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.

Ositelu was the son of an illiterate pagan farmer from Ogere in Ijebuland (Nigeria). His father and grandfather were men of chiefly lineage. Several siblings born before Josiah all died at a young age, allegedly through the evil forces of witches. Throughout his life Josiah would call on God to counteract the evil forces of witchcraft.

A mystic from childhood, who received his early schooling at the Anglican school at Ogere, Josiah prophesied, read signs in the sky, discerned witches, and heard angel voices. This caused anxiety to his parents and eventually got him dismissed from the Anglican Church, though not before he had served for many years as a catechist. In 1928, two years after he had his first revelations and was dismissed from the church, Josiah Ositelu returned to Ogere to preach. He spoke in tongues during his meetings, using the holy names he had been taught. Soon he acquired the reputation and following of a prophet, spurring leaders from established Aladura churches to ally with him.

The union proved short-lived when Ositelu tried to impose his teaching that God must be called by certain secret names before prayer could be heard.

He accepted his rejection by these other leaders as the fulfillment of another foretelling vision, in which he had heard "The Elders shall hold council to change your heart, but you shall prevail."

Independent again, Ositelu returned to the rural towns and began to plant churches under the name The Church of the Lord. Growth came slowly, but its onset, in the 1940s and 1950s, was tidal. Soon his church spread through Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Europe, and North America.

Ositelu became Primate of the Church of the Lord (Aladura) and lived to see a new generation take the reigns of leadership, yet his church suffered no fewer than 18 schisms. However, Josiah Ositelu approached his death in 1966 a contented man, reckoning that he had fulfilled words given to him in his youth: "I will build the New Jerusalem in you. You are the one whom Jesus Christ has sent like the last Elijah to repair the Lord's road and make his way straight."

—Robert Schirmer

Elder and Statesman

Isaac Akinyele (1882-1955) was above all a holy man—a man of impeccable character who gave liberally of his wealth, judged impartially, and exercised authority with loving care.

Isaac Akinyele grew up in an Anglican family in the Yoruba and predominantly Muslim city of Ibadan, in western Nigeria. He was a member of the Yoruba elite of his day. He worked for a time as a civil servant and then became a successful entrepreneur, establishing cocoa plantations.

Until 1924, Akinyele was a devout Anglican layman. He then joined the Christ Apostolic Church (CAC, known at the time as Faith Tabernacle), an Aladura group with roots in Pentecostalism that strongly emphasizes Bible study, and remained a faithful member for the rest of his life.

He refrained from the use of both western and traditional medicine, as the church required, even when his children fell ill. He also gave up alcohol and tobacco, saying that it was harder to give up smoking than Western medicine! Some Aladura churches—but not CAC—tolerated polygamy. Isaac was married with seven children but from the 1930s, decided that God was calling him to abstain from sex, even within marriage.

One of the problems the Aladura faced was that nearly all secondary schools were run by the mission churches. CAC founded a grammar school to which Isaac contributed generously, when necessary paying the teacher's salaries. He anonymously sent substantial monthly donations to other churches as well. It was only when he died, and the money dried up, that people found out where it came from. He contributed much of his own church's collection, putting in small coins so that the source would be less obvious. He worked for years as an unpaid senior pastor and led a series of revivals in the city in the 1940s and early 1950s, teaching that a church must always be in a state of revival, or it would die spiritually.

Isaac was deeply involved in community affairs. He was an incorruptible customary court judge who insisted on paying for even the smallest gifts from litigants. Many Christians believed that they should not hold chieftaincy titles, because they were often linked with traditional religion. Isaac was appointed to various traditional offices, which he always held in a Christian way. For example he was appointed Balogun, one of the city's highest titles. The Balogun was supposed to hold a staff, anointed weekly with sheep's blood. Failure to do this was thought to bring death upon the delinquent one. Isaac had a Christian staff made, with a cross, dedicated by church members with prayer and fasting

In 1955, he became the Olubadan (non-hereditary traditional ruler) of Ibadan. Although some objected, because of his total rejection of traditional religion, he was chosen by an overwhelming majority. He then prayed for his political opponents.

