Our Story

Over fifty years have passed since C. A. O. Essien sent his request, and so much more has been accomplished than he or anyone else in those days could have ever imagined! And yet, as glowing as the past has been, the future of Christian education in Africa looks even brighter!

Providence redirects focus

Lawrence Avenue ChurchIn 1944, when Lawrence Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee prayerfully embarked on a ministry through the mail, it was not their intention to target Africa. (Goff, 1964, pp. 2-5) Their correspondence program grew out of a desire to encourage faithfulness among men and women in the military who were serving in Europe. Anna-Maria Braun, German founder of the Internationales Korrespondenz-Buro in Munich, obtained a copy of Lawrence Avenue’s course and liked it. It’s author, Gordon Turner, who was both preacher and elder at Lawrence Avenue, capitalized on Braun’s interest. He sent stickers to Braun advertising the Bible course, which she placed on envelopes of all the various pen pals in her organization. One of these envelopes apparently went to Nigeria and changed the destiny of that nation.

C. A. O. Essien was intensely interested in studying the Bible. He learned of the Lawrence Avenue course through Braun, enrolled in it and completed it with top marks. He and a friend baptized one another. In a short period, they had already planted an unbelievable number of congregations! In 1950, Boyd Reese and Eldred Echols, missionaries to Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, respectively, made a special trip to Nigeria to investigate Essien’s report. They arrived with skepticism but left convinced.(Goff, 1964, pp. 6-9)

In the extensive Reese-Echols Report, they write, “Several thousand native Africans have, without the presence of a white man, fought their way out of denominationalism and have found the church of God. This is without precedent in Africa… In Nigeria, the initiative was taken by the people themselves when they requested the Bible Correspondence Course from Lawrence Avenue. Their fervor is evidenced by the fact that in three and a half short years they have established more congregations than we have in the whole of Southern Africa after thirty years of labor by white evangelists.” (Goff, 1964, p. 10)

Essien challenges Lawrence Avenue

EssienEssien was aware that his fellow church leaders were not adequately prepared to meet the needs of these young churches. He didn’t ask for Americans to come and take over leadership. His request had a prophetic tone: “We can teach our people, but we need teaching ourselves. Send men to TEACH US, and we shall take Nigeria for the Truth!” (Goff, 1964, p. 8)

What follows in the history of churches of Christ in Nigeria is the fulfillment of Essien’s dream. Year after year, Nigerian men and women are trained for lives of Christian service in the classroom, during activities with local churches and on evangelistic campaigns. According to statistics compiled at the Africans Claiming Africa for Christ Conference 2000, Nigeria has 2,850 churches of Christ with 265,000 members. (Berryman, 2000) This is one-third of the church membership of the entire African continent. God has richly blessed the restoration movement in Nigeria using Christian education as a tool.

Americans respond to Nigeria’s requests for schools

The first missionaries from American churches of Christ agreed with Essien regarding the need to train evangelists. The first four American resident missionary families arrived and lived in Nigeria from December 1952 to December 1953. They were the Jimmy Johnsons, the Howard Hortons, the Eugene Pedens and the Elvis Huffards. Horton made a quick trip back to his overseers after six months on the field. From the four issues he urgently brought to their attention, one was a training school, one had to do with opportunities to manage village primary schools and another was the need for more missionaries, especially someone qualified to manage schools. He returned to the field encouraged and ready to go forward. (Goff, 1964, pp. 22-26)

The Bible Training School

The missionaries’ first attempt to train preachers was a three-month course of study. It was soon considered inadequate. In February 1954, the Ukpom Bible College was founded. When Ukpom village chiefs saw how aggressively the school was being developed, they increased the size of the land made available to the mission from fifteen to twenty acres. All four American missionaries taught at the school, two at a time on alternating days. This left half of the men free at any time to go on appointments and to see to the necessities of life.
Approximately thirty men were admitted annually to the two-year program. Classes were taught in English, the official (adopted) language of Nigeria. Before long, some Ukpom graduates started three-month Bible training programs in the Efik (regional) language. At one time, as many as fifty-seven such programs had 493 students. These smaller centers made up a “feeder system” for the more extensive program at Ukpom. (Broom, 1970, p. 216) As one would imagine, at this time of amazing opportunity, more emphasis was placed on evangelism and church planting than on nurturing young congregations to maturity.(Broom, 1970, p. 213)

Howard Horton was the school’s first director (1954). From him, the mantle was passed to Lucien Palmer (1954-56), Sewell Hall (1956-58), Eugene Peden (1958-59), Glenn Martin (1959-61), Dan Gibson (1961-63), Phil Dunn (1964-65), John Beckloff (1965-66) and Robert Dixon (1967). (Broom, 1970, p. 130, Appendix A) No one blindly endorses everything that took place during these formative years of Bible training. But it should be noted here that in reports, to a man, every Nigerian and American who had first-hand experience stresses that the Ukpom Bible College was urgently needed and was responsible for much of the soundness and phenomenal growth in churches of Christ prior to Nigeria’s civil war.

