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A New Typology for Africa’s New Religious Movements - Friday M. Mbon

This brief essay is concerned mainly with Christian new religious movements in sub-Saharan Africa. Broadly speaking, two kinds of religious movements may be found in that area of the continent. First, those movements that have, for various reasons, tergiversated from the existing historic mission-oriented churches. Such movements have been called, often pejoratively, schismatic or separatist movements because they seceded or separated from the older churches. But despite intensive changes, adaptations, and particular emphases within themselves, that category of movements generally tends to reflect some of the ideologies of the mother churches.

Second, there are those new religious movements which have been founded by charismatic individuals independent of any mother church. They are commonly referred to as spiritual or spiritualist (sometimes spiritist) movements or churches because of their emphasis on pneumatology and spiritual healing. It is mainly that group that we have in mind here.

Incidentally, the new Christian religious movements in Africa (and perhaps elsewhere) are also popularly referred to as Independent Churches, with emphasis on the word independent to signify the fact that such movements, as most of them claim, are independent of foreign origin or control in organization, administration, liturgy, and doctrine. But we prefer the nomenclature new religious movements, because the word movement, for all practical purposes, is more comprehensive and more appropriately underscores the dynamic nature of these agents of social change.1 Moreover, some of the movements refuse to be called churches, because they don’t wish to be associated or confused with the historic Western-style, mission-oriented churches. Neither do the historic churches wish to be identified with the new movements, whose claim to be Christian they question. In addition, many elements in the movements make it inappropriate to refer to them as churches in the Western conception of a church. For instance, the practice of spiritual and physical healing (and the modes thereof) that is central in the movements does not receive the same degree of, or sometimes any, emphasis in traditional Western-style churches.
Several years ago Harold Turner, one of the foremost contemporary authorities on the study of African new religious movements, defined the category of movements with which we are concerned here as those »founded in Africa, by Africans, and primarily for Africans.2 More recently, Kofi Appiah-Kubi has reiterated Turner’s definition, adding that those movements »have all African membership as well as all African 1eadership.«3 But we cannot accept Turner’s suggestion that African new religious movements are or, for that matter, were ever intended to be primarily for Africans. Nor do we agree with Appiah-Kubi’s incautious claim that those movements »have all African membership.« This writer happens to know that quite a few of the new movements would seriously object to being associated with such a narrow sense of mission. For instance, the Nigerian-based Aladura group of movements and the fast growing Brotherhood of the Cross and Star see the whole world as their mission field; in fact, they’ve already started to penetrate many parts of the non-African world, like Great Britain, Germany, the United States, and India. As some movements advance beyond African territories, they assert, with a sense of accomplishment and pride, that it is now Africa’s turn to evangelize the world, especially the White world! Indeed, that self-imposed goal of worldwide operation is characteristic of most new religious movements in the so-called primal societies today.No one knows the exact number of new religious movements in contemporary Africa, nor the number of their votaries. It would be impossible (as well as frivolous and a waste of time and energy) for anyone to try to keep up-to-date statistics since the birth of new movements in different corners of the continent seems to be a daily occurrence. Thus, one would have to be everywhere, everyday in Africa to accurately record the proliferation of those movements. Even David Barrett’s educated prediction that by 1985 there will be close to 33,000,000 professing adherents in those movements4 seems to be far too conservative. Our own calculated guess is that the number will be much higher. But even available statistics are of limited value since many of the movements do not keep records of their numbers, often because they believe that it is theologically and spiritually improper or sinful to do so. The God’s Kingdom Society of Nigeria, for example, insists that it is wrong to count God’s people, pointing to 2 Samuel 24 to show how God punished King David for taking a census of his people.

Much has been written lately about Africa’s numerous new religious movements, so we will not reiterate popular discussions or chose jugée here. We merely want to suggest a new typology or terminology which will, we believe, best characterize all, or at least most, of the new Christian groups in sub-Saharan Africa.

The reader is perhaps well aware of the various typologies or terminologies that have been used, quite often rather loosely, to characterize new religious movements in general (and those in Africa in particular) and the consequent intense debates about their appropriateness.5 Such labels include separatist, messianic, millenarian or chiliastic, nativistic or perpetuative, prophetic, neo-Pentecostal, syncretic, revitalistic, revivalistic, sectarian, therapeutic, manipulationist, charismatic, ecstatic, neo-Christian, post-Christian, schismatic, etc. Some of those labels are obvious attempts to locate the causal factors for those new religious movements they are intended to describe. But, as many students of those movements know only too well, there are infinite difficulties in trying to explain the emergence of a given religious movement in Africa, or anywhere else, by appeal to monocausality. Other such labels attempt to stress the main features of the movements. Even in those cases, however, some of the labels grossly miss the mark.
We do not intend to rehash popular stock arguments pro or con the usage of any of those terminologies. One thing seems certain, however: whatever merit each of the above terms may have as a descriptive idiom for some new religious movements in Africa, such merit is at best limited in its usefulness, because each of the terms can only describe an isolated aspect and not the complex totality of a given new religious movement. In other words, some movements may have, say, millenarian or nativistic dimensions, but it would be wrong to categorize them in those terms only.

