REV. THEOPHILUS HERMAN OPOKU (1842-1913)

The centenary Symposium on Rev. Theo Opoku was held October 28 -29 2013, at the University of Ghana, Legon. The event was a collaborative effort of the Department of Archaelogy and Heritage Studies, the Insttitute of African Studies, and the Department of History.

The Rev. Theophilus Opoku was the first African to be ordained by the Basel Mission on Gold Coast soil on September 1, 1872. He was an indigenous pastor as well as an Agent of the Basel Mission and, despite his seemingly interminable battles with health challenges throughout his life, which spanned three score and eleven years, he succeeded in preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to his people. He also contributed immensely towards the development of literature in the Twi (Akan) language, by helping the missionary, J. G. Christaller, with the Rev. David Asante, in the translation of the Twi Bible that became an unsurpassed literary masterpiece, as well as writing numerous, insightful articles in “Twi kurunyenn” (pure, unadulterated Twi), in the Kristofo Senkekafo, Christian Messenger.
Kofi Opoku was born in 1842 at Akropong and was the youngest child of his parents, Nana Dako Yaw (son of Okuapemhene Nana Addo Dankwa I), and Nana Akua Korantema, both of Akropong, Akuapem. As a child, young Kofi Opoku was distressingly sickly and caused his parents unceasing anxiety and, as if this were not enough, Kofi one day broke his leg and suffered multiple fractures while playing outside the house and had to be taken to a bone-setter at Larteh for treatment. Thereafter he was sent to live with the missionary, A. J. Mader, and started school at the age of ten, in 1852.  Right at the beginning of school, Opoku began to give evidence of a brilliant mind and excelled in all his classes.
Kofi Opoku was baptised on January 6, 1856, when he took the Christian names Theophilus Herman. In 1858, he was admitted to the Seminary for Evangelists and after four years of training, he was made a tutor for a year. A New Theological Seminary had been established at that time, and Theophilus Opoku and a few of his colleagues were selected to go for higher training to study Hebrew, Greek, Dogmatics, Homiletics, Theology and other subjects in order to prepare them for the Christian ministry. But his Seminary studies were prematurely interrupted by the onset of a heart disease that led to his having to leave the Seminary for eighteen months, to receive treatment at Adenya, a village not too far from Akropong. And, it is reported that as part of his treatment, he was forbidden to drink water for five months. He returned to his studies at the Seminary after his recovery only to experience a recurrence of the same disease and, again, he went back to Adenya for further treatment. He again returned to the Seminary to continue his studies, but frequent bouts of sickness gradually compelled him to regretfully abandon his Seminary studies and was posted to Mamfe Akuapem, to take care of the Mission Station. In 1868, Theophilus Opoku married Sophia Nyam of Akropong Akuapem, a lady trained in domestic science and who became a devoted helpmate to her husband. Their marriage was blessed with four children: Samuel Ata Obuobisa, Victor Immanuel Bampo, John A. Dako (Mensa), and Ernestina D. Korantema. Sophia Nyam composed the Twi hymn, “Ehe po na m’agyenkwa wo? Where, oh where, is my Saviour?”
On September 1, 1872, Theophilus Opoku was ordained as a minister of the Basel Mission by the Rev. J. G. Widman and was posted to Larteh.  But the people at Larteh indignantly resented the idea of an Akropong-born as pastor of their congregation and therefore lost no time in making their utter indignation known by putting many obstacles in the new pastor’s way. And, on one occasion, the people made a litter of palm branches and tightly bound their pastor in it and carried him back to Akropong, and placed him on the verandah of Rev. Widman. But instead of staying at Akropong, Theophilus Opoku walked back to Larteh the next day to continue his work at the mission station and put in ten good years of fruitful ministry.
Among the many noteworthy incidents during his ministry at Larteh that led to many conversions, was the silk cotton tree, onyaa, that fell on the house of a priest, okomfo, during a storm. As was his wont, Theophilus Opoku often visited the wards of the town to converse with all and sundry, and one day he visited a priest and found that there was a big silk cotton tree standing dangerously close to the house. He warned the priest that a branch could fall over the house in the event of a storm. But the priest shrugged off the pastor’s warning, saying that there had been many storms since the days of his ancestors, but the tree had stood unharmed. Not long after this, there was a heavy rainfall accompanied by heavy storms and a branch of the silk cotton tree fell on the house, killing the priest. Thereupon, the townspeople began to regard Theophilus Opoku as a “man of God”, who could foretell impending events, and began to give a sympathetic ear to his preaching.
