Synonymous with the traditions of Yoruba land, divination beads are cast every morning at the King palace to find out what the future holds not only for the king’s household but for his people.
On a fateful morning, in the household of Sodeke, Balogun of Egba, the diviner predicted the coming of a white man. According to the Ifa oracle, the coming of this white man will signal peace and progress of the town and its people.
Prior to that time on the 1st of June 1840, a meeting was being held in a building bearing the inscription ‘Exeter Hall’ in London, England. Its objective was to establish and organise a means of ‘evangelism’ on newly-discovered lands in West Africa with the aid of explorers like Mungo Park, the Lander brothers, Richard and John and others. One of the missionaries sent out to Africa at the end of the Exeter meeting was a young man named Henry Townsend.
Townsend arrived Sierra Leone where freed slaves from Britain had been settled and found two freed slaves to accompany him on this journey who coincidentally, were from Abeokuta. Mr Andrew Wilhelm and Mr. John Michael had both been converted to Christianity and so were eager as well as interested in returning home in order to share the good news of the kingdom with their kinsmen. They touched down the shores of Nigeria in December 1842 by boat in Badagry and journeyed to Abeokuta arriving on the 4th of January, 1843. Their first Christian service was held under a tree in Badagry.
The acclaimed warrior Balogun Sodeke who history says to be the one founder of Abeokuta in 1830 received the group warmly since their arrival had already been predicted. He was, in fact, said to have requested the ‘white man’ to sit on his (Sodeke’s) laps, as a sign of sincere hospitality and acceptability. Other chiefs who played hosts to the visitor include Okeken, Ogundipe, Osundare, Ogundeji, Ogunsona and Daddy Pedro Martins. It was a unanimous decision that the visitors would have their residence in Ake owing to its significance to the Egbas, they were given three acres of land to build on.
The first message was preached by Townsend from the book of Luke chapter 14:12-24, on January 5, 1843, in Chief Sodeke’s house. Mr Andrew Wilhelm the Egba ex-slave who was already a catechist, severed as an interpreter. On January 10, 1843, Henry had to go Sierra Leone from then on move back to England for his ordination. Sodeke gave him gifts which included an elephant tusk, a big white goat and twenty cowries in a covered calabash. Ajayi Crowther (the first Nigerian to be ordained) and Rev.C.A. Golmer travelled together with him for their ordination on January 18, 1844. While he was away, Wilhelm oversaw the work in Abeokuta.
On January 17, 1845, almost a year after his ordination, the newly ordained with their wives returned to Badagry but to the consternation of Townsend, his benefactor Chief Sodeke had passed on. History and rumor has it that Sodeke who was seen to be an ally of the Christian ‘usurpers’ died of poisoning from the traditional worshippers who feared that their religion was becoming extinct owing to the flourish of Christianity under the auspices of Wilhelm. Part of the land given to Townsend by Sodeke was used to erect a building simply referred to as ‘Ake Church’ in 1844. The walls and seats were of clay while palm fronds were used to cover it. The zealous preaching of Wilhelm lead to large converts as this only infuriated the traditional worshipers more and this led to the burning down of the first church in Nigeria in 1846.
Unfortunately for the traditional worshipers, this act of gross mayhem didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the Christian folk. On the contrary, more converts were taken and their territory enlarged both numerically and physically. With help from Exeter in England, the burnt church was rebuilt and dedicated on the 21st of March, 1847 costing a total of thirty pounds. It was named ‘Exeter’ and was the first building in the whole town to be covered with corrugated iron roofing sheets.
Townsend and Crowther weren’t deterred by the ongoing work at the church as they held services in front of the house where they were resided in 13″ by 6″ rooms in Oso Ligegene, Ake. Attendance later increased to about 200 members. By 1852, the number of worshippers had increased so greatly that they needed to expand the church at the cost of two hundred pounds. The extended church was dedicated on March 17, 1859 by Bishop Brown who came in from Sierra Leone. At that service, a priest was ordained, while one hundred and eighty members were confirmed by the Bishop.
In 1856, Oba Okukenu, the then Alake of Abeokuta, wrote a letter to London in which he acknowledged that though he remained a heat hen himself, Christianity was making a tremendous impact for good, peace, liberty and security and he showered encomiums on the missionaries for the marvellous work they were doing among his people. By 1898, there was the need to expand the church again because of its enlarged membership.
A new church was then built and completed in 1990 and the church, in 1986, attained the status of a Cathedral thus, necessitating the need for a befitting building to accommodate the ever-increasing population of believers. In 1979, a building committee, chaired by Nigeria’s Simeon Adebo, was able to raise N1,797,671.91, which was expended on the 2,000 seater auditorium of the church. Late Archbishop, Most Rev. T.O. Olufosoye dedicated the present church building on August 2, 1986. In April 20, 1982 when Most Rev. Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop, of Canterbury visited Nigeria, he made a call to the Sodeke’s compound in Abeokuta and he was received by the head of the family, Pa Oladeinde Sodeke who thrilled him to stories of how their great-grandfather magnanimously received the first British missionaries. Rev. J.J Ransome-kuti, Fela’s grandfather was the first provost of the church.
Egba Ake, ibe ni gbagbo ti bere, se b’awa Egba l’oni Jesu.
Piece Submitted by SOFELA CEDAR ABAYOMI.O
Edited and Art Piece by ASIRI