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Samuel Johnson of Yorubaland, 1846-1901

Identity, Change and the Making of the Mission Agent


Wolfgang-Ulrich Fischer

This study aims to understand how the nineteenth-century African agent of mission appropriated change without losing cultural integrity. Drawing essentially from the contexts that produced the man, from Sierra Leone to the Yoruba country, the study shows Samuel Johnson as embodying the opportunities and ambivalence that progressively accompanied Yoruba contact with Britain in the people’s war-weary century of change. Largely influenced by German missionaries in the British mission environment of Yorubaland, Johnson had confidence in the bright prospect the missionary message held for his people. This propelled him into a struggle to relieve the distressed country from its woes and to preserve the fading memory of its people. In an age of renewed cultural ferment called globalization, could Johnson offer a lesson in how to appropriate change? This is the concern of this volume.


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Chapter 5 Encountering Other Faiths


A gigantic struggle is developing. Its climax will however be reached when mankind has achieved a certain equilibrium […]. That will be the highest and the holiest moment in the history of man. — Rudolf Otto The Yoruba country into which Christian missions came in the nineteenth century was a field already saturated with various religious cults. The many expressions of indigenous Yoruba religions functioned alongside Islam, a monotheistic faith that had domiciled among the people from the days of their imperial prosperity. Over the centuries of their interaction, and well before the advent of Christian mission, the two traditions coexisted among the people in a syncretistic relationship. The people seem to have received Islam as another faith whose divinity they could give a place in their pan- theon. Hence, the syncretistic relationship between the two appears, as it were, to have been taken for granted by the people for whom religious devotion is a means for solving the many problems of human existence. Johnson’s earliest observation of the leverage Yoruba religions held in the country occurred on his arrival from Sierra Leone in 1858. The religious situation in his new environment was in utter contrast to what was hap- pening in Sierra Leone, especially in Hastings, where the cults had been stampeded out of public glare by Mr Graf who personally enforced in the village the extant edict against religious sacrifices in the colony. At the end of October, that year, some residents of the town reported hearing some sounds of...

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