The Yorubas and Early Missionary Work Among Them

For thousands of years, West Africa has been veiled in mystery. As far
back as the fifth century B. C., Herodotus spoke of five young men
who, beginning in Egypt, journeyed westward across the great desert
and came to a land of fruit trees. After plodding through the lush
tree land, they came across a mighty river that flowed from west to
east.1 It is likely that they found themselves on the bank of the
great Niger River in what, today, is Nigeria. In 1795 A. D., a Mr.
Mungo Park from Scotland trekked from Gambia into the interior of West
Africa and, with great difficulty, reached the Niger River on July 21,
1797. He wrote; “I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my
mission, the long sought for majestic Niger . flowing slowly to the
eastward.”2 On this journey, Park did not come to an empty land. He
was met by tribal people, native to that land. Who were they? They
were the Yorubas. Let us now consider the Yoruban people and early
missionary work amongst them.

It has been said that the Yoruba are likely the most urban of all
Africans.3 Today, they live in cities, towns and villages, with many
of their farmers choosing to live in cities and commuting to their
farms.4 In fact, Lagos, the largest of Nigeria’s cities, is in the
Yoruban region of the country. However, if we were to visit the Yoruba
hundreds of years ago, we would find that they were not living in
cosmopolitan cities. They lived in highly-organized and
tightly-unified villages.

The history of the Yoruba is very obscure. In the nineteenth century,
missionaries began writing about them but, before this, the history
and legends of the Yoruba were passed from one generation to another
by word of mouth. However, one early written source is that of Sultan
Belo of Sokoto who, in the nineteenth century, wrote a geographical
and historical work which discusses the Yoruba. According to him, the
Yoruba originated from a Canaanite tribe of Nimrod. They were
allegedly driven out of Arabia and journeyed to an area between Egypt
and Abyssinia and, from there, spread into the interior of Africa.
Some early Yoruban sculpture resembles Egyptian sculpture, possibly
confirming Belo’s account. 5

Once settled, Yoruban tribes-people organized themselves into smaller
groupings, some being the Egba, the Ijesha, the Awori, the Ondos, the
Ijebus and the Egbados. In Yorubaland, the region of Oyo became most
dominant and its people became the leaders of the Yoruba. However, in
the 1820s, the influence of Oyo was greatly weakened as Yorubaland was
destabilized by tribal warfare.6 After these years, the Yoruba would
never gain back the previous degree of native unity which they had
experienced under Oyo rule. The only central government that would
come to exert control over the entire region was the colonial British
government, established in Lagos in 1861, and later the independent
Nigerian government, in 1960.

S. G. Pinnock, who first came to Africa in 1888, tells us much about
early Yoruban culture. The tribes were governed by a hierarchy of
chiefs, secondary chiefs and elders. Tribal families held property for
which they did not pay rent or taxes. Pinnock says that the first
thing that a stranger to the Yoruba notices is their many different
forms of salutations. Sitting, feasting, working, mourning, riding and
walking all require particular ways of greeting.7 Although the Yoruba
did not have a written language, missionaries found that Yorubas did
communicate with symbols. Tangible objects like shells, stones, coal,
feathers, corn, sticks, pepper and powder were used to convey ideas,
wishes and feelings. For example, a single shell displayed or given
away may communicate failure and defiance. If a Yoruban wished to
affirm relationships between himself and a brother or sister, he may
deliver to them two shells strung together, face to face. Similarly,
two shells strung, back to back, represented  enmity and separation.
If the Yoruban wished to have an immediate and friendly meeting with
someone, he would tie a small feather between two facing shells.8
Yoruban children would commonly undergo face markings. This involved a
series of parallel cuts being made on their cheeks, followed by the
removal of narrow strips of skin between the incisions, and the
application of medicine. Once the scars healed, there was a permanent
marking on the face. As many as ten to forty marks could be made on
one child. The Yorubas were very religious and frequently could be
heard calling out the name of their god and the names of their idols.9
Pinnock says; “Religion with the Yoruba people is an obsession.”10 He
says, further, that it is easier to number the objects of their
worship rather than the theology of their beliefs. He says that they
had 401 idols, some of them constituting deified human beings, some
gods over the natural elements, some being domestic, agricultural or
craft gods, others being animals, others being objects in nature and,
lastly, some being malignant spirits. Separate from this, they also
believed in one supreme god, who was the creator, the giver of life
and the judge of all men.11

