“Beware, oh, beware of the Bight of Benin. Where few may come out, though many go in.”i This warning quivered off of the tongue of many early European explorers of, what is today, Nigeria’s coast. They explored this coast as early as in the 16th and 17th centuries. They traded with a curious, dark-skinned people in the delta regions, not daring to journey into the interior.ii Their comments were mainly on the goods that they exchanged, and also on the tall native men whom some regarded as friendly and others regarded as aggressive.iii However, the brave journey inland would be made by another kind of visitor. The Nigeria region would reveal the secrets of its mysterious interior to early Christian missionaries who ventured up-river into the alluring heartland.
By the mid-eighteen hundreds, many western churches were sending missionaries to the Nigerian region. I would like to focus on the missionary work of one pioneer named Samuel Bill. After his death, a pile of faded diaries and tattered letters were found, telling the story. It is from these, as well as from hearing him speak while on furlough in England, that western churches first learned the details of his story. Bill was blessed with a very godly mother whose Christian life was set aflame in the 1859 revival. She had dedicated her son to God’s service before he was even born. As a child, Bill was led to Christ by his Sunday-school teacher and later became deeply impacted by the preaching of D. L. Moody.iv
Bill sensed a missionary call on his life and he shared this with his good friend, Archie Bailie. In 1887, Bill found himself at the Harley Missionary Training College in London. It was there that he heard Dr. Grattan Guinness share from a letter written on behalf of West African chiefs. The chiefs wanted a white man to come to live amongst them and to teach them about God. Guinness asked his audience of students if there was anyone who would fill this need. He warned; “It’s a treacherous, fever-ridden climate, and cannibalism is not unknown in the area. You would have no Mission behind you, but will one of you young men offer to go?”v Bill weighed the invitation carefully.
Later, Bill found himself standing at Guinness’ desk, saying to him; “You asked if any of us would answer the call in that letter. I’m here to say that, God helping me, I will.”vi After this, things moved rapidly. An anonymous woman had a hundred pounds mailed to Bill to cover the transportation costs. As arrangements were being made for the voyage, Bill announced a bombshell. He was engaged to be married to a young woman named Grace Kerr. How would this affect his decision to go to the Nigerian Protectorate? Grace was a student at Harley College and was not finished with her studies. Yet, Bill made his choice, the hard choice, of leaving for Nigeria alone.vii
On September 14, 1887, Bill boarded a ship leaving Liverpool for Calibar in the Nigerian Protectorate. On his second evening of travel, he penned these words in his diary:
Got up this morning after a sleepless night. Could not sleep for thinking of the past,
and those I have left behind; and the future, with all it’s possibilities of success or
failure, of happiness or sorrow – especially of Grace, and how long it might be before
we meet again. Found great comfort in the night by committing all those I love to my
Heavenly Father, and in remembering that all our steps are ordered by Him in unerring
wisdom, and infinite love.viii
On September 26, Bill had his first sight of Africa, but it was not until October 6th that the ship laid anchor. Excitement rose within him. Bill eagerly disembarked the vessel, stepping into a canoe manned by another westerner, named Foster. They paddled together through the shallow water. After reaching the shore, they journeyed by lantern-light through the lush undergrowth and up a steep slope to the Calibar mission house where Bill would temporarily stay.ix
In the following days, Bill would meet many tribes-people as he prepared for the next leg of his journey. Early in the New Year, Bill left Calibar on a small steamer to his destination point, the trading center of Eket. He was welcomed by those living there and taken to what would be his new house. However, there was one problem. Only the outer shell of the structure had been erected. It had no floor and the palm-leaf roof leaked badly. Bill, along with some new friends, began weather-proofing the structure immediately.x
A leaking roof was not Bill’s only problem. Over the next four months, his strength was depleted by frequent bouts of malaria. Also, at times he felt distant from God. In this lonely time, Bill cried out to God:
O God, make Thy name great in this place. Let the name of Jesus be highly esteemed
by these people. Do Thou fire my heart with zeal for Thy glory, and grant that my
only satisfaction may be to do Thy will and to spend, and be spent in Thy service.xi
Bill persevered and was well-liked by the surrounding tribes-people. They would sit together in groups in an open yard and welcome Bill to teach from the Bible. Soon Bill had a small building erected which served as a church and a school. The school was attended on a weekly basis by ten-to-thirty students.xii It was a happy day for Bill when his old friend, Archie Bailie, came to join him in his work. Together, they began praying that God would give them a church of two hundred believers and it was not long before they were attracting a regular Sunday crowd of over a hundred. Encouragements like this were tempered by many struggles. Bill lamented that many tribes-people who heard the gospel opposed it because of the demands that it made upon them. Also, superstition, slavery, polygamy and alcohol consumption were all part of the tribes-people’s way of life. It was a sad day when Bill and Bailie watched three thousand cases of European gin, along with barrels of rum, being unloaded onto the wharf at Eket. They knew that this was one of the most destructive influences that Europeans had upon Africans, the sale of alcohol.xiii
Another happy day for both Bill and Bailie was the day that David Ekong converted to Christian faith. Ekong was the son of a principal chief as well as being the grandson of a High Priest. It was expected that he would go on to be the chief of his tribe. However, his life took a different direction the day he decided to follow Christ.
