The Second Coming of Christianity to Benin and the Origin of St. Matthew Church Benin City
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By Ekhaguosa Aisien {Last Update July 24, 2022}

In the second year of the first decade of the Twentieth Century with Benin already four years in the grip of British colonialism Christianity ventured into Benin again four hundred years after it first came calling.

The second coming of Christianity was affected by a black Missionary Bishop JAMES JOHNSON DD a priest of the Church of England. He was a native of Sierra Leone born there in 1840 by two liberated Yoruba slaves. His father was originally from Ijesha-land. The Rt. Rev James Johnson consecrated Bishop in 1900 in London succeeded Bishop Samuel Ajayi CROWTHER the first head of the Anglican Niger Diocese. James Johnson’s territorial responsibility stretched from Lagos in the west across the Yoruba and Benin territories to Bonny in the East.

Bishop Ajayi Crowther, Bishop Johnson’s predecessor was one in his lifetime within shouting distance of Benin City. This was when he visited the Itsekiri chief OLOMU of JAKPA village on the Benin River in 1882. Olomu was the father of NANA of the Itsekiris. The Bishop made the visit accompanied by his Archdeacon son. They received the hospitality of the Itsekiri chief but they failed in their mission of conversion and in their offer to build a school in JAKPA Olomu held out that education corrupted the youth.

St matthew Church cathedral
St Matthew Church Cathedral Sokponba Road Benin City

Bishop Ajayi CROWTHER did not visit Benin overland journey in those days were hazardous. His visit to Olomu was possible because Jakpa village was accessible by river-craft and rivers were the road-steads the though-fares of the land in those days. Had he visited Benin it is intriguing to dwell upon the influence his visit might have had on the reactions which Benin developed towards the subsequent resolve of the British to occupy this portion of the African coast a few years later with the greater knowledge of the British and of the outside world, which Benin might have acquired through a successful visit by the black Bishop the occupation of the Benin territories fifteen years later by the colonial power might probably have been  more pacific and therefore less disruptive of the interests of the kingdom.

Instead this Anglican Bishop remained on the River Niger the heartland of his Diocese proselytizing along the banks of the river up to Lokoja and beyond east into the TSHADDA (Benue) river and west into the Middle Niger. He struck up a great friendship with the ETSU NUPE, the literate Emir of BIDA. The black DIVINE was impressed to find himself in a black country presided over by a literate and cultivated king who ruled his people under written laws and conventions. The Christian Bishop put his great influence at the disposal of the Moslem potentate sometimes interceding on the Etsu Nupe’s behalf with the British Government whose agents and traders were already active along the great waterway. Trade flourished in Nupe-land and modern European arms and ammunition flowed into Bida through the River Niger. With the help of these arms the Emir made a successful incursion into the northern Edo territories and carried his Islamisation efforts to as far south as AGBEDE town. The traditional reach of Benin in those territories was by that Nupe success, curtailed loss of Lagos to Britain in December 1851. In February 1897 she herself was occupied.

The Successor of Samuel Ajayi Crowther arrived in Benin overland and on foot from Lagos through Ora-land in northern Edo. The environment for the Missionaries at the turn of the Twentieth Century was enabling and congenial pax Britannica reigned almost everywhere in the south of the country. And Bishop James Johnson set to convert to Christianity as many of the kingdoms in his huge Diocese as it was possible for him to attempt

In Benin City the Pope of West Africa, as he was fondly called in Lambeth Square, London, the headquarters of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), received a welcome, and an eager hearing from a little band of Women. The leader of the group was Dame AROKUN OVONRANMWEN, a wife of the exiled Oba of Benin and mother of Prince USUANLELE, the second-ranking Prince of the realm. It was with this little band that the church took root in the ancient city, and this time it came to stay.
Here is how it happened. Madam AROKUN was the daughter of Chief OBAKPOLOR the ESASOYEN of Benin. The Chief lived in the Ogboka Quarters along Sokponba Road in the premises now occupied by the St Matthew’s Anglican Cathedral Church.

In his vigorous adulthood Obakpolor had engaged in free-lance soldiering in the near-Yoruba areas prosecuting his martial profession during the period of the great turbulence in Yoruba land in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. It was during his blood-and-thunder days that he earned his Yoruba praise-name OGAGUN: “Captain of War”

Obakpolor struck up a professional relationship with one of the more famous Yoruba warlords of those times, OGEDENGBE of Ilesha. Obakpolor took to wife one, of Ogedengbe’s daughters. This daughter of the future Oba-Nla of the Ijeshas, the equivalent of the lyase in Benin begat Arokun.  Arokun grew up to become a young lady of surpassing beauty, a fact which earned her the praise-name of AYOSERE the “Fountain of Beauty.”

