1840 to 1901
Sierra Leone / Nigeria
A son of Yoruba recaptives, Henry Johnson was born in Hastings, Sierra Leone, in October of 1840. His father Henry “Erugunjimi” Johnson hailed from Gbagere compound in the defunct Oyo metropolis of what is today Nigeria. He had been captured in the slave raiding wars that followed the violent dissolution of the metropolis, beginning from the second decade of the nineteenth century. He was rescued at sea by the British patrol squadron and resettled in Hastings, Sierra Leone, where he married Sarah, another Yoruba recaptive, in the late 1830s.
Henry Johnson, son, was born at a time when the fledgling Sierra Leone community of creoles was beset with the problem of identity in a westernizing but ambivalent social environment. Over the years, from about 1815 when they were invited to work in the colony, the CMS mission hoped to raise African mission agency through the children of the recaptive settlers who passed through their school system. By the 1840s, the hope that this method would yield the desired fruit was still current among the missionaries except the one in charge of the parish at Hastings. He had observed a growing trend among these young people who were expected someday to become evangelists to their peoples in the interior of Africa; they were not interested in the regimen of social and religious life for which the missionaries were preparing them. The boys in particular were not turning out right. According to the missionary,
It generally happens that [they] gradually leave school without giving us an opportunity of following them with a watchful eye to their future sphere. Some go to other towns among strangers, others fall into bad company at home and never seldom visit a place of worship: and thus we are mostly left with a set of new children.
Graf further remarked that these children, with the exception of a few, “present a mass of unsanctified intellect….Some boldly abuse and despise their parents; others, too idle to work, live by hawking, thieving, imposition. Some spend their talents out of the colony at merchants’ factories in dirty concubinage or else help trading in the neighboring rivers in the midst of various vices…”
The colony, as a meeting point of European and African cultures, became a source temptation to these colony-born young people. They despised their parents’ African culture while being attracted to the European lifestyle they saw in Freetown for which they had no resources or qualifications. The missionary in Hastings was the first to identify this problem and he set to work against it in his own parish. Graf took particular interest in his parish school, making sure that the teachers exercised a wholesome influence on the children. He also took an interest in the young people in his church, especially being mindful that they were creatively engaged during the vacant hours of the day.
Henry Johnson was nurtured in this religio-cultural environment and profited from Graf’s crusade for a better future for the young colony born creoles of Sierra Leone. As a result, he proceeded to the Grammar School in Freetown in June 1855. At the completion of his studies, he taught there for eight years, from 1857 to 1865. Shortly after he began his teaching service at the Grammar School, his parents were recruited by Rev. David Hinderer in 1857 for service with the newly opened mission at Ibadan in the Yoruba country.
Early in 1865, his father died at Ibadan. Henry Johnson proceeded to the Church Missionary College, Islington, London, where he studied Hebrew and comparative philology among other courses to prepare him for translation work in West Africa. While studying, he was ordained a deacon on December 3, 1866, by Bishop Anderson in London. The following year, in December of 1867, he was consecrated a priest by the bishop of London.
Henry Johnson returned to Freetown in December of 1869. In January of 1870, he began work at his station at Boom Fall, in the troubled Sherbro country. There he engaged in translating and reducing the Mende language into writing. This involved the translation of the books of the New Testament into the mother tongue and compilation of local children’s fables into English. Alongside the language work and direction of the school, he did chaplaincy work among the Sierra Leonean traders on the rivers who had lapsed from the faith and were living in the midst of vices.
Henry Johnson approached his task with speed on arriving in Sherbro. By March of 1870, he had completed the translation of the Gospel of St. Luke and had collected some local Mende stories for Mr. Schön in London. Nevertheless, the school had difficulty. He hesitated in carrying out this additional assignment to start a vernacular school at his station because of the unsettled nature of the country. When he eventually started, parents would not bring their children unless they were to be taught in English. The situation forced him to suspend the vernacular teaching program in order to have pupils in the school. It was the first in the whole country of Sherbro and Mende. However, as he had anticipated, the unsettled nature of the country affected attendance. Three months after starting the school, barely half a dozen pupils were attending, the rest had been withdrawn to places of safety in view of an impending war.
