Friday, 8 June 2012

Of Translation, Vernacularization, and Appropriation: Re-Evaluating Bishop Ajayi Crowther in Yoruba Spirituality


S. ’Jide Komolafe


The philosophical exploration of religious beliefs and practices is evident in all cultures. Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life. Consequently, when an alien religion makes an incursion, it is not surprising that it lives off the conceptual religious capital of its host, adding very little, save a certain empirical enrichment.  Even then, both are often uneasy yoke-fellows, each at times feeling it a duty to combat the other. The attempt by Remi Oyeniyi to offer corrections to the place of Esu in Yoruba cosmology and the reaction this has generated so far advance further this inevitable proposition (“Esu: The Revenge of Bishop Ajayi Crowther”

Following Prof. Funso Aiyejina, Oyeniyi would like to shift our attention from Esu’s representation as “the equivalent of the Euro-Christian Devil/Satan who is out to undermine the work of the Almighty God.” Instead, we should reincarnate his classical place in Yoruba cosmology as “the enforcer of the Will of Olodumare.” Oyeniyi prefers the imagery of benevolence, blaming Bishop Ajayi Crowther for the demonization of Esu as “an act of vengeance against his own Yoruba people whom he felt had sold him into slavery.” He projects an ethical obligation to uphold the Esu in Yoruba cosmology while being deeply opposed to “the ‘New Esu’ created by Bishop Crowther and his overzealous, vengeance-seeking and indoctrinated past and present followers of Euro-Christianity.” Much of this strikes me as a reactionary agenda to either emphasize the indigenous roles or diminish the process of appropriation in praise of Yoruba religious ingenuity and spirituality.

It does not seem to me irrational that his claim has been vehemently confronted by Ayo Turton in his response “Esu Is Satan Re: Revenge of Bishop Ajayi Crowther” ( Turton upholds the duplicity of Esu, using Oyeniyi’s own submission that Esu is, even in Yoruba cosmology, “a divine trickster, a disguise- artist, a mischief-maker, a rebel, a challenger of orthodoxy, a shape-shifter.” It is not my intention to duplicate what Ayo Turton has already addressed. What is problematic is the deliberate misrepresentation of “the greatest Yoruba work ever recorded in history” as a projection of a malicious intent. Admittedly, Remi Oyeniyi is one of the few writers I enjoy reading especially for his insights and style. But I think his evaluation of Bishop Ajayi Crowther’s translation prowess as a vengeful enterprise is a grievous error of judgment lacking any proof of meticulous investigation or logical analysis. On the contrary, Bishop Ajayi Crowther did much more, not only in advancing the theoretical spirituality of the Yoruba but in bringing empirical enrichment to the conceptual capital of Olodumare and His created order.

What I have, therefore, set out to do is to attempt a reevaluation that addresses the philosophical, religious and intellectual legacy of Bishop Ajayi Crowther. Even then, I make no claim to be exhaustive but rather cursory. To claim otherwise is to insult the memory and work of the erudite linguist, Bishop Ajayi Crowther. 

The wider issue on the extent to which Yoruba Christian spirituality developed a theology of its own cannot be discussed without recognizing the commitment of the missionaries to the translation enterprise. In Nigeria, as in many parts of Africa, the translation enterprise was the centerpiece in the machinery of mission. As Sanneh has pointed out, missionaries often acted as vernacular agents and by so doing, acted as a means of cultural renewal. In the case of Nigeria, for example, the vernacular exposition of the Scriptures heralded a new era for the Yoruba with far-reaching consequences. It provided the platform for the natives to share the missionaries’ intellectual heritage by connecting them with the most important literature in the Christian faith, the Bible (Lamin Sanneh, 1989:147).

In Nigeria, the vernacularization process received its most rigorous affirmation through the indigenizing principles of Henry Venn, CMS secretary from 1842 to 1872. However, the African impetus came from Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first African bishop and the able linguist who remained “the most important influence” in the production of the Bible in the Yoruba language (Andrew Walls, 2002:42). Crowther was equally a pioneer in translating substantial literature into the Yoruba language. The significance of this vernacularization of Scripture for the Yoruba has not always been appreciated.

