Coker, Jacob Kehinde (A)
On the 12th of April, 1799, 16 clergymen and nine laymen within the Church of England met and decided to form the Church Missionary Society within the established Church of England. These clergymen included a few evangelists like Charles Simon and Rev. John Venn, who later became secretary. The lay members included William Wilberforce, one of the greatest parliamentarians in British History who fought for the abolition of slave trade. Their main aim was to carry the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to the heathen world including Africa.
They started in earnest and sent missionaries to Sierra Leone especially to Freetown where the emancipated slaves were settled. Some years later Fowell Buxton, one of the pioneers of this laudable effort woke up early one morning and said that he had seen the solution to the problem of Africa. According to him, Africans should be called out to work for the redemption of Africa. He said:
Let missionaries and school masters, plough and spade, go together and agriculture will flourish, the avenues to legitimate commerce will be opened, confidence between man and man will be inspired, whilst civilization will advance as the natural effect, and Christianity operate as the proximate cause, of this happy change.
Out of this vision came the expedition of 1841 which landed at the mouth of the Niger and which, due to the sudden death of many of the members within a few days, led to the partial failure of the expedition. Nonetheless, both the Anglican and the Methodist missionaries came to Badagry at the urgent request of the Akus in Freetown. The Akus in turn had heard the news about Badagry through the Trinidad-Hausa based travellers who came to Badagry. Christianity spread to Abeokuta and by 1852 it had reached Lagos. The aim of the C.M.S. especially was to create through their missionary efforts African Churches that were independent, self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. They therefore taught Africans how to support themselves by giving them training in skilled labour and teaching them to manage schools and churches. The Africans quickly grasped this education and started to use their talents and skills so that native assistant bishops, ministers, catechists and school masters could emerge, hoping that within a short time there would be African bishops. Such bishops would extend their work to make more converts for the establishment of many centers. Among the earliest to be educated were Bishop Ajayi Crowther, James Johnson, and many others. But to the surprise of many Africans, instead of being happy to see the fruit of their labours, the Europeans were unhappy. They would not respect the knowledge and dignity of Africans and this attitude weakened their spiritual life and led to many a crisis that jeopardized the missionary efforts of the C.M.S., as many members opted out of the churches.
Birth and Childhood of Jacob Coker
As the Anglican Church was gradually growing in Abeokota and Lagos, a set of twins was born in Iporo-Ake Abeokuta on the 6th of September, 1866 to James Osodu Coker. J. K. Coker was the younger of the twins. His brother later became Dr. J. O. Coker. His early life was shrouded with uncertainty as he later explained at the funeral of one of his friends, the late Odeyinka Somefun. According to him, he belonged to the Ake royal family.
He attended Ake School in company of M. O. Somefun, S. A. Jibowo, J. O. Beckley, his brother J. O. Coker and many others. He later moved to Lagos to be with his family and continue his education at Breadfruit Church School. We do not know the exact year he was baptized but as child baptism was not common at that time because of stringent sanctions attached to it, he probably went through the rigours of learning the church catechism and had to personally confess his faith in the Lord before he was baptized. He spoke of his interest in church matters while at Ake School. He was a personal assistant to the late Rev. Lijadu, Daddy Stephen Sofoluke, Rev. James Johnson and other lay preachers who were in charge of the church at Iporo Ake. At the revival service conducted by Johnson in 1884, J. K. Coker became more convinced of his commitment to the Christian faith and therefore accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Saviour. He became a full member of Breadfruit Church, Lagos.
As a young man in his activities within the church, coupled with his interest in Rev. James Johnson whom he chose as an example of morality and self-discipline, he quickly became known within the congregation. Before the close of the 19th century he had been appointed the people’s warden of the church thus assuming an office that demanded great responsibility and influence for selfless service both to the church and to the community. He also decided to acquire some land in the Ifako area of Agege in 1885 to grow cotton and kola nut trees. This gave him more economic freedom as a young man and equally made his ministry effective because he was affluent and had time to look after the interests of the church with integrity. J. K. Coker became very popular, because of his warm personality and his ability to help others secure appointments. A lot of the young people at Breadfruit loved him and readily followed his decisions at any time.
