Opara, Moses Diala

1915-1965
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Nigeria

The Legacy of M. D. Opara

Moses Diala Opara, known popularly as M. D., was born in the village of Obazu Mbieri, near Owerri, in southeastern Nigeria. He was tall and handsome, athletic, and, in the words of his associates, “a really jolly good fellow.” He was the first child of his parents, who had four children-three boys and one girl. Both parents were farmers, and non-Christians, but they nonetheless sent M. D. and his siblings to missionary schools, where he was converted to Christianity. Upon graduation from the Church Missionary Society School at Egbu, Owerri, where he obtained the Nigerian First Leaving School Certificate, he attended the Hope Waddell Institute at Calabar, a Scottish Presbyterian institution, which offered secondary school education.

Opara subsequently obtained the British Senior Cambridge Certificate (1944), the Nigerian teachers’ Higher Elementary Certificate (1946), and the London Matriculation Certificate (1948), all of them as an external candidate. By the 1950s he had also earned the B.A. degree in theology and an honorary doctorate of divinity from the United States. These accomplishments won him the reputation of being a self-made man.

Until recently, little was known about Opara in the wider world. The first critical study of aspects of his life and work appeared in 1987.[1] This article relies primarily on oral and archival evidence collected in Nigeria over several years. The archival data are drawn from three main sources: (1) Zion Mission records, which contain Opara’s private papers and correspondence; (2) the Parliamentary Debates of the Eastern House of Assembly, deposited at the Nigerian National Archives at Enugu; and (3) Opara’s correspondence with the Evangelical Methodist Church in the United States, with headquarters formerly in Altoona, Pennsylvania.[2]

Secondary materials play a limited role in the study, for not much has yet been written about Opara. He himself never published any books or articles. Except for two unpublished doctrinal manuscripts that he wrote, there is no body of primary or secondary literature from which to garner information relating to his mode of thought and action. Nevertheless, available oral and archival sources, coupled with a few secondary materials, are sufficient for a historical reconstruction of his life and work.

Early Career

Opara started his career as a teacher and catechist under the Church Missionary Society (CMS), a branch of the Anglican Church. After eleven years of teaching (1930-41), he resigned and later founded his own small church/mission, the A.M.E. Zion Church, originally affiliated with the Zion Mission at Calabar, said to be the first Zion mission in eastern Nigeria.

Why Opara resigned from the CMS remains a matter of conjecture, largely because mission records are virtually silent on the matter. Oral sources, however, provide plausible explanations. He is said to have left the Anglican mission out of frustration arising from his being repeatedly passed over for admission to the prestigious CMS Awka Teacher Training College. According to our sources, he was brilliant and passed the annual entrance examinations, but for unknown reasons he was never selected for admission. According to another speculation, Opara was fired, or at least induced to resign, because his fiancée, Catherine, was pregnant prior to their wedding.[3] Whatever the exact reason, Opara did resign as a teacher in December 1941 and, on March 4, 1942, established the A.M.E. Zion Church, which was later renamed the Christ Methodist Zion Church/Mission.

Right from its inception, the Zion Church/Mission was (and still remains) an indigenous church, virtually free from foreign superintendence and control. Moral and material support, nonetheless, came from some groups in Nigeria and the United States, particularly from the Evangelical Methodist Church, then under the direction of Rev. Dr. William Wallace Breckbill of Altoona, Pennsylvania. In recent years, some members of the Zion Church have joined the Methodist Church of Nigeria.

The Zion Mission and Its Ordeal

Opara burst into public notice in 1942 when he established Zion Church in his hometown of Obazu Mbieri, in the present Imo State of Nigeria. He emerged as a dynamic, indigenous missionary to his people, imbued with a high sense of mission to serve God and country. He took as his motto “We fight for God and country.” Opara became a factor to be reckoned with as he embarked upon the task of spreading Christianity and Western education. In the main, he succeeded in challenging the hegemonic influence of the foreign missions, which overtly and covertly opposed him. However, in the long run, he weathered the storm, and thus gained high recognition in both church and state.[4] The Zion Church/Mission prided itself as being “Evangelical in practice, Fundamental in Doctrine, and Methodist in persuasion.” In short, “it stands for the Book of life, the saving Grace of Christ, and the teachings of John Wesley.”[5] In addition, notable beliefs included belief in miracles and in spirits.

