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Pentecostalism in Africaunlocked

Pentecostalism in Africaunlocked

  • Nimi WaribokoNimi WaribokoSchool of Theology, Boston University


The literature on African Pentecostalism is relatively vast and growing rapidly, but it is, unfortunately, caught in the circle of trying to define what African Pentecostalism is, and how it is what it is. How does African Pentecostalism constitute itself in relation to its sensibilities? How does it bear witness to its form of religiosity as a spirituality that is continually affected by African traditional religions, by economic exigencies and political developments in Africa, and by traditions, doctrines, and the gospel message of Christianity? What does it mean for Africans to express or modify Pentecostalism? How does one capture the style by which African Pentecostals leave their marks on Pentecostalism? The question of how African Pentecostalism defines itself is ultimately a question about Africa bearing witness to itself in African Pentecostalism, and about Pentecostalism expressing itself in an African context.

The study of this religious movement, then, is not only about African Pentecostalism, but also about Africans bearing witness to their particular mode of being Pentecostal. It tells the story of the multi-directional openness of African Pentecostal social life without applying a constrictive universalizing framework to the fragmentary nature of African Pentecostalism. The movement is an assemblage of practices, ideas and theologies, and interpretations of reality, whose tangled roots burrow deep into the past, present, and future segments of African temporality. African Pentecostalism, like any other human endeavor, is full of fragments, and to understand it scholars must think in parts rather than in unified cultural wholes.


  • Religious History

A Historical Account of African Pentecostalism

Though the term “African Pentecostalism” is used generally to cover churches and denominations that are pneumatic in orientation on the continent, there are many varieties with different stories of origin. There are, principally, three types of movements or churches that fall under the rubric of Pentecostalism in Africa. First, there are spirit-empowered movements, which arose either independently or out of Western mission churches. These are generally known as African-initiated/independent churches (AIC). The second set comprises churches that were established on the continent by Western Pentecostal denominations (such as the Assemblies of God, Four Square Gospel Church, and the Apostolic Church), known as classical Pentecostal churches. Finally, there are neo-Pentecostal or charismatic churches. In the words of J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “the typology constituting the third category, that is, the neo-Pentecostals, has three main groups in it: the new urban-centered Charismatic prosperity-oriented churches; transdenominational fellowships, like the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International; and renewal movements within historic mission denominations.”1

The emergence, survival, and success of the Pentecostal movement in its three broad types must be clearly linked to the broader narrative of Christian history on the continent. The initiatives and ingenuity that fitted the gospel within the worldview, framework, and identity of Africans and led to the success of received faith in sub-Saharan Africa came from Africans themselves. The primary agency for the evangelism came from ordinary folks with little or no training in theology, those who were barely literate and certainly lacking an official seal from any established church or mission body. History reveals that Africans sustained the evangelism of Africans, though white missionaries often take credit. “In most cases the role of the mission had been to respond—sometimes, through straitened resources, belatedly and minimally—to an initiative within the community.”2

African preachers shaped not only the work of European missionaries, but also the Christian story. Elizabeth Isichei sums up the work and reputation of the two groups with these words: “Often . . . decades of missionary endeavor produced only a small number of converts. It is a paradox that the most famous missionary names belong to the nineteenth century—Livingstone, the Moffats, the Hinderers, Mary Slessor—whereas the expansion of Christianity took place in the twentieth, and then largely through the work of African evangelists.”3 The competence of African evangelists in translating the message of the gospel into local idioms and worldviews, correlating existential problems to the resources of the Christian faith, brought about remarkable success. In this vein, the names of Garrick Braide, William Wadé Harris, Simon Kimbangu, Sampson Oppong, Joseph Babalola, Walter Matita, and Agnes Okoh, in the 20th century, stand out. Their charismatic ministries generated numerous converts for the Western missions even as they worked outside the control of the missions.4

The Liberian prophet Wadé Harris (1860–1929), convinced that God had ordained him to call his people to repentance, traveled through the French Ivory Coast starting in 1913, preaching, teaching, baptizing, praying for people, and exorcising evil spirits. In eighteen months he brought some two hundred thousand converts into the church, with Europeans who demurred at his teaching scrambling to bring his converts into their churches. This trend continued, and the mission-based churches competed to win his converts. Harris was harassed, imprisoned, and finally deported by the French in 1915. European missionaries grudgingly acknowledged the effectiveness of this man whom the locals venerated as a saint. One Catholic missionary, Fr. Gorju, is reported to have paid Harris this insulting tribute: “What he did none of us would have been able to do, indeed, because the methods were forbidden to us. That hallucinating man, who was also a charlatan, did in barely three months, what we, ministers of Our Lord Jesus Christ, were not even able to begin in twenty years.”5

Walter Matita, a layman regarded by European missionaries as a wayward church member, also brought multitudes into the Paris Mission in Lesotho. He later founded the Church of Moshoeshoe. Similarly in Ghana, the Methodist Church benefitted from the work of unlettered charismatic preacher Sampson Oppong, a former jailbird during and after the First World War. Within five or six years of his preaching, twenty thousand came into the church. Joseph Babalola (1904–1959), a steamroller driver in the depression years of the early 20th century, stirred western Nigeria with his mass movement. At his peak, he had over half a million followers.6 Garrick Sokari Braide (1882–1918), an Anglican catechist (Niger Delta Pastorate Church) in southeastern Nigeria, claiming a direct commission from God, was also effective in winning converts in numbers that could only be dreamed of by European missionaries. Braide was arrested in March 1916 and put in jail for two years. He died in November 1918, some short months after regaining his freedom. Lamin Sanneh sums up Braide’s impact on Christian conversion with these words:

Braide’s preaching boosted the membership rolls of the Protestant, Catholic and Independent churches in the Niger Delta. In 1909 when Braide began preaching, there were only 900 baptized Christians on the membership rolls of all the churches. By 1918, that number had increased to some 11,700. The increase for the Catholic Church in the period between 1912 and 1917 was 500 percent, largely to Braide’s work. The conversions were so great that the new believers could not be contained within the historic mission churches, so a large number reconstituted themselves as a separate body in 1916, taking the name Christ Army Church.7

Like Braide, Simon Kimbangu (1889–1951) in Belgian Congo was also jailed for subversion by the colonial authorities in 1917. His prophetic ministry started on April 6, 1921, when he prayed for a critically sick woman in the village of Ngombe-Kinsuka and she got well. Thereafter people came to him in droves at his hometown of Nkamba for healing. According to Yolanda Covington-Ward, “One of the most fascinating things about prophet Simon Kambangu is that, while praying and healing in the name of Jesus Christ, using the bible faithfully, and upholding the doctrine and moral rules of the Protestant church, he also incorporated many ritual practices that came from his cultural background.”8 The end result was that his converts were filling churches faster than the missionaries could find catechists, teachers, and resources to accommodate them.9

The Belgian colonial administration that ruled the Congo state initially viewed the work of Kimbangu as merely religious, meaning they did not see any political undertones in it. But this view quickly changed when the number of his followers increased dramatically. Businesses were affected as people left towns to witness his miracles at Nkamba. The colonial administration interpreted his contextualization of the gospel, and the introduction of African embodied practices in Christianity, as pan-Africanist and hence a threat to the political stability of the state. Colonial administrator Leon Morel remarked

Everyone can readily see that our religions of Europe are all filled with abstractions, not responding to the mentality of the African, who longs for concrete facts and protection. The teachings of Kimbangu please the natives because they are allegedly accompanied by palpable facts: healings, protection against sickness . . . It is therefore necessary to oppose Kimbangu because the tendency of this movement is pan-African . . . The natives will say that they’ve found the God of the blacks.10

Soon colonial administrators, European businesses, and missionaries (out of jealousy and displeasure at his Africanized practices) joined forces to stamp out Kimbanguism. The government issued a warrant for his arrest in June 1921. Kimbangu, after eluding authorities for months as he was sheltered and protected by the Congolese people, willingly offered himself for arrest on September 12, 1921. On October 3, 1921, the former Baptist catechist and teacher was sentenced to 120 strokes of the whip and to the death penalty. King Albert in Belgium commuted the death penalty to life imprisonment. Kimbangu died thirty years later on October 12, 1951, in one of the notorious labor camps set up by the colonial government.11 His movement was brutally suppressed by the Belgian colonial government, but today his church members number over six million.

