History of Christianity in Nigeria: Chapter Two

Urhobo Historical Society

History of Christianity In Nigeria

TILL 1914
© Samuel U. Erivwo, 1979
Reproduced in Urhobo Waado By Permission of Professor Samuel Erivwo

After the failure of the first attempt to plant Christianity in Nigeria [in the sixteenth and seventh centuries], a failure, which, as we have already pointed out, was largely due to its connection with the [Portuguese] slave trade, it was significant and fitting that the second attempt which finally succeeded should be a concomitant of the abolitionist movement. Since by the end of the eighteenth century when the abolitionist movement started, Western Christianity was already a divided Christianity, divided into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Since Protestant countries, notably Britain, initiated and championed the campaign to end the slave trade, it was Protestant Christianity which led the way when the Faith was reintroduced to the Itsekiri and their neighbours, the Urhobo.

During one of three expeditions — in 1841, 1854, and 1857 — Samuel Ajayi Crowther sought to introduce the Christian faith to Okwagbe people who belong to the Urhobo ethnic group. He made an attempt to live on the Western bank of the River Niger. We are told in Christian oral tradition of the Urhobo that the Okwagbe people rejected Crowther and his message which he claimed to have brought from God. The  Okwagbe  could not conceive how a man could claim to bring good news from Oghene (Urhobo word for God), who is often identified with the sky. They were more interested in trade than in that type of good news which seemed to them a fairy tale.[1]

The Crowther Crisis

As a sequel to the creation of the Niger Coast Protectorate in 1891 Captain Harper, appointed Acting Vice Consul for Warri District, requested the Church Missionary. Society (C. M. S.) to send a missionary to Warri District. This request, which came before the parent committee of the C.M.S. in Salisbury Square [United Kingdom] in 1893, was not favourably considered. The reason for this adverse outcome is not far to seek. Bishop Ajayi Crowther died in 31st December 1891.Before his death, he had been politely discredited by C.M.S. authorities through the Maidera Commission of Inquiry set up by the C.M.S. to investigate certain complaints received from the mission field, including complaints from the Niger mission under Bishop Crowther. It was found out that Bishop Crowther’s treatment of two junior workers of the C.MS. from the Niger Delta who were accused of misconduct, charged to court in Sierra Leone and found guilty by the British Administration, was not severe enough. The whole question was exaggerated by some C.M.S. puritans from Cambridge, whose report on the incident was unfavourable to Crowther. The whole affair became a C.M.S. scandal. The matter even went to the British Parliament where attempts were made to discredit the work of the C.M.S. overseas. Following this whole episode now known to historians as the Crowther crisis, the C.M.S. which previously adopted Henry Venn’s policy of the native church changed its practice and began to send white missionaries to the mission field, including the Niger Mission which had hitherto been worked exclusively by Africans.[2] What is more, in appointing a successor to Bishop Crowther, the C.M.S. authorities decided not to appoint an African. For Crowther’s episcopate, regarded as an experiment, was now deemed by the C.M.S. to be a failure.

In reaction to this stand of the C.M.S. the Niger Delta Pastorate Church declared its independence of the C.M.S. on 29th April 1892. This breach with the C. M.S. lasted many years. For, although attempts were made to reach a settlement, it was not until after the death of James Johnson that the Niger Delta Pastorate Church reverted fully to the C.M.S. In 1893 when Captain Harper’s request was placed before the C.M.S. Home Committee, the breach was not only still on, but was in fact still fresh. Since geographically Warri District fell within the Niger Delta Pastorate territory the C.M.S. was not in a mood to, and did not, consider the request favourably.

 The Diocese of West Equatorial Africa

Herbert Tugwell was appointed bishop after the ephemeral episcopacy of Mr. Hill, Crowther’s successor. His Diocese, the Diocese of West Equatorial Africa, covered the whole of the West Coast.

