"The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against His anointed "--Psalm ii. 2.
The persecution of the converts at Abbeokuta forms so important a feature in the early history of this church, that we have decided, instead of interweaving the details of it with the more general account of the mission, to reserve them for a separate chapter, so that, extending as it did over a year and a half, it may yet be presented to the readers as a whole.
"We must, therefore, ask them to go back with us to the early part of the year 1848, when the seed of Divine truth, which had been so freely scattered among the people, and was gradually taking root in many hearts, had as yet scarcely appeared above the surface of the ground. A few had come out from the heathen around them, and publicly confessed that Jesus was the Saviour; and some had undergone much domestic trial from members of their own families, but the number was not sufficiently large to excite general attention, and the congregations [169/170] were allowed to assemble, and the classes to meet for instruction, without being molested by any person in authority.
But as time went on, the effects of the gospel became more apparent; the churches of Aké and of Igbein were filled to overflowing, the chapels multiplied, and were attended by hundreds, while wherever a missionary stopped to preach in the streets he was immediately surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners. Increasing numbers had become candidates for Christian baptism; and it was well known that many more, who were not prepared to take this decided step, had yet left off their idolatry, and were seeking for the truth.
The priests and priestesses of the various gods could not see and know all this without perceiving that if things went on thus, they should lose their influence and their gains; and they set themselves in good earnest to stop the progress of this new religion. There were other parties in the town who participate in their views and feelings--the dealers in goats and fowls feared that as the number of sacrifices diminished, their sales would diminish also; the Mohammedan slave-dealers were shrewd enough to know that their iniquitous traffic could not stand side by side with Christianity; and, sadder than any of these, there were some among the Sierra Leone emigrants who had either never [170/171] embraced Christianity, or had apostatised from it, who felt that the consistent conduct of their Christian countrymen was a tacit reflection on themselves, and would rejoice in their being drawn back into idolatry; while the usurping Kosoko of Lagos, who hated Christianity and civilisation as interfering with his wicked gains, assisted the movement in every way that he could, and helped to unite the others in their attempts upon the converts.
At first the babbalawos did not venture upon any active measures: they began by using persuasions and arguments, not unmixed with threats, and by privately exciting the heads of families against any of the younger members who attended the instruction of the missionaries. But finding these measures had no effect, they had recourse to a plan which they confidently hoped would detach some at least from the religion they dreaded.
Many of Mr. Crowther's candidates were young unmarried men, some of them were already betrothed to their intended wives, and the babbalawos persuaded the fathers of the young women to withhold their daughters from any who would not worship Ifo and promise to purchase "Osha" for their brides. [Osha means the household gods of the wives.] As soon as the young men heard of this, they met together and determined not only that they would not submit to these conditions, but that they would [171/172] not marry any person who would not join with them in reading the Word of God. This resolution was soon put to the test. The father of one of these affianced young women was a babbalawo, and he sent to his intended son-in-law to propose that the marriage should no longer be delayed, but mentioning also the above condition. The young man returned for answer that he had made up his mind never to worship Ifa, nor to purchase Osha, but that he wished to marry according to the law of God, and that if the father did not approve of this he might return the two bags of cowries he had given him at the time of the betrothment, and he would seek a wife elsewhere. He ended by saying, that if no one in Abbeokuta would give him one of their daughters, he should, when he felt disposed, redeem a slave, and marry her. Nor was he moved from his purpose by being brought before the chief and head men of Igbore, who were however obliged to dismiss the case, finding no pretext for punishing him.
The rest of the young men stood equally firm, and thus this scheme fell to the ground.
The next idea was to poison some among the candidates, that the others might be alarmed, and return to Ifa; and with this view some of the babbalawos of Igbore purchased poison at Ibara, and hid it in the bush till a fitting time should come. They sent a spy to Igbein church to watch who were the most [172/173] regular attendants there, and the plot seemed ripe for execution, when the spy was taken ill and died; the eldest daughter of the head babbalawo died also; all were frightened from their purpose, and the intended victims were delivered from a danger of which they knew nothing till it was past!
With the female candidates they took a different course, and hoped to intimidate them by "Oro." This mysterious power is an object of the greatest dread to the women of Abbeokuta, who are forbidden to appear in the streets during any of his visits, under pain of death. Notice was publicly given that a Oro" would take possession of the town for four days and nights, and steps were taken to make it believed that the Christians were the objects of his severest displeasure. The song usually sung was altered to suit the occasion, and the "Lion of the book-people" was invoked to execute vengeance upon them.