Another convert was Etia. She had been the wife of a chief, but after his death she was stripped of all her possessions. She fled with her son to Big Town and, later, would have to flee again when she was accused of killing someone through the use of witchcraft. As was their custom, she ate a poisonous bean, after which, if she survived its effects, she would be considered innocent. She did survive from having consumed the poison but its effects took a toll on her. One day, hearing the gospel preached, she believed and repented. She even smashed a treasured saucer because of its superstitious connotations. She came to the mission and regularly attended services where she learned from Bill and Bailie more about the way of Christ. Ekong and she were the first converts to be baptized.xiv
There were more converts to follow. Many of these converts were persecuted by their old friends. Conversions were followed by baptisms which were conducted in the nearby river. David Ekong was daily growing in his faith. It was becoming evident that he would be a great spokesman to his fellow people. Bill was encouraged by these developments. Along with moments of satisfaction, he also had many lonely moments. It had been two years since he had left England and Grace was still there.xv
On June 6, 1890, Bill and Bailie embarked by steamship for Liverpool. After arriving, they continued on to London where Grace was waiting. A wedding date was fixed for October and Bill returned to Calibar, a married man.
Happiness had come to Bill’s mission house, however, difficult trials were also coming. In 1892, Grace was due to give birth to their first child. The situation was made more serious by an asthma condition that she had developed. Requests were made for a Scottish nurse to come up from Calibar. Unfortunately, the nurse could not make it and a doctor was requested instead. The message came back that the doctor would be delayed in coming. Even Bailie was not there, being on furlough. Grace gave birth to a five-weeks-premature baby girl. When a nurse finally did arrive, Grace was very weak and short of breath. The nurse said that there was nothing that she could do for Grace; it would take time and proper nourishment for her to recover. While Grace was recovering, misfortune struck again. This time, Bill became ill, contracting the dreaded black water fever. Bill’s heart was touched by the decision of the native church to hold prayer meetings on his behalf, three times a day. He quickly began to recover from what was considered one of the most dangerous diseases anyone could contract.xvi
Grace did her best to adapt to the difficult environment. She loved the tribal women and was loved by them in return. She taught in the school and was very busy attending to the medical needs of the tribes-people. She worked hard, but was weakened at times by fevers, as was their child. Life in the Nigerian Protectorate was taking a toll on Grace. After two years of dedicated service together, Bill and Grace made the difficult decision to part for a time so that Grace, their daughter and, now, their infant son, could return to England to recuperate. In England, Grace did regain her strength and began touring and speaking in churches in Ireland. It was discovered that she was a very dynamic speaker and, from church to church, she urged young men to enter missionary service. She returned to the field, this time with a young recruit named John Kirk.xvii
Meanwhile, back in the Nigerian Protectorate, Bill was very busy. One problem that he faced was that ants had virtually devoured the initial church building. With support from home, a sawmill was set up, natives were trained, and a large church, which could seat five hundred, was built. It was erected in the center of the town, on top of a place that was once used for an idol temple. Around this time, Bill’s health again declined. Ekong immediately stepped in to fill his place in preaching and ministry.xviii
Bill’s health would strengthen, then weaken, repeatedly. In times of good health, he was very busy working with his team. By this time, Bailie had married and had established a second mission station twenty miles up-stream. Bill made many ministry trips up-stream, accompanied by John Kirk. On canoe journeys, such as these, Bill and Kirk would often get drenched, and this continued to put a strain on Bill’s health. Bill sent a request back to England for a steam-powered launch boat which would make travel easier and the transportation of heavier loads of building materials possible. To everyone’s delight, the request was granted; they received the launch and named it Evangel. The acquisition of the Evangel allowed the team to expand their work, and one of the first expansions was establishing a new mission station in a place called Etinan. This station would be led by Kirk.xix
Back in Bill’s church, eight native candidates for the position of elder stood before Bill, as he questioned them:
‘Having considered the duties and responsibilities of the office of elder, are you
willing to undertake them heartily?’ ‘I am,’ came the quiet but firm response. ‘Do
you engage to take the Word of God as your rule in all matters, even though it may
entail pecuniary or other loss to yourself, and the forsaking of old customs?’ ‘I do.’
