Black Elijah


During the growth of Christianity in Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a phase where African “prophets” appeared. One of them was William Wade Harris, a Liberian man who had fallen out of favor with the church and had even spent time in prison where he had a vision from the Angel Gabriel telling him to preach repentance and the destruction of objects used in traditional African religion; then baptize those who received his message. So in July 1913 at the age of 53, he set off on foot with a small entourage for the neighboring French colony. He was not backed by any church or missionary agency.

They ended up walking across the whole coast of what is now the country of Côte d’Ivoire and on into what is now Ghana. They must have been quite a site in their bare feet, white garments with and crosses, especially Harris who always carried a large staff with a cross on top in his right hand and a Bible in his left. They walked all the way to what is now the country of Ghana. It is estimated that 200,000 people heeded Harris’ preaching and abandoned their traditional religious practices. This was a sizable portion of the total population.

His message was often opposed by traditional religious leaders, leading to power encounters reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament such as Elijah on Mount Carmel. Harris would triumph and large scale destruction of the objects of traditional religion would follow. Some of these events were recorded by French colonial administrators.

Prior to Harris, small churches had started in some towns, but they had little impact. Harris spoke in local languages and stripped western trappings from Christianity while targeting his preaching at the heart of traditional beliefs and practices. It got him in trouble with the French colonial administrators. He was arrested several times. He apparently made a miraculous escape from jail in Grand Lahou, the colonial capitol at the time. It is said that he pronounced a curse on the capitol when he left. Today, it is a deserted ghost town.

Harris instructed converts to worship on Sunday, to pray in their own languages, to keep the Sunday for worship, to pray in their own tongues, and to praise God with their own music. He named local elders and he told people that white missionaries would come later can give them the Bible in their languages. When Methodist missionaries arrived, they found churches full of believers waiting for them.

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Today, the Harrist church is found across the area where Harris ministered. It still uses local languages and still has solid teaching, for the most part. Early Western missionaries falsely considered it a cult, probably because of its different worship practices, which you can see in the photos below. Where the Bible has been translated into the local languages, the Harrist church uses those translations avidly. Unfortunately, more than 100 years after Harris started his trek, a number of those languages still don’t have translations of the Bible. Harris’ promise has not yet been fulfilled, although slow progress is being made.

During the months we spent in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016, we were privileged to be in a position to help the translations in some of those languages on their way.

What to make of them

We used to call them sects. They are a bewildering collection of over 10,000 independent “Christian” church denominations in Africa. As their proper name, “African Instituted Churches”, suggests, they are defined by being founded by an Africa and not by a missionary.

Harrist church service

Ladies in procession after Harrist church service

They are the growing segment of the church in Africa. Denominations founded by missionaries are stagnating or shrinking while the AICs are growing and multiplying. Is this good or bad? Do these African churches teach the truth? Do they lead people to Christ or away from him? The answer is an ambiguous “yes and no”. Their beliefs range from encouraging, to those I could live with, to those I find strange, to the completely unacceptable.

One thing is for sure, some of the AICs are quite exotic in their forms of worship, and therefore interesting. When we were assigned to Côte d’Ivoire I came in contact with the Church of the Prophet William Wadé Harris, called the Harrist Church for short. Everyone dressed in white, they had a fancy procession to and from the church before and after the service, and the head man was called a Prophet. It was fun to visit their Sunday afternoon services.

Kimbanguist parade

Kimbanguist parade in Isiro

When we were in Congo, I met the Kimbanguist Church, founded by Simon Kimbangu in the Congo. With 5.5 million followers, it may be the largest AIC in Africa. I was in a town in Congo one day when a Kimbanguist parade came down the street complete with brass band, banner, and uniforms. They were celebrating the birthday of the founder’s wife even though she was deceased. Apparently it has become an important day on the church calendar. After the founder died, the leadership of the Kimbanguist church declared that the founder was the Holy Spirit – a doctrine denounced by other churches in Congo. Apparently, not everyone in the Kimbanguist church follows this doctrine and some are working to change it.

The big debate is how to respond to the growth of the AICs. Denounce them? Separate from them? Work with them? The debate is interesting, especially because there are strong reform movements in some of the stranger AICs. Here in Ghana a special Bible school was set up for the AICs and there are mixed opinions as to whether that was a good idea. It appears to have bolstered reform movements in some of the stranger AICs.

As a Bible translator, I have the luxury of having a simple answer to guide my actions toward the AICs – give them the Bible! One of the successes of the reformation was giving people the Scriptures so that they could know when clergy were leading them astray. The Harrist church had congregations in many of the places our group was doing Bible translation in Côte d’Ivoire. They were often the most avid users of the translated Scriptures. That can only be good.

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