Marius Anyetei Okoh
1927 to 1980
Christ Holy Church International
Marius Anyetei Okoh was born on April 15, 1927 at Ndoni in the Rivers State of Nigeria, the only surviving child of James and Agnes Okoh. He was baptized in the Catholic Church and grew up to become a mass server in the Catholic Church at Asaba, also in eastern Nigeria. After completing his elementary education he was employed with the Public Works Department (P.W.D.) in 1947. His employers sponsored his education at Yaba Higher College in Yaba, Lagos where he studied civil engineering. On completion of the course, he was awarded a diploma in Civil Engineering and thus became one of the top personnel of the P.W.D. in Nigeria.
He married Pauline who gave birth to seven boys. Unfortunately, only one of them survived.
His Early Religious Life
Marius Okoh, who measured over six feet tall, saw how his mother, Agnes Okoh, suffered from migraines for many years and how she was miraculous healed by a prophetess. When he was twenty years old his mother began to heal and preach the Word of God from one place to another. He was initially skeptical about his mother's claim that God had called her to heal and preach the gospel so he tried to dissuade her from her itinerant evangelism by giving her a sum of money to resume her trading activities. However he abandoned his skepticism when his mother refused the offer. His mother prophesied to him that he would later be called to do God's work but he did not take the prophecy seriously as he was planning to further his education abroad.
In spite of his disbelief he took a correspondence course with the Voice of Prophecy Bible course and was awarded a diploma in 1953. Three years later, in 1956, his mother hired an empty truck and asked some elders of her prayer ministry to go and convince him to join her work as a full-time minister. Though unaware of the mission of the emissaries, he surprisingly agreed to his mother's request and dispatched his wife with the messengers to Onitsha, in eastern Nigeria. He resigned from the P.W.D. on June 20, 1956 to begin full-time ministry with his mother. He was appointed secretary to the Board of Elders of the church established by his mother. He contacted Rev. Dale Collins and Rev. Cook, American evangelists who were ministering among the Igbos in eastern Nigeria. They gave him some lessons in evangelism and then ordained him. In 1958 he was appointed general superintendent of the church, the highest office of the church apart from that of the founder.
A Church Administrator
The first thing Marius Okoh did as head of the church was to set up an office. He bought typewriters, cabinets, tables and chairs, and files, then trained some of the church workers to serve as office clerks. Prior to his arrival, only two groups--the Board of Elders and the choirs--had functioned well but now he formed many auxiliary groups and constituted committees to run some of the church affairs. He wrote a common Order of Service for each day. He also wrote an Order of Service for other events such as weddings, baptisms, the Lord's Supper, ordinations, deaths, burials, and the laying of foundation stones both in Igbo and English. During his administration a church constitution was drafted, approved, and adopted for use. The organizational structure, roles and functions of officers and committees, criteria and procedures for selecting officers, disciplinary measures, misdemeanors that called for church discipline, and accounting principles and practices were all stated in the constitution. All properties of the church were duly registered and preserved.
He wrote a pastors' handbook in which expectations concerning the conduct and lifestyle of pastors were clearly stated. All itinerant evangelists and church workers were licensed. Marius Okoh instilled in the pastors the importance of record keeping. As a result, he designed a simple way of writing a daily income and expenditure account for use in all the congregations. It was compulsory for pastors to keep exact records of church attendance, stating the number of children, youth, adult men and adult women. Keeping records of all miracles was also mandatory.
The church of which Marius Okoh was made the head was called Christ Apostolic Church (Odozi Obodo). The name was adopted by Agnes Okoh after she had loosely affiliated her prayer ministry to the Christ Apostolic Church in Nigeria. Marius Okoh annulled the affiliation and changed the name to Christ Holy Church of Nigeria. He later registered the new name in January 1975.
