Christian Personhood in a Ghanaian Pentecostal Church
Girish Daswani (University of Toronto)
Abstract: The question ‘what is Christian personhood?’ has been on the anthropological radar for some time now. Most of these debates around Christian personhood have engaged with ideas of ‘individuality’ and ‘dividuality’ and have considered whether Christians are individual or dividual first. By looking at how relationships are organized differently within one Pentecostal church in Ghana, I argue that both individuality and dividuality should be considered as intrinsic to any notion of Christian personhood. I examine how church leaders and prophets from the Church of Pentecost reveal the different social arrangements through which a Pentecostal identity and its relations are constituted, managed, and brought into being in Ghana. Ultimately this paper argues that the qualities of how church leaders and prophets of this church come together, and come apart, as individual or dividual, can also be studied through a better understanding of kinship and the social structures that people cohabit.
In early 2015 I met up with Albert, a friend and interlocutor, someone who introduced me to The Church of Pentecost (CoP) when I was in Ghana between 2003 and 2004. It was Albert who in 2004 said to a prayer congregation that Pentecostalism in Ghana was not about a ‘belief in God’ but about ‘relationships’, that God worked through people to help those in need (Daswani 2015). My attempts to make sense of what he meant by relationships helped frame my first impressions of Pentecostalism and in understanding how CoP members were related to God through their shared spiritual practices and through the networks of care and support that were a part of. Back then Albert spent much of his time visiting and assisting several prophets from CoP. Through prayer and prophecies they helped build his hopes for the future and provided him with a sense of security in the world. Albert eventually left CoP and in 2014 formed his own prayer fellowship, which quickly turned into a small but vibrant church. He now had others, followers of his own, who clung to his every word as he gave them advice, predicted their future and spoke demons out of their bodies. His new role as a prophet of his own church allowed him to take on a special position in Ghanaian society as a spiritual guide and mentor. Albert told me that one could convert, become born-again, speak in tongues and learn from others as to how to be a good Pentecostal but the gifts of the prophet were something that one could not cultivate over time. Instead the prophetic gifts were given by God to a chosen few and within different degrees of intensity, either present or absent in the Christian person. When Albert emphasised ‘relationships’ as central to his understanding of Pentecostalism in Ghana, I came to understand that he was referring to the relationships of support and spiritual protection he had received from prophets and from other church members who attended these special prayer services. Over time I realized that there were different types of relationships in CoP and different understandings of ‘relationships’ that informed a Pentecostal identity in Ghana.
The two groups that best represented the different types of relationships in CoP were (1) the church leaders who included pastors that held administrative positions and who provided guidelines for how Pentecostal relations ought to play out practice, and (2) the prophets who held spiritual power and who operated out of prayer camps and prayer centres. The former provided specific theologically based guidelines for how church members were related to God and to each other, paying particular attention to how Pentecostals should come together as individuals-in-Christ. The latter were subject to the same criteria of biblical relatedness but were also described as specially chosen vectors of divine power. Because of their special relationship with the Holy Spirit, prophets were described as more spiritually powerful than ordinary Christians and even CoP leaders. They were known to be able to see what lies behind people’s intentions and to mediate on behalf of others with God and the spirits causing them harm. Church leaders and prophets represented two models of ‘intersubjectivity’ (see Hamberger 2013; Course 2013) that co-existed but that were in tension with one another. They also informed my understanding of the divisions within CoP and within Pentecostalism in Ghana more generally – between more hierarchical-institutionalized forms of Pentecostalism and more charismatic forms that centre around individual personalities and their ability to transmit spiritual power.
In this paper I pay special attention to church leaders and prophets in CoP in order to demonstrate how they help form Pentecostal ‘relationships’ differently. I argue that while interconnected as members of a single institution these two groups reveal the different social arrangements through which a Pentecostal Christian identity and its relations are constituted, managed, and brought into being in Ghana. This distinction between groups speaks to the interconnected but different ways of conceiving Christian persons and their relations – one that can be chosen and cultivated over time and another that is simply gifted to a select few. If the acceptable forms of socialization and the constituent parameters of individual selfhood within the church community are prescribed by CoP leaders, and as premised on the cultivation of certain Christian virtues, prophets provide another way of imagining social relations, acting as channels of and for a divine power that not every Christian possesses. These two groups are not representative of different types of “Ghanaian Pentecostal” but tokens of a single type, moral characters that are identifiable in many Christian churches in Ghana including CoP. In CoP church leaders and prophets operate alongside each other and criticize each other but their interactions also help us consider the structure of relations that frame personhood and to reconsider an important theme in an anthropology of Christianity to which I now turn.
