The Aladura churches are independent African churches (or African Instituted Churches—AICs), that emphasize prayer and healing. Aladura is the Yoruba word for “praying people.” The Aladura churches reflect the indigenization of Christianity through its use of African symbols, traditional healing modalities, and worship styles.
Where earlier churches emphasized salvation in the hereafter, the Aladura churches offer solutions to this-world problems. Aladura churches are led by a prophet, and though they tend to maintain a strict hierarchy among clergy, laity members are not barred from joining their ranks and the laity is heavily involved. The role of the prophet echoes other roles in Yoruba society, most notably the babalawo, a Yoruba priest of Ifa (a popularity deity within the Yoruba pantheon) skilled in divination, healing, and problem-solving, though Aladura prophets are outspoken in their condemnation of indigenous deities.
The Precious Stone Society and later, the Christ Apostolic Church, are not the only Aladura churches, but their history is suggestive of some of the main themes that emerged in the early years of the Aladura movement. In 1918, an Anglican lay leader Joseph Shadare (d. 1962) in the southwest formed a prayer group with Sophia Odunlami, a schoolteacher, both of whom had experienced dreams visions calling them to respond to an influenza epidemic in the region. The Precious Stone Society was established as a spiritual support for those suffering from influenza, and emphasized prayer and a rejection of western medicine with the understanding that human susceptibility to disease represents a complex set of issues including spiritual vulnerability and others’ malevolent influence (ie. witchcraft). They broke with the Anglican Church in 1922 over the issue of medicines and of infant baptism and became affiliated with a North American fundamentalist church called the Faith Tabernacle, which also favored faith healing and adult baptism (though would later break with them over organizational and doctrinal issues).
The Aladura churches rapidly expanded throughout Yorubaland during a revival movement in the 1930s, becoming an important feature of western Nigerian society. Joseph Ayo Babalola (d. 1959), a Yoruba Anglican and public works employee, had a series of visions that brought him to the Precious Stone Society. He went on to become a general evangelist in the Christ Apostolic Church (CAC), what would become Nigeria’s largest Pentecostal Aladura church. He emphasized using “water of life,” blessed water, in healing rituals. Other important churches and prayer movements included the Cherubim and Seraphim (1925), the Church of the Lord Aladura (1953), and others.
British colonial officers, concerned by the Aladura opposition to medicine and by witch-hunting, attempted to limit the growth of the churches and arrested Babalola and other Aladura leaders. The Anglican Church in Nigeria also expressed alarm over the popularity of Aladura churches, in part because many of their own parishioners were severing ties to join the Aladura. Aladura leaders invited British Pentecostals to Nigeria, and a missionary team arrived in 1932. The African churches broke from the British Pentecostals by 1939 in response to their own use of anti-malarial medicine and their objection to the use of blessed water in healing rituals.
The Aladura movement has continued to see rapid growth since independence; the CAC is one of the largest Nigerian churches, with representation outside of Nigeria in North America, Europe, and in other African countries. A wide variety of breakaway churches have been founded throughout the century over issues such as polygamy, doctrine, and personality clashes, though all stress the importance of prayer, fasting, and the use of healing waters and oils. The Nigerian government shows a preference for the CAC because of its Christological orientation, emphasis on the Bible, educated leadership, and its educational outreach.
Historically, the Aladura churches have offered opportunities for poor and marginalized Nigerians—who played little to no role in the mission churches—to become active and leading members of their religious communities. Furthermore, they draw on indigenous symbolism, healing modalities, worship styles and spiritual roles to form a ‘contextualized Christianity’ which has made the Aladura and other Pentecostal churches appealing to a broad base of Nigerian Christians.
Scholars disagree as to whether the Aladura churches are Pentecostal, some noting broad similarities and others pointing to important differences in practices. Certainly, contemporary Pentecostalism and Aladura churches have overlapping histories. For example, the Deeper Life Bible Church—one of Nigeria’s largest Pentecostal churches—has roots in Joseph Babalola’s revival movement, and numerous founders of Pentecostal churches have Aladura backgrounds. At the same time, many Pentecostals have demonized the Aladura and other African Instituted Churches as having pagan or occult elements, downplaying the role of Christ, or having other contested features, which, considering the many wide spreading branches of the Aladura movement, are not unrealistic claims.
Allan H. Anderson, “Aladura Churches,” Religions of the World, Second Edition: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, eds. J. Gordon Melton and Martin Baumann (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010), pp. 60-61.
Allan H. Anderson, An Introduction to Pentecostalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Deji Isaac Ayegboyin, “’Heal the Sick and Cast out Demons’: The Response of the Aladura,” Studies in World Christianity, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2005), pp. 233-249.
Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
"Untitled," Christ Apostolic Church billboard near Ibadan, Nigeria, Jean-Baptiste Dodane, modified from Flickr Creative Commons.