The evangelistic lessons Marius Okoh received from the American evangelists became a landmark activity in the church. In November 1957 he teamed up with the two American evangelists and Nigerian evangelists Apostle J. A. Babalola, Prophet D. O. Babajide, and Pastor J. A. Madaiyese to hold an outdoor evangelistic crusade in an open field at Onitsha. Many people reportedly were healed while many others received salvation. Following the success of this crusade, Marius Okoh selected seven members of the church and trained them in the dynamics of outdoor and indoor evangelism.
To further promote evangelism in the church he single-handedly purchased a Volkswagen bus from the expatriate evangelists at the cost of seventy-five pounds (£75.00). The bus was called the "Gospel Van" and was solely used for the propagation of the gospel. Evangelistic campaigns were subsequently held at Nnewi, Arondizougu, Agulu, Ogidi, Ajalli, Otoucha, Awka, Aba, Amaigbo, and Nkwere--all in eastern Nigeria. Some of the people who were healed and saved gladly donated land so that new congregations of the church could be planted. More evangelists were commissioned to work at the new places.
Whereas the church had only ten congregations (branches) when Marius Okoh was appointed general superintendent the church had more than 300 congregations at the time of his death. Moreover, the church spread beyond the borders of Igboland and eastern Nigeria. From being predominantly composed of Igbos the church then became multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. It attracted Yorubas, Hausas, Efiks, Tivs, Urhobos, Ishans, Kalabaris, Itsikeres, Ojos, Ibibios, Igaras, and some Ghanaian immigrants in Nigeria. His love for evangelism earned him the title "Foremost African Evangelist."
A Theological Educator
Prior to Marius Okoh's appointment, the type of pastoral training in the church was the Elijah/Elisha type or one-on-one mentorship. Pastors selected members with leadership qualities and discipled them. The success of the evangelistic campaigns and the opening of new stations called for trained catechists who knew how to nurture new Christians from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity. Catechists who went through the Elijah/Elisha form of training were limited in many ways because they practiced only what their mentors taught them. The scope of each individual's pastoral training was thus very narrow and there was no overall uniformity in the training program. As a result, each catechist had a different understanding of ministry. Marius Okoh changed this by introducing a more formal type of training when he established a catechist training school at Onitsha in 1963.
Marius Okoh single-handedly developed a curriculum that included subjects like Introduction to the Bible, basic Christian doctrines, the history, nature, purpose, philosophy of ministry and rituals of Christ Holy Church, preaching, evangelism, and the administration of sacraments. Studying at the school was compulsory not only for catechists but for all who had been leaders before his appointment as general superintendent. Tuition was free. In addition to Marius Okoh's numerous duties, he was the sole instructor at the school.
Life at the school was not easy. Endurance was the watchword and students were trained to withstand hardships. For example they were not allowed to sleep on mattresses and pillows but slept instead on hard floors and benches so as to become acquainted with the hardships they might encounter while in ministry. They were also trained to depend on God for their daily sustenance. They were expected to respect authority whatever the circumstances. Humility was the hallmark of the students.
Theological education was not only limited to leaders and catechists of the church. All the other members of the church went through some form of theological education. Marius Okoh appointed a publications board and charged it to publish The Good Tidings, a quarterly magazine of the church. Each publication of the magazine contained teaching, news about healing, miracles, and events, inspired sermons, testimonies, a short history of the church, biographies, commentaries on Biblical texts, and beliefs and practices of the church. Marius Okoh also sponsored the education of brilliant church members who came from poor families.
Marius Okoh had the gift of healing and there are many claims about people he healed. The most memorable miraculous feat was the raising back to life of Elder Benedict Aroghalu Mbamalu, one of the pioneer members of the church. In 1961, family members informed Marius Okoh that Mbamalu had suddenly died while he (Marius) was leading a fundraising event at Onitsha. Typical of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Marius Okoh did not tell anyone about the news. He also did not hurry to the house of the deceased. After the fundraising event he broke the news to his team of pastors and led them to the deceased's house at Isiokwe, a suburb of Onitsha. At the house he sent away all the mourners. Then he and his team of pastors prayed until a whitish mucus came from the corpse's nostrils. Mbamalu opened his eyes and got off his death bed. He reportedly lived up to the age of 110 before he died again.
