Johnson, Samuel (1846-1901)

Yoruba minister, diplomat, and historian

Johnson was born in Hastings, Sierra Leone. His father was Henry Johnson [Sr.], a liberated African descended from the former king of Oyo in Yorubaland; his eldest brother was Henry Johnson [Jr.]. When Samuel was ten years old, David Hinderer recruited his father for Yorubaland as his assistant in Ibadan. Samuel attended the Hinderer’s school, and then the Abokuta Training Institution. In 1865 he became schoolmaster at Aremo, Ibadan, and catechist there in 1876, taking increasing responsibility in the frequent prolonged absence of missionary staff. He also traveled to keep contact with the scattered Christians beyond Ibadan.

During the Yoruba Wars (1877-1893), he became an emissary, trusted on all sides, between the Ibadan chiefs, the king of Oyo, and the British. During a visit from the bishop of Sierra Leone in 1886, he was ordained deacon and priest and, after a brief period at Ondo, in 1887 became pastor at Oyo. There he remained until his untimely death.

In Oyo, Johnson had access to rich sources of Yoruba tradition. By 1897 he had completed the remarkable History of the Yorubas, an account of Yoruba culture and tradition down to his own day. The work made excellent use of oral sources and of his own experiences. The Church Missionary Society would not publish the manuscript but passed it to another publisher, who lost it. Johnson thus died without seeing the work in print. His younger brother Obadiah, a Lagos medical doctor, rewrote the book from his papers, and after many vicissitudes (the second manuscript was sent to England on a ship that was captured during World War I) it was published, with a dedication to Hinderer’s memory, in 1921. It has often been reprinted.

Johnson says that he wrote from patriotic motives; educated Yoruba knew the history of Britain, Greece, and Rome, but not of their own country. He envisaged an originally unitary Yoruba state, of which Oyo and Ife were respectively the political and cultural pillars, and saw Christianity as crowning, not as overturning, Yoruba history. His book is a monument to the scholarship and cultural sensitivity to be found among Christian West Africans of his generation.

Andrew F. Walls, “Johnson, Samuel,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 337.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


Digital Text

Johnson, Samuel and Obadiah Johnson (ed.). The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate. London: printed by Lowe and Drydone for C.M.S. bookshops in Lagos, [1966?]. Orig. 1921.


Ajayi, J. F. Ade. Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891. London: Longmans, 1965.

_____. “Samuel Johnson, Historian of the Yoruba.” Nigeria Magazine 81 (1964): 141-46.

CMS Register of Missionaries and Native Clergy no. 348.

Doortmont, M.R. Samuel Johnson (1846-1901): Missionary, Diplomat, and Historian. Groningen: University of Groningen Library, [200x].

Falola, Toyin (ed.). African Historiography: Essays in Honor of Jacob Ade Ajayi. Harlow: Longman, 1993.

_____. Pioneer, Patriot and Patriarch: Samuel Johnson and the Yoruba People. Madison, WI: African Studies Program, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, 1993.

_____. Yoruba Gurus: Indigenous Production of Knowledge in Africa. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999.

Farias, P.F. de Moraes and Karin Barber. Self-Assertion and Brokerage: Early Cultural Nationalism in West Africa. [Birmingham]: Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham, 1990.

“Obituary.” Lagos Weekly Record. May 4, 1901.

Quayson, Ato. Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Orality and History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, and Ben Okri. Oxford: J. Currey; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

See the biography and bibliography by Elijah Olu Akinwumi, “Samuel Johnson: Nigerian churchman and historian, famous for his history of the Yoruba,” in the online Dictionary of African Christian Biography.

See article with notes referencing CMS archives; Doortmont, M.R. Samuel Johnson (1846-1901): Missionary, Diplomat, and Historian. Groningen: University of Groningen Library, [200x].