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An African Initiated Church is a Protestant Christian denomination started in Africa, by Africans, and not by missionaries from another continent, sometimes holding to one or more African tribal belief systems sycretised with Christianity.


A variety of overlapping terms exist for these forms of Christianity: African Initiated Churches, African Independent Churches, African Indigenous Churches and African Instituted Churches. The abbreviation AIC covers them all. The differences in names correspond to the aspect that a researcher wishes to emphasize. Those who wish to point out that AICs exhibit African cultural forms, describe them as "indigenous," and so on. In other words, these terms have largely been imposed upon such groups, and may not be the way they would describe themselves.

Some scholars argue that independent churches or religious movements demonstrate syncretism or partial integration between aspects of Christian belief and African traditional religion, but the degree to which this happens varies, and has often been exaggerated. Often these churches have resulted from a process of acculturation between traditional African beliefs and Protestant Christianity, and have split from their parent churches.

The charge of syncretism suggests an 'impure' and superficial form of Christianity used to maintain older cultural practices and beliefs. More recently, academic opinion has shifted towards recognizing that all forms of Christianity entail some adaptation to ethnic or regional cultural systems. Bengt Sundkler, one of the most prominent pioneers of research on African independent churches in South Africa, initially argued that AICs were bridges back to a pre-industrial culture. Later, he recognized instead that AICs helped their affiliates to adapt to a modernizing world that was hostile to their cultural beliefs.

While the term "African" is appropriate, given that these Christian groupings formed in Africa, AICs differ from one another. Not all African cultural systems are the same: regional variations occur among West, East, and Southern Africans, and the AICs will reflect these. Africans tend to have in common a belief that ancestral spirits interact with the living (a belief also shared by many Asian peoples). As the discussion of classification below shows, the various AICs also differ widely in their organisational forms. Some resemble western Christian denominations (Ethiopian-types), while others may not (Zionist-types). Some have large numbers of affiliates located all over a country (the Zion Christian Church of South Africa), while others may consist only of an extended family and their acquaintances meeting in a house or out of doors.

Recently, even the idea that AICs are indigenous to Africa have had to be surrendered, as AICs can now be found in Europe (e.g. Germany, Britain) and the United States. In such cases, the term "African" suggests the continent of origin, rather than of location.


African Initiated Churches are found across Africa; they are particularly well-documented in southern Africa and West Africa. Pauw suggests that at least 36% of the population of Africa belong to an African Initiated Church.


During the colonial period, many black converts to Christianity were unable fully to reconcile their beliefs with the teachings of their church leaders, and split from their parent churches. The reasons for these splits were usually either:
  • Political - an effort to escape white control
  • Historical - many of the parent churches, particularly those from a Protestant tradition, had themselves emerged from a process of schism and synthesis
  • Cultural - the result of trying to accommodate Christian belief within an African world view

Classification and taxonomy

There are thousands of African Initiated Churches (more than 10000 in South Africa alone) and each one has its own characteristics. Ecclesiologists, missiologists, sociologists and others have therefore tried to group them according to common characteristics, though there have often been disagreements about which characteristics are most significant, and which taxonomy is most accurate. Though it is possible to distinguish groups of denominations with common features, there is also much overlap, with some denominations sharing the characteristics of two or more groups.

Many AICs share traditions with Christians from other parts of the Christian world, and these can also be used in classifying them. So there are AICs which share some beliefs or practices with Anglican, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Orthodox traditions. Some are Sabbatarian, some are Zionist, and so on. The categories described below are those that have been used by many church historians and others, but there are no rigid boundaries between them.

Ethiopian churches

Ethiopian churches generally retain the Christian doctrines of their mother church in an unreformed state. Ethiopian African Initiated Churches, which are recently-formed Protestant congregations, mostly in southern Africa, arose from the Ethiopian movement of the late nineteenth century, which taught that African Christian churches should be under the control of black people. They should not be confused with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church or Coptic Orthodox Church, which have a much longer and an utterly distinct doctrinal history, though some denominations that arose from the Ethiopian movement have united with these bodies.

Zionist churches

Zionist churches, such as the Zion Christian Church, trace their origins to the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, founded by John Alexander Dowie, with its headquarters at Zion Citymarker, near Chicago in the USA, and are found mainly in Southern Africa. In the early 1900s Zionist missionaries went to South Africa from the USA, and established congregations. They emphasised divine healing, abstention from pork, and the wearing of white robes.

The Zionist missionaries were followed by Pentecostal ones, whose teaching was concentrated on spiritual gifts and baptism in the Holy Spirit, with speaking in tongues as the initial evidence of this. Out of this movement arose the predominantly white Apostolic Faith Mission, which emphasised the Pentecostal teaching, while the black Zionists retained much of the original Zionist tradition. The Zionists split into several different denominations, although the reason for this was more the rapid growth of the movement than divisions. A split in the Zionist movement in the USA meant that few missionaries came to Southern Africa after about 1908, and the movement in Southern Africa and its growth was the result of black leadership and initiative.