Agnes Amanye Okoh (1905–1995), an illiterate Igbo widow and textile trader at Enugu, from Ndoni, Rivers State, Nigeria, claimed to have heard the voice of God.12 While returning from the market one day in April 1943, she heard a voice repeatedly saying “Matthew 10.” She asked a partially literate friend to read it for her, who in turn asked a young man to read the chapter for them. He read it from the Union Igbo translation of the Bible. She interpreted this religious experience as her clear call to serve God. After consulting with a prophetess, she decided to wait for confirmation; eventually, in 1947, she sold all her trade wares, gave the proceeds to the poor, and founded an itinerant evangelistic ministry. As is customary with indigenous evangelists, prophets, and prophetesses of the time, she went about her new business wearing a white garment (with head scarf), carrying a Bible and a bell. “She preached [in Igbo dialect and pidgin English] in market places . . . announcing her presence by ringing the bell and singing Gospel songs.”13

The ministry grew into a church, Christ Holy Church International, that now has over 850 congregations in Nigeria, Togo, and Ghana and claims a membership of nearly two million. According to Thomas Oduro, “Agnes exercised her unflinching faith in God through healing and miracles. She was said to have raised the dead and healed many diseases. Her ministry was initially a faith ministry. She did not allow her followers to take any medicine as a means of healing. Pre-natal and post-natal care meant nothing to expectant mothers in the church yet it is claimed that there were no childbirth casualties. However she relaxed her faith healing stance in the mid 1970s.”14 In addition, she provided social and welfare services to her church members and spearheaded community development projects in her hometown of Ndoni.

In fact, the prophetic movements of most of the individuals highlighted present a kind of second response to missionary Christianity.15 Their fellow Africans, who before them encountered mission-led Christianity, reacted against it by breaking away to form their own Africans-led churches in resistance to European leadership and domination of the church. The resistance movement was also a protest against the inhuman treatment of Africans under the colonial canopy and an expression of the conflict in the cultural encounter between Europeans and Africans. Though these emerging African churches stayed close to the polity and liturgy of their mother mission churches, their appearance on the religious landscape altered the competitive environment and marked the beginning of an indigenous strand of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa. This early expression of indigenous Christianity is generally known as Ethiopianism. The movement began in South Africa in 1872 when 150 Sotho Christians seceded from the Paris Evangelical Mission in Hermon. A good number of the early leaders of the Ethiopian movement turned to black churches in the United States, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, for inspiration and support.16

Ogbu Kalu traces or reimagines Ethiopianism (the emergence of the African independent churches) as an early form of African Pentecostalism insofar as they are both an “expression of the interior of African spirituality.”17

Many scholars may not easily connect Ethiopianism with Pentecostalism. The argument here is that Ethiopianism emerged from the quest for spiritual power that manifested from the interior of African religious genius in its many guises. It set a precedence of creative contestation of African religious identity that future entrepreneurs expressed in predominately pneumatological strain . . . It operated within the church to promote Christianity, but of a different kind: one that was sensitive to the African environment and the dignity of people. Its concern was the modus in which the faith was communicated.18

African Pentecostalism builds on the legacies of Ethiopianism and the prophetic movements of the early 20th century. Indeed, the converging point for the historically and indigenously rooted lines of African Christianity appears to be in the Pentecostal movement (including independents and charismatics) in Africa. This is not to say that Pentecostalism is the culmination of all previous developments in African Christianity, but rather to emphasize that it is the beneficiary of all that have come before it, and that it is a charismatic renewal of earlier and still ongoing forms of Christianity.

In 2015 the population of Pentecostals (renewalists) in Africa was estimated at 202.92 million, constituting 35.32 percent of the continent’s Christian population of 574.52 million and 17.11 percent of total continent’s population of 1.19 billion. But in sub-Saharan Africa, renewalists constitute 36 percent of the Christian population (of 564.5 million). The growth of renewalists in sub-Saharan Africa is remarkable: in 1970, they numbered only 18.77 million, constituting 13 percent of the region’s Christian population.19 This exponential growth has been fueled by conversions from traditional African religions, vernacular translations of the Bible, overall population growth, urbanization, improved transportation and communication systems, and evangelism by Africans themselves rather than by foreign missionaries, among other factors.20

Pentecostalism has helped to make Christianity an African religion.21 African Pentecostals, like the rest of African Christians, have appropriated the gospel; adapted the faith to their cultural sensibilities, concerns, and agendas; nudged its worldview to properly align with their indigenous maps of the universe; and contextualized its practices. Christianity is a translated religion in Africa. Pentecostals in Africa are reading, interpreting, and understanding the scriptures in their own cultural contexts and engendering domesticated theologies. To borrow the words of Lamin Sanneh in his description of Christianity in the global south, “This indigenous domestication is comparable in scope and consequences to the Hellenization of theology in the early church, but this time without the state apparatus.”22

While many other forms of Christianity in Africa (such as Western mission-initiated churches) have shown remarkable growth rates by drawing from the African forms of spirituality, worldview, and so on, the Pentecostal movement (including independents and charismatics) has taken Christianity deeper into the African psyche, culture, space, and worldview.23 It has proven to be better at inserting itself into the culture, worldview, and sensibilities of Africans. Pentecostalism has become the spiritual and cultural switching node and heart of African Christianity. Indeed, it is now the representative form of African Christianity. To grasp its nature, logic, dynamics, and growth potential is to understand something of the past, present, and future of Christianity in Africa. Pentecostals draw heavily from Africa’s religious, cultural, and social past, and in the present they are engendering the Pentecostalization (or the further Africanization) of the mainline (mission-founded) churches, even as, in most cases, they spearhead the rejection of African culture.24 The practices, theologies, processes, and events of Pentecostalism will shape the future direction of normative Christianity on the continent. This future is wide open, with the possibility of a new movement, or a response beyond Pentecostalism, developing in Africa.

For African Pentecostals, the future (whether for individuals, groups, or nations) is not something that Christians should passively await. Born-again Christians must help shape their future lives to be life-(abundance)-affirming rather than death-(poverty)-bringing; they must pray that abundant life will happen in the here and now. Prayer is considered as key to shaping one’s future, but prayer for African Pentecostals is not your grandfather’s fare. It is highly engaged and involves a stupendous amount of energy. The Pentecostal aesthetic of prayer is an irruption of sensibilities, sensory-motor skills, practical wisdom, and deep emotions for conveying everyday needs to the heavens and bridging the gap between the visible and invisible realms. Prayer is oral theology, biblical texts, ritual practices, and spontaneous and heady spirituality carried by and articulated through the body. Prayer—the embodiment, display, and articulation of ideas, hopes, fears, habits, and traditions—is a key feature of African Pentecostalism.

The goal of this huge expenditure of energy by Pentecostals during prayers is, in broad terms, to receive the blessings of longevity, healing/deliverance, fertility, financial prosperity, and spiritual powers. Drawing from African traditional religiosity, profuse praise and prayers are directed at God to nudge him to bring down Heaven on earth. In this context, praising God does not only elevate God for adoration; it also lifts the self imaginatively into the possibilities and abundance of God’s kingdom. The combination of intense praise and prayer is considered a way of shaping and taking control of one’s future as given by God. In this way, African Pentecostalism has incorporated several dimensions of local and social aesthetics that contribute to its widespread support and acceptability. In other areas, African Pentecostals are very hostile to traditional culture and other faiths/religions on the continent.