In January of 1871, Johnson visited the Yoruba mission for the first time as he wished to see his mother again before her demise that appeared to be drawing near. Moreover, although the journey was motivated by filial piety, it turned out to be a tonic for him in his translation work, for he quickly recognized, for the first time, the power of apprehending religious truth in one’s mother tongue. Happily, his visit to Abeokuta coincided with Mr. Townsend’s short visit to the town, the first time after the 1867 destruction of the churches and expulsion of the missionaries from there by the Egba authorities. On the Sunday he joined the congregation to worship at the Ake church, he observed:
That day more than 560 Christians in the midst of a professedly heathen people, going through, in their regular order, the different parts of our church service,– with this important difference, that no word of English was heard from the beginning to the end. I was much struck by that circumstance; and as I understood the Yoruba language, I enjoyed the service still more rationally.
The occasion provoked in this colony-born agent visiting his roots for the first time a reflection on the possible reason for the shortfall of Christianity in his Sierra Leone environment, especially the endemic apathy of his compatriots in the colony to Christian life:
I was more than ever impressed that day with the great importance of my own special work. I saw and understood practically the lasting benefit of giving to a people the word of God in their own native tongue. The Abeokuta Christian who is able to read, understands at once the meaning of what he reads: Whereas this is not the case with many even in the Colony of Sierra Leone. The English language not being theirs by natural inheritance, the most ordinary words are very commonly misapprehended.
Johnson buttressed his position with a conversation he had with one of those persons who left Sierra Leone to return to Lagos:
A Yoruba man at Lagos-an intelligent person-informed me that he was much struck in reading the Bible in his own language for the first time, by the new light which it gave him, although he had been in the habit of reading the English version many years at Sierra Leone. I do believe that it is because the Bible has been translated into the Yoruba tongue, and the people taught to read & comprehend its meaning, that the fatal tendency of the last outbreak [of 1867 at Abeokuta] was so effectively counteracted.
Johnson derived much encouragement from observing that the young churches in the Yoruba country were thriving in the hand of the native agents without the supervision of the missionaries who had been outlawed from the country. In his reckoning, the factor that made it possible was the translation of the Bible into Yoruba.
A feeling of encouragement glows within me in contemplation of this cheering fact, and I picture to myself the day when, in the providence of God, converts from the Mende tribes will be able to join in the beautiful services of our beloved church in their own expressive vernacular. I am convinced that until they can of themselves read the word of God, our success amongst them will continue precarious & unsatisfactory.
Johnson returned to his post at Sherbro, persuaded of the value of the mother-tongue translation for rooting Christianity among indigenous people. By August 1871, he had completed the translation of the Acts of the Apostles. His new possession, the Yoruba Bible, became an additional tool for his work as he wrote, “I found the Yoruba very useful indeed. The force and meaning of the original in many passages are beautifully apprehended.”  Six months after completing the book of Acts, he completed Romans. On this he elaborated:
The task was a laborious one. Not only individual words, but likewise phrases, and even whole sentences were sometimes found very difficult for a literal translation. As a rule I followed the text of the original Greek; though I did not neglect to avail myself at the same time of such helps as other versions could afford. The Yoruba text was a great advantage: …I consulted it freely. I found very frequently that where the points of difficulty concerned idioms, there the Mende & Yoruba usually coincided.
At the completion of the book of Acts, Johnson requested a supply of type fonts to print his translations in African languages. He thought it would afford him the facility to print at the Grammar School press in Freetown portions of the translations he was doing. He now saw the need to test run his translations by circulating them among those whose “help I solicit from time to time” before forwarding them to England. It is not certain if this request was granted, but by October of 1872, Henry Johnson’s translations of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Ephesians, the Philippians and the Colossians had reached London.
Mission to Muslims had always been a concern of the CMS parent committee. Their presence in the colony’s outlying and impenetrable territories, where they still carried on the slave trade, was a continuous reminder to the Sierra Leone mission that their work was not yet done. At the conference of the clergy and laity held in Freetown in October of 1871, the subject came into focus in a paper presented, “Our Mohammedan and Heathen Population-The Duty of the Church in Relation to Them.” By this time also, Henry Johnson had taken interest in learning the Arabic language and was planning “to make the experiment of writing a portion of scripture in Temneh with Arabic characters.” It is evident that he had taken interest also in Christian witness to these people whose language, although, had not been reduced into writing but could understand Arabic well. He said, “I have come across several persons here who read the Koran very intelligently…” At this point, it seems the parent committee was already considering sending him for training in Arabic studies.
By September of 1872, Johnson had gained a measure of mastery in his understanding of the Mende language and could write that, “I translate now with much greater ease and satisfaction, and I am able to make an intelligent discrimination in the use of words of nearly cognate meaning.” Nevertheless, he wondered at this time if it would not be necessary for the society in London to halt the printing of these translations “till we have tried the success of the gospels already printed.” At this time also, Johnson was very much occupied with the concern for the society to be intentional in promoting the education of Mende children because he “was sanguine of an immediate and effective conquest over the young Mendes.” By this he meant that:
Education, when properly directed, supplies a most wholesome corrective: and upon it we rely, under God’s blessing, to raise the moral tone and feeling of the Mende children & their parents. I can testify to their wonderful mental receptivity. I do not know what they are not able to take in by way of instruction-they are thoroughly [teachable].
In 1873, Johnson was invited to visit London early in the spring. By this time the translation of the New Testament into the Mende language had been completed. Evidently, the parent committee appreciated his work and wanted him to acquire more skills in the study of languages. Others would now have to make real his vision for the Mende mission.
In December of 1873, Johnson left England for Jaffa in Palestine where he studied Arabic. After nearly two and half years he returned to England in April of 1876. What followed appeared to be a promotion, as the committee transferred him to Lagos in November of 1876. The transfer was to mark the beginning of his vocational problem with English missionaries in the CMS missions in what eventually became Nigeria. And although everything appeared to be in his favor at this time, the sign of imminent trouble had preceded him to Lagos.
Three factors laid the foundation of what would become a problem for this gifted agent. First was Henry Venn’s doctrine of the indigenous church, which the missionaries saw as a threat to their control over their African counterparts. Although the honorary secretary had left the scene in 1872, the wisdom of freeing the mission to explore regions beyond, where the native church had emerged, was still current with the CMS committee in London. But the European missionaries on the ground still loathed the idea of an indigenous church that would eliminate their control. The elevation of Bishop Crowther and the frustration they suffered in the Egba nationalist uprising of 1867, the Ifọle, were still causes for concern among them.
Second, nationalist fervor was already brewing in Sierra Leone among the general populace, and mission there was already transmuting into a settled church less in need of the active control of missionaries. This was not a cheering development for the missionaries who feared that the more propitious Yoruba mission might soon follow in the same direction. In fact, this appears to be the reason why Johnson was being transferred to Lagos.
The third and most critical factor that laid the foundation for Henry Johnson’s clumsy relationship with the missionaries came from his visit to the Yoruba mission in 1871. In a report on that visit to the parent committee in London, he wrote that:
It came to my knowledge, a little before I left Lagos, that a petition was drawn up, signed by some of the residents, and forwarded to the committee praying them to send me down to the Yoruba mission. I do not know whether I am competent to give an opinion on the subject; but if I am, I should unhesitatingly say that I hope the committee will not grant the prayer of the petition. As an expression of the interest & confidence of the signatories in me, I am glad of the petition: beyond that, I have no other feeling. I prefer to continue the work which I have already commenced here, and personally I have not the fainted shadow of a desire to change my sphere of labor now, if at all.
Johnson did not only hear about this development; he also knew about its rattling effect on the European missionaries in the mission as he wrote:
I regret that it caused a general dissatisfaction among the missionaries at Lagos, who imagined they saw in it the germ of another outbreak; & the final expulsion of white men from the colony. I no more sympathize with such an extreme notion, than I do with the wishes of those who have petitioned for me. However, I have full confidence in the wisdom of the reply which the committee will give on the subject.
A cursory reading of this report does not show Johnson as being strongly opposed to the idea of his being transferred to Lagos; it even appears he would be inclined towards it with only a little nudge from his mentors in England. But, in reality, the case was contrary. Johnson saw Hastings, Sierra Leone, as his native home, and the committee in London succeeded in inducing his move to Lagos only with “the repeated assurances…that [his] stay in Lagos is not intended to last beyond the time when a suitable successor could be found to undertake the work.” His ultimate destination was the Niger mission, where his newly acquired training in Arabic would find usefulness. But his assignment in Lagos was to help move the Breadfruit Church into a new status as a native pastorate, the church, at this time, being the second most important congregation of the mission in Lagos.
Apart from the popular demand for him in Lagos in the aftermath of his 1871 trip to the Yoruba mission, there is no other clue to understanding the rationale for Johnson’s appointment to Lagos. Truly, he was operating in Sierra Leone where mission had transmuted into a native church, but he was not strategically involved in the process that led to it. He even mentioned an Egba pastor in Sierra Leone, Rev. G. J. Macaulay of Wellington, as eminently fit for the task. In spite of this, the parent committee seemed to brush aside the muffled feelings of their European agents in their most promising field in West Africa, just as they had in elevating Bishop Crowther.