One poor woman, who was alone in the house with her two little boys when the tumultuous procession passed along, was very much alarmed. It stopped before the house; and above the deafening noise of drums and shouts, rose the shrill song, or rather cry, "Lion of the book-people, seize her, seize her!" while the roof of her dwelling was shaken so violently as if to bring it down. The frightened children clung to their scarcely less [173/174] frightened mother, who, that she might at least see the danger, lighted a lamp, but was instantly ordered to extinguish it, and the roof was shaken still more violently. Then, scarcely knowing what she did, she bade the children sing the alphabet as loudly as they could. They obeyed, and to her surprise and infinite relief, the drumming and shouting suddenly ceased, and she heard the crowd move quickly off, doubtless supposing that this was some counter-charm against them.
The summer of 1848 had now passed away, and no impressions had been made upon the converts, but with autumn came stronger measures against them. The first person seized was Susannah Kute, the member of Mr. Müller's congregation at Aké, of whose sufferings we have spoken before. The nest was a convert of the Wesleyan missionary, who, after three days' imprisonment, was released through Mr. Crowther's influence with Olufoko, the war-chief. Soon after the blow fell upon one of Mr. Crowther's own people, named Oguntolla. He had been a man of a fierce and violent disposition, ready to avenge the slightest injury; but the grace of God had wrought upon his heart, and the tiger was changed into a lamb. Knowing his natural temper, the persons who were sent to apprehend him thought to entrap him by offering a razor with which to kill [174/175] either himself or one of those who had come to take him. But Oguntolla quietly answered that he had two knives, which, if he wished it, would answer the same purpose, but that he had learnt "Thou shalt do no murder." He was led away without making any resistance, taken to the council-house, and had his feet made fast in the stocks by being thrust through a perforated wall. Mr. Crowther thought it better not to interfere in this case as he had done in others, that it might be seen that the strength of the sufferers lay not in man, but in God. He sent him therefore a message to this effect, exhorting him at the same time to perseverance; and the noble-minded man, instead of being discouraged at what might have appeared a desertion of him in the time of his greatest need, replied by begging Mr. Crowther not to be afraid about him, his mind was made up to live or die for Christ. He remained thus for five days, his legs and feet swollen and very painful; while the babbalawos gathered round him like bees, using every method to induce him to recant. [Psalm cxviii. 12.] At the end of this time he was summoned before the Ogboni, or council of elders of the town, who, [175/176] finding they could not frighten him into submission, and knowing the voice of the people was in his favour, dismissed him, after forcing him to become a member of their secret council. [It must be remembered that though all matters of general interest are settled in the general council of Aké, each township has its own council, and keeps the government of all local affairs in its own hands. And it was owing to this in. dependence of action, that, while the persecution raged so fiercely in some of the towns, others were entirely exempt from it, as we shall presently see.]
All these attempts against the converts served to strengthen rather than weaken them. Six of the candidates indeed forsook Mr. Crowther from fear of the consequences; but the remainder stood firmer than before--the timid were encouraged, and the weak were strengthened; the churches were fuller than ever, and fresh candidates were continually coming forward. [At this time Mr. Crowther had fifty communicants, and forty-eight candidates for baptism, in addition to Mr. Muller's fifty-two of the former, and one hundred and thirty-nine of the latter.] Frustrated in their attempts, the persecutors desisted for a time. "The churches had rest, and were edified, and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied."
God was thus fitting them for further trials; and few Christian communities probably have been better prepared than this was for the fire of persecution. "Unity, life, energy, and courage," writes Mr. Müller at the time, "are the characteristics of the infant church of Abbeokuta." Their sense of the atonement was so strong, that we are told tears [176/177] would run down their cheeks when the subject was specially dwelt upon; and subsequent events have shown that to Mr. Muller's list of Christian graces was to be added constancy in confessing Christ before men.
Individual cases of ill-treatment again occurred in the summer of 1849, but these did not satisfy the enemies of the gospel, who only waited for some favourable opportunity of commencing a more systematic persecution; and the burial of a native convert in the autumn of that year afforded them a pretext of which they were but too ready to avail themselves. [In speaking of the converts the missionaries often apply the term native to those who have never left their country, to distinguish them from the Sierra Leone emigrants.]