The Pentecostal movement is very evangelical in orientation, seeking to convert both Muslims and adherents of traditional religions to Christianity. (Sometimes, Pentecostals even engage in active proselytizing of Catholics.) This has in many places led to inter-religious conflicts. In the absence of a viable theology of dialogue, conflicts with other religions are in danger of escalating as Pentecostals move from a “privatized and otherworldly” form of Christianity toward engagement with the pluralistic public square and the organs of state in various countries. Their political awareness is on the rise, and they are increasingly paying attention to the economic and social transformation of their countries. African Pentecostals are now engaging in issues of economic development, social justice, environment, race, class, and gender in ways that connect the liberating Spirit of Pentecost to the lived experiences of human coexistence.25 Pentecostals are increasingly becoming proactive in promoting economic and moral developments that tackle both personal and structural obstacles to human flourishing.

This movement into the public sphere must be understood within the its historical context. The complex history of African Pentecostalism is easiest to grasp by adopting a simplified periodization, as many of the leading scholars of African Christianity do. They delineate three periods, the first of which comprises the years before 1980, when the movement began to separate itself from the AIC (African independent—or initiated—churches) and missionary churches, and built its foundation with interdenominational fellowships and scripture unions in universities and secondary schools. The emphasis of its preaching was on holiness, sanctification, and spirit-baptism as necessary and urgent preparation for the end time, the second coming of Jesus Christ. This period also coincided with rapid economic growth and amassment of wealth, fueled by a commodity boom.

The second period, in the 1980s, saw the organization of ministries and churches, and their leaders’ eagerness to increase membership rolls. During this period the fabric of the continent’s economy came under severe strain as prices of commodities collapsed in the marketplace, and the International Monetary Fund imposed stringent conditionalities on African economies amidst rising corruption by military and political leaders. Pentecostal (a classification encompassing neo-Pentecostal, charismatic, born-again) leaders’ ambitions to increase the memberships of their churches shifted the emphasis of their message from sanctification to prosperity, healing, and deliverance from satanic powers.

The third period, from the 1990s to the present, shows Pentecostal churches emerging as the most important source of religious and cultural creativity on the continent. They have become channels for harnessing spiritual and social resources for their members’ aspirations to modernity, even as they draw heavily from practices of effective religious actions from African traditional religions. Pentecostal churches now count members of the upper class, military officers, top civil servants, and political and business leaders among their fold. The major denominations among them have complex bureaucracies, celebrity pastors, and often function as (or at least claim to be) agents of national development and sociopolitical redemption. They are increasingly emboldened by their successes to view themselves as divinely sanctioned change-leaders ushering in a new Africa.

This boldness has extended to world beyond Africa in a burst of evangelism and mission. African Pentecostals claim that they are destined to win over the world, especially to reclaim North America and Europe before the second coming of Jesus Christ. To this end, they have planted thousands of churches on other continents.26 All this is not to say that the religious transnationalism of African Pentecostals is wholly attributable to apocalyptic fervor. Their accomplishments may be interpreted as African resourcefulness in fleeing from collapsed states, political oppression, and virulent poverty and thus settling in European, North and South American, and Asian countries. Yet these successes can also be seen as a testament of their Pentecostal spirit. The accomplishments also point to their grit and tenacity, and their ability to hold on to their religion as the source of vitality, meanings, and dignity in harsh and strange environments.

On the whole, the rapid growth of Pentecostalism in Africa can be attributed to the movement’s core message. Its spiritual and theological outlook resonates with sub-Saharan Africans as its draws from the interior of the African worldview. The message is principally about spiritual empowerment, or access to divine power to meet human needs amid daily struggles of power. Pentecostals present a Manichean worldview of good and evil in which human beings are inevitably caught in the epic struggles between good and bad spiritual forces—the contest between God and Satan. Those who survive and flourish in this highly contested dualistic world are those who align with the side that has the supremacy of power. In the Pentecostal argument, Jesus Christ is the winning team, and he is able to rescue his followers from all threats to their existence, offering them crucial support in resisting nonbeing. The promise of spiritual power and democratic access to it is not a small matter in countries where people regularly come under the jackboot of oppressive powers and keenly feel their lack of power on a daily basis. All this spells an unusually intense quest for power via conversion and salvation, in which the stakes are so high that they are approached with the dedication of war, hence the constant language and practices of spiritual warfare.

Salvation in Pentecostal discourse encompasses the body, soul, and spirit and is simultaneously about wellbeing here and now and in the afterlife. Salvation is about abundance, wealth in people and in material things, flourishing life, eudaemonia. This emphasis on the holistic understanding of salvation is grounded in the sentiments of African traditional religions. The theology of African traditional religions holds that God or gods are closely connected to their worshippers and their history, and are resolutely interested in their all-around wellbeing.

Pentecostalism is not always good news in Africa. Many scholars hold that its demonization of many aspects of African cultures is undermining or destroying the social fabric of African societies. Others argue that some variants of the Pentecostal prosperity gospel are fueling greed and moral corruption. Many commentators now believe that the prosperity gospel in the hands of some pastors has created a wasteland of greed and avarice on the continent.27

Regardless of what some observers think of the excesses and malfeasance of some of the wealth-and-health gospel preachers, African Pentecostal preachers have crafted a theology of hope to deal with the exigencies of everyday existence, to imaginatively transform dire socioeconomic conditions of ordinary Africans, and to offer their followers a robust sense of dignity. The preachers are responding to the felt, practical needs of the people amid the collapse of sub-Saharan Africa’s economy, education facilities, and health delivery system, just to mention a few. These preachers are very pragmatic, always creative in transplanting the central tenets of Christianity and responding in diverse ways (prayers, healing, prophecy, deliverance, multimedia activities of evangelism, counseling, investments in universities, banking, building new “cities,” and so on) to the everyday needs of Africans.

To end here, with this limited portrait of the dynamic picture of Africans’ particular mode of being Pentecostal, is to be caught in the circle of trying to define what African Pentecostalism is. How do the fragments of the movement coalesce to provide perspective on the processes that are relentlessly shaping and redefining the African mode of being Pentecostal? How does African Pentecostalism constitute itself in relation to its inclinations as driven by its socioeconomic context and African traditional religions?

African Pentecostalism: From Character to Process

By locating African Pentecostalism in a matrix of forces, we can better comprehend the social logic and dynamics of the movement. Two forces or tensions characterize African Pentecostalism. These tensions mark the birth pangs from which African Pentecostalism seeks its own deliverance, and they give the movement its power. They are virtues and mastery of the world. African Pentecostalism is, in a very crucial sense, about cultivating virtues to live correctly within the natural (cosmological) order. This is what African traditional religions emphasize, and this is what missionary Christianity rejected. Pentecostalism has replaced the natural order with God. The basic philosophy of religion is that God is good, and if only human beings can cultivate the virtues (or holiness) to live rightly with God, their lives will prosper. The adherents of African traditional religions sought mastery of the world (though not in Descartes’s sense of becoming masters and possessors of nature) in order to appease the forces of nature and to make these forces coalition partners in an effort to sustain and improve their lives. Pentecostals now seek mastery of the world not through the rationalism of the scientific method but through the (super)power of Jesus Christ, not through taking control of nature but through taking control of the invisible world, in order to sustain and enhance their comfort and security. This kind of focus delivers African Pentecostals into the prosperity gospel, a mindset that encourages a view of God as existing (only) to serve human interests. All these factors put Pentecostals in the magic-orientated state of mind of adherents of African traditional religions. So the forces (or religions) African Pentecostalism disavows are also the objects of its desires, that which animate it. This is one way to view the continuity-discontinuity debate in the scholarship on Africa Pentecostalism.