Christian Personhood and its limits
In recent years an anthropology of Christianity has provided analytical importance to ideas such as the ‘individual’ and the ‘inner-self’ in articulating a Protestant Christian personhood (Robbins 2004; Keane 2007; Robbins et al. 2014, Bialecki and Daswani 2015). In the Protestant Christian identities described by Joel Robbins (2004) and Webb Keane (2007) for example, conversion brings with it a clash of concepts and ideological conflicts that converts have to negotiate. Even as Protestant Christianity allows for the increased importance of an understanding of individuality, their ethnographic subjects are described as struggling to properly align themselves with their new Protestant identity and to distance themselves completely from un-Christian, traditional, ways of life. More recently in considering the cultural commitments and the models of imagining self-other relations that shape Christian interactions in their respective research sites spanning Melanesia and Amazonia, Robbins et. al (2014) argue that their ethnographic comparison reveals a common cultural logic in evangelical Christian conversion: of an individualized and inner notion of the self. A focus on the ‘individual’ as the locus of Christian salvation is both consistent with a moral narrative of modernity as well as with an ethnographic object of investigation. An emphasis on ‘individuality’ however has led to a critical response by Mark Mosko (2010) who argued that the Christian (and the Western) person is intrinsically ‘dividual’. For Mosko the explicit statements Christians make about individuality should be read alongside cultural ideas of the composite self and within a larger template of dividuality that extends beyond Melanesia (see also Mosko 2015). Mosko’s work raises an important question for anthropologists: what if we accepted that all persons are implicitly dividual beings but that people do not express or experience their dividuality in the same way? This assumption does not go against or negate an understanding of Christianity where claims of separation, rupture and individualism are equally and sometimes more important considerations in public declarations of faith and in the social analysis of Christian conversion. We can easily reconcile the idea that all humans are relational beings (dividual even), that we have different perceptions of how we are related to each other and that individuality and dividuality serve as ideologies of personhood and potential dimensions of all persons, specific tokens rather than fully formed types.
In Africa more has been done to demonstrate how both individuality and dividuality remain important ways of framing Christian personhood.[i] It has been argued that the Pentecostal individual should not be seen as autonomous or separate from the other aspects of Christian dividuality that include the embodiment and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Englund and Leach 2000: 232-236). Anthropologists have described how the Christian individual in Africa is also dividual or involved in affective relations with others (Englund & Leach 2000; Van Dijk 2001; Englund 2004; Lindhardt 2010; Klaits 2010; Werbner 2012; Haynes 2012). As Martin Lindhardt (2010: 3) who works with Pentecostals in Tanzania advises, ‘caution should be applied in overemphasising born-again individualism by seeing the pursuit of spiritual rupture as an expression of a desire to distance oneself from family and social obligations’. Rijk van Dijk (2001: 219) has also argued against understanding Pentecostalism in Ghana ‘exclusively on the basis of freeing the subject from the past by means of a singular and monolithic move towards individuality’. Instead, he writes, Ghanaian Pentecostalism offers ‘a plurality of technologies that varyingly stress dividuality and individuality as the ultimate aim of its religious/moral programme’ (ibid). Richard Werbner (2011: 12; 203) has stressed the importance of an alternating personhood, the dialectic between dividuality and individuality in the study of Christianity in southern Africa.[ii] For Werbner’s charismatic prophets, dividuality matters, especially during exorcisms and witch-finding sessions when their clients selves are permeated by spirits and others substances. Working with another apostolic church in Botswana Frederick Klaits (2010) has described how an individual relationship with Jesus is less important than the quality of relationships and expressions of love that a Christian shares with others. In Zambia Naomi Haynes (2012: 134) has shown that for Pentecostals who believe in the wealth generating promise of the prosperity gospel, ‘personal accumulation is not simply about individual self-construction’ but also used to build enduring relationships between households of different socio-economic status. What is at stake in these examples is the necessity to maintain relationships of intimacy, exchange and care rather than simply advocate the prosperity or salvation of the individual. For all the difference in emphasis these authors share one observation in common: that on an interpersonal level Pentecostal and charismatic Christians do not see individuality as more important than dividuality or take one form of personhood as all encompassing.
In a recent paper Joel Robbins (2015) has argued that individuality is a key value or a transcendent principle in Christianity. Rather than fully determining a society’s character individualism is a value amongst other values but one that holds more importance and prominence in some social formations especially Christian ones. For example in the idea of the end-times Christians are provided with an emphasis on the individual as the key unit of salvation and in the expectation of rapture all others relationships are ultimately less important. It would not take a leap of faith to agree with Robbins that ‘individuality’ plays an important organizational and public role in Christianity’s self-representation. Yet it can also be observed that the ‘dividual’ continues to inform different understandings of a more intimate and interpersonal set of interactions and a scale of analysis intrinsic to self-other relations. Together they can be taken as ethical positions and, sometimes, uneasy companions that are not always reconciled with one another or internally consistent in the way they are treated. However, as a shared value and normative practice, the ‘individual’ in CoP, works alongside the ‘dividual’ through the inescapable role that others play in an ethical life.
