Pentecostalism in Nigeria

Pentecostalism is a charismatic Protestant Christian movement that emphasizes a personal encounter with Jesus Christ as savior and healer, with the potential for converts to be “born again” as Christians. Nigerian Pentecostalism emerged in the 1970s as university-educated, charismatic youth began creating their own spaces for worship. Its roots are in the African Initiated Churches (such as the Aladura) and especially in American and British Evangelical and Pentecostal of the 1960s, which Nigerians encountered through international studies, Pentecostal outreach, and American televangelism and other Christian media. As such Nigerian Pentecostalism combines elements of African worship while emphasizing its place among transnational Pentecostal networks, which have grown through conversion as well as robust immigration. The success of the Pentecostal movement in Nigeria inspired widespread ‘charismatization’ of Nigerian churches, which, by the late 1970s, widely attracted members of the Christian upper middle class.

The emergence of Nigerian Pentecostalism followed a period of immense post-independence instability, characterized by violence (the civil war, especially), political corruption, and rise of the military government. The oil boom of the 1970s transformed the Nigerian landscape, particularly in the south, where a well-connected elite profited and conspicuous consumption blossomed. On the one hand, this made life more difficult for the vast majority of people who increasingly turned to religious organizations to provide for their basic needs. Pentecostal leaders reflected this in their condemnations of wealth. In years that followed, some Pentecostal leaders became wealthy themselves as they directed their services to the wealthy, emphasizing a prosperity gospel which holds that faith is the key to prosperity in this world. In so doing these pastors contextualized the privilege of Nigeria’s Christian elite, and attracted hundreds of thousands of poor and middle class Nigerians aspiring to greater wealth. This approach provides the foundation for many of Nigeria’s megachurches, including the 50,000-seat Faith Tabernacle in Lagos, run by David Oyedopo, Africa’s wealthiest pastor.

Nigerian Pentecostal Christians are partly responsible for rising interreligious violence between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria. Both Pentecostal and Islamist movements of the 1970s were largely youth-based and offered an exclusivist message that frequently demonized the other. In particular, Pentecostal theology condemned Islamic healing practices (the use of amulets, etc.), Sufi rituals, symbols such as the star and crescent, and characterized Islam as a threat to Christians and Christianity. These beliefs resonated in Pentecostals’ activism against the introduction of Islamic law (shari’a), and in suspicions of a supposed Islamic conspiracy to make Africa a Muslim continent by 2005.

Robust evangelical efforts in northern Nigeria, particularly German-born Reinhard Bonnke’s revival at a sports stadium in Kano in 1991, where vans were sent to gather poor Muslims from the streets of Kano for prayer and healing in an effort to win converts. Events such as these triggered hostility, violence, and competition over the control of public spaces where Christian Pentecostals increasingly asserted themselves in the north. Pentecostals’ political activism and engagement confirm to some Muslims that the secular state masks Christian and Western foundations and intentions, in part fueling Islamists’ sense of disenfranchisement and resistance to the state.


Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Ogbu Kalu, The Collected Essays of Ogbu Uke Kalu, Volume 1: African Pentecostalism: Global Discourses, Migrations, Exchanges and Connections, eds. Wilhelmina J. Kalu, Nimi Wariboko, and Toyin Falola (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2010).

Ogbu Kalu, “Sharia and Islam in Nigerian Pentecostal Rhetoric, 1970-2003,” The Collected Essays of Ogbu Uke Kalu, Volume 3: Religions in Africa: Conflicts, Politics and Social Ethics, eds. Wilhelmina J. Kalu, Nimi Wariboko, and Toyin Falola (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2010), pp. 87-105.

Ruth Marshall, Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Daniel Jordan Smith, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).