• Thursday, July 25, 2024
businessday logo


Dateline 10th January 1852. The day Christianity arrived in Lagos


It was a hugely daunting assignment.

He could feel the burden of the work, like a heavy load on his shoulder.

He was a tall gangling man who walked with a loping, energetic step.

He had brought a letter from the CMS Mission in Badagry, addressed to Oba Akintoye. The Oba was attended by a number of his Chiefs, all clad in white.

What was this about a Christian Mission to Eko, he wanted to know?

James White cleared his throat and tried to pick his words carefully.

His birth name was Whenu, but he had renamed himself James at baptism, and taken the surname of one of the first missionaries who showed him kindness.

He always wore a white shirt and a black suit. Reverend Gollmer had recently given him a pair of heavy black shoes which completed his attire. He was a catechist, the first Badagry. He had joined he missionaries early, to learn from them and live with them. His father was a fisherman who drank himself to stupor almost every night after bringing in his catch. He had eventually drunk himself to death. What he remembered of his mother was a slim woman with a long-suffering air about her. The fisherman had regularly beaten her, but she was distraught after his death, and she died soon afterwards. He could recollect his sense he had of being alone in the world.

He was the first person in the whole town to learn to speak English when the CMS Mission arrived in Badagry. He was already in his twenties, and he made himself useful as a translator and a general handyman. He taught himself to read even before the first mission school was up and running, and within a few years he had read the Bible from cover to cover. He took avidly to the Christian message and the new life it promised him. It was a world of new beginnings.

He was the first person in the whole town to learn to speak English when the CMS Mission arrived in Badagry. He was already in his twenties, and he made himself useful as a translator and a general handyman

Within a few years of being a member of the Reverend Gollmar’s household, he became a Catechist. It came with a certificate, and a stipend. He would be the first home-grown weapon to fight the cause Christ.

His reaction, when he was informed that Captain Glover, the conqueror of Lagos, had written to the CMS in Badagry to send a mission to Lagos Island, and that he, James, would be the “forerunner” for that great mission, was a mixture of fear and excitement. It was true that Lagos was still barely settled territory. The vicious culture that justified inhuman acts to fellow men would still be lurking under the surface. But he had also heard that they were a great mercantile people, full of energy.

Here he was now, bowing curtly before the Olowo Eko as he prepared to take his leave.

The Oba remarked genially that he had thought ‘James White’ would be a white man.

Yes, he could use the large expanse of land at Ebute Ero for his preaching.  His sources told him he had already prepared the ground, anyway.

Obviously, the Oba did not miss much in his domain.

With a smile, he said ‘I may even show up myself to hear about this Jesus you people are talking about’

He departed on a friendly note and headed for his venue. He had given some children money to tidy up the space and make it ready for the evening. He noticed some of the traders and idlers who lolled by the lagoon in the vicinity were watching curiously, wondering what was about to happen.

He had employed other children to go about the narrow streets of the Island, shouting at the tops of their voices that people of all ages were invited to a meeting with Jesus Christ.

He sat down to take a quick nap.

As the sun began to set, he straightened his shirt, and stood to his feet, clutching his large and much-thumbed bible to his chest.

He was amazed at the huge size of the crowd that had rapidly gathered. Most of them were on their feet, though some sat on makeshift seats. He walked among the people, shaking hands, mouthing his ritual ‘God Bless You’. Some of them called him ‘Black White Man’.

He mounted the podium. There was a hush.

He began to pray, lifting his voice high so it could carry to the back. He was speaking in his own version Eko-Yoruba laced with a smattering of English. The crowd had no difficulty following his drift.

He began to sing and dance

Olorun dada, l’Olorun awa

Olorun dada l’Olorun awa…”

He was amazed how quickly they took it up. The children in front and the adults in the back – it was as if it was ‘egungun’ or one of their other local festivals.

They sang the songs he taught them and danced together to the music for a full hour.

He began to preach.

He realised he was preaching the first Christian sermon in Lagos.

In his mind’s eye, he saw insights that were akin to revelation. Lagos would be a great city, teeming with diverse peoples and tall buildings, throbbing with good and bad life. The headquarters of the CMS would inevitably be moved here from Badagry because of its greater reach.

His sermon was on the Trinity – three people that were really one, and Eternal Salvation that was on offer to all human beings no matter how lowly their stations.

“If I can be saved, so can you. So, can all of you…” he told the motley crowd.

And then the most powerful revelation of all came to him.

Near this spot where he was preaching would be built the first Church in Lagos. The name of the Church was already clear in his mind. “HOLY TRINITY”.


(Dedicated to the Anglican Diocese of Lagos, which is celebrating its centenary this week)