On touring the Western Delta in 1894 Bishop Tugwell saw the need for a missionary at Warri to minister to European merchants there. The Africans in their employment might be allowed to eat of the crumbs that fell from their table! Consequently Tugwell put the plea of the European merchants at Warri for a missionary before Salisbury Square in 1898, but to little purpose. It was not without difficulty that C.M.S. authorities permitted Rev. Henry Proctor, a C.M.S. missionary stationed at Patani, to pay occasional visits to Warri. Indeed it was expressly stated by the C.M.S. that Bishop Tugwell was to relieve Proctor of this extra duty “which does not properly belong to him as a missionary of the Society”.[3]

A man of lesser mettle could have been daunted by the attitude of the C.M.S. Parent Committee; but not Bishop Tugwell. He took up the matter with the Parent Committee again in 1899, this time arguing that should the C.M.S. not take the advantage of British conquest of the Benin empire in 1897 to open mission stations in Benin and the neighbouring country there was the possibility of the local people lapsing into a worse form of idolatry and “paganism.” Despite Tugwell’s eloquent and persistent demand, the C.M.S. refused to be drawn into the Benin-Warri mission field which they contended should be the responsibility of the Niger Delta Pastorate. Thus, it came about that Benin and Warri, the first places in Nigeria to have contact with European Missionaries, were among the last areas to be evangelised in Nigeria. Not until the early ears of the twentieth century was the Benin-Sapele-Warri area eventually evangelised.

Bishop James Johnson’s Era

In July 1901 James Johnson, after his consecration as an assistant bishop the previous year, visited Warri, Sapele and Benin. In the first two places the bishop reported that he met worshipping communities which he then undertook to organise. Thereafter he paid yearly episcopal visits to this region until 1917 when he died.

“Native Foreigners”

In the early years, the young congregations both at Sapele and Warri faced a number of difficulties. There was no resident catechist, let alone priest, who could minister to the congregations regularly. The first members of the congregations were “native foreigners”, that is, Africans who were not Delta people. They were neither Itsekiri nor Urhobo who could be attracted to the congregations. The Saro and Yoruba who constituted the first congregations were people either in the employment of the Government or of mercantile houses.

It would appear also, at least at Sapele according to the witness of E. M. Howel, that the congregation was initially a mixed one, being made p of people who had elsewhere embraced Christianity through different denominations — Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and so on — before they came to Sapele either on transfer or to trade. Be this as it may, it was Bishop Johnson of the Anglican Church who first visited these Christians and first organised them into a proper worshipping community. Thus the difficulty of welding a mixed group together was also there, a problem which perhaps partly accounts for the split at Sapele later on.

Because of difficulty of staffing, a primary school opened in 1902 at Sapele had to close down the following year, while a similar school opened at Warri apparently functioned only on Sundays when teachers were available. Bishop Johnson, who was greatly concerned about personnel for the two congregations, earnestly searched for staff to be in charge of the worshipping communities as well as the schools attached to them; but he did not find it easy to secure qualified staff. It will be recalled, as earlier stated, that the C.M.S. showed no real interest in this area. Furthermore, Bishop Johnson who had a life-long dream of an independent African Church in full communion with the Church of England, employed on African agents, who were usually Yoruba or Saro, to work in the Niger Delta Pastorate (N.D.P.) Churches. His hope was that before long the N.D.P. would be constituted into an autonomous Diocese with James Johnson himself as the Diocesan.

          Making use of African agents who were not themselves indigenes of the Delta had its own difficulties. This is a fact which earlier writers like Professor Ajayi and, notably, Professor Ayandele did not seem to have appreciated. Dr. Tasie has however made the same point forcefully in respect of the eastern Delta,[4] namely that those Africans regarded by Bishop Johnson and his colleagues as “natives” were not so regarded in the Delta.

Yoruba Catechism — Native Church Policy

Thus, while Bishop Johnson felt that making use of Yoruba and Saro to evangelise the Itsekiri and Urhobo was the right thing to do, (and let it be added that there is much to be said for it), and consequently made it imperative for the young converts among the Itsekiri and the Urhobo to learn the catechism in Yoruba if they were to be baptised, the converts held a contrary view. While in pursuance of his native Church policy inherited from Henry Venn, Bishop Johnson directed that the Urhobo converts be taught Yoruba instead of English so that they could learn the catechism in order and so be baptised. But many refused. They would rather be taught English at once.[5] According to Omofoye Emuakpo, one of the earliest converts from Ephron, this was one of the reasons why he and others seceded from the N.D.P. in 1916 and joined the African Church, where the minister did not insist on their learning the catechism in Yoruba before baptism.[6] These were only some of the difficulties which the congregations at Warri and Sapele and those which sprang up shortly afterwards in the Urhobo hinterland had to face in the early years of Christianity in the western Niger Delta.

