An African way: the African Independent churches

by Michael Harper

Understanding the emergence of independent African churches.

DURING 1918 a semi-literate African called Simon Kimbangu had a vision. He had been converted to Christianity through the work of British Baptist missionaries and baptized by immersion in a local river. In his vision, Kimbangu received a call from God to be a prophet and a healer. Like the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, he ran away from his vision, leaving his small home village of Nkamba in the Congo (now Zaire) and trying to find a job in Leopoldville (modern-day Kinshasa).

But in 1921 he returned to the village he had fled from and began preaching and healing the sick. In six months his following grew to over 10,000 and stretchers were piled high wherever he went. One day, he stood on a hill near his village and prophesied that a large church would be built on it. and that leaders from all over the world would come and worship there.

With the sudden growth of his following, Simon Kimbangu posed a threat to both the Belgian colonial government and the Roman Catholic Church. He was thought to be dangerously subversive. Kimbangu fled, but later gave himself up — only to be tried before a military tribunal, which was a travesty of justice. He was allowed no defence; after a flogging he was condemned to death. The Belgian king commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

Kimbangu spent the whole of the rest of his life in prison. Deported to the other side of the country, he never saw his wife or three sons again. He died in 1951. His followers went underground. The movement he started was proscribed by the colonial administration and largely led by the prophet Kimbangu’s wife. When it eventually emerged and was recongnized by the government after the overthrow of the colonial administration, it numbered several million members.

In 1969 the church now called Eglise de Jesus Christ sur la terre par le prophete Simon Kimbangu, applied for membership and was admitted to the World Council of Churches On the hill of Nkamba a huge church has now been erected, and in November 1981 a party of church leaders from all over the world came there to worship with the Kimbanguists, so fulfilling the vision of sixty years before. The Kimbanguist Church now numbers over five million members and has expanded into neighbouring states such as Angola and modem Congo.

This particular church is the largest of the so-called African Independent Churches, which have sprung up throughout the continent. These churches can now claim a total of over twenty million adherents and are probably growing faster than any other churches in Africa. A recent survey has estimated that there are more than 6,000 such groups in Africa, with over 700 in Kenya alone. The African Independent Churches constitute one of the most remarkable phenomena of church growth in the twentieth century.

Home-grown religion

The key factor to understanding the emergence of these churches is undoubtedly the racial paternalism exercised by foreign missions in the period before Africans took over leadership of the mainline denominations. The local people wanted their own taboos and purification rites — not those dictated to them by Westerners.

One key issue was polygamy, a practice condemned by pre-war Western missionaries. Many of the earliest independent churches, particularly in West Africa, believed polygamy to be essentially ‘African’, and so practised it where it had been forbidden before. The Kimbanguist Church is exceptional in this respect — it has never permitted polygamy.

The African Independent Churches do not follow the pattern of the old European denominations. Doctrine and statements of faith are not their strong point: the Kimbanguist Church had to draw up a doctrinal statement before it could be admitted to the World Council of Churches. It is largely orthodox in its teaching on Christ and the Trinity, but still deviates from orthodox Western ways of thinking about the Holy Spirit. It has set up its own theological seminary which is staffed largely by the Swiss Reformed Church.

Not all the African Independent Churches are pentecostal or charismatic, but the majority reflect this emphasis. Most of them practise healing and exorcism —with speaking in tongues and prophecy having an important place in their church life. The prophet or healer took the place of the old tribal witch-doctors or medicine men. The fact that Western missionaries often did not believe in divine healing and prophesying, or gave a minor role to them, meant that Africans were encouraged to join the new independent churches which catered for these needs.

The African Independent Churches have moved outside the continent of Africa. There are, for example, Kimbanguist congregations in Paris and Brussels. There are also churches in Britain among African immigrants, particularly in Birmingham. In Africa itself, there is an interesting change in attitudes: many of the Independent Churches are now looking to the oldest African churches for inspiration and leadership, particularly the Ethiopian Orthodox and Egyptian Coptic Churches.

Some have joined the World Council of Churches and this has exposed them to influences from other traditions, an experience which has been mutually beneficial. The Independent Churches have sometimes blended Christian and animistic ideas in an unhealthy way. In throwing out Western cultural baggage they may have taken on board equally unhelpful or even harmful African religious baggage.

The Christians in these essentially indigenous churches have been called ‘the natural evangelists of Africa’ and undoubtedly have an important continuing role to play in the future shape of the Christian church in Africa. CH

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