In British colonies like Nigeria, Christian missions had almost monopoly over education. In 1942, they controlled 99 percent of Nigeria’s schools, and 97 percent of all students were in mission schools.

Before the advent of colonial education which had been making a great impact in Nigeria, there was an African system of education. However, as Rodney asserts, the colonialists did not introduce education as such in Africa, they rather introduced a new set of formal education institutions, which partly supplemented and partly replaced those, which were there before.

Education in traditional Africa had a focus and an objective. The product was an individual who was honest, responsible, skilled, co-operative, and conforms to the social order of the day.

The greatest contribution of missionaries in Nigeria was education.

Formal education was first introduced to the people of the coastal areas by Portuguese merchants in the 15th century. However, 1842 marked the beginning of Christian missionary activities which made a significant impact in Nigeria.

The missionaries came to see to the spiritual and intellectual well-being of their new converts. That was why they provided everything free. They were on a mission to accomplish set goals and objectives, which they achieved.

Thus, education introduced at this early stages was interwoven with Christian evangelism. The missionaries established and ran the early schools in Nigeria. They also designed the curriculum for such schools and devoted their meagre resources to the opening of schools for young Nigerians.


All missionaries who came to Nigeria combined evangelic and education work together.

Consequently, early mission schools were founded by the Methodist Church of Scotland Mission, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the Roman Catholic.

The Wesleyan Methodist Church, Church Missionary Society (C.M.S), the Roman Catholic and others who brought Christianity saw the need for Nigerian converts to be able to read and write so as to facilitate the memorization and understanding of the Holy Bible and for the spread of Christianity in Nigeria.

Most of the missions established primary schools and initially, little emphasis was laid on secondary and higher education until much later. Some of these missionaries are:


Wesleyan Methodist

The first missionary group that came to the country was the Wesleyan Methodist. They brought evangelism and formal education to Nigeria in 1842, specifically on 24th of September. The team was headed by Rev. Thomas Birch Freeman. Freeman was accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. De Graft. The first known school in Nigeria was established by Mr. and Mrs. De Graft of the Methodist Mission in Badagry and was named “The Nursery of the Infant”.


 Church Missionary Society (CMS)

Second to be in Nigeria for evangelism and education was the Church Missionary Society. Although the first mission school was founded in 1843 by Methodists, it was the Anglican Church Missionary Society that pushed forward in the early 1850s to found a chain of missions and schools. By 19 of December, 1842, CMS had started serious education work in Nigeria. In the CMS team were the leader, Henry Townsend; accompanied by Rev. C. A. Gollmer and Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther (later Bishop). As they built churches, so also the schools were being built. Specifically, two schools were built when CMS entered Abeokuta. They comprised CMS Grammar School for boys and another one for girls.



Presbyterian Church of Scotland

Presbyterian Church of Scotland headed by Rev. Hope Waddell came to Nigeria in 1846, this time in the Eastern region of Nigeria, where the famous Hope Waddell College was established in Calabar.


 The Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention in 1853, opened a school at Ijaye and another one established at Ogbomosho in 1855. The first Baptist school that eventually became the nucleus of Baptist Academy was established in Lagos.


 Roman Catholic Mission

With the arrival of Padre Anthonio (a freed African slave who turned missionary), Roman Catholic mission started in Lagos and by 1868, this mission had established its first school – St. Gregory’s College, Ọbalende, Lagos, 1876. The last one was established by the Portuguese.

These missionaries established a high school to promote their missionary apostolate. The schools were meant to be a house of formation and for the training of future teacher-catechists, particularly itinerant ones who would accompany the missionaries in their treks and sojourn, acting as their interpreters, assistants and close collaborators.


The quest for education was greatly utilised by the colonialists during the colonial era. In other words, the basis for the establishment of colonial schools by the missionaries was not to alleviate the peoples’ illiteracy but to train them because they were needed by commercial firms.

During this missionary era however, the organization, administration and general control of education in Nigeria in terms of what to teach, who to teach, for what to teach, the costs of these and evaluation or monitoring of the entire process rested solely on the Christian missionaries. The colonial government did not show interest in the control of education in Nigeria at the initial stage.

In 1872, the government made available 30 pounds to each of the three missions involved in education in the country – the C.M.S, the Wesleyan Methodist and the Roman Catholic – to support them. This therefore marked the beginning of the system of grants –In–aid to education which formed the major financing policy of the colonial administration. Thus, in 1877, the grant–in-aid was increased to 200 pounds per year to each of the three missions.

However, the spread of western education in the north was not as smooth as it was in the south. This was because the north had enjoyed the Islamic system of education for many years before efforts were made by different missions to open primary schools in the north. The subjects taught in majority of the elementary schools included: Scripture, English Composition, English Grammar, Arithmetic, Geography, Music, Singing, Reading, Writing, Dictation, and for girls Sewing. The emphasis in the infant classes was on the teaching of the 3 Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic). The growth of schools was, however, limited by lack of funds and sometimes parents’ unwillingness to send their children, especially girls to school.

First set of students in missionary school in Benin

Between 1842 and 1914, more than a dozen different Christian missions had arrived and begun intensive missionary and education works in Nigeria.

These schools attracted government’s interest. One contributing factor to the success of the missionaries in the field of education was their readiness to accept government directives and policies. For example, when Ralph Moor, the Governor of Lower Niger, wanted such subjects as English, Mathematics, Book keeping, Accountancy, Carpentry and Secretarial Studies to be included in the school curriculum, Rev. Fr. Lejeune, promptly implemented the government’s proposals. Thus, by 1902, the mission had thirteen primary schools with about 800 pupils. English was taught and workshops were in operation. The government relied on the missions for the provision of basic education in the colony. Because of this, Sir Ralph Moor wooed the missions with offer of grants-in-aid for mission education, provided the missions pledged to abide by the rules laid down by the government on education.

In 1914, when north and south were united into one colony, there were fifty-nine government and ninety-one mission primary schools in the south; all eleven secondary schools, except for King’s College in Lagos, were run by the missions. The missions got a foothold in the middlebelt; a mission school for the sons of chiefs was opened in Zaria in 1907 but lasted only two years. In 1909, Hans Vischer, an ex-Anglican missionary, was asked to organize the education system of the Northern Nigeria. Schools were set up and grants given to missions in the middle belt. In 1914, there were 1,100 primary school pupils in the north, compared with 35,700 in the south; the north had no secondary schools, compared with eleven in the south. By the 1920s, the pressure for schools in the south led to increased number of independent schools financed by local efforts and sending of favourite sons overseas for advanced training.

The various education ordinances (1882, 2887, 1916, 1925, 1926, etc.) promulgated by the colonial government regularised the school system and laid down conditions for grants–in-aid. During the periods, the control and general administration of education in Nigeria was between the Christian missionaries and the government. For instance, in 1882, Reverend Meltcafe Sunter, one time principal of Fourah Bay College, was appointed the first inspector of schools for West Africa. Also in 1889, Dr, Henry Carr, a Nigerian was appointed the sub-inspector of schools for the colony and protectorate of Lagos. In 1891, he was promoted to deputy inspector and the following year, he became her majesty’s inspector of schools for the colony of Lagos.

First set of students in missionary school in Benin

Christ the King College, Onitsha, 1945

Students at recess in a Lagos primary school

The first missionary house in Nigeria at Badagri.

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