How the Spanish Flu Fractured African Christianity
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The pandemic created an enduring legacy of obsession with healing miracles.
- Like coronavirus, the Spanish flu kept Christians from worshipping in person.
- Several African leaders started preaching their own version of Christianity that relied more on prayer than on the Anglican Church and drew on local African tradition.
- Nigeria’s Faith Tabernacle Church — which aligned with the more expressive American Pentecostal movement — was one of the new branches to emerge.
A century ago, Daddy Ali had a vision. The sexton of the Anglican Church in a small village of predominantly Yoruba people in Ijebu-Ode in today’s southwestern Nigeria told church authorities he had seen his parish divided into two disproportionate parts — a small one in the light and a larger one in darkness. A voice had told him that the small part was illuminated because of its adherence to prayer.
At the time, darkness had spread across the globe due to the Spanish flu that infected a third of the world’s population and killed 50 million people. In British-controlled Nigeria, gatherings were banned and places of worship shuttered — conditions much of the world faces today with the coronavirus pandemic. As the faithful were disconnected from their spiritual homes, the pandemic unexpectedly created schisms in the blossoming Christian faith on the continent.
Ali’s assertions were not greeted warmly. The resident Sierra Leonean priest bluntly dismissed him, “reminding him that he was a gardener, not a dreamer,” writes Deidre Helen Crumbley, a professor of Africana studies at North Carolina State University, in her book Spirit, Structure and Flesh: Gendered Experiences in African Instituted Churches Among the Yoruba of Nigeria. Ali’s dream would have been all but forgotten had it not happened again. This time, Ali went to a group of church elders, who gave him a sympathetic ear.
[The Aladura movement] was just the culmination of a series of responses to what was deemed as unacceptable foreign domination.
Gbénró Adégbolá, historian
In 1918, Ali co-founded a prayer group called Egbe Okuta Iyebiye, or the Precious Stone Society. Another founder was a young schoolteacher named Sophia Odunlami. While in a trance during a mild case of the flu, Odunlami claimed to have been instructed to use sanctified rainwater and prayers for divine healing. The group saw it as further evidence of its calling to spiritual awakening, and Odunlami became a traveling evangelist in the province, urging local Christians to rely exclusively on prayers.
Across Africa, the unrestrained expression of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in church had been labeled Voodoo by the European colonial churches that promoted medical models while downplaying literal translations of healings by Jesus Christ in the Bible. The Nigerian Anglican mission understandably railed against the prayer group ideology.
“Before the British created the colonial state of Nigeria, responsibility for maintaining the well-being of Yoruba people fell under the auspices of indigenous specialists whose services were affordable, accessible and ritually familiar … [including] the babalawo, paramount Yoruba priest and diviner of the Ifa oracle,” Crumbley writes. “Christian missionaries condemned the babalawo as ‘pagan’ and indigenous healing lost credibility in the mind of Christian converts.”
Elsewhere across Africa, dozens of similar spiritual movements sprang up. These new-generation sects condemned African deities, but their doctrinal model seemed closer in mode of worship to the traditional religions than to straitjacket European Christianity. In 1918, the Church of Twelve Apostles began in Ghana, the first of such “spiritual churches” in the former Gold Coast.
In Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo), Simon Kimbangu, who would become famous for his miracles in 1921, received a vision to lay hands on the sick. The Xhosa prophetess Nontetha Nkwenkwe, who believed she had survived the influenza to spread the gospel, started a new movement. In 1922, the pre-apartheid-era colonial administration in South Africa incarcerated Nkwenkwe in a mental hospital for “encouraging Africans to boycott white churches.”
Joseph Babalola, another young convert in a different parish in southwestern Nigeria, was expelled by the Anglican Church in the early 1920s. He was heavily invested in visions, healings and life as an itinerant preacher and initially joined the Faith Tabernacle Church — the new name for the Precious Stone Society. Babalola later led the Great Revival of 1930 in the region, converting hundreds to Christianity.
As for the Precious Stone Society, many of its members either recovered from the Spanish flu or did not contract the disease. They believed the influenza had been caused by witches and required a homegrown spiritual solution. They preached against both Western and traditional medicines, as well as infant baptism. In time, the group became popular but remained within the church, says historian Gbénró Adégbolá.
By 1922, the Precious Stone Society had left the Anglican Church to align with the more expressive American Pentecostal movement and changed its name to the Faith Tabernacle Church. “The idea of charismatic healing prayers became more popular, though most people didn’t seem to agree with the exclusivity [of faith alone],” says Adégbolá.
More splinter groups emerged. In 1940, Babalola left to found the Christ Apostolic Church, the biggest of the early evangelical churches. They all bore the generic nickname Aladura, from adura, the Yoruba term for prayer, which has roots in the Arabic word du’a. “Aladura was probably a derisive nickname [just] like Methodist was also a nickname,” explains Adégbolá, whose father was the founding principal of a well-known Methodist seminary in the same part of southwestern Nigeria. “[The movement] was just the culmination of a series of responses to what was deemed as unacceptable foreign domination.”
Today, they have grown to encompass hundreds of branches across Africa, North America and Europe, exporting their own brand of Christianity with an obsessive culture of healing born from a pandemic.