If you are looking for a publication where the A-Z story of Mojola Agbebi, the first President of the Nigeria Baptist Convention is well captured, you need not look far.
You only need to lay your hands on a newly published collection titled, Mojola Agbebi: Christian Thinker, social reformer, black leader.
The journal is put together by Ayodeji Abodunde. A biographer and consummate writer who has distinguished himself over the years in chronicling the history of the Church in Nigeria.
Incidentally, May 24 makes it the 106th anniversary of Agbebi’s transition. But the story of this reformer as captured by Abodunde is not only timeless but enchanting.
It is the story of a man who lived decades ahead of his time. The author searched everywhere imaginable to glean facts and figures concerning Agbebi; presenting them in a fluid and flawless manner.
Beyond writing about Agbebi, the collection also tells the story of the socio-politico emancipation of Nigeria. It tells the story of Agbebi’s wife and how the Baptist Church in Nigeria evolved. It also has snippets of important characters that shaped African theology.
Mourned all over British Africa
In his opening note, titled, I struggle for a rising Africa, Abodunde states that when Mojola Agbebi died in May 1917 “he was mourned all over British West Africa as a loss to the cause of Africa patriotism and the African Church”
“New Yorker John Edward Bruce, an influential African American journalist, and an ardent Agbebi fan eulogised him in these words, “He is gone and a star in its brilliance has set. But the light of his beauty we will never forget”
It is the beauty of that life that Abodunde encapsulated in the publication which is divided into about 14 chapters; beautifully laid out in a magazine form.
The author takes a historical excursion to the very beginning when Agbebi was known as David Brown Vincent. He later changed his name to reflect his African heritage. By the mid-1880s Agbebi according to Abodunde, “had begun to advocate that Africans were to be proud of their colour, culture, race, and language.
He was a celebrated poet whose poems stirred the hearts of men. But his writing career as noted by Abodunde was perhaps just a bit of his life. His evangelical devotion, commitment to social reform, and his Afrocentric persuasions also run through the journal.
Born in Ilesa
Agbebi was the third of six children. “He was born in Ilesa on April 10 1860 and was named David Brown Vincent.
“His parents were Saros-returnee slaves from Sierra-Leone descendants. As a young man, his father, George Agbebi Vincent from Oyo Ekiti had been enslaved but liberated en route to the Americas by the British Navy and subsequently resettled in Sierra Leone”
His mother on the other hand was, according to conflicting reports as noted by Abodunde born in Sierra Leone to parents of “Moko” and Igbo ancestry.
“According to historian Richard Anderson, Moko was a designation for a group of liberated Africans in Sierra Leone which scholars have variously identified as “people from the Bight of Biafra hinterland; Ibibio speakers who were wholly associated with Anang and people coming from the region of Calabar and Cameroon Rivers.”
Agbebi’s father first to start Church in Ilesa
Agbebi’s father was said to have become a Christian in Sierra Leone through the efforts of the Church Missionary Society. He was part of the movement which began in 1839 of liberated slaves in Sierra Leone returning to their homeland.
He relocated to Ilesa in 1859 and was responsible for establishing and organising the CMS mission and the first Christian congregation in town.”
Mojola Agbebi was born a year after in 1860. But his parents never knew he would become a strong voice for the church and indeed for Africans.
Abodunde notes further that Mojola Agbebi began his primary education at the CMS station at Kudeti, under Samuel Johnson (author of the history of the Yoruba).
In 1866, he was sent to Lagos to live with a relative from where he attended CMS Faji Elementary School for six years graduating in 1874.
Agbebi’s educational exposure
Agbebi seldom had books because he could not afford them. But he earned the respect of his teachers. He attended CMS Training Institution from 1875-1877 where he turned out to be a distinction student.
Ironically, Abodunde notes that the CMS Training Institution turned out to be the end of formal education for Agbebi. But he made up for this “through voracious reading and lifelong learning such that he was able to distinguish himself as one of the most learned sons of Africa.”
Agbebi was later employed as a teacher at CMS Faji Elementary where he met Adeotan who turned out to be his wife later in life. He left the school in 1880 and even taught at Roman Catholic and Methodist schools in Porto Novo for about two years before returning to Nigeria.
But the intriguing thing about Agbebi is that he experienced the new birth at the First Baptist Church in Lagos where he made a public profession of his faith in Jesus Christ and repentance from sin. The news of his conversion was reported in the defunct Lagos Times because of his status in society.
