Christianity

Yoruba Christians fall into three main groups. Firstly, there are the members of the mission churches. The four oldest and largest denominations are the Anglicans, represented by the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the Methodists, the American Southern Baptists and the Catholics. Some smaller, mainly American, missions have arrived more recently: the Jehovah’s Witnesses are perhaps the most successful of these. The Catholics are less numerous in the west of Nigeria than they are in the east. Of the protestant missions, the Anglicans and Methodists are strongest in the south and east of Yorubaland, while the Baptists are strongest to the north and west (cf. Grimley and Robinson,1966).

In the early stages of mission work in the interior, the CMS relied mainly on Saro clergy. However, in the 1880s they abandoned the policy of developing a self-governing native pastorate, and British control was gradually consolidated (Ajayi,1965; Ayandele, 1966). Discontent at European paternalism was one of the factors leading to the foundation of the African churches from 1891 onwards. The other major issue was polygyny to which the missions were firmly opposed.

Despite the schisms, the mission churches held on to most of their members. They had a status and respectability which the African churches initially lacked, and they were in firm control of education. The African church movement was founded by the laity: with few exceptions, the Saro clergy stayed loyal to the missions. It is still broadly true that the educated elite belong to the main mission congregations.

The protestant missions had a broad agreement not to compete in each other’s main spheres of influence. This means that in most towns there is one church which is by far the largest, and it usually belongs to one of the main protestant denominations. Besides this, there are usually other, much smaller, congregations belonging to the other missions, or to the African and Aladura churches. In Igbeti the largest congregation belongs to the United Missionary Society. The smaller Baptist church was started by former members of the UMS but now includes a number of Baptist migrants from Igboho and Ogbomoso. The Igbeti CMS church is smaller still. It was founded by the previous Onigbeti before his exile, and in 1970 its congregation consisted of a few of his supporters, together with Anglican migrants from other towns. In both Ogbomoso and Igboho, on the other hand, the great majority of Christians were Baptists, and there were separate Baptist churches in different areas of the towns.

The first thing which strikes the outside observer of Yoruba Christianity is the sheer amount of activity. The larger churches are crowded on Sundays, and the more active church members attend prayer meetings, choir practices, Bible-study groups, committee meetings, and rites of passage on other days as well. Many Yoruba Christian families hold early-morning prayers in their compound. On Sundays, the timetable includes the two main services, egbe meetings and Sunday School, which is attended by both children and adults. Much of the ritual is familiar. The services and most of the hymns are direct translations from the English, and the hymns are sung to the same tunes. Yoruba music plays a much more important part in the African and Aladura churches.

The fundamental unit of organisation within the church in this area is the egbe. The number of egbe varies from church to church, and new members usually join the one belonging to their own age-group. In the larger churches, some age-groups have more than one egbe, and membership is based on level of education. The women have their own associations. Egbe meet weekly, to raise funds, discuss church affairs, and to settle disputes among the members. But their significance extends beyond the church. Normally a person’s closest friends are members of the same egbe, and much of his leisure time is spent with them. The members attend each other’s rites of passage and celebrate Christmas and Easter together. The Muslims are increasingly organised in a similar way.

The African church denominations evolved out of the main mission churches in a series of schisms between 1890 and 1920 (Webster, 1964). The first schism was in fact in the Baptist Church in 1888, resulting in the formation of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, but this was reunited with the parent church in 1914. Permanent splits within the CMS took place in 1891 with the formation of the United Native African Church, and in 1901 with the formation of the African Church (Bethel). The split within the Methodist Church came in 1917. There were also a number of schisms within the African denominations themselves: by 1922 twenty-two separate African denominations had 33,000 members between them.
Amalgamations followed, many of them the result of financial difficulties. By the 1940s, four large African denominations had emerged: the African Church, the United Native African Church, the United African Methodist Church, and the West African Evangelical Church.

The doctrines of the African churches are very similar to those of the protestant missions. The innovations were in church leadership patterns and in attitudes to polygyny (Webster, 1968). Their formation reflected the discontent of the laity at the growing racialism and paternalism of the missions and the shabby treatment of particular African ministers. The 1901 split, for instance, was sparked off by the replacement of James Johnson as the minister of St Paul’s (Breadfruit) against the wishes of the congregation. In the event, Johnson remained loyal to the CMS, but part of his congregation, led by J.K. Coker, formed its own church. Coker represented the evangelical wing of the African church movement. After 1905 he became established as a planter at Agege. The new churches had considerable success in evangelising some of the more remote Yoruba areas where the missions were not yet established. Coker’s cocoa labourers spread the church to Ikirun and other towns, and he himself toured the interior, preaching and encouraging cocoa cultivation (Webster, 1961; Berry, 1975: 40ó53). His main rival for church leadership was Z.W. Thomas, who represented a more conservative ‘church’ approach, based on consolidating the movement rather than extending it (Webster,1964: 136-90).