As time passed some Zionist groups began to mix aspects of traditional African beliefs like ancestor veneration with Christian doctrine. Many Zionists stress faith-healing and revelation, and in many congregations the leader is viewed as a prophet.

Messianic churches

Some AICs with strong leadership have been described by some researchers as Messianic, but some of the researchers who did this initially have changed their minds later. The churches that have been called Messianic focus on the power and sanctity of their leaders; often the leaders are thought by their followers to possess Christ-like characteristics.

Denominations that have been described by some as Messianic include the Kimbanguist Church in the Democratic Republic of Congomarker, the Nazareth Baptist Church of Isaiah Shembe in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and the Zion Christian Church with headquarters in South Africa's Limpopo provincemarker.

Apostolic churches

Some denominations, calling themselves "apostolic churches", are similar to Zionist congregations but often place more emphasis on formal theological training.

Aladura Pentecostal Churches

The Aladura Pentecostal Churches, emanated from Nigeria. They rely on the power of prayer and in all effects of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Some typical examples of these churches today are Christ Apostolic Church, Cherubim and Seraphim, Winners and church of the Lord . The first Aladura Movement started at Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria in 1918 by Sophia Odunlami, a school teacher, and Joseph Sadare, a goldsmith. They both attended St. Saviour's Anglican Church. They rejected infant baptism and all forms of medicine, whether western or traditional. In consequence, they initiated the "Prayer Band", popularly called "Egbe Aladura". Mr Joseph Sadare was compelled to give up his post in the Synod and others were forced to resign their jobs and to withdraw their children from the Anglican School. The Aladura began as a renewal movement in search of true spirituality.

A revival took place in 1918 during the outbreak of influenza epidemic. The group filled with the Holy Ghost used prayer to save many lives affected by the Influenza epidemic. This consolidated the formation of the prayer group and the group was properly named Precious Stone and later to Diamond Society. By 1920, the Diamond Society had grown tremendously and had started to form branches around the Western region of Nigeria. In particular, David Odubanjo went to start the Lagos branch. The group emphasized divine healing, Holiness, and All Sufficiency of God, which form the three cardinal beliefs of the Church today. For this reason, the group had association with Faith Tabernacle of Philadelphia and changed its name to Faith Tabernacle of Nigeria.

A great revival started in July 1930 by the raising of a dead body by Apostle Joseph Ayo Babalola at Oke-Oye in Ilesa. People trooped from neighbouring cities and countries to receive healing at Ilesa. Several people were healed through the power of prayer and there were evidences of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The revival lasted about 60 days and it's still regarded as the greatest revival ever in Nigeria. Faith Tabernacle of Nigeria later invited the Apostolic Church of England in 1931 to form an Association which lasted till 1939. The Revival group went through several name changes until, after 24 years of its formation, it finally adopted the name Christ Apostolic Church (CAC) in 1942. Today, CAC has spread worldwide and definitely is the precursor of Aladura Pentecostal Churches in Nigeria. Visit [CAC website] at The Church has established several schools at all levels, including Joseph Ayo Babalola University.

See also


  • Anderson, Allan. 2000. Zion and Pentecost: the spirituality and experience of Pentecostal and Zionist/Apostolic Churches in South Africa. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press.
  • Barrett, David B. 1968. Schism and renewal in Africa: an analysis of six thousand contemporary religious movements. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.
  • Daneel, M.L. 1987. Quest for belonging: introduction to a study of African Independent Churches. Gweru: Mambo.
  • Hayes, Stephen. 2003. "Issues of 'Catholic' ecclesiology in Ethiopian-type AICs", in Frontiers of African Christianity edited by Greg Cuthbertson, Hennie Pretorius and Dana Robert. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, pp 137–152.
  • Olowe, Abiodun. 2007 "Great Revivals, Great Revivalist - Joseph Ayo Babalola", Omega Publishers
  • Oosthuzen, G., 1996. "African Independent/Indigenous Churches in the Social Environment: An Empirical Analysis", African Analysis, 26 (4).
  • Pauw, C., 1995. "African Independent Churches as a 'People's Response' to the Christian Message", Journal for the Study of Religion, 8 (1).
  • Sundkler, Bengt G.M. 1961. Bantu prophets in South Africa. London: International African Institute.
  • Venter, Dawid (Editor). 2004. Engaging Modernity: Methods and Cases for Studying African Independent Churches in South Africa. Westport: Praeger.
  • Welbourn, Frederick Burkewood. 1961. East African rebels: a study of some independent churches. London: SCM.

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