History of Christianity in Nigeria: Chapter Three

Urhobo Historical Society
History of Christianity In Nigeria

© Samuel U. Erivwo, 1979
Reproduced in Urhobo Waado By Permission of Professor Samuel Erivwo

By 1914, Christianity was permeating Urhoboland. The work was still fluid and infirm. The tasks of consolidation in the period before us still lay ahead. The period witnessed a major upheaval, resulting from an attempt to impose form and proper structure on the formless, haphazard pioneering work of Bishop Johnson’s agents. The conflict which later resulted might have been avoided if Aitken’s suggestion to the Niger Mission Executive Committee that the Urhobo-Isoko areas be constituted into a single district[2] had been fully accepted and implemented. But as it happened, only the Isoko section was constituted into a district, leaving the Urhobo congregations in the lurch. Consequently these congregations continued to be administered by Bishop Johnson’s agents, ill-equipped as they were. The converts had continually to look up for leadership to Warri and Sapele, the major centres of Niger Delta Pastorate Administration in the area.

The relationship between Warri and Sapele in the Niger Delta Pastorate set up was, however, not clearly defined. It was not clear, for instance, whether Warri was the centre, and Sapele a sub-centre, or vice versa; or whether the two were standing at par in importance. But when Warri applied for a resident pastor in 1914, she stated in her letter of application the jurisdiction of the Vicar to-be would embrace Sapele, “the Christian Church at Forcados: “the prospective Church at Burutu”, and the outstation churches,[3] fifteen of which were by 1914 affiliated to Warri, and the same number to Sapele.[4]

The relationship between Warri and the outstations and that between Sapele and affiliated outstations, were also not clearly spelt out. Nor was there any indication given in the constitution of the Diocese of West Equatorial Africa (by which the Niger Delta Pastorate was governed[5]) of what the relation between mother and outstation churches should be. In the absence of any laid down policy, what relationship existed emerged from the situation. Thus in practice, the outstations to Warri and to Sapele looked up to these centres for spiritual leadership. In that kind of situation, the initiative of men on the spot, like Omatsola, (as we shall see) counted much. It was their attitude and initiative which dictated the decisions of higher authorities like Bishop Tugwell. Thus it was the de facto motherly status already assumed by Warri and Sapele, even if forced upon them by men like Omatsola, that was to give rise to Bishop Tugwell’s suggestion that “local committees should be formed (in the outstations) of which the agent in charge at Sapele or Warri should be for raising and disbursing of moneys, rendering a quarterly statement of account to the parent committee in Sapele or Warri”. It was this awareness of responsibility for some, at least, of the outstations which made Warri include “the Sobo villages”, “Chapels around Warri” in the jurisdiction of the expected vicar.

Warri in the Era of Rev. Cole

Between 1914 and 1920 the C.M.S. Church at Warri was trying to work out an administrative structure. Prior to Rev. Cole’s[6] arrival a church committee had managed affairs, but when Cole was appointed for Warri in 1914, a Parochial Church Council (P.C.C.) was set up with the pastor as chairman. The relative powers of the priest on the one hand and that of the rest of the council members on the other soon became a matter of some contention. For example, the pastor’s activities in the outstations when he paid his maiden visit there aroused criticisms from one Solade Solomon,[7] who was apparently a spokesman for many. The authority by which Cole demanded money from the Urhobo in the hinterland for church work at Warri was challenged. Cole, who was reprimanded roundly for his activities, had to be on the defensive, although he still continued his itineration of the outstations till his departure from Warri.

Connected with this uneasy situation was the need to define what the relationship between Warri and the outstations should be. The Government had decided that all churches be registered like statutory bodies, in order to enable them to own property. Warri and Sapele churches had been so registered. The outstations connected with Warri needed to be registered with the Government by St. Andrew’s Church, Warri, in such a way that their satellite relationship to Warri could be legally recognized. But this end was not yet achieved by 1920 when Cole left on leave. Apparently, as a consequence of the views of a section of the Urhobo people, he did not return.[8] Thus the era of Cole, which covered only six years, did not achieve very much, even if he saw the need to, and did, visit the outstations in their afflictions and persecutions, and attempted to meet some of their spiritual needs.[9] Like all pioneers, his difficulties were many, and a great deal still needed to be done at the time of his departure.


Although Sapele did not have a resident pastor till 1916, the situation there would appear to have been somewhat better than at Warri. There was a management committee made up among others, of A. Omatsola, as Church Agent, G. Sunday as Hon. Secretary, and I. T. Palmer as President. This was the governing body of  Sapele Church and  adjoining  outstations- Amukpe, Ugharefe ,  Ugbomoya,  Idjerhe,  Abraka,  Obiaroku ,  Uhwokori,  Eku, and Ovu.

These outstations, some of which, unlike Warri, had been registered by 1916, looked up to Sapele for spiritual leadership. Omatsola, who since 1909, had been chiefly responsible for planting churches in many of them had never relented his efforts at visitation and evangelisation of the outstations, sometimes even to the detriment of his work at Sapele, and to the discomfiture of Sunday, who on one occasion got the Committee to restrict Omatsola’s visitations to the outstations.

But such restriction hampered work in these stations, for as Bishop Tugwell’s letters were to reveal, many of the agents in the hinterland were little more than the blind leading the blind. For example, the man at Uhwokori, Jacob Oluwole, was not even baptised.

At the time Omatsola’s activities in the outstations were restricted (1913-14) progress there was retarded. For example, only Amukpe, of the outstations, sent in her assessment for October 1914 whereas prior to the restriction the outstation agents had been duty bound to attend the Church Committee meetings at Sapele every first Saturday of the month, and during that time paid in their assessment for the previous month. They were also then subjected to half-yearly examination in “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, etc.” to determine promotions. But owing to lack of effective supervision from Sapele these activities were neglected until Bishop Tugwell’s visit in December 1914 resuscitated them.

The structure of authority at Sapele had something to do with the way Sapele Church ministered to the needs of the outstation churches. It had been indicated that there was some tension in the Sapele Church administration, and administration made up solely of the laity with power concentrated on the trio: Palmer, Sunday, and Omatsola. In this trio, Omatsola came least in importance, and yet he was the only indigene, and the only salaried and full-time employee of the Mission, the offices of the other two being honorary. Any suggestion made to or by Omatsola had to be referred to Palmer and to Sunday for their comments and approval before it could be implemented. Being involved in other jobs and not being indigenes, they did not care very much about evangelisation in the outstations, and did not always take very kindly to Omatsola’s eagerness to itinerate the outstations. Even when one Simate, a co-indigene with Omatsola, returned from training, there was also not much love lost between the two, mainly because Simate, a trained teacher, resented being placed under Omatsola who was untrained.

The answer to the Sapele Church conflict appeared to be in the appointment of a pastor, long sought for by that church; a pastor might impose some authority and bring about harmony. But it also looked as if the Sapele Church problem had to do not only with the structure of authority, but with the persons in whose hands authority lay. For there appeared seated in Omatsola what he regarded as foreign domination. As long therefore as the expected pastor was not an indigene, the problem would remain unsolved. And the pastor, one Ologududu, with whom negotiations were on was not, for no indigene was as yet trained for that post. Omatsola’s resentment burst out in 1916 (shortly after the arrival of Ologududu), resulting in schism and secession in 1917.

Apart from reaction against foreign domination, the teething problem of monogamy was apparently a contributory factor to this schism. The Baptist Mission had been for some time now in Nigeria, and initially tolerated polygamy,[10] a practice which the Itsekiri and the Urhobo with their Isoko brethren found near impossible to repudiate. A majority of the indigenous population, finding the Baptist at this time more congenial to their taste, broke away from the NDP-C.M.S. at Sapele, with Omatsola as their leader. Bishop Johnson heard of the schism, while at Bonny, and wrote passionately from there, urging reconciliation and patience until his arrival.[11] Unfortunately, however, the Bishop died even before his letter arrived at Sapele.

Transfer to the C.M.S.

The death of Bishop Johnson on Ascension Day, 17th May, 1917 marked a milestone in the spiritual pilgrimage of the Urhobo congregations and affected the administration of the Urhobo Churches. For, with the death of him who had been almost the sole architect of the NDP, that body became defunct. In the Warri P.C.C. a motion that “steps be taken to have this church enrolled under Lagos Mission”[12] was unanimously carried. This decision was communicated to Lagos. By this measure, and a similar one from Sapele, St. Andrew’s with its satellite churches together with St. Luke’s, Sapele, and its outstations came fully under the umbrella of the C.M.S. and were united to the Yoruba Mission. But this union which continued in the case of Warri, till 1934, and Sapele, till much later, was an uneasy one. Lagos was much farther from Warri and Sapele than was Onitsha from where these districts should have been supervised.

