Chapter One of Samuel Erivwo’s Biography of Bishop Agori Iwe

Urhobo Historical Society

Sam U. Erivwo, Ph.D
Originally Published in 1998 
Reproduced in URHOBO WAADO by kind permission of Professor Sam U. Erivwo


After the failure of Portuguese Christianity introduced to the Western Delta of Nigeria, the new religion did not begin to penetrate the area until the end of the nineteenth century, and especially at the beginning of the twentieth century. This time, Protestant missionaries especially of the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.) led the way.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther had accompanied the 1841, 1854 and 1857 Niger expeditions and subsequently opened a mission station at Onitsha on 27th July 1857. After his consecration in 1864, he later in the company of his son Dandeson Crowther visited Olomu, the then acknowledged leader of the Itsekiri people. Crowther’s efforts to persuade Olomu to accept Christianity for himself and for his people proved abortive.

Later attempts made by C.M.S. missionaries, for instance by Bishop H. Tugwell, to have Christianity reintroduced into the Warri area did not also immediately yield the desired result. Tugwell’s argument in 1898 that if the C.M.S. did no open a station in the Warri area then that the backbone of the Oba of Benin had been broken in 1897, the people of the Western Delta might revert to a worse form of idolatry did not move C.M.S. authority. It was not until James Johnson who was consecrated on 18th Feb. 1900 itinerated the Warri and Sapele areas in 1901, that the worshipping congregations he met in Warri and Sapele were properly organised. These worshipping congregations had be formed by “foreign natives”; Gold coasters, Saros and Yoruba who were either trading or were in Government employment in the two towns.

Meanwhile, Agohogin Omotsola, an Itsekiri who was educated at the Hope Waddell Institute Calabar, and was later appointed by Bishop Johnson to be in charge of the Sapele congregation, was labouring indefatigably to open branches of the Christian Church in the environs of Sapele and in the Urhobo hinterland. According to a report written by Bishop Herbert Tugwell from the C.M.S. House at Patani on 4th Han., 1915, to C.M.S. Headquarters in London, Mr. Omatsola had a fair knowledge of the Yoruba and Urhobo languages and was a promising and devoted worker.

Tugwell made this discovery and observation after his itineration of the Urhobo and Isoko country from 7th to 23rd Dec., 1914. His stated aim for undertaking the tour was first to ascertain the nature of the work that was already being done in the Urhobo-Isoko country; the area covered and the conditions and auspices under which the work was being done; second, to ascertain to what major language Urhobo was most closely related, what dialects were spoken by the people and how far one dialect would meet the needs of the Urhobo country as a whole; third, how far it was desirable to undertake the translation of the scriptures or portions thereof into the Urhobo language; fourth, from what centre the work could best be developed and administered, and fifth, the possibility of the work in the Urhobo country being taken up by some branch of the Niger Delta Pastorate Church over which Bishop James Johnson was in charge.

After making the purpose of his visit known to the representatives of the Urhobo villages in the neighbourhood of Warri and to the church committee of St. Andrew’s Church Warri, Bishop Tugwell held a meeting with them.

From the meeting he discovered that there were about _____ congregations in the Urhobo country affiliated to St. Andrew’s Church Warri. Furthermore, Mr. Omatsola, the Pastor in charge of Sapele, who was invited to the meeting, pointed out that there were also as many as fifteen congregations affiliated to the Church at Sapele.

After the meeting, Tugwell continued his episcopal tour of Urhoboland, and went to the company of Omatsola to Uhworkori (Kokori). Consequent upon Tugwell’s tour, there was a growing concern on the part of C.M.S. authority as to how best to cater for the congregations which were springing up by leaps and bounds in Urhobo and Isoko lands. From the reports in C.M.S. archieves, it was clear that the new religion was spreading like harmattan fire and enveloping the whole of the Western Delta.

The penetration of the area from the Warri and Sapele ends was spearheaded by Bishop James Johnson and his agents of the Niger Delta Pastorate. Meanwhile, the Niger Mission of the C.M.S. had stationed the Revd. Henry Proctor at Patani at the turn of the century, and had also with reluctance granted him permission to pay occasional visits to Warri. In short, by the time Bishop Tugwell undertook his tour of 1914, the christian presence in Urhobo and Isoko lands was very much in evidence. Significantly, however, the propagators of the faith at this stage were essentially not white missionaries. Rather, they were for the most part, ex-slaves or Urhobo and Isoko who were sojourneying in Yorubaland but who returned home to establish christian congregations amongst their own people. Some of these agents were also Isekiri, as was the case with Omatsola already mentioned, and Tedon, a court clerk who introduced Christianity to Uzere in 1910.

On 28th May 1914, the Revd. J.D. Aitken who had been with the Revd. Henry Proctor at Patani, but had by then moved from Patani to settle in Urhoboland, wrote, while on fourlough in England, to Mr. Manley, the C.M.S. Secretary, and among other things, said that he had itinerated “continuously for a little over a year in the Igabo country – from Jan. 1913 to the end of April 1914”. During his tour, he was well received by the young christian congregations in Isoko and Urhobolands. But what he was in fact doing, in his words, was “spying out the land from Warri and Sapele to the Assyi Creek, roughly 70 miles by 60”.

From July of 1913, Aitken decided to settle amongst the Urhobo in the belief that he was leaving Isoko or the western half of it to Bishop Johnson’s men who were also working in the area. Aitken reported that he registered nearly 2,000 people who “have thrown away their idols to serve God”. But while he was away on the work had to be abandoned since there was no other C.M.S. missionary working with him at the time in the Urhobo country.

In one town alone, Aitken claimed that he had 600 converts and that the chief of a section of the town ordered all the women to join “us that they may learn to love their neighbours instead of poisoning them”. In consequence of that order, we are told that about 150 women with their children joined the church although Aitken could not have them registered before he went on fourlough. The chief ordered the women to join the church because of the belief that women were generally witches who bewitched or poisoned their neighbours. This aspect of the people’s belief will be discussed later in the course of this work.

Aitken was quite nervous about the possibility of Roman Catholic missionaries coming to invade the area and snatch the converts from the C.M.S. in Isoko and Urhoboland. Bu this time, the Roman Catholics were beginning to resuscitate Roman Catholicism at Warri. He was equally disturbed about the prospects of African Church, which he described as “ a polygamous church” coming to take over the converts he had made especially as he observed that at least two representatives of the African Church were already visiting the area. These developments, these rears and anxieties, undoubtedly led to the episcopal visit of Bishop Tugwell to the area from 7th to 23rd December, 1914.

After that visit, the great concern of the Bishop was how to get the appropriate C.M.S. missionaries and agents to work in the Urhobo and Isoko country. He would prefer European missionaries, if these were available, but if not, West Indians would be acceptable. The prospects of funding such missionaries were however not bright particularly because of the first World War that had just begun.

It is significant that while C.M.S. authority were anxious about the right kind of leadership for the area, while they were searching for agents and ministers of the church to work and give effective leadership among the Urhobo and Isoko peoples, a young Urhobo boy, destined to be a pillar of the Church later among his own people, had just been born through divine providence, and was being shaped and prepared for that very task. That young man is none other than Agori Iwe whose life story and achievements we here present to the general reader as well as to the students of Church History.

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