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Easter holiday: Dark Ages, Christian philanthropy and education

Easter egg chocolate; Source: Hari Ghotra
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Occasions such as Easter holiday reminds us about how much religion shapes our lives and contributes to national development. In fact, the term holiday comes from the Old English word hāligdæg (hālig “holy” + dæg “day”). The word originally referred only to special religious days.

Easter marks the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion when he rose from the grave. Easter is the realisation of the prophecy that the Messiah will suffer persecution, die in our place, and rise on the third day (Isaiah 53).

Jesus’ resurrection renews our hope and serves as a reminder of our daily ability to overcome sin. Easter, as described in the New Testament, occurred three days after Jesus’ death on the cross.

However, our focus in this editorial lies elsewhere. We want to explore how as a consequence of belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, his followers known as Christians have gone on to practice his teachings and have had much impact on education.

From the so-called Dark Ages when the first universities were founded in Europe to thousands of years later, when Christian missionaries started formal education in Nigeria as a part of spreading the Gospel of Christ Jesus. The influence of  churches and Christian ministries in Nigeria’s education space has become even more pervasive, today.

The mediaeval era, often called the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages, began around 476 Anno Domini (A.D.) following a great loss of power throughout Europe by the Roman Emperor. The Middle Ages span roughly 1,000 years, ending between 1400 and 1450.

But in Spain, 1492 is seen as the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Modern Era. Several of the contemporary European nations were founded at this time of human expansion, centralisation, significant political turmoil, and violence.

It was also dominated by the growth of Christianity, which resulted in the construction of enormous cathedrals, the clearing of vast swaths of land by peasants, the establishment of new towns and villages, and the construction of enormous castles by the local nobility. Of great interest to us is the foundation of Europe’s first universities during this period, based on Christian philanthropy.

Philanthropy refers to charitable acts or other good works that help others or society as a whole. Philanthropy can include donating money to a worthy cause or volunteering time, effort, or other forms of altruism. However, philanthropy is more long-term and strategic and often involves making multiple gifts to help people over a number of years. While charity is focused on providing immediate relief to people and is often driven by emotions, philanthropy is focused on helping people and solving their problems over the long-term.

Christian philanthropy is based on the understanding in the Christian giver that their wealth is not their own but God’s. Ultimately, they are stewards, not possessors, of their wealth.

Europe’s first universities

Early university creation in Europe and elsewhere is a prime illustration of philanthropic action. Universities are charitable organisations and non-profit enterprises, and this is a historical truth. Early universities were organisations made up of teachers and students, chartered by the Pope, then by emperors and kings, and currently by parliaments or state governments.

These universities were established in many of the principal cities of Europe such as: Montpelier (1220) and Aix-en-Provence (1409) in France, at Padua (1222), Rome (1303) and Florence (1321) in Italy, at Salamanca (1218) in Spain, at Prague (1348) and Vienna (1365) in Central Europe, at Heidelberg (1386), Leipzig (1409), Freiburg (1457), and Tubingen (1477) in what is now Germany, at Louvain (1425) in present-day Belgium, and at Saint Andrews (1411) and Glasgow (1451) in Scotland.

The George Washington University is a classic example of what operated in the new colony of America. Although they were fully aware of Washington’s hopes, a group of committed pastors and laymen sponsored a movement for the founding of a college in the District of Columbia.

They were largely driven by a strong missionary urge and the need for a knowledgeable clergy. They acquired money for the acquisition of a location and petitioned Congress for a charter, both of which were greatly influenced by the fervour and vigour of Reverend Luther Rice. On February 9, 1821, President Monroe adopted a charter that Congress had issued after much delay and modification.

The University of Oxford was fully incorporated by statute after being first constituted as a lay company under common law. According to the university’s early history, it originated from a group of masters and students who lived in Oxford toward the end of the eleventh century. Up to the 16th century, the university convened in St. Mary’s churches. The academic society that they together founded was modelled after such organisations at other European centres of learning, particularly Bologna and Paris.

Beginning of formal education in Nigeria

A new group of elite were trained via missionary efforts in Nigeria, particularly through their educational initiatives, who later championed nationalism and provided a strong leadership for the nascent country upon independence.

Wesleyan Methodist missionaries arrived in 1842, establishing a mission and a school, and in 1878, established the first boys’ school at Lagos and a girls’ school by 1895. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) established schools at Abeokuta, Badagry, Lagos and Ibadan from 1846-1949.

The missionaries’ main goal was to educate the populace in order to convert them to Christianity. Samuel Ajayi Crowther’s primary means of evangelising were the schools. It was the job of all good missionaries to use education to convert children.

Church and ministry owned universities in Nigeria

Every society depends heavily on education, and the church in Nigeria is making a significant contribution to this area by not only creating institutions but also making sure that top-notch education is consistently provided.

The Nigerian Constitution of 1979 made it possible for private universities to enter the country’s educational system for the first time. Basil Nnnana Nkaegbu of Imo founded Tandem University in Owerri in 1980.

But, this daring initiative was opposed by the Imo State Government, which was in power at the time. It declared the institution to be unofficial, unlawful, and so unrecognised. Owner of the private university Ukaegbu went to court to request protection of his fundamental rights when he was threatened with closure.

He lost the lawsuit before the State High Court and the Federal Court of Appeal, but the Supreme Court ultimately decided in his favour (Akpochafo 1997). Several people, religious institutions, and groups founded their own private universities as soon as Ukaegbu won his legal battle to found, own, and run a private university, particularly in the southern region of Nigeria.

Decree No. 16 of 1985 gave the Federal Ministry of Education the authority to investigate, evaluate, and accredit academic programmes in the institutions in order to guarantee that all universities were being developed and managed appropriately. The Decree is referred to as the Basic Standards and Institution Establishment Decree (Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1985).

Of Nigeria’s 111 licensed private universities, churches and Christian ministries own 38 of them, this represents 34 per cent. This means churches and Christian ministries continue to contribute to education and national development in Nigeria.

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