His Involvement in Church Politics
As stated earlier, the European missionaries quickly detected the brilliance of Africans and feared that they would be ousted if care was not taken. A series of repressive measures were therefore taken to discourage African workers. Stringent rules and regulations were introduced into the church regarding polygamy, baptism, confirmation and marriage which kept many traditionalists from coming forward for baptism. Islam spread more quickly in areas such as Abeokuta, Ijebu, Lagos and Ibadan where Europeans stayed for many years, as opposed to areas like Ilesa, Ondo, Ekiti, Niger and the Delta region where Africans pioneered the work. These problems led to various schisms within the church similar to the ones in the Presbyterian Mission in Calabar in 1882 and the Lagos Baptist Church in 1884. Such schisms were barely averted in the Methodist Church, Lagos, in 1884.
Very many Africans became well educated and had university degrees, while most of the white missionaries had no such thing. To cover this deficiency, many of them were hurriedly given honorary degrees so as not to be superseded by the Africans. In fact, we know that the consecration of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther caused heated exchanges in letters between Henry Venn and European missionaries in Africa, especially under the leadership of Henry Townsend. In such petitions were sentences like these:
Native teachers of whatever grade have been received and respected by the chief and people only as being the agents or servants of white men (…) not because they are worthy (…). Our esteemed brother Mr. Crowther was often treated as the white man’s inferior and more frequently called so, notwithstanding our frequent assertions to the contrary.
This state of thing is not the result of white men’s teaching but has existed for ages past. The superiority of the white over the black man, the Negro, has been forward [sic] to acknowledge. The correctness of this belief no white man can deny.
Henry Townsend went on to argue that “as the country remained heathen, no Native who had no traditional title or rank could command respect outside the mission village, except as the agent or servant of the white man.” He elaborated this by saying that the country was torn apart by sectional jealousies, and that the ethnic affiliation of an indigenous bishop would make his authority unacceptable even to converts of other sections. Finally, he plunged into deeper waters still:
There is one other view we must not lose sight of viz that as the Negro feels a great respect for a white man, that God kindly gives a great talent to the white man in trust to be used for the Negro’s good. Shall we shift the responsibility? Can we do it without sin?
Circumstances like this opened the eyes of African Christians to the contemptuous attitudes of the European missionaries towards them and therefore paved the way for movements of autonomy.
The crisis which gave birth to the African church emanated from the shabby treatment given to James Johnson. During his studies in Sierra Leone he had been inspired with a great desire for the creation of an African Independent Church. This view led him to Lagos to assist in the creation of the Native Pastorate Church. This was arranged by the C.M.S. with a view toward self-support and self-propagation for Natives. He was sent to Abeokuta in the hopes that in Abeokuta,–a native independent country not under foreign government,–he might become a native bishop there and thereby create a native national church. But the native ministers were used by European missionaries to rise up against him, opposing his pious organization of discipline. He was again moved out of Abeokuta to become the vicar of St. Paul’s Breadfruit, Lagos.
J. K. Coker had been one of James Johnson’s pupils in Abeokuta, but when he came to Lagos, he became the people’s warden of the Breadfruit Church.
As warden of the church in the midst of the controversy over James Johnson’s appointment, Coker became the centre of attraction and a target of attack especially from Bishop Tugwell who regarded him as being disloyal to the authority of the church. Tugwell invited J. K. Coker to a meeting on the 10th of October, 1901 with some others like Bishop James Johnson, Bishop Oluwole, the new priest of Breadfruit, Rev. N. Johnson, and Sir Kitoyi Ajasa also in attendance. He accused J. K. Coker of opposing him and flouting his orders and promised to dismiss all officers who refused to cooperate with him.
Coker boldly told the bishop his (Coker’s) position as the legal representative of the church, and that he had no option but to relay the requests of the members to the bishop. He told the bishop that he had only written up the results of his consultations with the members of the church. The bishop demanded that Coker show support for his initiatives, effective immediately. Coker promised to give him his reply only after he had spoken with the members of the church.