The path to success was difficult, for Opara initially lacked resources. He once lamented, “We have an arduous work to do in this country, [but] we lack almost everything,” adding, “we are paddling the Lord’s Canoe under hardships. . . . We lack workers. We lack finance. . . . We are having a very hard time in everything.” In a letter to a friend he commented, “The work that I am now shouldering is beyond my endurance and skill.”[6] Perhaps even more troubling was the opposition from both the local community and the existing Catholic and Protestant missions. Right from its inception, the Zion Mission received a hostile reception. As Opara himself ruefully acknowledged, the most “intractable problem” came from denominational opposition. “Our staunch enemies, the Roman Catholics and the modernists [Protestants], are deadly against our divine . . . evangelistic work and progress.” More specifically, he complained of persecution and victimization by Roman Catholic and Protestant adherents “in power in the Nigerian educational, judicial and administrative departments.” They “victimize our institutions everywhere. They make the Government refuse to subsidize our [schools] and we [therefore] suffer some financial stringencies.”[7]

Part of the problem was that initially the Zion Mission received no official recognition as a “voluntary agency,” which would have rendered its schools eligible for government grants-in-aid. Opara’s pleas for financial help “to enable us to maintain our schools more efficiently” fell on deaf ears until 1954, when school subsidies finally became available. By then Opara was a member of the Eastern House of Assembly and thus could influence legislation favorable to private schools owned by Africans. Sectarian prejudice still remained, however, as evidenced by adverse school inspection reports submitted by unsympathetic school inspectors, which rendered many Zion schools still ineligible for school grants. At one point Opara protested to the Education Department, pleading that a particular Protestant school inspector should not be sent to Zion schools because “he hates us.”[8]

Resistance from local Protestants added to his worries. Detractors regarded him as an unwelcome intruder, and he was labeled as a false prophet. The Zion church-school building, which was constructed with palm fronds called opu, was treated with bemusement, if not scorn, being derisively dubbed “church nwa opu,” or “the grass church.” Stories abound about the concerted efforts of opponents to nip the new mission in the bud, including physical violence against the mission and “malicious propaganda” against Opara aimed at dissuading landlords from granting lands to him for the erection of permanent church and school buildings. Witnesses noted that “every effort was made by his opponents to frustrate him.”[9]

Interestingly, local attitudes changed over time, and eventually lands were granted for mission development. Opara gratefully acknowledged the change: “Some of the good people at Mbieri gave us lands to help us develop our country.” In the final analysis, attempts by “our enemies to frustrate our business of winning souls for Christ” ultimately failed.[10] The Zion Mission survived, thanks in part to Opara’s doggedness, vision, and tenacity of purpose. Yet moral and material support from family and friends, both at home and abroad, also played a critical role in the mission’s survival. Of particular significance was support from the Evangelical Methodist Church (EMC) in America, with whom Opara had a close relationship.[11] In moments of crisis, Opara often appealed to the EMC authorities for material aid, and they proved exceedingly obliging and reassuring. “Stand assured that we are behind you and the work there and will do all in our power to keep the wheels moving in your favor.”[12]

Mission Strategy

Church recruitment in the early years was difficult. Initially, it was the children, eager to go to school, who flocked to the church. The local people by and large treated the new church with marked indifference, with only a few curious adults attending church services. Faced with recruitment problems, Opara turned to polygamists and to Roman Catholic and Protestant “backsliders.” In sharp contrast with the established churches, which rejected polygamist believers out of hand, Zion Church admitted them as bona fide church members. Thus, in its early days, Zion Church became the haven of the disfranchised (polygamists) and the discontented. Today, we should note, most Zionists are monogamists.