When the insecurity of missionaries in the Yoruba mission combined with Henry Johnson’s mandate and profile- exposure, privileged education, and giftedness-the stage was set for a troubled ministry. His independent spirit and lack of diplomacy made him an unfit candidate for the assignment, given the social environment. The home committee of the CMS was leading him into the same dilemma they had inadvertently led Bishop Crowther, and he would eventually share the same fate with him.
Henry Johnson arrived in Lagos in January of 1877. He took over the Breadfruit Church parish under Rev. James Johnson who had just been appointed as the secretary of the Yoruba mission and was to be stationed at Abeokuta. Less than a month after his arrival, the church suffered in the fire incident that destroyed the Olowogbowo and Ebute Ero districts of Lagos Island. Although the properties of the church were saved from the incident, the temporary church building, covered with thatch, burned to the ground. Thus the speedy completion of the one under construction became necessary.
The sign that Johnson was under the adversarial watch of the European missionaries occurred in the first year of his arrival in Lagos. The parent committee asked Bishop Crowther to invite him to visit the Niger Mission, which was under his episcopacy. He undertook the three-month journey from August to November of 1877 with the knowledge of the finance committee in Lagos, having committed the responsibility in his care to those he appointed. In January of 1878, in the aftermath of this trip, Bishop Cheetham of Sierra Leone sent him a query, indicating that he “had seen it in print, and heard it from different sources; and [had] recently been informed, on making the inquiry of the secretary of the C.M.S. at Lagos, that you either are or have been absent from the work for which you are licensed by me in this diocese, for a considerable period.” The bishop asked Johnson to explain if he “had ceased to hold the office to which he [was] licensed: and have therefore ceased to be a licensed minister in my diocese?”
In response, he explained the circumstances of his absence from the diocese to the Niger and affirmed his belonging to the bishop’s diocese while asking for his pardon for the unintended overstay away from his assignment without permission. The incident passed on with no recriminations, but it was the first flicker in the unfolding drama. His association with the unwanted bishop on the Niger had yoked him to his fate. The reason for reporting Johnson to the bishop is not difficult to discern. Unbeknownst to him when he was told to visit the Niger mission, the parent committee and Bishop Crowther had agreed to elevate him to the office of archdeacon of Upper Niger. He was surprised when, after their return from the up river visit, they retired to St. Stephen Church, Bonny, and there Bishop Crowther formally appointed him and Mr. Dandeson Crowther as his archdeacons.This did not go down well with his European missionary detractors in Lagos who were troubled by his presence in the Yoruba mission.
Following the successful visit to Bishop Crowther, the parent committee transferred Johnson to the mission there in January of 1878. However, almost immediately, the parent committee put on hold his transfer there. With the sudden death of Mr. Thomas B. Macaulay in January of 1878, the founding principal of the Lagos Grammar School, he assumed the office of the principal of the school in addition to his assignment at the Breadfruit Church. The plan to relieve him of his assignments in Lagos could still not be realized as the bishop in Sierra Leone was no longer willing to release any of the ministers there for service in other missions, including Lagos. At the end of 1878, the parent committee saw the need for him to continue his two assignments in Lagos until the following year.
When a substantive successor had been found for him at the Grammar School and an acting one for the church, a formal send off ceremony was organized in his honor at the Breadfruit church in October of 1879. Nevertheless, another notice from the parent committee delayed his movement to the Niger for the second time. At first, the reason for the delay this time was not clear, but it revolved around the movements of Mr. J. B. Wood between London, Lagos, and the Niger. Mr Wood, at this time, was the most influential missionary in the Yoruba mission, and he seems to have been very resentful of Johnson. Johnson’s profile and independent spirit, typical of Sierra Leone returnees, did not help the matter, and the plot against him thickened by the day. Not even Bishop Crowther with whom he would be working on the Niger was as influential as Wood in enabling Johnson to take up his new post.
At this time also, Johnson had started expressing his views on the happenings on the Niger, especially the arbitrariness and highhandedness of Captain Mackintosh, the officer in charge of the British gunboat on the river. Johnson was critical of this officer whom he described as “a man of a very violent temper” whose activities on the river he saw as a threat to a successful mission there. In underscoring the captain’s conduct with his recent destruction of Onitsha, Johnson warned that, “This is by no means the first time that he has been the cause of the death of many innocent people; and unless the late massacre at Onitsha be carefully looked into & proper notice taken of it, I fear that great troubles await us in the future.” In retrospect, Johnson’s observation here, though sincere and unassailable, is another evidence that he would have problems with the racially charged relations that would soon be unfolding on the Niger. Still, his opinion could only have further alienated him from the English missionaries in Lagos who were in league with other European agents and traders on the Niger who were already spying on the African agents there.
