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This is Why He Came

Stories of Salvation and Transformation from Around the World

From Bethlehem to the Niger: The Story of Samuel Ajayi Crowther

by Dr. Michael Whiting, DBU Staff

From a manger in Bethlehem to the tropical coast of West Africa, there is a long and winding story that connects the advent of Jesus Christ to the movement of the Gospel from Sierra Leone deeper into the heart of Africa along the Niger, and standing at the center of this story is a man named Samuel Ajayi Crowther. 

A native of the Yoruba people, he was born in what is today Western Nigeria in 1807 – the very same year that the British Parliament, after years of legislative pleading from William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, abolished their slave trade. The colony of Sierra Leone was transformed into a relocation for slaves freed along the coast of Africa by the British navy, and Ajayi, separated from his family and sold between different hands half a dozen times, was one such slave rescued from a Portuguese ship. 

Three years later, Ajayi was converted to Christ in Sierra Leone and was baptized into the missionary society of the Anglican Church, taking the English name Samuel Crowther. He received an English secondary education and was among the first class of students enrolled at one of the first universities established in tropical Africa. 

Appointed as a schoolmaster to serve other liberated slaves on the coast of Africa, Ajayi also developed a reputation for his skills in evangelism to both Muslims and worshippers of traditional tribal religions. Following an expedition up the Niger River in 1841, and as Ajayi’s ministry gifts were becoming more evident, he was granted the special opportunity to study in England and, in response to the vision of British mission director Henry Venn, received ordination as the first Anglican bishop from Africa for Africa.

As Sierra Leone was considered by the Anglican mission to be the doorway into the heart of the African interior, Ajayi’s primary task was to serve as the key evangelist and representative of the mission, which included ministering in his native language of Yoruba (Ajayi authored a book of vocabulary – the first of its kind by a native African speaker), as well as providing leadership over the translation of a Yoruba Bible.  

During these years, Ajayi was reunited with his mother and sister whom he had not seen in 20 years, having the privilege of baptizing them. He also had to persevere the loss of eleven years of vocabulary and translation work when his home caught fire. 

A decade after the first expedition, a new missionary venture into the African interior connected Ajayi with the Nupe and Hausa peoples. For nearly fifty years, Sierra Leone – led by Ajayi – carried on an indigenous ministry of Africans evangelizing other Africans – both Muslims and animists – deeper into unreached territories along the great Niger River, along with pioneering Bible translations in other African languages. 

Toward the end of his life, however, Europeans began taking back control of the Niger mission and, following Ajayi’s death from a stroke in 1891, succeeded him with a bishop from Europe, not Africa. The European government grew stronger in Africa in these years, and there would not be progress toward more indigenous African leadership until decades later and contemporary with movements of African independence from European colonialism. 

Today, the growth of Christianity around the world in continents like Africa is, among other factors, the result of Bible translation work and the ministry of African leadership in churches, schools, and missions. Although the end of his personal story and the internal problems that beset the Niger Mission are heartbreaking, Samuel Ajayi Crowther’s life pointed toward a future day when the Gospel would spread farther across the continent of Africa and more African Christians would be raised up as leaders of God's global rescue mission born in a manger so long ago in Bethlehem.

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