Urhobo Historical Society
History of Christianity In Nigeria
THE URHOBO, THE ISOKO, AND THE ITSEKIRI
By Samuel U. Erivwo, Ph.D.
THE BAPTISTS: 1917-1935
© Samuel U. Erivwo, 1979
Reproduced in Urhobo Waado By Permission of Professor
whose activities as agent under the Niger Delta Pastorate have been traced,
was the one who introduced the Baptist Mission to Urhoboland.
As a result of the discontent of the indigenous population (Urhobo
and Itsekiri) with the foreign elements
(Sierra Leonians, Goldcoasters
and Yoruba),Omatsola led a splinter group away
from the NigerDeltaPastorateChurch, Sapele.
Although E. M. Howell in his Thesis fails to recognise
the move as a secession from an existing Anglican body, Omatsola
and those with him knew that theirs was a calculated secession,
from the Niger Delta Pastorate, motivated interalia
by three factors: a resentment against foreign domination; a desire to
become polygamous; and acrimony over allege misappropriation of church
they moved to Lagos
as a body to meet J.R. Williams, also an Anglican turned Baptist, to seek
admission into the BaptistChurch
and have a branch started at Sapele.
Although “it was made clear to these brethren that they could not be received
into a BaptistChurch
as seceders from another denomination”,
they were nonetheless admitted as individuals on believing “as Baptists
believe in regard to the teachings of the Bible.
they returned to Sapele to inaugurate the
new church. They later invited Williams to Sapele.
Accompanied by some elders of the FirstBaptistChurch, Lagos,
William proceeded to Sapele to organise
the church there. Deacon I. O. Gilbert is reported to have described the
a result of the appeal of our brethren at Sapele
to the FirstBaptistChurch,
Rev. Williams left Lagos
16th of July, 1917
to organise the
Mission taking with him several of his members. The trip proved
very successful one. He baptised on the
whole 313 candidates and on one
during baptismal services there was a heavy rain and he was under it
the river for two hours without any bodily injury.
started his church with the building facing the river side in imitation
of the FirstBaptistChurch, Lagos.
About three years later, Omatsola, whose
theological training had been unnecessarily delayed when under the Niger
Delta Pastorate, was sent by the Baptists to Ogbomosho
for a short course of six months in 1920, and was ordained into “the Baptist
Gospel Ministry in the First Baptist Church, Lagos”
returned to plant Baptist churches and schools in the majority of Urhobo
towns with that enthusiasm which had characterised
his ministry under the Niger Delta Pastorate. According to his son, it
was through him that Baptist churches were planted at Ugharefe, Koko,
Qgidigbe, Obitukpagha Gdogoda Ogheye,
Abraka, Asagba of Okpe, Obiaroku, Okwagbe
in Ughievwe Sakpoba, Ugborodo, Warri, Ugbimidaka,
Oginibo, Ogiedi, Adagbarasa, Jakpatie, Elume, Ikoro, Okparabe,Okpara,
and Eku .
In the case of Eku, however, Aganbi
was the originator but Omastsola’s influence
was there since it was to him and Williams at Sapele
is not surprising that in a majority of the towns and villages, the emergence
of Baptist churches was by a wholesale conversion of existing C.M.S. church
members, or a carving out of a substantial proportion of them to form the
new. At Okwagbe, for instance, a C.M.S.
church had been introduced by one Babaido
in 1921; but when he and his members found the C.M.S. regulations and demands
too rigid and uncompromising, he went to Sapele
on hearing of Omatsola’s Baptist Church
in which polygamists were admitted as full members and appointed as leaders.
He consequently converted the OkwagbeC.M.S.Church
to Baptist, until 1937 when one of the members, CosinUheri,
felt that the C.M.S. approach was better and so reverted to the C.M.S.,
carrying with him a good number of the Baptists.
appointed untrained teachers for his churches which, as a result, suffered
the same fate of wallowing in ignorance as did their C.M.S. counterparts.
