|Urhobo Historical Society|
|History of Christianity In Nigeria|
THE URHOBO, THE ISOKO, AND THE ITSEKIRI By Samuel U. Erivwo, Ph.D.
|© Samuel U. Erivwo, 1979|
Reproduced in Urhobo Waado By Permission of Professor Samuel Erivwo
There are very few congregations in Urhobo-Isoko land called Faith Tabernacle. Agbarho is the headquarters of the few congregations there are. Those connected with Agvarho accept one T.G. Akporido as the founder. In about 1940, Akporido, it was said, had a vision in which a man presented him with books, and commissioned him to go and preach. This happened at Ohrerhe (Mogva) where they were all formerly members of the C.M.S. After the vision Akporido preached that no one was to put his trust in man, for health of spirit, mind or body. The point of view he advocated was that true believers were not to seek for health from medical practitioners or take any drug when ill. Those convinced separated from the C.M.S. and with him formed the Faith Tabernacle. Any of their members when ill, is asked to pray for himself. Should the ailment deteriorate he should consult the elders. The elders would sit around him and inquire from him of any sin he might have committed, and having heard his confession, anoint him with oil and pray for him. This practice is based on James 5:13-16. Apart from Agbarho, a Faith Tabernacle congregation had sprung up at Eku, introduced there by one Iyedo. Iyedo, Okoro, and Aganbi were contemporaries, and were all of the C.M.S. In the mid twenties Aganbi was in correspondence with some Americans. It was from the letters he got from the united States that Iyedo got to know of the Faith Tabernacle, which he started at Eku in 1926, while Aganbi was introducing the BaptistChurch.
Iyedo later worked hand with Akporido of Agbarho, although there was no actual union of organisations. Both branches were in touch with The Faith Tabernacle of America, with headquarters in Philadelphia, from where some members received weekly sermons. At the time of writing the Eku branch has almost died out, while from Agvarho have emanated branches of the sect at Warri, OkpeUghievwe, and Enhwen (in Isoko). There were other branches of this church in Isoko, some of which were later transmuted to ChristApostolicChurch.
The present Faith Tabernacle churches have neither institutions, nor real leadership. The total number of their members, estimated to be under a hundred, selected one Ovuakporaye, and ordained him as their pastor when Akporido died only in 1968. In each branch under Agvarho, there are head servants (Lay Readers or Catechists in the C.M.S.) From all available data, the Faith Tabernacle Congregations in Urhobo are a backwater organisation, maintaining no link (apart from weekly sermons a few individuals receive from Philadelphia) with any similar body either within or without Nigeria.
The Methodist Mission was introduced to Sapele only in the early forties. This happened when a number of men who had been in the C.M.S. decided to secede, owing to alleged discrimination against them. Most of them were from Sierra Leone,GodCoast (now Ghana), and Yorubaland. They include T.H. Sam Tawiah, Kwenu and Dadson, all Gold Coasters. With them was J. Emade and Egharevba, both of whom are Nigerians. Dissatisfied with the C.M.S. they decided to desert her. In Dadson’s words: “We were with them (the C.M.S.) they did not give us full cooperation; they did not recognise our services, how they served too we did not appreciate it. There was a small bit of dispute, disunity, that was why we decided to bring the church we know that can serve the purpose for our need.” They met in Emade’s house in 1942 and decided on what denomination to introduce to Sapele. As several of them had been connected with the Methodists at School in their home country, when that denomination was suggested they readily accepted the idea. A few Urhobo, like Omare, started with them but soon dropped out because of opposition from the C.M.S. One Egbedi, however, continued with them as did H.A.G. Dickson, who pulled out of the R.C.M. Akande, who was still at Sapele, attempted to nip the secession in the bud by writing to Lagos to counter their delegation there. While Akande insisted that they were his members, the dissidents supported their claim to be Methodists from their early connection with that denomination during their school days when some of them were baptised Methodists. Determined as they were, they had their way and were from Lagos directed to be included in Owo circuit.
But no proper MethodistChurch was started until 1947, the period from 1942 on being spent on holding meetings, saving money, and attempting to get clearance for the work to begin. When they did start, they met for worship in Rodico’s School Hall, belonging to one Yamu. This continued for over three years until a small church house was erected in the compound of J. S. Sule, at one time the headmaster of GovernmentSchool, Sapele. At length they acquired land from the Sapele Local Authority but this was later abandoned since the Town Planning Authority constructed a street through it. It was Sule who once more saved the situation by offering them free of charge a piece of land on which the present MethodistChurch, Sapele, along Yoruba Road, is erected.
