The year 1841 is significant in the history of Christianity in Nigeria. That year, which was the year of the first Niger Expedition, marked the beginning of the attempt to re-establish Christianity in Nigeria following the failure of earlier Catholic Mission in Benin and Warri.  From then on, Europeans and few ex-slaves of African descent, belonging to various Christian missions began the work of evangelization. Notable among the missionary bodies were the Anglican Church Missionary Society (hereafter call the C.M.S.), the Wesleyan Methodist Mission Society, the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Southern Baptist Convention of the United State of America and the Catholic Society of African Missions (the Societe des Missions Africaines, S.M.A.) of France.  In the course of evangelization the missionaries got involved in the political, economic, cultural and social lives of the peoples among whom they worked. They kept records of their observations, activities and experiences in forms of journals, diaries, letters and magazines.
Extensive use has been made of materials of historical significance contained in these records by historians of Nigeria.  the social, political and economic impact of the missionary enterprise have been discussed by some of these authors.1  The extent to which the missionaries who kept the records in the forms mentioned above were conscious of their providing materials for further historical research may not be easily determined.  But it will not be incorrect to say that they had such a notion considering the fact that they were very Literate many of them having obtained a University education.
The journals, annual reports, letters and diaries contain references to the contemporary social, political and economic lives of the people among whom the missionaries worked.

In this section we will consider the usefulness of missionary sources in writing;  
  • about the customs and beliefs of the people among whom they worked;
  • about the history of the Christian missions and
  • about the history of western education.
The missionaries wrote copiously about the customs, values and norms of the indigenes among whom they worked.  One noticeable shortcoming in their accounts, however, is that because they wrote against the background of their own Christianized, western culture (natural to the European but acquired by the Africans) they often daubed most of the peoples’ beliefs, practices and social habits as barbaric, heathenic and uncivilized.  Traditional institutions such as slavery and polygamy were very badly represented in the missionaries’ accounts. For example Anna Hinderer, wife of Rev. David Hinderer who worked for many years in Ibadan between the middle of and late nineteenth century, like most other European missionaries of her time shows her ethnocentrism in evaluating the traditional Yoruba religious belief by saying:
“Their religion is laden with foolish and cruel superstitions, even human sacrifices being offered to some gods on special occasions”2

Bishop Smauel Ajayi Crowther showed great contempt for the indigenous beliefs and practices of the Niger Delta peoples as his writings reflect.  He unceasingly, almost to his death, campaigned against the institution of polygamy. Rev. James Johnson, another Nigerian Mission denounced the institution until late in the 19th century when he became a revolutionary priest fighting against white injustice in the Church administration.  In the Efik country where the institution of Slavery was well-entrenched, the missionaries were very writings.  Resulting from the agitations by the missionaries, the Efik were forcefully made to either scrap or modify (such that they became effeminate) some of their social institutions, like their secret societies.  Some of mission account, however, show that the institution of slavery was not everywhere evil. Anna Hinderer’s account makes references to the good treatment enjoyed by slaves in Ibadan. Here, they helped their masters to farm but they also had plots of their own.  Those who served their masters well soon regained their freedom, taking advantage of the opportunities offered them.
Missionary records are very rich on the history of some of the Christian missions in Nigeria.  Information is given as to when the missionaries first arrived in the various places they served in, the strength of their staff and more importantly, the reactions of the various peoples to the establishments of Christianity in their midst.
There was hardly anywhere the missionaries were received without reservations.  Indeed, it was outright hostility by the rulers and peoples of some communities.  In the Niger Delta area, King Jaja of Opobo was vehemently opposed to missionary endeavour in his domain.  For this he was presented in very bad light by the missionaries. The letters of the Crowthers that is, Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Archdeacon Dandeson C. Crowther kept in the Church Missionary Records and Accounts by some Methodist Missionaries contain much about not only the missionary endeavour in the Niger Delta area from the 1860s till the close of the century but also about the political and economic activities of the people, European and African, of the area.  Much is written on King Jaja of Opobo, King George Pepple of Bonny and Oko Jumbo of Opobo. He proto-nationalism that men like Jaja and Oko-Jumbo demonstrated in their opposition to missionary enterprise can be seen from the Missionary records. Indeed, using the account by missionaries alone, much can be written on the interplay of forces that led to the exiling of King Jaja in 1887.
