Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12: 24.
The church in Nigeria is now about 172 years old. It is often needful to remember the steep price that was paid by European missionaries who brought the gospel to Africa. Our often unbalanced self-serving history has placed more emphasis on exploitation by colonial masters and the slave trade and portrayed missionaries as a facade for crafty and cruel Caucasian adventurers hell-bent on looting our continent. I recall the book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” by Walter Rodney and many other allied books that made some of us to rapidly embrace Pan-Africanism, after we read them.
The matrix of the church history in Nigeria commences with the pioneering works of the Portuguese Catholics, but more properly with Thomas Birch Freeman. Freeman was of mixed race or ethnicity. It is recorded that he built the first church structure in Nigeria which was a bamboo cottage in Badagry, Lagos. Many people do not seem to remember that this missionary married thrice because of his desire to evangelise Africa. Before you conclude he was a polygamist, let me refer you to the Oxford Index (www.oxforddnb.com/templates/article.jsp.assessed on 5/4/14) which states:
“As a young man, Freeman rose to become a head gardener and botanist to Sir Robert Harland at Orwell Park, near Ipswich. Freeman joined the Wesleyan Methodists, became a lay preacher, and lost his employment for refusing to return to the Church of England. He thereupon volunteered as a Methodist missionary to West Africa, where the first white missionaries had all died within weeks of arrival. Freeman’s offer was thus welcomed, in the false belief that as an African he was racially protected against tropical diseases. On 17 October 1837, he married Elizabeth Boote, housekeeper to his former employer; she died of fever in February 1838, within weeks of their arrival on the Gold Coast. On 25 November 1840, while on his first leave in England, Freeman married Lucinda Cowan, daughter of a Methodist minister; she died on 25 August 1841, within seven months of landing in Africa. Some years later he married an educated African, who bore him a son, also named Thomas Birch Freeman. (underlining mine for emphasis).
When I read historical accounts like this, a couple of puzzling thoughts linger. Could it really have been exploitation of the natural resources of the continent that kindled the missionaries’ interest in Africa? (I can’t ask same about the slave traders and colonial administrators). Nothing could have been more obvious in those days, like the rage and effect of tropical diseases on a Caucasian body. In fact, I also believe that the demons behind these diseases also ensured that the disease-causing bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc, multiplied the devastating effects of the toxins on the bodies of these missionaries. The demons must have reckoned that the more Africa became the gaping graves of these European missionaries, the less the churches in England and Europe would be enthusiastic about missions and outreaches. Yet even as missionaries left home and never returned; more missionaries still boarded ships to sail to our continent.
I have often also wondered why they (missionaries) could not appropriate healing scriptures to stave off the frequency of deaths in the murky mission fields of Africa. Perhaps in Orthodox churches who are progenitors of missions, there wasn’t sufficient faith and teaching on miracles and healings. But if a man can get on a ship to head to a land that has consumed his brethren, then I don’t know what the definition of faith is again. On second thoughts, I assume that some of them did get healings and breakthroughs in the course of their assignments. And asking this kind of question would seem to be questioning the will of God because we were not there and may never know the nitty-gritty of the whole story. It’s like asking God why He had to let Kathryn Kuhlman die of pulmonary hypertension after He had used her to heal so many people.
In conclusion, we thank God they came. Jesus said:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13.