In this paper I take the Pentecostal ‘individual’ to be subjects of an institutional model of Christian transformation, who, while publicly prioritizing an inner, personal and exclusive relationship with God also choose to be in relations with others. The Pentecostal ‘dividual’ on the other hand is the subject of a model of personhood that experiences and expresses an entanglement of self in other socio-spiritual relations, mostly not of their own making, and who are tied to others (human and nonhuman) in ways that are a priori to their sense of separateness or singularity. It is important to remember that there are obvious limits to an understanding of Christian personhood when using terms such as individuality and dividuality. First, how we define these terms becomes important, in other words, what we mean by ‘individual’ and ‘dividual’, the different ways with which they are used by anthropologists and the purpose to which they serve specific theoretical ends rather than elucidate ethnographic practice (see Lambek 2015; Bialecki and Daswani 2015; Robbins 2015). Second, what do these terms include or eclipse and how relevant are these categories to Christians in comparison to other words that can be used to replace them such as ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ (Bialecki 2015)? Third, do these terms provide an adequate understanding of what are the social processes and interpersonal interactions that allow relationships to be structured and personhood expressed? As I go on to show these models of personhood are not mutually exclusive but mutual dimensions of all social relations in CoP. The claim that Pentecostal personhood promotes individuality or dividuality first does not help us in understanding the different ways that ‘relationships’ become framed and in the formation of Pentecostal subjectivities nor the ways that in/dividuality is (unequally) distributed in a Pentecostal person. An account of personhood cannot be essentialised (as dividual for example) and neither can it be based solely on the accounts that Christians give of themselves (as individual). A study of specific social institutions and the social processes of subject formation that consider the social circumstances of such accounts and their participants bring the focus back to questions of how Pentecostal in/dividuality emerges publicly, becomes contested and criticized internally and the ways in which it operates alongside different understandings and transmissions of power and authority.
Church Leaders and Prophets in CoP
CoP is one of the oldest and fastest growing Pentecostal churches in Ghana. James McKeown, the founder of CoP, was one of the first Pentecostal missionaries to arrive in the Gold Coast from the UK in 1937. CoP has since become an independent global church with eighty-eight branches located outside its Accra headquarters, and a worldwide membership of over two million (CoP 2008). The specifics of CoP, especially its organisational structure, are particularly important in explaining why it has become so successful in Ghana and abroad. Unlike many ‘charismatic ministries’ (Asamoah-Gyadu 2005) CoP has branches spread across rural Ghana and is not merely an urban church. It is at once strongly hierarchical and has a charismatically open structure. CoP is a tightly organized bureaucratic institution that sets the parameters for religious experience and practice but that also selectively allows for the operation of prophets within the church. CoP uses the biblical notion of the ‘five-fold ministry’: that God calls individuals to specific offices (apostle, prophet, teacher, pastor, evangelist).
The church leaders I write about are men who hold all the important offices within the church hierarchy and who work hard to enforce the social rules and values of the church.[iii] The prophets I describe here are not the officially designated ‘prophets’ of the five fold ministry who have a pastoral calling in CoP but church members who believe they have been called by God and who work out of prayer camps and prayer centres that are associated with CoP. These ‘“[g]rassroots prophets” are lay leaders’ who ‘are in constant touch with the ordinary mundane affairs of the suffering masses’ (Quayesi-Amekye 2013: 5). While CoP leaders appoint church members to other positions such as elder, deacon and deaconess and encourage them to take on various daily responsibilities within the church, these two groups within CoP best represent opposite sides of a spectrum of Christian personhood.[iv] While interconnected as members of a single church they help exemplify and reveal the different social and cultural arrangements through which a Pentecostal Christian identity is maintained and managed in Ghana (see also Quayesi-Amekye 2013).
Prophets have a specific history of emergence within CoP. Church leaders point to the period between 1953 and 1969 as the time that ‘prophetism’ became prominent in CoP when ‘a team of three, led by Dr Thomas Wyatt from the Latter Rain Movement in North America, visited the then Apostolic Church of Gold Coast (Ghana) in the early part of 1953’ (Onyinah 2002: 192-3). The Latter Rain Movement emphasised deliverance and helped demonstrate to the church in Ghana ‘the immediacy of the presence of God in practical terms’ (Onyinah 2002: 194-5). As a result of this visit certain members of the church, men and women who felt that they had received the calling of a prophet, began holding prayer meetings in their various areas, praying for people and exorcising demons. Some of the practices of the prophets however reminded CoP leaders of the earlier African Independent Churches also known as Spiritual Churches (Sunsum Sore) and of traditional religious practices.[v] For example CoP chairman Opoku Onyinah (2002: 195) claims that the visit of the Latter Rain Movement resurrected the Akan traditional practice of abisa (divinatory-consultation) within the church through prophetism. Church leaders were also concerned over the emphasis prophets placed on, what Onyinah (2002) termed ‘witchdemonology’, the synthesis of traditional beliefs in witchcraft and of Christian ideas of demonology and exorcism.[vi]
These tensions for establishing a proper alignment with an appropriate Christian personhood can be understood through a model of discontinuity that Pentecostalism implicitly inhabits and explicitly promotes (Robbins 2007; Bialecki et al. 2008; Daswani 2013).[vii] It is usually through public claims of rupture (while in this world or when in heaven) that individuality becomes foregrounded as an important value in Christianity. This key value however is also comfortably nestled within a framework of kinship. In other words the church works hard to recreate both long-term relations as well as obligatory commitments between members who can be described as ritual kin (Bloch 1973).[viii] For example upon conversion there is an extension of the privileges granted to a single group, the Jews, onto all those who follow Jesus. Also rather than merely an ethnic kinship Christianity provides converts with a new spiritual kinship within a community of believers. Pentecostal Christians I worked with considered themselves like kin, adopted into a family of Jesus Christ and connected through his blood (Yesu mogya) and Holy Spirit (Sunsum Kronkron). CoP as an institution provided the criteria for how individuality could be claimed and how new relationships ought to be formed with God and with others in the church. The born-again person thus becomes an individual through the social interactions and relationships formed in the church and upon becoming a member of God’s family. In what follows I argue that the in/dividual qualities of how church members ought to relate to each other can be found in an understanding of Pentecostalism as kinship. How church members come to see themselves, and others, as related to God, informed and helped define how other relationships were imagined and put into practice. This envisioning of Pentecostal kinship as an institutional practice had to be learned through acquiring a genealogical inheritance and a respect for institutional authority and, for pastors, in demonstrating what one church leader described as the ‘character of God’.