The struggle for power between them led to a schism in 1907, but the removal of Thomas from church leadership in 1921 allowed a reunion. Whereas Coker was a planter, Thomas was the Deputy Registrar of the Lagos Supreme Court, and one of the few members of the professional elite attracted into the movement. The struggle between them gives a good insight into Yoruba church politics. The main protagonists were supported by large followings, built up from among their employees, kin and friends by means of their wealth. The church, in short, had become another arena in which the big men in the community could display their wealth and influence, and gain prestige.

While the African churches developed out of discontent with European mission organisation, the Aladura churches developed to meet some of the perceived needs of Yoruba Christians which were not being met within the missions. The name Aladura itself is derived from adura, prayer, and ‘praying churches’ is an apt description of these organisations. The founders of the Aladura churches formed ‘praying bands’ within the mission churches, and they only separated when their activities were seen as unorthodox by the mission authorities.

The major difference lies in their approach to the problems of everyday life, as seen by the members. Whereas the traditional cults and Islam were able to offer healing techniques, protection against witches and knowledge of the future, mission Christianity did not. The mission churches were seen as being more concerned with salvation in the next world rather than solving their members’ problems in this. The Aladura prophet, on the other hand, by interpreting dreams and visions, performs a role similar to that of the alufa and babalawo. Not surprisingly, most converts to the Aladura churches come from the mission churches: Muslims seldom join (Peel, 1968a).

While the Aladura still regard the Bible as the ultimate source of spiritual authority, and their basic theology and liturgy are close to those of the mission churches, worship tends to be a more enthusiastic affair, especially during the healing sessions which supplement the regular services. The key figure is the prophet, a charismatic preacher and healer. A problem of the mission churches in the period when Christianity was expanding most quickly was the shortage of trained staff. There is still little contact between clergy and laity in some of the larger congregations. In the Aladura churches, as in the African churches, the distinction between church and laity is less sharp. The Cherubim and Seraphim churches, for instance, have an elaborate hierarchy of patriarchs, prophets, evangelists and other officials, and it is open to anyone to be promoted on the basis of his (or her) spiritual gifts (Omoyajowo, 1971: 590ó5). Disgruntled would-be leaders may move away and found their own churches, and the Aladura churches have experienced continual schisms since their original foundation. But this growth through fission has meant that congregations remain small and that contact between the prophet and the members is maintained.

Mitchell divides the Aladura churches into two broad groups: apostolic and spiritual (1970a: 14). The largest of the apostolic churches is the Christ Apostolic, which by 1958 had become the third-largest church in Western Nigeria. In general, the apostolic churches are more tightly organised than their spiritual counterparts. The role of pastor, as opposed to that of prophet, is more important, and worship is more restrained. The Christ Apostolic Church itself bans polygyny and the use of all forms of medicine, whether traditional or western. Like the mission churches, it has become involved in education (Mitchell,1970b; Peel, 1968a).

The largest group of spiritual churches are the various offshoots of the Cherubim and Seraphim movement (Omoyajowo, 1971). It is here that the tendency towards fragmentation has been greatest. The Church of the Lord (Aladura) (Turner, 1967) also falls into this category. The prophet is all-important in these churches. They are less opposed to the use of medicine, and polygyny is allowed. The long-haired prophets of the spiritual churches wearing colourful robes, the congregational processions through the streets, and the ‘Houses of Prayer’ with their singing and dancing are among the most distinctive features of present-day Yoruba religious life.

The origins of the three major Aladura denominations are similar. The church which later became the Christ Apostolic developed from a prayer band which was formed after an Ijebu girl had seen visions during the influenza epidemic in 1918. Its members were influenced by a small American sect, the Faith Tabernacle, and this was the name that the new church took. It separated from the CMS in 1922 over the questions of faith-healing and infant baptism. In the 1920s its membership consisted largely of educated migrants in clerical jobs in the larger towns, and it took an early interest in education.

