A Tale of Three Dreams

Jimmie Lovell was a dreamer who had the privilege of seeing his dream coming true. Here is how it happened.

Jimmie’s Dream

From at least 1937, Jimmie envisioned the local and global impact of broadly-based Bible correspondence. During World War II, American church leaders were concerned for the welfare of their members abroad. Among these leaders was Gordon Turner, evangelist at the Lawrence Avenue church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. To meet the spiritual needs of Americans drafted into far-flung battlefronts, Turner developed a Bible correspondence course. In 1944, Gordon’s friend Jimmie Lovell provided $1,000 for printing and sending the lessons.

Essien’s First Dream

In 1948, a Nigerian also had a dream, literally, about coming before God’s throne on Judgement Day. Coolidge Akpan Okon (C. A. O.) Essien had used his power as a policeman to extort money from others. In his dream, he saw himself as doomed, condemned by the God of justice. Waking from his dream, he resigned from the police, giving up income and security. He searched intensely, visiting denominations and taking courses from many places. Comparing their teachings with the Bible, he grew despondent. The Christianity of the Bible seemed no longer to exist.

Essien began to study with Anna-Marie Braun’s business school in Munich, Germany. Returning correspondence answers, he scribbled a note in the margin, “Do you offer Bible lessons?” Anna-Marie had heard about Lawrence Avenue. According to one report, Americans visiting Munich had seen her business school’s sign in English. Looking for common ground, they had told her about their own correspondence course. Anna-Marie kept their card. Later, when Essien’s answer sheet with its marginal note arrived, she replied, “Our school does not offer biblical studies, but you can try this address in Nashville in the United States.”

Thus, Bible lessons intended for American soldiers found their way to Essien in Nigeria. In these courses from churches of Christ, Essien found teaching that matched what he read in the Bible. This confirmed for him that biblical Christianity was possible.

Essien’s Second Dream

So began Essien’s second dream: Beyond his personal redemption, he wanted the Bible’s truth to reach his people. Reports of many conversions, along with fervent appeals from Essien, led Nashville church leaders to ask Eldred Echols and Boyd Reese to investigate. In 1950, these two American missionaries flew to West Africa from their homes in Southern Africa. They confirmed that Essien and his trainees had brought some 10,000 others to Christ. They knew of at least 60 active congregations and several training schools. They reported their assessment:

It is just as if some unseen hand has opened wide a door into the hearts of the people. In Nigeria a remarkable chain of events has, without the conscious direction of any human agency, produced an opportunity for the spread of New Testament Christianity which has no parallel in the history of Africa. … The development of a strong, active and independent church in Nigeria is contingent upon this factor [training of Nigerian leaders]. The American churches cannot afford to ignore this challenge. Nigeria and West Africa lie within our grasp; we have only to reach out and take hold. Seldom has the chance been offered to accomplish so much for so little. May God grant that the people of Nigeria receive the help for which they have so eloquently pleaded.

Eldred’s initial report, typed by this editor’s mother Sibyl Reese, includes this famous statement by Essien: “We do not want a missionary to preach to the heathen. We [Nigerians] will do that. We want a missionary to teach us the Scriptures and strengthen us in the doctrines of the Bible.”

The Dream Has Come True

Soon, Howard Horton and Jimmy Johnson with their families arrived in Nigeria. Essien’s letter of November 24, 1952, declared, “The dream has now come true. The brethren we had long expected have now arrived!” The Americans settled in Essien’s village of Ikot Usen where they lived in mud huts. Horton’s enthusiastic report reflected amazing receptivity.

Brother Johnson and I found opportunities looming before us on every hand. We set about to visit the sixty churches established by the Nigerian preachers, preaching from three to six times a day, driving narrow roads and walking bush paths….  [We] concentrated mainly upon two [basics]: evangelism and native preacher training. In school buildings, in market places, in village squares, under giant trees, in road intersections we preached to large audiences and small ones, to pagan audiences and sectarian ones, to chiefs and their people. After thirty or forty minute sermons, question periods often lasted nearly two hours…. The native preachers were also busy preaching and interpreting for the white men. They established new churches and helped nurture the older ones. During the two years I was in Nigeria more than three hundred persons were baptized each month.

More American workers arrived in Nigeria to strengthen the movement with training schools and medical services. Within a decade, 475 congregations were established.

The Growing Dream

After serving in Nigeria (1955 – 1960), Wendell Broom became a professor at Abilene Christian University. He conducted reliable surveys every decade that documented the phenomenal progress of churches of Christ in Nigeria. When asked about growth factors, he listed three:  1. The evangelistic spirit of Nigerian Christians themselves. They recognized that their baptism was also their ordination.  2. Leadership training schools that nurtured and stabilized the movement.  3. Partnership with World Bible School. Ordinary American Christians taught (and continue to teach) hundreds of thousands of Nigerian seekers through WBS correspondence courses. In Broom’s final survey before his death, he added a question about the impact of WBS. Fully a third of the congregations indicated that they had started through WBS.

Nigeria paved the way for WBS’ broader success. Jimmie had followed Essien’s story with soaring elation. His investment in Turner’s Bible course led to a spiritual harvest! One Bible course could spark a major movement! Ordinary Christians were involved. Reda Goff, coordinator at Lawrence Avenue, reported, “Dozens of our members lend a hand in the necessary clerical work, groups working every day and sometimes at night.”

The example of Nashville’s connection to Nigeria and other countries inspired Jimmie to redouble his efforts, recruiting more teachers and partners. Eventually, in 1973, Jimmie gave his dream the name World Bible School. About that time, the astounding receptivity of Africans to correspondence was re-confirmed. Jimmie placed in Nigeria’s national newspaper a small advertisement offering free Bible courses. Some 100,000 Nigerians responded, requesting the courses! Jimmie and thousands of American Christians scrambled to meet the need. They turned the WBS dream into a powerful force for fulfilling the Great Commission.

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