Nigeria’s Civil War Revival and the Legacy of “Pa” Sydney Elton by Prof. Gary Maxey

by Church Times

2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the “beginning of the end” of the greatest Christian revival in Nigeria’s history. For Nigeria, it was a revival surpassing any previous one, and one that has not been repeated since. Thankfully there are still people living today who were a part of that great movement, though their numbers are beginning to rapidly dwindle. Being only now in the fortieth year of my sojourn in this country I had no personal involvement, though I arrived in the early 1980s when the spiritual and social wake of the revival was still clearly in evidence.


Pa Elton

It is important that genuine revivals be remembered. The inevitable multitude of local stories they produce must be recounted again and again—and hopefully with careful accuracy. Revivals are by their nature cyclical, and among people who have been visited by biblical revival, the possibility of a revisitation of the Holy Spirit is always a hopeful prospect. “O God, will you not revive us again?” is the prayer of the psalmist (Ps. 85:6).


Several capable researchers and writers have given us faithful and fairly accurate accounts of what happened between the early to mid-1960s and the mid-1970s that constituted a large revival movement first in western and then eastern and later northern Nigeria. However, in recent times we are also seeing a growing number of popular descriptions of the Civil War Revival that are inaccurate and misleading. I hope I can say a few things that will help us to speak more accurately about this great movement of God in our country.


Nigeria’s Civil War Revival was the first notable evangelical revival in this nation. Other dynamic revivals following the pattern of 19th– and 20th-century global revivals had visited African nations for well over 100 years. The first major African revivals of that description were in South Africa in the 1860s, among the Dutch Reformed and the Methodists. The most dynamic of all African revivals (some say the most dynamic globally) was the East Africa Revival, which erupted in the late 1920s and continued in repeated cycles in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, and beyond for more than 50 years!


Prof Gary Maxey


Earlier revivals in Nigeria—the Garrick Braide revival in the Niger delta (1914-1918), the Joseph Babalola revival in western Nigeria (the 1930s), and the Latter Rain Revival (mid-1950s) were not classical evangelical revivals but were rather focused largely and dynamically on divine healing. All three of them were geographically circumscribed. By contrast, the Civil War Revival was the first Nigerian revival to spread to geographic zones in the west, the east, and the north. It was not a healing revival, but rather revolved around the classical revival themes of repentance, new birth, restitution, and evangelism, as well as a focus on the immanence of Christ’s Second Coming.


Some have labeled this the Charismatic Revival, but therein lies a subtle inaccuracy. The revival had its origins within the orbit of the Scripture Union as well as under the influence of British professors sent to nascent university campuses with the declared purpose of winning students to Christ. On those campuses, in the early years, the Pentecostal influence was very slim.

The primary reason was that at Independence in 1960 Pentecostalism constituted only a tiny slice of Nigerian Christianity (by some estimates, only 200,000 in total), and was hard to be found on the university campuses in those earliest years. What that leads me to note is that the Civil War Revival was a purely evangelical revival in its origins, but a movement which after approximately five years was significantly “Pentecostalized.”


Ayodeji Abodunde gives much credit for this “Pentecostalization” to “Pa” Sydney Elton, whose legacy I will summarize below. Elton was a British missionary sent to Nigeria by the Apostolic Church of the UK, in 1937. He was based in Ilesa, western Nigeria, and lived there for fifty years, passing away in 1987.


During the earliest years of the Civil War Revival Elton was a regular and cherished speaker on Nigerian university campuses, though it would be a misunderstanding to picture him as a primary force behind the early revival movement. He was one of many reaching out on university campuses. In those early days, Elton’s message was deliberately non-confrontational with respect to his Pentecostal convictions about the Baptism with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. Here is what Abodunde says:


Elton was only one of a number of expatriates who were regular speakers at students’ meetings. [Others included] Tony Wilmot, a British Christian businessman who pioneered evangelical work among students in Africa in the mid-1950s; John Dean . . . Jane Sutton . . . Alan Rees. . . . Elton’s teachings on the campuses during this period focused on the popular themes of Christian growth and deeper spirituality, and to a lesser degree, on the Pentecostal themes.


A turning of the tide came, however, in 1967 when Elton was invited as the main speaker at a conference called in Ilesa for the formation of the Nigeria Fellowship of Evangelical Students (NIFES). There, to the embarrassment of those who had invited him, as well as the discomfort of many of his hearers, he focused squarely and insistently on the Pentecostal experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues.


For Elton and many others, this was a major turning point. From that point forward Elton’s message was strong and forceful, promoting the absolute necessity of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and tongues, and insisting that there be no compromise with those who disagreed. With that, a movement which had started as a purely evangelical revival was gradually transformed into a Pentecostal campaign.