‘Do you accept this work as a call from God – so that, while human instrumentality
has been used in choosing and appointing you, you reckon yourselves as called indeed
by the Holy Ghost to oversee the Church of God, in accordance with Acts 20:28?’ ‘I
These men were received into the leadership of the church before a crowd of over three hundred baptized members. By this time, Ekong was married and virtually the pastor of the Ibuno church, preaching every Sunday.
Around this time, Bill had another co-worker join the team. In 1899, Robert McKeown came to the field to assist Bill. This good news was offset by some hard news, as Grace’s health was again on the decline. This time she had contracted black water fever and it was feared that she would not survive. Again, the church prayed and her condition improved. Even so, it was time to recuperate and the Bills took a furlough to England. McKeown, now married, also returned from the field. xxi
After the furlough, back to Ibuno the Bills came. Little did they know, that waves of hardship were just around the corner. The first misfortune they had been informed of by letter; the Evangel had sunk. It would be months before raising tackle would be brought to them and efforts could be made to retrieve the launch. Worse still, an epidemic of small pox was sweeping the area, claiming lives, including that of the chief. The chief had been very supportive and Bill wondered what would happen now. As well, Grace’s health was again failing. She was examined in Calibar and the doctor reported that she must go home at once. Arrangements were quickly made and Grace was off to England. Bill stayed on and continued the work. xxii
Other painful experiences marked Bill’s time on the field. He tells of the death of one young convert in these words:
This has been a sad and sorrowful day. … one of the saddest since coming here.
Jimmy Mfon has lost his life, while bathing in the river. A shark laid hold of him,
tearing the flesh from his leg, right from the hip to the knee, laying the bone
quite bare. This tragedy happened opposite the corner of our house. I heard a
fearful cry and rushed down to the beach. He was unconscious; for, besides the
wound mentioned, he had eight others. The mother was frantic with grief, and
it seemed as if David Ekong could not stop crying. We all loved Jimmy. He
was a bright and earnest follower of the Savior. Next Sabbath he would have
sat with us at the Lord’s table. Now he beholds his Redeemer’s face. His
departure leaves a great blank, we shall miss him coming in and out. (Next day.)
Buried Jimmy this morning. There was a large gathering, all deeply attentive, as
I spoke of the resurrection and Second Coming of Our Lord. I took the last look
at dear Jimmy’s face that I shall get, until I meet him on the Great Day.xxiii
In 1907, Grace was back on the field. Again, tragedy would strike. Around midday, on April 9th, she was walking downstairs, on her way to give some basic medical attention to a patient, when a shrieking voice broke the quiet. “The house is on fire. The house is on fire.” Smoke was pouring out of the kitchen. Together with Ekong, and others, they dumped buckets of water on the spreading flames. Very quickly it became obvious that there was no way of saving the building. They ran outside, all but two boys, who by this time had been cut off from access to the flame-filled stairway. Fortunately, both boys escaped out a window, one, however, sustaining injuries from the twenty-four foot drop. In horror, Grace stared at the inferno and wondered if she had indirectly and accidentally caused the fire in the kitchen.xxiv
In time, a new missionary home was erected. Not long after its finishing, Grace’s health collapsed again. In June 1908, she returned to England. Meanwhile, Bill and the others continued in the work. The church was growing and other unreached natives were showing interest. At one place, a group of boys approached Bill, telling him that they had something they wanted to show him. He followed them through a maze of bush, into a clearing, and beheld in front of him a fully constructed church. Inside it were seats, a pulpit and a reading desk. The boys told Bill that they had built it two years ago and that they were still waiting for a missionary to come and tell them about God.xxv
By 1916, Grace’s health had improved enough for her to return to the field. These were difficult days as World War I was in progress. The war would make another large claim on the Bills’ lives. Their only son, Jack, was drafted for service in the Royal Army Medical Corps. While Grace had returned to the Nigerian Protectorate, Jack was serving in France. One Friday in October, as the Bills were preparing for a communion weekend, they received an unsealed envelop, the message inside declaring Jack to be missing. They both grieved, but Grace was especially devastated. The news came at a time when she was already weakened from typhoid fever. Three days later, they received another message saying that Jack had died in service.xxvi