Johnson returned to his duty at the Breadfruit Church without any definite indication from London on how soon he would assume his new posting. His stay in Breadfruit eventually lasted until about April 1881; that is more than three years after he had been appointed to the Niger. However, it afforded him the opportunity to complete the new church building against all odds.
“The State of Denmark”
The dynamic behind the delay in Johnson taking up his new duties on the Niger was uncovered at the CMS missionary conference that was held in Madeira in March 1881. Bishop Crowther and his archdeacon-son Dandeson Crowther were invited to take part in the conference. Henry Johnson, who was to be Dandeson Crowther’s colleague up the Niger River, was left out. This immediately raises the question of why he was left out. Some of the English missionaries in Lagos, led by Mr. J. B. Wood, were giving the secretaries in London evil reports about Johnson, which they kept from him. He was also not asked to respond to them, formally or informally, since they were not substantiated allegations but prejudices and insinuations. But they were effective enough to frustrate his transfer to his new post.
The attempt of the lay secretary, Mr. Edward Hutchinson, to draw the bishop and his son into this scheme brought the matter into the open at the conference. Obviously, the selective invitation of Dandeson Crowther to the conference was part of the plotters’ scheme to create a wedge between the two archdeacons on the Niger, to isolate them, and eventually to reverse Johnson’s posting to the Upper Niger. It backfired as the full details of the insinuations against Johnson reached him in Lagos after the conference.
Broadly speaking, there were four insinuations the missionaries were peddling and reporting to London about him. First, he was being described as a “mere slippers man who is only fond of sitting in a drawing room or where he might be seen and talked of, and sending others to work.” Second, his detractors alleged that he was “not a good evangelical but one that has some ‘leanings.'” By this, they mean that he was a high churchman or Anglo-catholic, which to the CMS mindset was seen as an English representation of popery and empty ritualism. Third, the archdeacon was accused of joining Rev. James Johnson “in opposing Bishop Crowther at the [1880 Conference on Domestic Slavery in the Yoruba Mission], and the committee were ‘disappointed in [him]’ in consequence.” Johnson’s opponents needed this argument to isolate him from the bishop. Finally, they charged him with “anti-white” sentiment like Rev. James Johnson,  and this cut at the very heart of his relationship with his European mentors who were opening doors of opportunity for him. All these were only being circulated in muffled conversations within the European missionary circle in Lagos and with the lay secretary in London. As Shakespeare would say, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Johnson’s written answers to these charges may represent one of the most astute self-defense arguments of an indigenous agent in the service of the CMS mission. His official response to the charges breathes such eloquence and capacity that this, in and of itself, reveals why he could not but be seen as a threat by his European colleagues. The mission had created in him a sophisticated agent with no match among the less educated and insecure English missionaries in the fledgling colony of Lagos. And the allegations they rumored against him were not arbitrary; they were directed at the very strengths he brought to the Yoruba mission from Sierra Leone. His evident capability and prodigious capacity for work were really threatening, and the way to attack it is to accuse him to his superiors in London as a loafer and lazy bone. To defend himself against this charge, he drew from his track record both in Sierra Leone and in Lagos, the details of which he had always made known to London in his copious correspondence.
The second allegation, Johnson called “baseless slander,” which might have arisen from his achievements at the Breadfruit Church. Johnson succeeded in amplifying exponentially the financial capacity of the church, helped the congregation make a smooth transition into a native pastorate, and ensured the completion of the new church building. Johnson completed the building against all odds, including the refusal of the mission to assist with securing the funds promised by the colonial government. The celebration of this feat became the main source of the accusation of “leanings” against him, as he noted that, “the charge was founded solely on the fact of my having had a choral service on the occasion of the formal opening of the new Breadfruit Ch.” He had no difficulty in identifying Mr. Wood as the source of this slander, as he had sent him an invitation three times to participate at the occasion. Wood ignored the invitation for no tangible reason, except probably that the signal success the occasion represented was too much for him to bear.