Over the following years, both on-campus student organizations and the Scripture Union were forced into the debate, as though there was no possibility of compromise or mutual acceptance, unity, respect, and brotherhood. Regrettably, by the early 1970s, it gradually became clear that a death knell had been sounded for the revival. What could have and should have become a truly national revival was gradually splintered into a thousand disunited pieces.


These same controversies were carried into Nigeria’s long-established churches. There was little or no prophetic voice for unity, nor the wisdom it would have taken to pursue it. One of the tragedies of the revival is that most of Nigeria’s long-standing churches were almost wholly bypassed by the deep movements of the Holy Spirit felt on university campuses, Scripture Union camps, and elsewhere. Though many of the larger church groups eventually began to wake up—long after the fires of the Civil War Revival had died down—they were almost universally spiritually asleep during the heat of the revival.

In retrospect, it would seem that a unified and Holy Spirit-driven leadership could surely have averted such an outcome. Instead, the cry went out for revived young people to leave their churches and form their own congregations. It was the beginning of divisiveness in Nigerian Christianity that is still with us today—a direct result of the mishandling of a great move of the Holy Spirit.

Because of its relatively narrow social impact, there is no demonstrable connection between the Civil War Revival and the national economic boom of the 1970s. The ills of the nation were not healed because of this revival, though they could have been had the revival continued on in the manner experienced in the East Africa Revival. As great as this revival was, I believe there is much to be regretted about its untimely demise.

The Legacy of “Pa” Elton

How are we to assess the role of “Pa” Sydney Elton? My life and his here in Nigeria overlapped by five years. However, though I heard him speak once, in Warri, I never really knew him. I regret that I did not know him well. I believe he was a great man who made many great contributions, and those contributions should be remembered, even though they may not be the entire story.

FIRST, Sydney Elton worked harder than anyone in his own day to mass-distribute good and wholesome Christian literature. In that regard, he was following some of the same impulses that fueled the Scripture Union. It is not easy to exaggerate the role the SU played in the instilling of Bible reading, Scripture memorization, and the reading of excellent Christian literature. Their encouragement of both a daily quiet time and family devotion time—hammered home over a multi-decade period—left a stamp on Nigerian Christianity that is still there.

I love to remind people of what Mike Oye told me about Sydney Elton more than five years ago. He knew Elton well. He assured me that in his estimation the greatest contribution Sydney Elton ever made to Nigeria was his faithful distribution for many years of the American-based Herald of His Coming Magazine.

Elton eventually distributed 200,000 copies monthly, as well as translations into Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, and Efik. Interestingly, however, the Herald was a non-Pentecostal publication focusing on articles by the great revival and holiness writers of the past: John Wesley, Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, Oswald J. Smith, John Hyde, Francis Asbury, etc. These were the very men whose writings the Scripture Union had also encouraged and promoted over the years.

SECOND, Sydney Elton was especially drawn to young people. His ministry to them carried an enormous impact. For the most part, he did not channel his ministry through denominational structures. Rather, he felt most at home when he ministered in schools and especially on university campuses.

There he could see multitudes of young lives caught up in social confusion and looking for certainty in the midst of real or imagined chaos. Young people who were questioning the authority systems in which they had been nurtured found in Elton a reassuring voice of hope. Thousands responded to his clear calls for salvation and commitment to God. Gradually he became a veritable oracle for young people looking for guidance.

THIRD, Elton had a gift for voicing a prophetic note of hope and a secure future as the years progressed. As his reputation increased, he became a beacon for growing numbers of younger people, pointing them to confidence in a God-ordained positive future both for themselves and for the entire nation. Elton is seldom disappointed. He could be counted on. At the same time, he was a prophet with a helping hand, even materially. Sincere young people sensing a call into Christian ministry and who eventually began flocking to Ilesha to see him did not go away disappointed. He would pray for them, prophesy over them, and send them away loaded with tracts, books, and often with money in their pockets.

All of these qualities of Elton deserve praise and emulation. Yet it was not the whole story. Eventually, Elton wielded influence in three negative directions, all of which I believe eventually served to dampen or extinguish the revival fires.

FOURTH, as I have already hinted, at least by the late 1960s Elton deliberately preached a divisive message. He was not hesitant to malign those who did not accept his Pentecostal theology, even though it did not align with some of the Christian fundamentals as taught by most churches. I believe a lack of wisdom in this area proved very costly for all of us.

Abodunde again notes:

Elton, a Holy Ghost preacher through and through, would never compromise his Pentecostal beliefs and preferred to go only where he could preach “his message.” While preaching at the Chapel of Resurrection of the University of Ibadan (UI) in 1971, he told the story of how he declined an invitation from his close friend, Bishop John Falope, a notable Anglican priest and strong supporter of the evangelical revival among university students, to preach in his parish.