Post-war years are always difficult and this proved true in the Nigerian Protectorate, as well. There were shortages of many basic commodities and everyone made do with less. The Bills’ lives were to be brightened by their daughter Emma’s decision to join them on the field. They were also encouraged by the success of a church which was planted in Okorotip. It had struggled for years but, by the 1920s, had two hundred baptized believers.xxvii
After furlough in 1926, the Bills returned to the field. Something wonderful was in store for all of them. They had not been back long before they heard reports of unusual happenings. A spiritual awakening had sprung up and early morning prayer meetings flourished, taking on a new urgency. People were experiencing a heightened awareness of God and their faith was deepening. As well, there was an increasing conviction of sin and reports of repentant deeds were coming in. A revival had broken out and there were even reports of miracles.xxviii
The Bills’ remaining years would have both joys and losses. In 1928, Ekong became ill and died. His contribution to the work had been enormous and many mourned his death. However, a greater personal loss was coming to Bill. In 1931, Grace’s health again declined and remained poor for seven months, with a brief rally after much prayer. On August 12,1932, the sixty-five year old Grace Bill passed away.xxix Bill would continue on in ministry for another ten years, even making another trip to England. In 1937, at an annual convention in Keswick, the elderly Bill spoke these humble words to the audience gathered; “Thank you friends for your welcome, but I don’t deserve all this fuss. I only did ordinary things, like teaching a few children to read, helping a few sick folk, keeping engines running. It was God who did it all.”xxx In June 1941, Bill suffered a stroke, followed by another stroke and, on January 24, 1942, in the presence of a roomful of children, peacefully died. xxxi
The passing of Samuel Bill marked the end of a long road of missionary service. From the earliest days of his journey, Bill was committed. Dr. Guinness’ announcement that West African chiefs wanted someone to live with them and to teach them about God moved Bill to action. Who would go to them? Standing in front of Guinness’ desk, Bill answered; “God helping me, I will.” It was God Who helped, carried and protected Bill as he courageously took this large step of faith. Having parted from friends and family, Bill boarded the boat and during the long sea journey, with its sleepless nights, he thought about the choice he had made and all of its possibilities for success and failure and for happiness and sorrow. He would know both happiness and sorrow. He knew sorrow during the many difficult years of Grace’s fragile health, over the loss of the mission house, over the loss of his son, the death of David Ekong and, lastly, Grace’s passing. However, he knew happiness over seeing churches spring up with genuine converts. He found happiness in his companionship with Grace, Archie Bailie, David Ekong, John Kirk, Robert McKeown and many others. He found happiness and joy in the revival that sprung up among them. He found happiness in the faithfulness of God, and happiness in his life being used by God in the high calling of ministry and missionary work.
1 Robert L. McKeown, Twenty-five Years in Qua Iboe : The Story of A Missionary Effort in Nigeria (London: Morgan & Scott, 1912), 1.
ii Elizabeth Isichei, M.A., D. Phil., Igbo Worlds : An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978), 9.
iii Ibid., 9-10.
iv Jean S. Corbett, According to Plan : The Story of Samuel Bill, Founder of the Qua Iboe Mission, Nigeria (Cheshire: Wright’s Ltd., 1986), 12-13.
v Ibid., 11.
vi Ibid., 15.
vii Ibid., 15-16.
viii Ibid., 16.
ix Ibid., 17-18.
x Ibid., 20.
xi Ibid., 22.
xii Ibid., 25-26.
xiii Ibid., 28-30.
xiv Ibid., 31-33.
xv Ibid., 38-44.
xvi Ibid., 49-50.
xvii Ibid., 51-53.
xviii Ibid., 53-54.
xix Ibid., 56-62.
xx Ibid., 63.
xxi Ibid., 67-69.
xxii Ibid., 70-77.
xxiii Eva Stuart Watt, The Quest of Souls in Qua Iboe (London: Marchall, Morgan & Scott, 1951), 37.
xxiv Jean S. Corbett, According to Plan : The Story of Samuel Bill, Founder of the Qua Iboe Mission, Nigeria (Cheshire: Wright’s Ltd., 1986), 78-79.
xxv Ibid., 82-84.
xxvi Ibid., 95-100.
xxvii Ibid., 103, 115.
xxviii Ibid., 119-122.
xxix Ibid., 131, 134-136.
xxx Ibid., 146.
xxxi Ibid., 155.
Corbett, Jean S. According to Plan : The Story of Samuel Bill, Founder of the Qua Iboe Mission, Nigeria.
Cheshire: Wright’s Ltd., 1986.
Isichei, Elizabeth, M.A. and D. Phil. Igbo Worlds : An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical
Descriptions. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978.
Leach, W. E. Qua . Iboe . Fellowship. 1887 – 1987 – Century of Service in Nigeria.
Belfast: Qua Iboe Fellowship, 1986.
McKeown, Robert L. Twenty-five Years in Qua Iboe : The Story of A Missionary Effort in Nigeria.
London: Morgan & Scott, 1912.
Watt, Eva Stuart. The Quest of Souls in Qua Iboe. London: Marchall, Morgan & Scott, 1951.