Pentecostalism in Brazil and Nigeria

A review of Hope and the Holy Spirit: The Global Pentecostal Movement in Brazil and Nigeria, 1910-2010, by Laura Premack.

Laura Premack’s 2013 dissertation, “Hope and the Holy Spirit: The Global Pentecostal Movement in Brazil and Nigeria, 1910-2010,” combines historical and anthropological analysis to provide an in-depth examination of global Pentecostalism. Challenging the depiction of the religion as a “U.S. export,” founded and developed in the United States and then spread throughout the world, Premack instead argues that early Pentecostalism was a “rhizomic” movement: it had multiple origin points that were neither completely isolated from nor completely dependent upon one another. Premack contends that Pentecostalism was not a religion that became globalized, but rather was a “fundamentally global” religion. Its spiritual message was as powerful as it was universal, proclaiming that individuals could directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, and that the age of miracles had not yet ended. In Brazil, Nigeria, the United States, and elsewhere, this message had wide appeal, and within less than a century, Pentecostals would make up over twenty-five percent of all Christians.

Yet while Pentecostalism’s message may have been universal, its implementation and institutionalization could and did vary depending on the local environment in which it emerged. For this reason Premack grounds her historical analysis in two case studies—Brazil and Nigeria—in order to track the origins, growth, and evolution of two distinct expressions of global Pentecostalism. Brazil and Nigeria have the largest populations of Pentecostals outside of the United States, and they are also the birthplace of the largest Pentecostal churches in the world. By comparing and contrasting the two countries’ Pentecostal histories, Premack seeks to “illuminate Pentecostalism as a global movement within Brazil and Nigeria” (p. 20).

Chapters 1 and 2 examine the early history of Pentecostalism in both nations. Scholars have generally overlooked this period in Pentecostal history, focusing instead on the post-1960 era, after the religion had “exploded” onto national and world stages. Chapter 1 examines Brazil, where Pentecostalism arrived in the form of two Swedish Baptists, who in 1911 founded the Assembléia de Deus [Assembly of God] church in the northern state of Pará. The new church grew with astonishing speed, particularly when compared to the mainline Protestant denominations such as the Baptists, whose resources were greater but growth smaller. Premack attributes Pentecostalism’s greater success to the fact that Assembléia de Deus was a church that was led and shaped by Brazilians, for Brazilians, and catered to communities of varying socioeconomic levels. Unlike the Baptists, early Pentecostal leaders gave Brazilians a great amount of agency within the church institution. Not only did the Assembléia de Deus allow Brazilians to become pastors at a much greater rate than its mainline Protestant counterparts, but in 1930 the Pentecostal church decreed that all pastors had to be Brazilian, thereby avoiding the internal power struggles that were overtaking and weakening mainline Protestant missions.

Pentecostalism’s success in Brazil was also aided by the church’s inherent flexibility and more open organizational structure. Pentecostals did not require formal theological training for pastors, which allowed Brazilians from all walks of life to found and lead their own churches. This allowed the faith to spread rapidly and to reach people and places that mainline congregations might otherwise overlook. Not dependent upon foreign funding sources or tied down by personnel- and resource-intensive educational institutions, Pentecostalism was able to concentrate on its single objective: the conversion of souls.

Chapter 2 turns to Nigeria, where in 1928, Joseph Ayo Babalola had a vision that told him to heal the sick by faith alone. He then became a faith healer, and would go on to become the main prophet of the Aladura movement, the Pentecostal faith-healing movement that provided the foundation upon which future Pentecostal churches would be based. Traditionally, scholars have depicted the Aladura movement and the Pentecostal churches affiliated with it as completely indigenous Nigerian churches, free from all foreign influences. Premack challenges this assumption by showing that foreign Pentecostal institutions and individuals provided the Nigerian Pentecostal churches with both logistical and doctrinal support. On the logistical side, Premack focuses on the role of the Apostolic Church of the United Kingdom, a Pentecostal church that sent missionaries to Nigeria in the 1930s to aid the nascent Pentecostal movement. These missionaries in no way “founded” Pentecostalism in Nigeria, but were rather invited by the Nigerian Pentecostals themselves, as a way to ensure that their congregations, which were quickly being marginalized from the mainline Protestant religious sphere, received the political protection and financial support that they urgently needed. On the doctrinal side, Premack highlights the influence of U.S. evangelist Franklin Hall, whose writes had a profound impact on the doctrine espoused by Joseph Babalola. Premack emphasizes that these cases of logistical and doctrinal support did not represent a one-directional avenue of influence, but rather a series of mutually beneficial relationships that impacted both sides for the better. U.S.- and U.K.-based Pentecostals received the prestige and power that came from being able to boast of their newfound international presence, while Joseph Babalola and the Nigerian Pentecostals received doctrinal inspiration, political protection, and educational assistance from their foreign colleagues.