The two orientations—virtues and mastery—rooted in African traditional religions partly explain the success of Pentecostalism in Africa; in its ability to simultaneously draw from and reject African traditional religions, it equips Africans to live and thrive amid the flux of changes that characterize modern life in postcolonial societies. This is reminiscent of Harvey Cox’s insight that for any new religion to replace an old one and grow, it must “be able to include and transform at least certain elements of pre-existing religions which still retain a strong grip on the cultural subconscious.”28

Pentecostalism and African traditional religions are harmonically opposed in Africa. Pentecostalism maintains its differences from African traditional religions and at the same time negates them. In this way, it hides its appropriation through negation. A good number of African Pentecostalism’s interpretations, rituals, and practices express the secret of its uneasy coexistence with African traditional religions. In this oppositional relation, African Pentecostalism renders “inoperative” (in the Agambian sense) the practices of African traditional religions; that is, it both “abolishes” and “preserves” them, opening them to new possible uses. Yet the Pentecostals whose practices (especially deliverance exercises) are constituted by or defined through this oppositional relation presuppose them as unrelated to African traditional religions. In this sense, it can be said that a caesura, a cut, passes through African Pentecostal identity.

African Pentecostalism does not exist in a frozen state; it is labile and rapidly changing in a fast-moving modern world. Thus, it is difficult to offer a snapshot of the movement as it exists today that nonetheless gives the reader a sense of its movement and momentum. African Pentecostals are “anxious about their souls”: in the past they worried about the ultimate destination of their souls in the afterlife; now they are worried about “keeping them in their bodies.”29 Pentecostals are anxious about money, but their interest is in growing it in the banks rather than in expanding the kingdom of God. Pentecostals are eager to meet new people, but their interest is in networking for career success rather than in reaching people for Christ. Pentecostals are enthusiastic about acquiring power: in the past their primary concern was the use of wonder-working power to advance God’s reign on earth; now it is about political and economic power to strengthen personal fiefdoms and denominational empires. African Pentecostals are concerned about the social conscience of their nations: in the past they claimed to be the social or moral conscience of their countries; now they have appropriated for themselves the role of social climbers.

There are many factors that have worked to engender the dynamic imagery of today’s African Pentecostalism. One cannot examine all of them, but it suffices to provide an in-depth look at seven underlying factors, “fragments of social life” that illuminate Pentecostal life and culture.30 African Pentecostalism is not a system or a unified whole, and by concentrating on its fragments the scholar seeks to interpret what African Pentecostals “are up to, or think they are up to” without essentializing their faith.31 The creative interpretations of fragments of social life only gesture to the ways Pentecostals themselves think the various parts make up the whole—a way of thinking and responding to the world that is subject to endless internal debates.

The first of the fragments encompasses what Paul Ricoeur calls first and second naiveté.32 According to Ricoeur, religious people can live according to the symbols of their faith with little or no awareness of the limitations of the symbols of their ultimacy. Second, naiveté happens when people are aware of the limitations or the brokenness of their symbols but still allow the symbols to carry across the truth of their belief systems: they are not living with innocence, but with pragmatic adjustments to realities of the late-modern world even as they hold on to the literalness of the truth. African Pentecostals talk often about the miraculous in everyday life, the ordinary becoming extraordinary, yet they are aware that some aspects of scripture cannot stand up to critical examination and believe that the parts that do not stand up can still be revelatory and transformative. While certain texts can no longer stand as acceptable explanations for historical or future events—and thus may be considered as broken symbols—Pentecostals still believe that they have the power to symbolize God’s reign or faithfulness; such texts point beyond themselves to the power and presence of God. It is only naïve theologians or anthropologists who believe that African Pentecostals take every word or story of the scripture literally, and such scholars do not realize that it is through interpretation that Africans hear such words and stories again and again. Of course, there are Pentecostals or communities of Pentecostals who take their sacred tradition at face value, and “they might insist on this when the unbroken character of their symbols is challenged, particularly by outsiders. Yet hardly any community is wholly unaffected by the critical thought that comes with global communications.”33 The naiveté of African Pentecostals is critically informed by their practical dealings in late modernity; is mediated by their traditional cultures; and oscillates between pre-critical innocence and post-critical pragmatism as circumstances and interpretation warrant. Indeed, African Pentecostals simultaneously live in two moments, situating themselves on the horizons of two realities: scripture-world and life-world. This conjunction is a mode of existence.

This introduces a second fragment of Pentecostal life. For Africans, Pentecostalism is not just a garb of spirituality to be donned or a system of beliefs to which to assent. Pentecostalism is a mode of existing that the born-again believer assumes in order to access truth, strive for the new, and actualize her destiny or potential. This form of existing always locates itself in the gap: the moment or reality never coincides with itself, as there is always a crack providing for the unexpected to happen. African Pentecostals believe that there are always cuts in the fabric of reality: there are ruptures of preexisting temporal conditions taking place not in a mythic world but in contemporary social orders, and they are created and sustained by a certain kind of agent in every generation. Put differently, Pentecostals believe that there are time gaps in temporality: gaps that mean that there is always a new temporality in the flux of the past, present, and future by which human beings (or at least prayerful and spirit-filled believers) can insert themselves between the infinite past and the infinite future, thereby exercising their uniquely and supremely human capacity to begin something new and display the distinctiveness of each individual or her destiny.

The purpose of this insertion into temporality, or living in the gap, is to accomplish justice as a state of the world, not as a virtue. It is existence as such. African Pentecostals’ idea of actualizing their destiny or potential is not founded on needs or on the order of possession, but on the justice of the believer’s existence as a child of God with a particular destiny. It is necessary to make this fine distinction in order to fully grasp the fervency with which African Pentecostals pursue what they think is their God-given destiny. With this orientation to time gaps and the attendant view of justice, one can say, following Giorgio Agamben, that there is “a striking contraction of ethics and ontology, justice is presented not as a virtue but as a ‘state of the world,’ as the ethical category that corresponds not to having-to-be but to existence as such.”34 This is not about the right of possession, but the right of existence itself, the right of actualization of destiny itself. And it is akin to how Walter Benjamin understands justice:

Justice does not appear to refer to the good will of the subject, but, instead, constitutes a state of the world. Justice designates the ethical category of the existent, virtue the ethical category of the demanded. Virtue can be demanded; justice in the final analysis can only be as a state of the world or as a state of God.35

The mode of existing that engenders this notion of justice is born not only in view of salvation, but also its welling up in view of biblical flourishing as described in 3 John 2. Men and women have become Pentecostals not only in view of living in the body of Christ, but also for living well in the spirit. There are two meanings of life that function more as a signature than as a concept. There is a simple fact of living common to all Christians that constitute the body of Christ. And then there is life in the spirit, a mode of living well that signifies a way of living proper to Pentecostals—a life oriented to the spirit, a life of potentiality.