Betrothed to one AKEN N’UGBINE when young Ayosere was nursing her baby daughter in her father’s house at Ogboka when the Crown Prince IDUGBOWA, who was a ward of Chief Ogagun at time, took her to wife. She gave the future Oba Ovonranwen his second son, prince Usuarilele
When Oba Ovonramwen was exiled to Calabar in 1897 by the British Ayosere joined her husband in exile. The young persons in the Oba’s Calabar household were put in school. The adults were put through an Adult Education program. Dame Ayosere benefitted from the latter. The only native text available to the class was the Yoruba translation of the holy Bible fifty years earlier by Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Ayosere learnt to read this book and became proficient in it helped no doubt by the fact that she was herself half Yoruba

Meanwhile Oba Ovonramwen had accepted Presbyterianism the brand of Christianity which had taken root in Calabar through the Missionary work of Mary SLESSOR. The Oba was said to have noticed the striking similarity between his daily palace performance of the EGUAE EMATON ceremony and the usages in the Christian Chapel. He came to the conclusion that the former had its origins in the latter. He stopped the daily Eguae Emoton ceremony and had a Presbyterian Chapel built in his premises there in Calabar where he received the ministrations of a pastor. His Calabar household became Christian.

At the close of the Nineteenth century of the first year of the Twentieth a portion of Oba Ovonramwen’s Calabar household returned to Benin City. Amongst them was Dame Ayosere.
Back in Benin Ayosere gathered a small band of women together in the IBIWE Street home of her son prince USUANLELE in the premises where the second story building in Benin City was later constructed. This band read and studied the Yoruba Holy Bible and sharpened their literary skills. They were the first Christian group in the Benin City of the Twentieth Century.
It was understandably an all-female affair at the beginning some of the women involved in this Christian cell included madam Akpata, Madam Iyabo, Madam Ikpe a soldier’s wife and an akara frier, Madam Gbinigie, Madam Garrick, Madam Ohuoba.

When Bishop Jame Johnson arrived in Benin he found shelter in the City in the home of Dame Ayosere consort of the Oba of Benin who not only spoke Yoruba but was partly of the same Ijesha stock as the visiting Bishop.

Later some men joined this all ladies Bible reading group and Bishop Johnson sent the group a leader from somewhere in Yoruba-land. This man was Mr. J.A OYESILE a church Agent who would nowadays be appropriately called a Deacon and who acted as a catechist and head of the young church. With this development the Christian moved from Ibiwe Street into premises along Lagos Street.

Some men who joined up at this time were Mr. Akpata father of fabiyi, Mr. Oni, Mr. Ekhator son of Ogagun and brother of Ayosere Mr. Orobator, Mr Aigbe Eseimuede and Mr. Gbinigie who was accompanied by his mother Owa.

Catechist Oyesile brought a Christian zealot from Ora-land called PAUL paul’s praise- name was Nohuanren “the holy” Paul the Holy was a good out-door preacher an activity which was frequently indulged in by Oyesile and his little group. The outdoor preaching was accompanied by the ringing of hand-bells and the playing of castanets. The then Colonial Administrator of            the Benin Districts Commissioner Offley Stuart Crewe Read on one occasion had the hand bell seized accusing the Christian group of disturbing the public peace. This Christian Englishman went further he convicted the preachers for constituting themselves into a public nuisance. Bishop James Johnson on his next pastoral visit to Benin remonstrated with the Administrator and had the bell restored to the Christians.

Islam pre-dated the second coming of Christianity in Benin. The first Mosque was built by prince OLOJO son of the exiled Oba KOSOKO of Lagos. His father was in exile in the EPE water-side in the Ijebu country, driven from the throne by consul BEECROFT and the British Navy in 1851. Prince OLOJO decided to move further east, along the lagoon system to Benin City where his dynastic roots lays. Oba Ovonramwen gave him a welcome reception. He settled at the beginning of Lagos Street where he built his Mosque.

Many of the Yoruba and Hausa soldiers in the colonial army who took part in the conquest of Benin and who thereafter constituted the military garrison in the City were Moslems. Their numbers greatly swelled the Moslem population already in the City.

The Moslems settled along Lagos Street so named for Oloja the Lagos prince .They renamed the Ada N’ Ode area of the Ugbague Quarters the area of their greatest concentration OKE IMOLE  “the Dawn Hill” or “Dawn District”. The name was in celebration of their deliverance from heathenism as attested to by their embrace of Islam. It was the spot from where they hoped the light of the “DAWN” that is knowledge of ALLAH through Mohammed would spread to all parts of Edoland.
In this regard the many Benin families who got converted to Christianity during this early period also named their new-born children EDEGBE “It is Day Break” or “it is Dawn” nursing the same hope with the Muslims that the knowledge of God this time through Jesus Christ would now spread throughout all the land of Benin.

