as "the scramble for power." After long periods of "influence" at certain trade centres on the coastline, Germany, France, and Great Britain began to mark off for themselves vast hinterland protectorates. Rights of exploration, rights of trade, and priority of interests, became subjects of heated controversy. The whole of West Africa was in the melting pot, and it is a matter for thankfulness that the sharp contentions did not lead to a European war. Happily a series of "agreements," "conventions," and "understandings" settled the rival claims; "boundary lines," often more or less arbitrary, were drawn across large-scale maps, and vast areas of Africa were painted red, green, or yellow to indicate protectorates of one or other of the contending Powers.
So mighty a waterway as the Niger was coveted by all the Powers. It had attracted traders of different nations, and in 1880 a French commercial company had no fewer than thirty stations on the Lower Niger. But in 1884 they were bought out by the British "United Africa Company" founded a few years before by George Goldie-Taubman who was destined to prove himself the strong man and empire builder of the Niger. [Afterwards famous as Sir George Goldie.] In 1885 a British Protectorate was proclaimed over the coastal regions of the delta, then known as the Oil Rivers. A year later the Company received a royal charter, under which it became the "Royal Niger Company," with exclusive trade rights and territories along the river. From the beginning, the Company set itself to develop the country commercially, to suppress slave raiding, and to prevent tribal wars. Looking back over the fourteen years of the Niger Company's rule, we cannot but recognize that it laid the foundations of peace and sound government. It was a factor that made for the redemption of that great land we now call Nigeria.
These changes inevitably affected the work of the Niger Mission. With the extension of the Company's operations and the stationing of white men at the trading posts, it became more necessary than ever that there should be Europeans on the mission staff. The direction remained in the hands of Bishop Crowther, and the bulk of the work continued to be done by Africans. But with the growth of commerce and the increase of the drink traffic, new problems claimed attention, and it was seen that they could best be met by the co-operation of African and European workers. The aged bishop heartily held out the hand of fellowship to any white missionaries who were prepared to enter upon the work in a loving, large-hearted spirit.
A new interest now entered the field, and men's eyes began to turn to a new horizon, the great Sudan. During his voyages up the Benué and the Upper Niger, Bishop Crowther's thoughts had more than once turned to the great Moslem states lying to the north of the rivers, the Negro-Moslem emirates of the Hausa and Fulani peoples. In those days that great region was usually known as the Central Sudan or Hausaland. During the 'eighties, the burden of its teeming millions was laid upon the heart of Graham Wilmot Brooke, a young man who had been educated for the army. Though still in his early 'twenties, Brooke made the Central Sudan his goal and its evangelization his life work. First he attempted to reach it from Algeria by crossing the Sahara Desert. Then he tried to get up the Senegal River; then up the Congo; and finally up the Niger. Lokoja seemed to be the door of the Central Sudan, and he formed the plan of establishing a mission base there, and, having mastered the Hausa and Arabic languages and in other ways prepared himself for so hazardous a task, pushing forward to his great objective. It was a bold plan, boldly conceived; but Brooke was a young man of heroic mould, with a lion heart and a great faith in God. Convinced that he was called to this enterprise, he allowed nothing to stand in his way. But he was wise as well as brave, practical as well as devout; and perceiving that his purpose was more likely to be fulfilled under the segis of a great missionary society than as a private venture, he offered himself and his project to the C.M.S. After full consideration of what so great a venture might involve, the Committee accepted him, and from that time he became as a flame of fire, pleading for Hausaland by pen and voice, and rousing great enthusiasm.
Soon the Rev. John Alfred Robinson, then secretary of the Niger Mission, stationed at Onitsha, cast in his lot with Brooke. The spirit of the two men was shown in the way they contended, not who should be the greatest, but who should be least. Brooke held that Robinson, as the senior and a clergyman, should be chief. Robinson, with the same humility, protested that Brooke had conceived the enterprise and should be the leader of it. On a visit to Cambridge, Brooke's impassioned appeals secured two more fine recruits, and both of them were gladly accepted by the C.M.S.--Dr. C. F. Harford-Battersby and Eric Lewis, both laymen, though Lewis was afterwards ordained.
Simultaneously, other men were volunteering to reinforce Bishop Crowther's Niger Mission. Prominent among them came two from West Hartle-pool, the vicar of St. James's and his curate, the Rev. F. N. Eden and the Rev. H. H. Dobinson. Both were accepted. What was described as a fit of "African fever" seemed to be passing over C.M.S. circles, and it reached its height in a memorable valedictory meeting held on January 20, 1890, in the old Exeter Hall, just half a century after that other memorable gathering in that same hall. In a hall crowded to overflowing, the newly-appointed missionaries spoke in turn, and the chief speaker was the now venerable Bishop Crowther. It was his last visit to England. In a few weeks the men were all on the field. The Sudan party (including Mrs. Brooke and Miss Lewis) were stationed at Lokoja, Eden and Dobinson at Onitsha, and Bennett at Abutshi. A new era seemed to have opened for the Niger Mission.