Thereafter their members increased. One Lamptey from the Gold Coast (Ghana), Coker a Sierra Leonian, and Monodu a Nigerian with a Sierra Leonian wife, joined them. So did Mason, and Major Jones. Jones was formerly of the Salvation Army and had his training in the U.K. He played a leading role, as did Atoboki, the Society’s steward. At first the congregation which was almost entirely made up of these men continued without receiving effective leadership from QwQ. It was not, according to Dadson, until the fifties, before they were visited by pastors from QwQ who spent a week or two, and occasionally a month with them. A resident Methodist Pastor did not come until after 1961. It was also at QwQ that their representatives attended conventions, and from there they received directives.
Apart from this one methodist church at Sapele, which is dominantly a foreigners’ church, and for which reason services are generally conducted in English, there are hardly any other in Urhoboland worthy of mention.
THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES 1935-1961
Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not usually regard themselves as Christians, preferring to known as Bible students, a history of Christianity in Urhoboland which says nothing of them will be incomplete.
Their story in Urhoboland is largely the story of a single man whose movement has made an impressive mark on a cross section of Urhobo society. It is the story of J. M. Orode, formerly also of the C.M.S. In the twenties Orode was a teacher under the C.M.S. at Ogba beech, five miles away from Benin City. While he was there a certain Owempa of Ora, a Jehovah’s Witness colporteur visited Benin and Sapele in 1926, and preached. His preaching, which Orode was not privilege to hear, was reported to have been particularlypotent. The them was on Sunday rest which he denounced as unbiblical doctrine. In 1931, another man, M. Ukoli (later G.M. Urhobo) also cam to Benin to preach on a similar topic as Owempa had done five years before. This time Orode was present, and “I was greatly moved by what he said”.’
Consequently when next it was Orode’s turn to preach in his station, he caused a stir by decrying the observance of Sunday unbiblical. So perplexed was the pastor in charge that Orode was cautioned to alter his tone of preaching if a schism was to be avoided. Convinced as Orode was with this new biblical discovery, he was not prepared to swerve an inch. His appointment was subsequently terminated.
Various attempts were made by his elder brother to secure him another job, amongst others, as a court clerk, or an interpreter. But Orode turned each and all of them down not only for fear of being corrupted by his bosses and coworkers, and lured into receiving bribes, but also because of preference for a job which would afford him time enough to preach his message without hindrance. This was his foremost desire. Thus when another senior brother sent him a telegram from Enugu inviting him to Hope Waddell Institute for studies, he found himself constrained to turn down the offer despite its attraction. His one passionate desire then was to return to Urhoboland to preach. But he had no means of transport from Benin.
The opportunity to leave Benin came when his Highness, OvieOharisi, asked in 1931 for any young boy from the Ovie family to serve as a court clerk. When this call came to Orode he gladly accepted it as providing an opportunity for moving from Benin homewards. Having been provided with a bicycle and five pounds, he purported to set out for Ughelli. But he stopped at Warri instead, and spent three full months with G. M. Urhobo from whom he learnt all he could about the Jehovah’s Witness Society, no member of which was as yet in the interior of Urhoboland. Warri town itself had only four members.
Back home, Orode traversed the Urhobo country proclaiming the imminent arrival of Armageddon. His family members attempted in vain to get him into a profitable job. The EgwareEkpako of the family was summoned on his account, where the elders, apparently interested and concerned about his well-being, advised him to get married and settle down to a profitable job. But his response put them off.
ThatEgwareEkpako was summoned to discuss Orode’s marriage showed how seriously the matter was viewed; that Orode himself defied the EgwareEkpako and persisted in his preaching showed equally how serious and deep rooted his convictions were. There is even a story that the Ekpako deliberately enticed him by throwing a beautiful girl in this path. At length Orode was compelled to inform them that he would not marry any one by a Jehovah’s Witness. The family thereafter did find him a Jehovah’s Witness and even provided him with the money for the marriage. But if they felt that marriage would diminish the temp of his preaching, they were mistaken. It did not.
He adamantly continued and was without any other profitable job until he heard of one George JevuEgharen, ofOvwian, a herbalist converted to the Jehovah’s Witness Society. He was sent for by Orode who taught him the Bible, and learnt from him his trade. This trade which was abundantly blessed became Orode’s economic mainstay. Meanwhile his Urhobo-wide preaching had won hundreds of converts from the traditional religion, as well as from other Christian denominations. In 1958 he was invited to the Society’s headquarters in New York, a visit which deepened his knowledge of the Society, and equipped him for his ministry in Urhobo.
