Urhobo Historical Society
History of Christianity In Nigeria
THE URHOBO, THE ISOKO, AND THE ITSEKIRI

By Samuel U. Erivwo, Ph.D.

CHAPTER SIX 
  THE UNITED AFRICAN CHURCH 1916-1961
© Samuel U. Erivwo, 1979
Reproduced in Urhobo Waado By Permission of Professor Samuel Erivwo
If the emergence of the Baptist in Urhobo was due to a quarrel in Sapele in 1917 over foreign domination and misappropriation of funds, so was the appearance of the UnitedAfricanChurch.[1] But there the disagreement was with St. Andrew’s, Warri. The dissidents were led by OmofoyeEmuakpo of Ephron, who before 1916 had played a leading role in planting Niger Delta Pastorate churches at Oguname (which he visited with Bishop Johnson), OgharaIkwewhuOvwodokpokpoEkrerhavwenUvwiama-all in Agbarho. But when the teacher promised to Ephron church, for whose sake, according to Omofoye, the members contributed six pence each, was never sent by St. Andrew’s, Omofoye felt that he had no alternative but to take court action and reclaim the £47: 8: 4d. which his members had collected. Part of this money was in fact used to feed the converts from out stations, including Ephron church members. In the court action Barrister Doherty, counsel for Ephron, successfully defended his client and St. Andrew’s was made to refund the amount claimed.
Before the law suit in April 1916, Omofoye and his clique had in 1915 decided to sever connections with St. Andrew’s and the Niger Delta Pastorate and go over to the AfricanChurch.

Other undeclared factors were involved in the secession. According to Omofoye, Bishop Johnson insisted that their learning the Catechism in Yoruba was a precondition for being baptised, and exercise which many of the converts were least prepared to undertake. For the Urhobo language did not resemble the Yoruba language (or indeed Itskiri) to the extent that both Bishops Johnson and Tugwell though it did. The insistence therefore created discontent in the coverts who, 

In fact, preferred to be taught English straight away, since they believed equal effort would be expended on mastering either of the two languages. One result of the discontent was that when a minister of the UnitedAfricanChurch, Jacob S. Williams, visited Warri in 1916, and offered to baptise all who accepted the Christian faith, apparently without he demand for knowing the Catechism in a foreign language, QmQfoye and his retinue seized the opportunity and were baptised on 19th March, 1916.[2]

A further attraction of the UnitedAfricanChurch was its acceptance of polygamy as a facet of African culture not biblically proven to be unchristian. Here it was like the early BaptistChurch. Another, perhaps most potent, attraction was the expression AfricanChurch. The words were sufficiently inviting to draw many away from other denominations where the leadership had been in the hands of the white missionaries. It drew many away too from the Niger Delta Pastorate, especially since the realisation of Bishop Johnson’s dream of an independent indigenous church in full communion with the Church of England was becoming more and more remote.[3]

When the split occurred at Ephron what happened in the Baptist secession also took place. The Niger Delta Pastorate churches established through Omofoye’s efforts were either converted wholesale or lost a substantial part of their membership to the AfricanChurch. Through this method African churches sprang up at OvuIwhre-UghelliOba in OkpeOguname (where Ibuje was the leader), Aladja,OrhuwhorunObodo in UduOwrodeOkpare,OvwoEvwreniEwuOtokutuEgbo,UrhiephronEkrokpeEruemukohwarien, and Ekiugbo in Ughelli.[4]

In certain instances a further split occurred, [5] as was the case at Ovu. Here the Niger Delta Pastorate church was, under the influence of Omatsola, transmuted to Baptist in 1917. But a further rift occurred in 1919 when members of Enaohowo family deserted the Baptist and embraced the African Bethel (insert 2) Church were baptised by D. H. Kukuiye, the first African priest resident at Warri. There was to be yet another split in January 1921, when J. E. E. Enaohwo introduced Roman Catholicism and converted the AfricanChurch at Ovu to Roman Catholicism, leaving only a handful of the former’s members behind. Even these few completely abandoned the AfricanChurch at Ovu in 1923 and declared for the Baptist Church of Omatsola who baptised them at Arhagba (Egvekoba) on October 14, 1923.[6]