We wish to suggest here a term which is more comprehensive and methodologically more empirical than the ones referred to above. The term we propose is protectionist. It is our strong belief that the theme of protection is one that runs across all new religious movements in Africa south of the Sahara. That is to say, protection is the common, ultimate goal of those movements in spite of any dissimilarities in their methods of attempting to achieve that goal. Protectionism, we contend, most appropriately qualifies for what Turner refers to as »a typology of tendencies and emphases rather than of individual religious bodies or movements.«6

We submit, then, that the members of Africa’s new religious movements are in the movements first and foremost because they feel a need to be protected against life’s undesirable circumstances and believe with all their hearts that they will find such protection in the new movements. The protection sought may be individual or communal and may include physical protection, spiritual protection, political protection, economic protection, and sociocultural protection.

Individual members may go into movements in order to seek refuge or protection from, for instance, the sad consequences of unemployment, barrenness, sickness, loneliness, anonymity, or the evil eye of enemies--physical or spiritual. Indeed, the fear of falling victim to witchcraft through the machinations of evil men and women and the need for healing are the two strongest motives for most Africans who join new religious movements. Olumba Olumba Obu, the founder and leader of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star in Nigeria, clearly assents to that fact when he asserts,

many people are rushing into the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star with the intentions of being healed of their sicknesses or to have an improved condition of life.7

One of his members similarly points out why people join the movement.
In the whole Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, the world over, there is no single man who goes there on his own simply because he has love for a church as it is in many other cases of one attaching himself to a church, but must be there after all available measures to free himself from the entanglement and ordeals of persecution of evil spirits had failed. Sometimes he is brought unconscious. Some [come] through sickness of wife, husband, brother, sister, child and what-have-you. And in less than no time all these evil devices get cleared.8

Nathaniel Ndiokwere expresses much the same opinion when he says:

the sense of insecurity is perpetuated in the African milieu by fears of evil spirits, the phenomenon of ‘poisoning’…the unlimited anxiety over fruitfulness in marriage…It is the urge to have these problems solved which drives people to the doors of the Aladura prophets.9

We also agree with Ndiokwere when he goes on to say that

if there were no healing mission there would be no meaningful Independent Churches; if there were no sick people or individuals craving for security, there would be no followers.10

J. Akin Omoyajowo comments rather trenchantly on the same situation.
Africans generally fear the power of witches and the evil spirits, who beset them in their dreams; they worry about their future and want to know what it has in stock for them. In the traditional society, they consult the diviner. Orthodox Christianity repudiated this practice and substituted abstract faith for it. The Aladuras take the problems as genuine and offer solutions in the messages of the Holy Spirit given through the prophets and visioners. They give candles for prayers, incense to chase away evil powers and blessed-water for healing purposes. Consequently, the Christian suddenly finds himself at home in the new faith, and Christianity now has more meaning for him than before, for it takes special concern for his personal life, his existential problems and assures his security in an incomprehensibly hostile universe. This is what has endeared the Cherubim and Seraphim to the hearts of the cross-section of our society, irrespective of creed, status and class.11

The need for individual protection may be seen as essentially physical, spiritual, social, or economic in nature. But the desire for communal protection usually expresses itself in the areas of politics and culture, although an individual politician may sometimes seek protection against political defeat, as is the case in Nigeria, for example, where certain prominent politicians are known to have gone to some of the new religious movements to seek spiritual power as a bulwark against political frustration. Or, an individual may seek protection against cultural marginality. Just as individuals may join the new religious movements for reasons of protection, so also entire communities may flock to those movements for the sole purpose of seeking protection against the socio-economic, cultural, and political oppression of dominant powers that be. Instances of that kind of communal search for protection may be found in the new religious movements in central and southern Africa, especially those that emerged under colonialism, neo-colonialism, and apartheid. Examples that readily come to mind are the radical movements in the former French and Belgian Congos such as Kimbanguism, the Zionist movements, like the Nazareth Church, and other Bantu groups in South Africa.

Contrary to the popular opinion of some writers, the number of African new religious movements arising because of and in protest against the colonial or neo-colonial situation--the situation of racial conflict, economic exploitation, political and cultural repression--is very small indeed. That underscores the fact that generally, in spite of all other considerations, the motive for the birth of Africa’s new religious movements is primarily religious. Harold Turner reminds us that the religious motive beneath the foundation of Africa’s new religious movements remains »the profoundest clue« to understanding those movements: all other considerations are »inadequate signs of their inner religious reality.«12 Lamin Sanneh is also right in that regard when he observes that even in the »volatile political atmosphere« of the colonial and early post-colonial days, »it is a striking fact that African Christian spokesmen were concerned with the religious implication of the threats that confronted them. He goes on, in fact, to propose the caveat that:

to fuse the theme of the African religious response with the political theme and annex it as a sub-plot of the great nationalist cause is to overlook the explicit religious concerns of those involved....an indigenous Church, for which many strove, was to precede the nationalist state with which it was not identical.13