Third, to maintain this distinction and appropriate its supposed goodness demand a life of prayer, especially of the type called spiritual warfare. This is an exercise by which Pentecostals vigorously summon spiritual powers from the Holy Spirit to “violently” attack every enemy and obstacle blocking their progress or causing any form of suffering in their lives. It is executed with the dedication of warfare, creating an enactment or performance of the struggle for higher levels of human flourishing. But to understand it as a process, one needs to understand how it is that prayer becomes warfare. Spiritual warfare is the discourse that in praying about something also prays on the fact that it is praying about the ongoing prayer itself. Spiritual warfare manifests prayer and, at the same time, itself. The language of warfare implicitly or explicitly divides every reality or thing into its existentive nature (its existence, or perceived, particular essence) and its predicative nature (what is said about it). The task of prayer is to align them if they have been separated, or to properly situate the existentive being as the presupposition—what lies behind what is said of it—of the predicative being, what is said or comprehended. Spiritual warfare is thus a complex discourse of being and language, always striving toward either the non-presuppositional realm beyond language (to emancipate the power of one’s existence or destiny from the “wrong” sensible referents that have surrounded it) or to use the presuppositional power of language to reframe existentive being, to properly define the passage of existentive being to the comprehension and predication of human flourishing. So the Pentecostal does not just pray about something but also prays for the fact of praying itself, to endue the process of prayer with the proper dialectics of being and language.

African Pentecostals do not engage in spiritual warfare or go to church for the “religious experience”; they go for the combination of religious experience and results. Their worship or spirituality cannot be effectively grasped separately from the centrality of prayer, which is the womb or the “void” from which experience, results, and other things emanate. Having said this, it would be an oversimplification to believe that scholars can put forth prayer as the essence of African Pentecostalism. There is no general key to the secret, or “general nature,” of Pentecostalism in Africa, and the centrality of prayer does not provide one. Indeed, prayer—vibrant prayer aimed at human flourishing—shapes several fragments of spiritual life under which African Pentecostals shape their everyday lives. Nonetheless, it can only be considered as one fragment—however important—of the spiritual life, and of the social life processes, that affect differently the Nigerians, Kenyans, Ethiopians, and Zambians, as well as South Africans, Congolese, and Togolese.

Fourth, in order to look deeper into the aforementioned sociocultural fragments both as things and flows, scholars have to see how they are configured around the “I” or the presentation of the “I,” which is itself an evolving configuration. It is the “I” and its conceptualization as a fragment of social life that give us a lens through which to examine the importance of prayer as an ongoing construction and reconstruction of personhood, and thus as simultaneously spiritual, economic, and political, as well as private and public.

The Pentecostal self is not merely a placeholder for the roles it plays, nor is it distinct from the roles it plays. It is not Erving Goffman’s self as nothing; not a ghostly “I” that moves from one social role to the other without moral commitment. It has social content and a necessary social identification with its contingent state as a born-again believer, a follower of Jesus Christ, and it is this capacity to identify with a point of view that is seen as the essence of its moral agency. African Pentecostals do not see themselves as detached from social particularity or situation in order to pass judgment from the position of an abstract or universal point of view. There is a substantial selfhood—spirit-filled and attuned to scripture—that lies beneath or beyond the public presentations of role playing; it is not directly abstracted from its social situations, and often identifies itself with the roles it plays but does not lose itself within role-structured situations. This self as a substance is not static, but an embodiment of continually open possibilities.

Thus, the African Pentecostal “I” is constructed around three elements. The role or identity of a person as a born-again believer requires certain behavior, both in public and in private. There is a focal point for making moral evaluation. The perpetual question is: What is required of me given that I inhabit a specific social space? The second element concerns the virtues and discipline needed to enable one to perform one’s role, or live up to the moral behavior expected of a born-again believer. Finally, the human condition is vulnerable and fragile, always open to attack from the forces of evil, and thus one is at risk of derailment of one’s destiny or untimely death.36 And as Alasdair MacIntyre argues in a similar context: “None of these three elements can be made fully intelligible without reference to the other two, but the relationship between them is not merely conceptual. It is rather that all three elements can find their interrelated places only within a larger unitary framework, deprived of which we could not understand their significance for each other.”37 Such a framework is the narrative form of a moral life seen as spirit-filled and as the inevitable basis of human flourishing, as informed by a particular worldview (Christianity mediated by African traditional religions, and collective social structures and social conditions—in particular, cultural domains), and as undergirded by an agreement on the good life for humanity (the human telos, which is incorporation into God’s kingdom at the end of time). The “I” becomes what it is in African Pentecostalism only through its identity as a born-again self in community; “it is a social creation, not an individual one.”38

It is true to say that the “I” is a social creation and not an individual one, but it is truer to say that the Pentecostal “I” is bombarded by the forces and allure of late capitalism-fueled individualism. This then suggests that the “I” as a social representation of holistic Pentecostal personhood is indexical. What does this mean? There is no formal likeness between moral representation of the Pentecostal self and the lived experience of the self, no iconic relation: the socially created and situated self is drifting toward an emergent self, attuned to the consumerism and acquisitiveness provoked by the virulent prosperity gospel, which is turbo-charged by neoliberalism. The relationship between the moral representation of the “I” and the lived self is a kind of correspondence between the “I” and interpretative engagement with it in everyday life “that does not necessarily involve formal likeness between sign [the moral representation of the ‘I’] and object [lived-experience of the self in late capitalism] but rather a causal connection. The connection is such that what is valuable in the object, its value-identity, is discriminated in the intentional interpreter and manifest in thought and action.”39

Fifth, the tension identified between the moral representation of the Pentecostal “I” and the self as an interpretative engagement with it under the realities of existence raises another perpetual tension in the ethical conception of the lived life. What should be the goal of the labor of the self on the self, the techniques of the self, through which the Pentecostal seeks to govern her life for maximum flourishing and to make it to Heaven? This question is necessary because always lurking in the background of the indexical relation is a desire to move one’s moral life to an iconic relation, that is, the lived-experience of the self to be like the moral representation of Pentecostal “I.” Should the goal be a construction of the self, or the overcoming of the self? African Pentecostals believe that to have access to the anointing and the spiritual truths that will bring about maximum flourishing, the self must be rigorously disciplined, or transformed. The self that became born-again must be put in tension with itself. The person must become new: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (II Corinthians 5:17), they insist. The old self, the “old man,” must be deactivated, rendered inoperative and put to new possible use.

There is also the view that interpretative engagement with the moral representation of the Pentecostal “I” is best done when striving to overcome the self, or “crucify the flesh.” The goal of self-governance is to “kill” the flesh, which is always at war with the spirit. Regular fasting, separation from wealth, abstinence from sex, and general ascetic living become the path by which one can elevate one’s moral life to the level of iconic relation. The tension between overcoming the self and constructing the self may on the surface appear to show that they are different approaches to the moral life. They are not. They show that there is not a founding subject in Pentecostalism; the subject only emerges, is constituted, or is sustained through the practices and processes of subjectivization. Ethics is an intersection of the two forms of the care of the self whereby the believer constitutes herself as moral subject. Ethics is “the relationship that one has with oneself [as determined by the Pentecostal ‘I’ and one’s relation with the Holy Spirit] when one acts or enters into relation with others, constituting oneself each time as subject of one’s own acts, whether these belong to the sexual sphere, the economic, the political, the scientific, etc.”40 Ethics for African Pentecostals, to use Agamben’s words again, “is not the experience in which a subject holds itself behind, above, or beneath its own life but that whose subject constitutes and transforms itself in indissoluble immanent relation to its life, by living its life.”41 Ethics involves the work of the subject constituting and transforming itself by the totality of the usages of the body.