Sir Kitoyi, Bishop James Johnson and Bishop Oluwole asked the bishop to grant Coker one month to dialogue and meet with the members before giving his reply. But Rev. Johnson pitched his tent with the authorities when he said “I am maligned, I place myself in the hands of authorities.” The bishop did not accept the suggestion of these three people: his personal and unilateral verdict was that those not ready to support his wishes should move out of St. Paul’s Church. He said that if anyone opposed to him remained, it would do him harm. He again turned to Coker and demanded his support immediately. The others pleaded with Coker who promised to come back after two days (the 12th of October) instead of the one month he initially proposed. J. K. Coker realizing that he could not persuade the members of the church to accept N. Johnson without a proper rehabilitation of their former priest, had no choice but to resign as warden of St. Paul’s Church, Breadfruit on the 12th of October, 1901.
While Coker met with the bishop many of the parishioners waited outside to hear the bishop’s reaction. Coker came out and was taken to the house of Ben Roberts where he told the crowd that the bishop had accepted his resignation with regret. The twelve of them present made a resolution immediately that since the bishop did not want them, they would go and start an independent church of their own from that day. The resolution was to be presented at the parishioners’ meeting taking place that evening.
The parishioners met on the 13th of October, 1901, to decide what to do. Those who had any money belonging to the church paid whatever they had collected. They then went into the church to remove their personal belongings including the cushions they had on their seats. They abandoned the idea of sending a telegraph to London to inform the home church about what was going on because it would constitute a delay. In their opinion, they had moved out of Breadfruit and had formed a new church on the 13th of October, 1901 though they had no idea where they would meet.
The people led by J. K. Coker knew that they had come to a crossroads and that they either had to move forward or remain in Breadfruit with shame. They decided to move forward with God’s guidance.
On the 13th of October, 1901 as Bishop James Johnson was delivering his farewell sermon in St. Paul’s Church, Breadfruit, J .K. Coker and others who were planning to leave the church, met at Rose Cottage, Marina to consider the steps to be taken. Mr. J. R. Thomas who was the father of Chief J. Akinwale Thomas of Iporo-Ake, was made chairman of the meeting. The house was packed by would-be members of the new congregation. The day chosen to start a new congregation was particularly significant because it was the anniversary of the explusion of the Egba Christians from Abeokuta in 1867. They believed that any decision made on that symbolic day would be successful and long lasting. Some of the members suggested a merger with the Wesleyan Church but others believed that if anything happened later, the Wesleyans might say that after the group had succeeded in dividing the C.M.S. Church they had come to break up their own church.
After a long debate, it was unanimously decided that a new, independent church should be established. A meeting was therefore slated for the 17th of October, 1901 to make arrangements for the new church on the same day Bishop Tugwell would be installing the Rev. N. Johnson as the new priest of St. Paul’s Breadfruit Church. The meeting also concluded that the inaugural services of the church should be held on the 20th of October 1901 at Rose Cottage, Marina, the site of the present Leventis Stores in Marina. As the people were leaving the meeting, the Rev. Luke came to inform the members of the plight of Bishop James Johnson. Rev. Luke said “Epada, epada, Bishop Johnson nsunkun” (Come back, come back, Bishop Johnson is weeping) but one of the women sarcastically told Rev. Luke: “If Jesus Christ had minded the cry of his mother he would not have saved the world.” That is, James Johnson’s tears could no longer change what they had decided to do: instead of showing sympathy to him, they all started to sing a song of faith and victory: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war…”
Bishop James Johnson, conscious of the fact that the final break up of the church was being caused by his personality and importance and by the love of the members for him, was not happy about the situation.