Idini was a man who had suffered the loss of all things for the sake of Christ; he had been forsaken by his relations and deprived of his employment. Mr. Hinderer took him as horsekeeper, and, after some months of faithful service, the poor man died in the Aké mission-house. His master, knowing what his own wishes would have been, obtained the consent of his relations, and buried him in the Christian burying-ground.
But neither he nor his fellow-missionaries were prepared for the consequences of this step. It was the first case of the death of a native convert; and [177/178] the Ogboni, who have by law, it appeared, the arrangement and the profits of all the funerals, considered their rights were infringed upon, and lost no time in taking advantage of the alleged misdemeanour. [There had been several deaths among the Sierra Leone people; but in those cases the governments never interfered--they were considered as rightfully belonging to the English.] Six of the converts were seized and confined in the council-house of Itoku; but the remonstrances of Mr. Hinderer, and the decision with which he acted, procured their release after five days of suffering; not however without severe scourging, and such heavy fines that some of them will hardly be free from during their life-time. They were also strictly prohibited from attending the instructions of the missionaries, and the chiefs of Itoku still continued to seize and imprison others. In a few days, the missionaries received intelligence from the Obbashorun (or principal war-chief), who was unvarying in the friendliness of his conduct towards them, that the chiefs of Igbore were intending to follow the example of Itoku, and to seize as many as they could of their own townspeople who were converts. Accordingly, on the 20th of October, the storm again burst out with redoubled fury. "Nothing," writes Mr. Crowther, "was omitted that could make the circumstances appalling to the poor sufferers; 'Oro' was called out in Igbore town, the Ogboni [178/179] drums were beating furiously, and a great multitude, armed with bill-hooks, clubs and whips, were catching and dragging our poor converts to the council house. Here they were unmercifully beaten, and then the feet of each of the men were thrust into holes in the walls and made fast on the other side in stocks--some of the holes being two feet from the ground. There they lay for five days, exposed to the scorching sun by day and floods of rain by night. Food was also denied them, and many must have died under their accumulated sufferings, had there not been some among the council who, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, would not consent to the persecution." These men succoured the prisoners as far as it was possible, privately sending them provisions and words of comfort. [There is reason to believe that, had it not been for this influence, the whole number, amounting (inclusive of the Wesleyan converts) to nearly a hundred, would have been put to death.] "The women were cruelly scourged and pinioned, without regard to age or sickness; and while all this was going on in the council-house, the houses of the imprisoned were being plundered, their household utensils destroyed, their doors unhinged and carried away."
Nor were the sufferers left unmolested in their imprisonment; repeated attempts were made to induce them to recant; and finding they would not [179/180] yield, their tormentors shaved the heads of all, in order, as they said, to shave off baptism; and on the heads of the women they wrung out the blood of a pigeon, setting before them the figure of an idol for them to worship. All their attempts were vain; baptised and unbaptised stood stedfast in their new faith, and comforted each other with the example of their Lord. Several times they sent messengers to Mr. Crowther, begging him "not to be cast down on their account," for that their "only fear was that he would have over-much sorrow for them." "Wonderful manifestation," exclaims Mr. Hinderer, "of the power of the Word and Spirit of God! A young and tender flock, tormented by wolves and lions, send to comfort their shepherd!" The persecutors were perplexed. "Day after day," said they, "we torment them, but they still say, 'we will die rather than recant.' "What is it," they asked some of the prisoners, "what is it that Oibo [The white man.] gives you to eat that makes your hearts so strong?" [They knew not that they were eating of the tree of life, and that they were "strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, unto all patience and long-suffering with joyfulness."--Col. i. 11.] They would have been still more puzzled, could they have penetrated deeper, and have known that these very men, somej of whom were not long ago the plague [180/181] of the town--thieves, kidnappers, incendiaries, adulterers, and murderers--were now often engaged in prayer for these their enemies, and "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," many times ascended from the council-house of Igbore.
The fierce attack by the Igbore chiefs was the signal for a similar course of action in other towns. In Igbein, in Itori, in Imo, the converts were sought for and seized; but there were very few in any of these places, and several of the most influential chiefs of other towns refused to take any part in the matter. Sagbua, Ogubonna, Sokenu, and the Ob-bashorun, protected the Christians in their own towns, and sent repeatedly to the missionaries to beg them not to be discouraged. [The congregation at Aké church was not disturbed.] They endeavoured to prevail upon the persecutors to relent, and so far succeeded, that at the end of the five days they were set free, but like those of Itoku, they had heavy fines to pay, and were forbidden under pain of death to attend church, or go to white man's house.