This brings us to the sixth fragment of Pentecostal social life in Africa: the use of the body. In everyday life, the body of an African Pentecostal is situated as both praxis and poiesis. In worship, prayer, spiritual warfare, or the mundane goings-on of life, she tries to create herself as a work of art, a “flesh” disciplined and governed to yield to the demands of its morally superior spirit. Insofar as the self is always a cohesion of body and spirit, acting and living well is in itself an end; the self is both its own means and end. Let us not forget that it is the body, the flesh, that is working on itself; it is the body’s practices that allow it to transform itself, ever engaged in the praxis, the actual being and doing of subjectivization. Spiritual life is a matter of reducing, if not eliminating, the weaknesses and desires of the flesh from the properly born-again life, which is incompatible with it, and rendering possible its techniques of the self on the self. It is here necessary to focus our attention on the special status of the body in Pentecostalism—at once excluded and included in the spiritual life, as that which is not properly spiritual but makes it possible to live and enjoy life on earth—which shows the confounding of the boundaries that separate physical (the phenomenal) from spiritual (the noumenal). The body properly belongs neither to the realm of the phenomenal nor to that of the noumenal. The body as conceived in African Pentecostalism is like “bare life”—to use Agamben’s phrase—a threshold that joins and separates the two realms. And to the extent that the body is both an instrument for spiritual life (poiesis) and is acting on itself (action of the self on the self as a praxis; the subject is internal to its own process), it is also at the threshold of praxis and poiesis.

These are not the only two instances in which the Pentecostal use of the body confounds boundaries or creates zones of indifference. It also complicates the limits that separate oikos from polis. Prior to the 1990s, African Pentecostals were criticized for being otherworldly and focused on the private sphere. Now it seems they have turned their attention to the public sphere. Their so-called entrance into the public sphere has meant a change in the historic public focus of mainline churches: “prophetic witnessing.” The “public focus” has been transformed into the instrumental, objectivized, commodified public sphere. The transformation of African Pentecostals previously given to an otherworldly form of spirituality into a group enamored by this-worldly interests has given rise to their increased use of products and services of the modern culture industry, or the commodified public exchange, to authenticate the personal, private sphere. The withdrawal of segments of African Pentecostals from their otherworldly form of spirituality has produced a privatized this-worldly realm. “The true problem of action, at least insofar as it concerns the relationship” of the born-again believer with her polis is that of the good use of the public sphere and not its transformation through political action.42 The caesura that divides the private from the public falls into an undecidable threshold. Broadly speaking, the African Pentecostal is a citizen whose action is the use of the body, whose value is not in the production of the public sphere, but in its good use; nothing (no Arendtian action) results apart from the use of the body to satisfy the necessities of life. Yet there is a great deal of attention paid to the labor process and spiritual exercises that this involvement in the public sphere entails. The nature of Pentecostal involvement in the polity is premised on an informed use of the body rather than action: implicitly questioning or resisting the centrality of action in the public sphere or the political and “thinking of use as a fundamental political category.”43

The set of conjunctions and disjunctions pertaining to the use of the body in Pentecostal social life may be traceable to the Christian-African originary fracture of person in flesh (body) and spirit. The visible body is what is disciplined to gain spiritual truths from the invisible realm, which truths in turn are directed to the pleasures and policing of the body—both as human body and body politic. This is metaphysics informing politics; hence Pentecostal politics is also metapolitics—metaphysics as metapolitics.

Let us now turn our attention to another series of supplementary oppositions that structure Pentecostal social life: tensions, dichotomies, and contradictions that remain unresolved for the born-again as symptoms of being simultaneously in the world and not of it. The resistance to easy resolution of this tension is ultimately linked to the concept of grace operational in African Pentecostalism—and this is the seventh and final fragment of social life we will consider. Grace in African Pentecostalism is an efficient cause, which has a principal agent (cause) and an instrumental cause.44 The believer acts or accomplishes deeds not on merit of her own virtue but due to her principal agent, the Holy Spirit. A knife cuts by virtue of an agent that wields it, but the knife acts according to its nature, which is to cut and cut well, and in cutting it is serving the end of its principal. In the same vein, the born-again believer accomplishes her deeds according to her destiny—her proper end as she conceives it—serving God to the degree that realizes her destiny (which in the first place is given by God). So the believer, as an “animate instrument” or instrumental cause, comprises two distinct and related parts: (a) the proper function, end, or destiny of the believer, and (b) God’s purpose or project, the function of the principal agent. By acting according to her destiny—being proper to herself—she realizes the operations of God on earth, for herself and for God’s kingdom. This is precisely what African Pentecostals mean when they pray that God should use them as God’s instrument or battleax in spiritual warfare or other situations: when they are using their bodies they are being used by God. To be used by God (to be subsumed under the final cause of the Almighty) is not only about operating according to one’s own form (destiny), but to also rise above the potentiality of one’s own destiny. In a crude sense, the goal of the Pentecostal “I,” the exercise of spiritual warfare, the labor of the self on the self, the operations of grace, and so on, are all undertaken with the purpose of bringing the African Pentecostal to comport “himself in the mode of an instrument,” as Thomas Aquinas is wont to say.45 This is what it means to be God’s subject—a slave of God—or to construe African Pentecostalism as a mode of existing. Rendered differently, the state of being one of God’s own is a politico-ethical category that corresponds not to acting but to existence as such, to a state of the world.

This writer has told the story of African Pentecostalism, which has diverse forms that cannot be easily harmonized. One did not tell the story as a way of offering an account of how African Pentecostalism achieved its current (“coherent”) form out of contradictions, dialectics, and emergent spirituality. And it is not advisable to seek to harmonize the various fragments in order to present a hegemonic narrative. Rather than focusing on comprehensively defining African Pentecostalism, a more fruitful line of inquiry instead centers on the interactions of fragments of social life by which African Pentecostalism is always in the process of becoming what it is. The presentation of fragments and developments with differing narrative tensions speaks to the genius (spirit) of adaptation and unfinished responses to problems or challenges of Christianity in its African home. These are responses and adaptations that put the accent on African agency and indigenous domestication of the theology and practices of Christianity as a way of organizing structures of meaning.

The Spirit of African Pentecostalism

Attention to the marginalization and fragmentary nature of Pentecostal political life is instructive in demonstrating that Pentecostalism, once a player at the margins of the African religious landscape, is today no longer marginalized in the religious, political, or cultural landscapes of Africa. It has broken not only the cast of marginalization but also shattered the various interpretative casts scholars molded for it.

African Pentecostalism is an assemblage of practices, ideas, and theologies—and interpretations of reality—whose tangled roots burrow deep into the three segments of African temporality. African Pentecostalism, like any other human endeavor, is full of fragments, and to understand it scholars must think in parts and not in unified cultural wholes. To this end, the “spirit” of African Pentecostalism does not signify a distilled essence, changeless core, irreducible substrate, or perfection of being but is deployed for the sake of highlighting specific observations, contemplations, and questions that point to something of broader significance for understanding the multidirectional openness of African Pentecostal social life without presuming a constrictive universalizing framework.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholars have thus far only interpreted African Pentecostalism in various ways; the point, however, is to affirm it. The history of all hitherto existing interpretations is the history of intellectual cast struggle.46 It is one paradigm against another, one succeeding another; all trying to put African Pentecostalism in prefabricated scholarly casts in the name of homogenous episteme, intellectual fads, or universalizing theory. Cast struggles dominate the historiography of African Pentecostalism.

The first of these interpretative casts denies the agency of Africans in the formation of Pentecostalism on their own continent. There are still too many scholars—especially in the West—who maintain that African Pentecostalism is an offshoot of the American Azusa Street 1906 revival. Doing so denies the fact that the early movements of Pentecostalism did not have links with American Pentecostals and also attributes the religious creativity of Africans to external agents.47 They mistake the influence of American evangelists and globalization on African Pentecostalism in the 1980s, or the receptivity of Africans to some innovations from outside, as evidence of origins, loss of agency, and failure of creativity.48 Africans are portrayed as mere consumers of American cultural hegemony.49 In this way, for example, the pioneering work of Garrick Braide and Wade Harris in West Africa is ignored. Scholars such as the late Nigerian historian Ogbu Kalu and British Pentecostal historian Allan Anderson have refuted the scholarship that postulates an Azusa Street origin for African Pentecostalism.50

Kalu has demonstrated that the current Pentecostal/charismatic phase of African Christianity is the “third response” to the Christian gospel. According to Kalu, what researchers hear today as the story of Pentecostal Christians taking the indigenous worldview seriously and applying biblical resources—especially with an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit—to experiences and demands of Africans started in the 19th century. The first response to Christianity, an early expression of indigenous Christianity, is generally known as Ethiopianism. The second response to missionary Christianity comprises the prophetic movements that lasted from 1910 to 1950.51 By paying close attention to historical facts and neglected stories of Africans in their own Christian development, Kalu broke open the hegemonic cast of Azusa historiography in which African initiatives were entombed.