Within Yoruban society you could find not only culture and religion,
but also kind-hearted, faithful and self-sacrificing individuals.
Pinnock tells how, one day, he came across a young man calling for
help. The man was dressed in rags and it was apparent that he had
leprosy. He was attended to by Pinnock and others with him, cleaned up
and given fresh clothes, some money and medicinal ointment. He
returned to the missionaries once a week for on-going assistance.
Then, for a week or two, he did not show up and, upon inquiry, Pinnock
discovered that the man was too ill to leave his home. Pinnock visited
the home to find it part of a large compound which had been vacated by
the man’s relatives. Most of the compound was in ruins and the only
pleasant sight was a palm tree in the man’s room. All of a sudden,
Pinnock realized that there was someone else standing at the entrance
to the man’s room. Upon inquiry, he learned that it was the man’s
mother. She would not leave her son. She swept his room and brought
him food, water and firewood. She thanked Pinnock for whatever
assistance he offered the man, and Pinnock felt that she deserved
thanks for being “the ministering angel in human form.”12

Early Christian missionaries began reaching out to the Yoruba, such as
this woman and her son. In the early nineteenth century, revival was
sweeping England and, as a result, large numbers of Christians became
awakened to the Great Commission and to the great needs of the African
mission field. They sold belongings, boarded ships, landed on the
shores of the African continent and began trekking their way inland.
Why did they come? They held the conviction that God wished to bring
salvation to people from all nations. Their prayer was much like that
of King David who prayed; “GOD BE merciful unto us, and bless us; and
cause His face to shine upon us; Selah That thy way may be known upon
earth, thy saving health among all nations.” (Psalm 67.1-2). They read in
the Scriptures of how the LORD had promised to Abraham that “And in thy
seed shall all the nations of the earth  be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22.18).
The phrase, “in thy seed” was a reference to Jesus Christ and that, through Him,
blessing would come to “all the nations of the earth”. Did their
decision to go mean personal sacrifices? Yes, it did. They left the
comforts and familiarity of the lands of their birth. Although they
left these things, they held onto what really mattered, their faith
and their integrity and, specifically, their integrity in fulfilling
Christ’s Commission; “‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'” (Matthew 28.19-20 NASB).

These white-skinned, missionary, inland visitors looked peculiar to
the Yoruba and the Yoruba named them the “Oyinbo,” which means “man of
the peeled skin.” 13 They believed that all people were once black,
but some had found a way of peeling the black off of their skin. 14

These early Oyinbo missionaries, living on Nigeria’s coast, translated
the Bible into the Yoruban language1 and began seeing spiritual fruit.
In the early 1900s, two young Yoruban slave boys escaped from their
tribe and made their way to Lagos. Here, they met a missionary who
showed them much love and who taught them to read the Bible. They both
committed their lives to Christ and were baptized. In the following
years, the British government banned slavery and one of the two boys,
Peter, built up the courage to go back to the tribe in which he
formerly was a slave. He did so, and began to tell his people about
the Lord Jesus. He was ridiculed, persecuted, beaten and almost
poisoned. Some, however, were impressed with the joy and love that
Peter demonstrated and asked him more about his faith. Peter, together
with some of them, began praying that God would send a missionary to
their tribe. 15

In 1908, their prayer was answered with the arrival of a young
Canadian missionary, Mr. Tommy Titcombe. When Titcombe first applied
to a mission organization, his application was rejected. His education
was not complete, him having left school early to support his single
mother. However, in time he was accepted and after a two-year training
program, he left for the West African mission field. He followed the
Niger River inland and came across another missionary, Dr. Andrew Park
Stirett. Together, the two journeyed through the broiling heat, by
day, and slept in the open among lions, leopards and snakes, by night.
They journeyed onward until they reached Peter’s tribe. There they
found Peter and a small group of others praying and reading a Yoruban
Bible. 16

This encounter with Peter and the others marked the beginning of
Titcombe’s work among the Yoruba. Stirett remained with him for a time
and then continued northward. Titcombe’s hut-home was shared with
dogs, goats, sheep and chickens, not to mention, lizards and snakes.
He made the best of his surroundings and began to learn the Yoruban
language. Initially, the tribe was slow to trust him. He endured times
of hunger, sickness, persecution and loneliness. However, in time, he
bonded with the people and shared in their joys and also in their

Titcombe had sorrows of his own, as it seemed that his progress was so
slow. He did not reside only in Peter’s village, but traveled to
neighboring villages as well. He was the first to visit the large
village of Mopa. There, he was refused lodging and from the little
that he had learned of the Yoruban language, he thought he heard the
tribes-people planning to harm him. Lying under the stars that night,
he suddenly heard the sound of bare feet approaching. His first
thought was that villagers had come to kill him. Instead, he heard the
hushed voice of a man calling “Oyinbo! Oyinbo!” (White man! White
man!) It was a young Mopa villager who had come to ask Titcombe about
Titcombe’s faith. Before the night was over, the young man had
committed his life to Christ. This man was the first of a number from
Mopa to accept the Lord and, after a year-and-a-half, they were
baptized and a small church was formed. 18