Isaac was a prosperous and successful man, who used his wealth to help Christian and charitable causes, and needy individuals. He held public office with his reputation intact, and without making any concessions to traditional religion. His elder brother Alexander was a holy and much loved Anglican bishop, and in their old age the two, who were very close, spent much time together.

—Elizabeth Isichei

Wonder Worker

As with many African church leaders, the ministry of Moses Orimolade (1879-1933) had its origin in a vision.

From outside the CMS mission church, the pastor could see a strange phosphorescent glow lighting the interior. Singing like that of a large choir wafted through the evening air. The pastor went to investigate—and came upon a child sitting in the middle of the empty church, quietly regarding him through unruffled eyes. The child, born Orimolade Okijebu, a scion of a chiefly family in Ikare, Western Nigeria, would soon be known as Moses Orimolade. He would go on to a storied career of evangelism and wonder-working—eventually co-founding the Cherubim and Seraphim Society.

Like Paul, Moses had his thorn. As a young man, he was a paralytic, and mocked for his disability. He prayed for God to manifest power and was given a dream. In the dream an Angel gave him a rod—for victory, a royal insignia—for powerful prayer and powerful speaking, and a crown—for honor and respect.

After the vision, he recovered the use of his legs (though he remained partially lame throughout his life) and used them to spread the gospel throughout Nigeria. At one town he condemned the once-popular practice of human sacrifice with these words: "God created man in his own image. It is unjustifiable to carry out human sacrifice, and furthermore it is sacrilegious." Hundreds converted.

At another town he is said to have quoted the entirety of Genesis and Exodus from memory and interpreted it verse by verse to the transfixed congregation.

On one famed occasion, when an adversary called Orimolade a liar and tried to harm him with charms, the man suddenly found himself unable to stand and collapsed, unconscious. Moses prayed and the man revived. From that time on he was known as Baba Aladura, or "the praying father."

Moses refused to use the first-person pronoun "I," saying "Only God is the great 'I Am.'" Refusing gifts from impoverished admirers, he kept all his worldly wealth in a reed basket and a box, and he often bade needy persons take what they needed.

After his death, the Cherubim and Seraphim Society named their leader a saint, and today prayers are offered to the "God of Moses Orimolade."

—Robert Schirmer

Missionary Mother-Hen

Christianah Olatunrinle (c. 1855-1941) took the difficult step of destroying all the images of her protector spirits. Then she preached her way across Nigeria, with the message of a God above all spirits.

Like Isaac Akinyele, Christianah Olatunrinle was a member, not a founder, of an Aladura church—in this case, the Cherubim and Seraphim. She grew up in a chief's family in the eastern Yoruba state of Ondo. She had an unhappy arranged marriage, which produced one child, a daughter, and after a time she left her husband. Both before and after her marriage, she was deeply involved in long distance trade and became so wealthy that, for example, she returned her marriage dowry. She was an active Anglican but had not abandoned traditional religion; fearing that her prosperity would attract jealousy, she had sought protection in charms and traditional ritual.

In 1926, Olatunrinle went to Lagos on a business trip. If she was really born in 1855, she would have been 61, but it may well be that her age has been exaggerated, to make her later career even more remarkable. In Lagos, she attended a meeting of the recently founded Cherubim and Seraphim.

Initially reluctant to abandon the protection of traditional religion, as the group required, Olatunrinle was converted by a vision—one of many throughout the her long life. Returning home, she destroyed all her protective talismans. Soon afterwards, her only daughter, now the mother of four children, died, but this tragedy did not weaken her faith. Later one of her granddaughters would join her in her Christian work.

In 1933, a vision led her to embark on an epic missionary journey, on foot, with two companions—she paid the expenses. The trip, to both eastern and northern Nigeria, was the first of several such preaching tours for Olatunrinle. In the Cherubim tradition, she sometimes mounted a direct challenge against traditional religion.

Like Isaac Akinyele, Christianah Olatunrinle was rich and generous, and a born leader. She bought land for a church and supported a school, called "The Lord's Glory." She brought up many poor children, who regarded her as their mother. Nine days before her death, she had a final vision—of a hen with many chickens, carried away by a great bird.

—Elizabeth Isichei