Gordon Turner preached for the Lawrence Avenue church in Nashville, Tennessee from 1936 to 1950. In May 1944, he began publishing a 26-lesson Bible Correspondence Course to send to their members who were scattered all over the world due to World War II. Because it was a study of the Bible without any denominational bias, the armed forces wanted to add it to their correspondence school. Jimmie Lovell gave a thousand dollars to publish it. It soon became very popular and thousands were studying the Bible through this means.
Following World War II Anna Marie Braun established the International Correspondence School in Munich, Germany in order to help people learn English and to promote better human relationships through forming pen-pals. In 1948 a gospel meeting was planned for the city of Munich, Germany. In preparation for it, a number of Christians from the United States went to work in that meeting. Two young men who learned of her school went to visit her. They introduced themselves by stating that they also were involved in correspondence work in which people could study the Bible by this means. She ordered the course to examine it and on June 19, 1948 wrote a thank-you note to the Lawrence Avenue church to thank them for the course.
Coolidge Akpan Okon Essien (C. A. O. Essien) was born April 15, 1915 of the Efik tribe in eastern Nigeria. He had grown up in and was educated by the Presbyterian school. He was always interested in religion and Bible study and had been associated with two different denominations, neither of which he found to conform to the church he read about in the New Testament. He concluded, therefore, that New Testament Christianity no longer existed on earth.
Wishing to better his English, Essien responded to an ad to learn English that he saw in a magazine. It was an ad from the International Correspondence School in Munich and Anna Marie Braun became his teacher. At the bottom of one of his English lessons, Essien scribbled a note, “Do you know of a Correspondence Course that teaches the Bible?” On the graded return form Braun wrote, “Try the Lawrence Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee.” He wrote for a course and began studying the Bible in this way. During the year he finished the course and had requested another 140 courses to give to others. The church also sent him 24 copies of a little brochure entitled “Facts Concerning the Church.”
Through his study he came to believe that this was the church that he read about in the New Testament and he began preaching what he was learning. He wrote to the Lawrence Avenue church and asked them to send some missionaries. In July 1950 the elders of that church asked Boyd Reese, who was working with the Nhowe Mission in Southern Rhodesia and Eldred Echols who was working in Johannesburg, South Africa, to make a trip to visit Essien. August 7 they arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, and sent a telegram to Essien that they would arrive at Port Harcourt at ten o’clock on August 11. They didn’t know if he would get the telegram or not, and if he did what he would do with it. On the morning of the 11th seven people squeezed into a tiny Dehaviland Dove and took off for Port Harcourt which was in eastern Nigeria about 100 miles from the village where Essien lived. About 3:00 p.m., after they arrived in Port Harcourt, they got a call from Essien who had just gotten the telegram. He said that he would come to Port Harcourt and sure enough the next morning he and another minister arrived. Arrangements were made to rent a car for the trip. This taxi took them to the village of Ikot Usen where Essien lived.
They arrived in Ikot Usen at 5:00 p.m. and soon after they were attending an evening service. (The Christians in Ikot Usen had a morning service every day at six and then closed the day with an evening service. Reese and Echols were introduced to five other evangelists, who along with Essien had baptized 10,000 people and established numerous churches in the area. They had even established a preacher training school. Reese and Echols left August 17, but upon the begging of Essien, Echols agreed to return the next year and teach in their training school.
July 2, 1951 Echols left Johannesburg for Ikot Usen where he was greeted warmly by many, some who had walked 57 miles just to say, “welcome” and shake his hand. Echols taught in the school six hours a day so that the term could end early enough for him to evangelize while in the area. At one preaching service 232 people were baptized. He worked with them four months during which time he was suffering from malaria and malnutrition and he lost forty pounds. But, during that time there were 1,300 people baptized.
One day during that period Essien and the other five evangelists came to Echols and said that they needed to talk with him privately about a serious matter. Their concern was that not one of those men had been immersed even though they had immersed thousands of others. As they explained it, at the beginning they did not have anyone to immerse them and now they were afraid that it would cause too much distress if those they had baptized found out that they had not been immersed. Echols said, “During the lunch hour today, go to a private part of the river and baptize each other.” They did and the brethren never knew of the problem.
In 1952 the Lawrence Avenue church sent Howard Horton, his wife, and their two children along with Jimmie Johnson and his wife to work with the churches Essien had established. Essien had preaching assignments lined up so that during the first three weeks Horton preached to 64 different congregations. He usually preached for three congregations in a day, but on occasions preached to as many as seven different congregations in a day.
The Burney Bawcom family replaced the Horton family in 1954. It was during Bawcom’s work that he helped the Nigerian Christians leave the practice of polygamy that was and still is so common in Nigeria. In a written farewell speech in 1956 Essien wrote to and about Baucom,
We commend very highly on your work for whatever you taught and did, took all stands on the word of God. You have been labouring very hard since you came and endeavouring to build local congregations and to see they are consolidated. You have caused people outside the church and some faithful members to say good of the church, but at first, it was looked down upon. People thought, one can do anything in the church yet he or she is not affected. God has led you to take an immediate action when it was reported to you that some preachers were indulged in many marriages and embracing other evils. We thank God for many today have seen that members or preachers themselves are not to fellowship sin. You really hate those sins and thereby plead that all should refrain from them. One you really fought against is the aged-long sin of polygamy which you have even written a tract on it. We say, even though you have gone across the sea, you will be remembered because of this.
Essien died February 8, 1960 at the age of 44 after a short illness of malaria. During his short life he was able to contribute in a great way to the building of the Lord’s church in his country. Essien’s life is a reminder of the power of the printed page and the providence of God to use good and honest hearts who want to serve Him.
Much, much more could be said about the history of the church in Nigeria because there are thousands of congregations and Christians throughout the country of Nigeria. This brief history of the beginning has been written to help us understand a little about how the church began in this African country. Bear Valley Bible Institute is happy to have a part in training preachers through the CSMT (Comprehensive School of Management and Technology) in Abakaliki in the Ebonyi State of Nigeria. May God continue to richly bless the work that will be accomplished through training Nigerian men to continue to reach out to convert the lost, edify the saved, and establish churches throughout Nigeria.
By, Wayne Burger
In 1962 Elvis Huffard, who had been a missionary to Nigeria in the late ’50s, told the story of Essien in a Mission’s class where I was a student. From that time I began collecting information about Essien.
“C.A.O. Essien and the Restoration Movement in Nigeria” by Burney and Louanna Bawcom, October 7, 1982 Gospel Advocate, p. 600.
“Brother Essien, I Presume?” by Murray Czezotka, Director of European Operations, Eastern European Mission, July 2003.
Wings of the Morning by Eldred Echols, pp. 109-127. Wings Press, 1989.
Information about Nigeria
Photo from TheRestorationMovement.com
Article from columbinechurchofchrist.org