Religion and colonisation: Part 13 …the rise of African initiated churches

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TODAY, there are thousands of African initiated churches (AICs) found all across Africa.

It is estimated that at least 36 percent of Africa’s population belong to an indigenous African initiated church.   

These are particularly well-documented in Southern Africa, where there are more than 10 000 in South Africa alone and West Africa. 

Some AICs with strong leadership have been described as messianic or prophetic. 

These prophetic churches focus on the power and ‘inviolability’ of their leaders; often these leaders are thought, by their followers, to possess divine-like characteristics.  

In contrast, neo-traditional movements retain elements of indigenous African belief and ritual within the context of Christian liturgy. 

Surprisingly, these churches are mostly urban or peri-urban-based and some of them are mobile –not possessing a building or organisation and congregants are mainly answerable to a hierarchy of elders who may select the various urban buildings, peri-urban stadia or halls as spaces for worship and evangelism. 

In western Africa, William Wade Harris was a prophet-healer and founder of the Harris Movement – one of the first prophetic movements to receive the approval and support of governments.  

He claimed that the archangel Gabriel visited him while he was in prison for participating in a political revolt in his native Liberia.  

After his release, Harris moved to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, where European Christian missions had not been very successful, in order to lead his own vigorous evangelical campaign.  A number of independent Harrist churches were established in Western Africa by his followers.

In the DRC, in 1921, Simon Kimbangu inaugurated a healing revival that drew thousands of converts to Christianity.  

Kimbangu’s powerful ministry was viewed as a threat by Belgian colonial authorities who arrested him.  

His imprisonment only stirred and heightened the nationalist fervour of his followers. 

The Church survived and was eventually recognised by the State and, in 1969, it was admitted to the World Council of Churches. 

The Kimbanguist Church counted over four million adherents at the end of the 20th Century. 

Similarly, other African initiated denominations described as messianic include the Nazareth Baptist Church in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, founded by Isaiah Shembe; and the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), founded by Engenas Lekganyane and headquartered in the Limpopo Province of South Africa.

AICs can now even be found in Europe (Germany, Britain, France) and the US.  

AICs helped their affiliates to adapt to a modernising world that was hostile to their cultural beliefs.

Many AICs share traditions with Christians from other parts of the Christian world, and these can also be used in classifying them.  Some AICs share some similar beliefs or practices with Anglican, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Orthodox traditions.  Some are Sabbatarian while others are Zionist, among others.  

Some AICs resemble Western Christian denominations (Ethiopian-types), while others, like Zionist-types, may not.  

Some, like the Zion Christian Church of South Africa, have large numbers of affiliates located all over the country and region while others may consist only of an extended family and their acquaintances.

Ethiopian churches generally retain the Christian doctrines of their mother Church in an unreformed state. 

Ethiopian AICs, recently formed, mostly in Southern Africa, arose from the Ethiopian movement of the late 19th Century, which taught that African Christian churches should be under the control of indigenous African people. 

But these should not be confused with the Ethiopian or Coptic Orthodox Church, which have a much longer and an utterly distinct doctrinal history.  

Some denominations that arose from the Ethiopian movement have united with these earlier denominations.

Zionist churches, such as the Zion Christian Church, trace their origins to the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, headquartered at Zion City, near Chicago, US. 

They are found chiefly in Southern Africa.  

Zionist missionaries came to South Africa from the US in the early 1900s, where they quickly established congregations.  Their emphasis is on divine healing, abstention from pork and the wearing of white robes.

The Zionist missionaries were followed by Pentecostal missionaries whose teaching was concentrated on spiritual gifts and baptism in the Holy Spirit, with speaking in tongues as the initial evidence of this. The predominantly white Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa arose out of this missionary effort and emphasises the Pentecostal teaching.

The Black Zionists retained much of the original Zionist tradition. The Zionists split into several different denominations, although the reason for the split was due more to the rapid growth of the movement than divisions.  A split in the Zionist movement in the US meant that, after 1908, few missionaries were sent to Southern Africa. The Movement and its growth in Southern Africa has been the result of African indigenous leadership and initiative. 

With the passage of time, some Zionist groups began to mix aspects of traditional African beliefs, such as ancestor veneration, with Christian doctrine. Many Zionists stress faith-healing and revelation while in many Zionist congregations the leader is viewed as a prophet.

Some denominations call themselves ‘apostolic churches’; they are similar to Zionist congregations but often place more emphasis on formal theological training.

Originating from Nigeria, the Aladura Pentecostal churches rely on the power of prayer and in all effects of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  

Today, such churches include Christ Apostolic Church, Cherubim and Seraphim, Celestial Church of Christ and Church of the Lord – Aladura.

The first Aladura Movement, began as a renewal movement in search of true spirituality, was started in 1918, during an influenza epidemic, by a school teacher and a goldsmith. 

They both attended St Saviour’s Anglican Church. They rejected infant baptism and all forms of medicine, whether Western or traditional. In consequence, they initiated the ‘Prayer Band’, popularly called Egbe Aladura. 

A revival took place during the 1918 influenza epidemic.  

The group used prayer to save many lives affected by the influenza during the epidemic.  The group was named ‘Precious Stone’ and later the ‘Diamond Society’.  

By 1920, the Diamond Society had grown greatly and had started to form branches around the western region of Nigeria. 

The group emphasised divine healing, holiness and ‘All Sufficiency of God’, which form the three cardinal beliefs of the Church today.  

For this reason, the group had association with Faith Tabernacle of Philadelphia and changed its name to ‘Faith Tabernacle of Nigeria’.

In 1930, the Great Revival started in Nigeria, where the leaders of the Cherubim and Seraphim, the Church of the Lord (Aladura) and the Faith Tabernacle played important roles. 

These leaders, and others, are said to have performed several miracles. The revival started in the south-west of Nigeria and later spread to other parts of the country.

The Revival group went through several name changes until, after 24 years of its formation, it finally adopted the name Christ Apostolic Church (CAC) in 1942. Today, CAC has spread worldwide and is the precursor of Aladura Pentecostal Churches in Nigeria. 

The Christ Apostolic Church has established several schools at all levels, including a university.

Through modern changes, African traditional religion could not remain intact, but is by no means defunct.  

It is the religion which resulted from the sustaining faith held by the forebears of the present indigenous people, and which is being practised today in various forms and intensities by a very large number of Africans, including individuals who claim to be Muslims or Christians.

The declared adherents of the indigenous religion are conservative, resisting the influence of modernism heralded by the colonial era, including the introduction of Islam, Christianity, Western education and improved medical facilities. 

They cherish their tradition; they worship with sincerity because their worship is quite meaningful to them; they hold tenaciously to the covenant that binds them together. 

Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and a published author in her field.  For comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com

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