History of Christianity in Nigeria: Chapter five

Urhobo Historical Society
History of Christianity In Nigeria

 THE BAPTISTS: 1917-1935
© Samuel U. Erivwo, 1979
Reproduced in Urhobo Waado By Permission of Professor Samuel Erivwo

A. Omatsola, whose activities as agent under the Niger Delta Pastorate have been traced, was the one who introduced the Baptist Mission to Urhoboland. As a result of the discontent of the indigenous population (Urhobo and Itsekiri) with the foreign elements (Sierra Leonians, Goldcoasters and Yoruba),Omatsola led a splinter group away from the Niger Delta Pastorate Church, Sapele. Although E. M. Howell in his Thesis fails to recognise the move as a secession from an existing Anglican body[1], Omatsola and those with him knew that theirs was a calculated secession[2], from the Niger Delta Pastorate, motivated interalia by three factors: a resentment against foreign domination; a desire to become polygamous; and acrimony over allege misappropriation of church funds. Subsequently they moved to Lagos as a body to meet J.R. Williams, also an Anglican turned Baptist, to seek admission into the Baptist Church and have a branch started at Sapele.[3] Although “it was made clear to these brethren that they could not be received into a Baptist Church as seceders from another denomination”, they were nonetheless admitted as individuals on believing “as Baptists believe in regard to the teachings of the Bible[4].

From Lagos they returned to Sapele to inaugurate the new church. They later invited Williams to Sapele. Accompanied by some elders of the First Baptist Church, Lagos, William proceeded to Sapele to organise the church there. Deacon I. O. Gilbert is reported to have described the trip thus: “As a result of the appeal of our brethren at Sapele to the First Baptist Church, Lagos, Rev. Williams left Lagos on the 16th of July, 1917 to organise the Sapele Mission taking with him several of his members. The trip proved a very successful one. He baptised on the whole 313 candidates and on one occasion during baptismal services there was a heavy rain and he was under it 

in the river for two hours without any bodily injury.[5] At Sapele, Omatsola started his church with the building facing the river side in imitation of the First Baptist Church, Lagos. About three years later, Omatsola, whose theological training had been unnecessarily delayed when under the Niger Delta Pastorate, was sent by the Baptists to Ogbomosho for a short course of six months in 1920, and was ordained into “the Baptist Gospel Ministry in the First Baptist Church, Lagos” on April 4, 1921.[6] He returned to plant Baptist churches and schools in the majority of Urhobo towns with that enthusiasm which had characterised his ministry under the Niger Delta Pastorate. According to his son, it was through him that Baptist churches were planted at Ugharefe,  Koko, Qgidigbe,  Obitukpagha Gdogoda  Ogheye,  Abraka, Asagba of Okpe, Obiaroku, Okwagbe in  Ughievwe  Sakpoba, Ugborodo, Warri, Ugbimidaka,  Oginibo, Ogiedi, Adagbarasa, Jakpatie, Elume, Ikoro, Okparabe,Okpara, and  Eku .[7] In the case of Eku, however, Aganbi was the originator but Omastsola’s influence was there since it was to him and Williams at Sapele that Agnabi applied.

It is not surprising that in a majority of the towns and villages, the emergence of Baptist churches was by a wholesale conversion of existing C.M.S. church members, or a carving out of a substantial proportion of them to form the new. At Okwagbe, for instance, a C.M.S. church had been introduced by one Babaido in 1921; but when he and his members found the C.M.S. regulations and demands too rigid and uncompromising, he went to Sapele on hearing of Omatsola’s Baptist Church in which polygamists were admitted as full members and appointed as leaders. He consequently converted the OkwagbeC.M.S.Church to Baptist, until 1937 when one of the members, CosinUheri, felt that the C.M.S. approach was better and so reverted to the C.M.S., carrying with him a good number of the Baptists.[8] Omatsola appointed untrained teachers for his churches which, as a result, suffered the same fate of wallowing in ignorance as did their C.M.S. counterparts. This not withstanding, they grew rapidly in consequence of Omatsola’s enthusiasm which smacked of fanaticism. When, for instance, in 1918, the year of the influenza, a medical doctor, called Adam, ordered at Sapele that people were not to congregate, Qmatsola defied the order and continued to hold services.[9] The result of his zeal was the rapid growth of his congregations, the membership of which exceeded a thousand within a decade.[10] The Sapele Association was subsequently formed with Omatsola as Moderator. All the member churches of this Association jointly built a church house, the present First Baptist Church,  Sapele, in 1933, following which incessant letters requesting for a resident missionary were sent to Baptist Headquarters. In response to them, one Carson and his wife were sent to Sapele in 1936 as the first resident Baptist missionaries there. It is not without justification that Howell described Omatsola as “one of the greatest organisers that the Nigerian Baptist Convention has had”.[11] As must be evident by now, before their missionaries came, one of the major attractions to the Baptist Church was initial toleration of polygamist. It appeared also that initially the Baptists did not firmly take as negative an attitude to ancestor veneration as did the C.M.S. But according to Agbaluwa, a Baptist minister, the practice was never approved of “but people being so used to it mixed it up a little”.[12] Thus, many who enlisted in that church were at first able not only to keep their harems of wives but also to pay some homage to their departed parents[13] both of which practices were not allowed by the C.M.S. As the Baptist were to change their attitude towards polygamy later, this attraction belonged only to the first phase.

By the time a change of attitude occurred the Urhobo had had their own son as a Baptist pastor. For however valuable the leadership of Omatsola, an Itsekiri, must have been, they understandably preferred their own man.[14] This was none other than Aganbi of whom much has been related.[15] After his primary school education at Warri and Sapele he was one of those who introduced “Christianity and Civilisation” to Eku. He had taught there and at Sanubi under the C.M.S. untilSeptember 2, 1926, when he resigned and joined the Baptist, and so turned down admission offered him by St. Andrews College, Oyo.

Back to Eku Aganbi invited Richardson, an American Missionary, and Omatsola from Sapele to Eku where they assembled the people to whom they expounded Baptist doctrines. Thereafter Aganbi continued to organise a Baptist congregation Eku. During the first assembly he chose for his address the topic, “God is leading His People”, a topic which was based on Psalm 25:4-5. There was no shadow of doubt in him that his resignation from the C.M.S. was God-directed, even if Imoukhuede and the C.M.S. authorities viewed it as a diabolical design.

To strengthen Aganbi in the secession Richardson and Omatsola visited the new group on 15th October 1926, and impressed on them to continue to study the Scriptures. On the 10th of November Miss Neale C. Young and Miss Mary Perry also visited the congregation to address the women folk on how to organise “a Women’s Missionary Union” and to study the Bible.[16] As a result of Aganbi’s influence many C.M.S. members deserted and teamed up with him as did some R.C.M. members. For Aganbi, it was God leading His people; for the C.M.S., it was an act of treachery and rebellion which must be crushed.Consequently the Roman Catholics, also adversely affected, combined with the C.M.S. to reclaim their members. An effective way of achieving this objective was by preventing the latest arrival from acquiring land on which to build.[17] Land suits were therefore brought against the Baptists by the two denominations, supported by the Chiefs and Elders of Eku. These cases lasted throughout 1927. As a result of the conflicts some former C.M.S. members retraced their steps while others lapsed into idolatory.

Here the question was inevitable. What impression was Christianity making on the Urhobo? How could Christians who were antagonistic to one another hope to win converts from the traditional religion? And were they, on this showing, being true to their calling and to their Master, who taught that a house divided against itself could not stand? What had they learnt from the Scriptures where St. Paul charged the Corinthians never to bring their cases to the secular law courts? If they had learnt so little, what had they to offer to the Urhobo traditionalists who before the appearance of Christianity and European Civilisation settled family disputes only within the context of the family? Clearly the Christians were here belying their Faith. This animosity borne of bitter rivalry did not prove detrimental to the cause of Christianity as might have been expected. As has been indicated, competitions, even unhealthy ones, do often yield dividends. The Baptists not only emerged triumphant from the conflict, but also later built a gigantic hospital which served all and sundry-including even the members of those denominations with whom they had had court cases.

The Baptists no doubt saw the action of the other (one could not say fellow) Christians, as persecution; while the others viewed the Baptists who claimed to be teaching the only right doctrines as intruders and intriguers, dissenters and deceivers from whom their members lured away must be reclaimed. The later development of Eku, especially the provision of a hospital for all, vindicated the Baptists’ dedication to service and to
their Faith, even if through the Hospital they hoped to win members from other denominations.[18]

After the troubles of 1927 Aganbi entered Iwo Headmaster’s Course which he completed after four years and proceeded to OgbomQhaQ Seminary for theological training for another three. He came out in December 1934. Although both in the Yoruba country and at Sapele Baptist churches in need of trained pastors’ asked for his services and attempted to dissuade him from returning to the young congregation at Eku which could not pay his salary, he was resolute to go to his own people.

“They (the Eku Baptists) may not be able to pay me anything but they are
my people, and I have given myself to serve them as long as the Lord shall

He resumed work at Eku in January 1935, and reactivated the work of the young congregation which during his seven year absence had been cared for by OkotieEsekeghre, Isiorho, Onanore, Akemu, and Itohwo.[20]Aganbi was well aware of the inability of the Eku Baptists to pay his monthly salary. His resolution to serve his people, come wind come weather, was nevertheless amply rewarded. Although he was paid only one shilling and six pence every Edewo, his services were paid for in kind by the members who frequently cleared his farms and provided him and his wife with foodstuff. Furthermore, when the Carsons, the missionaries at Sapele, observed the pioneering and persevering spirit of Aganbi, they approached the Parkview Baptist Church, PortsmouthVirginia, to take up payment of his salary. This continued until Eku Baptist congregation grew and on becoming financially viable was organised into a church in 1936. Thereafter it took over the responsibility.


Because the planters of Baptist churches in Urhoboland were originally members of C.M.S. Churches, the pattern of organisation was initially Anglican: much was left to the imagination and initiative of the founders, until missionaries arrived. Thus, as in the C.M.S., income was realised by levying contribution of three pence per month (or three shillings per year) per female and six pence per month (or six shillings per year) per male. Class registers were called during services to ascertain those fulfilling their financial obligations to the church. This slow process continued until 1942-3 when the whole machinery of the Baptist Churches was overhauled, and the tithe system introduced[21]. Harvests, which were not a normal practice of the Baptists, were also introduced through the influence of Williams.[22] Although some written prayers were used at first, this practice was quickly abandoned for the exclusive use of extempore prayers which is characteristic of Baptist church services. This had a great attraction for members who did not have to depend on rigidly written prayers as in the Anglican and similar churches. In their use of extempore prayers by which their problems, individual and collective, were laid bare before God, the Baptists were in touch with reality and with Urhobo religion, where the worshippers, uninhibited by formalities, addressed their prayers to Osonobruwhe, Erivwin, Edjo, and Orhan.

Also in organisation the C.M.S. pattern of having worshipping congregations immediately designated churches was not at once departed from. But after the arrival of missionaries when instructions were given to local Baptist leaders on Baptist methodology, the practice of starting with preaching stations was adopted. In this system new converts were sought in the preaching station through the addresses of evangelists and songs of choristers. Only after winning enough members who would be financially viable was a preaching station converted to a church. After Aganbi’s return from training, Baptist evangelisation of Urhoboland by the above method was given impetus. Eku Association was formed in addition to Sapele Association, with Aganbi as moderator. By 1935, Baptist churches were firmly established in Urhoboland. But the development and growth of Urhobo “Baptism” still lay in the second half of the thirties and especially in the forties and the fifties. But this aspect will be discussed in a later chapter.

[1] See E.M. Howell, Nigerian Baptist Leaders and their Contributions, a Thesis for D.Th. (Souoth) Western Baptist Theological Seminary, Forth Worth, Texas, May 1956), pp. 114-5. He says the Christians at Sapele “were of several different faiths-Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist. They formed what might be termed a community church without any denominational affiliation. Whenever a clergyman of any faith cam that way he was invited to preach…Bishop Johnson…was their most frequent visitor”. [2] See J. A. Omatsola, Op.cit, p-3. [3] Ibid. According to Omatsola’s son, this was preceeded by letters written to two missions, the Methodist and the Baptist. After registering the letters the same day “prayers were offered..that the first of the two that replied…would be the accepted one”. The Baptist replied promptly, and so A. Omatsola moved to Lagos with his men. [4] Quoted from M. M. Duval by Howell op.cit, p. 115. [5] E. M. Howell, op.cit, p. 116. [6] J. A. Omatsola, op.cit, p. 4. [7] See. J. A. Omatsola, op.cit, p-3. [8] Interview ith Mr. Tagbra 100+, and his son Isaiah c. 40, the present headman of the C.M.S.Church, Okwagbe 12 April 1971. [9] Interview with Okitikpi at Sapele,16 April 1971. [10] See howell, op.cit. p. 116. [11] Howell,op.cit. p. 116. [12] Interview with S. G. Agbaluwa of Bethel Baptist Sapele, c. 6001, April, 1971. [13] Interview with J. T. Ayorinde, the General Secretary,Baptist Church, Nigeria,23 March 1971. [14] According to Agvaluwa, before an Urhobo pastor came, the Baptists travelled from Eku and neighbourhood to Sapele, to be instructed by QmastsQla in Itsekiri. “They recited what they did not understand”. [15] For more Biographical notes on Aganbi, See Howell, op.cit, pp136-146. [16] Howell,op.cit., p. 140. [17] See J.B. Webster, The African Churches among the Yoruba 1888-1922 (London, Clarendon Press, 1964). p. 108. The strategy of the C.M.S. and the R.C.M. was the same one employed by the African Church at Idoani, near QwQ, to maintain their existence there. “Since the agreements were enforced through the denial of land to a second mission society the African Church could not be compelled to abandon Idoani where it had already secured land owned by their local members: [18] Names of patients who claimed to have accepted Christ when preached to at Eku hospital were sent to the pastor nearest to their homes. If no Baptist pastor was near, the names could be sent to a pastor of another denomination. [19] Howell,op.cit, p. 144. [20] Interview with Okotie. [21] Interview with Agbalwa, s.d. [22] Howell,op.cit., p. 115.

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