Christian Missions in South-Western Nigeria, and the Response of African Traditional Religion

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Abstract

This work is an historical assessment of Christian-African traditional religion worshipper relations in south-western Nigeria from the inception of Christian mission to date. A combination of bibliographical search and field work methods were employed to elicit information for the research. The paper shows that first contact in south-western Nigeria was a smooth relation between the two faiths. However, no sooner had Christianity become established than tensions began arising between the two religious faiths, simply owing to differences in belief systems and world views. The work identifies the root cause of these problems as a lack of organized dialogue between the adherents of the two faiths. Suggestions are made that the researcher strongly believes, if followed, would aid peaceful co-existence among the adherents of the two faiths on the one hand, and on the other enhance Christian missionary enterprise in south-western Nigeria.

Introduction

Christianity entered modern Nigeria in the 19th century via Yorubaland (1) In the history of Christian mission in Nigeria, the Yoruba tribe of south-western Nigeria has always prided itself in being the first tribe to have contact with Christianity. However, there are records of occasional tensions between the adherents of the two religious faiths, which in some areas end up in civil disturbances. In the light of these, this paper attempts an examination of the relations between Christians and adherents of African traditional religion in Yorubaland. The aim of the paper is to identify the areas of cooperation and conflicts, and work out a model for tolerance, peaceful co-existence, mutual love and respect between people of the two faiths through a better understanding of each other's religion, in order that this will conveniently aid missionary expansion in Yorubaland.

Yorubaland of south-western Nigeria: an overview

Historically, Yorubaland was made up of several clans traditionally bound together by common ancestry, language, traditions and practices. All Yoruba-speaking people claim a common origin from the city of Ile--Ife, from where they migrated to other places. Apart from the Yoruba, who dominate the seven states in south-western Nigeria, tribes exist in parts of Togo, the Republic of Benin, Cuba and Brazil. In fact, there are Yoruba emigrants in all nations of the world. One source puts the global Yoruba population at 100 million. (2)

Culturally, the Yoruba, as with other African tribes, are notoriously religious, and their religion has a considerable influence on their way of life. There are three major religions in Yorubaland, viz. Christianity, Islam and Yoruba traditional religion. The oldest of these is the last. Hal Horton calls it a "thousands of years old tradition". (3) Historically, Yoruba traditional religion is as old as the Yoruba race and culture itself.

As in most traditional African societies, the Yoruba regarded religion as an aspect of culture that required no controversy, competition or crusades of evangelization. (4) That is to say, unlike Christianity, indigenous Yoruba worshippers have no particularistic claims but instead hold to a view of religious inclusivism. This accounts for their natural mild attitude and tolerance towards the missionary religions (Christianity and Islam) at the first introduction of these foreign religious faiths.

Nevertheless, foreign writers and missionaries have variously mis-labelled the indigenous religion of the Yoruba as pagan, animist, fetishist, idolatrous, etc. However, a critical examination of the beliefs and practices of Yoruba religion reveals the worship of the Supreme Deity, called Olodumare (the Most High God) or Olorun (the Owner of Heaven) through a number of divinities and spirits believed to be intermediaries between the remote Supreme Being and the world of man. (5) The Yoruba, like every other African tribe, believe not only in the existence of a Supreme Being but also in divinities and spirits, the denial of whom would be a denial of African or Yoruba indigenous worship (6). …