Christianity as a religion revolves around the person of Christ here celebrated in the altar of the Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos.
Altar of the Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos celebrates the story of Christ, who the Christian religion is centered around. ©Xplore9ja

Christianity is the faith of a third of the world’s population, a system, said by Drummond as succeeding not only because it is divine but also because it is very human. The duty to a neighbor in this system, is considered part of the duty to God. “Christianity,’ aptly put by the Editor of the Nigerian Provincial Guardian during the Passion Week of 1936, ‘does not call on adherents to sacrifice this world in order to secure the next but to love that which is commanded and desire that which is promised.” The worldwide religion centered on Christ became the official religion of Rome at the heights of its imperialism.

When Roman civilization fell into the dark ages, Christianity survived the paganism of German warlords who divided Europe amongst themselves. The rise of the now thoroughly Christianized Europe brought about the annexation of new frontiers, at first through the sporadic efforts of independent missionaries and later, through state or church sponsored efforts.

Early missionary efforts in Africa during the age of exploration had the king of Portugal acting on the authority of the Papal Bull of Demarcation which intended to spread the faith to unchristianized lands in the continent. The model known to the sent priests- mass conversion through the proclamation of a baptized king, did not work in Benin- the then West Africa’s flourishing empire of the Edo speaking people. Although the Oba of Benin was receptive and  thousands were converted,  churches that were built in 1520 at Ikpoba road and Ogbelaka road would turn Juju shrines by 1695 as idolatry crept back into the hearts of the people.

Same was the fate of the church by Anthonio de Mingo, the Olu of Itsekiri when he died in 1648. Due to the decline of Portugal and its now strained relationship with Rome, the Benin church as well as the Warri congregation fell apart. Nothing was to be heard of the gospel of Christ  until over a hundred years as contacts between Portuguese and locals degenerated into slave trade.

Early European trading activities in Lagos, which began in the fifteenth century hardly involved any discourse on spiritual matters or attempt to Christianize the locals. The trade in humans by Portuguese, French and British slavers which became common three centuries after however increased the frequency of contact between the Yoruba Atlantic shore and Europe. By 1807, British Christian parliamentarians had achieved their objectives in having their nation proclaim the practice illegal and they went further in finding ways to repent Europe of its evil.

British vessels patrolled the High Sea to enforce the new law, intercepting slave ships and freeing the slaves therein. The first sets of converts were slaves liberated from Europeans who persisted in the now illegal trade. These Yoruba prisoners of post-Oyo Empire Civil Wars or victims of kidnap were taken to Freetown in Sierra Leone where they got baptized, educated and instructed in spiritual things. Although slavers were been met with force in the oceans, it became increasingly necessary to stop slavery from its source- the African traders themselves. This, Christian missionaries hoped to achieve by moralizing African chiefs and providing opportunity for legal trade.

Deciding in favor of the least potentially aggressive slave port, a party of missionaries appeared in Badagry in 1842. On 4 January 1843, the liberated Yorubas from Sierra Leone, called Saros, arranged a meeting of the evangelist, Rev. Henry Townsend with Sodeke, the charismatic Egba leader who had anticipated the auspicious advent of a Caucasoid to Abeokuta in a dream. Abeokuta received the missionaries enthusiastically in hope of fraternizing against belligerent Dahomean, Ijebu and Ibadan neighbors. This, they would find, is achievable through politics, as the British evangelists themselves were unable to commit London to their safety.

African converts and British missionaries in Badagry and Abeokuta however acquired overtime the needed influence to spread, first by involving themselves in the politics of nearby Lagos. At this time, the Lagos king, Kosoko, afraid for the slave trade for which he had become prosperous and imperialism, flexed muscles against British interference. With the 1851 expulsion of pro-slavery Lagos king, Kosoko, came the reign of free legal trade and proselytization of Christianity in the center of culture of the new Africa.

Half of Nigeria's population are believed to be Christians. Here, a mammoth crowd in Mubi listen to German evangelist, Reinhard Bonnke teach, 2009.
Half of Nigeria’s population are believed to be Christians. Here, a mammoth crowd in Mubi listen to German evangelist, Reinhard Bonnke teach, 2009. Source:

Igbos living in Sierra Leone petitioned the bishop of the country in the early 1850s to establish missions in eastern Nigeria. After initial failure, the first Christian mission in the East was established at Onitsha in 1857 by a Sierra Leonean of Igbo parentage, Reverend Christopher Taylor. From this gateway it spread to many parts of eastern Nigeria and the Niger Delta. With an explosive force it arrived the mangrove-ridden, easily accessible city-states of Bonny, Okrika, and New Calabar.

In the eastern region of Nigeria where Christian teachings of the love of one’s neighbour began to undermine the worst form of social oppression, the Christian Missionary Society’s alliance with European merchants bestowed on it a terrible reputation that will not be washed away till the 1930s. When things finally turned around for better people still held on to some of their local practices but the economic value of education which the new religion promises was not lost on many parents.

Partly due to the counsel of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a man who had risen from slavery to become the first African Archbishop of the Anglican church, Lagos was made a British possession in 1861. Translation of the Bible, which he supervised, was completed in 1886 circa, providing the impetus for the growth of indigenous literature, codification of oral history, hence advancement of the new Nigerian country, just as the church had sustained civilization through the dark ages in Europe. The Bishop saw the collapse of paganism in many districts of the country, probably not as much as the likes of Moses Orimolade, or Joseph Ayo Babalola, patriarch of the Great Revival that brought a new wave of pentecostalism to Nigeria from late 1920s.

By the mid 1950s, a number of indigenous churches had been added to the list of Christian denominations. One of the erstwhile feeble members of this body of churches, the the Redeemed Christian Church of God, had by the beginning of the 21st Century become one of the fastest growing in the world. The Christian church in Nigeria had also, following the activities of the charismatic television evangelist, Benson Idahosa, featured mega churches with up to thirty thousand worshippers in single congregations. A follower of Idahosa, David Oyedepo in 1999 opened the world’s largest church auditorium, according to the Guinness Book of Records, in September 1999.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer