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Research Project: Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements in Ethiopia

An overview of goals, methods, research interests and current state of a doctoral research project on Ethiopian Pentecostalism


Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements are on the rise in Ethiopia and account for much of the explosive Protestant growth in this predominantly Orthodox country. What began as a small student movement in the 1960s has spawned a number of large Pentecostal denominations. Moreover, Pentecostal theology and practices have spread to the mainline Protestant churches with the exception of only a few minor ones. A church service in the Lutheran Mekane Yesus Church or the Baptist Kale Heywet Church is often indistinguishable from a Pentecostal one, and all of the large Protestant denominations have accommodated Pentecostal positions and practices in their theology and liturgy. It is therefore safe to conclude that the vast majority of the 13.7 million Evangelicals in Ethiopia – that is 18.6% of the population – are part of a Pentecostal/Charismatic network. Even the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been affected by Charismatic groups in recent years, mostly in the form of house fellowships.

This tremendous shift within Ethiopia’s Christianity has hardly been addressed by academic publications in the past. Whereas Pentecostalism in other (especially West-) African countries has been explored quite extensively, Ethiopia’s Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have not been studied to an adequate measure, neither in Pentecostal studies nor  in the well-established field of Ethiopian studies. This lack of research is partially due to the political oppression of Pentecostal Christianity in Ethiopia during the last years of Haile Selassie’s reign and the military dictatorship following the Ethiopian revolution. However, with the establishment of a democratic government in 1991 all churches were allowed to operate freely and began to write their histories and gather sources, creating a source archive waiting to be explored. The many seminary theses, unpublished manuscripts, Amharic books, and eyewitness accounts form the base of this research projectl about Pentecostal history in Ethiopia.

Research Interests

A meticulous historical account of Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in Ethiopia is one of the two primary aims of this project. The other is to make a theoretic and methodological contribution to the field of Pentecostal history as a whole.

Especially in non-Western contexts, scholars of Pentecostal and Charismatic history are often confronted with a limited availability of sources that may not be of the desired quality, contradict one another, or operate with assertions of sovereign influence external to academic historiography. A classical way of reading such primary sources in scholarly accounts is to bracket and control the elements identified by academic discourse as fictional, and thus to carve out a realistic or factual skeleton in search of a chronology of historic events. However, in so doing, histories of Pentecostalism deplete the narrative abundance of their source archive and often hide the divergence and political thrust of their informants. Moreover, the remaining skeleton most often is rather fragmented, leaving a number of gaps to be filled by the best guesses of the researcher. Finally, the realistic notion behind such “factual” chronologies is in danger of veiling the interests of the researcher, because it implicitly attributes meaning to the past events themselves instead of the historical narrative.

Drawing on recent theory debates in cultural studies, political science, and history, the project seeks to bridge the gap between factual and fictional accounts by recovering the politics, narrativity, and genealogy of its sources, i.e. to document the production of historical knowledge as a way of telling history. The theoretical foundations for such an undertaking have been laid most of all by Hayden White, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and post-structuralist philosophers like Ernesto Laclau, but their insights have hardly been taken up in the field of Pentecostal historiography so far. The thesis argues that by dissolving the distinction between realistic and fictional discourses, scholars may become susceptible to the rich meaning that even thin skeletons of facts are endowed with, which are otherwise deemed as useless for historical analysis. At the same time, such an account does not  ignore, downplay or eclectically eclipse what has been labeled “historic facts”. Quite conversely it depends on meticulous research, since it will always attempt to throw the full complexity of the historical entanglement at the narratives produced about the same.

Research methods

Much of the research relies on narrative interviews, largely dwelling on the "testimony" narrative, complemented by a specific set of questions pertaining to history, theology and organizational structures. Due to my primary research interest, most interviews were conducted at leadership levels: pastors, head quarters, bible school teachers, or missionaries. More than 135 interviews were conducted at an average length of roughly 1.5 hours.
Participant observation
Participant observation was conducted in over 60 worship programs, public meetings, bible studies, prayer groups, and other church-related meetings. Ritual formations (exorcisms, speaking in tongues, prophesy) and sermon content are of special interest here, but also the state of the building, the size of a church community and the dress code of worshipers can be of interest here, e.g. in order to evaluate the social setting of a church. Personal contacts in the field help to review the experiences and complement them with additional information.
Collecting written resources
Buying books and working in college libraries or archives was the third focal point of my research activities. Publicly unavailable material (letters, bachelor and master theses) is photographed digitally and stored electronically, allowing the accumulation of a helpful research archive in a short time. Over 10.000 pages of digitized archive material (mostly relating to Swedish and Finnish mission work), all available seminary thesis, numerous Amharic books, and unpublished materials have been consulted for the thesis work.


Current State

The thesis was completed in 2009 and was accepted doctoral dissertation by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Heidelberg. It was awarded with the Ruprecht-Karls-Preis of the University of Heidelberg (2011) and the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise (2011)

In 2011 the thesis was published with Harrassowitz.

See also:

Contributed by:

Jörg Haustein

SOAS, University of London
last modified 2011-12-10 21:32