Village Schools

In addition to C. A. O. Essien’s appeal for adult education, Eldred Echols gives a practical reason for missionary involvement in the education of children. After a full explanation of the usual way mission agencies cooperate with village schools, he says, “This is such an established pattern that the people generally have no confidence in a religious body which will not assist them in getting schools. Theoretically, the church has full choice in whether or not its missionaries concern themselves with education. In actual fact, it is impossible to make any great headway without having schools.” (Echols 1951 (d):3)

In a report, Howard Horton describes Elvis Huffard, who was selected to establish and to manage village schools, “Brother Huffard’s ability, training and experience have combined to enable him to accomplish amazing results for the time he has been here… We all feel that the schools offer one of the richest opportunities of the work. Several hundred school children, even thousands later, can be handed to Brother Huffard for complete religious guidance, and that in schools supported by public funds.”(Goff, 1964, pp.24-25)

Management passed in succession from Huffard (1954) to Lucien Palmer (1955-56), Leonard Johnson (1956-57), Eugene Peden (1957-58), Joe Cross (1959), John Featherstone (1960-61) and John Beckloff (1961-1967). By the end of the Huffard and Palmer years, eleven schools with an enrollment of approximately 2,500 were being taught Bible daily, primarily by graduates of the Ukpom Bible College. John Beckloff was forced to leave when civil war broke out. He was able to look back over six years during which he managed ten Christian schools with a consistent enrollment of 3,000. During his years he also arranged for Ukpom graduates to teach Bible to 3,000 more students who were in public schools that were not managed by him.

Another observation from Horton gives the reason for expanding from primary schools to a secondary school. “It has been saddening to see our students finish standard six (8th grade), and then enter high school under sectarian domination. I am convinced that we are already so late in this field that we may need to leap ahead very quickly into the next level of education.” (Goff, 1964, p. 57) In 1962, the village of Ukpom gave the mission another eighty-five acres to build Nigerian Christian Secondary School (NCSS). The school was opened in 1964. From its meager opening enrollment of sixty, the school grew to over 500 by 1968, when its first class graduated.
African Christian Schools Foundation is born

When Lucien Palmer returned from his second tour of duty in 1958, it was decided that the needs of the village schools could best be met by an American school board. Former missionaries Horton, Huffard and Palmer and two successful Christian businessmen, Roger Church and Miles Ezell, Sr., were the charter members of Nigeria Christian Schools Foundation. (Goff, 1964, p. 56) The foundation was incorporated in the state of Tennessee in 1959. Its name was changed to African Christian Schools Foundation (ACSF) in 1967, and its charter was broadened to include activities such as medical and benevolent aid.

The number of men on the board soon increased to nineteen. In its first five years, ACSF primarily served as proprietor of the eleven primary schools. The Nigerian government paid the bulk of the operating costs. The foundation’s first financial challenge was raising funds to construct the first seven buildings of NCSS in 1963. (Goff, 1964, p. 57-58)

War disrupts schools, validates strength of the church

African Christian SchoolsIn 1967 the southeastern portion of Nigeria, where the churches of Christ were strongest, seceded from Nigeria. Biafra, the newly formed state, suffered terrible losses of life and property. During the conflict, the church of Christ lost one hundred thirty church buildings and about four thousand members, including twelve former students of Ukpom Bible College. (Church, 2000) Resources in the schools were plundered. Houses on the Ukpom campus were seriously abused while being used as living quarters by troops.

During these difficult times, David Anako and others did their best to hold onto mission assets and keep programs going as long as possible. Critics thought the church would stop growing during this time because American funds were totally cut off. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Remarkably strong church leaders, in place after twenty years of solid groundwork, kept the movement going and growing.

