Celestial Church of Christ is the most popular white garment-wearing church in Nigeria. Founded 1947 in Port-Novo, Dahomey (now Benin Republic) by Samuel Bilewu Oshoffa. The church was established in Nigeria through the activities of its early missionaries such as Mister Leyon, Most of the early missionaries in Nigeria were fishermen who had been attracting meager attention due to their way of worship. Oshoffa’s advent to Lagos in 1951 finally brought the new religious body to the know, as his ability to heal became news in the Yaba area of Lagos. Reported raising of the dead of a seven year old boy, Hunsu may have contributed to the reputation of this new preacher, especially because it was said to have been witnessed by the Lagos Chief Imam of the day on his way to the opening of a new mosque at Iwaya, a neighborhood close to the site of the University of Lagos. The church started in Nigeria in Makoko at a piece of land given as a gift by a Muslim woman who was one of the first to witness what she believed was divine favors after an encounter with Oshoffa. Against its initial sluggish growth, the church spread rapidly to almost all communities in the Yoruba speaking areas in the 1980s. This tipping point in the church’s spread in Nigeria may be connected to the renowned 1974 Iyabo Olorunkoya Indian hemp case in London for which a suspect accomplice, a major Nigerian military officer and Biafran War hero was indicted and dismissed. Iyabo had been advised against this by a junior prophet in the church. Excited by this power of spiritual insight, many Nigerians may have decided to explore this new addition to the Aladura movement. The church was not evangelical in its beginning and it is personal encounters that prospectors had that engendered its growth. There are at least 3 million members worldwide.
The most prominent beliefs of the church are not in variance with those of the Roman Catholic Church, though some unofficial and conventional additions from Yoruba indigenous beliefs are routine. The Bible remains the validator of all proposed creeds. Due to its pre-occupation with solving real-life problems of early adherents and prospectors, the church has not developed strong theology but holds on to the general convention of the mainstream Christian world, such as the concept of the Trinity, tithing, fasting, among others. Certain doctrinal issues, as expounded on by the founder, however are capable of engaging modern theological mind, but these too are not emphasized because of the pressing needs of the early faithful.
Areas in which Celestial Church share similarities with the Roman Catholic church includes the honor of Mary the mother of Christ, prayer for the dead, and the demonstration of the cross sign across the head. White garments known as Sutana are worn but adornments on these garments are slightly modest when compared to those of many white garment churches. Members do not wear shoes whenever they are on Sutana. There is a joke that this is because of the founder’s large feet. White candles are used in prayers and it burns in the highly venerated alter. Stream bath is a common feature but the importance placed on it is fast disappearing. Celestial Church shares certain similarities with the Cherubim and Seraphim Church, which is the older Aladura sect of the Nigerian indigenous church movement but clapping of hands to make music is non-existent. Affluent members also place high value on fashion as expressed in the use of jewelries and perfumes. Prayers are often accompanied by symbolic sacraments and the church authority maintains these must be modest, excessive dramatization of prayer procedures, however, continue to be a source of embarrassment to the church.
Women are expected to stay away from church facilities during their menstrual period, after which prayers of sanctification is offered. Women do not enter the alter area and most of the church duties are performed by men. It should be added, however, that womenfolk constitute respectable force in church life. Effort is being made to impose balance without compromising much. Prayer said by a woman leader towards the end of each service is considered important. There are many occasions when women address the church, although this privilege does not extend to the mounting of the pulpit. It is normal to spot supposed picture of Holy Mary in church auditoriums. Holy Mary feast is celebrated in the month of July. A mention is been made of Mary, the mother of Christ, in the church’s first delivered hymn.
Eyin ara ninu Kristi
Egbe ori yin s’oke
K’esi gbo oun ti Jehovah nso
Ere idie t’efi wa ninu ijo mimo yi?
Ki Maria iya wa l’ema sin wa lo
K’emi mimo rere yi ma sinwa lo.
