Jonathan Alabi Amao was probably born around 1924. His father was from a family famous for native medicines and Egungun worship. His mother was from a titled family. They lived at Babanloma (Loma) but spent most of their time at their farm near Biribiri, close to Jebba. It was there that Jonathan was born. Because his mother had lost so many babies, they consulted an herbalist who told them that they should not take this child home to Loma until he could talk, and himself asked to go. Likewise, they must not cut his hair, until he himself asked for it. He can remember the day they cut his hair because he bought masa cakes for all the other little children to celebrate.
Jonathan’s mother later gave birth to another boy who lived until 1974, and his father had two daughters by his other wives. His father did not become a Christian, but his mother eventually did.
When Jonathan was quite small, his father’s uncle disappeared. Later someone found him working for the Nigerian Posts and Telegraph in Jos, and came to tell Jonathan’s father. His father went to visit the uncle several times, and this persuaded the uncle to visit home on one of his annual leaves. When he finally retired, he came back to Loma to settle. The uncle had no child of his own, so Jonathan’s father gave him to the uncle to raise. The uncle’s name was John Bolaji Ojo.
Uncle Ojo sent Jonathan to school. By then there was a primary school at Loma and Jonathan attended for a few years. May 30, 1935, uncle Ojo died. Jonathan’s father consulted with Mr. Embree, the UMS missionary at Share and agreed that Jonathan should go to Share and stay with the Embrees to continue his studies in English. Mrs. Embree had started a school, and was its first teacher. She taught Jonathan for the first two years, then a Nigerian teacher (now Rev. Oyinloye, living in Ajase and attending the SDA) took over.
Jonathan had been reading the Bible and going to church ever since he started school in Loma, but while he was in Share, Rev. D. O. Taylor used to come about every three months to preach. In one of his meetings, Jonathan came to understand what it was to be converted, and he gave his life to Christ. He was working for the Embrees then, first as sweeper, then cook and steward, and Mr. Embree discipled all the workers. As Jonathan learned more and more about his faith and how Christians should serve the Lord, he began to think, “Why can’t I preach like others?”
By 1941, Jonathan’s parents were bothering him about marriage. Before this, he had not felt it was time but finally he felt he was ready to look for a girl. His parents were well regarded in Loma and could have had almost any girl they asked for as his wife, but he insisted that they must not snatch away a girl who had already been promised to another man. That year, he met a lovely girl, Comfort Ayi, who was selling bean cakes in the market in Loma. She was beautiful and old enough for marriage and he could hardly believe it when they told him that she had not yet been promised to anyone. Apparently, her aunt used to discourage her family from accepting all the suitors who had come for her so far, saying that they came from families with a lot of witchcraft. But when Jonathan and his parents talked to her and her family, there was no objection. It was as if God had reserved them for each other. They began their courtship.
In 1942, Jonathan had learned all he could from the Share school and was ready to enter Standard 5. For this he had to go to Jebba. He was taught there by Mr. Jonathan Awesu (Dr. Awesu’s father) for two years, and finished his Standard 6 in December 1943. Rev. and Mrs. Joseph Ummel were the missionaries at Jebba then. In January 1944 he went back to Share as a teacher in the school Mrs. Embree had started. He taught there for seven years, until 1950. During that time he married his fiancee, on December 22, 1947. She came to live with him at Share, and followed him to all the other places where he worked. She gave birth to their first daughter September 1948, and the second (Felicia) in November 1950.
The Embrees went home around 1946 because Mrs. Embree was sick and she finally died. Mrs. Finlay came to Share and she saw that Jonathan was troubled. She asked him what was bothering him. He confessed that it was his desire to be a preacher. So she started praying for him and giving him opportunities to lead services. When Mr. Embree returned, Jonathan told him that he felt called to be a pastor. Rev. Embree advised him to study the pastor’s reading course, which he did for three years. He finished all but one of the prescribed study books before he left Share in 1951. During that time he did a lot of preaching. For example, in 1948 he held a week-long revival crusade in Igbeti in which “Audu” Gabriel Omotunde was converted.
In 1951 Mr. Amao left teaching and went to work in Mokwa at the dispensary with Mrs. Hunking. Miss Yeo and Miss Wilson were then also on the Mokwa station. From there he went to Vom for nurse’s training in 1952 where he graduated in December 1955. He was the student leader there for two years. In his final year an essay competition for all nurses was held. The topic to be written on was “The Nurse as a Citizen of Nigeria.” Mr. Amao’s entry won first prize, which was a certificate and 5 guineas,- big money in those days. There was joy and sadness during the time at Vom. Their first daughter, whom they left with Mrs. Finlay in Share, died at the age of 5, but their first son, Sunday, was born in 1953 and a second son, John Dele in April 1956.
The Amaos left Vom in October 1956 and Mr. Amao became the first Nigerian staff nurse in the UMS hospital at Tungan Magajiya. Two other Nigerians were trained with him by the UMS in Vom, Musa Kwere (who joined the army in 1968) and Ayo, who also left. In Tungan Magajiya, the Amaos gave birth to another son, Robert, in 1959 (who died at the age of 13), Elizabeth (now Mrs. Rufai) in 1961, and Janet (now Mrs. Bello) in 1964.
