James Johnson

James Johnson in cassock
Reverend James Johnson. Photo: National Archives, U.I.

James Johnson; 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 Johnson, known as Holy Johnson, or Wonderful Johnson as the Sierra Leoneans called him, died May 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.


James’ father was an Ijesha from Akure. His mother, an Ijebu from Ijebu Ode. Like his father in Ijesha, she had a link with the royal family of the Oba in her town. The couple were carried as spoils of war that engulfed most of the southwest of modern Nigeria for the first half of the nineteenth century, during the decline of the old Oyo Empire. They were liberated and deposited in Freetown as did many Yoruba recaptives. Although he took an English name Johnson after German missionary in his new abode, he never got to learn how to read or make profit due to his advanced age. After trying several villages he finally settled at Benguema, a town that had been forcibly taken by liberated Yoruba people from indigenous Mende in the 1830s. At Jame’s birth, he had left the Anglican Church for West African Methodist organization, a breakaway church from the Wesleyans. There he was remarried to Jame’s mother.
Places of Growth

James Johnson was born c.1835 in the tiny village of Kakanda Town. It was in Benguema however that he grew into boyhood. Because the ethnic Yoruba people lived together, the cults of the Egungun and the worship of Sango flourished. Benguema was at this time like counterpart villages in the hinterland of the colony lawless and an intervention program launched in 1838 yielded only feeble results. James began his education formally in Campbell Town at the school of the West African Methodist organization. Though members of this Methodist organization, the first African breakaway church, was scorned as “wild Africans” by the parent church, they turned out to be successful, and by it a lasting effect was left in Jame’s thinking. By the time he was transferred to the CMS primay school in Benguema he had begun to show precocious understanding and interest in the teachings of the mission.


In 1868, he was invited by the Parent Committee of the CMS in London to discuss his proposition for a secular African university. His attack on Christian missions would subside with another visit in 1873, when he began to link the success of Europe with its Christian heritage. With his ideas fully formed, he arrived in Lagos in 9 June 1874. Coming from a more developed Freetown, Lagos made a poor impression on him. Realizing there was work to do, he quickly identified himself with the nationalist movement. Another lay leader, J.P.L Davies had laid glowing tribute to him early in his sojourn there. A little over two years later he arrived to a new appointment in Abeokuta, a town very different in aesthetics from the romantic descriptions of Mission literatures.

From Abeokuta Johnson made fleeting visits to Ibadan, Oyo, and Oke-Ogun areas. With much courage he ventured into the extremely anti-Christian Ijebu country, and was dismissed. In 1899, James, in his new position as second-rank Bishop of the Niger Delta was invited to the CMS’s centennial celebration. There, in Exeter Hall, he gave an address in which he reprimanded the Mission for failing in its duty to help achieve the African vision as prophesied in the book of Isaiah. He arrived Benin for the highest assignment in the ministry on 13 July 1901. During his last visit to Britain in 1908, he gave an account of his life at Mullaglass Parish, Newry, Ireland which was published and well received.

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



As a child, James mimicked preachers at the back of his father’s house, and preached to imaginary congregations. Though no other way was available to him, the church suits his temperament, it is said. His convictions about the gospel had led him into destroying albeit secretly, his father’s Orisa Ibeji image, which he worshipped to appease the god of twins, after being forced to keep his own twin children, including James alive against the tradition of Akure where he came from. He was an assiduous reader, and soon became famous for the quality of his mind.



James Johnson married in Sabina in 1895, daughter of J.S. Leigh who was an Egba Saro and one of the most prosperous businessmen of his day and sister to Dr. Leigh Sodipe, one of the pioneer medical doctors in Nigeria. His late marriage had been occasioned by his rare response to the tragedy which struck with the death in 1868, of his Lagos bred fiancée who died of chill while studying in England. His wife died on 19 May 1901. Jame’s sisters, Mrs. Forbes and Mrs. Sali Cole married and settled down in Freetown but like him, had no children. The third sister provided him a niece, with who he appears to be in good contact till his death.



One who rarely earned his respect as a colleague was Edward Wilmot Blyden, whom historians often credit with inspiring his Africanist ideas. He was instrumental in Dr. Henry Carr’s voyage to Sierra Leone for a degree course, the Carr who was to be one of the best minds of his age. Leading layman of the Lagos Anglican church, Otunba Payne was his most ardent disciple. Also is R.B. Blaize who was the wealthiest educated African in West Africa in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. When consulted on his suitability for a bishopric appointment, Samuel Ajayi Crowther had recommended him to be lifted to the episcopate. Henry Robbins, the wealthiest man in pre-colonial Abeokuta was is greatest supporter and protector in Abeokuta.

The post of the Assistant Bishop of Western Equatorial Africa which Johnson rejected in protest in 1893 was accepted by Isaac Oluwole and Charles Phillip. Towards the end of his ministry and his life, founder of a new Christian movement, Garrick Braide had become a sensation in the Niger Delta where he was Bishop. James Johnson, after a personal examination of Braide in 1916 had concluded he was an heretic. His opposition to the Garrick Braide Movement was to be his last admonition to his congregants.

James Johnson was president of the Lagos Auxiliary of the Aborigines Protection Society.

Church Affairs

James Johnson became a Cathecist in 1863 at Christ Church Pademba Road, and came to full control of the local church in December 1866 when he became a full priest. While in Pademba Road, he organized a private school and tutored pupils most of whom were given tuition. Before his transfer to Lagos in 1874, James had added his voice to the Native Pastorate question spearheaded by Henry Venn since 1861. In February 1877 James was promoted as Superintendent of all stations opened by the CMS in the interior of Yorubaland since 1846.

James believed 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.
Legislative Council

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.



The paganism of Sierra Leone, the first country known to James Johnson, would be mourned by him throughout his youth. As he grew in the understanding of the Christian religion, he believed God does not intend to have the races cofounded, but that the Negro or African be raised upon his own idiosyncrasies. His lifelong motivation was in the prophetic declaration of the Bible that Africa will stretch forth its hand to Jehovah and be saved.



Among the over 1000 children baptized by him were those destined to be national figures: Lady Oyinkan Abayomi, Justice Jibowu, and Dr. J.O. Lucas who headed the Breadfruit church from 1936-65. From 1874 when he stepped his foot in Nigeria till his death he was the greatest spokesman for the African peoples, especially Nigerians. With his ecclesiastical elevation in 1887 he was conferred the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the University of Durham, and was received, as a mark of honour, by Queen Victoria of England. A manuscript on physiology by him where he persuaded Africans to uphold the principles of health was completed in 1878. On 17 May 1917, the day of his death, he exclaimed, “Thank God I have finished my work, my heart is clear.” The Union Jack flew at half-mast on government buildings in his honour.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer