Christianity in Nigeria

As a country, Nigeria can be said to be a religiously diverse society. Christianity and Islam are the two major religions practiced in Africa’s most populous nation. Demographics show that Nigeria is sharply divided along religious lines with a Muslim dominated north and a Christian dominated south. Recent estimates put the percentage of Nigeria’s population that practice Christianity between 40% – 49.3%.  Of that percentage, about 74% are Protestants, 25% Roman Catholic, while the rest are split among other Christian denominations. Over the years, the number of Christians in Nigeria has grown significantly from about 21.4% in 1953 to about 49.3% in 2010. Today, there are over 75 million Christians in Nigeria.

Brief History

The history of Christianity in Nigeria can be traced back to the 15th century, when the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive the shores of the region via the Atlantic.  The Portuguese brought Christianity with them but were unable to successfully plant Christianity because of their involvement in slave trade. It can be argued that the actual intent behind their voyage was more in the interest of slave business, than it was for missionary goals and objectives. Most of the Portuguese slave traders took Nigerian slaves to be resold in the Americas and parts of Europe. Hence, they were not committed to missionary work.

In the 17th century, attempts were again made to establish Christianity in the region through Roman Catholic missionaries. Just

Nigeria, a former destination for foreign church missionaries now exports Christianity back to the West and other parts of the globe. Religious activities thrive and every corner of the country sees the emergence of a new church every day.
like the Portuguese, the Roman Catholic missionaries also arrived as merchants. They journeyed into the hinterlands to do trade with locals and preach to them and even visited the cities of Benin and Warri. However, many of the kings and traditional rulers took more interest in the guns and mirrors the Europeans had brought with them to do trade, and barely showed an interest in the new religion being introduced to them.

After the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1833, things took an interesting turn. Slaves captured by European masters were freed and sent to Freetown in Sierra Leone. These slaves had lived with their masters in Europe and America, and many had accepted Christianity at the time they were freed. In 1841, freed slaves arrived in Sierra Leone and gradual changes began in British policies. Slavery was frowned upon, and the British government took it upon itself to enforce new laws and policies, in a bid to stop trading and owning slaves.

Towards the end of the 19th century, some of the freed slaves began to retrace their ways back home. Freed slaves from Nigeria sailed from Sierra Leone to Lagos and Badagry on vessels acquired from slave courts in Freetown. Some of the freed slaves settled in Abeokuta (capital of Ogun State) and other cities in western Nigeria. They also had opportunities to acquire education offered by the Church Missionary Society (CMS). They practiced Christianity and preached the gospel to their family and kinsmen.  Over time, a good number of former slaves converted to Christianity. One of those slaves worthy of mention was Samuel Ajayi Crowther. He was captured at age 12 by Fulani slave raiders and sold to Portuguese slave traders. He later regained his freedom and went on to become the first African to be ordained bishop by the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) in addition to his consecration as bishop of the Niger territory. Samuel was one of the pioneers of local Christian missionary work in Nigeria and contributed to the translation of the Bible into Yoruba language.

Archbishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Archbishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther

Influence on Culture

The growth of Christianity in Nigeria has had significant impact on culture, education, politics and many other facets of social life. As the predominant religion before the advent of Christianity, African traditional religion faced stiff opposition and criticism from

Over the years, the number of Christians in Nigeria has grown significantly from about 21.4% in 1953 to about 49.3% in 2010. Today, there are over 75 million Christians in Nigeria.
Christian missionaries. A lot of traditional practices were declared taboos and irreverent by Christian missionaries. Polygamy, which had been an integral part of traditional heritage, was prohibited by Christianity while monogamy was encouraged and upheld. Christian doctrines frowned upon meticulous traditional practices such as blood pacts, oath swearing, oracles, vows, divination, and secret societies amongst others. Many traditional practices which were integral parts of African culture were stopped, although now in modern time, we can point at several acts which were outrageous and inhumane at the time of nascent Christianity in Nigeria. An example of such influence was exerted by Mary Slessor; a Scottish missionary who worked tirelessly for women and children’s rights, and halted the practice of killing twins among the Efik people in southern Nigeria.

Besides ending barbaric practices, Christianity began to be deeply engrained in the way of life of Nigerians after obtaining independence from Britain. Family names, similar to those of former missionaries became common amongst Nigerians and many opted for Biblical names more often than before. These Christian names are more common in southern Nigeria where Christianity is the dominant religion. Day-to-day lives of most Nigerian Christians aren’t devoid of religious references from exchange of pleasantries to business names. Official gatherings sometimes begin and are rounded off by short prayers, whether in private or public sector.

Influence on Education

Christianity also provided a platform for the establishment of western education in Nigeria. Western ideas of individualism and rationalism began to replace traditional values of communal living and existence. In schools, people were introduced to new ideologies, which spanned across different areas of human existence. Many of these ideologies portrayed African traditions as backward and uncivilized. It can be argued that a couple of traditional practices may have been barbaric; however, the introduction of Christianity and subsequently western education, did set biased standards that overshadowed some rich cultural practices.

Polygamy, which had been an integral part of traditional heritage, was prohibited by Christianity while monogamy was encouraged and upheld

Politically speaking, many traditional rulers became lax with traditional rules and practices that guided their thrones and seats of authority as a result of converting to Christianity. This often caused discord between Obas (Yoruba for Kings), Igwes (Igbo for Kings) and their subjects. Social behavior was also impacted by Christianity. Traditional clothing was ditched for western dresses, and in areas of architecture, the influence of western ways contributed to the use of new materials in building construction. Today, only in very remote locations of Nigeria would you find houses still being constructed with basic materials such as mud, sticks and raffia. As language is an important element of culture, the growing popularity of English language also influenced traditional ways of communication and interaction.

As Christianity brought western ideas with it, the wave of modernization spread further inland. Small towns became urban centers. Preference for jobs among the people shifted from agrarian options to more white-collar career opportunities. This led to overpopulation in major cities and some level of over-dependence on limited resources. Without a doubt, a culture of “import over export” was imbibed so as to cope with scarce resources. Furthermore, artistic objects and materials that explain Nigeria’s rich cultural traditions were either destroyed or carted away by foreign missionaries. The history of traditional practices and culture in Nigeria gradually faded and continued to do so till today.

The Emergence of Mega Churches

The emergence of churches in Nigeria dates back to 1853 when St. Peter’s Church was founded in Lagos, Nigeria. It was founded by Catechist James White, Reverend Charles Gollmer and Reverend Ajayi Crowther, who later became Bishop. It was the first ever church building to be erected in Lagos. Over time, more churches were built in other cities as Christianity continued to spread in Nigeria.

Pentecostalism traces its modern roots to early 20th-century America (Photo Credit: Andrew Esiebo)
Pentecostalism traces its modern roots to early 20th-century America (Photo Credit: Andrew Esiebo)

Around 1910, a local charismatic movement led by an Anglican deacon split from the Anglican church to become the Christ Army Church. Revival units sprung up within Christ Army Church and some mission churches, notably after an influenza epidemic in 1918. These charismatic units grew in size and formed independent churches characterized by fervent prayer styles, known by the Yoruba word Aladura (“praying people”). Some of the early Aladura churches include the Eternal Sacred Order of the Cherubim and Seraphim Society, founded in 1925, and the Church of the Lord (Aladura), founded in 1930. One of the Aladura prayer groups prayed mainly for healings from influenza, and later associated itself with Philadelphia based church, Faith Tabernacle.

Later, Joseph Babalola of Faith Tabernacle, in the 1930s, led a revival that converted thousands of locals. In 1932, his prayer movement initiated ties with the Pentecostal Apostolic Church of Great Britain after coming into conflict with colonial authorities, but the association dissolved over the use of modern medicine. In 1941, Babalola founded the independent Christ Apostolic Church. Over the next two decades, some foreign Pentecostal churches began to plant branches in Nigeria. The Welsh Apostolic Church was established in 1931, and Assemblies of God in 1939. Around the same time, the Foursquare Gospel Church was also introduced in Nigeria.

At the start of the 1950s, Pentecostalism spread even more in Nigeria. Its rapid growth and expansion in the years that followed was unprecedented. The Celestial Church of Christ arrived in western Nigeria from Benin to become one of Africa’s largest Aladura churches. In 1952, a former member of the Cherubim and Seraphim society, Pa Josiah Akindayomi, founded the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). He was succeeded by Enoch Adejare Adeboye. Under Adeboye, the church became increasingly Pentecostal in theology and practice.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of Pentecostal expansion was experienced by the country’s youth population, mainly students on college campuses leading to student revivals. One of the leaders behind these revivals during this period was Benson Idahosa, one of Africa’s most influential Pentecostal preachers in the 20th century. In 1972, Benson Idahosa established the Church of God Mission International. Two years later, the Pentecostal umbrella organization, Grace of God Ministry was founded in eastern Nigeria. In 1975, William Folorunsho Kumuyi, a mathematics professor at the University of Lagos, founded the Deeper Life Bible Church, which soon became one of Nigeria’s largest neo-Pentecostal churches.

Worshippers gathering a prayer service at Redeemed Christian Church of God auditorium (Photo Credit: Andrew Esiebo)
Worshippers gathering a prayer service at Redeemed Christian Church of God auditorium (Photo Credit: Andrew Esiebo)

New charismatic churches continued to spring up and grow throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1986, David Oyedepo founded Living Faith Outreach Worldwide, popularly known as “Winners’ Chapel. Nigeria, a former destination for foreign church missionaries now exports Christianity back to the West and other parts of the globe. Religious activities thrive and every corner of the country sees the emergence of a new church every day. These new churches arguably generate more revenue than what is obtainable in many industries, and these revenues are tax exempt. Below is a list of five prominent megachurches in Nigeria:

  1. The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG)
  2. Deeper Life Bible Church
  3. Living Faith Church (Winners’ Chapel)
  4. Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries
  5. Christ Embassy

Nigerian megachurches preach messages of hope, salvation and prosperity; however, it can be argued that many of them focus more on prosperity. Some say the effect of prosperity gospel is not unconnected with the hiding of ill-gotten wealth of corrupt former and present government officials, who continue to use religion as a shield from public prosecution. Also, the flamboyant lifestyles of a few prosperity preachers who lead their megachurches tend to discourage some Christians. It is believed that they sometimes lead opulent lifestyles uncharacteristic of Jesus Christ, the center of the Christian faith, while majority of their congregations live below the poverty line. These lifestyles follow the theology of prosperity which remains controversial amongst Christians. Some critics of prosperity gospel maintain that prosperity theology promotes the idolatry of money. Others argue that teachings of Christ indicate a contempt for material wealth. Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:25 that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (KJV) is often cited as evidence to oppose the message that prosperity is a sure reward for financial offerings made to God.

Church services are sometimes held in structures resembling hangars
Church services are sometimes held in structures resembling hangars

Impact on Nigerians

After the turn of the century, Nigeria has seen remarkable change in many areas of life. A large percentage of Nigeria’s population are religious and in religion, they have found succor from economic hardship and failure of government systems. Christianity has contributed to the formation of customary laws. The impact of Christianity on culture continues to deepen till today. Also, Christianity is fast becoming one of Nigeria’s biggest export as Nigerian pastors and preachers are planting large churches in Europe, Asia and the Americas. This prevalent trend continues to put Nigeria on the global map.



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