It was while he was at Larteh that Theophilus Opoku’s beloved wife, Sophia Nyam, died and the experience left him devastated and heart-broken. The Basel Mission mercifully granted him leave of absence from his pastoral duties so that he could recover from his inconsolable grief. But, instead of resting, Theophilus Opoku set out on his famous missionary journey to Salaga, then a well-known commercial centre and slave market in the north of the country. He had planned to join his cousin, the Rev. David Asante, who was then at Abetifi, so that the two of them could travel together to Salaga, but by the time he arrived at Abetifi, the Rev. David Asante had already left. He therefore bore his deep disappointment with unruffled equanimity and set out on the arduous and perilous journey on his own and, again, burning disappointment stared him in the face when he finally arrived at Salaga only to discover that  the Rev. David Asante, had already departed for Abetifi.
It was indeed a miracle and a clear evidence of divine protection, that a man plagued by such physical frailties could endure the unsparing rigours of the journey to Salaga, where he stayed for about three weeks, exploring the area, preaching and having disputations with the Muslims. On this journey, too, the Rev. Theophilus Opoku meticulously recorded his observations about the people and places he passed through and his reports constitute a veritable gold mine of valuable information on the culture and history of nineteenth century Ghana.
The Presbyterian hymn, “Ohoho ne mamfrani na meye wo fam ha, I am a stranger and sojourner in this world…, composed by the Rev. Theophilus Opoku, is associated with his famous journey to Salaga. One tradition (and there are many others), states that he became ill while at Salaga and his weak state of health, which caused him considerable anxiety, compounded by his inconsolable grief over the loss of his dear wife, as well as his ceaseless longing to be with his orphaned children and family left at home in far away Akuapem, led him to go and sit under the big baobab tree at the Salaga slave market, and it was while he sat under the majestic tree, that the impassioned poetry of the hymn came to him. And, more than a century after its composition, this hymn continues to bring immeasurable solace to many a grief-stricken soul.
Theophilus Opoku returned to Larteh after his historic journey to Salaga and later that same year, 1877, he was transferred to Kukurantumi, in the Akyem Abuakwa district. In 1879, he married Anna Maria Engmann, a school teacher and organist at Abokobi, who hailed from Osu. Anna Maria suffered from lingeringly chronic asthma, but she and her husband’s marriage was blessed with three children: Christian Emmanuel Akufo, (who became the Rev. C. E. Opoku), Theodor Pratonus Aniapam and Mina Asabea. They also had an adopted son, Jacob Owusu, who was also known as Yaw Mose.
In 1884, he was transferred to Adukrom, where his unrivalled mastery of the Guan language, became a valuable asset in his ministry, as it had been at Larteh. In 1891, he was again posted to Mamfe, where he had begun his ministry after he was forced to abandon his Seminary studies, and remained there till 1899, when he was transferred to his home town, Akropong. He had a rough time as he was unsparing in his strictures against what he considered to be bad behaviour among the local Christian community. His bluntly outspoken criticisms led to his being hauled before the local authorities on several occasions, but he remained unwaveringly steadfast.
The Local  Committee of the Basel Mission held a meeting at Aburi in 1909 and did Theophilus Opoku the unprecedented honour of making him the first African to be appointed a member of the Local Committee, but he humbly and respectfully declined the offer, citing his old-age, ill-health and impending retirement, which occurred in 1911.
Thereafter, he spent his retirement years at his house at Akropong, but he often visited his village on his cocoa farm at Suhyen, near Koforidua. And, in June 1913, Theophilus Opoku made what would be his last visit to his village on his cocoa farm at Suhyen, and there he fell ill and while he was being conveyed to his home at Akropong, he quietly breathed his last on July 6, and was buried the next day, July 7, 1913 at the Basel Mission cemetery.
Thus ended the life of the Rev. Theophilus Herman Opoku, a man who moved through the experiences of his life with extraordinary grace, knowing that he was always guided and supported by a loving Presence. Rev. Keteku, in his short biography, said of Rev. Theophilus Opoku: “By his diligence and patience in times of trouble, faithfulness in his work, his trust in God and his Christian home-life, he had set us an example to be followed”

Reference: H. J. Keteku. The Reverends Theophilus Opoku and David Asante. Accra: Waterville Publishing House, 1965.

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Posted by on Dec 18 2013. Filed under Community News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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