The existence of a vernacular Scripture became a powerful factor for the African initiative in Christian expansion. On one hand, it provided a forum to evaluate and question certain theological ideas taught by the missionaries. On the other hand, and undoubtedly more important, it opened the way for a “Christian reaffirmation of some ancient aspects of African religion that were not part of missionary Christianity at all” (Walls, 2002:130).

These ancient aspects of Yoruba religion are the revelatory phenomena of dreams, visions, trance, and ecstatic utterances that have formed part of the “effective canon” of Yoruba Christian spirituality as exemplified by the Aladura. For the Yoruba, “the missionary adoption of vernacular categories for the Scriptures was in effect a written sanction for the indigenous religious vocation” (Sanneh, 1989:159). It is against this backdrop that the role of Bishop Ajayi Crowther in Yoruba Christian spirituality has to be understood. For example, the Yoruba (African) initiated religious group known as the Aladura read Scripture in a certain way, so persistently that this indigenous reading has become the template through which they view all of Scripture. Unlike the mainline mission churches, the Aladura are not merely given to an intellectual systematization of Scripture. Rather, their reading and interpretations of Scripture are conditioned by presuppositions arising out of their Yoruba cultural context and how it speaks into their life situation. While we can claim that the Scripture is central to their beliefs and practices, it is nonetheless, a theological reflection largely influenced by their local situation.

Perhaps the criticisms of Bishop Crowther and indigenous spirituality have to be put in perspective. The tendency to read the Scripture in a certain way is not peculiar to the Yoruba, but representative of the Christian community. David Kelsey’s work on the use of the Bible in theology is most helpful in pointing out this critical component in scriptural interpretation. According to him, there is no single, standard interpretive scheme to which all must subscribe. Rather, every faith community brings its own hermeneutic to Scripture.

Arguing his case by analyzing the writings of seven Protestant theologians, Kelsey concludes that the art of theologizing is not based solely on a close study of biblical texts but on a prior decision in which we imaginatively try to authorize theological ideas. This “prior construal” of Scripture, Kelsey argues, determines which patterns or aspects of Scripture are more meaningful to us than others (Kelsey, 1975; Cleophus J. LaRue, 2000).

There are historical precedents to justify Kelsey’s claim. A case in point is to recall that the Anglican litany grew out of the particular situation and needs of England towards the middle of the sixteenth century. It was a theological enterprise that grew out of the need to address a succession of troubles, bad weather, diseases, and wars (Harold Turner, 1967:166). Be that as it may, then, it can be said at this point that the Yoruba, despite being Christian converts, also see a pattern of Scripture to which they ascribe wholeness—all of life’s problems. In a context where afflictions of various kinds are presumed to be caused by evil forces, it is not surprising that the sine qua non of Yoruba spirituality and of Aladura theology is prayer and spiritual power. We need to look further at these domains of beliefs and practices.


Aladura churches are well-named. The extensive practice of adura (prayer) and the belief in its efficacy for every eventuality is the keynote of all their doctrines and the one single factor which characterizes the whole movement. Prayer does not function merely as incidental reference to Olodumare, but establishes divine communion and a potent point of contact with the spiritual realm. It is the medium whereby the supernatural power of Olodumare most decisively meets human need to subdue evil, gain specific guidance or infuse divine vitality into human life.

This pragmatic view of prayer is in direct contact with Yoruba spirituality. In Yoruba religious and cultural beliefs, prayer is central to all areas and seasons of life. There is no artificial boundary separating the sacred and the secular. The primary concern of Yoruba prayer is to obtain benefits from the orişa, the agents of Olodumare, in matters of spiritual guidance and self-actualization. To enlist the help of the orişa means a constant recourse to divination (Ifa) and sacrifice (ẹbọ).

Divination plays a crucial role as the medium through which hidden things and personal problems that are not easily perceptible are brought to light. The complement to divination is sacrifice (ẹbọ). This religious act is oriented toward changing the course of things to one’s advantage. In this sense, ritual speech and action have performative force because for the Yoruba, “prayers and offerings not only say things, they are supposed to do things” (Benjamin C. Ray, 1993: 280-281).

