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Research Project: The Civil War Revival and its Pentecostal Progeny

This is an abstract of my PhD thesis "The Civil War Revival and its Pentecostal Progeny: A Religious Movement among the Igbo People of Eastern Nigeria (1967-2002)" University of Birmingham, 2004.

Research Objectives

This study traces the development of one sector of the Pentecostal movement in modern Nigeria. Since independence, the growth of Nigerian Pentecostalism has been spectacular, so much so that some authorities regard Nigeria as the global centre of gravity as far as dramatic church growth is concerned. This post-independence Pentecostal impulse had its roots in an evangelical revival associated with Scripture Union and the university campuses at the end of the Nigerian civil war (1967-70). It has generated a proliferation of new Pentecostal denominations, which together represent the dominant _expression of Nigerian Christianity. As well as spectacular church growth within its own borders, Nigeria is also becoming known as one of the foremost missionary sending nations of the world, exposing Christian communities in the global North to African Pentecostal spirituality. All this demonstrates how important it is to study the origins and development of this movement in an era of globalisation. My research explores its progress among the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria (one of the three main Nigerian ethnic groups) from its origins in the civil war to the present, and considers its contribution to the construction of local Christian identity. It reflects on the encounter between a particular brand of Christianity and a local African society, and the process of (re-)conversion that transpired. As such, it explores the nature of revivalist and Pentecostal experience, but does so against the backdrop of local socio-political and economic developments, such as decolonisation and civil war, as well broader processes, such as modernisation and globalisation.

Research Methodology

During field research I conducted interviews with former revivalists, Pentecostal pioneers and church members, and collected a variety of locally produced Christian literature. To gain an insight into the movement as a whole, with its different theological emphases and geographical centres, I interviewed founders and leaders from twenty-six neo-Pentecostal denominations, and carried out case studies on eight with headquarters in seven different cities. A danger was that my study could end up as an analysis of the faith of the clerical élite. To counter this I visited churches as a participant observer and carried out more in-depth studies of three denominations using a questionnaire survey to gain access to membership at the grass-roots.

Research Outcomes

Although this study falls principally within the frameworks of history and anthropology rather than theology, it privileges participant accounts which invariably explain the advent and decline of revival in terms of the descent and withdrawal of the Holy Spirit. The main thesis, however, is that the success of the revival and its Pentecostal progeny depended upon a balance between supply and demand. Colonial legacies, Western missionary endeavours, decolonisation and civil war not only created new religious demands, they contributed to the formation of a dynamic missionary fellowship, able to exploit the disorder of Igbo society and the failure of existing religious options to fulfil traditional aspirations. The thesis shows that during its formative period the revival’s Pentecostal progeny also benefited from this missionary impulse, and the flexibility of Pentecostal spirituality, which enabled it to adapt to meet consumer demands. It examines the way the movement has evolved since the 1970s, and argues that the decline of its missionary impulse, combined with a paradigm shift from holiness to prosperity teaching, and a propensity to schism, have imposed limitations on its potential as an agent of transformation. Finally, it shows that during the 1990s, a further shift has occurred towards a theology of socio-political engagement, and examines the implications of this for the movement’s identity and influence in a pluralistic society.

Contributed by:

Richard Hugh Burgess

Roehampton, London
University of Roehampton
last modified 2011-02-09 14:21