On Monday, October 14th, 1901, Bishop James Johnson invited J. K. Coker and a few others including D. A. J. Oguntolu, S. A. Jibowu, B. A. Roberts and T. B. Dawoduto to his house where he pleaded with these members to persuade the others not to leave St. Paul’s. But they did not give in. Nevertheless, when they saw Bishop Johnson weeping again, they were emotionally moved and promised that if Bishop Tugwell would postpone the installation of Rev. N. Johnson for one week, they might use that time to go round and persuade the people not to leave. Bishop Johnson saw this as a minor thing and promised to see the bishop and said he was sure that Bishop Tugwell would agree. But, to the dismay of Bishop Johnson, Bishop Tugwell refused to change his mind. All the priests in Lagos tried to persuade him but he was bent on inducting Rev. N. Johnson at the time he had appointed.
On October 17th, 1901, while Bishop Tugwell was installing Rev. N. Johnson, J. K. Coker and all his group met at Rose Cottage and after a sermon, songs and prayers they started to appoint their officers.
The Formation of the African Church
The following officers were elected:
Lay preachers: D. A. J. Oguntolu, S. E. Savage and B. A. Winfuke.
People’s warden: J. K. Coker.
Minister’s warden: Dada Adesigbin.
Side Men: S. L. Akinoso, J. B. Jones and A. W. Bayiro George.
Organist: S. A Jibowu.
Here we see that a new office had emerged out of necessity. As they had no minister, they realized that lay people had to lead the service. Instead of calling them lay readers as they were called in the C.M.S. Church, they were called lay preachers. Incidentally, the three men, Oguntolu, Savage and Winfuke later became ordained ministers of the church.
On Sunday, the 20th of October, 1901 the first divine services was held in Rose Cottage under a canopy. It was estimated that between 600 and 800 worshippers gathered at Rose Cottage for this memorable service. Some of those who had formed the church acted as the choir and Lay Preacher D. A. J. Oguntolu preached his first powerful sermon taking his text from Song of Solomon chapter 1 verse 6: “Don’t look down upon me because I am black because the sun has tanned me,–my brothers were angry with me and made me work in the vineyard. I had no time to care for myself.” (R.S.V) Mr. Oguntolu emphasized that Africans have been worshipping Christ as Europeans who were watching, guarding and guiding their customs, beliefs and mode of worship while they had neglected their own. He emphasized that Christ to Europeans was a European and to Africans he should be an African. He stressed that they had been sufficiently taught to know that Christianity should now become an African religion.
Through this sermon, the people resolved more than ever to establish an African Church in which Africans would worship God as Africans, integrating customs and traditions that were not adverse to the cause of Christian worship and the teachings of the Christian church. The service made their faith stronger and they forgot their fears about the future.
The first obstacle was to get a piece of land on which to build their church since they were meeting in a private house. The government authorities, under the influence of the C.M.S. church, would not lease any land to them. They decided that two of the members should find a piece of land and, in conjunction with others, lease it to the church for a period of five years. This method succeeded. B. A. Roberts, A. E. Coates and D. A. J. Oguntolu leased a plot of land on Balogun Street for five years and passed it on to the church and the foundation of the Bethel Church was laid. Though, the people had only thirty-six pounds and wanted to build a church that would accommodate at least six hundred people, they prayed to God because they wanted to build His House. They were sure of His help. The work continued unabated for twenty-eight days, as people donated freely in cash and kind. When the work was completed with all the fittings at the end of the twenty-eighth day, the church had spent three hundred and fifty pounds. Thus, J. K. Coker believed, like the others, that God had answered their prayers in building the church despite great persecutions and threats from both the government and the C.M.S. authorities.
Rev. S. A. Coker was invited to come and be the pastor of the church, but when he did not arrive early from Sierra Leone, Rev. J. S. Williams, vicar of St. Jude’s Church, Ebute-Metta (who later rose to the position of primate of the African Church) was invited to dedicate the church on December 22nd, 1901. He took his text from St. John 8:32: “And ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.” He named the church “Bethel,” a name that had been suggested by Dr. Orisadipe Obasa. Rev. Williams made the following declaration: “We lay down the church for the black race this day in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” With this prayer, the church became known as Bethel African Church, Balogun, Lagos.
The dedication of Bethel African Church by the Rev. Williams of St. Jude’s Church, Ebute-Metta sparked more persecution and witch-hunting from the Anglican Church against any workers who had been associated with the separatists in any way. For instance, the Rev. J .S. William in accepting the invitation to dedicate Bethel Church had hoped Bethel would settle down as another Anglican Church. He was issued a query by Bishop Oluwole followed by a charge of disloyalty and treason. On the receipt of this charge, Williams resigned from the ministry of the Anglican Church.
Coker’s Farm, A Centre for Evangelism
Coker had established a farm at Ifako in the Agege District in 1885 and had been growing cotton and kola nuts on it. The change of denomination by Coker coincided with the arrival of a cocoa plantation in 1901. By this year, Agege had become an important agricultural centre in the district. Many clergymen and laymen in the newly formed African Church moved to Agege to farm to supplement their earnings and to escape from the noisy city of Lagos. Among those who joined Coker on the Agege farm were Rev. D. C. Coates, J. A. Wright, W. B. Euba, J. S. Fanimokun, S. A. Coker, J. A. Lakeru, D. A. Hughes and E. D. Sodehinde. Among the laymen were F. E. Williams, A. A. Obadina, J. O. Beckley, T. B. Dawodu, C. Collins Cole, S. A. Jibowu, D. Karunwi, M. O. Somefun and I. S. M. Williams. I. S. M. Williams was later sent to Tuskegee Institute in the U.S.A to learn about scientific agriculture in order to teach the other farmers how to improve the methods of the Industrial Institute founded by Elder Coker and other leaders of the African Church in 1917-18.
The institute offered various courses. Some of the departments in the Industrial Institute were (a) the Academic Department, (b) the Mechanical Industries Department, (c) the Women’s Industries Department and (d) the Agricultural Department. It would seem that there was no religious bias in the setting up of the departments, but all the owners of the company were committed Christians. The farm quickly became a centre for evangelism as well as a centre for the distribution of various seeds to the farmers in the hinterland. Naturally, with such an extensive agricultural life, there was a need to recruit skilled labour to work on the farm. Many people came to work on the plantation from different parts of Nigeria’s hinterland.
Life at Ifako was advantageous to the workers in several ways. They were paid their wages (which was the main purpose of their coming), they were taught how best to plant new crops (which was to their advantage), most of them were converted from their traditional beliefs to the Christian faith and when they returned home they were allowed to take some of the crops to be planted in their villages. So the newly converted Christians through the efforts of Coker, took Christianity, cocoa and kola nuts to their different homes in the hinterland, like Egba, Ijesa, Ido-ani, Ekiti, Akoko and parts of the Eastern State. Coker became not only the leader of the church but he also grew to be a prosperous businessman. It was his industrial base that gave him the greatest opportunity to sustain those who broke away from the C.M.S church. He was able to continue his evangelistic campaign which led to the founding of many churches in many parts of the federation and he was also able to start most of these churches by providing certain amenities for them. He also trained several converts who later became ministers in the African Church. Among such people were I. S. M. Williams and M. A. Ajayi one of the six boys given to him at Oduputu in 1903. J. K. Coker used his position of great influence to spread the Gospel in the interior. He was loved by very many converts and friends because he was seen to be kind, sympathetic and philanthropic in all his ways of life.
Unity of African Independent Churches under Coker’s Leadership
The established church (C.M.S.) saw the independent African Church as not towing the line of Christian doctrine by baptizing children of polygamous marriages and by allowing polygamists to come to the Lord’s table. But J. K. Coker defended the Independent African Churches and told his critics that the African Church was not an appendage of the C.M.S. Church: the African Church was established for Africans so they could worship God in truth and in spirit. He told the people that the aim of the African Church was to make Christianity African and acceptable to natives, kings, rulers, and the people in general so that Christianity might become the African national religion. According to him:
Many Africans had been spiritually lost because of the evils of the hypocritical life of the mission churches. They led African Christians to feel Christianity was not their own religion, indigenous to the soil and that it therefore was a foreign religion.