When African Pentecostals were not cast into the mold of non-creative adaptors of foreign practices, they were labeled as fundamentalists and anti-modernists (anti-Weberian Protestant spirit), unable to break away from the past. Paul Gifford’s otherwise brilliant scholarship illustrates this kind of Pentecostal historiography.52 In his book Ghana’s New Christianity, he argues that Ghanaian Pentecostals are wedded to magical thinking that deemphasizes hard work because they consider that “faith, giving, deliverance and the pastor’s gifts are more important than hard work.”53 Pentecostals in Ghana are portrayed as not having imbibed the modern attitude toward hard work, time management, and a rational (rather than spiritualist) mindset necessary for economic development. Needless to say, Gifford’s view contradicts the portraits of Pentecostals painted by Ghanaian scholars such as Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu.54

From the perspective of seeing Pentecostals as throwbacks to a primordial past, to a so-called problematic traditional African culture, it is a short step to cast them as an ambiguous religious specimen in history. Social scientists and theologians debated if African Pentecostalism is in continuity or discontinuity with African traditional culture. 55 The true situation in Africa is not either/or. Pentecostals both accept and reject aspects of traditional African culture; what is transferred and incorporated into Pentecostalism has often been given new interpretation and meaning, so the continuous is also in a sense discontinuous. On the other hand, what is rejected draws Pentecostals into crucial dialogue and traffic with African traditional religions, an acceptance of the latter’s received categories. As Joel Robbins puts it, “In attacking local cultures, Pentecostalism tends to accept their ontologies—including their ontologies of spirits and witches and other occult powers—and to take the spiritual beings these ontologies posit as paramount among the forces it struggles against.”56 African Pentecostals are both inside and outside African traditional religions and cultures, representing both continuity and rupture in the same African religious landscape.57 Recently Allan Anderson has made the same point.58

Before this recent scholarship by Anderson and others like him, who refuse to fall into the trap of either/or, one could not help but wonder why scholars of African Pentecostalism did not consider the Pentecostal tradition as being like all other traditions, which are always subject to internal interpretative debates. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, tradition “is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.”59 If only some of the scholars had taken African Pentecostalism more seriously, they would have noticed that African Pentecostalism as a tradition is

an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least key parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal interpretative debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.60

Another cast in the historiography of African Pentecostalism that is being discarded or remolded is the argument that Pentecostals in Africa have rejected the public square and social justice and are largely apolitical. This viewpoint goes back to Gifford’s works in the 1990s, and to earlier works by other scholars.61 The result, according to Andreas Heuser, is that “the transformative potential of African Pentecostal theology and praxis has been underrated in scholarly discourse until recently.”62 One of the recent scholars Heuser has in mind is Ruth Marshall, who published Political Spiritualities to show the political nature of African Pentecostalism.63 Dena Freeman’s Pentecostalism and Development has demonstrated that African Pentecostals are engaging the public square, issues of national economic development, and matters of social justice. Beginning in the 1990s and intensifying in the 21st century, Pentecostals have increasingly become involved in the politics of their nations through a remarkable range of experiments in politics, national discourses on governance, diversity of political practices, politicized theologies, and actual policymaking.64 In addition, in many African countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Kenya, Pentecostal rhetoric has been mobilized to good effect in public political discourses.65

Though African Pentecostals’ current “massive presence in political life of Africa countries” surprised many scholars who had interpreted them as apolitical, Heuser argues that by 1989—the start of the so-called “second democratization” of Africa—among the emerging actors involved in politics were Pentecostal churches and individuals, “alongside mainline churches, however still comparatively marginalized.”66 Heuser is careful to note at the end of his analysis that Pentecostal participation in politics is too fragmentary to sustain a metanarrative or unified theory of African Pentecostal political theology. This indeed affirms the nature or spirit of African Pentecostalism as “flung and scattered among [several traditions] like broken china in the sun.”67

Primary Sources

There are no major collections of primary sources relevant to African Pentecostalism, but there are five major types of primary sources pertinent to the study of African Pentecostalism. They are (a) ethnography/observation, (b) church/denomination records, publications, and other materials, (c) reports of governments and non-governmental organizations, (d) news outlets, and (e) electronic primary sources. None of these is organized in a searchable database. They have been named only to point readers to potential locations of materials for the studies of Pentecostalism.

The first and most important set of primary sources for studying African Pentecostalism consists of ethnographic observations, oral histories, testimonies, and field interviews. The second comprises individual church/denomination records; sermons and statements of leaders in the movement; magazines and churches’ welcome information; books, pamphlets, tracts, and essays by the pioneers, pastors, leaders, and members of the movement. The third centers on governmental and NGO reports on religion and religious conflicts in individual countries, all useful sources of information. The fourth encompasses newspapers, magazines, and television and radio newscasts that report on events when they occurred. Finally, in the digital and social media age, television, radio, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube have become important sources for the study of African Pentecostals. The websites and the “media empires” of African Pentecostal churches, denominations, and leaders are important primary sources for studying the movement.

Further Reading

  • Adogame, Afe. The African Christian Diaspora: New Currents and Emerging Trends in World Christianity. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
  • Anderson, Allan. Introduction to Pentecostalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Asamoah-Gyadu, J. Kwabena. Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity: Interpretation from an African Context. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013.
  • Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff. Of Revelation and Revolution. Vol. 2, The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
  • Freeman, Dena, ed. Pentecostalism and Development: Churches, NGOs and Social Change in Africa. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Gifford, Paul. Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing Economy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
  • Gornick, Mark. Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011.
  • Haustein Jörg. Writing Religious History: The Historiography of Ethiopian Pentecostalism. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2011.
  • Heuser, Andreas, ed. Pastures of Plenty: Tracing Religio-Scapes of Prosperity Gospel in Africa and Beyond. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2015.
  • Kalu, Ogbu Uke. African Pentecostalism: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Kalu, Ogbu Uke. The Collected Essays of Ogbu Uke Kalu. Vol. 1, African Pentecostalism: Global Discourses, Migrations, Exchanges, and Connections. Edited by Wilhelmina J. Kalu, Nimi Wariboko, and Toyin Falola. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2010.
  • Marshall, Ruth. Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Maxwell, David. African Gifts of the Spirit: Pentecostalism and the Rise of a Zimbabwean Traditional Religious Movement. Oxford: James Currey, 2006.
  • Meyer, Brigit. “Going and Making Public: Pentecostalism as Public Religion in Ghana.” In Christianity and Public Culture in Africa. Edited by Harri Englund, 149–166. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011.
  • Wariboko, Nimi. “Pentecostal Paradigms of National Economic Prosperity in Africa.” In Pentecostalism and Prosperity: The Socio-Economics of the Global Charismatic Movement. Edited by Katherine Attanasi and Amos Yong, 35–59. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Wariboko, Nimi. Nigerian Pentecostalism. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2014.


  • 1. J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “‘From Every Nation under Heaven’: Africa in World Pentecostalism,” in Global Renewal Christianity, eds. Vinson Synan, Amos Yong, and J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, vol. 3, Spirit Empowered Movements: Past, Present, and Future (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2016), xxxi.

  • 2. Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), 87.