Brethren in Christ
Lift up your heads
And listen to Jehovah’s voice
What benefit has you in this holy church?
That Holy Mary, our mother may guide us
That the Holy Spirit may continue to guide us.
Celestial Church has very impressive liturgy, the crux of which may have been eroded by the liberalism that is fast gaining ground in the church as led by the Pentecostal movement. The church’s hymnals, however, remain a powerful element that is still very loved even by younger members. Services commence with the singing of Jerimoyamah…the host of angel’s full of joy in heaven, setting the mood for the usually meditative worship session. Psalms for forgiveness and purification are read, and it is common for the service conductor to advise that this should be taken humbly. About seven hymns are sung in a major service. Prayers are concise. Both prayers and hymns are vivified by outbursts of entranced worshippers, some of who are Wolis or prophets. This happens mostly when the ambience is inspiring, due to the quality of the music rendered or other factors which are in some rare occasions, mysterious. Instructive messages are delivered to specific people confidentially in the middle of this, but this may happen without any drama. The more lively part of services comes after the sermon, when the Yoruba talking drum, known as Gangan and other instruments may be joined with the solemn organ that is in use all through. The stereotype that Celestial church services are dominated with dancing is not true.
Celestial Church is one of the very few African indigenous churches having its own exclusive hymns. The lyrics and texture of these hymn continues to be a powerful source of strength for members. The hymns are believed to be divinely inspired and many of it did not come into existence without some drama, as was the case of an eleven year old who sang a new song, a schizophrenic woman and another healthy lady who walked several miles just to sing. Oshoffa’s lieutenant, Abiodun Bada, also helped out in the compilation of hymns. It is in these songs that many revelational messages that constitute the church’s vista are found. One of such is the CCC Hymn 176:
Father from heaven authorizes
That the whole world may tremble
For Celestial Church from Heaven above
It is this church that will cleanse the world
Many Celestial Church hymns have been sneaked into popular gospel and secular songs, such as Dayo kujore’s Bi gbogbo aiye dite mowa. The church is not flattered as high value is being placed on them. Efforts have been made to redress this escalating situation.
For each parish, annual Harvest celebrations are marked by fanfare and it is the time when merriment is at its peak. Families usually prepare foods, even though celebrant church organizes general feasts. Praise singing and other Yoruba secular party nuances that are common to this celebration are gradually giving way to more churchly celebrations. Harvest festivals are symbolic of Christ’s coming harvest of humanity into his heavenly kingdom. A replica of the annual harvest is the annual Juvenile harvests in which members of the kid church perform almost all the rites of the church to the admiration of adults. The Juvenile harvest celebration takes place concurrently in all Celestial church parishes worldwide in the first Sunday of the month of June. One of the most important feasts of the church is Easter. Feet washing are practiced in the Thursday of the Passion Week, followed by the Good Friday service in which members congregate at the Mercy Land, usually located within church premises, a piece of sandy enclave resembling a beachside. In the Christmas eve of every year, members of the church from different parts of the world worship together at Imeko in Ogun state.
A group of fishermen from Gbaji, a border town in Dahomey brought their religion with them in 1950; a new Christian Aladura sect that was fast growing in the French colony, arousing suspicion and outright jealousy of some religious figures. The founder of this new White garment-wearing sect, Samuel Oshoffa was spending time in Agange to ease up on his activities, when he finally decided to join the Lagos branch of the church he founded three years earlier. It was not long before Ramotu, a Muslim woman who he prayed for, bequeathed him a piece of land at Makoko, allowing for the erection of a modest structure from where the church would spread to many parts of Nigeria and the world.