Perhaps it was the exuberance of the open-air preaching indulged in by the Moslems already regarded as their own settled turf. They drove Oyesile   and his group from Lagos Street Oyesile found refuge in the Ogbelaka home of Chief Ighile the OHUOBA and head of the Ewua guild This succour came Oyesile’s way because young Emmanuel Egiebor Chief Ohuoba’s eldest son had been staying with the Catechist as his house-boy in Lagos Street Oyesile had encouraged little Emmanuel Egiebor to go to school and had paid his school fees Egiebor’s mother Madam AIHIOKUNLA OHUOBA was also one of Oyesile’s parishioners

Emmanuel Egiebor Ohuoba was one of the first fifteen pupils with which the Benin Government School was begun in 1901 , under the sole teacher and Headmaster Mr  J. T OKAI, from the Gold Coast now Ghana his mother. Madam AIhiokunla Ohuoba had earlier achieved some renown when she boldly violated a curfew imposed by the OKHUAIHE Priest at IKHUEN Village during one of the annual Okhuaihe celebrations of the IKPOLEKI Festival. An Ukhurhe, a stave of the Okhuaihe deity had been placed across the road –way on two forked sticks to deny passage to any wayfarer during the period of a ceremony of the Festival. Madam Aihokunla arrived at the spot. She would not accept to be turned back. She seized the blockading Ukhurhe cleared the pathway, and continued on her journey. She was promptly dubbed.
No gbe Ohen Okhuaihe mien Ukhurhe
“She who successfully seized the Ukhurhe totem from the Okhuaihe Priest”
This must have been after the British war

The involvement of this remarkable lady in dame Ayosere’s Bible-reading women’s group encouraged her son Egiebor to become interested in the religious movement. Egiebor ultimately became the first Benin son to be trained as a pastor since the time of Oba Orhogbua as a prince received some ecclesiastical training some four hundred years earlier in Lisbon.

Christianity had by this time already taken firm root in Ora-land in northern Edo when some six years earlier in 1895, pax Britannica freed some captives in Ilesha. These citizens captured when the warlord OGEDENGBE of Ilesha despoil Ora-land sixteen years earlier in 1879 had become Christians in the land of their forced sojourn in Yoruba-land. When the introduction of British administration into Ijeshaland restored their freedom to them a few of these Ora citizens notably the Alegbeleyes, the Akinluyis, the Akhimies returned home with the new religion. There was therefore already a Christian community in Ora who welcomed Bishop James Johnson as that Divine journeyed on foot from Lagos towards Benin.

The close relationship between Dame Ayosere, Madam Aihiokunla Ohuoba with her young son Egiebor and the early Church in Benin determined the site of the first permanent Church compound in Benin, the premises of St Matthew’s cathedral in Ogboka Quarters along Sokponba Road.
These premises belonged to Ogagun, Ayosere’s father. To the right of the premises was the famous but now extinct Eki Okpagha the Okpagha Tree Market the third market of the Inner City of old Benin. The premises were in front of Chief Ohuoba’s premises along Ohuoba Street where Catechist Oyesile had when he was driven from Lagos Street.

In 1905 Ogagun premises were derelict and largely uninhabited. This state of Affairs had to do with the manner of the death of the landlord about thirty years earlier. Chief Ogagun had been ordered to commit suicide by Oba Adolor because he was believed to have had a hand supernaturally in a threatening bout of ill-health which Crown prince Idugbowa his former ward had suffered from with the death of the patriarch under such unseemly circumstances his household had gradually lost cohesion and the premises became derelict.

Three decades later there was present an infant Church in Benin in dire need of a place where to bed down. Catechist Oyesile was conducting Christian Services in the premises of Ohuoba his benefactor who had offered him accommodation. Facing Oyesile’s little congregation were the disused and weedy premises of Chief Ogagan Amongst the members of Oyesile’s congregation were two of Ogagun’s children. These children saw the dire need of the young Church. Dame Ayosere permitted the Church to move into her father’s disused homestead and there to settle down.

On December 1st   1906 the foundation Stone of the St. Matthew Church was laid by Bishop James Johnson. The church building re-built stands there today as the Cathedral Church of Matthew’s said to be the largest church building in Nigeria at the present time it backs the ancestral homestead of Chief Ohuoba of the Ewua Guild which was itself a creation of the first coming of Christianity to Benin five hundred years ago.

Bishop James Johnson died in Bonny in 1917 and Dame Ayosere in Benin in 1926 or three decades after the pioneering efforts of these personages and of catechist Oyesile there were functioning in Benin City as many Christian Denominations as Christendom could boast of. The Roman Catholic rather belatedly also arrived in town. Paradoxically instead of approaching Benin from the Coast and Ughoton, it journeyed from the North from Lokoja southwards on the River Niger until it got down to Asaba. From there it struck overland during the third decade of this Century t the City where it had nurtured a cathedral and a Bishop four hundred years earlier.

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