In the history of the Lutheran Church of Nigeria, Rev. Jonathan Udo Ekong is regarded as the patriarch. Ekong stands as living springboard between the Lutherans in the U.S.A. and the Lutherans in Nigeria. Ekong worked hard to bring a church and a school to Ibesikpo, his village in the present Akwa Ibom State of Nigeria. So great were his efforts that by the time he died in 1982, not only were there churches and schools in every Ibesikpo village, there were also Nigerian Lutherans serving with distinction all over Nigeria, in virtually every occupation and profession. Ekong was the very first person in Ibesikpo clan to beat a log-bell for people to assemble for worship. In a very real sense, therefore, Ekong was a pioneer and a trailblazer.
Ekong was born in 1881 into the family of Chief Udo Ekong Nedem Ekping and his wife Ubaha Anwa of Afaha in Ibesikpo clan in the present day Ibesikpo-Asutam L.G.A. of Akwa Ibom State. He was the eldest surviving son of his parents. To them Ekong was Kponesip which, literally translated, means “growing big to become small again.” This name in Ibesikpo would indicate that his parents had lost many previous children in infancy. Ekong was given the name Jonathan later in life when he was baptized.
Not much is known about Ekong’s early life because that was not the focus of interest at that time. Nevertheless, like any Ibibio son in those days Ekong was initiated into all the male cults and societies known in the village. The cults served as law enforcement agencies and adjudicated on all matters affecting the community.
In 1909, the Qua Iboe mission started a small village school at Aka-Offot, a village located about five kilometers as the crow flies from Afaha Ibesikpo. J. W. Westgarth, a missionary, was stationed at Itam. When young Ekong and some of his friends heard of Rev. Westgarth’s arrival, they went to meet him and joined in the hymns, the prayers and the Bible study led by the missionary.
When the villagers heard about the boys’ visit to the missionary, they were very upset and summoned Ekong to the village square. They complained bitterly, saying that if a church were to be established in their midst, it would inhibit the activities of the Ekpo masquerade society. Also, when an Ekpo member died, if the son was a churchgoer he could not see his father’s face. They furthermore protested that Ekong’s father, a prominent Ekpo leader, could no longer sacrifice his son Ekong for an Ekpo cause. The villagers therefore sought to eliminate Ekong so that he would no longer take the other youths along with him to church. The Ekpo cult members attacked Ekong and his compatriots.
When Ekong and his companions finally decided to invite the missionary to establish a church in their village they faced another surprising and greater obstacle. The missionary told them that it was the adults’ duty to request a church if they so desired. As children they could not obtain land for the church building nor procure the necessary materials.
In January 12, 1913, the United Free Church of Scotland finally established a church in Afaha Ibesikpo. Holy Communion was first celebrated on October 10, 1914 at Afaha. On that day Ekong was also baptized and took communion and some marriages were solemnized. Even though Ekong’s first contact had been with the Qua Iboe Church, the United Free Church was the one to actually begin a mission in Afaha. In this church Ekong was finally baptized and given the name Jonathan.
But after some time the United Free Church did not arrive to continue work on the church because the Afaha area was within the boundaries mapped out for other denominations such as the Methodist, Qua Iboe, and the African church. Since the United Free Church of Scotland had no intention of picking a quarrel with the Qua Iboe Church, they decided to stay away from Afaha. Ekong and his companions were not happy because they had first approached the Qua Iboe Church and had been turned down on the grounds that they were children.
Later Ekong became a church helper and served in mission stations, even as an interpreter. Rev. Westgarth also asked Ekong to assist in administering Holy Communion. In 1924 Ekong was officially appointed assistant evangelist and was posted to Itam, with a fairly respectable salary of twenty pounds a year. Ekong was not yet very anxious to go to school to realize his full potential as God’s workman.
In the early 1920s he enrolled in Etinan Institute thanks to Rev. Westgarth’s support. By December 1923 Ekong had completed his studies and returned to assist missionary Westgarth as an evangelist. While in this position Ekong was able to visit churches in the Ibesikpo area–where up to fourteen congregations existed at that time–and he came to know their needs and problems.
In 1926 the Ibesikpo leaders presented two requests to the Qua Iboe Church conference. They wanted a school in Ibesikpo and asked that a native be trained as a full minister. They requested that Ekong, then serving as an evangelist at Itam, be allowed to study for the ministry abroad. As a result, Ekong was accepted to study in America in order to be pastor of the church at Ibesikpo when he returned.
In October 31, 1927 Ekong started the journey to America, going from Uyo, the capital of present Akwa Ibom State, to Aba, the commercial city of an area known today as Abia State, then to Port Harcourt, the capital of present Rivers State. At Port Harcourt, Ekong stayed a whole month waiting for the ship to Lagos. On December 1, 1927, Ekong arrived in Lagos but had to suffer another delay because the American consul was away on a visit to Dakar, Senegal.
In April 1928, after many struggles and setbacks, Ekong set sail for America and arrived in June 1928. Ekong had two clear mandates from his people; to study to become a full minister of the gospel, and to look for a true orthodox Christian church that would be ready to bring them the Word of God.
In 1936, Ekong graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Howard University.
Between 1936 and 1938, Ekong attended Immanuel Lutheran Seminary at Greensboro, North Carolina. He graduated and was ordained into the ministry of the Lutheran Church on July 3, 1938.
While in the States, Ekong came into contact with the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America. The conference, aware that Ekong’s mission had substance but not sure of its obligations or even confident of its abilities, voted 53 to 33 to send an evaluation team to Africa. After a brief visit to Nigeria, the team stated in its report that the field was ready.
In 1936 the leader of the team Dr. Henry Nau, president of Immanuel Lutheran Seminary left America to go to Calabar province, Ekong’s region, to begin the harvest.
After many obstacles and hindrances, Ekong, the first indigenous Lutheran missionary arrived at Nung Udoe Ibesikpo on the evening of April 24, 1936 to begin a forty-six year ministry among his own people.
Ekong worked tirelessly to put the Lutheran Church on the map of Nigeria. The church has expanded into many districts and circuits all over the country. Today through Ekong’s singular efforts, the Lutheran church of Nigeria boasts of schools, hospitals and health centers, a seminary, a Christian Radio Studio, a printing press, and much more.
Rev. Jonathan Udo Ekong passed into glory in the year 1982.
Kemdirim O. Protus
Udo, Etuk. Jonathan Udo Ekong, the Log-Bell Ringer: Memoirs of a Patriarch. Published in cooperation with Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO 63118, 1997.
Onah, A. Emmanuel. A term paper on Jonathan Udo Ekong presented to the Department of Religious and Cultural Studies, University of Port Harcourt. Unpub. 2004.
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Dr. Kemdirim O. Protus, a senior lecturer in the Department of Religious and Cultural Studies at the University of Port Harcourt, a DACB Participating Institution. Dr. Kemdirim Protus is also the DACB Regional Coordinator for Nigeria.