This not withstanding, they grew rapidly in consequence ofOmatsola’s
enthusiasm which smacked of fanaticism. When, for instance, in 1918, the
year of the influenza, a medical doctor, called Adam, ordered at Sapele
that people were not to congregate, QmatsQla
defied the order and continued to hold services.
The result of his zeal was the rapid growth of his congregations, the membership
of which exceeded a thousand within a decade.
The Sapele Association was subsequently
formed with Omatsola as Moderator. All
the member churches of this Association jointly built a church house, the
present FirstBaptist Church, Sapele, in 1933, following which incessant
letters requesting for a resident missionary were sent to Baptist Headquarters.
In response to them, one Carson and his wife were sent toSapele
in 1936 as the first resident Baptist missionaries there. It is not without
justification that Howell described Omatsola
as “one of the greatest organisers
that the Nigerian Baptist Convention has had”.
must be evident by now, before their missionaries came, one of the major
attractions to the BaptistChurch
was initial toleration of polygamist. It appeared also that initially the
Baptists did not firmly take as negative an attitude to ancestor veneration
as did the C.M.S. But according to Agbaluwa,
a Baptist minister, the practice was never approved of “but people being
so used to it mixed it up a little”.
Thus, many who enlisted in that church were at first able not only to keep
their harems of wives but also to pay some homage to their departed parents
both of which practices were not allowed by the C.M.S. As the Baptist were
to change their attitude towards polygamy later, this attraction belonged
only to the first phase.
the time a change of attitude occurred the Urhobo
had had their own son as a Baptist pastor. For however valuable the leadership
of Omatsola, an Itsekiri,
must have been, they understandably preferred their own man.
This was none other than Aganbi of whom
much has been related.
After his primary school education at Warri
and Sapele he was one of those who introduced
“Christianity andCivilisation” to Eku.
He had taught there and at Sanubi under
the C.M.S. untilSeptember
2, 1926, when he resigned
and joined the Baptist, and so turned down admission offered him by St.
invited Richardson, an American Missionary, and Omatsola
from Sapele to Eku
where they assembled the people to whom they expounded Baptist doctrines.
Thereafter Aganbi continued to organise
a Baptist congregation Eku. During the first
assembly he chose for his address the topic, “God is leading His People”,
a topic which was based on Psalm 25:4-5. There was no shadow of doubt in
him that his resignation from the C.M.S. was God-directed, even if Imoukhuede
and the C.M.S. authorities viewed it as a diabolical design.
strengthen Aganbi in the secession Richardson
and Omatsola visited the new group on 15th
October 1926, and impressed
on them to continue to study the Scriptures. On the 10th of
November Miss Neale C. Young and Miss Mary
Perry also visited the congregation to address the women folk on how to organise
“a Women’s Missionary Union” and to study the Bible.
a result of Aganbi’s influence many C.M.S.
members deserted and teamed up with him as did some R.C.M. members. For Aganbi,
it was God leading His people; for the C.M.S., it was an act of treachery
and rebellion which must be crushed.Consequently
the Roman Catholics, also adversely affected, combined with the C.M.S.
to reclaim their members. An effective way of achieving this objective
was by preventing the latest arrival from acquiring land on which to build.
Land suits were therefore brought against the Baptists by the two denominations,
supported by the Chiefs and Elders of Eku.
These cases lasted throughout 1927. As a result of the conflicts some former
C.M.S. members retraced their steps while others lapsed into idolatory.
the question was inevitable. What impression was Christianity making on
the Urhobo? How could Christians who were
antagonistic to one another hope to win converts from the traditional religion?
And were they, on this showing, being true to their calling and to their
Master, who taught that a house divided against itself could not stand?
What had they learnt from the Scriptures where St.
the Corinthians never to bring their cases to the secular law courts? If
they had learnt so little, what had they to offer to the Urhobo
traditionalists who before the appearance of Christianity and European Civilisation
settled family disputes only within the context of the family? Clearly
the Christians were here belying their Faith. This animosity borne of bitter
rivalry did not prove detrimental to the cause of Christianity as might
have been expected. As has been indicated, competitions, even unhealthy
ones, do often yield dividends. The Baptists not only emerged triumphant
from the conflict, but also later built a gigantic hospital which served
all and sundry-including even the members of those denominations with whom
they had had court cases.