Postwar era forces change

Soon after the war ended, the Nigerian government confiscated the primary and secondary schools of all mission agencies. Since ACSF no longer had control of village schools or Nigerian Christian Secondary School, it redirected its efforts toward building the Christian Trade Technical School in Oyubia (1972). Three years later, when the Nigerian government took that school as well, printing presses were moved from Oyubia to Ukpom, and later, to Nung Udo Itak to start the Christian Printing and Distribution Center.

The Ukpom Bible College was not taken over by the government, but it could not return to business as usual. Immediately after the war, when U. S. citizens could not obtain visas to enter Nigeria, a Canadian, Ralph Perry, was asked to serve at Ukpom. Based on the fact that Canada and Nigeria were British Commonwealth countries, they had more open immigration policies. When Perry arrived, David Anako was principal, and Andrew Isiip and S. P. Ekanem were teachers. Anako (1970-72) was followed by Perry (1972-73), Isiip (1973), Okon Mkpong (1973-74) and Monday Akpakpan (1974-1979). These men worked hard to restore the Bible college to its former status. Ekanem and Isiip earned college degrees in the United States during the Mkpong and Akpakpan years and later came back to serve again in the administration of the school.

Sponsorship of the Ukpom Bible College moved with Lawrence Avenue members as they started the Concord Road Church of Christ. Later, Waverly-Belmont Church of Christ became the sponsor. In 1977 full responsibility for the operation of the Bible college was transferred to the African Christian Schools Foundation. After losing the school in Oyubia, never again did ACSF become involved in village schools. For the next ten years, all its attention was focused on the Ukpom Bible College and the Christian Printing and Distribution Center.

When Isiip returned with his graduate degree in 1979, he met with church leaders to determine the future direction of the Bible college. At their suggestion, more secular and commercial classes were added to the curriculum. Younger applicants were admitted. The school became similar in many ways to Nigerian Christian Secondary School across the road, which was the school the government took from ACSF. Unlike NCSS, the Bible college was controlled and staffed by members of the church of Christ, generally had higher standards and offered extra Bible courses. For several years, the brotherhood in Nigeria used the Bible college to circumvent the government’s actions to prevent them from having a Christian junior and senior high school for their children.

Focus turns to higher education and expansion

In the eighties, the Nigerian government began to realize how much the mission organizations provided for village school development. The government offered to return schools to their former owners, but by then, the campuses were in a bad state of repair. Having been burned by government actions in the past, few agencies responded to the offer. But one good result of the government’s more conciliatory attitude was their permission for mission agencies to have a greater influence over their former schools. Even if an agency refused to take back its schools, it was allowed to choose principals, Bible teachers and chaplains.

In 1983, John Beckloff and Andrew Isiip revived the preacher training track of the Ukpom Bible College. It started with only twelve students. Nigerian Christian Bible College (NCBC) became the new name of the post-secondary program. Because the level of education in the pew had reached a higher level, especially in cities, it was thought that a two-year, college-level program was needed for the pulpit to keep pace. The Nigerian government insisted that all post-secondary institutions be affiliated with recognized universities. In 1988, NCBC became an affiliate of the University of Calabar, a federal university. Graduates of the affiliated program receive the Diploma in Religious Education, which enables them to teach Bible and one other subject in Nigerian secondary schools.

The University of Calabar had initial input into course offerings and annually reviews final exams, but never imposes its views on course content or doctrine. This arrangement suits ACSF and adds prestige to the three-year diploma program. Semester hours taken at NCBC are transferable to other universities within and outside Nigeria.

Because leaders at NCBC were able to regain more influence over programs for youths at NCSS and because more room was needed for the two adult programs (ministerial and university affiliated), the Bible college secondary programs were phased out in 1995. Annual adult enrollment at NCBC ranged between 160 and 200 in the 1990’s, making it one of the greatest assemblies of Bible majors among churches of Christ anywhere in the world. NCBC is on the verge of gaining approval through its affiliate to confer its own bachelors degree in religious studies.

A greater partnership is emphasized

African Christian Schools FoundersAfrican Christian Schools Foundation has shown remarkable continuity over the years. Three of the first five board members; Elvis Huffard, Lucien Palmer and Roger Church (Chairman); are still on the board today. John Beckloff is very active administratively. ACSF’s twenty-two members average eighteen years of board participation. Five are elders and five others are former elders, all of different churches. In its forty-two-year history, ACSF has had only three presidents: Lucien Palmer, Willie Cato and Henry Huffard. (Church, 2000) Those who have been on the board the longest marvel at the unity, cooperation and singleness of purpose which have characterized the organization from the day it was established.