When Falope asked why, he replied, “If I come, I will split your church down the line into two, you will take half and I will take the other half.” That made the point. “I am friends and want to be friends with every one of them [non-Pentecostal churches and groups] and if they will invite me into their churches to preach this vision, I will go. But I know what will happen. It will divide. It’s bound to do. Light divides. When you bring light there will be those who will say, ‘Yes, we accept;’ there will be those who will say, ‘No, we reject.’ . . . It’s bound to happen. It will happen throughout the whole of Nigeria.”

FIFTH, beginning at least by the early 1970s, Elton urged hundreds of his young followers to leave their churches and establish their own “neo-Pentecostal” congregations. This is surely one of the most worrisome results of the Civil War Revival. It proved to be especially disastrous in eastern Nigeria, but eventually all over the country.

It did not take long before there were massive further divisions, leadership tussles, lack of accountability, unchecked immorality, heretical teachings, etc., often with no one to provide accountability. The direct result is that today we have literally tens of thousands of churches in Nigeria—more than any other country in the world. A very high percentage operate independently. No other man is more responsible for that outcome than Elton.

SIXTH, and a related issue, Elton personally modeled unscriptural independence, without ecclesiastical accountability. He came to Nigeria in 1937, but by 1954 he bolted away from the leadership of his mission after they reprimanded him for disobeying authority. He eventually realized that he was wrong about the substance of his disobedience, but he never again came under external accountability or authority. He thereby set a pattern that has become a national ecclesiastical curse in our own generation, with tens of thousands of Nigerian pastors claiming no authority or accountability but presumably to God alone.

I cannot doubt that virtually any man or woman who has been active for God will have made both positive and negative contributions. That is why without losing gratitude for Elton’s positive contributions we must recognize likewise that there were decidedly negative ones. That is why we must never lionize any fallible human agent! While we can whole-heartedly thank God for the many good things achieved by this man, away with more hagiographies that turn ordinary and fallible human beings into super-saints and flawless heroes. That is not helpful.

Let us be fair and balanced as we look back. Exaggerations are not helpful. I often remind my students that God does not need our help to “look good.” He is quite okay without our confusing hype. Let us stop exaggerating holy things.

For example, during the Civil War Revival miraculous signs and wonders were present. However, the miraculous played a decidedly subordinate role. Miracles were there, but they were almost always understood to be co-incidental. No one was advertising it. The primary point was that people were genuinely repenting, making restitution, and living transformed lives as a result. There was a marked focus on holy living. People were fleeing from worldliness and focusing on evangelism and the expectation of the Second Coming.


Elton’s Prophecies

But what about Elton’s prophecies? Today they are held in deep reverence by many in Nigeria. To what extent are his prophecies valid? Ultimately, that is what each of us must determine for ourselves. However, I offer a few suggestions.

We must understand his prophecies in part in the light of his Apostolic Church background. Within that movement, there are not one but three pieces of evidence of the baptism with the Holy Spirit, and especially for church leaders: speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy. Elton was a thorough-going Pentecostal and a faithful Apostolic Church elder. He, therefore, had a lifelong compulsion to prophesy. He was a transparently godly man, yet beyond that, he carried with him an aura of authority because of his compulsion to prophesy.

This is a primary quality that led hundreds of Nigerian young people to flock to Ilesa, so Elton could pray and prophesy over them. He was a sorely longed-for oracle during times of youthful confusion. Though during the last five years of his life some of his prophecies echoed the growing divisiveness among his young followers, the vast majority assumed that he had a gift that few others possessed. Perhaps we should be reminded that there are among us today mature men of God who are much less prophetic-inclined in temperament, but who should be taken more seriously as conveyors of divine wisdom.

Nigeria and her prophetic destiny

Does Nigeria have a prophetic destiny? That is a tough question. Nigeria is a modern country, though not a “nation” in the biblical sense. It was cobbled together by foreign interlopers. Is God’s destiny for the Kanuri or the Fulanis to be equated with his destiny for the Yorubas or Igbos? Should they all be mentioned in the same breath? At the same time, to believe that Nigeria is inevitably bound to be God’s voice to the continent and to the world because of a human prophecy overlooks the fact that these matters are always synergistic.

I will always believe God can bring national revival and godly international influence out of virtually any nation. God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). But God is also not willing that any nation should forsake truth and salvation, but should rather become his instrument for global revival. At the same time, Nigerian believers who cling to prophetic words but who remain in their ever-growing greed, materialism and pride are fooling themselves.


I conclude by saying that we must never disparage the truly wonderful things that happened during the Civil War Revival. It was truly a great revival. It was genuine. Thousands of lives were transformed, and huge numbers are still standing today. Most of our older leaders felt its impact and are still inspired by it today. I believe we are right to get on our knees and pray to God that he will revive us again, and complete the good work that was started then. Hallelujah!


Professor Gary Maxey an American; is the founder of West Africa Theological Seminary and author of many books including   (Capturing a Lost Vision: Can Nigeria’s Greatest Revival Live Again?)




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