Content of the Preaching
The emphasis of the preaching has always been on the imminence of the parousis designated by them Armageddon, and viewed as a cataclysm in which all that is opposed to God’s will would be annihilated and God’s Kingdom Society inaugurated here on earth. To qualify for this new Kingdom one needed to belong to the Jehovah’s Witness Society. As a result of the intensity of their conviction about the imminent Armageddon, the Jehovah’s Witnesses held rallies night and day, moved from house to house, from street to street, form village to village, from town to town, and from clan to clan, persuading and convincing people with a tenacity of purpose, which, even if misguided, is commendable.
In consequence of their conviction of the imminent Armageddon they stood (and still stand) opposed to acquisition of wealth, and indeed to nearly all things material. Secularisation has no place in their theology. The world and all that is in it, including every secular government, is of the devil, and to be eschewed, since it will be consigned to fire and final destruction. The other denominations, in coming to terms with the secular governments, show themselves agents of the devil, and therefore stand condemned as teaching wrong doctrines, and misguiding the people.
After the eclipse of the sun on Tuesday, 2nd May 1947, the Jehovah’s Witnesses poured into all villages and towns in Urhobo, declaring that the Armageddon which they had been proclaiming was already here. They had always indulged in the practice of mapping out future events, and fixing dates when the end of the world would be. They believe that it is for them to know times and seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority. (Acts 1:20) At the time of writing, the end of the world is put to them at 1975, for which reason many of them fail to send their children to school. Similarly they have refused to build houses, or plant rubber trees at a time in Urhobo when many people cultivated lands and owned large rubber plantations.
Their preaching is based only on work, work of a particular kind-a declaration from place to place of an approaching doom, from which people need to flee by becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses. They thus aptly see themselves as members of the Watch Tower Society, the imagery being derived from Ezekiel 33, where the sentinel owes it as a duty to be awake and warn the people of oncoming destruction. Their preaching can therefore hardly be call Evangelion, devoid, as it is, of any good news. They seem to know nothing of salvation by grace, and give no room in their message for the atoning work of Christ, whom they are unprepared to accept as divine, and whose co-eternity with the Father is rejected outright. The doctrine of the Triune God is repudiated by them as devilish.
In Urhoboland the Jehovah’s Witnesses initially accepted polygamy as a Biblical and therefore acceptable practice. But later this position was altered with a consequent split in the movement. Thence came the God’s Kingdom Society as a distinct movement. This latter body was under the direction of G.M. Urhobo, with their headquarters at Warri at a place designated SalemCity.
At first the Jehovah’s Witnesses also stigmatized other denominations for erecting church buildings. A house could not be built for God, they argued, citing 1 Kings 8:27 as a supporting text for their view. Later, however, they themselves deviated from this position, and embarked on building church houses with the appellation “Kingdom Hall”.
Equally inconsistent were they in their teaching on Urhobo greeting. Traditionally a junior person said Migueo to an elder as a mark of respect to him. This act, if properly carried out, takes the form of kneeling down before one’s elder, that being the literal meaning of Migueo. If done hastily, however, it takes the form of genuflecting, or simply uttering the word. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses initially stood opposed to the expression of this greeting in all its forms, and supported their stance by reference to Rev. 22:8&9. This and many other aspects of their doctrine were based on a one-sided interpretation of scriptures. During the fifties after returning from one of their conferences (when Orode returned from the Unites States), they grew wiser and realised that no spiritual worship was implied in the practice-an argument which they had refused to accept from members of other denominations.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses seldom have paid officials, except for a few full-time workers for whom the Society gives money for clothes and travelling expenses. If a full-time officer becomes married, his wife is also looked after by the Society. But once children are born to the marriage the officer is requested to do the job part-time, and take up another appointment to provide for his family.
From the Headquarters the Society is organised into zones, branches, districts, circuits, congregations, units, and rendezvous. There are, for instance, as many as seven circuits in Urhobo-Ijo land. Each circuit is made up of between eleven to twelve congregations, whilst there or so circuits form a district. In big cities or towns, the Society has officers known as city servants, who are directly in charge of the general organisation of the society in their area. Ughelli, for example, has Orode as the city servant. With the tireless efforts of these servants and their congregation members Jehovah’s Witness membership increased rapidly between 1945 and 1961. By the latter date they were about 400 strong in Ughelli area alone, which was roughly one quarter of her total membership in Urhobo. But heir influence on non-members has always been minimal since it is a closed system whose adherents often decline participation in family meetings, or cultural gathering. Consequently apart from refining their own members through regular, pedantic, and studious if superficial, reading of the Bible, cross fertilisation of cultures has not resulted from their presence in the society.