Omatsola — Catechist

However, as a result of the organization by Bishop Johnson of the congregations at Warri and Sapele, Christianity soon began to penetrate the Urhobo hinterland. The Bishop appointed Aghoghin Omatsola as an agent at Sapele and Omatsola helped in no small way in the expansion of Christianity from Sapele to the hinterland. Before 1914 there were already no less than fifteen congregations to the Urhobo hinterland, which looked up to Sapele as their mother Church. Among the congregations which did so were Eku, Abraka, Sanubi, Amukpe, Idjerhe.

The Cleansing of the Leper

The manner in which Christianity reached some of these places is fascinating. For example, at Idjerhe (Idhese) Christianity was introduced by a leper who found himself miraculously healed in his isolation in the bush. This man, we are told, was driven from the community as a result of his leprosy, then a slow and certain killer. While in the bush he was told thereafter he should do no evil.[7] He did so and was healed. On returning to town he gathered people and started a worshipping community.

A similar thing happened in the Urhobo hinterland and in Isoko. Thus, at Owe the infant Church was reported to have been made up of lepers. This was because, once Christianity had penetrated the hinterland, many of those who came to Church did so in expectation of miracles. The sick expected to be healed; those who were barren expected children; those who had been held bound by edjo longed to be released from its clutches and be enabled to freely eat tabooed food which they could not eat before their conversion. It may be argued that there was too much emphasis on miracles; for, when later such miracles appeared to cease, attendance at services dropped. But, in fact, the ‘disappearance’ of miracles and a decline in Church attendance are both accounted for by a common factor: lack of faith. It may well have been that the initial converts were presented with the crown without the cross. They wanted the joy of Christianity but were not prepared to accept its discipline. For, what actually, more than anything else, brought about decline in Church attendance was the high and uncompromising moral demand which the new faith imposed on the converts.

Ethical Demands or Cultural Pressures?

Polygamists were required to send away all their wives but one if they were to be baptised members of the Church; and the converts were not expected to pay any form of respect or homage to their ancestors, the cult of which they had cherished from the beginning. The cult was indeed ingrained in their way of life. They were expected to refrain from participating in annual and traditional festivals, which were generally connected with the ancestral cults, and in which the traditional culture of the Itsekiri, Urhobo, and Isoko appeared in bold relief. If converts were denied participation in traditional festivals, they were also excluded from taking traditional chieftaincy titles; they could not circumcise their daughters the way the Urhobo and Isoko had always done. All these prohibitions had the effect of discouraging Church attendance. Thus, though many of the first converts were happy they were healed or released from their respective Ukoedjo,[8] yet they found all that they had to give up in order to continue to be Christians too high a price to pay. This was basically why Church attendance dropped. To say this is not to suggest that the new faith was not taking root. It did, in fact, spread, and, although in times of crises there were back-sliders, the Church members grew over the years.

Catechists, Agents and other Evangelists

Who were the chief propagators of the new faith and how did they themselves come to embrace it? The spread of the new faith in Itsekiri, Urhobo, and Isoko lands in the early years was due to the evangelistic  fervour  of Omatsola ,  Aganbi,  Omofoye Emuakpo, Ogugun, Denedo, Evwaire, Madam Birbrina, and Rev. J.D. Aitkens, among others. Aghoghin Omatsola an Itsekiri, educated in Hope Waddell Training Institution in Calabar where he had embraced Christianity before the dawn of the twentieth century, returned to Sapele where he met and worshipped with a few other Christians from various parts of West Africa, notably from Sierra Leone, Gold Coast (present day Ghana) and Yorubaland. After the visit of Bishop Johnson to Sapele to organise the congregation there, Aghoghin was appointed an agent. He spread the faith to many villages and towns in the neighbourhood of Sapele.