At Lokoja, the Sudan party set to work to prepare themselves for the great venture, well aware of the perils before them. They adopted Hausa clothing, and lived in the simplest way possible; they accustomed themselves to sitting on the floor for meals, discarded stockings and wore the typical slipper-sandals; indoors they went bare-footed. They strove to get near to the Moslems and enter into their lives that they might win them for Christ. In utter devotion to their purpose, they actually arranged with the Royal Niger Company that, in case of any disturbance, they were to have no protection from the authorities. Their reason for this step was that they desired no personal security from perils to which their converts might be exposed. "If they imprison us, the British Government is not to interfere; if they kill us, no reparation must be demanded," wrote Brooke. In 1891 the Sudan party was reinforced by the arrival of two more men, and a couple of trained nurses.
At Onitsha, being in a purely pagan area, Eden and Dobinson had to face totally different problems. Disaster had again overtaken the Onitsha church. Three months before they arrived, a tribal war had placed the Christians in a dilemma. The chiefs had given them the alternative of joining in heathen rites or being driven into exile across the river. In their weakness, most of them yielded, and the church was overwhelmed. Only three or four years before it had been apparently a strong and established church with "enormous congregations, immense classes, and much organization." Now everything was at its lowest ebb and a too drastic policy of pruning and purification, which led to the dismissal of some of the African clergy and other workers, by causing anger and resentment, had complicated the situation both at Onitsha and down the river. With patience and tact Dobinson set to work to build up again. School work was reorganized. Women missionaries arrived and undertook work for women and girls; and a printing press was set up.
At the delta stations the situation was brighter, especially at Bonny, where Archdeacon Crowther had been in charge for some years. After a visit in 1891, Dobinson expressed himself well pleased with the work there. He wrote: "Bonny is a fine mission station. The church is large, and holds 1200 or 1300 when quite full. . . . They have large congregations . . . and respond, when the Psalms are read, as you seldom hear them responded to in England. All who can read, do read, and in a good loud voice. None of your cultivated whispers in these parts. The effect is stirring."
But the new promise of progress was speedily overshadowed by sorrow and disappointment. The workers at Lokoja went down time after time with fever. Robinson died, and a few months later Graham Wilmot Brooke was laid to rest by his side. Others had to go home. Lokoja was proving a most unhealthy place. Writing in March, 1892, just after the death of Brooke, Dobinson said: "There have been in all ten European missionaries at Lokoja, and now not one remains." It was but the beginning of many losses. The Niger was to take heavy toll of European life.
In the midst of these trials, there came another bereavement. On the last day of 1891, the grand old bishop passed into the presence of his Lord. He died in Lagos, and on the following day, honoured and loved on every hand, he was laid to rest. He was probably about eighty-five years of age, perhaps older, but he continued active almost to the last, though for some time his health had been failing.
For half a century Samuel Adjai Crowther was the outstanding figure of the Nigeria Mission; and to a remarkable degree the story up to this point is the story of his life. In the annals of the evangelization of West Africa, no name stands higher than his, and no life has been more romantic.
A boy picked out of heathenism and slavery, with no background and no inheritance save generations of crudest paganism, yet he became a man whose Christian character was an example to every one, a scholar capable of translation work of high merit, the founder of a great pioneer mission, and the organizer of a large African Church. As a bishop, his charges are extraordinarily up-to-date even now, and his views therein expressed on subjects as to the place of industrial missions and the problem of polygamy have not yet been advanced upon. Through him new crops, that are now staple foods of the country, were introduced, many new fruits brought in, even the trade in palm oil initiated. The chiefs looked upon him as their father and adviser, and his influence was far greater than that of any missionary ever sent to work in Nigeria. His zeal was truly apostolic, and his Christian character and devotion will long be a cherished memory of the churches he founded and the missionary society he served. Few men have had a more difficult task, few have been called to face so many reverses and disappointments; few have shown a more indomitable spirit, or greater patience and meekness in time of adversity; and in that he rose from paganism and slavery to a Christian bishopric he was unique. Men failed him, subordinates betrayed his confidence, onlookers criticized him; he forgave. "He lived in an atmosphere of suspicion and scandal," wrote Dr. Eugene Stock, "yet no tongue, however malicious, of white man or black man, ventured to whisper reproach against his personal reputation." Sorely discouraged, he never yielded to the discouragement; and he persevered to the end. Only in death did he lay down the burden of the work he loved.