The newly-formed Mopa church experienced terrible persecution. Some
members were beaten, some were imprisoned, and others were threatened
with death. Some were mysteriously removed. Some were held in stocks,
positioned in the hot sun near an open market place. However, despite
these hardships, they endured and very soon something wonderful was
about to happen. 19

The faithfulness of the Mopa believers, while undergoing such
hardships, was an inspiring testimony and witness to the other
villagers. Soon, others began committing their lives to Christ, as
well. This culminated in an awakening which saw thousands of tribesmen
come to Christ.20

Having experienced much victory in Mopa, Titcombe continued on to the
Yoruban town of Kponyan. He had three boys journeying with him and,
upon arriving at the entrance to the town, the boys would not go any
farther. This was because continuing on meant stepping under human
skulls, which had been hung at that spot. Because they refused to
come, Titcombe told them that it would be all right for them to wait
for him until he returned. Proceeding into the town, he came across a
woman carrying a pot of water. The thirsty Titcombe requested, and
received from her, a drink.21 Realizing afterwards what he had just
done, he said; “In taking that drink from the woman I had done the
most foolish thing I could have done, for I had spoken to a woman
before going to salute the king. When I entered the king’s compound he
was raving like a maniac, calling me all kinds of awful names and
walking backwards and forwards like a lion in a cage, simply because I
had spoken to a woman before going to see him.”22

Caught in a tense situation, Titcombe began to pray. Next, another
woman stepped into the scene with a gift of food for the king. He
began eating it and seemed to forget about Titcombe. Titcombe
carefully began asking the king some questions. “Are you not a chief?”23
He responded, “Yes, I am king of this whole territory!”23 Titcombe then
remarked, “You are treating me in a way that your lowest subject would
never do.”23 Now the king asked, “What do you mean?”23 Titcombe explained,
“Am I not a stranger, and you haven’t asked me to eat.”23 The king then
invited him to eat and Titcombe reached into the king’s calabash.2
Next, the king jumped up and cried, “Ah! This white man is my friend
for life. He has eaten out of my own calabash!”23

Titcombe did prove to be a great friend to the king and to the others
at Kponyan. The boys were brought into the town and, together with
Titcombe, they began singing loudly. Before long, the entire village
was gathered before them and Titcombe preached the gospel. The
following day, he and the boys visited every hut in the town and held
another service. This was followed by another service on their third
night there. Then Titcombe announced to the king that he would be
leaving the next morning. The king responded; “Oyinbo, don’t leave us,
your word is making our stomachs sweet too much. We want to hear
more.”24 Titcombe continued ministering to them the next evening and
assured the king that he would be coming back. It would be two years
before he did make it back to Kponyan. When he arrived he met a new
king, who told him that the previous king had died. The new king said
to him; “We have been looking down the road many moons expecting you
to return. Before our chief died he kept saying ‘Jesus! Jesus!’ What
did he mean, white man? What did he mean?” 25

The Lord continued to use Titcombe amongst the Yoruban tribes-people.
One very disturbing practice which had been an age-old tradition among
the Yoruba, but not exclusive to them, was their treatment of twins
and the mothers of twins. It had been their long-standing belief that
when a woman gave birth to twins she was cursed, along with the
children. The mother would be driven away and the twins would be
killed. During his second term of missionary service, Titcombe married
and, in time, Mrs. Titcombe, herself, gave birth to twins. After years
of working among the Yoruba, Titcombe had gained the trust and respect
of thousands of tribes-people. He was open about the fact that his
wife had twins.26 At first this shocked the Yoruba but, in time, they
began to see that the Titcombe family was blessed and not cursed.

As the work among the Yoruba was growing, a need arose for work among
Yoruban women and girls. Miss Lillian McIntosh, the sister of Mrs.
Titcombe, began a school for women in the Egbe tribe. The work was
expanded in 1928 with the arrival of Miss Pauline Guyer, who started a
school for girls. She was joined a year later by Josephine Bulifant.
The Yoruba were very slow in allowing their girls to attend the
school. Some old men in the Oro district said that the girls were
incapable of book learning.27 Josephine expressed her initial feelings
in these words:

Here we were, all alone, a full days journey from any other white
people. We were to start a boarding school for girls in this seemingly God-forsaken
spot. There were no buildings for the girls, no money for food or equipment and – no
girls! But we had all things in Christ. We breathed out to Him the desires of our
heart and He breathed into us the encouragement we needed.28
The women persevered and, by the end of 1930, had twelve girls
boarding with them.