Meanwhile a few congregations were springing up in Abraka, Urhuovie and Uhwokori. These were initially made up of liberated slaves from the area of Zwo in Yorubaland. The congregations were later visited and organised by Bishop Johnson who appointed an agent at Uhwokori congregation. Evwaire, a native of Ogbovwan in Ughelli, whose mother hails from Uhwokori, first heard of Christianity from the congregations at Uhwokori. In about 1910 Evwaire introduced the new faith to Ughelli. But before this date the faith had spread from Warri through Ephron to Oguname, and to Ohrerhe (Mogba). The chief propagators of Christianity in these places were Omofoye Emmuakpo, Denedo, Ogugu, and Masima Ebossa; while Aganbi evangelised in Eku and its neighbourhood.

From Ogbovwan in Ughelli, Christianity was carried to many other parts of Urhobo and Isokoland. The evangelists included Udori, who took the faith to Agbarha clan; Isikpen who introduced it to Evwreni. Avwarecha took it to Olomu, and Udu to Uwhereu. From Isoko those who heard of Evwaire’s new faith came, enlisted, and spread the faith among their people. Thus Agbro of Emevor introduced the faith there, as Ikogho of Uwhere, who first heard it from Isikpen, did at Enwhe.

Foods Tabu

Many of those who embraced Christianity did so because of a desire to be free to eat food they could not eat before conversion. It was for this reason that Christianity in Urhoboland was initially known as Orugbegwa — that which defies  tabu. About 1911, Mr.  Oluku Adjarho, from Ekiugbo, also of Ughelli, brought the Christian faith from Yorubaland where he had been sojourning. Thus, Ekiugbo also became another sub-centre to which people flocked to enlist in the faith.

Because Oluku was adroit in the Yoruba language, he read the Bible and taught the enquirers. Thus, between 1901 when Bishop Johnson first visited Warri, Sapele and Benin, and 1914 when World War I broke out, Christianity spread by leaps and bounds among the Urhobo and the Isoko and, to some degree also, among the Itsekiri.

In the case of Isoko, apart from those places from where people came to Urhoboland to enlist in the new faith, there were other towns which received Christianity from a different source. A man of the name Utuedon, who was said to be a relation of Dogho Numa of the Itsekiri, introduced Christianity to Uzere in 1909 when he was posted there as a court clerk. He was a convert of Bishop Johnson. He held services in a court hall, services from which women were excluded.

Brobromae and Other Women of the Faith

Ironically, however, it was a woman who in 1911 introduced Christianity to some other parts of the Isoko country. She is Bribrinae by name, a native of Patani. Bribrina was one of the early converts to Christianity in Patani. When she had twins and was required by custom to destroy them she refused because of her new faith. Accordingly, she was banished to an island opposite Patani. It was here that an Igbide man called Ibiegbe met her and helped her. He later married her and brought her to Igbide, where Bribrinae undertook the evangelisation of the people. Through her efforts Christianity spread to many other parts of Isokoland.

As if to further disprove the principle of Uruedon at Uzere, it was also a woman who brought Christianity to Illue-Ologbo. She is Madam Emadu, who in the course of her travels embraced Christianity in Obiaruku. Thus, through the work of Evwaire, Utuedon, Emadu and Bribrane, Christianity spread rapidly in Isokoland before 1914. As men from Isoko inland — Pwhe, Emevor and Ozoro — flocked to Ughelli to Evwaire to be taught the new faith, so many others from Isoko water side journeyed to Patani and in the course of their trade embraced Christianity there. In 1913, the Revd. J. D. Aitken (who was with Proctor at Patani), reported that many Isoko were visiting Patani and buying either the Bible in English or an Ijo translation of one of the Gospels. These they kept under their pillows “as a witness that they have left heathenism and have joined God’s company”[9].

Aitken traveled through Isokoland and Urhoboland between 1912 and 1913 and helped to propagate the faith. His method in each town was to preach to the local people in the evening on their return from their farms. The places visited by him included  Evwreni, Uhwokori,  Ekrerhavwe,  Oguname,  Abraka , and the villages around  Ughelli.  Aitkens  met several Christians in these places — people who had embraced the faith through the evangelisation efforts of Bishop Johnson and his agents. It should be emphasised that without the zeal and persistence of Bishop Johnson the evangelisation of Itsekiri and Urhoboland would not have happened when it did. For, as already indicated, on the evidence of Rev. Henry Proctor himself, the C.M.S. was not interested in evangelising areas which were outside Igboland.

