Africa for Africans: Ethiopian Independent Churches

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa

Imagine a company that hires a number of individuals as future managers.Supervisors who hire them explain that they will be given more responsibility as they learn the job. Yet year after year, though the employees perform duties diligently, demonstrating their readiness to move up to the next level, they are consistently denied the education or other tools that would allow them to become managers. Eventually, frustrated to the point of quitting, they form their own business that operates by different rules than the first business.

This analogy explains the African Independent Church (AIC) movement. Year after year, missionaries denied loyal African Christians the opportunities to advance in leadership and become pastors, priests, deacons and elders. In the one area they allowed Africans a degree of leadership, evangelism, Africans soon surpassed missionaries in spreading the Gospel. When missionaries tried to regain control, African evangelists responded by establishing their own churches.

It would be easy to argue that Africans were tired of being treated like children, and this was why they broke away from the mission churches to start their own. Africa Inland Mission (AIM) provides a perfect example of how missionary attitudes and behavior toward the Kamba (an ethnic group in Kenya) caused a split that led to an independent church.

In order to maintain control over their converts, AIM missionaries had set up several systems to punish Kamba Christians who had “sinned.” (Sinning could be defined as a travesty of morals, but more often than not, sinning was defined as participating in cultural customs or rituals, like circumcision or polygyny.)

Punishments varied. For example, those Kamba who sinned were forbidden to pray publicly. If a Kamba Christian was known to have “sinned,” and he or she attempted to pray in church, the congregation would shout him/her down. The most prominent system of punishment was the black chair. The black chair, also called the seat of shame, was higher than the rest of the chairs, painted black, and seated at the front of the church. If a person confessed their sin, or was accused of sin by other church members, they had to sit in the black chair during church services and other church functions for as long as the missionaries dictated.

It is easy to imagine what this system of punishment did to an individual Kamba’s morale and desire to attend church. In fact, the system of punishment led many Kamba Christians to leave the AIM church altogether. They attended other churches (such as the Roman Catholic church), stopped going, or began attending the new African Brotherhood Church, an African independent church that sprang to life among the Kamba around the same time that disillusionment with AIM began. Like most African independent churches, it was popular for a variety of reasons: it offered African leadership; it was for Africans by Africans; Africans did not have to give up their culture to belong to it; and it was politically oriented against the colonial powers. In addition, the African Brotherhood Church, like many African Independent Churches, tried to meet people’s needs for community and worship in an African context.

Stories like that of the Kamba Christians and Africa Inland Mission point out some of the fundamental problems that led to independent African churches. Missionaries represented the colonial government on a microcosmic level; the struggle for African leadership within churches was a miniature reflection of the struggle for African political leadership within the nation.

These African led churches promoted a variety of philosophies that bred anti-colonial sentiment, contributed to resistance movements, and encouraged African nationalism and African leadership. They were political by their very existence — they made colonial and missionary forces nervous simply because they were initiated and led by Africans. Nevertheless, people were not primarily attracted to them because they were anti-colonial or anti-missionary, though that may have been one motivation; rather, these churches were popular because they met political, educational, emotional, and spiritual needs lacking in the mission churches.

Because the mission churches severely restricted their converts from participating in cultural rites and rituals, and cracked down on marital customs like bridewealth, converts found they had to leave their families and cultures behind in order to be Christians. Ethiopian AICs were an attempt to integrate Christianity and African culture in ways that were acceptable to the African leaders’ understanding of the new religion and their culture.

There were two types of African Independent Churches. Inspired by the Scripture, “Ethiopia will stretch out her hands to God,” Ethiopian churches emphasized African rule, political rights, and self-improvement, in contrast to pentecostal or millenarian churches, which emphasized the dramatic — prophecy, healing, possession by the Holy Spirit. Leaders of the Ethiopian church movements preached that the Christian God was not a European God, nor did he condone colonial rule. Rather, salvation was equally for Africans.

Ethiopia served as a model for a couple of significant reasons. First, Christianity had existed in Ethiopia for centuries prior to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa; according to church history, the Ethiopian church dates back to the first century CE, when the evangelist Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), who was also the finance minister of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. Second, Ethiopia had never been colonized in the same way every other African country had been. Emperior Menelik II defeated an Italian invasion on March 1, 1896, the one attempt at colonization. This defeat of a colonial power occurred at the same time that other African countries succumbed one by one to colonial rule.

Thus, by identifying with Ethiopia, AICs specifically associated themselves with an African Christian country that had not been colonized. Its independence proved that Africans were capable of self-rule and its ancient church proved that Africans were capable of spiritual maturity. African Independent Churches were wildly successful in the 20th Century. In South Africa alone by the 1970s, independent churches numbered over 3,000 with millions of members. They have continued to grow since then. The Zion Christian Church, for example, had around 200,000 members in 1970 and over a million by 1980.

Today, there are more Christians in Africa than in any other continent.