A lot can be learned of the history of Christianity in Calabar from Hope Waddell’s ‘Journals’.  He records that a few days after his arrival King Eyo said his chiefs were already asking why he gave land to the missionaries.  They feared that:
‘by and by, more will come and they will take the country away from them’.3

This shows that the people of Calabar had reservations about the advent of the missionaries.  They demanded an assurance that the missionaries would not use their mission compound to habour anti-social elements or encourage insubordination by slaves to their masters.  It would appear that the Efik allowed the missionaries in their midst for the educational benefits they thought would accrue to them. King Eyo Honesty II, acting as the Efik spokesman declares:
“They (the white men) all get learning when young… but our children grow up like the goats … a school in our town to teach our children to saby (SIC) book like white people will be very good thing”.4
Anna Hinderer’s account mentions instances of ostracisation by family members in Ibadan of those among them who embraced the Christian faith.  And it was not uncommon to find some of the converts reverting to the traditional religion of their people after a period of experimentation.
One notable feature of the writings of the missionaries about their bid to propagate Christianity among Nigerians is their feeling of doing the people a favour by preaching the gospel to them.  They could therefore not understand why, rather than show gratitude by embracing the faith unreservedly, the people should be hostile. They reflected their disappointment in their writings in such expression as ‘heathens’, ‘children of darkness’, ‘satanic’ etc.  It hardly, or is it seemed, occurred to them that what they were attempting amounted to a social revolution among those whom they worked. The Nigerians they sought to convert were being asked to abandon a way of life they had grown very much used to and embrace a completely new and untested one.  What was more deities but also denounce polygamy and domestic slavery in order to get enrolled as converts. The result, of course, was many years of little or no achievement for the Christian missions.
Missionary sources are also of great value in any effort to write the history of western education in Nigeria.  The introduction into Nigeria of western-type education was by the Christian missionaries and they dept records of their activities in this regard.  Ajayi’s book, Christian Missions in Nigeria 1841-1891 with its subtitle of ‘The Making of a New Elite’ shows how, in the long run, the education provided by the missionaries produced in Nigeria a new class of citizens: products of the western-type education.  There are other works on this topic.5  All  the authors have made extensive use of missionary accounts kept in the archives of the various missions both here in Nigeria and overseas.  The missionaries not only taught their converts to read and write, they also studied the language of the various peoples among whom they lived.  There is evidence of their efforts in their production of works on the vocabularies of the Hausa, Igbo and Hausa languages.6
The missionaries’ intention to provide education is indicated here:
“To establish the Gospel among any people, they must have the art to make them or the money to buy them.  They must read the Bible and this implies instruction”.7
Three aspects of the educational programme can be noticed here: the introduction of literacy, the training of missionary agents, and the fostering    through, technical education of a class of people ‘with the art to make Bibles or the money to buy them’.  While the success of the missionaries with regard to the first two aspects can be measured, it is doubtful if they ever achieved the third.
In the beginning, there was no formally designated place called a school.  Instruction was given as part of the ‘Sunday School’. The serious children-coverts were taught the alphabets, whom pictures and listened to the scriptures being read to them.  In Ibadan, the children would gather round Anna Hinderer in the mission house and listen to her read or talk. What is said below of the first Sunday school at Akassa describes the typical Sunday School.
“Mr. Crowther took the first class at the head of the table in the centre of the room … a (rod) in his hand, pointing to the phonetic alphabet characters, calling out loudly the well-known letters, a, b, d, ..”.8
From being a purely Sunday affair, the school system became more established and children attended school during the week days.  The usual curriculum consisted of the four R’s: Religion, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, with sewing for girls where there was a lady teacher.  We get a glimpse of the time-table from the ‘Rules for Schools’ sent to the head teachers of the schools under his management by Rev. T.B. Freedman of the Methodist Mission in 1848:
“9.00 am:    Signing, Rehearsals of Scripture Passages, Reading one chapter for Scripture, prayers.
9.15-12 noon:    Grammar, Reading, Spelling, Writing Geography, Tables (except Wednesday when there was Catechism in place of Grammar)
2.00-4.00pm:    Ciphering (i.e. Arithmetic), Reading, Spelling, Meaning of Words.   