Johnson’s defense of the third accusation is very interesting. Before he stated the fact of the case, he declared, “…[L]et me deliberately assure you, Sir, that if the history of that conference should repeat itself again, I shall do precisely what I did last year, and abide the consequences of my conduct. I was and am and will ever be on the side of truth and justice. I am no party man.” In stating the fact of the case, he admitted that he only supported a motion to allow representatives of Lagos churches to be admitted to make their presentation to the conference. According to him, he considered that the proposed presentation would encourage the Egba churchmen, who were proving difficult at the conference, to follow the footsteps of their Lagos counterparts and to cooperate with the decision of the parent committee on the slavery issue. Although the conference rejected the proposal and no one protested against this rejection, Johnson’s detractors saw in it an opportunity to halt his move to work with the bishop.
Johnson qualified the fourth accusation as “the gravest charge,” and, indeed, this gravity can be felt in the slow pace at which his defense first proceeded. He wrote: “Those who have slandered me in this way knew very well that nothing could tend to arouse so effectually the dormant prejudices of color as this…They knew full well that it is a charge that is difficult to rebut. I can admire their shrewdness, but must question their morality. I utterly repudiate the epithet as applied to me.” After rhetorically drawing the attention of Mr. Hutchinson to the list of his European friends in England, with whom the lay secretary was familiar, Johnson pronounced the charge “a gross libel; and those who stigmatized me as ‘anti white’ were perfectly conscious that they were uttering a falsehood against me, to effect their own sinister ends.”
Having rebuffed the charges, Johnson took the battle to the mission’s lay secretary, referring to incidents of unethical behavior among the missionaries in Lagos, occasionally using satire and ridicule to advance his arguments. He laid before Hutchinson some of the malicious gossip, unsavory personal experiences, and patronizing tendencies of European missionaries in Lagos towards himself. This is summarized in his submission:
You in England cannot fancy how some of those who come out here, inflated with the idea that they are of the “dominant race,” do treat with something like contempt, the natives of the country. The truth is that they regard us this day in pretty much the same light as our fathers and forefathers were, who were rescued from the iron fangs of slavery by the philanthropists of a former generation. We are not over-sensitive, but at the same time we are not unduly pachydermatous…”
Johnson underscored this argument by citing the indiscreet statement Bishop Cheetham made in putting down the native clergy in Sierra Leone and made it clear to Hutchinson that “it is yourselves and your representatives, and not we, that are perpetually appealing to the race feeling.” He then related his own encounters with the dark intrigues and discourses among the English missionaries to move the Crowthers against him so that he would not be allowed to join them on the Niger, while they were also casting aspersion on his competence and masculinity, as he was not yet married at age forty.
Johnson saw the mission secretary already playing to the scheme of his detractors in his posting with the intention that he might end up a failure in an isolated mission at the confluence of the Niger. His submission here is revealing of the morale of the man who was about to go up the Niger as the archdeacon:
My very location, as I could perceive from the minutes of the Madeira conference, clearly proves that the opinion that I am a “slippers man” and the rest of it, is not yet given up, for it is arranged that I should go and have charge of Lokoja… While…two men who have been nearly 16 years in the country are to labor together [at Kipo Hill], I who know nothing of the languages spoken there, nor the habits of the people– a perfect stranger in the country, am thrown at Lokoja…to vegetate on the results of my idleness. I consider that I have been degraded by being confined to the pastorate of such a little place like Lokoja when I feel myself capable of much more. I feel that it is not believed that I shall be of any use as an archdeacon. Truth to tell, the title has proved more trouble to me than the proverbial “white elephant.”
Ultimately, the challenge Johnson placed before Mr. Hutchinson is his indiscretion to have received charges against him without hearing him out before acting on them. But he did not end it there. He called the bluff of the lay secretary:
From time to time I am tossed here and tossed there, and now again it is rumored that there is a desire to send me back to Sierra Leone to something else. When the proposal is actually made, it will be time enough for me to consider my relations with those who have no respect for, or confidence in me. If in any manner I stand in the way of any new plans that you may wish to carry out in the Niger, you are simply to send me about my business. Send me away as a useless lumber and all will be right: my enemies will rejoice, and peace will reign. But if I am still to be retained in service, I should like it to be distinctly understood that I shall never compromise myself as to my mental independence, nor will I consent to trim my sails so as to catch the breeze that will blow me into favor and promotion.
He concluded: “I had all along thought that I had your and the committee’s confidence–yours especially; but now I find that without having done anything to forfeit it…you are disappointed in me. All I can say is that my own confidence has been grievously shaken, and that I too am greatly disappointed.”
