This is terrible," James Johnson wrote as European missionaries undercut Bishop Crowther's authority on the Niger Mission. "This insult to him … has incensed the whole native community elsewhere irrespective of denominational distinctions. … There is a limit to patience."

Like Crowther, Johnson was a Yoruba graduate of the Fourah Bay Institution, but it was his parents, not himself as in Crowther's case, who had been rescued from slavery. Johnson himself was born and raised free, in Sierra Leone, and became a catechist at the colony's southernmost village, Kent.

It wasn't until he had been in the job for a while, however, that he experienced a personal conversion. As he read the third and fourth chapters of Zechariah to schoolchildren, "the Lord spoke to me as my Savior, and within that week at a Holy Communion service I found salvation. … on that occasion the joy and gladness of personal salvation led me to offer myself to God that he might send me out as a missionary among heathen people."

After two years, Johnson was transferred to the Freetown Grammar School, where he had first been educated. There, he quickly gained a reputation for an intense moral code—which he often imposed on others. He even withheld the dinners of students who hadn't finished their math homework. (For this rigor he became known as "Holy" Johnson.)

Reclaiming a lost legacy

Johnson became a deacon at the influential Pademba Road Church and in 1866 was ordained a priest. During this time, he began to preach his vision of African nationalist Christianity, named Ethiopianism (p. 8) for Psalm 68:31: "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God" (KJV). The early church was dominated by African clerics, he noted, such as Augustine, Tertullian, and Cyprian. But somewhere along the way, Africa lost its missionary fervor, and "the judgment of the Lord has rested upon her for her negligence to disseminate Christian truth."

Now at last, he believed, the independent African church was returning. "Africa is to rise once more," he preached. "Her tears are to be wiped off her eyes; her candlestick is to be replaced … the word of the Lord above all is to cover her as the waters do the mighty deep: where this is to be the case then she will take her place with the most Christian, civilized, and intelligent nations of the Earth." Soon the continent would see what a truly indigenous church could do.

Islam and traditional religion were the barriers to this, he said, but so was racism in the European mission: "In the work of elevating Africans, foreign teachers have always proceeded with their work on the assumption that the Negro or African is in every one of his normal susceptibilities an inferior race, and that it is needful in everything to give him a foreign model to copy. … The result has been that we … have lost our self-respect and love for our own race … and are, in many things, inferior to our brethren in the interior countries. There is evidently a fetter upon our minds even when the body is free, mental weakness, even when there appears to be fertility."

While many white missionaries opposed Ethiopianism, Johnson sometimes also faced opposition from his own African parishioners. We can see why, perhaps, when we learn that as priest of St. Paul's Breadfruit Church in Lagos, Yorubaland (now Nigeria), he refused to baptize children with non-African names. Still, he grew in influence, becoming superintendent of all CMS missions to interior Yorubaland. But he never became a bishop.

In the wake of Crowther's loss of control of the Niger Mission, many Ethiopianists were eager to leave the European denominations to form wholly independent churches. Johnson supported some separatists, but he refused to leave the Church of England, even taking a position as assistant bishop under Crowther's white replacement.

Still, he continued to advocate for self-sufficiency. "The desire to have an independent church closely follows the knowledge that we are a distinct race, existing under peculiar circumstances and possessing peculiar characteristics," he said. "The arrangement of foreign churches made to suit their own local circumstances can hardly be expected to suit our own in all their details."