As we begin celebrating Black History Month my thoughts race to African History. The period of African History that I have been reflecting on is the origins of African Nationalism. This reflection was also inspired by current situations such as the right to sue the British government finally won by the three Mau Mau veterans. Their story is one that echoes the issues of justice, reparation, end of colonialism and African Nationalism that the African nationals were fighting for. In these series, I shall be considering the life and contributions of 3 African nationals who fought through literary skills, oratory gifts and exemplary life styles to emancipate Africans from colonial rule. These 3 men are also Church men who articulated what would be later regarded as an African theology of liberation rooted in the Old Testament Prophetic Tradition. These men are, Dr Mojola Agbebi, A Baptist minister and activist who was involved in bringing about African Cultural Nationalism. Rev Moses Ladejo Stone, another Baptist minister who founded the first indigenous Baptist Church (The Native Baptist Church) in West Africa and Dr James E.K. Aggrey, an educationist and exponent of inter-racial unity. All these men fought throughout their lives for African nationalism. Let us begin with Dr Mojola Agbebi.
Mojola Abgebi was born with the Creole names David Vincent Brown at Ilesha (now in Osun State, Nigeria) on the 10th of April 1860. His father was one of the recaptive slaves that went back to Nigeria from Freetown in Sierra Leone. This means that his father was a Creole (Sierra Leonean) as well as a Yoruba man (from Ekiti now in Ekiti State in Nigeria). This dual heritage is important in Agbebi’s upbringing in terms of lessons from slavery and its impact on African culture. Part of that heritage was that his birth name was David Vincent Brown which he later changed to Mojola Agbebi. Eight years after Agbebi’s birth he was sent to a Church Missionary Society (CMS) school in Lagos. He attended this school until 1874 after which he attended the CMS training school for three years. At the age of seventeen in 1877 he became a CMS school master at Faji Day school and did this till 1880 when he was dismissed by CMS authorities over matters of routine. Between 1880 and 1883 he worked with various Church missions such as the Catholic, Methodist and American Baptist mission in Porto Novo in Benin Republic. He was later involved with the First Baptist Church in Lagos founded by American Baptists becoming one of the native leaders alongside the ordained native pastor, Rev Moses Ladejo Stone. Due to the mistreatment of Rev Moses Ladejo Stone by American Baptist missionaries, secession occurred that led to the founding of the first indigenous Baptist Church in Nigeria known as the Native Baptist Church in 1888. Rev Stone became the leader of this Church and serving alongside him was Mojola Agbebi. Agbebi introduced to the people of Native Baptist Church the idea of self supporting, self government and self propagating which were nationalistic ideas gaining ground then among indigenous Churches and organisations. He also encouraged the congregation to retain their native names, wear native dress and embrace African culture and customs. Although Agbebi was a dynamic Church leader his nationalistic spirit and contribution was through his writings. It is said that he edited all newspapers published in Lagos between 1880 and 1914. During this period he worked on the Lagos Times, the Lagos Weekly Record and the most successful Lagos newspaper then, The Lagos Observer. In 1889, he published a small book titled, ‘Africa and the Gospel’. In this pamphlet, he articulated the creation of African Churches. He declared, “To render Christianity indigenous to Africa, it must be watered by native hands, pruned with native hatchet and tended with native earth….. It is a curse if we intend for ever to hold at the apron strings of foreign teachers, doing the baby for aye” His view here is no surprise why he supported Rev Stone and the founding of Native Baptist Church. Agbebi was also a strong advocate of cultural nationalism and to this end he embraced and studied African cultures and religion. This is why in 1894 while in Liberia he changed his name from David Vincent Brown to Mojola Agbebi to demonstrate his appreciation of African culture and customs. It was also in Liberia that he met E.W. Blyden and was awarded honourary degrees of MA and PHD for his racial fidelity and literary ability. It must be mentioned that Agbebi was already articulating an African indigenous Church before he met Blyden who share similar views.
Part of Agbebi’s cultural nationalism was the change of clothing from European to African clothing. He would wear his Agbada (Yoruba clothing) in the cold weathers of Britain and the USA. He also did not appreciate the resettled slaves in Liberia who were behaving like Americans in Africa. He told them to disperse into the interior and be absorbed into African culture. In addition, he made attempts to reconcile Christianity with African institutions and customs. He did this by collecting African gods for study, instructed converts in local languages and appreciation of African arts and music. Agbebi believed that if European missionaries had taken time to understand African religions and culture it would have helped indigenise Christianity among Africans. In this thought, he predated the ideas later articulated by African theologians such as Bolaji Idowu, John S Mbiti and Kwesi Dickson.
In 1903 and 1904, he toured Britain and USA lecturing on African customs. Among the places he lectured and visited was the University of New York where he received another honourary Doctor of Divinity Degree (DD). In 1908, he married Adeotan Sikuade and they had several children. He gave his children African names and one of such is Ibironke. Four of his children died in 1916 and he himself died a year after on Thursday 17th of May 1917. But Before his death in 1917, in 1910, he co-founded with Bishop James Johnson and other nationalists such as Herbert Macaulay (renowned Nigerian Nationalist and grandson of Bishop Ajayi Crowther) the Lagos auxiliary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. This was a humanitarian and quasi-political group that advocated for the socio-political needs of Nigerians before the British colonial government. Agbebi was the Vice President of this group while Bishop James Johnson was the President. In 1914 the Native Baptist Church (later Ebenezer Baptist Church) and its Church plants reunited with the American Baptist Churches to form the Yoruba Baptist Association this later became the Baptist Convention of Nigeria. Agbebi was chosen as its first president. Agbebi will be remembered as a champion of cultural nationalism and as a Church leader who articulated an authentic African Christianity.