“We get very little if any help at all from the so-called Niger Mission and I have found it so all along. All the members of E.C. (Executive Committee) myself excepted are working amongst Ibos and naturally Ibo work looms largest in their ideas. They know little or nothing of our work or our district, the Secretary cannot find time to visit us and I feel we have little or no sympathy.”[10]

And yet, to quote Ikime,

    “little do the Christians in Itsekiri and Urhoboland realise that they owe

    their faith more to the energy and determination of a fellow Nigerian

    than to the C.M.S. and the Niger Mission itself”[11]

If the Itsekiri, the Urhobo, and also a part of the Isoko people recognise this fact, then they ought to express their appreciation for the work of Bishop Johnson, at least by naming an institution after him, as they have done after Bishop Tugwell. This is a point made as early as 1965 by Professor Ikime, but a point about which Anglican Christians in the area have not taken serious note.

J. D. Aitken and Isoko District

From his travels in Isoko and Urhoboland, J. D. Aitken was convinced of the necessity to organise and administer these Churches together under one district. This is significant, especially when it is realised that Aitken did not make many converts in the course of his itineration. For example, at Oleh only one convert was made in 1913. In spite of the poor result, he believed that if the faith was to spread and grow, then proper organisation was needed. Accordingly he, proposed at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Niger Mission held in July 1914 that the work in Isoko be merged with that in Urhobo under a new district in charge of which a European or West Indian Missionary should be assigned. Aitken suggested that either Okpare or Mogba (Ohrerhe) in Agbarho should be the head-quarters of the new district with strong stations at Uhwokori, Oleh, and Emede.[12]

Although this proposal might have been inspired by the desire on the part of Aitken to be independent of Proctor and become a superintendent of his own district, there is no doubt that a real need for such a new district did exist. The congregation which sprang up, in Urhoboland in particular, could not be properly organised and administered without such an arrangement. For Bishop Johnson, enthusiastic and energetic as he was, was the only trained personnel of N.D.P. who visited the Urhobo congregation; and since he had an extensive area (the Eastern and Western Niger Delta) to cover, the congregations in Urhoboland suffered considerably. Had he trained personnel to work under him in these areas from the beginning, it would have been a different story. But up till 1914 no other trained personnel worked in the Urhobo Churches. This is why, had the recommendation of Aitken been accepted by the E.C. of the C.M.S. Niger Mission, it would have rebounded to the advantage of the young congregation in Urhoboland.

But the whole of Aitken’s recommendation was not accepted, to the detriment of the Urhobo congregations. Only the Isoko section was constituted into a district, leaving the Urhobo section to continue to grope in the dark. The refusal by the C.M.S. to take up the work in Urhoboland is perhaps better seen as a result of their continued reluctance to interfere with the work of Bishop Johnson’s Niger Delta Pastorate. In any case, it was the Urhobo Churches which suffered.

[1] In 1875, about ten years after the consecration of Samuel Ajayi Crowther as bishop on the Niger, he traveled through the Western Delta in the company of his son, Dandeson, and came to the Warri area.

[2] The fact that by this date (1892) European missionaries could spend longer time in the Niger Area than was the case before 1854 may also have influenced their decision.

[3] Obaro Ikime, “The Coming of the C.M.S. into the Itsekiri, Urhobo, and Isoko Country” in Nigeria Magazine (No. 86, Sept. 1965) p207.

[4]  G.O.M. Tasie, “Holy Johnson — A Review Article” in Journal of Niger Delta Studies (Vol. I, No. I, 1976.)

[5] Ikime, “The Coming of the C.M.S.” loc. cit p209.

[6] Omofoye Emuakpo aged 100 plus interviewed 24th August, 1970.

[7] See Ikime, “The Coming of the C.M.S…” loc. cit. p.210.

[8] A tutelary divinity with whom an individual is in covenant relationship.

[9] O. Ikime, The Isoko People (Ibadan, I.U.P. 1972) p.62.

[10] Ikime, The Isoko People I.U.P. 1972) p.62.

[11] “The Coming of the C.M.S…loc. cit., p.212

[12] Ibid, p.213.

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