4.00pm:    Closing Prayers”.9
The time-table in Waddell’s school was very similar to this. Looking at the time-table, it can easily be seen that the earliest form of education provided by the missionaries had as its ultimate goal the making of the Nigerian a strong, knowledgeable Christian.  This overriding concern of the missionaries also influenced the curriculum of the secondary grammar schools that they later found.10
In this section, an attempt will be made to show how valuable missionary sources are in the reconstruction of (a) the political climate in certain parts of the country, e.g. Yorubaland, in the 19th century; (b) the indigenous political system of some communities; (c) the process of establishing colonial rule and  (d) the growth of nationalism in Nigeria.
There is very good documentation of the political climate in Yorubaland in the 19th century in missionary records.  It was the period of the Yoruba civil wars.  The missionaries not only noted the combatants, their accounts contain information on the patter of warfare, the weapons of war, how they were procured and the social, economic and political consequences of the wars.  The wars between Ibadan and Ijaye are well noted in Anna Hinderer’s memoirs.
She gives some of the reason for the war and the following extract shows the inevitability of war:
“The Chiefs of this place (i.e. Ibadan) and of Ijaye have quarreled, and caught each other’s people, and sold them… Calabashes were presented to one another, with the request that the chief of Ijaye desires such and such an Ibadan Chief’s head in that Calabash; then these people send back, ‘We want Are’s head in this calabash first”.11
The defeat of Ijaye in 1862 by Ibadan forces is also recorded.
Still on the wars, the missionaries also record the nature of alliance among the various Yoruba groups during the wars and they give reasons why, in their view, the alliances were entered into.  In the war just referred to for instance, the Egba took sides with the Ijaye and the Ijebu joined in the war when it spread to their territory. Some of the missionaries even took pains to inquire about wars that had been fought before they came into the Yoruba country.  One such missionary was Dr. E.C. Irving who obtained an account12 of the Owu war of the 1820s in the 1850s by interviewing eye witnesses.  His interesting, detailed account contains a good deal on the nature of alliances in the wars and also shows how widespread were the wars of the 19th century in the Yoruba country.  One major effect of the wars, population shift, is also clearly brought out in the account.  His account cannot be completely free from error or omission but there is no doubt that he has a clear conception of the events he is attempting to describe.
The missionaries wrote on the indigenous political systems of the areas where they worked and the historian of Nigeria can gain useful information from their records.  In the Yoruba country, among the Efik and in the Niger Delta area the missionaries kept record. In the Yoruba country, among the Efik and in the Niger Delta area the missionaries kept records of the systems they met in operation.  Anna Hinderer gives a vivid description of the governmental system in Ibadan. Although she gives it no label, the reader can easily deduce that it was a republican military autocracy. She notes that while, like many other Yoruba towns, Ibadan owed nominal allegiance to Oyo it was an independent state governed by its own chiefs and ‘claiming tribute and military service from many smaller towns in virtue of the protection which it affords them’.  The governing council comprise the Baale of civil chief and the head war-chief who had combined in them executive and judicial functions. There were minor chiefs who apart from being army officers acted ‘as magistrates in the respective districts of the town’. The central organ of government could not have comprised just two members as indicated above but Anna Hinderer shows some understanding of the system of government in Ibadan.
The process of establishing colonial rule in Nigeria can be reconstructed almost wholly from missionary sources.  The spread of British influence from the coast into the interior was in response to the please of the missionaries, working in close alliance with European traders, for governmental protection.  Where, as in the case of King Jaja of Opobo, a ruler was opposed to the missionary enterprises, the missionaries sought, and often times got, the assistance of the government to deal with the ruler.  Jaja fell a foul of the missionaries and he was gotten rid of in 1887. Under the guise of reforming the social order in the Efik country, the missionaries got the government to intervene in the political life of the area beginning with the destruction of Old Town in 1855.  As Ayandele has noted “…as early as 1856 the missionaries saw Old Calabar in terms of ‘a free British Colony’.”13  The establishing of British colonial authority in Yorubaland is closely linked with missionary activities in the country.  And missionary records contain useful references on this.
Any comprehensive discussion of the growth of nationalism in Nigeria must include the nineteenth century origins and on these missionary source are of some value.  Ayandele puts the point neatly when he assets that:
“The ‘causal relationships… between Christian missionary activity and the rise of nationalism’ which eluded Coleman, are glaringly manifest in mission archives and official records.  There was hardly any strand o the nationalist movement in Nigeria between 1922 and 1960, the period that is much better known, the origins of which cannot be traced to mission activities.”14
The indignities suffered by the African members of the clergy were not treated lightly by those who were affected.  They protested and their protests were recorded either in letters they wrote to the home missions or in their diaries.  The nationalism that the clergymen expressed through the church had the label of “Ethiopianism”. It represented the African struggle for position and power in Church government.