Before this time the fate of Benin, Warri and Sapele districts, as well as of the “Igabo people” had long been a matter for debate in C.M.S. circles. Manley, the Secretary of the C.M.S., in a letter to F.M. Jones in 1918 referred to an earlier letter of 1916 to Bishop Tugwell about the needs of the districts.[13] Tugwell had raised the issue in the Niger Executive, which decided that

If the occupation of the Igabo Country did not interfere with the proposed  development in Udi, district they would gladly undertake the Igabo work  from Benin as a centre, providing recruits were forthcoming in sufficient number.[14]

This decision of the Niger E.C. explains, as shown later, the transfer from Igbide of Aitken at a time when there was a crying need for him there.

Manley’s letter endorsed an action of the Yoruba Mission in arranging for tentative supervision of the Benin, Sapele, and Warri work by the Revd. R. Kidd, subsequent to the death of Bishop Johnson. The above rather confused state of affairs in which the supervision of the “Igabo” district from Benin as a centre was originally envisaged, shows that the boundaries between the Yoruba and the Niger Missions were not yet delineated. Consequently Manley later wrote to Smith, the Secretary of the Niger Mission, proposing a boundary between the Yoruba and the Niger Mission, which placed “the Benin and Ora Districts” under the Yoruba E.C., and “the Igabo and Ijaw Districts” under the Niger E.C., while the proposal remained silent about Warri and Sapele Districts, unless we are to understand that either Benin and Ora Districts included Warri and Sapele, or that Igabo District include them.[15] But neither did. This was later to constitute grave problems which have left their permanent effects on the area.[16] A one of my informants, an elder of the church, put it:

Koyeomokere aware epha?[17]

So we are cut off in an island?

At the Isoko end, subsequent to the creation of “Igabo District” in 1914, Aitken was put in charge as superintendent, with headquarters at Igbide. Although he left on furlough the same year, the District continued steadfast in his absence. On his return, he did not only find that the converts at Owodokpokpo were still virile in their faith, but that their population had increased to about a hundred and twenty in spite, and in some ways as a result, of persecution. For the blood of the martyrs has often been the seed of the church.[18] Aitken himself wrote in his letter of December 1915:

“They are people who’ve turned to God from idols, and many have progressed little further. Still, during this last year, we have been encouraged by the discovery of definite spiritual growth by many of the inquirers, both young men and women who are striving to ‘be holy unto the Lord.’”[19]

Aitken complained of girls persecuted by their parents and unconverted neighbours because of refusal “to enter into temporary marriage relationships with men of their town”, a custom through which the parents, especially mothers, derived financial benefits. He also wrote of the victory of the gospel in abolishing twin killing and saving tabooed children.[20] There were other victories. At Uzere, according to Aitken, many deaths had occurred from poisoning; but the situation was altered when the chiefs

    “Sent all the professional poisoners to church that they might ‘learn to

    love and not to poison other people’; and these men now attend

    the services of their own accord and have given up their old profession.”[21]

The Uzere Church, eighty feet by twenty feet, was reported crowded on Sundays. Those who found no seat within “were seated outside in rows four or six deep.”[22]  A similar thing occurred at “Aravia” (Araya?). Here church membership grew sufficiently to require a larger building. But before one was built, the hundreds of enquirers or seekers, who had no accommodation within, peeked from outside. Before gaining admission a seeker submitted his former sacred objects for burning, after which he was expected to contribute three pence. It was reported that when Aitken visited the Church, the headman handed over to him £15 10s.realised from this enrolment fee; and on the Sunday he visited the sum of thirteen shillings and six pence was collected from that source alone.[23]

    The 5,000 Igabo converts and inquirers…without any resident European

    Mission agent to shepherd them and guide this wonderful and rapid

    Movement towards Christianity which is in progress.[24]

The ill-timed transfer of Aitken from Igbide, whatever the reasons, meant a severe setback on the Isoko work, especially since the persecution of the converts was just then on the crest. In their plight, an Isoko delegate went to Onitsha to plead for “a Christian teacher” who would cater for the “1,600 people” still assembling for worship. “His appeal”, writes Smith, “was most pathetic and when I told him that Mr. Aitken could not return and that we had no teachers to send, he said, “Then we are lost”.

The C.M.S. Niger Mission was, as usual, unable to cater for the Isoko work which it had taken up, knowing fully well the responsibilities which the creation of the “Igabo District” in 1914 entailed. Once again action failed to match intentions, due to inadequate finances and personnel. In addition to this, Proctor’s protest that the C.M.S. gave preferential treatment to certain areas explains why, when short of personnel, the Niger Mission could not send a missionary to Isoko which was not a priority area. But no matter the excuse, the transfer of Aitken from the newly created District, without a replacement, was very hard on the Isoko.

In this plight, those Isoko (from Isoko inland) who had been connected with Warri continued to look up to St. Andrew’s for help. Thus, Cole’s itineration embraced this area which included Iyede, Enhwen, Emevor, Owhe, Ozoro and Oleh. In 1916 when the church at Acheowhe, a village of Owhe, was burnt down, Cole visited the place and saw to it that the three men responsible were arrested and tried. They were subsequently sentenced to nine months imprisonment.[25] Similarly, in 1918, the converts of  Ozoro  ran to St. Andrew’s to report that their Church had been broken down by their chief, some Church members imprisoned, and more than a hundred offering envelopes removed from the church.[26]

Thus, while Isoko waterside (Igbide, Uzere, Araya, Ikpidiama etc.) were hard hit by Aitken’s transfer, Isoko inland was administered from Warri. But even in the former case, Proctor, based at Patani, proved to be of some assistance. As the C.M.S. Report puts it.

    One of Mr. Proctor’s tours carried him to the Igabo country,

    the station opened at Igbide in 1912 being without European


Proctor’s itineration of the area was inevitable because converts from Isoko waterside “literally swarmed” to Patani to attend a daily instruction class in preparation for baptism.[28] Nearly two hundred of them were said to have learnt the “church catechism and a scripture catechism” translated by Proctor with the assistance of a young teacher. “4 very old women” were also baptised by Proctor in one of the towns he visited.[29]

By 1918, Aitken was transferred back to Isoko, and through him the Isoko work was reinvigorated, especially as he was apprehensive of the Roman Catholics who were just then arriving in Isoko. The R.C.M. provided teachers in profusion. The C.M.S. thus stood to lose if they failed to redouble their efforts at providing education for their converts. The presence of the Roman Catholics should have led Aitken to change his policy of depriving prospective evangelists of book knowledge for fear that they might deflect to Government service. But it did not.[30] Since no teachers had been initially prepared, their services were difficult to come by. Aitken was thus hoisted on his own petard, a fact attested to by the C.M.S. report which records: “The lack of teachers was sorely felt…around Igbide in the Igabo country… [where] there was ‘a real soul hunger’ among the people.[31]

The lack of teachers notwithstanding, the work surged forward. “As many as 12,500 attended the services, nearly 300 were in the classes for inquirers and more than 2,300 in baptismal classes, and 328 had been baptised by the end of November 1918.[32]

These results are overwhelming, especially since for more than a year the District was not only without a resident missionary, but also witnessed severe persecution. The results might not have been so considerable but for the assistance given to Aitken by “ten baptised lads who visited towns in the district and passed on what they remembered of addresses which they had heard…”[33] These “lads” also assisted in the examination of candidates for baptism. An interview with one of the men who did this revealed that a very large area of Isoko was reached through this method. The teachers gathered in a town, where they were taught by Aitken or Latham for a month and sent out the following month to towns like Oleh, Aviara, Bethel, Araya, Ozoro, Emede, Owodokpokpo, etc. to teach and preach.[34]

Through this system of itinerant evangelism, the Isoko country was far more effectively handled by the C.M.S., her converts better taught, even if only in the oral message and catechism, than was the case in the Urhobo section. This was made possible by the presence of white missionaries there, which was in turn consequent upon the creation of “Igabo District” in 1914. Apart from the earlier influence of Proctor and Reeks from Patani, Aitken had by 1920 other missionaries, like Gerrard and Latham, working with him in Isoko. Gerrand, who arrived in 1919, worked for about 18 years in Isoko country.

The C.M.S. 1920-1934

Up to 1920 the work of the C.M.S. in Urhobo had been based largely on Sapele and Warri. Enough has been said to make it clear that Warri and Sapele were not sufficiently equipped to cope with the need of the Urhobo churches. Eku, therefore, became an off-shoot of Sapele.

Another major problem was inadequacy of personnel. To meet this inadequacy, the Urhobo congregations affiliated to Warri sent two of their sons to St. Andrew’s Primary School, Warri, with the intention of sponsoring them to St. Andrew’s College, Oyo. This plan proved abortive since those sent deserted the Church. In 1923, there was a major breakthrough in search for personnel. The first Urhobo gained admission to Oyo. He was none other than Agori Iwe, later to become Bishop. Born at Okuama, about 1906, he attended the village school from where he went to St. Andrew’s, Warri, in 1920. He completed standard six there in 1922. At the end of 1923 he was selected to train as teacher/catechist in St. Andrew’s Oyo. He completed the course in December 1927. His return marked another milestone in the history of Christianity in Urhoboland in respect of evangelisation of the people, proper organisation of the churches, and translation of the scriptures.