Genealogical inheritance and learning the ‘character of God’
Kinship is reconfigured in Christianity rather than simply erased after conversion (see Banner 2014: 42; Reinhardt 2014). If divided in subjective orientation church leaders and prophets are held together by a shared sense of family orientation according to the ongoing importance of biblical truth, which becomes apparent through their universal claims about origins. Ghanaians who convert to Pentecostalism should seriously consider how they are ‘related to Jesus’ a church leader told me. As he described it once born again Ghanaians could make legitimate claims on God through the ‘blood of Jesus’ (Yesu Mogya) and his ‘Holy Spirit’ (Sunsum Kronkron). God was now their ‘father’ who was responsible for the complete well being of his children. Another CoP leader said, ‘the power of Jesus Christ takes care of the individual totally once you are born-again. They have become children of God, a part of his royal, heavenly family’. To be an individual was to, first, freely submit one’s life to Jesus and to the authority of the Christian God. This allowed the convert into a heavenly family that provided spiritual protection and to partake in the inheritance of a new but powerful father in heaven. The next step was to learn what it meant to be a part of this macrocosmic family and to cultivate the virtues of a good Christian. As he went on to say, ‘The Biblical concept of salvation is more inclusive’ since it provided forgiveness and washed away one’s sins forever. He emphasized that many Ghanaian Christians forget that they are no longer related to their ‘African ancestors’ and that they become descendents of ‘Adam’ upon conversion.
Because we are descendents of Adam, we partake of that same nature. All of us were sinners. Adoption starts with a choice and allowed us to transform from sinners, bringing us into our family.
The individual appears as someone who chooses Christ and who willingly submits to the authority of the church and to her new family through a process of adoption. Upon becoming adopted, the individual is then socialized into a Christian family history. The apostle referred to this new way of understanding Christian relationships as a ‘biblical genealogy’ that had to be learnt. Ghanaian Christians had to learn that they ‘inherited the sins of Adam and Eve and therefore had to be saved through accepting Jesus Christ.’ He said that ‘if Jesus Christ provided the final salvation from one’s sins and the sins of Adam and Eve and reinstated those who believe in him as sin-less, then the African ancestors and spirits of the past no longer have a hold over them.’ Church leaders taught that once born again, salvation is ‘complete’ or ‘finished’ and that individuals learn to have an inner relationship with God and establish direct access to the Holy Spirit. Accordingly the Christian body ought to only be inhabited by the Holy Spirit and not by other spirits. Church members who visited prophets were cause for worry since they were seen placing more emphasis on the dividual nature of relationships including the body’s instability, which is seen to be open to continued spiritual attacks, and on the prophet’s primacy in being able to better channel the Holy Spirit’s blessings. Church leaders worry about a disordering of the whole – the wrongful subordination of one layer of identity (‘biblical truth’) to another (‘culture’) – which becomes a problem that needs to be resolved.[ix] The apostle was careful to impress upon me though that Ghanaians were not traditionally ‘immoral’ but simply ‘misguided’ and in need of a proper education.
The church had taken various measures to educate their members on the tenets of salvation, for example, by publishing their own books on the matter (Daswani 2015). In line with a new emphasis on theological education CoP established Pentecost University College, which provided a nine-month theological training for its pastors in order to better educate them and other ordained members theologically. But ‘knowing the bible is not enough,’ I was told. CoP members could not simply ‘apply’ to become pastors the apostle stressed but had to qualify through years of ‘on the job training’ before being selected. Through the taking on of different responsibilities and roles in church, junior officers learn to submit to their elders and to be obedient to church authority. Church leaders and pastors are taken as role models and are given a respect similar to that due to a head of a household. The junior officers in the church seek spiritual direction and personal advice from their senior officers and pastors and refer to them with filial terms of endearment and respect such as Papa or abusua panin (‘head of the household’ in Twi). In return they observe their seniors in pastoral and church administrative roles and receive guidance and directive instructions on how to cultivate Christian values and how to conduct themselves appropriately. The personalised styles in which the senior officers deliver sermons, lead prayers and evangelize become methods through which junior members learn to contain the transmission of the Holy Spirit in their own leadership capacities. By the time these junior members take on more senior roles within the church, such as presiding elder or pastor, they have learnt the techniques for organizing church activities and maintaining church discipline.