Girls would come to board with the missionary women under many
different circumstances. One day, a group of children could be heard
shouting; “Oyinbo De! Oyinbo De!”29 (meaning “The white people come! The
white people come!”) One girl cried out; “I’m not afraid”29 and ran to a
spot where she could get a closer look. There she saw the curious
white people with stiff hats, funny shoes, stockings and glasses in
front of their eyes. The girl was named Folorunso which means “God
watch her.” 29After gazing on them for a time, Folorunso, along with
other children, went to the home of a teacher in the village. Ben, the
teacher, told the children stories about the curious white people who
had journeyed across the great ocean, leaving family and friends to
come to live with the Yoruba. Folorunso heard Ben say that the white
people had some very good news for them which, if believed, would
bring them peace and joy. Later, one of the missionary women talked to
Folorunso in the Yoruban language. Her speech was hard to follow, but
Folorunso did pick up that a school for girls was being started in
Oro.29 She began to dream of what the school must be like, a place
where girls learned to “make paper talk [read] and to be able to hear
words from the one great God, words which He had given to people long
ago in a book called the Bible.”30 When she asked to go, she was told
that she was too young. She secretly followed the white people anyway,
all the way to Oro. When she was discovered missing, her kinsmen came
and found her. She said to them; “Oh, this is my house now, I have
come to live here.”31 Arrangements were made, and she was allowed to
stay. At her new home, she daily heard new stories about Jesus and was
taught to pray. One day she said to one of the missionaries; “I love
Jesus.”32 When asked what her favorite Bible verse was, she quoted
John 3.16; “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten
Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have
everlasting life.”

One beautiful example of a Yoruban believing in Jesus and experiencing
His deliverance is that of Alege. Alege was a sixteen-year old
Yoruban. Her father had promised her in marriage to one of his
friends. She loathed the idea of being one of this man’s many wives
and she begged her father to set her free. Alege had accepted the
gospel, having heard it from her brother who had spent time with the
missionaries. From him, she also learned of the mission school for
girls. Before she could make her decision to flee, she was seized by
men from the village and put inside a hut belonging to the man to whom
she was engaged. Stones were piled up against the entrance-way to the
hut and some men stood watch over it as well. Alege began praying to
the Lord for help. As the night wore on, the guards fell asleep and
Alege was able to get past the stones. She had escaped, but getting to
the mission station meant traveling for miles in the darkness through
tall grass inhabited by lions, leopards and snakes. She determined to
go and started running. Arriving before dawn, she was received by the
missionaries. Her would-be in-laws were very upset and came to the
mission station to reclaim her. Before all of them, she bravely
confessed Jesus Christ as her Savior and declared her desire to stay
at the school. The missionaries stood by her and began praying. A Mrs.
Moulding began giving the would-be in-laws peppermint candy, which
they had never tasted before. They calmed down enough for negotiations
to begin between the missionaries and themselves. In the end, Alege
was allowed to stay in exchange for some money.33 Josephine says that
Alege “has been one of our outstanding Christians.”34

Josephine and the other women continued their work with the Yoruban
woman and children. Their experiences continued to be full of sorrows
and joys. One entry in Josephine’s diary reads as follows:

January, 1942: Just today a girl baby was brought to us from a village about twenty miles away. She was only a few days old. Her uncle carried her on his head in a small box, over which a cloth was spread and above it all he held an umbrella to protect the little one from the sun. When he folded back the cloth the baby began to cry a little and I was reminded of how Pharaoh’s daughter had compassion on Baby Moses when his little ark of bulrushes was uncovered and he wept. In the Yoruba language it says her heart was “melted” toward the baby. Well, that is the way we feel toward these motherless little ones. They melt our hearts and the hearts of our girls, too. We never know but what one of these helpless babes, whose lives are saved, may turn out to be a Moses, a mighty leader for God among the Nigerian people. Ten years ago this baby would have been buried alive with its dead mother or thrown out to die, a thing despised, accursed.35


For Josephine, and the other missionaries, work among the Yoruba was
always a mixture of grief and joy, sorrow and happiness, gloom and
cheer, loss and victory. They persevered, and with the Lord’s
strength, faced many unexpected turns. Josephine says, further, of
their work at Mopa:

Any hour, day or night, anything may happen: snake bites, babies being born, children getting desperately ill all of a sudden, men falling out of palm trees and breaking bones, people coming to get fights settled, girls attacked by evil spirits, motherless babies brought fifty miles on the backs of bicycles or in baskets on peoples’ heads, mad dog bites, runaway girls arriving. No two days are the same. There is never a dull moment at Mopa.36
While joy and calamity could occur at any hour of the day or night,
the faithful, loving care of missionaries, such as Josephine, could be
counted upon, and was counted upon, by many Yorubas.

