Banfield, Alexander Woods (1878-1949)

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Alex and Ella Banfield and children, ca. 1914.
Photo courtesy of Missionary Church Historical Trust.

Alexander Woods (“Alex” or “A. W.”) Banfield was the first missionary superintendent of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church (MBiC), a Bible translator and a Bible Society agent in West Africa. He was born in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, on 3 August 1878, the third child and second of four sons of William Henry Banfield (1848-1925) and Elizabeth Jane Johnston (1848-1915), Quebec natives who were of English and Scottish ancestry respectively. W. H. Banfield was a machinist, a trade Alex Banfield learned as well. The family were Methodists. They moved to Toronto in 1880 and joined the Metropolitan Methodist Church. Alex’s formal education ended with elementary school, apart from courses at the Toronto Bible Training Institute (now Tyndale University College) 1900-1901. He was skillful with any electrical or mechanical device.

On 1 March 1905 Alex Banfield married Althea Amanda “Ella” Priest (13 November 1880-23 June 1966). She was a daughter of Francis H. Priest (b. 1851) and Amaretta (spellings vary) Priest (b. 1855), Irish-born immigrants. Althea grew up in Bath, Ontario. Her family were also Methodists, and moved to Toronto sometime between 1891 and 1901.

Ella and Alex Banfield had three children. A. W. Banfield died on 22 November 1949 in Toronto after seven years of paralysis from strokes. He was buried in the Banfield family plot in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto. Ella Banfield was also buried in Mt. Pleasant.

Alex Banfield was converted 18 October 1900 through the Methodist-run Fred Victor Mission, where he had been a volunteer for six years, mostly as a cornet player, and where he met Althea. She was converted through George D. Watson, an American Methodist Episcopal evangelist with holiness convictions, but she also attended meetings of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Spadina Avenue mission under Noah Detwiler before the family moved to eastern Toronto. There she joined the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Parliament Street mission under Robert Eltherington, where Alex Banfield was also attending. They were baptized by MBiC Presiding Elder Peter Cober. Later the Banfields were members of the MBiC mission known as Bethel, (Banfield Memorial, now Wellspring Church).

Learning about the needs of the “Soudan”, Alex and Althea, now engaged, applied to the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), then called the Africa Industrial Mission. Alex was accepted and sent off to Nigeria by September 1901 along with Elder Ebenezer Anthony of the MBiC Michigan Conference and two Baptist young men. Althea, deferred, joined the MBiC city mission program instead, and was posted in 1902 to assist Emma Hostetler at Aylmer, Ontario, followed by two years as a pastor of the St Thomas mission with Carrie Loop.

At SIM’s Patigi emirate mission station among the Nupe people along the Niger River, Alex Banfield began the life-long project to translate the Bible into Nupe—finally published in 1953. When his team members fell sick and one died, Banfield became the SIM field leader until his furlough at the end of 1904.

In 1904 three MBiC Conferences formed a foreign missionary society under Elder Anthony, and sent A. W. Banfield, ordained at the Stouffville annual conference of the MBiC, with Althea Banfield, back to Nigeria in September 1905. They established the first official MBiC mission station at Tsonga, in another Nupe emirate. For 10 years, A. W. Banfield was the field superintendent, surveying (often with Ella), translating and slowly adding more stations for the MBiC as more staff arrived. He also started and managed the Niger Press at Tsonga (1910-1917) which served all the missions in northern Nigeria. The equipment (bought by SIM in 1917) was moved to Minna in 1918. The Niger Press published numerous scriptures in African languages, including portions and New Testaments in Nupe. Althea and Alex brought an urban and entrepreneurial perspective to the otherwise very rural Mennonite mission.

In 1915, A. W. Banfield was seconded to the British and Foreign Bible Society as their West Africa agent, which required him to visit missions from Senegal to Congo involved in Bible translation work, a huge task that probably led to his breakdown in health in later years. From 1919 to 1929, he was based in the Bible House in Lagos, Nigeria, which he himself designed. In 1930, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, England.

Returning to Canada in 1930, A. W. Banfield transferred his ordination to the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada. Banfield continued deputation, until heart attacks forced him to end traveling. He served the St. James-Bond United Church, Toronto, as pastor in the mid-1930s.

In 1905, 137 of Alex Banfield’s many photographs were published with interpretive text in a book called Life Among the Nupe Tribe of West Africa. Around 3,500 of his photographs and numerous other items are kept today in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. He compiled and published a two-volume Dictionary of the Nupe Language (1914, 1916), co-authored a Nupe grammar (SPCK, 1915), collected Gamaga Nya Nupe (632 Nupe Proverbs, 1916), composed hymns for a Nupe hymnbook, and continued revision of the Nupe Bible until the Nupe translation team recommended it to the BFBS about 1934. In the 1930s he had a book ready, to be called 1001 African Proverbs, which appears never to have been published. Fine Arts MA student, Colleen Elizabeth Kriger, in a study of the items Banfield collected in his 29 years in Africa, noted Banfield had an unusual appreciation for the skills and wisdom of the African societies he worked among. The indigenous United Missionary Church of Africa, which grew from his foundational work, had an estimated 880 congregations and preaching points and approximately 166,000 adherents by 2009.


Banfield, Alex W. “Candidate’s Form.” Application to Africa Industrial Mission, Toronto, May 8 1901. Archives of SIM International, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Banfield, A. W. “A Short History of the Life and Work of A. W. Banfield.” Unpublished typescript. Everek R Storms Collection. Missionary Church Archives, Mishawaka, Indiana.

Banfield, A. W. Life Among the Nupe Tribe of West Africa. Berlin [Kitchener], Ontario, Canada: H S Hallman, 1905.

Banfield, Althea (Ella). Letter,1944. Everek R Storms Collection, Missionary Church Archives, Mishawaka, Indiana.

Canada census: 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911.

Fuller, Clare. Banfield, Nupe and the UMCA. Ilorin, Nigeria: World Partners, 2001.

[George, E F]. The History of the Niger Press: 1910-1924. Minna, Nigeria: The Niger Press, 1924.

Huffman, Jasper A., ed. History of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church. New Carlisle, Ohio: The Bethel Pub. Co, 1920. Available in full electronic text at 188-191, 223.

Kriger, Colleen Elizabeth. “Garments of the Sokoto Caliphate: A Case Study from the Banfield Collection.” MA Thesis, York University, Toronto, 1985.

[Storms, Everek R.] “Former Nigeria Missionary Mrs. A. W. Banfield Passes.” Gospel Banner 14 July 1966:13.

Storms, Everek R. What God Hath Wrought: The Story of the Foreign Missionary Efforts of the United Missionary Church. Springfield, Ohio: United Missionary Society, 1948: 29-37.

Author(s) Clare Fuller
Date Published August 2015

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MLA style

Fuller, Clare. "Banfield, Alexander Woods (1878-1949)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. August 2015. Web. 23 Jun 2024.,_Alexander_Woods_(1878-1949)&oldid=132566.

APA style

Fuller, Clare. (August 2015). Banfield, Alexander Woods (1878-1949). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 June 2024, from,_Alexander_Woods_(1878-1949)&oldid=132566.

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