This week in our Black History Month Series: African Nationalism, I want to consider the life and nationalistic contribution of a Nigerian Baptist Pastor. Moses Ladejo Stone was born probably around 1850 in South-Western Nigeria. He was raised by his Aunty, Ofiki, who had become a Christian through the first American Baptist missionary in Nigeria, Rev Thomas J Bowen. Ladejo’s Aunty was a faithful believer following the teachings of scripture despite the fact that she was constantly beaten by her husband who did not want her to be a Christian. She also protected Ladejo during one of the tribal wars in Nigeria by giving him over to the American Baptist mission house in South-Western Nigeria. Here, Ladejo was looked after by American missionaries. One of the missionaries that looked after Ladejo was Rev and Mrs R.H. Stone. This family with Ladejo and other orphans later moved to another city within the South-Western region called Abeokuta (meaning city under the rock).
Ladejo started attending school in Abeokuta. In addition, he was also learning carpentry as an apprentice under one of the American missionaries. Rev R.H. Stone, Ladejo’s carer was impressed with the devotion and excellence of Ladejo at school and in religious matters that he decided to baptize him. Rev Stone also had high hopes for Ladejo and believed that one day Ladejo will become to the Yorubas as Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther was (Crowther became the first African Anglican Bishop). This statement will go a long way to define Ladejo’s destiny and aspiration. In 1867 Rev Stone and the orphans he was looking after moved to Lagos as a result of indigenous hostilities and anger. This is because not everyone liked the missionaries. In Lagos a missionary school was established by Rev Stone but in 1869 he had to travel back to America. This left a vacuum as there was no American missionary left in Nigeria at this time. Ladejo, who at this time had taken the name of his benefactor Stone, with R.M. Harden and his wife Sarah (ex-slaves now missionaries) took over the school and Church in Lagos. They did this until the arrival of another American missionary, Rev W.J. David in 1875.
Moses Ladejo Stone (as he is now referred to) became an interpreter and assistant to this new missionary. Rev David saw the exceptional abilities and qualities of Ladejo and he decided to give him lectures in theology. Rev David trusted Ladejo to the extent that he sent him to another city (Ogbomosho) in the South-West to pastor a Baptist Church in 1878. His ministry in this new Church was very successful because the Church witnessed numerical and spiritual growth. In 1880 Stone was invited back to Lagos for ordination into the Baptist ministry. This is very significant as this made Ladejo the first ordained Baptist minister in Nigeria. His ordination was performed in the First Baptist Church in Lagos on the 22nd of February 1880. After his ordination he reluctantly went back to his pastorate in Ogbomosho because he wanted to stay in Lagos to further his theological education. He was finally called back to Lagos in 1884 to become a teacher at the Elementary school of the Baptist Academy and as an Assistant Pastor of First Baptist Church in Lagos. This mean he will be serving under the senior Pastor Rev David.
In 1888, something occurred that would change the landscape of Christianity in West Africa. A misunderstanding between Ladejo and Rev David led to the founding of the first African or Ethiopian Church (Ethiopian because Ethiopia became the symbol of African independence) in West Africa. There are several factors responsible for this secession but one that is very important is the fact that around this time nationalistic spirit was being awakened throughout the continent in Church and society. The dismissal and unfair treatment of Ladejo by Rev David over matters of salary led to Ladejo, other native leaders and about two hundred members of the Church leaving the First Baptist Church to form the Native Baptist Church in 1888. This dismissal and unfair treatment echoed that of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther in the Anglican Church which happened around the same time. What made the matter worse was the fact Rev David actually had no authority to dismiss Ladejo based on the Baptist principle of congregational government. He should have consulted the congregation before dismissing him.
After the split, the Native Baptist Church which later was named Ebenezer Baptist Church grew in numbers while the First Baptist Church reduced in numbers. The effects of the schism were actually positive, contrary to the opinion of the American missionaries, because it allowed Ladejo’s company the freedom to plant more indigenous Baptist Churches. Secondly, it also gave the opportunity for the African Church leaders such as Ladejo and Mojola Agbebi to demonstrate their leadership and organizational skills and abilities. Thirdly, it gave Ladejo the opportunity to manifest fully his oratory and preaching gifts which led to lots of conversion and Church growth. Lastly, this schism became a precedent in West Africa as it led to other secessions from Mission Churches such as Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches.
Through another American missionary, Ladejo was reconciled to the American missionaries and called back to the first Baptist Church. He did went back in 1894 and became the senior Pastor of First Baptist Church but the people did not follow him back claiming that they did not leave the First Baptist Church because of Ladejo. This is very important for liberation from below which led to the emancipation of African Christians from Colonial Christianity. While Ladejo was pastoring First Baptist Church, Mojola Agbebi began pastoring Ebenezer Baptist Church. Both Churches became very successful as it led to other indigenous Baptist Church plants and growth in Nigeria. Ladejo continued pastoring First Baptist Church until late 1912 when he became ill. He died on 30th of April 1913. He will be remembered as the first Nigerian ordained Baptist minister and the founder of the first African Church in West Africa.