The history of the Yoruba stretches far back. Those ancient journeyers
who crossed the desert became ancient settlers. They multiplied into
tribes which were highly organized, ruled by chiefs and elders. All
who saw their face-markings knew that they were the Yoruba. They
communicated with each other in a variety of ways and exchanged
friendly salutations. Within their tribes were those, like the leper,
whose lives were brightened by the faithfulness of devoted mothers
and, also, those whose lives were darkened by superstitious traditions
such as the abandonment of twin children. To these people, the
missionaries came. They made personal sacrifices; they endured
hardships; many times they were misunderstood. They labored anyway,
translating the Bible, and sharing the message and the love of Jesus
Christ with the Yoruba. With melted hearts, they continued on, that
all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The blessing of
salvation through Jesus Christ was embraced by many Yoruba. These new
believers endured being misunderstood and, in some cases, fierce
persecution. The witness of their testimony shone brightly to all who
would observe it in their day, and to all who read of it now. The
faith of Yoruban Christians has not ended, but has been reproduced in
the lives of those who make up the Yoruban church today.

Shawn Stevens


1As early as 1844, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the
first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel had been translated into the
Yoruban language. Gollmer, Charles Andrew Gollmer, His Life And
Missionary Labours In West Africa, 2nd ed.
(London: Hodder and
Stoughton), 13.

2A calabash is a vessel made of a dried gourd shell or the shell of a
calabash tree, used for holding foods, liquids or goods.

1Josephine C. Bulifant, 40 Years In The African Bush (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Publishing House, ), 13. 

2Ibid., 13.

3John B. Grimley and Gordon E. Robinson, Church Growth In Central And
Southern Nigeria
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 256.

4Bobbie Kalman, Nigeria : The People (New York: Crabtree Publishing
Co., 2001), 13.

5Josephine C. Bulifant, 40 Years In The African Bush (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Publishing House, ), 17-18.

6John Peel, Religious Encounter And The Making Of The Yoruba (Indiana:
Indiana University Press, 2000), 27-28.

7S. G. Pinnock, The Romance Of Missions In Nigeria (Richmond: Southern
Baptist Convention, 1918), 85-86.

8Gollmer, Charles Andrew Gollmer, His Life And Missionary Labours In
West Africa, 2nd ed.
(London: Hodder and

Stoughton), 199-200.

9S. G. Pinnock, The Romance Of Missions In Nigeria (Richmond: Southern
Baptist Convention, 1918), 88.

10Ibid., 88.

11Ibid., 89.

12Ibid., 56-57.

13Josephine C. Bulifant, 40 Years In The African Bush (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Publishing House, ), 16.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

14Ibid., 16.

15Ibid., 22-23.

16Ibid., 24-26.

17Ibid., 26-27.

18Ibid., 28-29.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

19Ibid., 29.

20Ibid., 29.

21Ibid., 30.

22Ibid., 30-31.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

23Ibid., 32.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

24Ibid., 32.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

25Ibid., 33.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

26Ibid., 34-36.

27Ibid., 45-48.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

28Ibid., 47.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

29Ibid., 52-53.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

30Ibid., 53.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

31Ibid., 54.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

32Ibid., 55.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

33Ibid., 60-62.

34Ibid., 62.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

35Ibid., 168.Taken from 40 Years In The African Bush by Josephine Bulifant. Copyright © 1980 by Zondervan. Use by permission of Zondervan.

36Ibid., 167.


Bulifant, Josephine C. 40 Years In The African Bush. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Publishing House. (note to Shawn 401 words)

Gollmer. Charles Andrew Gollmer, His Life And Missionary Labours In
West Africa, 2nd ed.
London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Grimley, John B. And Gordon E. Robinson. Church Growth In Central And
Southern Nigeria.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966.

Peel, John. Religious Encounter And The Making Of The Yoruba. Indiana:
Indiana University Press, 2000.

Pinnock, S. G. The Romance Of Missions In Nigeria. Richmond: Southern
Baptist Convention, 1918.



Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, and King James Bible.

“Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®,
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973,
1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission.” (


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