A Refugee Church Leader
The Nigerian civil war (1967-1970) prompted the church leaders to transfer church headquarters from Onitsha to Arondizougu, a town considered relatively peaceful. During the war Marius Okoh mobilized the other pastors and sent them to minister to the refugees. It is said that he walked through forests praying for, healing, and counseling refugees. Refugee camps became his new evangelistic platforms where he led many people to Jesus Christ. His exceptional leadership qualities became known after the civil war. The church was confronted with many challenges such as restoring those who had lost homes and properties, showing practical love to those who had lost their limbs, and finding homes for the displaced. These challenges along with the reorganization of the administrative structures of the church, were daunting tasks. Okoh, however, rose above these difficulties by asking the less affected to help those who had suffered more severely. His clarion cry at that time was that of empathy. "Be your brother's keeper" was the beloved theme of his sermons. Reportedly the response of the members was fantastic. Though the church did not have the privilege of being assisted by overseas churches--a privilege enjoyed by western based churches--members used their meager resources to rehabilitate the most affected refugees. This outpouring of love attracted many people to the church. The civil war, consequently, turned out to be a church growth venture for the church.
In August 1979, Marius Okoh suffered a spinal chord injury on the way from his home in Asaba to his office in Onitsha when his car crashed into the bridge spanning the River Niger. Even though the injury affected the way he walked for the rest of his life he did not relent in his efforts to build a vibrant church. During the church's general meeting in December 1979 he reportedly told his pastors that he had completed his work and needed rest--as if he knew he was to die soon. Even though some of the pastors asked him to withdraw that statement, he refused, telling them that it was a fact of life that there is rest after every hard work. He surprised all the pastors by promoting them en masse in appreciation for the support they had given him. He died in his sleep on March 2, 1980, at the age of 53.
Marius Okoh is fondly remembered for his hard work in leadership training. Rev. David Nwaizuzu, one of the leaders he trained, remarked: "He worked from morning to night in order to ensure that what he wanted was done. There were times that he would not go to bed till what he wanted done was done just as he wanted it to be done."
He also stressed the importance of punctuality. Although disregard for punctuality is common among Africans, Marius Okoh was an exception. According to Rev. Nwaizuzu, "He was very strict and did not play with punctuality. He was always around 15 minutes earlier than the appointed time. He instilled that in his trainees." Okoh also had a great sense of urgency and procrastination was unknown to him. Rev. 22:12 is said to be one of his beloved Biblical texts: Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to render to every man according to what he has done.
Rev. Enoch Okonkwo, one of the retired leaders of the church testifies, "He did a lot of great work. He trained us. We started as full-time workers before him, but he trained us. God gave him a lot of spiritual gifts which enabled him to distinctively evangelise, counsel, pastor, teach, and perform miracles in the name of our Lord Jesus."
Members of the church, out of admiration for his sterling leadership qualities, called him Igwe, a title reserved for traditional leaders of Igbo communities or towns. He was a careful and impartial listener, a man who had time for every person irrespective of their social status.
The epitaph at his burial ground at Ndoni reads: "Here lies the body of the Rt. Rev. Marius
Okoh, a foremost African evangelist, the first General Superintendent and a co-founder of Christ
Holy Church who slept in the Lord on Sunday, March the 2nd, 1980. Rest in perfect peace."
1. For more information and sources on Marius Okoh see: Thomas Oduro, Christ Holy Church International: The Story of an African Independent Church (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2007).
This story, received in 2007, was abstracted from Thomas Oduro, Christ Holy Church International: The Story of an African Independent Church (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2007). Rev. Thomas Oduro, Ph.D., is the principal of Good News Theological College and Seminary, Accra, Ghana and DACB liaison coordinator.