Apart from African leadership and acceptance of polygamy, the organisation of the AfricanBethelChurch followed the same pattern as that of the Niger Delta Pastorate and the C.M.S., except that instead of Dioceses they had Divisions, before Districts and Parishes. As with the Niger Delta Pastorate and the C.M.S. the leadership also came initially from Yorubaland where the AfricanChurch began. J. S. Williams who was the first pastor was carried in a hammock like Cole during his itineration of the churches. He was never resident at WarriKukuiye, the first resident pastor, was followed by Sodeinde, then QsQbaOluwadareAbitola, and Agbayawa. It was not until the forties that theAfricanChurch in Urhobo produced their own part-time church teacher in the person of Okirhienyefa.[7]

Okirhienyefa, of Ekrerhavwe, joined the AfricanChurch as a child when he attended their primary school in 1923, a course he completed at the WarriAfricanChurchSchool in 1930. He taught only from 1931-32 at Orhokpo before he resigned and became a tailor. From 1942 onwards he functioned also as a part-time, untrained and unpaid catechist (or church teacher), visiting African Church stations: Egbo,EkakpamreUrhiephronOwhorodeEruemukohwaienEkiugvoOdodeghoOvwoOkpareOtokutu,Orhuwhorun etc. from 1948 he became a salaried catechist but was still untrained until 1951 when he was trained at Agege, Lagos, as a pastor.

On the completion of the course he was ordained a deacon on January 31, 1954 at BethelAfricanChurchLagos, by one Lakeru, the African Church Primate. He was priested on 16th December 1956 at Warri by J. P. Jiboku, then Bishop of Ondo-Delta Division. During most of his deaconhoodOkirhienyefa served in Isoko. Form Okpe, his station in Isoko, he visited AviaraOfagveOwdokpokpoIgbide etc.[8]

While he was in Isoko, the AfricanChurch in Urhobo was experiencing a crisis resulting from a conflict between one M.E. Okorefe and G. L. KqlaQleKqlawQle is generally regarded as the first AfricanChurch pastor to reside in the interior of Urhobo.[9] He was posted to Ekakpamre in 1950.[10] While he was there, Okorefe was said to have gone to training without the knowledge and consent of the local church and pastor. Thus on the recommendation of the local church, it was said KqlawQle wrote to the Bishop in Lagos to withdraw Okorefe.[11]

When he came, though unordained, he attempted to make himself a pastor of Urhobo African churches, which he called Christ Urhobo Church and so to become the manager of AfricanChurch schools. In an attempt to counteract Okorefe’s claim of the African churches and schools, Kolawole wrote to the District Officer at Ughelli, to complain of the treatment which was given to him at the meeting of the local Council at Agbarho. It appeared that the Local Council was delegated by the District Officer to settle the palaver between Okorefe and KqlawQle. The Council summoned the AfricanChurch to Eruemukohwoarien as his witness. He maintained that Okerefe had no right to usury AfricanChurch property and members. If he chose to secede from the African Church and start a new church which he called Christ Urhobo Church, he was welcome to do so, but he must leave Africa Church property intact and ensure that the sum of £34: IOS, which the members owed him was paid back. Because of the people’s intransigence KqlawQle appealed for the District Officer’s intervention.[12]

But before a reply could be given to his letter, KqlawQle wrote another letter indicating that he would resume duties in the AfricanChurchSchool at Oguname and that at Orhokpokpo. He also registered his protest against anyone who attempted to open a new school in either of the above stations “as it is contrary to Education Principal (sic)”.[13]

According to him “there was a letter which he (Okorefe) used to show that he got authority to be pastor from the D.O.”. On receipt of this letter the District Officer aptly remarked “ the D.O. does not appoint pastors”.[14] This tussle for supremacy adversely affected AfricanChurch schools in Oguname and OrhokpokpoAgabdu-the hot bed of the conflict.