While continuity and harmony produce stability, they can also bring about stagnation. Since ACSF’s work started when Nigeria was a colony of Britain, it would have been easy for early pioneers to continue in a colonial mindset. Fortunately, this has not been the case. As Nigerians excelled in scholastic accomplishment and in leadership, the unequal partnership became more equal.

Just as some of the pioneering missionaries are still active in ACSF’s work, their early Nigerian co-workers are also still active on the field. Through the eighties, Nigerians were made the heads of all programs. Until 1997, an administrative committee of Nigerians and Americans ran NCBC. Then Dr. S. P. Ekanem was given the title Provost and made head of the school. Andrew Isiip moved west to pioneer again in 1999 as academic director of West Nigeria Christian College. Other key Nigerian personnel of the past, such as Dr. Timothy Akpakpan and Nelson Isonguyo continue to head programs of the Bible college in Ukpom.

Nigeria has such a wealth of leaders that many organized successful Bible training efforts of their own without the help of ACSF. Graduates of the Bible college in Ukpom who became such leaders include Okon Mkpong (NCI, Nigeria), Samuel Obeng (GBC, Ghana), Stephen Okoronkwo (NCS, Nigeria), D. N. Elangwe (Cameroon), Fred Ayasa (RSOP, Nigeria), David J. David (CRS, Nigeria), Benjamin Ogbeifun (Nigeria), Koffi and Adjayi (Togo) and Prince Sylvanus, Chukwu Emmanuel, Chris Nnoduechi and Barnabas Okoro (ESSP, Nigeria). The educational efforts of these men have had a great impact for the Lord in the regions they serve(d).

There is no greater example of the shift from American control to partnership than ACSF’s most recent school project. A group of planners from western Nigeria chose four governing board members and ACSF chose three for West Nigeria Christian College. The hopes and aspirations of the region are put forward by the local members and the educational expertise is supplied by the ACSF members. All are committed to promoting the cause of Christ. The 2000-01 enrollment in this new school is thirty-one.

The mission statement of African Christian Schools Foundation is “to provide, through African partnership, centers of educational excellence to equip nationals for Christian service, leadership and evangelism in Africa.”

With God’s help, let us build on a great past

Over 1,300 ministers have graduated from programs at Ukpom. It is hoped that the new school in western Nigeria will yield comparable numbers with as great a positive impact on the growth of the church. Thousands attend Ukpom’s annual lectureship, and hundreds attend their preachers’ seminars each year. Hundreds obey the gospel each semester as student preachers put their course-work into practice. When students graduate, their zeal for evangelism continues!

As more churches are being planted throughout Africa at a rate as high as three per day, one wonders who will nurture them to maturity? At one time, it was thought by some that Nigeria would be the springboard for the conversion of the rest of Africa. (Goff, 1964, p. 52) Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa and has spread the gospel to many West and Central African counties. But successful schools in other countries are benefiting the cause of Christ, too, and have been for many years. In addition to all of these, more partnerships for Christian education are requested to supply the great need for evangelists and church leaders. In a relatively new work, ACSF is helping John D’Alton conduct daily classes with several students in Namibia. In keeping with its mission statement, ACSF is seeking expansion into other African countries where church members have few Bible training opportunities. As the epicenter of Christianity moves from Europe and America to Africa, there is ample evidence that well-trained ministers of Christ are every bit as needed there as they are in the United States.

Broom, Wendell Wright (April, 1970). “Growth of Churches of Christ among Ibibios of Nigeria,” (Unpublished master’s thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary)
Church, Roger T. (September, 2000). “A History of African Christian Schools Foundation,” (Unpublished research from ACSF board minutes)
Goff, Reda C. (October, 1964). The Great Nigeria Mission, Nashville, TN: Lawrence Avenue Church of Christ and Nigeria Christian Schools Foundation.

In 1953, Henry Huffard was taken to Nigeria by his missionary parents, Elvis and Emily Huffard. Having practically grown up there, Huffard served in Nigeria as a teacher and administrator at Nigerian Christian Bible College (1983 to 1991) under the oversight of Palisades Church of Christ in Birmingham, Alabama. He was then appointed President of African Christian Schools Foundation (1991 to 2007). Huffard also serves as an elder at the Hillsboro Church of Christ in Nashville.