Johnson’s letter created a stir in London and Hutchinson was blamed for the way he handled the matter. The parent committee took the defense seriously and the outcome was the resignation of Mr. Hutchinson. But Johnson proceeded to Lokoja, soon after writing the letter, and there he labored for another ten years under European race feelings against African agents of the Niger mission. Yet, those years did not pass away without his giving them significance as a pioneer mission agent. He began the translation of the New Testament and Prayer Book into Nupe. He also prepared primers and catechism in Nupe and Ebira languages.
The second half of the 1880s particularly turned out to prove Johnson’s earlier experience with European missionaries in Lagos as a prelude to more difficult years ahead. Two dynamics were at play here. First, the colonization of Africa was formally entrenched by European powers at the Berlin conference of 1884-1885. The conference effectually divided the continent among the powers that, hitherto, were arbitrarily jostling for territories. In the aftermath of Berlin, Europeans became more brazen in their domination of the lands and peoples of Africa, with no regard for the feelings of the people. Generally, but especially in the CMS mission in what is Nigeria today, the old European missionaries had no problem reconciling themselves with the new development, because they saw in colonization the opportunity to bring order into the continent where inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic wars were decimating the peoples. The century long conflict in the Yoruba country is a good example of this. With the insecurity of the CMS English missionaries after the 1867 housebreaking saga at Abeokuta, one can understand their attitude towards indigenous agents and the relief they anticipated in the full colonization of the countries around the Niger. But this is only to the extent that colonialism would not dictate the pace of their enterprise.
The second dynamic that eventually frustrated Johnson and his colleagues on the Niger came from the new agents in the CMS mission in the late 1880s. These products of British universities were part of the new mission awakening among university students in Europe and North America. Some of them joined the CMS Niger mission, where problems had been brewing between African agents, on the one hand, and CMS missionaries and European traders, who were agents of colonialism, on the other. The missionaries earnestly wished to demonstrate to the home committee the impossibility of effective African mission agency without European supervision. The entry of these zealous, idealistic, but untested recruits into the mission complicated the crisis in the Niger mission. Having regard neither for the old ethos of Christianity, commerce and civilization nor for the African agents who were laboring there, including the venerable Bishop Crowther, they acted arbitrarily and with condescension. J. F. Ade Ajayi wrote about their conduct at Johnson’s post:
When these missionaries arrived at Lokoja in 1889 and saw the building of the Preparandi Institution, a two-storey house which was completed in 1887, built by the European catechist John Burness to Archdeacon Henry Johnson’s specifications, they declared it to be the grandest building in West Africa and an obstacle to the progress of Christianity: “Its very existence is a blot on the C.M.S. …It tends to divert the attention of the natives; they speculate on its cost and the wealth of the white man.”
These freshmen did not stop there; Ajayi continued:
They said that Henry Johnson must have deceived the parent committee about its real size, charged him with, among other things, being extravagant and asked for him to be removed to Sierra Leone. They sold the building at once to the Royal Niger Company at the company’s price, without waiting for the decision of the parent committee on the wisdom of the step.
Evidently, these young recruits, although they had their own idiosyncrasies, were acting out the script of the 1881 controversial reports of Mr. Wood who, with his English colleagues, had then conducted an inquisition into the activities of the Niger mission agents and wanted the waiting archdeacon sent back to Sierra Leone without assuming his post in the mission. Johnson’s connection with the CMS mission closed in 1891, and he relocated to Lagos with his family, having married there in 1888. During his brief stay in Lagos, he ran a private school without success as the value of education was still not appreciated by the residents of the colony.
When in 1894 the principal of the grammar school, Rev. Isaac Oluwole, was appointed bishop and the Lagos mission needed a capable hand to take over the management of the school, one of the missionaries, Mr. Toase, suggested Johnson’s name to the parent committee in London. Although he had the best credentials to take over the management of the school, the committee firmly declined the proposal. They “were not prepared to consider the re-employment in connection with the work of Archdeacon Henry Johnson.” If Johnson had been staying around Lagos with the idea that the committee in London would rethink the unjust treatment of the African agents in the Niger mission, such thoughts were definitively banished from his mind at that time. Had the London committee too bought into the spirit of the age?
Henry Johnson returned to Sierra Leone where he joined the native pastorate. He labored there until his untimely death in 1901. In his letter of condolence to his widow, the Governor of Sierra Leone acknowledged that: “In the short acquaintance I have had with the archdeacon I have formed the highest opinion of him and regarded him with the utmost esteem and respect, and his removal from amongst us is a loss and a sorrow to the whole community.”