It is patent that the struggle to become pastor is here motivated by the material gain accruing therefrom, especially by reason of the managerial control of church primary schools. These schools were plainly erected not so much for the benefit of the populace as for the benefit of the pastor. They were generally in a disgraceful condition. Indeed one of them (that at Ododegho) was described as “merely a roof on sticks”.[15]

One of the results of the conflict between Kolawole and Okorefe was the transfer of the former from Urhobo back to Yorubaland, and the ejection or secession Okorefe from the AfricanChurch. Thereafter Okirhienyefa was sent from Isoko to Ekakpamre from where he took charge of Urhobo and Isoko churches. Okorefe who broke away to form his own church-UrhoboChirst Church-later on saw the futility of this action, and upon recanting, was re-admitted into the African Church, and ordained in 1965. Up till then Okirhienyefa was the only Urhobo ordained AfricanChurchmember, assisted by such Church agents as Mrabure of Eruemukohwarien, and D. E. Ovadje of Okpe in Isoko.

Conclusion

The AfricanChurch by 1961, was still a poorly organised institution. Its leadership, though African, was seldom Urhobo. In spite of its main appeal of polygamy, it did not, and still does not, command as much respect and membership as did the C.M.S., or the R.C.M. or even the Baptist. By 1961 there was as yet only one Urhobo ordained to its priesthood. It had primary schools but they were in a ludicrous condition. It had no other thing to impress the indigenous population and hold them spellbound.


[1] Although the AfricanChurch was introduced to Warri about 1912, (see Webster, op.cit., p. 107) it was not until 1915-16 that it became known in Urhobo interior.
[2] Interview with OmofoyeEmuakpo,24 August 1970.
[3] See E. A. Ayandele, Holy Johnson, op.cit. p. 255ff. In fact, the ill-treatment of Bishop Johnson by Bishop Tugwell is said to have led to the founding of AfricanBethelChurch. See statement by Chief A. Coker in Sunday Times 26 September, 1971, p. 10. It must, however, be mentioned that those in Urhobo knew very little about the Hohnson-Tugwell tension.
[4] Interview with QmofoyeEmuakpo,16 April 1971.
[5] Compare the case of the Baptist at Okwagbe.
[6] A souvenir in honour of theordinatin of Rev. Father Chirstopher E. Obiah,29 December 1968, pp. 3 and 4.
[7] As in the C.M.S. it was the Itsekiri who in Warri first played a leading role. Some of the earlist members included Pessu, and OmatsolaAghogigin’s half brother who was the first AfricanChurch pastor from the area. There is, however, one J. D. Ifode from isoko, who left the C.M.S. in the early forties and was ordained in the forties into a different branch of the AfricanChurch, the U.N.A., which is hardly to be found in Urhoboland. Consequently he worked in Benin and later in Sapele, the only place where that Church had a foothold in Urhobo.
[8] Interview with okirhienyefa, Archdeacon of the AfricanChurch, aged 55, at Warri17 August 1971.
[9] But according to S. G. Mukoro, (pastor at Ekakpamre) when for a time Warri could not pay Kukuiye’s salary, he came to stay at Ekakpamre, for a while.
[10]Mukoro says, 1948.
[11] Interview with MukoroAfricanChurch pastor, aged 38, at Ekakpamre21 August 1971. But Okirhienyefa, African Church Archdeacon, said that Okorefe returned because he failed his examination.
[12]Ughelli Dist. 1:1707/1 Kolawole to D.O. Ughelli.
[13]Ughelli District 1:1707/1 Kolawole to D.O. Ughelli (not dated).
[14] Ibid. D.O.’s remark on the above, to the P.E.O., 2 July, 1953.
[15]Ughelli District I: 1707/1: D.O.’s note to the P.E.O., 6 December, 1954.

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