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Christian History Home > 2003 > Issue 79 > Supernatural Faith

Supernatural Faith
Known for their fidelity to prayer and confrontation with the spirits of indigenous religion, West Africa's Aladura churches grew from the radical faith of a group of visionary leaders.
by Elizabeth Isichei and Robert Schirmer | posted 7/01/2003 12:00AM

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Faith moves mountains—and cultures. For the West African Aladura Christians, spiritual things—whether holy or, in the case of native religion, hostile—are as tangibly real as the landscape, and those who pray in faith can expect tangible, sometimes startling results.

The name Aladura, Yoruba for "Owners of Prayer," is proudly worn by a family of churches that sprang from the ministries of charismatic prophets in Yorubaland (Nigeria) after World War I. These churches have since spread far beyond their West African roots. After the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970), Aladura churches emerged in that country, and through the West African Diaspora they have become firmly established in Britain, North America, and other parts of the world.

Fervor and generosity in congregational life, strong devotion to prayer and fasting, openness to dreams and visions, the frequent use of prayer for the healing of mental and physical illness—the Aladura share all of these thoroughly biblical traits with the Zionist churches of South Africa. Both groups are part of a larger family of prophetic African initiated churches that flourish in some African countries—such as Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Ghana—but are much less common in others.

Members of Aladura and kindred groups often wear a distinctive dress, such as white robes, to symbolize their separation from the world. They are uncompromisingly hostile to African traditional religion, and this contributes greatly to their appeal: they offer their followers protection against witchcraft—which still strikes fear in the hearts of many postcolonial Africans.

The most prominent Aladura churches are these:

The Christ Apostolic Church grew out of an Anglican Bible study group founded in 1920 and was associated with the British Apostolic Church from 1931 to 1941. Its distinctive hallmark is its rejection of both traditional and western medicine.

The Cherubim and Seraphim Society was founded by two visionaries, Moses Orimolade and Christiana Abiodun, in 1925. Though it divided into many separate churches, nearly all of these in time reunited. Its members wear white robes and embark on long preaching tours.

The Church of the Lord (Aladura) was founded by another visionary, Josiah Ositelu, in 1930.

The Celestial Church of Christ, one of the most popular Aladura churches, was founded by a Porto Novo carpenter, Samuel Oschoffa, in 1947. It grew into a major church from the 1960s on, after the establishment of a branch in Lagos.

The Aladura churches were originally relatively small; but there was a great influx, often of the poor and uneducated, during the Revival of 1930. This revival was led by Joseph Babalola, a road-grader driver who reluctantly became a prophet and leader after a series of visions. Babalola's revival was powerful, if short lived; he called on people to burn their traditional religious images, and thousands responded and joined either Aladura or mission churches.

The following are profiles of four of the most influential leaders.

—Elizabeth Isichei

Keeper of the Names

Josiah Ositelu (1902-1966) was too mystical for the Anglicans or even other Aladura leaders. But out of a long career as a witch-busting evangelist, he founded a far-flung Aladura church.

"I will give you the key of power like Moses, and will bless you like Job." So ran one of the thousands of Divine messages Josiah Ositelu believed he received directly from God—complete with sacred symbols, names, and even a unique form of writing. In 1926, during a series of harrowing night battles against the power of witches, he called on God by revealed names like Anomonolnollahhuha. In an April 1927 revelation, he received his own personal holy name, Arrabablalhubab, which he used for the next 20 years as a personal signature.

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