Indeed long before Agori Iwe went to Oyo, preliminary translation work had been on in the era of Cole, as Tugwell’s letters indicate. One W.A. Tadaferua was at Idjerhe, urged by T. Emedo,[35] the pioneer of Urhobo literature, to join Adult Education class. When he moved to Warri in 1920, he was appointed as an instructor in Urhobo Bible class, and got others interested in Urhobo literature. Together with others –Ikimi Waghoregho, S. Magi (an Ijo teacher at Ekiugbo), and to some extent, Oghenekaro, Tadaferua worked in a translation class that was later set up. St. Mark was translated by 1924. Agori Iwe’s return sped up the rate of translation.

The preliminary translation work also drew inspiration from the neighbouring Yoruba territory of Ikale, where one Ofodidun, was actively organizing Urhobo congregations under the supervision of Revd. Canon (later Bishop) S. C. Phillips, then based at Ondo.[36] According to Phillips, about 1921, he and Ofodidun translated an Urhobo Primer and a Prayer Book with some hymns which Bishop Jones helped to print in Lagos. The consequent Yoruba impress on these early translations is seen in the use of such words as alufaa for priest in the prayers translated.[37] Emedo’s and Ofodidun’s translations formed the basis for further work after the departure of Cole.

When Cole left Warri, Kidd, who had been appointed Superintendent of the Sapele-Warri Districts in 1918, visited Warri and outstations from Sapele. He had under him Revd. Ologududu at Sapele and Revd. Akande at Eku. But by mid 1924, Ologududu had to be discharged from his pastoral work at Sapele, because his interminable absences from his stations made his duties suffer.[38] As a consequence of his dismissal, Warri, Sapele, and Eku with their adjoining outstations were left in the care of Kidd, assisted by only one clergy. Hence when Kidd was to go on leave, he expressed fear as to how all the Districts could be worked by Akande alone. But fortunately for the converts, in July 1924 Revd. J. Thompson was posted to Warri from Hausaland to be Acting Superintendent of the Districts in Kidd’s absence.

The one-and-a-half-year ministration of Thompson in the area was highly spoken of by the converts, though, not by enough attention to the financial aspect of his work. The converts, however, praised Thompson mainly because of his frequent visitations and his keen interest in music.[39] Moreover, while Kidd was away, he was able to settle a disagreement at Eku in which Akande was opposed by people Thompson described as “malcontents”.

In the absence of Kidd on furlough there was no other resident pastor at Sapele in the second half of 1924, since Ologududu had been laid off. The Sapele Church had to be managed by Catechist Smith, and one Dauda, a lay helper. Occasionally, Akande visited from Eku. But Catechist and lay workers could not compensate for the loss of a pastor. What was more, Smith, who was initially praised by Kidd, was later accused of immorality and dismissed or suspended on Kidd’s return from furlough in 1925. Ikomi, who was the catechist under Thompson at Warri, had to be transferred to Sapele much against the wish of Thompson. But even Ikomi, good as he was, had also to be suspended early the following year on a charge of “immorality”.

Ikomi, who joined the services of the C.M.S. some ten years before this time, was a product of St. Andrew’s College, Oyo. Despite his ten year service, he had received little or no increment. He had complained to the C.M.S. about this treatment on a number of occasions without eliciting any favourable response. In a letter to the Archdeacon at Oshogbo, Ikomi pointed out that he was still having to depend on his parents to subsidise his feeding; that he was anxious to get married but could scarcely do so in a situation in which he could not even feed himself.[40] Apparently this letter did not produce any effect either. It was in this situation that Ikomi had an affair with a girl. For this reason he was charged with “immorality” and suspended from his post as Catechist.

It is quite clear from Ikomi’s case that the church was asking her servants to maintain high moral standards but subjecting them to temptation by her inability or unwillingness to provide these servants with the wherewithal to lead the ‘good’ life. Consequently a majority of her members who faltered were prisoners of circumstances. And their suspension adversely affected the numerical strength of the Church’s staff. So disturbed was the Church at Sapele by the lack of qualified staff that she wrote in anguish to Archdeacon Mackay stating her case for a pastor.

In the face of acute shortage of staff at Sapele, Kidd had to make do with those workers who showed signs of repentance. Thus, Smith who, after a year of suspension, was preparing for holy wedlock, was reinstated in May 1926. But without a resident pastor for Sapele the C.M.S. Church there stood to lose, especially “with the Baptist next door waiting to take advantage of any trouble.[41] In the letter to Mackay, the church deplored the fact that “unlicensed laymen should occupy” their pulpit on important occasions, while corpses of their members had to be offered to other denominations for burial in the absence of a pastor.

At Eku, the off shoot of Sapele, Akande’s ministration was profitable to him and to the people until 1925, when he received some opposition from his members. But the dispute was quickly settled by Thompson. A major crisis at Eku had to do with the primary school in 1926. One Imoukhuede, from Ora, was posted to Eku to head the primary school there. But according to Imoukhuede, Aganbi “the Sobo untrained teacher who was helping,” was transferred to Sanubi, two and a half miles away,. Aganbi was not only a son of the soil, but he also introduced “Christianity and Civilisation” to his people. He therefore wielded great influence. His transfer from C.M.S. School, Eku dealt a death blow to the institution. Majority of the pupils deserted the school as a result. Many followed him to Sanubi whilst some joined the Faith Tabernacle School in Eku, and others moved to Warri.[42] Imoukhuede, who viewed this as intrigue, protested to Kidd and asked for transfer to other schools not “in Soboland”. Kidd advised Imoukhuede to exercise patience, and endeavour to win back his former pupils. What Imoukhuede viewed as a consequence of intrigue might well be the result of Aganbi’s dynamism, coupled with his privileged position as a citizen. But by the end of 1926 the rivalry worsened. Aganbi resigned from the C.M.S. in September and introduced the Baptist Mission, pulling away more people than before after him, this time not only from the school but also from the church.

Here at Eku, as elsewhere, there was bitter rivalry amongst Christians, a result of each denomination struggling to have a foothold in the land. There were as many as five denominations at Eku, all contending to preach Christ and win adherents. While rivalry may be undesirable, it does sometimes produce good results.[43] Here the Christian faith, as had happened before, was spreading through a process of division like some unicellular organisms which reproduce themselves by a similar biological process. Knowing what the Baptists have done in and for Eku and the Urhobo today, the theologian in retrospect may well recognise God’s presence in the confusion of the 1920’s.

The work at Eku dwindled by 1928.The inability of the C.M.S. to compete effectively with the Baptist at Eku as elsewhere can be accounted for by the perennial cry for funds and personnel. Added to this was a drift to Warri of the young educated for employment and trade, leaving the decrepit men and women who could not support the church financially. Akande had to leave Eku for Sapele in 1928,[44] and was wholly responsible for Sapele after the departure of Kidd in 1931.

Warri, after the departure of Thompson in December 1925, continued without a resident Vicar till the end of 1926, when a new pastor J.C.C. Thomas, was secured for Warri from Sierra-Leone.

J. C. C. Thomas

Thomas arrived in October 1926 bustling with energy and brimful of hope. He left on November 1931 a broken and disillusioned person. His eventful tenure of office arose from his realistic approach to problems, and the resolution with which he tackled them. As a result, he suffered the fate of all reformers. All attempts to sew a new garment to the old, or pour new wine into old wine skins have always produced the prophesied rupture. Plato’s suggestion, consonant with Jesus’, was to have a clean beginning.[45] But even such a step is not without its problems.

Early Period: His Ministry

When Thomas arrived at Warri, his first assignment was to arrange for that year’s harvest; he was as yet reaping the harvest of others’ labour. Shortly after the harvest, therefore, Thomas went into the field. His maiden tour of the outstations which commenced on November 22, lasted for eight days. So impressed was he that his heart jumped for joy.

    I had a hearty welcome from the Sobos in every station and was very

    favourably impressed with the keen zeal, the love and, above all, the

    sincerity of these Sobo converts. There is undoubtedly a great future

    for the church in Soboland.[46]

Of Ebossa he says,

    With the almost indispensable help of the energetic travelling

    agent I conducted class meetings, services, and administered

    the Holy Communion in all the important centres.[47]

But this first impression stood in clear contradiction to what he was to say of them later.