Samuel Oshoffa, a Methodist lay member and trader in woods returned from a euphoric experience after one of his trips to fetch wood. The very day he testified to receiving his famous vision was also the day of the total eclipse of the Sun, experienced in many parts of West Africa in May 1947. His enchanting experience is to be followed by another in 29 September of that year, while visiting a Roman Catholic couple, Fredric and Marie Zevenu in Port Novo. This revelation, confirmed by the lady, Marie, apparently spurred him to start a worship session outside his Methodist church where he was a choir official. The public hysteria that followed was massive. The sick got healed after he prayed for them and there were eyewitness accounts of dead people who were brought back to life. One of such case that was verified many years later by a researcher was that of Moishe Suru Afoyan who hailed from Zevu. Oshoffa’s publicly acknowledged feat piqued leaders of the Christian community in Port Novo who must have been circumspect about the rising trend. His new church was requested to join the umbrella body in the country but Oshoffa delayed this move. He was equally suspicious. Given the elders’ hostility, their good intention was not a possibility. It was under this circumstance that he accepted invitation from the small community of people who were already worshiping in the style he introduced in the marshy area of Lagos, Makoko.
The first three decades
From the first decade of the church, respectable civil servants and professionals such as Mister Ajanlekoko have started joining the congregation and a body of clergies, led by Alexandar Bada has emerged, although activities were limited to Lagos.
A surge in the economic reality of Nigeria saw the new church expanding to new areas. People such as Phillip Ajose, an official of the electricity distribution agency planted the church wherever he was posted. Workers of newly established universities too continued in their church’s style when they changed their bases. Creation of new states, posting of professionals and other similar factors contributed to the church’s spread. As soon as a new parish was inaugurated, old members from bigger cities joined. Prophets emerged and many people, ravaged by the grim reality of the African life joined upon witnessing the miraculous. There is no denying that this was the case, considering the church’s weak evangelical mechanism. As reported of Dr. Tai Solarin, an agnostic, in a national newspaper, Nigerian Tribune, in 1974, “the church is fascinating to the incredulous, inviting to those with problems and a haven from the billows of life.” By the middle of 1970, the church had become very popular. It was hard to find a family in which the church was not represented at this time.
By the end of this period, children of early converts had joined their colleagues in Higher institutions and the need for the church to be more self-aware is heightened. Ambitious projects such as the Imeko building project was embarked upon, but the church was distracted when in1985, it had to come to terms with its founder’s mortality. The 76 year old preacher had died ten days after a car accident which he seemed at first to have survived. His demise opened uncertain chapter for the now complex church, as there has not been arrangement for succession modalities. There was an easy way out. Alexandar Bada was a very charismatic lieutenant of Oshoffa and the most senior clergy of the church, adorned with the unique title of “Supreme Evangelist”. His elevation to the seat of of Oshoffa in 1986 suffered only minor challenges in Nigeria.
The new leader; a short and tough man started to make efforts at sanitizing the now large and difficult to manage church. His aggressive style was in contrast to Oshoffa’s laid-back mien. Revivals became more common feature of the church. Miracles reminiscent of Oshoffa’s day were hallmark of his tenure. He started training clergies and encouraged the institutionalization of the youth arm of the church. Efforts were made to modernize certain administrative aspects and the church under him stood up considerably to the mighty tide of the Pentecostal movement that was coming to do to it what it had done to the older Orthodox churches the decade before. Alexandar Bada died with clear instructions as to the running of the church. His successor, Phillip Ajose’s very brief tenure led to the first major schism in the Nigerian church as his immediate junior, the very charismatic and energetic Gilbert Jesse failed to secure the support of the most important element of church administration- the trustees.
Celestial Church today
The bitter succession crisis that beset the church continues to subside and a whole new generation are been raised to understand their church as a possession of Christ himself. Reliance on a single charismatic authority has almost vanished. The church and its way of worship is today known to many Nigerians and it is common thing to spot individuals or groups of respectable people threading in bare feet to worship. This recognition has not been achieved in the Western world where allegations of occultism are still being leveled against the church. Celestial church is today a stable feature in Nigerian Christendom. Its world headquarters at Imeko, Ogun state burbles every Christmas with several thousands who come for pilgrimage. The church’s style of worship is a very common feature in Yoruba movies, one of which is Oga Akorin, a 2012 movie by Funsho Adeolu.