Emmanuel Adekunle Atilade was born in 1900 at Aawe, close to Oyo Township, Oyo State in Nigeria. His father, Pa Adegoke Atilade of Anlamole house, was a prosperous farmer. His five wives gave him six sons and four daughters. Emmanuel’s mother, Oyeronke Atilade, was the youngest of the wives. She hailed from a royal house of Alaawe’s compound, Aawe. Pa Adegoke Atilade was a polytheist, paying hommage to four idols: Sango, the god of thunder, the Oro cult, the Egungun masquerade, and the Ifa oracle. E. A. Atilade was called out of this polytheistic home into the Christian priesthood.
His father hoped that all his children would become farmers and raised them with a sense of responsibility towards the farm. Nevertheless, after his two older brothers secretly escaped from home to Lagos, the majority of work fell on Atilade. At age twelve, he began to lead his three younger brothers in the work on his father’s farm. During his leisure time, he visited the family of an elderly Christian man, Pa Abraham Oyewo, who taught him how to read the Yoruba Primer.
Emmanuel Atilade followed Pa Abraham Oyewo’s children to church on Sundays. However, his father spurned Pa Abraham’s offer to send Emmanuel to school since he wanted all his sons to work.
News came to Emmanuel Atilade through Moses Atinsola, a mission house boy, that Miss U. Keith, a Baptist missionary from America, wanted to adopt a boy, teach him at the mission house, and send him to school. Since his father would not permit him to take advantage of this opportunity, he left home without his father’s knowledge. His father, who thought his son had been kidnapped and sold to the missionary as a slave went to Oyo and brought him back to Aawe.
In 1918, Atilade had another opportunity to become a mission boy. This opportunity allowed him to attend the mission school at Baptist Primary School, Oke-Isokun, Oyo. In a year, he was done with the academic work for primary two and was promoted to standard one. When Miss U. Keith was transferred to Abeokuta, he went along with her.
He came back to Oyo with Miss Susan Anderson in 1920 while his “missionary mother” was on leave. Later, he refused to go to Shaki with Miss Anderson, who was going there to learn Yoruba, because of his dislike for shea-butter (Emmanuel had heard that Shaki people used shea-butter to cook instead of palm oil). But finally Dr. and Mrs. G. W. Sadler took him to Ogbomoso where he finished his primary studies in 1923. He gave his life to Christ after hearing a sermon by Pastor J. O. Doju at Saja Baptist Church Ogbomoso and was baptized by Dr. G. W. Sadler in 1923.
Atilade was one of the thirty candidates throughout the country who successfully sat for the entrance examination to Baptist Teacher’s College at Ogbomoso in 1924. In December 1927, he graduated from college and was then appointed to teach in the Infant Department of the mission school at Ogbomoso, his alma-mater. This privilege afforded him a unique opportunity to study and understand children–knowledge that later helped him in writing textbooks for school children. He was transferred to Baptist Girl’s School, Idi-Aba, in Abeokuta in 1930.
Atilade met Christiana Adetayo (née Mosebolatan of the Oloro compound Ijaye, Abeokuta) during his stay at Idi-Aba. They were married on Easter Monday, April 6, 1931. In January 1932 they left for Ogbomoso where Atilade received his theological training. The marriage was blessed with six children (Paul Adebayo, born in 1932, Florence Adenrele, born in 1935, David Adeagbo, born in 1937, Margaret Adewumi, born in 1939, Rachael Adeoti, born in 1941, and Magnus Adeyemi, born in 1944). Atilade became a relief teacher in the seminary in 1935. That very year, out of a passion for working with youth, he organized the Youth Monthly Diary Association that published a monthly magazine for Nigerian youths. The registration of this magazine was sponsored and printed by King D. T. Akinbiyi and Akin Adesigbin of Tika-Tore Press, Lagos.
His pastoral ministry began at Ejigbo in 1936. A new structure was erected during his time that was in use for fifty years before the church built another one. The greatest shock in his ministry came when members of one of the leading preaching stations in the village wanted to secede from the church to join another Christian group that claimed to have the power to give the gift of Holy Spirit. Atilade reported the case to Dr. Green, his missionary supervisor, who sent him to the Ogiyan of Ejigbo (the King) who sent him to the district officer at Osogbo, a white man.
The district officer’s advice was to allow the members to secede if at least five members of the original congregation remained. However, unhappy at the prospect of splitting the church, Atilade returned to the village and attended worship at the preaching station. It just so happened that the leaders of the Christian group responsible for the schism were visiting the congregation. After the service, Atilade asked a question to which none of the visitors could give a satisfactory biblical answer. Instead, one of the church members who had attended Atilade’s Bible class offered the correct response. At this, Atilade turned to the members of the preaching station and said, “You can see that you know and understand Bible lessons better that these visitors.” As a result, the church members severed their relationship with the visitors and the church has remained intact and within the Nigerian Baptist Convention to this day.
On July 10, 1938, Atilade was ordained into full gospel ministry. From the time of his ordination, he claimed, “I can feel God’s hand on me and I can say like St. Paul, ‘Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel’ (1Cor.9:23).” His wife was ordained a deaconess on July 18, 1938. He served as the recording secretary (1936-1940) and secretary to the ministerial council (1941-1946) of the Nigerian Baptist Convention. In December 1938, he was recalled to teach in the seminary in Ogbomoso.
He had such a passion for evangelism that he went outside of the church and into the community to spread the Gospel. While his wife and children attended First Baptist Church, Oke-Lerin, he went from house to house with a bell and a Bible, proclaiming the gospel to unreached parts of Ogbomoso. His evangelistic zeal led to the creation of Gaa Lagbedu Baptist Church (Gaa Isagbedu was the land where Chief Lagbedu of Ogbomoso kept his cattle).