Like his predecessors, Thomas felt the need for instructing the converts, destitute as they were of properly trained teachers. But unlike his predecessors, he did not only feel and express concern for the Urhobo, he attempted to translate his good intentions into action.[48] Consequently he invited the Urhobo to a conference at Warri from December 15 to 17. This conference was attended by 78 persons. A wide range of subjects was discussed: “Registration, Finance, Visitation, Church Officers, Preparation of candidates for Baptism, and Confirmation, Need of qualified Teachers, Sunday Observance, Prayer, Evangelisation, Lectures, and periodical examinations”.[49] It was agreed that the conference, rewarding as it was, be held twice a year, one about Easter, the other in November.

Of the situation in Warri itself, Thomas’ report was equally hopeful. The work of Fajemisin, the headmaster at St. Andrew’s School, was commended. Barimi, the second master, had just returned from Oyo to assist Fajemisin. The pastor therefore hoped that with Barimi there to assist, St. Andrew’s School, which they had long struggled to place on the assisted list, would now be worked to the position where the Government would accept it. To achieve this objective, the services of Fajemisin had to be retained; for “to allow him to go away means retrogression pure and simple.”[50] But to the great displeasure of Thomas, Kidd had already informed the E.C. that Fajemisin, whose salary according to him had become too heavy for Warri, had to be transferred, even if that meant “retrogression pure and simple”.

Of the Warri Congregation, while Thomas praised their work, he expressed dissatisfaction at their Church Building which had become inadequate besides falling below “its dignified appellation “The House of God” for a place like Warri .”[51] A Building Committee set up therefore decided in 1926 that a more spacious and substantial building”[52] worthy of God’s glory be erected shortly to replace the old.

If well begun was always half done, Thomas’ Ministry at Warri would have known better success. For after only two months there, he described the work as “interesting and encouraging” and religiously concluded his report with

    While we are busy praying ourselves we earnestly solicit your

    Prayers on our behalf that God may give us the adequate strength,

    Grace and wisdom to meet up the need of the hour and that his

    Work may be abundantly blessed in our hands.[53]

His first report on his ministry at Warri and environs is interesting in its details and encouraging in its spirit, but to what extent it was “abundantly blessed in our hands” the years ahead were to reveal. His judgment was perhaps premature. But even after a year, he did not see the clouds that were gathering. His annual report for 1927, apart from a few regrets for the transfer of Fajemisin, had that same ring of encouragement and hope about it.

According to him the Warri Church work itself witnessed no setbacks during the year 1927, class meetings and Sunday services were regularly conducted throughout the year; even “the spiritual tone of the work…has been nicely kept up”. From Warri he visited the outstations several times in the dry season to administer Baptism, the Lord’s Supper etc.—all of which activities culminated in the Bishop’s visit for a confirmation service on Sunday, 13 November during which time no less than one hundred and twenty-two candidates ratified their vows.

The conferences with the Urhobo converts were held as arranged in June and December “with attendance of 75 and 68 respectively”. Amongst the problems attended to “was the necessity of translating portions of the Scriptures and Special Services of the prayer book”. A translating committee was accordingly set up to begin work.

In December Thomas conducted examinations for six of the outstations school teachers who had been receiving two days monthly lectures. Two of them, David Egbebruke (who had worked with Aitken, and was at the time a teacher at Edjekota) and Johnson Emoefe, a teacher at Ovwo in Olomu, were successful. This was a mark of progress in the Urhobo congregations, since some of their sons were at last improving their minds through study and so were equipping themselves for the ministry. What was more, Agori Iwe had just returned from Oyo to the great pleasure of Thomas who prayed that Agori should help stimulate interest in the Urhobo youth to follow his suit.[54]

Thomas’s prayer was apparently answered. For Ejaife and Ebossa’s son gained admission to Oyo at the end of 1927.[55] Ejaife finished from Oyo in 1931 and taught at St. Andrew’s, Warri for a while. These early successes encouraged Thomas to look forward to a bright future “with an eye of faith.”[56]

But after the return of Kidd from furlough in 1927, and his resumption of superintendence of the districts, Thomas’s importance diminished. Kidd had very little to say in commendation of Thomas. Evidently, he was not very satisfied with Thomas’s work; and indeed, by mid 1929, the latter had been reported to him by the Urhobo converts. In his report Kidd observed that Thomas was finding it difficult to visit the outstations since he could not ride a bicycle and had to be conveyed on a trailer.[57] According to Kidd he visited the outstations only twice in the year. Thomas had evidently had his hey day. If indeed he visited the outstations only twice in the year, then he had developed cold feet. The storm was about to break. The outstation work was to pass through fire. But who was to bear the brunt of the failures of the work:  R. Kidd, Thomas or Ebossa? From all indications, Thomas who had been more intimately involved in and concerned about the real welfare of the Urhobo was to be the victim. A majority of the people whom he had in 1926 lauded to the skies were in 1929 to be at enmity with him.

The Later Period

The later period of Thomas’s ministry was characterised by conflict and bitterness with the Urhobo. Several factors were responsible for the crisis. First, was the struggle for a mission centre. Agori Iwe was sent to Otovwodo Ughelli, against the will of those converts notably from Ekiugbo and Eruemukohwarien towns, and from Ughievwe and Udu clans who preferred Ekiugbo, or better Eruemukohwarien. Secondly, it appeared that Thomas further alienated the converts at Eruemukohwarien which had been the de facto headquarters, by deposing Mukoro Kaghogho, the leader there, and Igben Onajovwo, his second in command. According to their letters they were deposed from office because they did not attend the bazaar on a fixed day after they had obtained permission to palm nut collecting hitherto suspended but which was to be resumed that very day.[58] Umukoro indicated in his letter that Thomas’s real intention was not only to depose them, but to remove the headquarters from Eruemukohwarien. Oluku Adjarho of Ekiugbo also wrote about his own grievances against Thomas. He said that although he was trained under Cole, Thompson and Kidd, had associated with Bishops Johnson, Tugwell, and Jones, and had been the acknowledge leader of Ekiugbo, Agbarhaoto and other churches and was consequently recommended for Lay Reader’s licence which he believed Bishop Jones had handed over to Thomas, the latter would not give him his licence. He also complained of being debarred by Thomas from Holy Communion without a just cause. The removal of “headquarters” from Eruemukohwarien seemed, however, to have been the prime factor creating disharmony between Thomas and many of the converts. The entire Eruemukohwarien congregation wrote, decrying Thomas’s action which “actually baffled us . . . the headquartership of our town has been removed by him to a town called Otobodo.”[59] They also referred to the fate of their deposed leaders, adding that when they pleaded for forgiveness Thomas’s reply was “we can go to any church we like beside the C.M.S. Church”. They therefore concluded that they could not have him as their Minister “because he showed himself to have no missionary traits in him.[60]

What answered the name of the Sobo District Committee, C.M.S. Warri, also wrote against Thomas to the Bishop on this same issue, referring to the manner Umukoro, Kaghagho and Igben were deposed by one who had granted them permission and how some other communicants in the Urhobo interior were forbidden from Holy Communion because of their failure to attend committee meetings. The petitioners maintained that

These men (i.e. those in Urhobo Interior) were treated as ignorant

men hence such act was exercised over them which clearly tend to

break down the C.M.S. Church in the interior Sobo town.[61]

They further noted that Thomas himself had attended harvest service on Sunday at Torey Church and returned with his luggage that Sunday, because he had a visitor at home. He did not go back to Torey on Monday for the bazaar.[62] In another letter from the same committee,[63] Thomas was accused of turning his predecessor’s work topsy-turvy, “looking down on the converts, and framing his own orders, and plans unconfirm (sic) with the former principles of the churches, supporting faith”. He was quoted as remarking that “the churches in Sobo were not properly organised, and therefore can go on as they please, something similar to the African Church ways and manners”. (sic) His preaching, they claimed, undermined the work of his predecessors, which led the Committee to report to Kidd, who warned him and quelled their anger. But according to them, Thomas continued to be

bitter against the Travelling Agent and other Head Leaders of the

Churches in the interior Sobo deposing them from their respective

positions and propose to replace other new men. Declared enmity in

his actions towards the travelling Agent, A. Asedo, Umukoro Kaigho,

Lelegbel,e and Oluku.[64]

Since he did not heed Kidd’s warning

We have decided not to have Revd. Thomas again as our minister. We now pray your worships help to instruct  Revd . I. T.  Akande  of  Sapele to be giving the Communicants the Lord’s Supper at intervals and his expenses to and fro will be paid by us.[65]

They chose this alternative until another pastor would be sent to them, and they specifically asked for a European pastor who would serve under Kidd, if it was not possible to send Thompson back.

In yet another letter, written this time to Thomas himself, the committee asked for the receipts of the account of money to the tune of fifty-eight pounds which they said they had sent to the bank and also for the account which Kidd handed over to Thomas in respect of the Urhobo Churches. Finally, the Sobo District Committee at Warri and the Interior Churches combined to write a memorandum to the Bishop in which they pointed our Diocesan Regulations which Thomas was said to have infringed. Among other charges, they indicated that Thomas presented an unsuitable candidate for confirmation against the protests of the candidate’s church.