A frontline Nigerian ‘Ethiopianist’ was the Rev. James Johnson (a Yoruba from Sierra Leone of Ijebu and Ijesa parentage).  His nationalist fervour can be seen from records on him and his activities in the Yoruba mission. When the Rev. Henry Venn, British Secretary of the Church Missionary Society for thirty years (1842-1872) proposed a scheme, the Native Pastorate Scheme, that would, if followed, eventually guarantee for the Africans freedom in the management and finances of their local churches, there were mixed reactions from African and European missionaries.  But the larger political significance of his scheme was not lost on the educated African missionaries as James Johns here expressed:
“We continually cherish the remembrance of the days of former native independence and glory.. But we see nothing around us which we can call our own in the true sense of the term; nothing that shows an independent native capacity excepting this infant Native Pastorate institution.  For this reason and the conviction that we have that it is capable of being made a mighty instrument to develop the principles which create and strengthen a nation we cleave to it”.15
So much was James Johnson’s nationalism that he was like a thorn in the flesh of both the European missionaries and colonial administrators.  When he was accused of being anti-white he replied that he was being so tagged because the European missionaries of his time regarded as a great crime any independent thought in an African or any clear expression of his beliefs.  He said that to them (i.e. the Europeans) the African had no right; he should see with other people’s eyes and hold only other people’s opinions. He was not expected to demonstrate any patriotism or even show patriotic sentiments if he must be in the good books of the Society (i.e. the C.M.S.) Johnson could not think to be that kind of African.
Missionary sources contain some materials of significance on the economic activities of the peoples in the various communities where the missionaries worked.  But these materials can be put only to limited use.
We have a picture of the indigenous economy of Ibadan from Anna Hinderer’s memoirs.  Agriculture was the main preoccupation of the Ibadan people. She reportedly saw large tracts of land grown with Indian corn and cotton tress while she was travelling from Abeokuta to Ibadan on her first trip there.  So seriously did the people take farming that even the Baale of Ibadan of Ibadan farmed. She described what one knows as the typical market situation in any rural Yoruba community:
“there are open spaces, shaded by trees, and used as markets.  Here, amidst a merry hum of voices, above which are heard shrill sounds, … a lively traffic is carried on in the produce of the farms and native manufactures.”16
She shows the economic diversification among the Ibadan by enumerating what other economic activities they engaged in.  They included weaving, tailoring, blacksmithing, carpentry, tarning, leather-dressing, pottery and dyeing. Others were the extraction of palm oil and nut-oil and soap-making.  The principal farm products were Indian corn and yams. Besides, the people also cultivated Guinea corn, beans, groundnuts and cassava. She indicates that cotton-plant was grown not only for home use but also for exportation.  There is a hint here that the people had inter-state trade relations. The economic significance of domestic slaves is well brought out in Hinderer’s accounts. One could see from her accounts and those of Hope Waddell that the domestic slaves in Nigeria while they were being used to the economic advantage of their masters, had rights and privileges and these distinguished them from the plantation slaves in the Americas who were regarded as their owns’ property, without rights and privileges.
In the Niger Delta area, the economic activities of the people are noted in missionary accounts.  The relationship between the European and Nigerian traders in the Delta, the attempts by the Europeans to monopolise the trade and the bad blood this created not only between the European and Nigerian traders but also between the European and Nigerian missionaries can be found in missionary accounts.
So far in this paper, attempt has been made to show how useful missionary sources are in the reconstruction of history in Nigeria.  The usefulness of missionary sources in the writing of the social, political and economic histories of Nigeria has been examined. Two important limitations should be pointed out here.  The first is that these materials can be used only for the 19th century.  The second is that the materials related mostly to the southern part of the country.  On this question of coverage, it should be noted that because of Islam and the extensive influence of the Sokoto Caliphate, it was not easy for the Christian missionaries to penetrate into the northern part of the country.  Missionary account as they related to the north dwell largely on the efforts of the missions to introduce Christianity there.
