The concept and design of the book was well thought out. Producing Agbebi’s story as a magazine style publication made it much more engaging than it would have been as a normal hard or soft cover book. The format also allowed highlights from his career and his times, as well as snippets from his literary repertoire, to be easily displayed in a manner which made for a more captivating journey.
I first learnt of the subject’s name in an online course on African Theology and Religions at the Our Daily Bread University. It was quite surprising that for someone who was probably just as or even more influential than Bishop Ajayi Crowther, few Nigerians today have heard of him.
It was quite striking that an earlier age could boast of so much fervour as well as intellectual power, as was reflected in Mojola’s ministry. Our current era has been dubbed the ‘Knowledge age’, yet it seems to pale in comparison to the mental stature of the late nineteenth century in which our subject lived. As an instance, consider the below passage from one of his sermons:
“It has been truly said that Christianity in Europe was not an indigenous but an exotic plant, and that yet it has grown into a mighty tree, bearing fruits a hundred-fold, stretching its branches far and near, and driving its roots far down into the soil. Hence to render Christianity indigenous to Africa, it must be watered by native hands, pruned with the native hatchet, and tended with native earth. A grave responsibility rests upon the shoulders of Native Churches in Africa for the propagation of this Holy Faith among the untold millions of their brethren.” (p. 53)
Or these lines from a poetic letter of appreciation:
“On Pisgah Mount, the troubled Prophet stood/And look’d afar on lands supremely good; From Nebo’s top Great Moses scarce expect,/To see the world possessed by God’s elect.
Oh! May the Spirit’s sanctifying grace,/Abide with you and yours, and all your race;/And may the power of the Three in One/Lead us as one till Life’s short work is done.” (p. 33)
I doubt his sermons and writings would be readily grasped by many graduates today, with the rich allusions to classical and Biblical characters and events. He draws on Homer and Shakespeare with ease and, which is more amazing, he assumes his audience to be fairly comfortable with them. And given his popularity, many seemed to understand him well enough. This is a subtle rebuke to us today, with our pretended ‘advances’ in knowledge.
What Mojola fought against, an Europeanized Christianity which stifles a genuinely indigenous expression of the gospel, is still with us. It is certainly a complicated issue, as he himself realized. God forbid that Africa fails to acknowledge the massive blessing that foreign missions has bequeathed us. As he affirmed,
“…the Missionary, and Missionaries alone are the real pioneers of African civilization…Wherever these pioneers of civilization are, whether they be Belgians, Frenchmen, Germans, Portuguese, English or American, tell them we shall ever hail them with delight, and God shall bless them.” (p. 61)
The impact of foreign institutions, resources, preachers, and organizations on the African continent remains significant. In our bookshops, TV and online content, social media following, among other avenues, foreign ministries significantly shape the Christian experience of Africans.
Now, much of the influence has been essential and helpful. American and European institutions often have access to better research facilities and output which can aid the Church in Africa. A huge stock of gifted leaders, teachers and writers from the West have been raised by God over the centuries to bless the global church. And it would be foolish to despise the resources His providence has made available for our growth.
Nevertheless, a dependence (or reliance) on foreign content, resources, and institutions (however helpful or Biblical these assets are) tends to prevent the full and proper development of the African community of believers. For all the attempts to domesticate what is received, there still exists a largely foreign flavour to much of our Christian religion in Africa. It can be seen in languages in which we worship, attires worn, church structures and practices, modes of worship, and even down to expressions used in church and among Christians. There is a certain Westernization of our faith which a perceptive observer can detect.
And as Agbebi and others (such as James Johnson and Michael Euler Ajayi) observed, this was part of the undoing of the Church in Northern Africa (see pp.30-31). A refusal to make the gospel indigenous to a people bodes ill for the future of the gospel among them. A foreign faith will always be unstable and will never foster maturity.
Hence Agbebi was relentless in promoting an indigenous faith across Yorubaland and beyond. For he saw that until the Church was able to express its joys and petitions in locally composed hymns and prayers, confident enough to herald it in their local garb and attire, bring it to influence how people lived and worked, and even proclaim that faith using local idioms and thought forms, that faith had not been truly absorbed. It was sadly possible, and was then the prevailing reality, to merely advocate a European culture thinking one was thereby promoting the gospel.
Globalization makes this challenge even much more intense. Over the past five decades, there have been immense shifts in cultural thinking, developments, and innovation. Few countries can boast of having received no external cultural input on its landscape. In view of these, can we still promote a Christianity that is truly African? Is there still really an authentic African (or Nigerian or Kenyan) culture. Hasn’t the realities of the globalized world of the twenty-first century made any search for a truly African Christianity somewhat illusory?
Agbebi lived and laboured at a time prior to the agitations for independence. He was also unable to experience what post-Independence Africa eventually looked like, with the failed expectations, dashed hopes in some respects, widespread corruption, poverty, continuing economic dependence, among others. Would these realities have modified some of his expectations and ideas, were he to still be alive today?
Whatever our thoughts on these issues, there is no doubt that Mojola Agbebi’s life and ministry remains a remarkable example for everyone in the least concerned about the spread of Christ’s kingdom today. Brought up and living in relative poverty, he accomplished so much in less than six decades of life and with so little of the technological advances that we take for granted today. His love for Christ, passion for his homeland, incredible thirst for knowledge, commitment to the people’s freedom and development, his eagerness to partner with other like-minded individuals, and his willingness to labour for future progress amidst much personal pain and present discouragement, is an instructive lesson for every Christian today.
May we be humble enough to listen, learn, and live it out.