Finally it needs to be mentioned that their one-sided view of scriptures not withstanding, their tenacity of purpose and fanaticism have endeared them to many who admire their otherworldiness without attempting to copy them. They have been able at the risk of inviting persecution to stand over against the world, rather than compromise with any facet of it.
God’s Kingdom Society: 1934-1961
God’s Kingdom Society, with its present headquarters at SalemCity, Warri was founded by G.M. Urhobo (a sone ofUkoli_ from Agbarha in Warri. He was resident in Lagos “as a postal clerk and telegraphist” and in his time belonged to the elite class. But, according to own testimony quoted below, he saw a vision which impelled him to resign his lucrative and enviable appointment in February, 1933, and turn a preacher. The account of his vision which resulted in the momentous decision reads: “After three and half years’ diligent and prayerful studies of the Holy Bible, Jesus Christ revealed himself to me in a vision and commanded me to go and proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom (or ‘Gospel of Peace”) to all nations as the only remedy for all
human sufferings and woes; to expose all the false doctrines which
Satan had used to deceive the people and keep them in ignorance
of God’s Kingdom and purpose of creation; and to pronounce
God’s written judgment against all wickedness.” Consequent upon his resignation, his wife, who became apprehensive of what the future held in store for them, deserted him. G.M. Urhobo looked after the children in addition to the lectures he gave on street corners and in various public places in Lagos. Before the lectures he would write notices on conspicuous corners of Lagos, inviting everyone to come to his chosen venue in the open streets at a fixed time. Hardly anyone took notice of him; but the few curious person who on passing by were attracted, became moved by his addresses. WhenUrhobo came across the publications of J. F. Rutherford, he was impressed by the expositions of scripture they contained, which he believed were consonant with own understanding of the Bible. Consequently in October 1934, he came in contact in Lagos with late W.R. Brown, the local representative of the Watch Tower Society in Nigeria. Urhobo soon became an agent for the Watch Tower Society under Brown. He collected publications from Brown and sold them to members of the public and returned the money to Brown, whenever it was paid to him.
But not long after their meeting, Urhobo was said to have discovered “errors in the teachings of the Watch Tower Society in respect of ‘Marriage’, ‘Jehovah’s Organisation’, Leadership’, ‘Memorial Supper’, Women Preaching’ and their fixing dates for ‘Armageddon’ While the Jehovah’s Witnesses at this time declared their support for monogamy as the only proper marriage for their members, Urhobo held that polygamy was as acceptable to God as monogamy.
With regards to “Jehovah’s Witnesses” teaching that any member of their society was a Jehovah’s witness, Urhobo disagreed. He maintained that only the prophets and specially anointed persons were Jehovah’s witnesses, Jesus Christ being the chief of Jehovah’s witnesses.He equally disagreed with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teaching that only 144,000 persons would enter Heaven, as he did with the doctrine that no man was to be accepted as leader, when in fact they recognised Rutherford, their president then, as leader. When Urhobo pointed out to Brown what he considered to be wrong teaching, the latter was said to have accused Urhobo of vying for leadership. Urhobo was consequently declared as an enemy of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The result was the emergence of God’s Kingdom Society. Those who accepted Urhobo’s point of view followed him to form God’s Kingdom Society at the end of 1934. When he died on February 25, 1952, one e. R. Otomewo, who was the vice-president, became the president.