Movement to Baptist as worker
That experience marked his change of denomination. But he was never bugged down by denominational sentiment. The author notes in the collection that he regarded denominations as one of the non-essentials.
It is instructive that one of those who influenced Agbebi was Amanda Smith, an African American holiness preacher and missionary who conducted revival meetings in Lagos in 1886.
Agbebi and his wife were baptised on April 14, 1884. He later joined the workforce of the Lagos Baptist as a church worker and teacher in its academy.
But that was not all. In 1886, Agbebi had another glorious encounter that launched him into his destiny as a reformer and social crusader.
The author notes that Agbebi came to a point where he felt led to champion the Africanisation of the gospel. He came to the conclusion that the solution to African evangelisation was the planting and nurturing of churches that were independent of the white missionaries.
Abodunde devoted considerable space to telling the story of Agbebi’s intellectual prowess and contribution to the body of knowledge.
Amazing scriptural knowledge
But the bulk of the journal dwells on his involvement with the first indigenous Church in Nigeria which was called the Native Baptist Church and how Agbebi helped to provide a theological framework for the earliest church protest movement.
Drawing from the account of the journal, Agbebi cuts the picture of a man whose knowledge of Scripture was unparallel. His ability to draw deep revelation from scripture is noteworthy.
For instance, his interpretation of Luke 1v36-37 “And this is the sixth month with her who was called barren, for with God nothing shall be impossible” to reflect a new dawn for Christianity in Africa is mind-blowing. He did an exegesis on bareness, the sixth month, and “God who made the declaration”.
Also of note was his desire for the Church to be as pragmatic as possible. For instance, he believed the church should leave its comfort zone, “dare to engage people in whatever context they lived, adapt without distorting the message, and thereby haul thousands into the kingdom of God”
Preach heaven into men
He was also quoted as saying, “Christian Missionary enterprise in West Africa is to this day an experiment. The gospel may be good news indeed, but it ceased to be news to many of our people…To use an apparently contradictory expression, we have to cease to preach men into heaven and begin to preach heaven into men.
“We have to cease to preach men out of hellfire and damnation and preach damnation and hellfire out of men. We have to be supremely earnest in teaching men how to live and be carefully indifferent as to how they die. Stephen the irrepressible deacon, was stoned to death, and Christ, the Lord and Giver of Life was nailed to a tree.”
Agbebi turned out to be an iconoclast who did not conform to the cultural norm of the Europeans who brought the gospel. For instance, the author notes that he repudiated the idea of Africans aping the white man’s cultural lifestyle.
“He made a sharp distinction between the message of the Bible and the culture of Western Europe. He wanted all of the former and none of the latter”
He decried the many rules and human inhibitions introduced by the whites which made it difficult for many to embrace the gospel.
President of Nigeria Baptist Convention
The journal gives a lucid account of how the Nigerian Baptist Church evolved. In the later years of his ministry, Agbebi was said to have had issues with the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he had earlier played a prominent role. He left the church and formed Araromi Baptist Church which enabled him to engage in aggressive missions.
The new church was intensely evangelical. The author notes that the membership of the churches under Agbebi’s mission in Yorubaland and the Niger Delta outstripped that of all the Churches of the Southern Baptist mission in Nigeria.
How then did Agbebi become the pioneer president of the Nigerian Baptist Convention? Abodunde writes, “In 1914, after more than two decades of cold-shouldering, the American missionaries and their Nigerian counterparts in the Native Baptist Churches were reunited.
“That year the foreign Baptist Mission churches and the independent Baptist churches together formed the Yoruba Baptist Association renamed Nigerian Baptist Convention in 1919. In deference to his towering stature, Agbebi was elected as the first president of the Yoruba Baptist Association.”
The 100-page journal contains stories of many other important characters in the history of the church and the political space in Nigeria.
The fiery trial
It concludes with the fiery trial that Agbebi and his wife faced between 1897 and 1911. They lost four of their children. This did not stop Agbebi’s evangelical zeal. But his health suffered a major setback in the early part of 1917 which led to his transition on May 24, 1917.
Abodunde’s effort in producing the collection on Agbebi is commendable. The depth of research and painstaking collection of information on the subject matter is simply incredible. From the bibliography, the author must have consulted over 200 publications while writing the story of Agbebi.
For a long time, the journal will remain a reference point and a one-stop publication on Agbebi, the man that lived decades ahead of his time.
Review by Gbenga Osinaike