Several religions coexist in Nigeria, helping to accentuate regional and ethnic distinctions (Kane 86). Religion is often times the source of customs, culture, happiness and wars: it influences nearly every facet of our life. In Nigeria, the main religions are Christianity, paganism, and Islam. Christianity began to spread in the 19th century and has continued to spread up through the 21st century. The major spread of the Christian church in Nigeria is clearly credited to the independent churches of the Nigerian people.
Portuguese Catholic priests, who landed on the shore of Nigeria with traders, first introduced Nigerians to Christianity (http://www.nigeriannation.com). Because these priests were only in Africa to serve the Portuguese trading community, the influences of Christianity were literally non-existent by the 1800’s. The true missions of the Christian church began in the late nineteenth century with Britain trying to abolish slave trade (http://www.nigeriannation.com). In 1850, Thomas Bowen of the Baptist convention arrived in Abukuta, Nigeria. Since he could not enter into mainland he mainly focused on his work in Abukuta. Soon more missionaries joined him from the Baptist convention and several bases were opened—the work was slow but steady for the first fifteen years. In 1875, W.J. David, Thomas’ friend and colleague arrived in Abukuta and together they revived the mission. Within five years there were six churches and outstations in the area (Falk 340). Not much later, the new converts decided that they would like to start reaching out to their fellow Nigerians. Several congregations of converts split and made
an independent church and were allowed to enter Nigeria (341). This changed everything; within fifteen years, the membership grew to 2,880 and was still growing.
Around the same time that the Baptists entered Africa, the Methodists and Presbyterians also began their mission. The Methodists used scripture and literature prepared for them by the Presbyterians and together they nearly covered the southern half of Nigeria by 1916 (Falk 342). Meanwhile, the Lower Niger Mission began working slowly with the Igbo in 1906. The Igbo people were very receptive of Christianity, so the mission within their tribe was focused on (Hastings 93). Many school- teachers and doctors were sent to their area and a government was soon set up (www.uiowa.edu). Unlike many cultures, the Igbo requested more missionaries (Falk 347). As time went on within the Igbo tribes, the missionaries learned their language and around 1913, T.J. Dennis concluded the Ibo Union version of the Bible (Falk 342). With the translation of the Bible into the Igob language, came a rapid spread of Christianity in the tribe. Since they were able to read in their own language, the language of their heart, they could now experience God in a real way to them (Mazrui 508). This new rapid growth of Christianity amongst the Igbo birthed and fed many new independent churches in their area. Many leaders in the church have mixed emotions about the leap in members to the Christian church. Kane believes that it is good that the Africans have had the courage to turn to the truth but, “It is bad, on the other hand, in that the new concerts are so numerous that it is impossible to five them the kind of instruction they need to make them into strong Christians.” (Kane 87). In Hastings book he recalls the pope saying, “There is no virtue in numbers alone if the quality is lacking. “ (Hastings 204). But, there was no
doubt that these independent churches were increasing the numbers of the Christian church.
Amongst the independent churches there were five categories of churches: churches focusing on political liberation (Mazrui 516), churches focusing on ancestor worship mixed with a tiny amount of Christianity (Mazrui 517), those who take more from Christianity but still hold on to many African practices, churches focusing on the idea of one God as presented in the old testament, and finally churches focusing on Jesus as Savior and the revelations of the Holy Spirit (Mazrui 518). All of these types of independent churches brought about some Christian truths but also clung to many of the African traditions. Was this so wrong? Many leaders of affiliated churches in the mission field feel negatively about these independent churches, while others are very pleased with what their seeds have produced. Not only did the numbers grow in the independent churches but also in the protestant and Catholic churches (Chidester 451). By 1967, there were 15,500,000 members of the Church of Christ on Earth independent church and by 1970; there were 6000 churches and sixteen million members (Mazrui 516). By 1965 there were only 2,870,000 Catholics in the whole of Nigeria (Hastings 206).
Many Africans felt safer when belonging to a predominantly black independent church. They felt this way because they felt that the western white people were not simply trying to change their culture (Chidester 453). White missionaries could train a few leaders of the tribes and then send them out to be pastors. This action was smarter
and worked better because the black pastors knew how to relate the stories of God and the Christian rituals in a familiar non-threatening way to the natives (Chidester 450- 454).
It is obvious that independent churches played an important role in the spread of different forms of Christianity in Nigeria. Not only did the numbers increase in independent church populations, but the membership in affiliated churches also increased substantially when independent churches held outreach projects (Chidester 453). Since the first missionaries arrived in Nigeria in the late 19th century, Christianity has flourished. Much of the credit for the spread of Christianity, and the preservation of African Culture of the tribes of Nigeria is accredited to the independent Christian churches of Nigeria.
Chidester, David. Christianity: A Global History. England: Penguin Press, 2000.
Falk, Peter. The Growth of the Church in Africa. USA: Zondercan Corporation, 1979.
Hastings, Adrian. Church and Mission in Modern Africa. New York: Fordham
University Press, 1967.
Igbo People Igbo Information. 3 Nov. 1998. Art and Life in Africa Online. 16 March
Kane, J. Herbert. The Christian World Mission: Today and Tomorrow. MI: Baker Book
House Co., 1981.
Mazrui, Ali A., eds. General History of Africa. 8th ed. Oxford: Unesco Press, 1993.
Nigeria Influence of the Christian Missions. 1 June 1991. 16 March