Conclusion: “The time has not yet come”
The life and times of Archdeacon Henry Johnson, as those of his siblings, aptly demonstrated the recurring ambivalence that characterized European contact with Africa, beginning from the nineteenth century until the end of colonialism in the twentieth century. If this attitude may be excused due to the secular nature of colonialism, it is difficult to justify its self-defeating effect on mission. Still, when one looks at the matrix from which people like Johnson and Bishop Crowther evolved in Sierra Leone, the fact that a mission would go to such lengths in one generation to create these powerful agents, and then turn around, in the next, and ruthlessly unmake them is absolutely baffling.
Johnson emerged from a mission environment where the results were meager in spite of the huge investments English Christian philanthropists put into the cause for African transformation. The school system was not turning out indigenous agents as desired, and it was only the careful observation and exertion of Ulrich Graf in Hastings that partially saved the day so that people like Johnson could emerge. Yet, Johnson was not a run-of-the-mill agent; he was a rare breed. In an age where European influence created identity conflicts for his Creole compatriots, Johnson had no misgivings about his African roots. Where they looked down on the heritage of their forebears, he explored this heritage by probing into their languages and cultures in order to engage them with the gospel through Bible translation. This uniqueness of vision and purpose, along with his self-motivation and earnestness, commended him to those who saw his strategic value for rooting Christianity among the peoples of West Africa. It is an irony of history that a mission which desperately sought such products would later transmute into one that loathed their emergence.
In exploring the biography of “Powerful Johnson,” nothing demonstrates more vividly this change of ethos than his correspondence with his superiors in London. From 1866, when he came on board as a mission agent, his letters breathed confidence and appreciation for the investment of the mission in the spiritual, cultural, and economic transformation of West Africa. But in 1881 he had to rethink his experience. The change is evident as he challenged the lay secretary that: “Having educated us, you will not allow us to think and speak and act like men. You will not trust us. …[T]he time has not yet come for us to be believed.” In these few sentences, Johnson summed up the spirit of the new age. How soothing it must have been then, for him, when in 1885 the University of Cambridge deemed his efforts in Bible translation worthy of a honorary Master of Art degree and awarded it to him accordingly. In the spirit of the age, it could only have intensified the loathing of his detractors.
Johnson’s sufferings at the hand of English missionaries must be placed in perspective. This is necessary because his main antagonist, J. B. Wood, was very friendly and supportive of his siblings who were also serving with the CMS mission, Nathaniel Johnson in Lagos and Samuel Johnson in Ibadan and, later, Oyo.
Jonathan Buckley Wood arrived in the Yoruba mission in 1860, shortly before the spirited resistance of European missionaries against Bishop Crowther’s elevation. He joined in opposing Crowther’s appointment. Being a young agent at the time, he remained long on the scene to sustain the prejudice against the African bishop well after the main antagonist, Henry Townsend, had left the scene. In 1880 the parent committee mandated him to investigate the Niger mission, based on the covert report he and the European managers of the mission’s steamer on the Niger, “Henry Venn,” passed to London. He executed it like an inquisition and left behind more controversies than solutions to his perceived failure of Bishop Crowther’s mission. Evidently, in recommending European supervision of the mission, he remained committed to undoing the elevation of the venerable old bishop twenty years after the matter appears to have been settled. Henry Johnson was caught up in this scheme and his personality and ever-rising profile did not help the matter. Sending an agent of his profile to a mission European agents wanted to take over by all means made him a target. In fact, Johnson referred to rumors circulating among the European missionaries in Lagos that he was looking forward to succeeding Bishop Crowther.
Johnson represented a double liability because he came from Sierra Leone, where nationalist fervor was a cause for concern among European missionaries in the Yoruba mission. They had seen the effect at Abeokuta as a result of the activities of the returnees there in the 1860s. One of them, the man who led the destruction of the churches and the expulsion of the missionaries from there in 1867, Mr. G. W. Johnson, was still very much around. Henry Johnson observed in 1871 that the bellicose returnee was at the celebration in honor of Mr. Townsend at the Ake church when the missionary visited Abeokuta for the first time after the expulsion.  Even the fact that these two dissimilar personalities shared the same name was bad for the painful memory of European missionaries in the country. The archdeacon was, therefore, a victim of the times in which he lived, but the inherent ambivalence that made and unmade him continues to characterize the relationship between Africa and the West. The continent and its people must not be allowed to sink, but they must also not be allowed to excel and escape the control of the West. Will the time ever come “for [them] to be believed?”