Interestingly, Opara himself became a polygamist later in life. He rationalized plural wives by appealing to David. “David was the man after the choice of God. God did not abhor him because he had many wives.” More important, “Since there is no marriage in Heaven . . . Christians must stick to the words of Scripture for holiness, honesty, truthfulness, pure and simple life. . . . When we get to Heaven, God is the only person to answer the question better, but we believe that marriage of one or more wives, who also are believers, is not a drawback to Heaven. . . . [M]onogamists who commit adultery and fornication and also do other evils are worse than polygamists, even before God.”[13]

In practical terms, the acceptance of polygamists in the early days represented a pragmatic strategy to boost the church congregation. Some found it an aberration. Opara, however, was following in the tradition of the Ethiopian, or Independent African, Churches, which sought to indigenize Christianity by introducing African cultural elements into the church. In that sense, the acceptance of polygamists symbolized the integration of African culture into Zion’s theology of mission. After all, “the theology of evangelism acquires greater integrity when we present it in the context of our [cultural] experience.”[14] From the perspective of African nationalism, we see that indigenization, or inculturation, as an expression of anticolonialism, implies the emancipation of “Christian thought and praxis from the domination of European concepts and values.”[15]

At any event, Opara’s most effective and enduring mission strategy was the use of education as a vital tool of evangelization. Zion church-schools mushroomed almost everywhere, even in the remotest towns and villages. Strictly speaking, the Zion Mission became popular because of the education it offered. Essentially, it provided an alternative avenue both for Christian conversion and for Western education. It is indeed remarkable that, within a decade or so of its founding, the mission succeeded in effectively challenging the hegemonic influence of the foreign missions, especially in the sphere of education. To its students, Zion Mission seemed to be a welcome counterstroke against European “ecclesiastical imperialism.”

The Initiative in Higher Education

Without question, the advancement of education remains Opara’s most enduring legacy. Crowning achievements were the establishment of the Zion Commercial Secondary School and St. Catherine’s College, the latter being a teacher training college named in honor of his first wife. Opened in 1948, the commercial secondary school was the first of its kind in the region owned by any mission society. It thus not only became the center of attention, but it also stirred the other missions to action, as illustrated in the bewildering interdenominational competition and rivalry in higher education that occurred during the 1940s and 1950s. The competition assumed both religious and political overtones, as each mission desperately sought to gain “points of vantage in Church and State.” Given the comparatively fewer numbers of Catholics “among politicians . . . and administrators” vis-à-vis the Protestants, the Roman Catholic Mission thereupon embarked upon an ambitious education scheme aimed at producing the new political leaders as well as counteracting Protestant influence in the country.[16] The Protestants were naturally alarmed: “It cannot be gainsaid that the Roman Catholics have a plan to wipe out Protestantism. . . . Even our boys and girls rush to their institutions. . . . We view this point with great concern.”[17]

The Zion colleges stimulated tremendous interest in postprimary education, both at Mbieri and elsewhere. At Mbieri, for instance, Opara’s higher education initiative reportedly spurred the opening of the Obazu Mbieri Grammar School (1959). The Obazu Mbieri Welfare Union, a secular village union, that spearheaded the education enterprise, apparently viewed Opara’s initiative as a challenge, as the general secretary’s circular to members suggests: “Gentlemen, there is war from without. . . . You must get your family organised, your local branch of Obazu Welfare Union organised against this ‘battle.’“[18] Elsewhere, Opara was also the man of the hour, as requests “to come and open colleges of any type” came from far and near. To most towns and villages, colleges symbolized social progress, which explains the great value that was attached to them. Against this backdrop Mbieri people extolled Opara’s virtues: “Your patriotic efforts have brought honour, progress, and glory to our town.”[19]

Although Zion colleges were by no means at par with most Catholic and Protestant colleges in terms of the quality of education and the caliber of their staff, they were nonetheless popular. Their popularity stemmed partly from their open admission policy, and partly from the generous scholarship awards. In fact, many students in Zion educational institutions (including primary schools) were granted one form of scholarship or another (mainly fee waivers). Applications for admission and requests for scholarships thus increased substantially, which posed a serious financial challenge to Opara. As part of his “work for Africa,” he offered scholarships not only to Zion school students but also to several unaffiliated students to study in Nigerian and overseas institutions of higher learning, including in the United States. An admirer had this to say of his remarkable largesse: “Rev. Opara was not selfish. He believed in the education of everybody. . . . To encourage this liberal education for all, he gave . . . primary, secondary, and university scholarships to hundreds of people. [Besides,] Rev. Opara never liked the African [to be] rated a second-class citizen anywhere [in the world].”[20]