The Aladura have adapted this element of Yoruba religious consciousness by giving it their own distinctive Christian interpretation. In this shift from traditional belief, divine intervention into daily life is not sought through intermediaries but by directly “talking with Olorun” in prayer (ibaọlọrunsọrọ). This is the conviction of most Aladura leaders. The explanation given by Emmanuel Adejobi, the late Primate of the Church of the Lord (Aladura) bears witness to this:

It [prayer] is an act of praise and worship. It is the resort of the soul, a revitalization of spiritual strength. . . . Yea, it is a meeting place with God where the creature talks with the Creator, and communes as friend to friend . . . where all wants and poverty are laid bare for Divine abundance and blessing. It is a meeting place of heaven with the earth. It is a place where the forces of darkness are put to flight and Satan’s power disarmed. There a Christian perceives heavenly visions; eats and drinks of heavenly manna, and wine. . . . Prayer is the mighty power house of a believer (ibid.)

Construed in this way, prayer does not only greatly intensify the sense of the immediacy of the presence of Olodumare (or Olorun as both are interchangeably used to refer to God) it also represents an aspect of both communicating with and of eliciting a response from Him. Granted this conceptual transformation, solution to problems that would have otherwise been sought in a pseudo-scientific manner through Yoruba rituals is sought, instead, in the moral-religious milieu of Christianity.

Eliciting a favorable response meant that the communication had to be done in the “right way.” In Yoruba oratory discourse, praise-singing (oríkì) is employed for just this purpose. These are evocative utterances which are believed to capture the essential qualities of their subjects, and by being uttered, to motivate them to act (Karin Barber, 1991). This is why Aladura prayers are heavily punctuated with the element of adoration and praise epithets for Olodumare. These are a deliberate attempt to move the divine hands of Olodumare. It needs to be mentioned, however, that the instrumentality of evocative epithet is not what brings about an answer. The prospect of a favorable response is totally a divine prerogative. The most the Aladura can do is to “compel” Olodumare to act favorably on his or her behalf.

Spiritual Power

The approach of the Aladura had enough points of contact with local idioms to give their religious activity serious consideration by ordinary people. As Peel has noted, “the search for power, individual or collective, was the dominant orientation of the Yoruba toward all religions” (J.D.Y. Peel, 2000:217). This is especially important when we consider that the Yoruba are given to cosmo-historical presuppositions where spiritual powers exist and tensions between good and evil are always in focus. These forces of evil are organized under the control of the enemy of Olodumare and of human welfare, the devil or Satan. To defeat him and his cronies, therefore, requires gaining access to a higher alternative, to the limitless powers of Olodumare whose very name denotes fullness or superlative greatness.

The response of the Aladura must be seen as taking on a strong local initiative in offering a greater power in the battle with evil. In fact, the Aladura consider themselves to be the special recipients of spiritual power (agbara ẹmi). Their God is the Alagbara (Dispenser of Power) through whose power (l’agbara Ọlọrun) things can be done. The revival of the 1930s was a vindication of the charismatic claim of the Aladura. Joseph Ayodele Babalola, the most prominent of the revivalists, was reported to have ministered in such a great power that miraculous events were common sights in his meetings. Further demonstrations of the supremacy of the God of the Aladura were the numerous confessions of witches either in the Aladura revival meetings or as a result of drinking water that was sanctified by an Aladura prophet (John Odunayo Ojo, 1988; Adeware Alokan, 1991).

The source of Aladura power is the God of the Scriptures whose power is identified with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is viewed as the all-embracing, pervasive power of God who, in turn, “fills people with power.” To be “filled with power” requires one to earnestly seek after the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Most indigenous churches organize “tarrying meetings” for this purpose. The witness of baptism is validated by spiritual power; and demonstrated by the ability to prophesy, speak in tongues, heal, exorcize demons, have visions and dreams, and live holy lives. This promise of Holy Spirit power to meet existential needs and to provide protection from the devastation of evil forces is compelling reasons for Aladura membership. The Apostolic Church and Christ Apostolic Church know this and do not fail to instruct new members on the importance of the Holy Spirit, as the source of transforming power in the life of the Church.

Therefore, to allege as some Western critics like Temples and Beyerhaus have done that Africans conceive of the “power” of the Holy Spirit as an impersonal and manipulative force is an argument that belongs in the 1960s (P. Temples, 1959; P. Beyerhaus, 1969). Today, we know enough about the pneumatology of African spirituality and Pentecostalism than to unfairly represent their views and doctrines. Yet, the paradox is that the Aladura model, whose primary appeal was to offer a Christian faith that is contextually appropriate, has negatively impressed those who insist that it is “this worldly” in motivation. To these scholars, “the Aladura have transformed the other-worldly, spiritual and ethical character of Western Christianity into this-worldly ends of traditional Yoruba religion” (Ray, 1993:269).

Perhaps the hermeneutical key to appreciating Aladura Christianity is to come to a clearer and a more definitive idea of what is “this-worldly” or “other-worldly” in Yoruba spirituality. The Yoruba, and more generally Africans, conceive of time and space as cyclical and so is their concept of “this worldly.” In Yoruba cosmology, “this worldly” does not mean simply the material-phenomenal universe, as is often the case in Western thinking. Rather, the two worlds function in a symbiotic way, the crossroads between life and death and also between the spirit and the physical. In other words, the two worlds are in a constant state of interaction and influence.

The unnecessary dichotomy that has been ascribed to African cultural beliefs, and indeed to Aladura Christianity, is alien to Yoruba sensibility. The Aladura are not inhibited with using terms and categories that espouse their understanding and practice of Christianity. In fact, their way of “doing church” bears witness to the incarnate character of Christianity and of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not simply interested in telling stories about the Kingdom. He demonstrated in practical ways that the kingdom had entered human history by attending to the physical and spiritual needs of his listeners. At other times, he told his listeners that the kingdom of God has come upon them (Mt. 12:28; Lk. 10:9-11). Consequently, the Aladura preach a Christ who is also the healer, the protector, and the friend of those who live on the fringes of human society.

The false dichotomy and, indeed, the intra-ecclesiastical debates that continue to characterize Western theology can no longer be imposed on a context like Africa where gospel and culture have been brought into a creative and dynamic encounter. Modern day citizens, and, indeed, Nigerian Christians, are inundated with many options to accept any one religion rather uncritically. What is in a religion that offers the promise of another world when it is inadequate to address the concerns and aspirations of this world? What the Yoruba have done in their practice of Aladura Christianity is to proclaim a holistic gospel and to offer a Savior, Jesus Christ, who is able to save both eternally and materially. As Ray has put it, “for the Aladura Christians the eschatological Kingdom of God, which they also call ‘Heaven,’ has come into the world. It is not only transcendent, it is also immanent” (Ray, 1939:273).

So far I have focused on the thought-world of Yoruba culture and on the reordering of worldview as a positive consequence of the indigenous reading of the Bible. Despite its alien (Western) origin, the wonders of Christianity must be attributed to its incarnate character, reflecting both time and specific contexts. This is the reorientation that resulted from the Yoruba translation of the Bible by the eminent churchman and linguist, Bishop Ajayi Crowther. And I dare say the single most important factor responsible for the success of the missionizing efforts of the 19th century. It domesticated Christianity to Yoruba sensibility by giving us the Aladura model of church that exists today.

And contrary to a vengeful portrayal, Bishop Ajayi Crowther was, in fact, the most steadfast defender of the Yoruba race. He constantly argued against orthodox and rigorist emphasis that undermined the “minimum qualifications necessary for salvation”:

We use our discretion that such practices which the laws of the country allow, but not being among those in immediate requirements necessary for salvation, but which Christianity after a time will abolish, are not directly interfered with (Crowther to Venn, Jan. 3, 1875. CMS, CA2/031. CMS Archives).

For Crowther, the Society’s approach to local culture should be sensitive and sympathetic. Convinced that “Christianity does not undertake to destroy national assimilation,” he was known to advise that reform should be introduced with suavity and tact (ibid.). The life and works of Bishop Ajayi Crowther remain indelible for all times and for as long as there are Yoruba and African Christians. This is no arbitrary eclecticism, superficial theory-mongering, and sheer intellectual confusion. The cultural dimension of Bishop Ajayi Crowther attests to this fact. It denotes a historically and culturally transmitted pattern of faith embodied in indigenous language and symbols. His legacy is one of spiritual conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which Yoruba continue to communicate, perpetuate, and express their spirituality and attitudes toward life. 

No comments:

Post a comment