To crown it all Ebossa wrote a scathing letter about Thomas to the Bishop, in which Thomas was accused of contravening Diocesan Regulations by baptising children not born in wedlock or whose parents were “heathen.” In this connection the accuser was obviously ignorant of the fact that it was the prerogative of a priest to administer baptism to anyone who asked for it, a request which should not be denied. Thomas was further accused not only of denying Ebossa and others the right to administer baptism to the sick on their deathbed, as had previously been the case, but also of refusal on Thomas’ part to bury the dead.

The foregoing might give the wrong impression that every one in Urhobo was against Thomas. Even if a majority of the old leaders were against him and had a large following, there were few who sided with him. They were those who preferred Otovwodo as a centre, and came from Otovwodo itself, Edjekota, Oviri Ogor, Agbarha (Agbasah), Uduere, Oteri, Iwreogbovwa, Afiesere, Ephrotor (Effuruntor), Iwremaro, and Odovie. Their preference for Otovwodo was partly motivated by its proximity to them as was also the case with those who preferred Eruemukohwoarie.

This latter group recounted the good works of Thomas, which “is beyond description” while describing the former petitioners as “back consulters” who when Cole went on furlough, and desired to return, wrote “that they did not want any black pastor, but white…and put before you as aforesaid.” Ikimi Waghoregho wrote on behalf of C.M.S. Church Ephrotor in defence of Thomas “who is throwing the light into our darkness”.

This flood of letters directed to the Bishop through Thomas was forwarded to him by the latter with a covering note serenely penned:

I forward you herewith under registered cover, letters from the Sobo District Committee and would ask you not to be alarmed in the least, After reading them through. I think you have heard and know much more the Sobos and their characteristics as a people than I who have only had a few days with them…with your kind permission I am taking him (Ebossa) with me to Lagos as also the Catechist; so that we may have a fair opportunity of looking into the so-called dissatisfactions…[66]

Accordingly, the three persons appeared before Bishop Jones in Lagos where the case was carefully gone into. Ebossa repeated most of the things he had written before the Bishop and asserted that all Urhobo churches rejected Thomas, an assertion refuted by the Catechist. The Bishop characteristically urged reconciliation while admonishing both parties to show consideration for each other. Ebossa was urged to recognise the authority of the pastor, while Thomas was advised to treat Ebossa with due consideration.

But when Ebossa returned from Lagos, which he did late, the two never met again until they were to appear before Canon S.C. Phillips. Rather than see reconciliation effected, Ishoshi Erhi Movement started with Masima Ebossa at the head. He moved from place to place, preaching and pulling large crowds after him. He declared with zest that the prophecy of Joel was fulfilled in him and in his retinue. The church in Urhobo was thrown into utter confusion. He and his members claimed to be in full possession of the Spirit. He embarked on militant evangelism, sending disciples out in twos to preach, and to pray for those who had been overtaken by sin, and suspended by the church. One Diasao who was suspended by Thomas on the ground of adultery was prayed for by Ebossa after which Diasao caught the spirit and the members declared him forgiven by the Holy Ghost. As the catechist, Agori Iwe, put rendered the point of Ebossa’s preraching,

    Knowledge is nothing in the Religion of Christ. Pastors and Catechists

    may not enter the Kingdom. Those who do not take heed of this spirit

    are infidels and shall have no part of the Kingdom.[67]

This was Agori Iwe’s interpretation of the Ishoshi Erhi movement.

Phillip’s Commission of Inquiry

There was veritable schism in the church and like all such spirit movements, those affected overtly asserted their righteousness and adopted a “holier than thou” attitude.[68] When Bishop Jones learnt of the confusion he despatched Canon S.C. Phillips from Ondo to Warri to investigate the case and forward his recommendations to him. Philips made a meticulous investigation in which he was able to convince many of the movement of its incongruity with the spirit of God, especially since it was characterised by orgiastic displays. Some of those “spirit filled” even committed offences for which some of them were imprisoned. Agori Iwe in tending his evidence showed that Egbo and Eruemukohwarien were hot beds of the movement; that at the latter place one of the “spirit-filled” bit a “heathen woman” for which the assailant was fined ten pounds in court, while two others who assailed a traditional priest were each jailed for six months.

While the investigation was on, a woman possessed by the spirit was actually raving in the parsonage. Were there no other evidence, this should have been adequate demonstration of the unscripturalness of the spirit movement. What was more, Masima Ebossa apparently denied none of the charges made by Agori Iwe. The spirit of God is indeed not of confusion, God being a lover of peace and of concord.

But we need to be particularly cautious before we condemn the movement. For the margin between the man excessively imbued with the spirit of God and one wholly demon possessed can be extremely slender. The evil spirit which tormented Saul when he fell out of favour with God was from Yahweh. (1 Sam. 16:14) And when Jesus went about proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom, a good many considered him mentally deranged. (Mark 3:21) And significantly it was the evil spirits who first recognised and proclaimed him the son of God most high. (Mark 1:24) The case of the divination damsel at Philippi during Paul’s ministration there would also be in point here (Acts 16:16ff) And did Paul not say that none could call Jesus Lord except by the Spirit of God; and that only the Spirit of God can understand, even search, the depths of God? (1 Cor. 2:10ff; 12:3)

What was happening in the Urhobo churches in 1929 had a close resemblance to the gifts of the spirit in the Corinthian church founded by Paul. What is enigmatic and uncomfortable in such situations is the tendency to schism, although as has been indicated, divisions may not always be evil — more so since the evilness of evil as a result of the purpose to which evil can be put by God is in itself enigmatic.

What was happening in Urhoboland then was indubitably due to lack of proper instruction, proper organisation, and proper direction of the young churches. And if anyone should bear the blame, it is not only Ebossa, and certainly not Thomas, but the entire C. M. S. This is because, as has been pointed out, the C.M.S. had not been enthusiastic in their support and supervision of the Urhobo churches. In such situations where “the little children” were led astray or not led at all, the manifestation of the spirit in the particular mode it happened, was apt to cause confusion and division, as it had done in the past, invariably involving egocentricity on the part of those affected, and a derision by them equally suppress and stifle it.

Accordingly, Phillips made a four-point recommendation: the reorganisation of the work at Warri; the need for properly trained agents; the position of Ebossa; and that of Thomas. First, Warri, then comprising 67 churches according to Phillips, needed to be organised as a separate district, directly under and responsible to the Lagos Diocese. Secondly, properly trained and well instructed agents of a higher calibre than the Ebossa group, who could impart the requisite Christian instructions, were urgently needed for the Urhobo churches. Thirdly Phillips recommended that Ebossa, evidently resentful both of Thomas’s methods of administration and of the New Catechist, Agori, be posted immediately to another area, the Kwale or Isoko section. For, according to Phillips, Ebossa was unwilling to take the subordinate position meant for a scripture reader of his grade.[69] Phillips noted that this unwillingness was chiefly responsible for Ebossa’s vain attempt to start a new religious movement. Phillips fourth recommendation was that Thomas be given a free hand in the administration of Warri district, instead of making him a kind of sub-superintendent under Revd. Kidd. He urged that Thomas be made chairman of Warri District, responsible only and directly to the Synod in order that his interest in the work at Warri may be stimulated and sustained and his tenure prolonged. Otherwise, he might wish to return to Sierra Leone, to the detriment of the work at Warri.

The case, squarely decided in favour of Thomas and those with him, was a clear victory for the institutionalised Church which provided the judge. That Masima Ebossa felt insecure at the return of the new catechist no one would doubt. But that he should have expected a favourable verdict from the hierarchy he stood to oppose showed how ignorant he was of church politics.[70] Moreover, it was palpable that Masima and his kind could more easily hoodwink white missionaries like Kidd, and even Bishop Jones than they could Africans like Thomas and Phillips.