The church grew rapidly as a result of the Babalola revival of 1930ó2, which started in Ilesa (Mitchell, 1970a: 143ó238). Babalola was the most important of a number of itinerant preachers at work during this period. He was a road worker with the government until a vision in 1928. He started preaching and joined forces with the Faith Tabernacle. It was from a Tabernacle meeting at Ilesa that a spontaneous revival developed which continued for two years, and which led to mass conversions in Ijesa, Ekiti and Akoko. At first the movement was tolerated by the colonial authorities and the mission churches, whose membership increased rapidly as a result. In 1932 official attitudes hardened. Babalola was arrested and imprisoned for making witchcraft accusations. To gain greater legitimacy, the Faith Tabernacle formed a link with the Apostolic Church in Britain and changed its name. The final break with the British church, over the issue of the use of malaria prophylactics by the British missionaries, came in 1939.

The Cherubim and Seraphim movement also developed out of a praying band within the CMS, after a young girl, Abiodun Akinsowon, had seen visions in Lagos in 1925. Abiodun and an itinerant prophet from Akoko, Moses Orimolade, were the founders of the band which separated from the CMS in 1926. There was a rift between them in 1928, and their two factions never came together again. Offshoots have proliferated ever since. There are now well over 100 independent Cherubim and Seraphim churches, and the largest of these, the direct descendant of Orimolade’s faction, has over 400 congregations of its own.

In the remote Ilaje areas of southern Ondo State, the Cherubim and Seraphim have become the largest Christian denomination. An unusual feature here has been the development of fifty or so utopian communities, the best-known of which is Aiyetoro (McClelland, 1966; cf. Barett,1977). This extraordinary community was founded by a group of persecuted Aladura in 1947. Through its unique social organisation, it achieved a rapid degree of modernisation, and operated a fishing fleet. The key to its success appeared to lie in the communal organisation of labour, though this has since been abandoned.

The third major Aladura church is the Church of the Lord (Aladura) founded by J.O. Oshitelu at Ogaere in Ijebu in 1930 (Turner, 1967). He was a CMS catechist, but was dismissed in 1925, again over the issue of visions. In 1930ó1 he became involved with Faith Tabernacle and with offshoots of the Babalola revival in Ibadan and Abeokuta. He founded his own church in 1939. The Church of the Lord has spread rather more slowly than the other two, but has well-established branches in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana.

The dividing line between spiritual and apostolic churches is not rigid, and there are also broad differences between the older and younger congregations (Mitchell, 1970a: 306). In the more recently established apostolic congregations, forms of worship are more emotional and they are less involved with educational work. Peel has pointed to the extreme rationality of Christ Apostolic doctrine, with its ban on all medicine and its reliance on faith and prayer alone. From Mitchell’s data, it seems that the younger apostolic congregations fit this description less well (Peel,1968a; Mitchell, 1970a: 327).

What then are the main points of similarity between Aladura practice and traditional religion? Firstly, words are thought to have an inherent power of their own, and the recitation of ‘holy names’ or passages from the psalms as magical formulae is common. Some prophets prepare charms using written verses from the Bible in the same way as the alufa uses the Koran. Secondly, there is the use of categories similar to those of traditional beliefs in explaining misfortune. The emphasis given to combating witchcraft is an obvious example. Aladura prophets also have a reputation for being able to deal with abiku spirits (Mitchell, 1970a: 344), and the extensive use of holy water and the exclusion of menstruating women from ritual are both reminiscent of traditional practices.

The forms of service used by the Aladura are largely based on Anglican models (Turner, 1967: Vol. 2; Omoyajowo, 1971: 369ó72), but they have been supplemented by special forms for founder’s day services, the feasts of the archangels, and annual pilgrimages to sacred hills. (Hill festivals are common in Yoruba traditional religion: the best-known are the annual festivals in Ibadan and Abeokuta.) Generally, the Aladura have emphasised ritual rather than a developed theology. Fasting and prayer to achieve visions and holiness are more important than doctrinal disputes. All of them emphasise the importance of spiritual power (agbara), and the role of the Holy Spirit. The importance of the archangels in the Cherubim and Seraphim churches is especially interesting. Each of them guards one of the gates of heaven, and is associated with one of the four elements. Each has a clearly defined role in mediating between man and God, and their feasts are among the most important church occasions (Omoyajowo, 1971: 426). The parallels with the orisa are very striking

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