Opara, who prided himself on being “a humanitarian and a nationalist by blood,” perceived education as an investment, and hence worthy of all available resources. And while he appreciated the utilitarian values of education, especially its being the key to socioeconomic improvement, he seemed generally to conceive education in nationalistic terms. First, education is a liberating force, in the sense that it has the potential to free Africans from ignorance, illiteracy, and an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the wider world. Second, education serves as a powerful instrument of colonial emancipation: Through education, he averred, “we shall free our nation from colonial bondage.”[21] By promoting the advancement of education, he clearly opened the door of progress to many of his compatriots. A contemporary once noted, “There were many, many people who could not have gone to school, but he provided them the opportunity. Many of these people [today] occupy important positions in government, in commerce, and in education.”[22]

Political Career

Opara entered politics in 1948, purportedly “to be in the vanguard of the early freedom fighters against [European] colonialism.” But records also reveal another motivation: the desire to save his mission from its enemies, as well as to ensure the material well-being of his schools, which were then in financial crisis. As he himself acknowledged, “The Government assists most of the schools run by apostate churches but has not after many years’ application given us [even] a mite.”[23] His entry into active politics (1948-65), as it turned out, enabled him to advance the material progress of the Zion Mission, as well as to silence his local opponents, largely through the use of political power and influence.[24]

Elected into the Nigerian Eastern House of Assembly in 1953, Opara rose quickly to national prominence, because of his political activism. He distinguished himself as an articulate critic of European imperialism, a passionate advocate of education reform, and a crusader for rural development. To begin with, he utilized his legislative powers to influence government policy on grants-in-aid. The next year the Zion Mission received Voluntary Agency status, making it eligible for government subsidy.[25]

A fervent advocate of decolonization, Opara also highlighted the evils of European racism and showed no tolerance whatsoever of racist colonial officials. In particular, he declared every colonial medical officer (MO) who treated Africans harshly to be persona non grata. “We cannot tolerate any doctor who comes to [this country] to be harsh to the people. . . . I see no reason why the [country’s] money should be spent on a hospital for the people and where a doctor’s harshness will scare the people away.”[26] District officers (DOs) were also particular targets of his attack. They neither “speak our language” nor “are adepts in our native custom and laws.” Therefore, the time had come to replace them with Africans “who are very much [more] experienced in native court law and customs.”[27]

Opara was basically the people’s spokesperson, as illustrated by his relentless campaign for rural development, particularly the provision of potable water supply and electricity, as well as the establishment of industries. Indeed, he seemed preoccupied with the provision of amenities that enhanced the quality of life of the masses. First and foremost, he drew special attention to the issue of water supply, deemed to be the pressing need of the people in the rural areas. In addition, he drew attention to the urgent need for electricity in Owerri Township.[28] When the governor visited Owerri in 1958, Opara spearheaded the people’s petition to the government, which demanded a pipe-borne water supply and electricity.[29] Nothing came of the demands until after independence in 1960. Also of concern was the lack of adequate medical facilities. To this end Opara devoted his energies to the crusade for improvement in health services. In characteristic style, he expressed dismay at the dilapidation of government hospitals at Enugu and Owerri and demanded their physical rehabilitation, as well as “immediate improvements in the way of efficiency, staffing, and equipment.” To the end of his life Opara continued to press for improvements in the health-care delivery system, as well as to champion the cause for social reforms.[30]

Although Opara seemed preoccupied with politics, he nonetheless remained as president and proprietor of the Zion Mission, baptizing new converts, and occasionally preaching at church services. Thus, he continued to exert spiritual and moral influence on the church. Much of the church and school administration, however, devolved on his lieutenants, who overall do not seem to have measured up to the task.

By all accounts, M. D. Opara “was a great leader” and “a Soldier of Jesus Christ”; he spent “all his life fighting for the freedom [and betterment] of his people.”[31] When, therefore, he died, on August 8, 1965, he was widely mourned. “Ten thousand mourners at his death flooded his grave with mourning tears. . . . All in vain the passion proved. . . . A legacy for ages his memory lives. . . . Death has dealt us a wanton blow!”[32]

Notes

Felix K. Ekechi


Notes:

  1. Felix K. Ekechi, “The Ordeal of an African Independent Church: The Nigerian Zion Methodist Mission, 1942-1970,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 20 (1987): 691-720.

  2. The headquarters of the Evangelical Methodist Church/Evangelical Methodist Conference have since moved to Kingsport, Tennessee. This denomination is not to be confused with the denomination also named Evangelical Methodist Church that has its headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana.