After the return of Phillips, it took some exchange of letters between him and Bishop Jones to get the Bishop to accept all his recommendations about the Warri situation. Philips stressed the point to the Bishop that Thomas was not given a free hand by Kidd. He urged that Thomas be made a superintendent of his own district, and so become responsible directly to the Synod. It is true that Kidd had harped on Thomas’s inability to ride a bicycle. But Phillips emphasised that responsibility for working up the District should first be wholly given to him. For “without that, he will not wholly rise to the occasion because he will neither get the benefit of success in the work nor wish to take the responsibility of any failure”.[71] If by becoming entirely responsible for the work Thomas found “that ability to ride a bicycle is a sine qua non to the carrying on the work”[72] he would, argued Phillips, be compelled to do so. For, “no native who has any ability and self respect would ever do his best or continue to do his best when he feels he is in a position where the European Superintendent gets the credit of his hard work and success while he simply takes turn when some discreditable business comes along”.[73] There was also exchange of letters between Thomas and the Bishop. First, the Bishop wrote to encourage him but took exception to Thomas’s uncharitable remarks about Kidd. Thomas therefore wrote back to apologise and withdraw them, but reiterated:

I have reason for using the remarks. Revd. Kidd told me we have no need to send boys to Oyo to be trained as Catechists etc. Only a few School Teachers are needed, and Mr. Masima and some of the leaders told me that Revd. Kidd had given them his promise that they will be responsible permanently for their work because the boys trained at Oyo are all corrupt, and by my special effort to send boys to Oyo I am upsetting his arrangements.[74]

Kidd’s argument, according to Thomas, had been based on lack of money, but Thomas thought differently. The Urhobo Christians had money enough to support the work “if they are properly educated to it”. According to him, during the spirit movement £30 was spent in feasting—and this was money collected for church purposes.[75]

It is necessary to comment on Thomas’s and Phillip’s attitude in this matter vis-à-vis the attitude of Kidd and Jones. The conflict of ideas between Ebossa and Thomas, Kidd and Thomas, and on a higher level, Jones and Phillips, reflects the general tendency of the period when white Missionaries felt that Africans could not take full responsibility for running the Church in Nigeria. It was this same spirit which had made it impossible for Bishop Johnson’s dreams to be realised. Ebossa and his kind were in fact no more than convenient tools in the hands of white missionaries for fostering their design. It is against this background that Bishop Jones’ reluctance to make Thomas fully independent of Kidd, and so responsible for his own district, must be seen.

On Kidd’s part it must be noted that the apparent zest with which Thomas earlier carried out his work might have piqued the former and made him feel rather insecure about his own tenure. This, and not the spurious reason of Thomas’s inability to ride a bicycle, will account for his lack of commendation of Thomas. This unfortunate lack of confidence in non-white missionaries affected West Indians also. For, as has been indicated, Thompson, a West Indian, who acted as superintendent in Kidd’s absence in 1925, was also not commended. Kidd’s uncomplimentary report on, and unsatisfactory treatment of, Thompson made the latter leave Warri and go back to Hausaland a disappointed man. Thomas suffered his fate to a much severer degree.

After the Spirit case had been decided by Phillips, supported by the Bishop, Thomas later visited the outstations to discover that although the Movement had subsided, secret meetings organised by Masima were nevertheless still going on. The churches particularly affected, and which continued to be stubborn were Egborode (Egbo I), Masima’s own station where the movement started, and churches in Ughievwe District, where Masima’s influence was particularly strong. When Thomas visited some of these stations and persuaded the members “to give p this false movement” the members stuck to their guns, on the ground that “they have been praying for this spirit”. Because of this stubbornness or firmness on the part of those who claimed they were under the spirit’s influence, Thomas held a conference at Okpari with the loyal Church Leaders and decided to replace “all those who are still stubborn over this deceptive Spirit Movement” with new teachers who have passed Government standard six. They would be regularly lectured and properly trained by Thomas. In return he believed work of the translation class would be sped up by these new teachers and the Catechist, all of whom were Urhobo.

The significance of Thomas for Future Work

After the crisis of 1929, Thomas served for two more uneventful years before he returned to Sierra-Leone, a broken man. But the significance of his ministry at Warri and amongst the Urhobo has not been fully appreciated. Many Urhobo, particularly those in the Erhi Movement, do not speak well of him even today. He is accused of partiality, and of being money minded. Some even accused him of making away with St. Andrew’s building funds. All these accusations may not have been groundless. But they should not blind us to the significance of his work, which is fourfold: Conferences, Organisation and Evangelisation, Training, and Translation.


It will be recalled that from the reports of the work at Warri he was the first to summon delegates from the hinterland churches to Warri for conferences which were aimed at discussing the problems of the young churches — the problems of organisation, of Evangelisation, of Translation and Training of personnel. The conferences infused life into the churches, and should have been continued by future leaders.


It was his organisational foresight which led him to choose Otovwodo of Ughelli as the headquarters for the C.M.S. in the hinterland. This choice, happily supported by Evwaire, was a mark of clear foresight on Thomas’s part. Otovwodo was the seat of the Ovie of Ughelli, and is a stone’s throw to Iwhreko, which later became Government headquarters.[76] The Roman Catholics later on also moved to Otovwodo and built a central school there, as did the local Council, (formerly called Native Authority).

Thomas’s concern for proper organisation also made him deprecate the blissful ignorance in which the Urhobo converts groped. He did not wish to see them continue perpetually in that state — a state which did not seem to concern Kidd much. Thomas attempted to translate his concern into action through the regular lectures he gave to the school teachers and through his special efforts to get Urhobo youth sent to Oyo.


It was to get youth qualified for Oyo that he gave regular lectures to the primary school teachers. This system of having teachers prepared for higher studies was continued later in C.M.S. schools. Qualified personnel would enhance the work of evangelisation and of translation of the Scriptures.


The fourth significance of Thomas’s work was his keen interest in translation. After removing the old leaders who refused to recant the Spirit Movement, he replaced them with graduates from the Government Schools. This, as we have shown, took place at Okpari. He encouraged and supervised their translation of the Scriptures. It was under this patronage that Agori Iwe translated the Fourth Gospel in 1929.

Reflections on C.M.S. Work in Urhobo and Isoko

If Thomas’ alleged faults were many, so were his good qualities. His evil should therefore not have been allowed to live after him, to the exclusion of his good. The judgment of Ikimi, was that Thomas threw out “the light into our darkness”. This light may have been beclouded, but it will not be extinguished.

From the crisis of 1929 two salient conclusions may be drawn. First, the Urhobo congregations had from the beginning been sadly neglected. This may be due to the fact that the C.M.S. in taking these congregations over from the Niger Delta Pastorate did so very reluctantly. Secondly, a majority of the converts themselves, for reasons best known to them, preferred white missionaries, who were in fact reluctant to come to them. Consequently the few of their own men who were trained were looked at with distrust as those who had come to oust them. This conclusion is legitimate, although Masima never gave this (and could not have) as a reason for his action either before Jones in Lagos or before Phillips in Warri.

Had all those who were in the movement retraced their steps after Phillips’s investigation and recommendations, as a majority did, the schism would have been averted or bridged. But a few of the members — Ije ( a woman of Edjekota), Oriunu, a man from Edjekotoa, Edjederia a man of Okpavuerhe, Onoyovwere of Eruemukohwarien, and Ogegede of Ovwo — stuck to their guns; they broke away completely to found Ishoshi Erhi. Similarly, and perhaps understandably, Okpe Churches (Masima’s own area) did not return with the rest of the Urhobo Churches which Agori Iwe under the supervision of Thomas reorganised. The churches in Okpe clan were consequently adversely affected, a set-back from which they have never really recovered.[77]

Following the meeting at Okpari, various regular schools, as contrasted with the former irregular (“bush”) ones, were started by Agori Iwe. This process received impetus from Isoko where between 1929 and 1931 James Welch embarked on an elaborate educational project and founded many schools including I.C.S. (Isoko Central School) Oleh, and a Central School at Uwheru. But even at this stage the Urhobo congregations could only still be described as struggling. They were still largely ignorant and did not fare as well as their Isoko brethren who were under the Niger Diocese, from where the latter were closely supervised and instructed, after the initial difficulties of shortage of staff.

This was from 1918 onwards when Aitken was sent back to them. Although Aitken did not completely change his attitude to education in the face of the presence of the Roman Catholics, he embarked on monthly instruction of teachers who went out to disseminate his teachings. Some of these teachers graduated from the school at Patani under Proctor. This continued till 1923, when the practice was dropped.

Aitken and M. C. Latham, assisted by one Eloho, worked indefatigably in organising and evangelising the Isoko, whose interests he represented at the Niger Dioceses Executive Committee. Under the supervision of Aitken, Eloho translated the Four Gospels and later also Acts into Isoko as well as composing an Isoko Prayer Book. St. Mark which was the first to be translated was published in 1920.[78] And the Four Gospels together were published in Isoko in 1922.