Coker was confronted by Rev. Olumide who wrote to him and accused him of baptizing polygamists and allowing members to take traditional titles. Coker replied:
It is a pity our discipline and status are not the same as yours. Polygamists are not members of your church, but they can be members of my church. Nor can they be baptized in your church while they can be baptized in mine. My being made a chief does not destroy my position as a Christian who must seek the salvation of all.
Coker was in fact inspired by the letter he had received from the Christians in Ijaye-Abeokuta just a month before. The Ijaye people declared:
It is an open secret that the heathen cannot embrace the dogmatic principle of monogamy without which no Christians in the Anglican Church can be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. This has given a fair chance for Muhammadanism to strive to the detriment of Christianity.
They finally urged him to come to Ijaye and establish for them the African Church.
With his boldness in replying to the criticisms of the Anglican Church authorities, other Independent African Churches saw him as their mouthpiece and alternatively, their leader. Coker too saw himself as having a mission extending far beyond the confines of the African Church. He therefore interacted with many Independent Churches by encouraging them and helping them to settle conflicts that could have divided them. He also tried to help them financially so that they could grow. As early as 1905, he had been asking the existing Independent Churches to come together to form a common front so that they could defend themselves and survive under the persecution and threats from the government and the missionary churches. Some of those churches were the Native Baptist Church led by Dr. Mojola Agbebi, the United Native African Church (U.N.A.), the African Church, Bethel and the African Church, Salem. Coker erected a shed where he usually invited them for common worship. He urged them to unite and fight as one body so that the united voices of the African Churches might be heard by the Christian world. Agbebi became the first president while Coker was made secretary. The motto of the African Communion was “One Flock, one Shepherd.” The basis of the union was worked out after a series of meetings and negotiations as follows:
The divine inspiration, authority and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures.
The right and duty of private judgment in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.
The unity and Trinity of the persons in the Godhead.
The depravity of human nature as a consequence of the fall.
The incarnation of the Son of God, His work of atonement for sinners, His mediatory intercession and His reign.
The justification of the sinner by faith alone.
The work of the Holy Spirit in the conversion and justification of the sinner.
The immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, the judgment of the world by Christ, with the future punishment of the wicked.
The divine institution of the Christian Ministry and the obligation and perpetuity of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The basis did not presume to define the limits of Christian fellowship, and so compromise the views of any member or sanction those of others on points where they differ, but all were held free as before to maintain and advocate their religious convictions with due forbearance and brotherly love in any African Church to which they belonged.
With his efforts to bring together these churches in one communion he was praised and naturally was given the title of Chief Founder.
Major Crisis in His Religious Life
Coker made the first efforts to unite the two factions of the African Church, Bethel and Salem. Since their mode of worship, their practices and doctrine were the same, it was not difficult for him to bring them together under one name, African Church Incorporated. There had been a cordial relationship between the African Church and these other churches which had increased to twelve in number. It was Coker’s wish that these churches should come together and become one church. But he first introduced the idea of the workers visiting one another in the form of pulpit exchanges which could eventually lead to the reunification of the churches. This move nearly engulfed the African Churches in an internal crisis between 1927 and 1937.
The ministers of United Native African Church (U.N.A.) and the United African Methodist Church (U.A.M.), who were polygamists protested the rejection of their ministers from officiating in the African Church. Coker wanted article 10 of the union providing for the non-interference in the mode of worship of member churches to remain effective. He urged that with this article ministers could freely worship in other churches. But the ministers of the African Church especially Bishop J. A. Lakeru and N. A. Onatolu lobbied against the wishes of Coker. In fact, Bishop Onatolu accused Coker of causing misunderstandings within the hierarchy of the African church by supporting its association with the U.N.A. But Coker refuted the allegation by submitting to the General Committee a petition signed by twenty members of the African church urging a union with the U.N.A., on the grounds of common interest. The move was passed. But those who were unhappy with the resolution did not allow it to work. Two contradictory motions were passed by the General Committee of the African church. One read:
Resolution that in consideration of an appeal dated December 18, 1933 from a committee of gentlemen and forwarded to this committee praying for the union of African churches. The General Committee now in session hereby withdraw their resolution passed on October 6, 1931 and do now appoint members to represent the African Church organization in the African Communion with a view to work for the general welfare of all different African churches in the union according to the basis of the union.
