James Johnson

Rev. James Johnson.
Rev. James Johnson. Photo: National Archives, U.I.

James Johnson was a Victorian era preacher in Lagos, greatly renowned for his devoutness and Pan-Africanist ideas. Though a Nigerian from Ijesha land, James was born in Sierra Leone in 1838 and he had the privilege of schooling at Fourah Bay College, his father being one of the slaves that were freed by the British anti-slavery surveillance team. He was ordained an Anglican clergy in 1866, a position from where he staged his campaign for an independent African episcopate for all West Africa. Christianity, he believed, is intended not to be a religion of a particular race only, but of the whole world. In different countries, he said, it will wear different types.

James had much faith in the sincerity of the church of London when they assured the successful generation of a West Africa Native Bishoprics fund would form the basis for the establishment of an independent episcopate for all West Africa. He travelled around raising this fund, making passionate pleas. It was for this effort that a biographer, E.A. Ayandele called him the “pioneer of African nationalism”. It will be apparent later that the church has no plan to decentralize, even if the funds were raised. The knowledge of this made him loose some followers who had already donated towards the cause. James remained however, undetached from the mother church, as it was his view and those of his camp in the St. Paul’s Breadfruit Church, among who was the eminent Otonba Payne, that any forceful separation would breed racial discontent. The radical breakaways, such as the Bethel Church, though inspired by his ideas, never got his blessings as he questioned their leniency towards polygamy, though he later reasoned himself that polygamy in Africa is not a moral question and the Christian missionaries have been irrational towards it.

James was also a member of the Legislative Council from 1886 to 1894. In 1908, he petitioned the Under Secretary for the Colonies on the Lagos liquor problem. The trade figure of 1899 had shown that gin and rum accounts for about ten percent of the total of about £497,000 imports. Also, he proffered the greater use of vernacular in academic instruction and condemned the textbooks in use as unsuitable for Nigerian environment. James Johnson’s petition as before aroused little sympathy. The vernacular language was said to be of little value because there was no literature in them. As for the liquor problem, a panel of inquiry was raised, more because of the powerful anti-liquor movement of the time backed by the pan-Anglican congress.


 James Holy Johnson with Dean Hugh Boyd McNeile
A carte-de-visite portrait of Dean Hugh Boyd McNeile with James ‘Holy’ Johnson, Photo: The Library of the Nineteenth Century Photography.


James Johnson, known as Holy Johnson, or Wonderful Johnson as the Sierra Leoneans called him, died in 1917. It was said that the kind of Christianity he wished to see in West Africa has never existed in human annals. This accounts for his failure as a missionary. He was nevertheless a great pastor, who, in spite of his rigid ideas, enjoyed the love and loyalty of his Breadfruit parishioners. Herbert Macaulay described him as the foremost patriot in West Africa who has done much for the good of the people. He was generally accepted as a self-effacing and unpresuming man. An impressive service was held for Holy Johnson in St. Paul’s Church, attended by some 3,000 people. A second service was held in Yoruba the following Sunday. In Sierra Leone, services were held in Waterloo, Benguema and Freetown where a marble statue of him was erected in the east end of St. George Cathedral.