Atilade always wished for his father’s conversion. Though his father was interested in hearing the good news preached to him by his son, he objected to the Christian practice of monogamy because he was a polygamist. His mother gave her life to Jesus when she came to stay with her son in Ogbomoso. She accepted Christ and was baptized in 1940 by J. A. Adediran in the same river where her son had been baptized.
Between 1941 and 1947, Atilade was a missionary assistant to the head of the department of religious education at Baptist Academy, Lagos. He became an honorary pastor of Union Baptist Church Lagos though without a stipend. He became full time pastor of the church in January 1948.
One day, on his way to preach at a Methodist Church Yaba in 1948 at the children’s harvest thanksgiving service, he saw pupils of New African School, 47A Coates Street, Ebute- Meta, playing football on the Sabbath and this displeased him. This incident motivated him to start a church later named Gospel Baptist Church.
He did not tell his current church about this new work. Eventually word got out and the Union Baptist Church demanded to know why Atilade did not inform members that he was establishing a new church. In order to preserve the peace, he resigned his appointment from Union Baptist Church. Some members chose to follow him and, on Sunday, August 2, 1950, they formed Gospel Baptist Church, which is now the Gospel Baptist Cathedral, Olowogbowo, Lagos. Atilade believed in self-financing and the Gospel Baptist Cathedral, Lagos, was built between 1962 and 1970 without aid from outside sources.
In 1964 Atilade was awarded the Commonwealth Scholarship as the author of the Akoka Yoruba Readers, books 1-6, used in Nigerian primary schools. Between 1964 and 1965, he used the scholarship to study school textbook writing and production. This scholarship allowed him to travel to London, England where he met international students from India, Pakistan, British Guiana, British Honduras, Indonesia, the Caribbean Islands, Egypt, Uganda, and Zambia. He also got some practical experience with the publishing offices of Pitman and Collins.
Atilade was an active church planter and the Gospel Baptist Church, Ebute-Meta, Lagos, was the first of over two hundred Gospel Baptist churches established nationwide. When he requested autonomous conference status for the Gospel Baptist Conference the Nigerian Baptist Convention, who interpreted this move as anti-constitutional and detrimental to the convention, denied the request. The Gospel Baptist Conference later seceded.
However, because of this secession and the stigma attached to it, several of the Gospel Baptist Churches planted by Atilade began to remove the word “Gospel” from their church names. Atilade saw this kind of pressure as a form of persecution. In the midst of this turmoil, he accepted a church that had formerly seceded from the Baptist Conference in Ogbomoso and called it a “Gospel Baptist Church.” Some wondered whether he had political reasons for this. There were rumors that “Gospel” churches were part of a secret society but the churches denied this, though the word “Gospel” in the church name continued to carry a stigma.
In 1967, Atilade was sent by the Nigerian Baptist Convention to Zambia as a representative in a month long evangelistic crusade, held from August 10 to September 10, and planned by Baptist Churches in Zambia. He traveled across Africa, preaching a week each in Kitwe, Mufulera, and Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. In 1976, he was invited to be a guest preacher at Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.
In 1984 he was appointed and consecrated bishop and president of the Gospel Baptist Conference of Nigeria and Overseas. He changed his official position to archbishop so that he could consecrate other bishops for the conference.
Atilade created many schools across Nigeria to meet the needs of the children. He established both primary schools, such as the New Age Afternoon School, and high schools, like the New Nigeria High School and the New State High School. He was also a prolific writer, penning over fifty books. A printer proof of his latest book, The Spiritual Value of the Three Abiding Graces, was on his table the day he died
Atilade lived out what he called “the duty of all Christian churches in Africa,” which is to preach the gospel to all towns and villages in Africa, to indigenize Christianity, and reconcile the faith to some of the aspects of African culture and tradition, to use the instruments and tunes of African music in worship, to make Christianity the home religion of African people, to see that the African way of life is “Christocentric,” and to intensify these efforts, using every available means, including media, to preach the gospel.
Emmanuel Adekunle Atilade, an educator, prolific writer, poet, publisher, composer, and ardent missionary/church planter, died on October 22, 1997. He was survived by his wife, six children, twenty-one grand children and twenty-one great grand children.
Olugbade Aderemi Oludele
Atilade, E. A. “A Short History of Gospel Baptist Church, Lagos,” The Gospeler, January-June, 1st issue, 1975.
——–. My Journey from Heathen Home to Christian Priesthood. Lagos: New Nigeria Press and Publishers, 1985.
Gospel Baptist Church of Nigeria and Overseas, “Order of Funeral/Outing Service for Late Most Revd. Emmanuel Adekunle Atilade, 1900 - 22nd October, 1997” at First Gospel Baptist Church, Ile-Ayo Aawe, Oyo State.
Ogunbiyi, I. O. Interview at Gospel Baptist Cathedral, Ikoyi Road, Ogbomoso, January 29, 2007.
Ojo, I. A., retired Nigerian Baptist Convention pastor. Interview at Olowe Street, Oke-Afo, Ikirun, January 26, 2007.
Oyetunji, M. O. “Itan Ijo Gospel Baptist Cathedral,” Ikoyi Road, Ogbomoso, The Gospeler, January - June 1978.
This article, received in 2007, was researched and written by Olugbade Aderemi Oludele, at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, under the supervision of Rev. Dr. Deji Ayegboyin, DACB liaison coordinator.