The fact is that indigenous religious movements did not emerge in a historical or social vacuum. They were conditioned by a number of factors ranging from spiritual, cultural, political, social and circumstantial factors.
THE ROLE OF HENRY VENN
In discussing the role of Ethiopianism and the subsequent appearance of the African Indigenous Churches, the contributions of Henry Venn cannot be overestimated. Long before his contemporary white missionaries, could give any thought to native or indigenous leadership he had emphasized in his 7th Mission Principle, that “native agency is basic to the development of the Mission in Africa”. He deepened and broadened the concept of training indigenous leadership. He said “as early as the possible local leadership should replace the missionary”. In 1846, Venn wrote the leaders of Sierra Leone in straightforward language:
“it has been our constant aim and prayer that we might be enabled to train up a body of Native teachers to whom we may turn over the pastoral charge of those of your countrymen who have embraced the gospel of Christ….He further told the teachers that they were those upon whom the hopes of an African church are fixed.
His contribution here is that he did not only succeed in describing the problem but he also accomplished the task of awakening others to it. No wonder, soon after the Native Baptist Church broke away from the American Baptist Mission in 1888, many secessions followed.
From the tail end of the 19th century, and the early part of the 20th century, quite a number of African Churches emerged in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. The churches include the following from Nigeria: The Native Baptist Church (1888); The United Native African Church (1891); The African Church(1901); The Christ Army Church(1915) and the United African Methodist Church(Eleja-1917). In Ghana they include: The National Baptist Church (1898); The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Nigrtian Fellowship (1907). These churches to some varying degrees were characterized by a desire for African self-expression and freedom from missionary-control.
Another agency, which stimulated the rise and growth of African indigenous churches was the emergence of charismatic figures that led mass movements towards Christianity. These prophetic figures organized evangelistic crusades in several localities. They did not intend to establish churches of their own, rather they perceived themselves as prophets raised by God to make people “turn unto Jesus”. These prophets include Garrick Sokari Braid (from Niger Delta in Nigeria); William Wade Harris (A Kru from Liberia) Walter Matiffa(Lesotho), Simon Kimbangu (Belgian Congo) and Samson Oppong (Ghana). They were all evangelists with special charisma. A number of indigenous churches, which claimed to have inspiration from them were established soon after their demise.
Some prevailing conditions soon after the First World War served as immediate factors that occasioned the rise of some African indigenous churches, especially in the Yoruba land. These factors may be divided into two: the worldwide influenza epidemic and the economic depression which followed.
A few important indigenous churches owe their origin indirectly to the deadly influenza epidemic, which spread through West Africa in 1918. Many Yoruba Christians expressed disappointment in the leadership of the mission churches, which seemed to be helpless in the face of the disaster. Consequently, Yoruba Christians started the prayer and healing fellowships were established to check the outbreak. This prayer bands culminated in the establishment of congregations like the Diamond Society; the Faith Tabernacle, the Cherubim and Seraphim society and a number of other bodies which subsequently seceded from them.
Closely following the above was the economic depression which forced many missionaries to leave Africa. A number of missionaries could not receive their financial support and funds for their projects because of the economic crunch abroad. As the economic crunch bit harder, out of desperation the colonial administration summarily closed some public institutions manned by the whites. Incidentally, a number of ministers heeded the advice to close down their churches and preaching stations. Some African Christians were disappointed at these “faithless” acts of missionaries who were forced to their churches under lock and key. This compelled some African leaders to hold prayer meetings in front of the locked churches. This kind of experience led to the inauguration of the Diamond Society, which eventually flowered into the Faith Tabernacle.
DESIRE TO INDIGENIZE CHRISTIANITY
David Barrett argues that “independency reflects a rebellion against a Christianity that had become “over-Europeanized”. There was a longing in the hearts of several Africans to find a mode of religious expression, which is psychologically and sociologically satisfying. Quite a number of independent clergymen criticized the leadership of the mission churches who they claimed, put so many obstacles in the way of the African converts by imposing on them European customs and traditions.
Consequently, the new African movements, in a bid to correct the forgiveness of the church, took into consideration the African culture and religious consciousness. They held that by these they were breeding their own kind of African church were African institutions would be recognized and respected. They felt that any religious institution, which did not meet the African daily life’s experience, would create spiritual hunger. In the African indigenous churches, therefore, the liturgy was made more African, as they made use of dreams, singing, drumming and dancing, some of which were ingredients of African cultural manifestation.
PASSION FOR A PURER FORM OF CHRISTIANITY
Some African prophetic leaders seceded from the mainline churches because of what they perceived to be the failures of ministers in the established churches to live up to the call of the Bible and alienation of the Church hierarchy from the Spiritual needs of the common people.
In Ghana, for example, the members of the Methodist Society- Akonomnsu (water-drinkers) which broke away from the Methodist church at Anomabu in 1862, were “convinced teetotalers”. The principal reason why they seceded was that they felt that the Methodist church had failed to enforce its rules against the buying, selling and drinking of alcoholic beverages.
In Nigeria, some of the breakaway churches criticized the clergymen in the established churches for appointing well known secret society men and some men with questionable traits, apparently because of their status in the society, into the church hierarchy. Some of the pastors were even known to have been regularly consulting native doctors while some wore charms and amulets under their cassocks. Like Amos, they opposed the corruption and desecration of the house of God.
Some members of the Faith Tabernacle and the Cherubim and Seraphim society contended that the sins of the Yoruba Christians and the clergy were responsible for the visitation of the influenza epidemic and depression that hit the Yoruba land in 1918.
FREEDOM TO EXERCISE GIFTS OF LEADERSHIP
In the mainline churches, the way into positions of stewardship, leadership and authority were carefully regulated and people who were not well educated could not expect to go far. To several of these charismatic figures, therefore, the mission churches were seen as institutions which did not allow them to exhibit their charisma. The indigenous churches have shown expressly that the less-educated and even illiterates could have or at least acquire veritable and genuine gifts of leadership. Consequently, a number of illiterates and semi-literate prophetic figures, who found themselves criticized or frustrated in the older churches, found a refuge in the indigenous institutions.
- Wilbert Shank, Henry Venn- Missionary Statesman (Ibadan: Day Star Press, 1983), p.31
- Barrett David, Schism and Renewal in Africa. (London: OUP, 1968) pp.161-62
- Deji Ayegboyin & Ademola Ishola, African Indigenous Churches (Plateau: African Christian Textbooks, 2013) pp.11-14