This training they receive emphasizes semiotic practices that are about creating what an apostle called a pastoral ‘calling’ that demonstrated the ‘character of God’, a cultivated expression of Pentecostal personhood achieved through years of embodied discipline and submission to church authority. He said:
The presiding elder who has never been to a bible school before is maybe in charge of a congregation of one thousand members. And if this man is able to handle the church, this big congregation, for one year, two, four, five, six years, counseling people, handling church finance and all that goes on in church administration in addition to his secular job … this tells us that this man has a calling … We are more concerned about character. That is what some of these people do not know. Some of them might be very charismatic but may not be submissive to authority. You can know theology from Genesis to Revelation, you can memorise the whole Bible, you can speak in all tongues, all languages of this world and be so charismatic. If you do not have the character of God, you are only making noise.
Such disciplinary training and a hierarchical submission to church authority helped create a theological structure with which to better discern whether a church member had the ‘calling’ to become a pastor and whether they demonstrated the ‘character of God’. This was also an evaluative framework for discerning the level of ‘maturity’ of other Christians in and outside the church and distinguishing between those pastors who demonstrated the character of God and those who simply made noise. In his work on the Ghanaian charismatic church Lighthouse Chapel International, Bruno Reinhardt (2014) also writes about the multiple paths toward discerning ‘maturity’ of faith in Ghanaian Pentecostalism. He describes it as a way for ‘searching for authoritative guidelines and models for Christianity, which can be found in devotional literature and media, but also through personal mentors, often called spiritual fathers or mothers… whom maturing converts ‘look up to’ (emulation), ‘love and admire’ (affect), and from whom they receive counselling (authority) and prayer (intercession)’ (Reinhardt 2014: 321).
Both church leaders and prophets in CoP are similarly figures of authority and mentors that church members can look up to, learn from, love and admire, and even emulate. However church members who depended on prophets for spiritual support would often be described as not having reached full maturity and commonly characterized as lazy, weak or immature Christians.[x] Equally important is how the distinction between ‘mature’ Christians and ‘nominal’ or ‘immature’ Christians invoked two tokens of a Pentecostal person: the Pentecostal who demonstrated an inner faith built around the cultivation of certain virtues such as patience and the Pentecostal who lacked discipline and patience and sought after the help of the prophets. According to CoP leaders what was important to a Christian life was a proper understanding of the believer’s position in Christ that focused on one’s inner salvation, on living a holy life and on maintaining a personal relationship with Jesus. Accordingly, seeking the help of prophets prevented the believer from properly establishing these virtues.
Take for example my interview with a CoP pastor in Ghana, in which he separated church members into two categories for me. He associated the first group with the work of the prophet. These Pentecostals were looking for an immediate return upon conversion he said. They wanted an instant demonstration of faith that was inferior to the inner transformation that one had to cultivate over time. The members of the second group spent more time patiently cultivating their religious beliefs, regardless of an immediate, material certainty from their prayers in the near future. The pastor then compared these different qualities of these two groups of Pentecostal Christians to foufou, a popular dish in Ghana. This ball of mixed yam and cassava was also enjoyed in London, he said, but Ghanaians living there did not have time to pound the ingredients because it could take hours to prepare. Instead, they used a pre-made mixture, produced especially for the West African diaspora community and commercially sold in packets by African shops in London.
The problem with some Christians is that they expect instant results. I am someone who is against these prayer centres and prayer camps. They attract Christians who want instant cures and miracles. Their faith is built up on the prophet and the things that he does. Christianity in Ghana is not like instant foufou … [Y]ou should know that the packet foufou you get in London is fast to make but does not taste as good as the foufou that takes time and hard work to prepare.
The analogy with food and its preparation is important. The pastor suggested that good quality foufou, like good quality and mature Christians, needed time to prepare. In the same way as there were different qualities of food, so were there different qualities of Christians. Pentecostalism, according to this pastor, required the demonstration of specific virtues such as hard work and patience without the expectation of an immediate reward that prophets promised. It was what another church member called ‘a daily walk in Christ’ that the church propagated over the immediacy of faith that prayer camps represented. Such sentiments were commonplace amongst pastors and church members who embodied the church leadership’s position on salvation. In an issue of the church magazine Pentecost Fire (2000: 16), a church member complained about the ‘desire for miracles’ found amongst those that frequented prayer camps. He wrote that ‘it is heart-breaking to compare the small number of believers who turn up for retreats with multitudes that literally invade the prayer camps: Where is our priority? … Unfortunately the prayer camps are filled with prayerless Christians (not unbelievers).’ I found that these two orientations – ‘a daily walk with Christ’ and ‘a desire for miracles’ – were general modes of being Pentecostal in Ghana, except that the former was granted more value in demonstrating an individual born-again faith and an appropriate submission to God’s authority.
While CoP leaders recognize the gifts of the prophets and the positive effects of their work in bringing in many new members to the church each year, they were careful to emphasize to me that prophets do not work alone. The prophets, they repeatedly told me, are also a part of the larger church structure and had to submit to church authority. An apostle of the church had this to say about the role of prophets in CoP:
The apostles govern, the prophets guide the church, the evangelist gathers people into the church, the pastors guard and teachers ground. If you look at it from that perspective you see that one person can be a prophet but his role is to guide… If you leave the prophet alone in trying to guide the church he will push it into a ditch.