Sanneh stresses further that

religious dissent seems to have been the result of genuine disagreements over religious issues, which we need to bear in mind when we make religious movements the byproducts of social and political forces.14

Fundamental to that primary motive is the concept of protection. In fact, protectionism is first and foremost a spiritual experience, and on it hangs all other forms of security. That is why a closer examination of the various terms that have been popularly used to characterize new religious movements will reveal that most of those terms could conveniently be brought under the rubric of protectionism. Thus, the so-called separatist or schismatic movements, for example, could be seen as separating themselves from mainstream Christian churches in order to protect themselves against the racially discriminatory policies of White missionaries and the consequences of the declining, watered-down spirituality of churches which are racist. That would also appear to be the goal of the so-called revivalistic movements which seem to be engaged in the task of reviving the spirituality of that old-time religion with its Pentecostal flavor. Perhaps it is in that context that Turner can speak of »the spiritual superiority of their religion in comparison with the older Christian churches or missions.«15 Indeed, it is instructive in this connection to recall that one of the movements in Luluabourg, Zaire, has chosen to call itself Church of the Protection of the Truth of Christ.16 In the same way, the so-called nativistic or perpetuative or revitalistic movements could be seen as demonstrating the attempts by Africans to protect their indigenous cultural values from being completely destroyed by the corrosive effects of Western cultures. Even in the so-called messianic or millenarian or chiliastic movements, undertones may be heard of a deep-seated longing for a savior who will bring an end to this present age and thereby protect their members from pain, suffering, oppression, injustice, and discrimination. Similarly, the so-called therapeutic movements may be seen as attempts by those movements to protect their votaries from anything that brings pain and dis-ease to body, mind, and spirit.


We see, then, that the term protectionist is certainly more comprehensive and empirically more appropriate as a descriptive label for most African new religious movements. That, of course, does not in any way mean that our new term is perfect in its utility: there is no such perfect label. The special merit of the term protectionist lies in the fact that not only does it immediately indicate the raison d’etre of most African new religious movements but also enriches the meanings of the other terms in such a way as to include in them the idea of protection. By expanding the meanings of the other labels, our term also helps to remove (or at least minimize) the pejorative aura that often surrounds them. Furthermore, we perceive in the rubric protectionist aspects of the latent intentionality of the former terms. In other words, the composite implications of those labels are captured in the new term herein proposed.

A native Nigerian. Mr. Mbon is currently a lecturer in the sociology of religion at the University of Calabar, Nigeria. He has published in the areas of African traditional religions and Islam and is currently researching new religious movements in Nigeria, especially the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star.



1. We see new religious movements, in general, as agents of social change, because we agree with F. W. Voget that »intention to change the pattern of human relations and social institutions is the essential characteristic of a social movements« (Man, 1959, art. 25). We recognize in new religious movements something of that intention to change the course of human life.

2. H. W. Turner, »A Typology for African Religious Movements,» Journal of Religion in Africa, 1967, 1(1):17; essay reprinted in H. W. Turner, Religious Innovation in Africa: Collected Essays on New Religious Movements (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1979), pp. 79-108.

3. Kofi Appiah-Kubi, »Indigenous African Christian Churches: Signs of Authenticity,« in Kofi Appiah-Kubi and Sergio Torres, eds., African Theology en Route (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), p. 117.

4. See David B. Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopaedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World AD 1900-2000 (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 815.

5. See, for instance, Kenelm Burridge, New Heaven, New Earth: A Study of Millenarian Activities (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969), pp. 102-103.

6. Turner, p. 1.

7. Olumba Olumba Obu, Those Who Will Go to Hell (Calabar: Brotherhood Press, n.d.), p. 19.

8. E. O. Bassey, »What Do We Say He Is?« in Who Is This Man Olumba Olumba Obu? (Calabar: Brotherhood Press, n.d.), pp. 4-5.

9. Nathaniel I. Ndiokwere, Prophecy and Revolution: The Role of Prophets in the Independent African Churches and in Biblical Tradition (London: SPCK. 1981), p. 279.

10. Ibid., p. 256.

11. J. Akin Omoyajowo, »The Cherubim and Seraphim Movement: A Study in Interaction,« Orita: Ibadan Journal of Religious Studies, 1970, 4(2):134.

12. Harold W. Turner, »Problems in the Study of African Independent Churches,« in Religious Innovation in Africa, p. 38: essay reprinted from Numen, 13:1(1966), 27-42.

13. Lamin Sanneh, West African Christianity: The Religious Impact (London: C. Hurst & Co.. 1983), p. xiii.

14. Ibid., p. 188.

15. Turner, »Problems,« p. 38.

16. The Church of the Protection of the Truth of Christ is mentioned in Haldor E. Heimer, »The Church Suited to Home Needs,« in Windows on Africa: A Symposium, Robert T. Parsons, ed. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), p. 22, note 2.