In Chapter 3, Premack turns to the conversion experience itself, examining how and why people converted to Pentecostalism in the first half of the twentieth century. In both Brazil and Nigeria, faith healing was the main attraction of Pentecostal churches. However, the way in which faith healing was understood and enacted was different in each case. In Nigeria, faith healing was both institutionalized and gendered—in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the Christ Apostolic Church founded maternity centers for pregnant women in order to both attract more female converts and appease government officials skeptical of faith healing initiatives. Premack argues that these maternity centers were the reason that faith-healing-based Pentecostalism survived and grew during this time period, despite being attacked and undermined by government-backed public health campaigns. In Brazil, however, faith healing was often understood through the lens of popular Catholicism and the saints. Just as Catholics would pray to a particular saint for healing (and, if healed, perhaps make a pilgrimage to the saint’s shrine), Pentecostals would come to their Pentecostal brothers for healing (and, if healed, give “testimony” about their healing and conversion experience). Yet Premack also argues that faith healing was just one of many reasons Brazilians were attracted to Pentecostalism. Converts frequently testified to a more general sense of “happiness” that came from the spiritual sense of peace they gained after their conversion. This could come from the welcoming community of the church, their belief in the truth of biblical doctrine, and the liberation from the sins and vices that had previously been weighting upon them. Premack also shows that elements that are normally attributed to later manifestations of Pentecostalism, such as prosperity doctrine and exorcism, are already present in Brazilian testimonials as early as the 1940s.

Chapters 4 and 5 move ahead in time and examine the later “waves” of Pentecostal growth that took place from the 1950s to the present, connecting them to specific political and economic shifts that were happening at the same time. In Brazil, migration and urbanization contributed to the growth of urban slums, or favelas, in the 1950s and 60s. Pentecostalism thrived in the favelas; churches provided migrants with a sense of community that had been lost when they left their hometowns, and the miraculous cures and divine prophecies being promoted by Pentecostal preachers resonated with those whose own folk Catholicism had been similarly rooted in the miraculous. In Nigeria, it was young university students who fueled the “second wave” of Pentecostalism in the 1960s and 70s. Disillusioned by the failure of the First Republic—and the mainline Protestant leaders who had contributed to its downfall—students founded charismatic prayer groups and “para-church organizations” that would become “incubators” for the Pentecostal churches that would emerge in the ensuing years.

The 1970s, 80s, and 90s would see another Pentecostal boom, this time connected to “charismatic” or “neo-Pentecostal” churches that focused on the divine power to not only heal the sick, but also to realize material aspirations of believers—wealth, jobs, homes, and general success in life. Here Premack concentrates on the history of two churches—the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria and the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) in Brazil. In both cases, Premack connects their growth (and the general Pentecostal growth that was seen in the 1970s and 80s in Brazil and 1980s and 90s in Nigeria) to the economic downturns that occurred during those periods, but she also argues that the churches’ messages uniquely resonated in both Brazilian and Nigerian communities. In Nigeria, the transactional and practical nature of Pentecostalism, as well as the belief in witches and magic, was already present in Yoruba religion. In Brazil, Pentecostalism explicitly rejected the saints of popular Catholicism and orixás of candomblé, but it did so not by denying their power, but rather by confirming it and transforming it into a demonic power that was lesser only to that of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 6 moves to the present day, and is more explicitly anthropological in nature than the first five chapters. Here, Premack probes the relationship between Pentecostal identity and national identity by analyzing the words and actions of Edir Macedo and Enoch Adeboye, leaders of the Igreja Universal and the Redeemed Christian Church of God, respectively. Premack argues that while both leaders view their churches as representing the epicenter of a global Pentecostal movement, they also view these movements as having distinctly national characteristics. In Nigeria, the Redeemed Church is depicted as being at once the cause and the evidence of the nation’s salvation—in times of economic decline, terrorism, and political corruption, the success of the Redeemed Church, both in Nigeria and around the world, has been singled out as a point of pride for the nation as a whole, and a model upon which other Nigerian institutions should be founded. Moreover, Nigerian Pentecostals believe that religion itself can save the nation: Enoch Adeboye and his coreligionists have started a worldwide “Pray for Nigeria” campaign that has become a form of national religious activism. In Brazil, however, the relationship between Pentecostal and Brazilian identity is more fraught. On the one hand, Pentecostals take their role as Brazilian citizens seriously, and they have become very active in the political sphere. On the other hand, Premack argues that Edir Macedo and the Igreja Universal see themselves as neither representing nor serving the nation, as they adopt a role more akin to a multinational corporation than a national church. The Igreja Universal still purports to represent a uniquely Brazilian style of Pentecostalism, but its success is portrayed as a reflection, rather than a cause, of the nation’s larger economic and political successes.

Throughout the dissertation, Premack expertly paints a picture of a complex global religious movement promoting universal messages rooted in local cultures. Her work not only makes important contributions to Pentecostal history and religious studies, but it is also a must-read for scholars of globalization and transnationalism. Pentecostalism cannot be studied as a homogenized global “product,” nor can its churches be viewed as having isolated national histories. In effect, Premack’s dissertation is an example of, and a call for, an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to Pentecostal studies that takes seriously the universality of its spiritual message while also recognizing the flexibility and adaptability of its local expressions and institutional structures.

Erika Helgen
Department of History
Yale University
erika.helgen@yale.edu

Dissertation Information

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2013. 280 pp. Primary advisors: John Chasteen and Lisa Lindsay.

Primary Sources

African Collection, Yale University Libraries, New Haven, Connecticut
Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, University of Oxford, Oxford
Divinity School Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Hezekiah Oluwasanmi Library, Obafemi Awolomo University, Ile-Ife
International Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention, Richmond, Virginia
Library of the Templo da Glória do Novo Israel, Igreja Universal do Reino do Deus, Rio de Janeiro
National Library, Rio de Janeiro
Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary Library and Archive, Ogbomoso
Nigerian National Archives, Ibadan
Personal Papers of Adelola Adeloye, Ibadan
Redeemer’s University Library, Redemption Camp, Nigeria
Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archive, Nashville
West Glamorgan Archive Service, Swansea, Wales
Yale University Manuscripts and Archives, New Haven

 

Image: Photo by Author

 

 

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