According to this church leader the prophets required more attention than ordinary members and needed to be supervised on how they handled their spiritual affairs. ‘The system helps us to have these checks and balances’ the apostle said, referring to the importance of the hierarchy of the church in controlling matters of spiritual transmission and in how individuals rise to positions of authority. Prophets were a part of a larger institutional family structure that limited the ways they could operate. Prophets, however, are also a group separated and dividuated by their own Christian calling. If becoming a member of the church offered a model of individual adoption that converts had a choice over, prophets are usually not given a choice regarding the acquisition of their gifts. They have little recourse but to use their new powers. If CoP leaders emphasized relations of individuality and similarity upon conversion, prophets focused on the differences and the multiplicities that continued to be present, helping converts negotiate the ties of descent that ancestral spirits and witchcraft presented. It is to the prophets and their networks of spiritual protection that I now turn.
Spiritual Relatedness and Prophetic Networks
The work of prophets problematize the inherited notion of Christian descent and the finality of conversion that church leaders point to, instead emphasizing continuities with the traditional past and the spirits that continue to create obstacles in the lives of converts. In tackling the problem of multiple spirits that could potentially possess them prophets ask ‘what connects us to the spirits’. Like other African Christians many CoP members continue to express the belief that while one’s sins are washed away and Jesus is the new owner of their body’s home in-Christ, demons can become unwanted houseguests who refuse to leave (see Werbner 2012; Klaits 2011). Prophets communicate with these spirits in order to find out who sent these spirits or why they possessed the lives of their clients. Such communication (through dialogue, prophecy or visions) turns these spirits into subjects, not objects, of theological discourse. The blood of Jesus and the Holy Spirit become powerful symbols used in Pentecostal deliverance prayers, spiritual weapons to take back whatever the devil may have stolen from them, to attack their enemies, to spiritually cleanse places and persons and to ward off evil spirits (Atiemo 1995: 348). Such spiritual encounters are dangerous as the prophets engage with the world as constituted by the enemy’s point of view that requires a prophetic mode of knowing that sits in contrast with the church leaders model of rupture and virtuous Christianity. If a genealogical model of Christianity highlighted a new kinship with Adam and Eve, for the church leaders the Ghanaian prophet relied on an incompletely interpreted Christian subject who was still connected to the traditional spirits and ancestors.
Most of the prophets I knew either operated in prayer centres that organized from the church premises during weekdays or were located outside the church premises in prayer camps. The main attraction of these prayer centres and camps were the prophets and prophetesses who helped people identify the cause of their suffering and prayed for them. Prayer centers operated for several hours at a time on certain days of the week and people returned to their homes after these prayers. Prayer camps on the other hand were locations that provided some form of accommodation and a longer duration of prayer. The prayer camps were mainly situated outside the urban towns and many Ghanaians stayed for weeks, sometimes months, praying for the solution to their problems, and waiting on God. I was told on numerous occasions that prayer camps became more popular at a time (in the 1990s) when the pastors and elders of the church were unable to meet the daily needs of church members. The common frustration was that leaders had become too far removed from the everyday lives of church members. Church members complained that as the church grew in size church leaders had become too ‘theological’, that CoP became more like a ‘corporation’ and that its leaders were ‘administrators’ rather than ‘ministers’. For such disappointed church members the prophets and prayer camps demonstrated the early power of the church, when people receive healing and deliverance and when many church leaders also demonstrated the gifts of the Holy Spirit. One prayer camp that was considered extremely powerful and the most successful at the time of my research was ‘Edumfa’.[xi]
Upon arriving at Edumfa prayer camp for the first time in 2004 I saw a line of people waiting with their bags outside a room with a signboard that read ‘Registration and Enquiries’. The room was filled with nine people as others slowly streamed in to be registered. A man asked for my name, church affiliation, address and the reason for visiting the prayer camp. ‘Problem?’ he asked me. I took a slip of paper to the next counter where I paid the cashier 10,000 Ghanaian cedi (approximately US$1 at the time) for which he gave me a receipt. ‘Three days of dry fasting,’ he told me as he handed me a receipt. I was then taken to meet with Aunty Grace the prophetess of Edumfa. Her house was nestled deep within the prayer camp that resembled a small township. The big black steel gates protecting her home opened up onto a driveway, which led to a beautiful compound with a well-manicured garden. I was impressed by the beautiful appearance of the garden and by the modern design of her home. She later told me that these designs came to her through divine revelations in the form of dreams. The garden was for the angels to rest in and the trees provided them with shelter from the sweltering afternoon sun. The prayer camp included houses and chalets, food and drink shops, a communication centre and several farm plots[xii] ‘I owe all this to God’s guidance. I am merely a caretaker of his riches,’ she told me. Unlike the authority of CoP leaders the spiritual agency of prophets such as Aunty Grace was not based on theological training. Instead she spoke about a ‘Holy Spirit education.’ ‘A spiritual degree is more important than a university degree,’ she said in Fante, the main language of the Central Region.