  • 3. Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa from Antiquity to the Present (London: SPCK, 1995), 98–99; see also 124, 132–134, 141–142, 155–156, 167, 176, 185, 190, 208, 217.

  • 4. Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 98–99; see also Walls, Missionary Movement in Christian History, 87–89, 127–129; and Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 187–215. The discussions in the next few paragraphs come from these sources.

  • 5. Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, 196.

  • 6. Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, 187, 191.

  • 7. Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, 189.

  • 8. Yolanda Covington-Ward, “Threatening Gestures, Immoral Bodies: The Intersection of Church, State, and Kongo Performance in the Belgian Congo” in Missions, States, and European Expansion in Africa, eds. Chima J. Korieh and Raphael Chijioke Njoku (New York: Routledge, 2007), 78.

  • 9. Covington-Ward, “Threatening Gestures, Immoral Bodies,” 81.

  • 10. AA portefeuille AIMO 1634/9191B, unnumbered document, 2–4, quoted in Covington-Ward, “Threatening Gestures, Immoral Bodies,” 80.

  • 11. Covington-Ward, “Threatening Gestures, Immoral Bodies,” 82–83, 84; see also Isichei, History of Christianity in Africa, 199–201.

  • 12. This story of Prophetess Agnes Okoh’s life in this essay is based on Thomas Oduro, Christ Holy Church International: The Story of an African Independent Church (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2007);Agnes Okoh, 1905–1995, Christ International Church, Nigeria,” Dictionary of African Christian Biography; and Israel O. Olofinjana, 20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria: Their Lives, Their Legacies, vol. 1 (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2011), 63–71.

  • 13. Olofinjana, 20 Pentecostal Pioneers, 67.

  • 14. “Agnes Okoh, 1905–1995, Christ International Church, Nigeria,” Dictionary of African Christian Biography, lines 80–85.

  • 15. Ogbu Uke Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 23–26.

  • 16. Isichei, History of Christianity in Africa, 125–128, 248.

  • 17. Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 32.

  • 18. Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 32–33 (italics in the original).

  • 19. These are the latest figures from World Christian Database, eds. Todd Johnson and Gina Zurlo, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016). In 1910, the number of renewalists (Pentecostals, charismatics, and independents) in Africa was only 1.1 million compared to 1.2 million in the whole world.

  • 20. For some of the other factors, see Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 18–19, 41; see also Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 92–98.

  • 21. Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of Non-Western Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997); and Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Revised and Expanded (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009).

  • 22. Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity?, 11.

  • 23. This is a protean, amorphous, and decentralized congeries of movements.

  • 24. This behavior or attitude is not unique to them. Social movements are known to simultaneously draw from their contexts and cultures but also reject some aspects that do not suit their own goals, ideology, or philosophy.

  • 25. See Pentecostalism and Development: Churches, NGOs and Social Change in Africa, ed. Dena Freeman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); and Nimi Wariboko, Nigerian Pentecostalism (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2014).

  • 26. Afe Adogame, The African Christian Diaspora: New Currents and Emerging Trends in World Christianity (London: Bloomsbury, 2012); see also Mark Gornik, Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).

  • 27. For a study of the variants of the Pentecostal prosperity gospel in Africa, see Nimi Wariboko, “Pentecostal Paradigms of National Economic Prosperity in Africa,” in Pentecostalism and Prosperity: The Socio-Economics of the Global Charismatic Movement, eds. Katherine Attanasi and Amos Yong (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 35–59.

  • 28. Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995), 219.

  • 29. The words in quotation marks come from Homer G. Barnett, Indian Shakers: A Messianic Cult of the Pacific Northwest (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1957), 239, quoted in Bryan R. Wilson, Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Religious Movements of Protest Among Tribal and Third-World Peoples (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 359.

  • 30. Peter Van Der Veer, The Value of Comparison (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 1–47.

  • 31. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 15.

  • 32. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 349–352.

  • 33. Robert Cummings Neville, Philosophical Theology, vol. 1, Ultimates (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013), 159.

  • 34. Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 81.

  • 35. Walter Benjamin, “Notes Toward a Work on the Category of Justice,” trans. Peter Fenves in his The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 257, quoted in Agamben, Use of Bodies, 81.

  • 36. I owe this way of capturing Pentecostal moral thought to Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology, 2d ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 128–129.

  • 37. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 129.

  • 38. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 129.

  • 39. Robert Cummings Neville, Philosophical Theology, vol. 2, Existence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014), 220.

  • 40. Agamben, Use of Bodies, 102.

  • 41. Agamben, Use of Bodies, 104.

  • 42. Jean-Paul Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, The Travail et esclavage en Grèce ancienne (Brussels: Complexe, 1988), 33, quoted in Agamben, Use of Bodies, 19.

  • 43. Agamben, Use of Bodies, 23.

  • 44. This discussion of grace here is inspired by Agamben, Use of Bodies, 70–75.

  • 45. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 2d rev. ed. (London: Burnes, Oates, and Washbourne, 1920), quoted in Agamben, Use of Bodies, 74.

  • 46. Here I am mimicking Karl Marx’s, and Marx and Frederick Engel’s, famous statements about philosophers and history.

  • 47. See Joel Robbins, “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 117–143.

  • 48. Paul Gifford, The New Crusaders (London: Pluto Press, 1991); and Steve Brouwer, Paul Gifford, and Susan Rose, Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism (New York: Routledge, 1996).

  • 49. Paul Gifford, African Christianity: Its Public Role (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

  • 50. Ogbu Uke Kalu, African Pentecostalism: Global Discourses, Migrations, Exchanges, and Connections, vol. 1, The Collected Essays of Ogbu Uke Kalu, eds. Wilhelmina J. Kalu, Nimi Wariboko, and Toyin Falola (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2010), 12–55; Allan Anderson, “Writing the Pentecostal History of Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” Journal of Beliefs and Values 25.2 (2004): 139–151; and Allan Anderson, Introduction to Pentecostalism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  • 51. Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 23–26.

  • 52. Paul Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing Economy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).; “Some Recent Developments in African Christianity,” African Affairs 93.373 (1994): 513–534; “Ghana’s Charismatic Churches,” Journal of Religion in Africa 24 (1994): 241–265; and African Christianity.

  • 53. Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity, 156.

  • 54. J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity: Interpretation from an African Context (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013).

  • 55. Joel Robbins, “On the Paradoxes of Global Pentecostalism and the Perils of Continuity Thinking,” Religion 33 (2003): 221–231; and Cox, Fire from Heaven.

  • 56. Robbins, “On the Paradoxes,” 223.

  • 57. Nimi Wariboko, Nigerian Pentecostalism, 5, 26.

  • 58. Allan Anderson, “The Spirit and the African Spiritual World,” in Global Renewal Christianity, eds. Vinson Synan, Amos Yong, and J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, vol. 3, Spirit Empowered Movements: Past, Present, and Future (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2016), 304–320.

  • 59. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 222.

  • 60. Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 12.

  • 61. See Jeff Haynes, Religion and Politics in Africa (London: Zed Books, 1996), 204.

  • 62. Andreas Heuser, “Disjunction-Conjunction-Disillusionment: African Pentecostalism and Politics,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emerging Religions 18.3 (2016): 7.

  • 63. Ruth Marshall, Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

  • 64. Heuser, “Disjunction-Conjunction-Disillusionment.”

  • 65. Heuser, “Disjunction-Conjunction-Disillusionment,” 12; see also Brigit Meyer, “Going and Making Public: Pentecostalism as Public Religion in Ghana,” in Christianity and Public Culture in Africa, ed. Harri Englund (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2011), 149–166.

  • 66. Heuser, “Disjunction-Conjunction-Disillusionment,” 10, 9.

  • 67. John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, “Ibadan,” in Collected Poems, 1958–1988 (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1991), 14.