Ethiopianism

Ethiopianism perhaps shown with the Moses' Ten Commandments scribbled in Yoruba on the wall of the African Church Cathedral Bethel
Moses’ Ten Commandments scribbled in Yoruba on the wall of the African Church Cathedral Bethel. Photo by Lolade Adewuyi

Ethiopianism was a philosophy of several early Christians in Africa, foremost among who was James Johnson, who required his brethren, in the words of Jacob Kehinde Coker, founder of one of the breakaway groups, to worship God as Africans, independently, both in spirit and in truth, applying Christianity to African customs, not repugnant to Christ’s teaching. Background to this sentiment is explainable in a single local church man’s experience; A certain local drummer from Ota, Ajaka, who once converted, asked if Christianity forbids drumming. The missionary, James White, had been silent on this, but now decided Ajaka was mature enough in his faith to be told. “You praise to celebrate the gods with the sounds of your drum. How would you like to have a child who extols your enemy?” White refrained from compelling his convert but allowed him to ponder and make his choice. Six months later, Ajaka surrendered his drum to White, but a solution later occurred to him. “Our converts, when heathens, certainly had hymns and songs of praise in honor of their gods-‘ he reasoned, ‘might they not also, now that they are Christians, compose songs and hymns in honor of the God of gods and the Lord of lords?” Such were the random, virtually spontaneous expressions of popular faith that will culminate in the early schisms in the Nigerian church. Independent Christian churches emerged as a rejection of the inflexibility of colonial Christian religion and its failure to incorporate Africanness to its mode of worship.

A large number of Africans had begun to embark on ecclesiastical schism since the second decade of the 20th Century. New groups sprang from churches that seemed indifferent or hostile to the growth of the African clergy. All these did not just happen. As Holy Johnson wrote in a letter to his London friend; “We are not overly sensitive but at the same time not unduly thick skinned,’ he said, “ but does anyone think we have no feelings at all, or no rights, which are to be respected? Having educated us, you will not allow us to think and speak and act like men.” Johnson’s fury was hardly unfounded. Twenty Africans had already qualified as medical doctors by 1902, but none of them was absorbed into the government medical services. In 1911, all top African civil servants in both the judiciary and the executive council of the British colony were summarily dismissed. Nationalist feelings blossomed under these conditions as Ethopianists who formerly bear English names had begun to change them to African names. J.H. Samuel, for example now came to be known as ‘Adegboyega Edun’, Joseph Pythagoras Haastrup became Ademuyiwa Haastrup and David. B. Vincent became Omojola Agbebi, Edward Macaulay became Kitoyi Ajasa. However, the leading advocate of this philosophy, James Johnson retained his name for reasons best known to him.

James Johnson believed the existence of an independent West African episcopate would prove to be the harbinger of political freedom and the key to the realization of all the aspirations of the Negro race. Although his ideas were not favored by Anglican authorities, he remained faithful and constrained his supporters who were becoming increasingly rebellious. The subsequent treatment of Johnson by church authority inspired the first major breakaway in Nigeria Christianity. In October 1901, two-thirds of the Breadfruit congregation broke away from the Anglican Communion in sympathy with James Johnson and formed the independent Bethel African Church. His faithfulness to the Anglican authority will lead him to becoming a great opponent of the African Church movement which he had originally inspired. His hope was lodged in the raising of a special episcopal fund, which, with the church authority’s blessing, would allow the establishment of an African bishopric but the Church Missionary Society announced in an Editorial of the Intelligencer of October 1902 that any diocese that may be created with the fund must be in communion with the Church of England. Following this, Johnson lost many supporters of the scheme, who now see the more radical African church movement, the Bethel Church as committed to the achievement of aims grander than those envisaged in Johnson’s scheme. The Bethel example was followed in other denominations. For example, thirteen members of the Faji Circuit of the Methodist church with their wives, in November 1917, withdrew from the church, convinced that Methodism of the time, as being practiced, was at variance to their African culture and freedom of worship.

The extreme form of Ethiopianism goes the extra mile in its effort to resolve the conflict of their new religion with indigenous styles. Apparently because of the fear of the supernatural, apostates often say that Esin eni ko wipe ki a ma se oro ile eni, translating as, “adopting a religion does not imply the abandonment of ancestral rites”. The Ijebu and Egba Christians, for example, had no difficulty in reconciling the demands of old pagan cults with Christianity once human sacrifice and other repulsive practices is not involved. In 1914, the Reformed Ogboni Society, which permitted Christians to embrace traditional faith, was formed by a clergyman, T.A.J. Ogunbiyi. While symbols of the ancient traditional Ogboni society is retained, the Bible, the cross, and other Christian symbols are believed to feature in the rituals of this elite cult. When questioned by the missionaries, some Saros did argue that the traditional Ogboni was an essential arm of government, and no different form the Freemason, hence, should be encouraged among Christians so as to enhance the influence of the church in the wide society.

True to his belief that Nigerian culture should be given an important place in the school curriculum, Ojo Cole’s Nigerian institute had masquerades that danced through the town every Christmas. Duro Ladipo, lay preacher and a catechist son who later became a well known playwright, composed an Africanized cantata in secret and afterward, treated the usually sober Anglican congregation with thunderous beats of traditional Bata and Dundun drums, considered by the church as idolatrous. The result of this was same with Kola Ogunmola’s, a contemporary who later became like Ladipo, a popular dramatist. Ogunmola was dismissed from his position in church for staging biblical plays in modern versions idiomatic with local language and culture.

The story was scarcely different in eastern Nigeria where Reverend H.H. Robinson wrote of Onitsha in the late 19th Century that there was little separation from heathen evil customs by their church people. They are horrified at the thought of open opposition, he said. “Softly, softly, is the universal opinion in regard to all church matters.”