For a time the converts submitted to the restriction, saying they had "the Bible in their hearts, and for the present would keep church at home." By degrees, however, they began to feel the want of intercourse with their ministers, and notwithstanding the spies that were set to watch the mission-house, [181/182] would pay Mr. Crowther visits by stealth, coming through byways and unfrequented paths.
Things continued thus for some weeks. Mr. Crowther's church at Igbein was attended only by Sierra Leone people, and a few natives from some of the quieter districts; for the road to it was watched, and neither the Itoku nor the Igbore people dared to venture. At last the influential Obbashorun, whom we have had several times occasion to mention, interfered on their behalf with so much determination, that the persecutors were obliged to yield, and the prohibition was withdrawn. Various means were, however, still made use of to prevent the Christians from attending public worship, and though some of the most courageous forced their way thither on Christmas day, it was not till the end of February that Mr. Crowther's congregation assembled in their former numbers. In this instance, as in many others, the wicked fell into their own trap, and Satan was defeated by his own weapons. The general feeling among the people of Abbeokuta was strongly in favour of the sufferers; they shuddered at the torments that had been inflicted on them, and wondered at the spirit in which they had been enabled to endure them. Some of the chiefs, who had at first taken part with the persecutors, were disgusted at the lengths to which they had carried their measures, and withdrew from any further participation in their scheme; and [182/183] the converts themselves dung still more closely to Him who had been with them in the fiery furnace.
One of the prisoners, of the name of Anoke, had, in addition to his other sufferings, been compelled to swallow poison. In his distress he appealed solemnly to God, intreating Him, if he had done wrong in this matter, to give him strength to bear it as a punishment due to him; but if not, it was in His power to deliver him from so dreadful a death, and beseeching Him to do it. When released, he returned home and took some medicine, threw off the poison, and felt no harm.
A similar attempt was made upon a woman, a communicant, of the name of Agola, who almost lost the use of one side, from its having been rubbed with poison. She had suffered dreadfully from its effects, had been flogged, and nearly starved; "but," said she to Mr. Müller, "no man can ever take out of my heart the Word of God you have taught me." Another of these sufferers was Olu Walla, a man of a fierce, impetuous temper, well fitted to be the confidential agent of the principal slave-dealer in Abbeokuta. Had any poor slave made his escape, or was any deed of violence to be perpetrated, Olu Walla was the man to do it; and the life of a fellow-creature was of little account in his eyes, if it stood in the way of any of his designs.
On one occasion, his master had been brought [183/184] before the council, on some charge of violence or injustice; he told Olu Walla of the circumstance, and desired him to manage his affairs for him. The too-ready agent collected a band of men nearly as desperate as himself, armed them with swords, and took his place with them in some open space near the chiefs, as if merely spectators of the proceedings. The cause came on; arguments were heard on either side; the chiefs were preparing to give their judgment, when Olu Walla, seeing that it was going against his master, started up, and calling out they were all wrong, rushed forward with his men, sword in hand, and so thoroughly frightened the whole assembly, that they all ran away in a most undignified manner, and the poor plaintiff lost his cause.
About the time of the missionaries' arrival at Abbeokuta, Olu Walla went to Illorin on some business of his own, and remained there a considerable time. During his absence, some of his companions had begun to inquire after truth, and to attend the chureh and the Sunday-school; but they forbore to mention it to their former comrade on his return, fearing to excite his anger. One day he saw some of them with their primers in their hands, and inquired what they were doing; they told him, and his interest was so awakened, that he determined to go to church, and hear what went on there. The next [184/185] Sunday he made his appearance. The congregation were astonished, and the whisper went round--"What! Olu Walla here? He will not come again, for this will not suit him." But he did come again, yes, again and again, and soon begged for more regular instruction. The blessing of God rested on the teaching; and the fierce and desperate Olu Walla, once the terror of the neighbourhood, is now the patient, quiet Matthew, sitting at the feet of his teacher, and learning the way of eternal life.
The rage of his former master, at thus losing one who had been so valuable an assistant in all his wicked projects, knew no bounds, and he urged on with all his might the persecution which was then beginning. Matthew was more severely dealt with than the rest, but he was enabled to stand firm, and has ever since continued faithfully attached to the mission, to which the natural energy of his character renders him a valuable acquisition.