Baptists no doubt saw the action of the other (one could not say fellow)
Christians, as persecution; while the others viewed the Baptists who claimed
to be teaching the only right doctrines as intruders and intriguers, dissenters
and deceivers from whom their members lured away must be reclaimed. The
later development of Eku, especially the
provision of a hospital for all, vindicated the Baptists’ dedication to
service and to
their Faith, even if through
the Hospital they hoped to win members from other denominations.
the troubles of 1927 Aganbi entered Iwo
Headmaster’s Course which he completed after four years and proceeded to OgbomQhaQ
Seminary for theological training for another three. He came out in December
1934. Although both in the Yoruba country and at Sapele
Baptist churches in need of trained pastors’ asked for his services and
attempted to dissuade him from returning to the young congregation at Eku
which could not pay his salary, he was resolute to go to his own people.
(the Eku Baptists) may not be able to pay
me anything but they are
my people, and I have given myself to serve them as long as the Lord
resumed work at Eku in January 1935, and
reactivated the work of the young congregation which during his seven year
absence had been cared for by OkotieEsekeghre, Isiorho, Onanore, Akemu,
was well aware of the inability of the Eku
Baptists to pay his monthly salary. His resolution to serve his people,
come wind come weather, was nevertheless amply rewarded. Although he was
paid only one shilling and six pence every Edewo,
his services were paid for in kind by the members who frequently cleared
his farms and provided him and his wife with foodstuff. Furthermore, when
the Carsons, the missionaries at Sapele,
observed the pioneering and persevering spirit of Aganbi,
they approached theParkviewBaptistChurch, PortsmouthVirginia,
to take up payment of his salary. This continued until Eku
Baptist congregation grew and on becoming financially viable was organised
into a church in 1936. Thereafter it took over the responsibility.
the planters of Baptist churches in Urhoboland
were originally members of C.M.S. Churches, the pattern of organisation
was initially Anglican: much was left to the imagination and initiative
of the founders, until missionaries arrived. Thus, as in the C.M.S., income
was realised by levying contribution of
three pence per month (or three shillings per year) per female and six
pence per month (or six shillings per year) per male. Class registers were
called during services to ascertain those fulfilling their financial obligations
to the church. This slow process continued until 1942-3 when the whole
machinery of the Baptist Churches was overhauled, and the tithe system
Harvests, which were not a normal practice of the Baptists, were also introduced
through the influence of Williams.
some written prayers were used at first, this practice was quickly abandoned
for the exclusive use of extempore prayers which is characteristic of Baptist
church services. This had a great attraction for members who did not have
to depend on rigidly written prayers as in the Anglican and similar churches.
In their use of extempore prayers by which their problems, individual and
collective, were laid bare before God, the Baptists were in touch with
reality and with Urhobo religion, where
the worshippers, uninhibited by formalities, addressed their prayers to Osonobruwhe, Erivwin, Edjo,
in organisation the C.M.S. pattern of having
worshipping congregations immediately designated churches was not at once
departed from. But after the arrival of missionaries when instructions
were given to local Baptist leaders on Baptist methodology, the practice
of starting with preaching stations was adopted. In this system new converts
were sought in the preaching station through the addresses of evangelists
and songs of choristers. Only after winning enough members who would be
financially viable was a preaching station converted to a church. After Aganbi’s
return from training, Baptist evangelisation
of Urhoboland by the above method was given
impetus. Eku Association was formed in addition
to Sapele Association, with Aganbi
as moderator. By 1935, Baptist churches were firmly established in Urhoboland.
But the development and growth of Urhobo
“Baptism” still lay in the second half of the thirties and especially in
the forties and the fifties. But this aspect will be discussed in a later