  3. Pastors, catechists, and schoolteachers not “living consistent Christian lives” were no longer considered “in good standing as church members.” See Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society Synod Minutes, December 1928. Information is also based on interviews at Mbieri, 1983 and 1989.

  4. The Evangelical Methodist Conference (1966), p. 41, EMC Archives, Altoona, Pa. (hereafter EMC).

  5. *Zionist *(a monthly magazine of the Zion Mission), October/November 1971, p. 1.

  6. Opara to Hamilton, March 20, 1954; Opara to Conn, September 1, 1951; Opara to Onyido, September 14, 1948; Zion Mission Archives (hereafter ZMA).The archival records are now stored in Rev. Opara’s house at Obazu Mbieri, Owerri, where ants and cockroaches have destroyed some of the papers.

  7. Opara to Hamilton, July 3, 1951; Opara to Conn, May 23, 1951, ZMA.

  8. Opara to Archibong, n.d., ZMA.

  9. Chief S. E. Ekeanyanwu, “Life and Work of Rev. Dr. M. D. Opara.” Personal communication with the author, November 21, 1989.

  10. Opara to Ukwuoma, January 22, 1959; Opara to Conn, May 22, 1951, ZMA.

  11. The Evangelical Methodist Church came into being in 1945 as a breakaway church from the American Methodist organization. Opara’s connection with the EMC began in 1950, when he first visited America to attend the EMC’s Fifth Annual Conference at Shelbyville, Indiana. He was reportedly invited to the conference by Rev. W. W. Breckbill, founder of the EMC.

  12. Breckbill to Opara, July 24, 1951, EMC. I am indebted to EMC authorities for copies of correspondence and conference reports. For details of EMC’s material assistance, see Ekechi, “Ordeal,” pp. 705-13.

  13. M. D. Opara, “Some Religious Questions and Answers” (unpublished, undated typescript), ZMA.

  14. Gwinyai Henry Muzorewa, An African Theology of Mission (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1990), p. 157. See also pp. 20, 65.

  15. Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 95; see also E. A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact of Modern Nigeria, 1842-1914: A Political and Social Analysis (London: Longmans, 1966), p. 200.

  16. John P. Jordan, “Catholic Education and Catholicism in Nigeria,” African Ecclesiastical Review 1-2 (1959-60): 61-62.

  17. “Observations and Suggestions,” June 26, 1959, ZMA.

  18. Circular dated May 21, 1959; Emerenini to Opara, July 14, 1961, ZMA.

  19. Anonymous, June 22, 1959, ZMA.

  20. R. C. Onwuekwusi, “The Life of the Rev. M. D. Opara” (unpublished manuscript, 1971), p. 2, ZMA.

  21. Memo prepared for the Eastern House of Assembly, n.d., ZMA.

  22. Interviews at Owerri with Chief S. E. Ekeanyanwu, November 21, 1989, and Bishop Lambert Opara, August 27, 1992.

  23. Opara to Conn, July 2, 1951; Opara to Brekbill, June 6, 1953, ZMA.

  24. Interviews with Chief S. E. Ekeanyanwu, November 21, 1989, and Bishop Lambert Opara, August 27, 1992.

  25. Acting Inspector-General of Education to Proprietor (Opara), September 29, 1954, ZMA.

  26. Parliamentary Debates of the Eastern House of Assembly, March 1, 1954, p. 469, Nigerian National Archives, Enugu (hereafter Debates).

  27. March 14, 1955, p. 38; February 25, 1954, p. 354; March 1, 1954, p. 470, Debates.

  28. March 19, 1963, p. 185, Debates.

  29. “An Address of Welcome to His Excellency Sir Robert Stapleton . . . on His Visit to Owerri,” November 21, 1958, ZMA.

  30. September 29, 1964, pp. 43-44; November 10, 1960, pp. 92-93, Debates.

  31. Zionist, August 1978, p. 1.

  32. “Memoirs on the Late Rev. M. D. Opara” (unpublished manuscript by Law Obioma Emenyonu, July 1971), ZMA.


This article is reprinted, with permission, from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2003, Vol. 27, p. 79-83. Felix K. Ekechi is Professor of History and Director of the African Studies Program at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio. He has published extensively on the social and political history of Nigeria.