The local congregations themselves were headed by men devoted to service, and were fortunate to have missionaries and Ibo pastors[79] from the Niger who lived and worked among them. Consequently a majority of the Isoko converts in the 1920s were not as ignorant of the rudiments of the Scriptures as were their Urhobo counterparts. While Eloho led the congregation at Uzere, John Emu led at Illue Ologbo, Ubido at Akeowhe, Uvwaha at Canaan Owhe, Isaiah Ajohwomue at Otie Owhe, Umukoro at Otibio Owhe, while Abraham Okujeni and Matthew Agbro were at Emevor. At Ikpidiama Abraham Obaro was the leader, while the Oyode church was led by Samuel Ibagere, the present father of the church of Bethel. All these head Christians of the first generation continued to be active in organising the churches in Isoko throughout the twenties.[80]

The buoyancy of Isoko C.M.S. at this period is attested to by the C.M.S. Reports:

The class fees for Christian instruction are paid twice a year sometimes as much as £60 a week is taken. About 20 C.M.S. rest houses in the district facilitate travelling. Some of the district churches are attended by over 1,000 people daily, and there are 200 or 300 at school in the afternoon. At night they sit in their compounds and repeat the catechism to one another.[81]

During his visit to Isoko, Smith was so stunned by the rate of converts to Christianity there that he wrote:

Nothing that I can say will give adequate idea of what is going on among the people who have come out of idolatry in thousands to serve the living and true God. The women in many congregations outnumber the men, and to meet with congregations of from 500 to 1,000 every morning and evening, consisting of the majority of the population, was an experience never to be forgotten.[82]

M. C. Latham, the Missionary Priest working with Aitken in Isoko, reports that during his visits to each town, he was equally beset by 200 or more people waiting to be examined for baptism. Where he could not complete examining all of them within a scheduled time in any one particular place, some of the people followed him from town to town for two or three weeks — all wanting to be baptised.[83]

Aitken himself had to marry 63 couples after baptising 80 adults in the same day. All this was apart from 500 or 600 persons outside his lodging, waiting to be examined for baptism.[84] The overwhelming numerical strength of the Isoko converts is further indicated by the sales of the Gospel of Mark. In 1921 alone, 5,000 copies of this Gospel newly translated and published, were sold.

The hold which Christianity had on the Isoko at this stage was also evident from Latham’s observation at Aviara. During his visit there on a Sunday which happened also to be the market day, Aviara Market, normally attended by from 1,500 to 2,000 people, was attended by only 50.

The marvellous conversion to Christianity in Isoko was not at first properly channelled in the right direction. Aitken, as we have reiterated, initially denied the Isoko book knowledge for fear that they might deflect to Government services. According to the C.M.S. Report, about twenty men were being trained as evangelists, but they were still being trained only in things necessary for evangelists to know; “that is to say, they are not taught writing since that would give them the opportunity of obtaining secular work”.[85] It was not until the advent of Welch in 1929 that this attitude was revised.

In Isoko, Welch was the chief missionary pioneer of education. What schools there were irregular until his arrival, the only exception being that at Uzere. One Ifode, (later Revd. Ifode), was the head teacher at Uzere until 1925 when he entered Awka in 1926 to train as a Catechist and was succeeded at Uzere by Apena, who was also to enter Awaka in 1920, with Ockya. When the three of them returned from Awka, they assisted the reinforcement of white missionaries dispatched to the Isoko country in the early 30’s.

By 1930/31 there were no less than three white missionaries (one with his wife) at Oleh: O. N. Gerrard (and wife) J.W. Hubbard and James W. Welch. At the same time, at Bethel where in 1931 the C.M.S. built a medical and social welfare centre as well as Girls’ Training Home, two female white missionaries, Misses Dorothy Jewith and Margaret B. Sheath, were serving.

The movement in Isoko C.M.S. Church which was the counterpart of the Erhi movement in the Urhobo speaking section, originated in the early 30’s at Araya, one of the important C.M.S. centres. One Adam, through illiterate, was a choir master. He gathered a group of choristers around him and continued to sing. Because his music and preaching methods were unorthodox he also initially received opposition from the institutionalised church. He was opposed by the hierarchy of the church, notably Gerrard, since he preached against “class fees”. But when much later the church officials discovered how powerful his preaching was, and how he pulled crowds by his music to harvest festivals which he attended and consequently increased proceeds, and how many traditionalists were converted because of his preaching, he was not only tolerated, but recognised as an Evangelist. His group, however, avoided the excesses of the type of Ishoshi Erhi where some members went literally insane.[86]

In 1931, Kidd retired from Sapele District. Before his departure, the Urhobo congregations presented a petition to the Yoruba Mission through him, asking to be included with the Niger Diocese so that they could be administered with their Isoko brethren, who as had been indicated, had at the time no less than five white missionaries and Ibo pastors serving them.

Kidd urged that the request be granted, and admitted that it was an experiment joining the Urhobo to the Yoruba, and since for the past twelve years, no effective missionary work was done in their midst, the experiment failed. Provided the Niger Mission agreed to receive them, the Yoruba Mission would gladly hand them over. After all, Jones had complained that Lagos took the Urhobo work over as an added responsibility when no other Mission was prepared to have them.

As from 1932, therefore, Urhobo interior was administered with Isoko, James Welch came to reside at Ughelli in 1932. Warri and neighborhood, where Thomas was succeeded by Sabine in 1932, continued the dying link, until 1934, when it was separated from Yoruba. But Sapele District, where Akande took over from Kidd, never did.


The period 1914-34 for the Niger Delta Pastorate and C.M.S. in Urhobo was a period of struggling, of disappointed hopes, and of groping in “blissful ignorance”. As has been reiterated, Isoko, which the Niger Diocese through the instrumentality of Aitken took over, enjoyed effective supervision and evangelisation; whilst the Urhobo did not. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that Anglican Christianity is even today more firmly rooted in Isoko than in Urhobo.

The remarkable thing about the whole situation, however, is that despite the conflicts for instance between Ebossa and his retinue on the one hand, and J. C. C. Thomas with is supporters on the other, there was no return to the traditional religion. If there were breakaways from the C.M.S., they were no lapses into Urhobo Religion. It was only another brand of Christianity, and indeed one which claimed to be more Christian than institutionalised Christianity, one which claimed that it was going back to pristine Christianity, that emerged.[87]

But because of the neglect of Bishop Johnson’s converts, when other denominations came they made successful inroads into Urhobo giving rise to splinter groups or secessions from the C.M.S. in Urhoboland, a pattern that could not be achieved  with as much success in Isoko.

Denominational Developments

One of the consequences of the C.M.S. neglect of the work in Urhobo was the emergence of myriads of denominations. First were the Roman Catholics, through a resuscitation of the moribund Roman Catholicism at Warri. Warri became a springboard from where R.C.M. Fathers and workers plunged into Urhoboland. A common effective weapon was the campaign that the Roman Catholic was the only truly Catholic Church. The ignorant converts of Bishop Johnson’s agents who did not know what “Catholic” meant were often convinced that by repeating “The Holy Catholic Church” in the Apostles’ Creed without belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, they were contradicting themselves.

Second were the Baptists. At first they evinced a capacity to tolerate much of Urhobo culture, like the apparent condoning, if not obvert “baptising” of Esemo worship, and acceptance of polygamy. Both these practices, as has been indicated, could not easily be repudiated. Their acceptance or toleration therefore made the Baptist Church as attractive Church to embrace.

Third was the African Bethel Church. It started in Yorubaland, for the same reason, if with different results, for which Christian Ogboni (later Reformed Ogboni Fraternity) was started by Ogunbiyi.[88] Nationalism was the controlling motif. After the death of Crowther in 1891, the C.M.S. authorities who considered him a failure, resolved never to appoint another African a bishop in the near future.[89] Consequently, James Johnson, himself an African nationalist to the core, who was expected to succeed Crowther, was not only denied the post of a bishop, but was ignominiously made a half bishop; but worse still and to the great displeasure of his admirers in Lagos, he was virtually forced by Tugwell to the Niger Delta.[90] His movement there enabled him to bring Christianity to many of the Urhobo by organising the Christian communities at Warri and Sapele. But it so infuriated his Lagos admirers that they walked out of Breadfruit Church and formed the African Bethel Church in 1901.That Church should have fostered the aspirations of Africa and her culture. But only one aspect, the practice of polygamy, was adhered to. Apart from African leadership, and the sanctioning of polygamy, the African Bethel Church was a replica of the Church of England. But when it came to Urhoboland, African leadership, which was not necessarily, and very often not, Urhobo leadership, was not what recommended her to the people. It was the sanctioning of polygamy. But ironically, the African Church then or now, did not command as much respect and membership ad did the C.M.S.

The later rise of three splinter groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the God’s Kingdom Society, and later still, some Pentecostalists, was consequent upon a one-sided emphasis and interpretation of scriptures. But they did not take as many members from the C.M.S. as did the Roman Catholic Mission, the Baptists and the African Church, who also distorted some aspects of scriptures to their own advantage. But they succeeded particularly because the C.M.S. did not care for the converts of Bishop Johnson’s agents. In the Isoko section, where the C.M.S. Niger Mission took charge of the work from 1914 onwards, the new comers were not able to make much progress.

[1] It should be noted that the C.M.S. did not actually take over the work until after 1917.

[2] See Obaro Ikime, “The Coming of the C.M.S.,” loc. cit., p. 213. See also C.M.S. Niger Mission, G.3A3/013.