Many of the prophets share stories of social and economic exclusion experienced earlier in life. By gaining a spiritual ‘education’ through the Holy Spirit they were able to lift themselves and others out of poverty and a life of hardship. While some prophets spoke to me about having worked under more senior prophets or receiving spiritual guidance from other prophets, they tended to eventually operate alone or at an arm’s length from other religious authorities. Another interesting observation is that many of the prophets I met in CoP were women and church members who were illiterate. Women are the most politically excluded group within CoP’s male-centered hierarchy. They are also described as more ‘open’ to the Holy Spirit. The role of prophet afforded these women more social agency and increased socio-economic mobility within the church. Their spiritual power attracted people to them, including many important and rich people. In fact many educated members, including some church leaders, visited prayer camps for spiritual support. The prophets also experienced a different method of being ‘called’ than the church pastors in CoP. One thing most prophets had in common was a discourse of ‘suffering’. Prophets are known to have suffered before answering the calling and are known to take on the suffering of others even as their personal sense of individuality is strongly asserted. For example, prophet Mintah, the founder of CoP’s Okanta Prayer Camp, said to me, ‘Only a person who has suffered will be able to know God through the spirit, not through the flesh’. Aunty Grace spoke to me about her own suffering when she initially failed to answer the calling placed upon her. A huge storm tore her home apart and she faced many personal hurdles until she eventually listened to the voice in her head and read the signs presented to her that told her to start a prayer camp in Edumfa. Before receiving their calling the prophets speak about an interaction with God that comes in the form of dreams, visions or an audible voice that guides them and gives them instructions. The merging of grace and submission to authority are equally important in the cases of ‘pastoral calling’ and ‘prophetic calling’. However it is the prophet’s submission of his or her personal will to the will of God rather than the authority of church leadership that ultimately brings God’s grace and spiritual power.
In Ghana prophets and the places in which they operate are said to have power (tumi)[xiii] where spiritual power is a cultural resource that is understood through what it does (see Breidenbach 1979).[xiv] People visiting the Edumfa prayer camp believed that the grounds of the prayer camp were holy and invited angels that healed people of sicknesses and even HIV/AIDS. They told me that God ‘is there’ (wo ho), working through the prophetess and through these white angels of light who came to them while they slept and who conducted spiritual operations on them, removing illnesses and witchcraft substances from their bodies. One man jokingly remarked that he had come to ‘take the Edumfa god and to bring it home’, making a connection with the popular rumor that the prophetess had buried a fetish god under the ground and this was where the prayer camp received its power from. Prophets like Aunty Grace engaged in aggressive prayers that addressed spiritual problems and destroyed enemies holding people back from their individual desires and destinies. They could transmit their power directly to people or through commodities such as water, food, handkerchiefs and olive oil. For that same reason prophets are sometimes compared to traditional shrine priests and some accused of using the traditional gods (abosom) of shrines to acquire their powers. As one elder said during a service at Edumfa, ‘the smaller gods have power and the God we worship also has power, witches also have that power. But who is the most powerful? Jesus!’ The prophets claim that their own power comes from Jesus and the Holy Spirit and not other powers even if they are often accused of moving between Jesus and traditional shrines. They also provide church members with an alternate possibility for imagining Christian personhood, one that sits in contrast with the church leaders idea of an individual Christian personhood.
Conclusion: The Christian In / Dividual
We should not draw on individual and dividual frameworks as more than conceptual models that provide representative social types that can be used to generalize across groups. A comparative ethnography of Christianity should ask analytical questions about personhood that include ‘how different variants of Christianity adhere to multiple or alternating notions of personhood?’ and ‘how they interact with non-Christian ideas of conversion?’ (Bielo 2007: 336). In taking a comparative approach from within a North American context Jon Bialecki (2011) has shown how seemingly different models of understanding Christian language ideology – which he compares to ‘centripetal’ and ‘centrifugal’ types – are co-present in the religious practices of the Vineyard Church of Southern California. These two terms are used to speak about the inward oriented (centripetal) and the outward oriented (centrifugal) forms of subjectivity found in Christian language ideologies. For Bialecki (2011: 682-3), if the centripetal metaphor describes ‘a bounded and fixed subject’, the centrifugal metaphor better represents ‘expansive circulation’. Bialecki argues that these two forces can slip or change into the other and are also contained within the other. I find this a useful way of thinking about the Christian person and the individual and dividual dialectic it encompasses: that, while culturally significant, these terms can be used according to how people see themselves and each other as linked to both centripetal and centrifugal types of Christian personhood.
CoP prophets can be compared to a centrifugal model while CoP leaders are more representative of a centripetal model. Yet in privileging Christianity as a point of comparison we should not lose track of the possibility that Christians are not only reflecting on ‘internal’ and ‘external’ frames of reference in their relational capacity as persons. For example Bruno Reinhardt’s (2014: 326) work with Bible college students from the Lighthouse Chapel International in Ghana productively shows that apart from an internal (‘Spirit within’) and external (‘Spirit upon’) framing, students of this charismatic bible college were also channeling the ‘Spirit across’ through what he calls an ‘inter-personality’ that transmits spiritual grace between people. This channeling or inheritance of grace, from spiritual mentor to student for example, resembles an understanding of ‘dividuality’ found in other contexts of Ghanaian ethical life and highlights the importance of a spiritual kinship that takes on dividual forms.