While he was working in the hospital, Mr. Amao continued his preaching as he was invited to many places to speak. He became heavily involved in the Fellowship of Christian Nurses (FCN) started by Dr. Ishaya Audu and others in Zaria/Kaduna in the 1960s. He was elected as their National President three times (the terms were not consecutive) and the fourth time he declined. He preached in many hospitals, especially Vom where he was invited almost every year as long as the missionaries who remembered him were still around, and about every other year at Mkar near Gboko in Benue State. The Mkar people gave him his first airplane ride, picking him up the first time in Zuru, another time in Kontagora and the third time in Kaduna. In 1990, Rev. Amao and his wife revisited Vom and found only one person who knew him, as the people there have all changed since his days.
Mr. Amao worked at Tungan Magajiya until 1968 when he was asked by Rev. Sloat to come to Mokwa Teacher’s College to teach Bible and act as College nurse. Some missionaries, Mr. and Mrs. Chesmuir, had been doing this work before, he as teacher and she as nurse. The mission would have had to recruit two couples to fill their place but Mr. Amao could do both jobs. He found it hard, but he knew it was God’s will at the time. After two years in this work, he wanted to leave the UMS altogether, but his pastor in Loma, Pastor James Olaniyan, strongly rebuked him.
He went back to Tungan Magajiya in 1970, and in 1972 was appointed hospital administrator (called “Matron” in those days). He held that position until 1976 when the government took over the hospital and transferred him to Birnin Kebbi. He was hospital administrator there, and also at Talata Mafara where he was transferred in January 1980.
At the end of 1980, Mr. Amao was elected President of the United Missionary Church of Africa. He was surprised at this because he thought that they would not elect someone who had been so much an outsider to the leadership of the church. Some years before, Rev. D. O. Taylor had wanted Mr. Amao to replace him as Yoruba District Superintendent when he retired, but Mr. Amao felt the post should go to some of the pastors who had laboured in the denomination. When they asked him to let his name stand for election for President, he hoped he would not be chosen, and deliberately stayed away from the conference where the election was taking place. He went to Tungan Magajiya where the first graduation of the Bible School was taking place, to be their speaker.
When Mr. Dan Snyder left the conference in Ilorin early and came to TM with the news that Mr. Amao was elected, he left the Bible College and went straight to “Audu” Omotunde’s house where he was staying and waited until Audu and Rev. Sam Oloyede came to tell him all about it. He cried all night to God, “Why me?” but he knew this was God’s choice for him. Dr. Bell wrote to say, “So this is why the Lord has sent you here and there all these years!” Mr. Amao remembered how Martha Hood, when he was first introduced to her in Share, had given him a Nupe primer, Bible and hymn book, and sent her cook to teach him Nupe. His time in the north had also given him a good grasp of Hausa. All this was vitally important for his role in uniting the churches using these three languages in the UMCA.
It was a big struggle to get free from his government service. The government absolutely refused to release him, so he had to withdraw his services and forego all pension and benefits. He gave them 30 days notice and finished at the end of May 1981. He got to Ilorin on June 3 after a couple of days at Loma.
Before June 3, Mr. Amao had visited Ilorin to see if there was any accommodation for him and his family at the headquarters. People were suggesting that he stay in the former Doner’s house where Mrs. Winnie Goldsworthy was staying. They said they would build a smaller house for Mrs. Goldsworthy. But her house did not have enough rooms for the large Amao family. On June 3, he was surprised to see a big new house on the compound. Mrs. Goldsworthy and Rev. Oloyede told him that the house had been built for him! So he praised God. It had no furniture, however, so he left his family at Loma for three months.
During that time, he was busy touring the whole UMCA, stopping in to greet his family at Loma whenever he passed. When it was time for the General Conference in Ilorin, Mr. Amao asked his wife to come for it, and he was ordained there. Then she went back to Loma and he went to North America.
When he got back he asked his family to move to Ilorin. Meanwhile, he was off at the National Congress on Evangelization in Ife for 10 days. The evening he came home and peeked in the door, his little grandson said reproachfully, “Baba, are you going away again?” This cut Rev. Amao to the heart. He had to take someone to the hospital that evening, but the little boy waited up until he came home just to sit in his lap. Rev. Amao decided to spend the next month at home until the children resumed school.
When he started as UMCA President, there were 4 districts: Hausa, Nupe, Kwara and Southern. Then they added Chapel District. One time when he was discussing with Rev. Magaji, the Hausa CDS, Rev. Magaji told him that the district was too large. The two men started praying about it. Later that year, Rev. Langashi from Salka and Rev. Ayuba Inuwa from Agwara met him to ask about dividing the district. He sent them to Rev. Magaji, and they were pleasantly surprised to see that he easily accepted the plan. At their district conference, it was decided to divide the district into three: Arewa, Agwara and Salka. This was done and the districts have grown greatly and each has divided again since then. Near the end of Rev. Amao’s eleven and a half year tenure of office, the Southern District also divided into Igbeti and Southern districts.
When he retired at the end of 1992, Rev. and Mrs. Amao went back to Babanloma to live. During his term as President, Rev. Amao feels that there was growth in understanding among ethnic groups in the UMCA. The churches also gradually increased their giving to the UMCA Headquarters. His desire for UMCA development is to see the new secretariat building in the Ilorin Headquarters in use during his lifetime.
Compiled mainly from an interview with Rev. J. A. Amao in June 1994 by Lois Fuller.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Faith of Our Fathers: Life Stories of Some UMCA Elders, copyright © 1999, edited by Lois Fuller, Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria. All rights reserved.