Even in the south where they achieve significant success, their records are not of equal importance in the discussion of the three sub-divisions of this paper.  As can be seen even from the paper, missionary sources can be put to greater use in the reconstruction of the social history of Southern Nigeria in the 19th century than in reconstructing the political or economic histories.  This is because the missionaries’ primary concern was in the social realm.  They came primarily to preach the word of God and ‘free Africans from idolatry’.  They hoped that the way they would help civilize Africans. They therefore focused their greatest attention on the social aspects of the peoples lives.  Their accounts as they relate to the political and economic aspects of the lives of the people among whom they worked can be said to be largely incidental to the social aspect.
It must be said that on none of the selected topics (the social institutions, the establishment of colonial rule, the economic situation etc) can missionary sources be wholly used.  To comprehensive history can be written with them alone. Other sources such as government records and oral discussions will be very necessary.
In any discussion of the social institutions of the Nigerian peoples, the researcher has to do a lot of field work not only to collect more information, but also to correct some of the things recorded by the Christian missionaries.  The European missionaries came to Nigeria with their own moral standards and values and it was against that background that they judged the social institutions of Nigerians with much unfairness. One institution for which the missionaries much vilified Nigerians in their accounts was that of polygamy.
As to the degree of reliability of missionary records, it could be said that this is not easy to determine.  But biases can be recognized. However, some missionaries are known to have kept records that are very reliable.  Ajayi has this to say about Hope Wadell and his journals:
“Hope Wadell was the pioneer missionary at Calabar, an able thorough, painstaking man.  He was a very honest reporter, a very rare type of missionary who could record faithfully the arguments of his opponents whether fellow missionary or would-be convert.”17
Most of the accounts are first-hand.  The missionaries recorded their observations, conversations and experiences.  They therefore constitute for the historian primary sources of information. Rev. W.H. Clark of the Baptist Mission travelled extensively in Yorubaland between 1854 and 1858 and kept records of his journeys and observations.
J.A. Atanda has helped historical research by putting together the man’s account in a book entitled Travels and Explorations in 1854-1858.18   His accounts cover the history, the environment, and the political and cultural organization of the Yoruba society on the basis of the information and experience which Clarke had during his travels.  Some of the points help to reinforce the views or accounts of other missionaries like Anna Hinderer and E.C. Irving who also worked in the Yoruba country.
Whatever inaccuracies missionary sources may contain they definitely are useful in the writing of the history of Nigeria if not for all times, for the period of their evangelization.

  1. T.J. Ade Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria 1841 – 1891 (Longmans, 1965).
E.A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria, (Longmans, 1966)
F.K. Ekechi, Missionary Enterprise and Rivalry in Igboland 1857 – 1914 (Frank Cass, 1972).
  1. Anna Hinderer, Seventeen Years in the Yoruba Country, (Seeley, Jackson and Holliday, 1872), p. 20.
  2. Hope Waddell, Journals, Vol. 1, p. 68, 21 April, 1846.
  3. Ibid., Vol. 1, 21 April 1846.
  4. E.g. A Babs Fafunwa, History of Education in Nigeria, (George Allen and Unwin, 1974).
  5. Such works include J.F. Schon’s: (i) “A Vocabulary of the Hausa Language with Grammatical Elements Prefixed”, 1843 (ii) A Vocabulary of the Ibo Language, 1843; S.A. Crowther’s: “Grammar and Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language” 1843.
  6. T.J. Bowen, Missionary Labours and Adventures in Central Africa. 321 Quoted in Ajayi, opt., p. 126.
  7. J.C. Taylor, Journal entry for Sunday, 22 Dec. 1861, C.M.S. CA3/037, Quoted in Ajayi, op. Cit., p. 132.
  8. T.B. Freeman, “Rules for Schools”, 1848. Quoted in Ajayi, opt., p. 132.  
  9. For a discussion of this topic, See J.F. Ade Ajayi “The Development of Secondary Grammar School Education in Nigeria”, J.H.S.N. Vol. III, No. 1, December, 1963.
  10. Anna Hinderer, op., cit., p. 211 – 212.
  11. E.C. Irving, ‘The Ijebu Country’ Church Missionary Intelligence, II (1856), p. 67-71.
  12. Ayandele, op., cit., p. 26.
  13. Ibid., p. 176.
  14. C.O. 267/317, James Johnson to Hennessy, 6 Dec. 1872 Quoted in Ayandele, op cit., p. 182.
  15. Anna Hinderer, op., cit., p. 60
  16. J.F. Ade Ajayi op., cit., p. 279.
  17. J.A. Atanda (ed.):  Travels and Explorations in Yorubaland (1854 – 1858) by W.H. Clarke (Ibadan University Press, 1972.