Although the God’s Kingdom Society differs in some of its teachings from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is still very similar in other respects. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are unitarians. While claiming to accept the divinity of Christ, they hold with Arius that there was when he was not. According to them, God (the Father) was from eternity but created the Word (His Word?) in the beginning of creation. Having created the Word the latter became God’s agent in creation. Jesus Christ is said to be a god, as is Lucifer, and as indeed are men. An excerpt from one of their sermons reads: The doctrine of Trinity has no biblical basis-it is false.We agree that the Father is God and the son is a god but in no place in the Bible is the Holy Spirit referred to as a god. Apart from the Son, Jesus, there are other creatures both in heaven and on earth who are also gods but they, including
Jesus Christ, are all subject to the Father. in the Psalms it is written: “Ye are
gods; and all of you are children of the Most High.” (Psalm 82:6) Thus the
Father is the “God of gods, and Lord of lords” Deut. 10:17,… Having taken this position, it is not to be wondered at that they have little to say about the Atonement. For the full divinity of Jesus and identity of his substance with the Father cannot be denied without playing down the Atonement. It was because of whom he was (and is) that he could do what he did since only one who was identical in substance with the Father could fully redeem fallen man. The members also claim to be able to locate heave, viewed by them as a place. Heave, according to them, is far above the firmaments, and there God dwells. The Kingdom of God of which they claim to be a society, is designated Kingdom of Heaven also because, according to Tietie, the headquarters of the Kingdom is sited in Heaven. This Kingdom, the Society holds, was established only after the 1914-18 war. Thus when Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the coming of the Kingdom it had not yet arrived. Majority of the people to be admitted into the Kingdom will, we are told, inherit it here on earth, while only a few will go to heave, the headquarters. Like several other sects, they reject infant Baptism, on the ground that it lacks Biblical precedence. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they hold that only those who belong to their society wherever it exists or, where it does not exist, those who belong to a society which holds the same views with them, will enter the Kingdom of God. By 1961, they were already commanding a large following all over Urhoboland. They have made some commendable efforts by composing their songs generally to Urhobo music, and so making good use of what is proper in Urhobo culture in their services. Furthermore they hold elaborate annual conventions in which the various cultures of IjQ, Western Ibo, Isoko, and Urhobo are richly blended, and which in many respects are remarkably reminiscent of Urhobo annual festivals, and to some degree of early Christianity in Urhoboland. But whether it is this phenomenon which holds the adherents spell-bound, or whether the doctrines really appeal to them as genuine and as guaranteeing security in this world and in the next, is difficult to ascertain. It is known however that the members were tithed, and they seemed to have paid this happily, a thing which redounded to the wealth and glory of G.M. Urhobo while he lived. That the members did this gladly, and that the bulk of the membership was Urhobo and Isoko may be accounted for by much of the indigenous culture that was “baptised” into this Movement. For finding themselves at home in the church services in which Urhobo music and dances like opiri and udje were given prominence, the Urhobo and Isoko were not only attracted but freely gave of their wealth to promote the Movement.
The rise of different denominations has as its results competition and rivalries which were often bitter and unhealthy. But in spite of this, there was no reverse to traditional religion. Indeed division and competition tended to make for growth and yielded great dividends. These various denominations, in addition to the C.M.S. in Urhoboland, meant a considerable dwarfing of the indigenous culture. The denominations usually introduced schools to which the youth gravitated. As the youths attended church and school, they tended to be separated from their traditional cultural connections and heritage. The churches themselves struggled to attain some self-knowledge, particularly in the Nigerianisation, orUrhobonisation of the personnel. With respect to other aspects of indigenisation, say of the liturgy, ver little happened. But this discussion, especially as it affects the C.M.S. and the Baptists, must be left for the next chapter.
 Interview with J. Ovuakporaye, pastor of Faith Tabernacle, c. 60, OrhoAgbarho, 11 August 1971.  Interview with E.B. Dadson, a foundatin member of Sapele Methodist, c. 75, at Sapele, 10 April 1971.  There was a kind of gentleman’s agreement between the Methodists and the C.M.S., namely that the one organisatin should not interfere in an area where the other was already operating.  Interview with J.M. Orode, aged 60, at Otovwodo, 8 September 1970. Amongst the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Urhobo, he is regarded as one of the 144,000 who alsone will inherit the Kingdom of heaven, while the rest of the society member shall inherit the earth. For this reason he is considered to be the only one worthy to participate in the feast of the paschal lamb (the Holy Communion).  Council of the elders.  Other factors were also responsible for the spilt; see pp.oooff  it is significant to mention here that traditional priests in Urhobo, as well as Roman Catholic Rev. Fathers, do not use this form of greeting to their elders, whose spiritual fathers they consider themselves to be.  Interview with H.M. Orode, 8 September 1970.  “The Weekly Semon” by god’s Kingdom Society, February16, 1969. Ibid.,  interview in the B.O. Tietie, Publicity Secretary, G.K.S. c. 45, Salem city, Warri, 11 August 1971.  Interview with Tietie, 11 August 1971.  Weekly Sermon G.K.S., 16 February 1969.  Interview with Tietie, 11 August 1971.  The Weekly Sermon Vol. II, No. 48 “Are there three Persons in One God?”  interview with Tietie, 11 August 1971.