[3] St. Andrew’s P.C.C., Minutes 31, December, 1917.

[4] See C.M.S. Report 1914-15, p.46.

[5] For more details about the NDP and its relation to the Diocese of West Equatorial Africa, see (I) D.C. Crowther, Delta Pastorate Church (printed by C.M.S. Bookshop, Lagos; 1916) pp.2-5; (ii) E.M.T. Epelle, The Church in the Niger Delta (C.M.S. Niger Press, 1955) pp. 33-62.

[6] Rev. C. F. Cole of Benthe, Sherbro, was sent to Warri from the Gambia where he had been a minister on the 14 October, 1914.

[7] Solomon was a Saro who lived at Warri and worked under the P.W.D. at the turn of the nineteenth century, and early in the twentieth. Like many in his days, Solade Solomon was a mason, but he played a leading role in the church at Warri, and was throughout a very active member of the P.C.C. for Warri. After the death of Bishop Johnson he led the Warri delegation to Lagos which finally brought St. Andrew’s under the umbrella of the C.M.S. He later retired and went back to Sierra Lone where he died.

[8] See C,M.S. (Y) 2/2.14: Ughele District C.M.S. Warri to Bishop Jones, 12 May 1929. Some of the Urhobo, we are told in this letter, did not desire the return of Cole.

[9] During his itineration Cole was conveyed from town to town in a hammock by the Urhobo converts.

[10] Cf. The Serampore Mission Resolution.

[11] Interview with Okitlpi, 16 April 1971. The letter is said to have concluded with the words: “We are not divided, Onward Christian Soldiers”.

[12] St. Andrew’s P.C.C. 17 August 1917.

[13] C.M.S. Y 1/1; Manley to F.M. Jones re Benin, Warri, and Sapele Districts, 27 April 1918.

[14] Ibid.

[15] C.M.S. (Y) I/I: Manley to Smith, 19 September, 1919.

[16] The Urhobo area was treated as a no-man’s land. Consequently C.M.S. work was much more firmly rooted in Isoko than in Urhobo whose fate swung pendulum-like from the Niger Delta Pastorate to Yoruba Mission, and then to the Niger Mission.

[17] InteviewithAdeda,17 December 1969.

[18] Although there was no actual bloodshed, yet the privations and hardships the converts suffered could have discouraged many. But they did not.

[19] C.M.S. Report, 1915 – 1916, p. 41f

[20] C.M.S. Report, 1915 – 1916, p. 41-42.

[21] C.M.S. Report, 1915 – 1916, p. 41-42.

[22] Ibid.

[23] This means that 54 people joined the church that Sunday.

[24] C.M.S. Report 1915-1016, pp.41-42.

[25] St. Andrew’s P.C.C. 24 March 1916, and 5 April 1916.

[26] St. Andrew’s P.C.C. 21 January 1918.

[27] C.M.S Report: 1917-1918, p. 28.

[28] See C.M.S Report: 1917-1918, p. 28

[29] Ibid.

[30] C.M.S Report: 1918-1919, p. 33.

[31] C.M.S Report: 1918-1919, p. 33.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Interview with D. Egbebruke, an Ex-Catechist, c.70, 12 December 1969, at Ughelli, Egbeburke, and Urhobo, was taken as a boy to Patani by his parents, where he later attended school and was taught by Proctor and Reeks.

[35] Thomas Emedo translated the first Urhobo Primer, c. 1920

[36] Interview with Bishop S. C. Phillips, aged 90, on 20 March 1971, at Oshogbo. In Ikale country the Urhobo settlements included Ebuteriele, Gbekebo, Iyara, and Ogbono, their Headquarters. Ofodidun, who was evidently converted through Bishop Johnson’s work, went to the Ikale country where he and his compatriots collected palm nuts. There Phillips met him and made him a Catechist over the Urhobo converts who became numerous in the 1920’s. Phillips toured the settlements, admitting Catechumens, and baptising infants and adults previously instructed by Ofodidun. By the time Canon Phillips left Ondo, 31 March 1930, to resume work at Breadfruit Parsonage Lagos on 1st April, he had baptised about 200 of the Urhobo in the Ikale country. See also Bishop S. C. Phillips Diaries, 1919-1930 in Africana, University of Ibadan).

[37]  Ofodidun’s translation was predominately in Okpe dialect and so was difficult to use all over Urhobo.

[38] At the time of his appointment, he was reluctant to move his family from Lagos to Sapele, and so was often away to Lagos to visit them.

[39] In his time St. Andrew’s Choir was highly organised and became increasingly competitive to join.

[40] In his time St. Andrew’s Choir was highly organised and became increasingly competitive to join.

[41] C.M.S., Y 2/2.14: Sapele Report, June 1925, by Kidd.

[42] There were as many as five denominations each with a Primary school, at Eku by 1926. See C.M.S. Y 2/2 14: Imoukhuede to the Secretary, Yoruba Mission, 24 November 1926.

[43] See Philippians 1:15-18.

[44] At about the same time that C.M.S. work at Eku declined, that of the R.C.M. also dwindled. Father Kelly left Eku for Sapele in 1925 according to Umurie, in 1927 according to Biakolo.

[45] See The Republic of Plato, trans. By F.M., Oxford) Clarendon Press 1961, pp. 204ff.

[46] C.M.S. Y2/2/15: Thomas’ short Report on work at Warri, January 1927.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Kidd often referred to the need for trained personnel, especially a pastor for the outstations in his reports. But he took no positive step to improve the situation by recommending people for training at Oyo.

[49] C.M.S. Y2/2:14 Thomas Report, January 1927.

[50] Thomas Report: January 1927.

[51] ]Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] See C.M.S. (Y)

[55] District Annual Report 1927 by J.C.C. Thomas.

[56] Ibid.

[57] C.M.S. (Y) 2/2. Kidd’s Report on Sapele and Warri Districts. January-June 1929.

[58] See C.M.S. (Y) 2/2.14: Igben to Bishop F.M. Jones 23 April 1929, and also Mukoro Kaghogho to Bishop F.M. Jones 26 April 1929.

[59] C.M.S. (Y) 2/2.14: Eruemukohwarien Church to Bishop F. M. Jones 26 April 1929.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid. Sobo District Committee C.M.S. Warri to Bishop F. M. Jones26 April 1929.

[62] Ibid.

[63] It is noteworthy that the new Catechist was not in this “Sobo District Committee”

[64] C.M.S. (Y) 2/2.14: Sobo District Committee C.M.S. Warri to Bishop Jones 27 April 1929.

[65] C.M.S. (Y) 2/2.14, op.cit.,26 April 1929.

[66] C.M.S. (Y) 2/2.14: Thomas to F. M. Jones 6 May 1929.

[67] C.M.S. (Y) 2/2.14:Agori Iwe (Catechist) to Revd. J.C. C. Thomas 16 August 1929.

[68] What is remarkable, to my mind, is that none of the affected members who later recanted, and whom I interviewed between 1969 and 1971, denied the genuineness of the spirit. Some of them believed that it was not properly directed by the church’s hierarchy.

[69] Ebossa’s unwillingness to submit to Agori Iwe may also have to do with the typical African concept of seniority which had strictly to be determined by age.

[70] Had he and his henchmen secured a European Missionary as Judge of the case they might have fared better.

[71] C.M.S. (Y) 2/2 14: Canon S. C. Phillips to Bishop F..M. Jones, 30 October 1929.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid

[74] C.M.S. (Y) 2/2.14” Thomas to Jones, 19 December 1929.

[75] Ibid.

[76] The Government headquarters were moved from Ase to Ughelli in 1932.

[77] Interview with Bishop Agori Iwe, c.64, Bishop of Benin Diocese, 16 April 1971

[78] Interview with Efeturi, one of the earliest priests in Isoko, aged c.60, at Warri,25 August 1970; and with Ven. Apena, at Oleh.

[79] Revd. Asiku arrived at Ozoro in 1924. The Ozoro C.M.S. School opened the following year.

[80] Interview with Aenas.

[81] C.M.S. Report: 1920-21, p.9.

[82] Smith’s words quoted in the C.M.S. Report of 1921-22.

[83] See C.M.S. Report: 1921-22

[84] See C.M.S. Report: 1921-22

[85] See C.M.S. Report: 1921-22.

[86] The Adam’s movement, popularly known as Usi Woma (Iyere Esiri) “Good news”, is now a very powerful and virile section of the Anglican Diocese of Benin, Adam himself holding the Bishop’s licence as a Diocesan lay Reader.

[87] This brand of Christianity now flowers in Pentecostalism — the Aladura or Alleluia Churches.

[88] See E.. A. Ayandele, Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria, p. 271 ff.

[89] Ibid. pp.122ff.

[90] See Sunday Times, Sept. 26, 1971 p.

%d bloggers like this: