Everything in life has a beginning. The success or failure of a thing can be traced to its beginning. The beginning of a thing is always full of hope, aspirations, desires and wishes. So also, when a farmer sows a tiny seed, he is optimistic of a bounteous harvest. With good nurture, the seed can become an oak. On March 14, 1919, some women planted a seed – WMU of Nigeria – with a hope of a bountiful harvest. Year in year out, they toiled; today the seed has grown! Baptist Women’s Missionary Union (BWMU) of Nigeria is like a mustard seed planted in the midst of different challenges in Nigeria but has become an oak tree. The organisation is 100 years old! To God alone be the glory.
The purpose of establishing WMU was and still remains missions. The objectives of WMU as stated in 1919 when it was organised were: prayer, Bible study, personal service, enlistment and training, soul winning and giving. To the glory of God, WMU has always strived to attain her objectives. Ayegboyin (1990: 97) testifies:
Its purpose being to promote Christian missions through a programme of mission study, prayer, community missions, stewardship and missionary education of the youth. The purpose which characterized the organisation of WMU at its beginning still holds today. It has remained unchanged through the years. Indeed, the organisation has been modified to allow for growth and methods have been altered in keeping with the times but the basic principles for which the organisation stands, which is missions, has remained unchanged.
Ayegboyin’s words reveal that though time changes, WMU has not derailed from her purpose; rather she continues to expand with missions as her core value.
In 17th century, Africa lacked the knowledge of the Gospel. Idol worship was the order of the day. Human blood was being used as sacrifices. African women and their children were mostly victims of sacrifices. They suffered more than their male folks. Describing the terrible feature of the time, Akinola (2011:22) says:
Inter tribal wars were also frightening. Boundary disputes, ethnic rivalry, ancestral disputes might have also caused wars. There was no peace, the people lived in commotion. Africans were affected by the powers and ideas of traditional religion. The way of life was full of taboos and preaching about hell could not threaten them because they lived already in demonic bondage. They relied on charms and fetish sacrifices of chickens, goats, snails etc prescribed by the oracle.
The account of Akinola shows that cultural beliefs about women were misconstrued. Women’s voices were not heard. Their wishes and desires were subjective to the dictates of the oracle. Concerning whom to marry, the oracle made choices for them. Whomever the oracle chose (whether they liked the person or not) was the final. Another effect is that the girl-child was also made to experience the agony of circumcision. The belief was that circumcision would save the baby from being promiscuous later in life. Another experience of the female folk was denial of Western education. Little wonder, WMU was established to bring hope to the women folk, to make them see themselves as the Lord Jesus Christ sees them and not as the society does. Akinola (2011:19-20) lends credence thus: “Baptist Women’s Missionary Union is not women’s liberation union but women’s mobilization for Christ… with one accord and look forward to the time when women will no more be pawns in the hands of mighty women.” How did the mobilisation for Christ come?
It was crystal clear that the continent of Africa needed the light, and no other light could dispel the thick darkness than the light of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The American Southern Baptist Convention through the Foreign Mission Board was concerned about the high rate of idol worship in Africa; hence, Africa became one of her targets. There was an urgent need to send missionaries to us!
An American missionary, Thomas Jefferson Bowen, arrived Nigeria in 1850. He was later joined by his wife. Some missionaries who could have been of immense help to them either died or became sick. While missionaries preached Christ to the people, their wives taught women to develop themselves. Due to cultural hindrances, women were not socially and religiously accepted to be on the same level with the men. Therefore, it was not easy to convince parents to release their daughters to be put through Western education.
However, Bowen’s effort yielded fruits. There were converts from places such as Lagos, Abeokuta, Oyo and Ogbomoso. The salvation encounter was so great on the converts that even when there were no missionaries to lead their worship services, they gathered themselves under trees for worship services. Knowing that “to be a Christian was to risk flogging, death and destruction of properties, but converts held tight to their faith in Jesus Christ the Saviour” (Akinola, 2010:31) . What an awesome encounter they had with Christ, the Light!
One striking characteristic of Nigerians is their penchant for the formation of egbe (societies). Some of the missionaries capitalized on this interest to organise societies and age group associations in the spread of the Gospel. By May 1896, Araromi Baptist Church, Lagos where Dr. Mojola Agbebi was the pastor, had formed a society called Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavour and a Missionary Band. Similarly in 1915, First Baptist Church, Lagos had societies such as Women’s Preachers’ Band, Young Women’s Christian Association, the Aged Women’s Association, Morning Star and ‘Ina Olorun Ntan’ (God’s Shining Light). In the same vein, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Lagos had Young Women’s Christian Love and Association and Society of Christian Endeavour. Similarly, in Ogbomoso, which was another prominent mission station, there were also societies for women and girls. Notable was the Purity Society for young girls organised by Rev. and Mrs. Scott Patterson. The aim of the society was to promote cleanliness of body, mind and spirit. There was also a group called Little Stars, a group of children that were being taught Bible verses and songs by Mrs. George Green on Sunday afternoon.
Before 1919: Pre-Planting Period
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a step, goes a saying. The journey to the planting of the seed of Baptist Women’s Missionary Union started with a desire to have a league for men and women. Dr. and Mrs. Mojola Agbebi (both of blessed memory) were planters of WMU seeds; they first conceived the idea of forming a league for men and women of Lagos churches. They later took the giant step of presenting the proposal before the Yoruba Baptist Association in 1915. In the year 1916, Dr. Agbebi called prominent members of the Lagos Churches to their residence to form the Women’s League. Right there, a Men’s League and a Women’s League were organised. According to history, the Men’s League died a natural death but the women carried on and the Women’s League survived gloriously.
In 1916, the organisation of the Lagos Women’s League took place with ninety-four women in attendance. Mrs. S.G. Pinnock, a Southern Baptist Convention Missionary suggested that each church should have its own league and that all leagues would come together once a quarter to have a joint meeting. That was a welcomed suggestion. During those periods, there were five societies for women, girls and little children. These were: Egbe Iya Sioni for the grandmothers; Egbe Iya for the mothers; Egbe Esteri for the young married women; Egbe Mimo for the young girls and Egbe Irawo Kekere for the little children. These groups met at Oke’lerin Baptist Church, Ogbomoso on July 7, 1916 and had several meetings. Few women from some of the leagues joined the Yoruba Baptist Association. During 1917 Association, several women were in attendance; hence, the meeting was said to be a unique and special one.
During the fourth Annual Conference of the Yoruba Baptist Association, one of the resolutions was the consideration of having a Women’s Missionary Union as earlier given in a message by Rev. A. Scott Patterson. Women groups continued to expand as leagues were formed in Lagos, Ogbomoso, Saki, Abeokuta, Oyo and Igede. As a result, the leaders saw the need to come together as one body.