This resolution of course represented J. K. Coker’s views since 1905. The opponents of this motion did not allow it to work by cleverly making sure that those appointed to negotiate were opponents of the union. They were Bishop N. A. Onatolu and Ven. E. D. Soheinde and some others. They also passed in the same meeting a motion that limited the scope of the negotiation for union as follows:
In order to uphold the policy of the African Church according to its constitution, it is hereby resolved that no primate, bishop, minister or church shall invite any minister from any other organizations whose policy is not in accord with our own, to officiate in the chancel or pulpit of any of our churches.
Subsequently, a series of resolutions and counter-resolutions were passed. By 1937, those who did not like the merger with the U.N.A. gained the upper hand and did not allow the meetings of the African Communion to be held in the African Church Cathedral, Lagos. The groups pressured the African Church General Committee to pass a resolution on April 9th, 1937: “That the mixture of African Church ministers and U.N.A. ministers in a chancel cannot be possible.” By this time, Coker had known that the African lay presidency which he had held for some years had been torn out of his hand. Bishop N. A. Onatolu, Ven. E. D. Sodeinde and Primate J .S. Williams who were all natives of Egba like Coker, became very bitter against Coker. During the crisis, Coker was specially supported by his numerous church members and friends in the Agege, Abeokuta, Ekiti and Akoko Districts of the African Church. It was this solid support that made it impossible for Bishop J. A. Lakeru, Bishop Onatolu and Ven E. D. Sodeinde to get him expelled from the church. The members supportive of Coker saw him as a church leader who, by giving them cocoa seeds, provided concrete things to improve their material status.
Evaluation and Conclusion of Coker’s Life and Ministry
Despite the crisis which rocked the African Church during the last years of his life, Coker’s influence did not diminish. Rather he was all the more loved because of the way he used his influence, intellect, power and money to build churches and schools and to train hundreds of people who later became teachers and ministers of the church. When Coker moved to Ifako-Agege, the African Churches in Lagos used their money for other purposes that were close to the hearts of the Lagos elders who preferred to quarrel about the size of the church in Lagos rather than to concern themselves with the distribution of schools in the Ijebu and Ekiti country. The people and institutions helped by Coker cannot be counted. He used his personal belongings for the good of all as people wrote him requesting many things such as church materials like bells, Bibles, various religious books, magic lamps, gramophones, organs, roofing sheets, cocoa seeds and even his car to transport church leaders to various places. Elder Coker was a great man who employed most of the members of his congregation. He was generous to the core and used his money to support the church. Bishop N. A. Onatolu who became his greatest critic later said of him: “It was my first experience of your fame, hospitality and philanthropy. It is astonishing to see how far the people of your household have been caught up your spirit, following your example in this respect.”
It is a fact of history that without J. K. Coker, the African Church and many Independent Churches that came later could not have survived. He was resolute in his decisions, faithful in the Lord and was blessed by the Lord with material wealth which he used for the good of mankind and to the glory of God. He was really a father, a mentor and a great philanthropist who had no equal. His gallant spirit went to heaven to meet his Lord and Master on Epiphany, January 6th, 1945.
Buxton, T. R.The African Slave Trade and its Remedy. London: Murray, 1939-1840.
Dada, S. A. J. K. Coker: Father of African Independent Churches.
Ajayi, J. F. Christian Mission in Nigeria, 1841-1891; the Making of a New Elite. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1965.
Amosu, Eddie. The African Church: Historical Notes.
This article was researched and written by Rt. Rev. Dr. Peter Awelewa Akebiyi, bishop of Owo Diocese as a chapter in the book Makers of the Church in Nigeria, edited by J. A. Omoyajowo (Lagos, Nigeria: CSS Bookshops Ltd., 1995), pages 98-115.