As concepts of theoretical reference the individual and dividual remain useful categories once they relate back to specific questions in anthropology about how people are organized through social relationships and in comparing the different ways in which these relationships are formed. As this paper has argued the qualities of how people come together, and come apart, as individual or dividual, is also found in the study of kinship and the social structures that people inhabit. The ‘individual’ or ‘dividual’ may be more persuasive as categories that have ethnographic significance if they are allowed to move between structural, situational and temporal scales of analysis (see Chua 2015). The ‘church leaders’ and the ‘prophets’ in CoP are characters that help me to understand how social relations are organized and how social relationships are structured differently within one institution. They are representative of an ethical life that involves processes of interpretation and self-interpretation and does not simply concur with the values that people agree with but that also includes the inescapable role of others who might be able to understand your values but who do not necessarily share your point of view.
If Christianity is also kinship, as I have suggested, then there can be specific ways of understanding the social structures of a Christian kinship system (vertically) while also acknowledging that Christian relationships can be interpreted more fluidly and according to perspectives that look to the role of others in the self and in the generation of an ethical life (horizontally). In elaborating my point I draw inspiration from Karin Barber’s (1981) comparative analysis of the Tallensi ancestor cult that Meyer Fortes (1950) studied and the Yoruba orisa cult that she is familiar with, in which she suggests that each poses a different ‘constitution of social relationships’ that also shapes religious thought (Barber 1981: 724). For the Tallensi of northern Ghana where one’s ancestors are a given and where social roles are ascribed in a vertical and hierarchical way there is little possibility for self-aggrandizement and one becomes an individual through obediently following the advice of one’s elders and performing the appropriate ritual practices. In other words such an institutional structure is similar to a patrilineal society and based on an exclusivity that allows for fewer possibilities for individual self-expression. The Yoruba orisas (gods) or the ‘Big Man’ in Barber’s analysis, on the other hand, benefit more from a spiritual charisma and authority that extends more widely and is perceived as voluntary. Their success depends on the amount of support and attention they receive from others as well as on the transmission of power and resources they are able to extend to their followers. In following a similar mode of exemplification that pays attention to how relationship are organized and structured it is not hard to imagine that CoP social structure and the role church leaders play in it can be compared to the Tallensi of northern Ghana. It is also not difficult to compare the orisas to the prophets; prophets and other charismatic pastors in Ghana are similar to ‘big men’ who act as channels of and for divine power that not everyone possesses but who require the clientele of others in order to be successful (see Lauterbach 2008; McCauley 2012). By such a comparison I am not implying that the Tallensi and CoP leadership or the prophets and the orisas are the same. What I am suggesting here is that the ways social relationships are structured is important and can be compared across groups as they tell us something about how personhood and kinship are conceptualized (as individually and dividually oriented) and how one’s relationship with god(s) is imagined (as more or less exclusive for example). If the above comparison resorts to ideal types it is important to remember that church members are aware of these types and ultimately not bound by one style of spiritual kinship or social structure. Instead they provide alternative possibilities of seeing social interaction and church members can potentially merge them, move between them or choose to be more aligned with one than the other (see also Schram 2015).
A conversation on Pentecostal ‘relationships’ in CoP cannot be limited to an analysis of individuality or dividuality as more or less important values that structure other relationships. Albert, my interlocutor in Ghana, demonstrated a certain flexibility of personhood and shifted between different modes of being Pentecostal in Ghana, firstly, through the institutional role he held in CoP that emphasized his individual salvation and secondly, through his intimate relationship with the prophets who helped him to battle the witchcraft and ancestral spirits that penetrated his life and body. If an institutional affiliation provided him with a biblical genealogy and specific practices with which to cultivate his inner Christian disposition, his association with prophets provided networks of spiritual support that allowed for dividual ways of dealing with spirits and unhealthy relationships. In Maussian terms Ghanaian Pentecostals can wear different masks or take on different social roles as they interact with different people and spirits and move between different structural contexts. In a recent paper Simon Coleman (2015) has described how the individual and dividual are co-constituted in culturally different ways and in tension with one another, located along different moments of self-fashioning. In making his argument he draws from Marcel Mauss’ (1979) idea of the mask.[xv] Coleman takes a synchronic approach in using the mask to emphasize the performative and transactional qualities of Christian personhood. As a role that one can take on, the mask becomes the mediatory between ‘individuality’ and other forms of interpersonal and spiritual relations.[xvi] This performative role of the mask provides a good analogy for the two models of being related that CoP embodies. As much as being Pentecostal is a social role that one could cultivate and perform (and many do ‘perform’ the role) the position of a prophet is also an intimate relation that cannot be taught or learnt. It is gifted to an individual who is then guided by the Holy Spirit.
Albert grew up in CoP and emphasized both an individual daily walk with Christ that he cultivated over time and exhibited a desire for miracles that could happen through the presence of a prophet. He learnt to inhabit the appropriate, embodied, gestures in prayer, studied the bible, fasted regularly and asked the Holy Spirit to guide him in making decisions and in protecting him from spiritual harm. However the uncertainty of his traditional past and his troubled future brought him into more frequent contact with prophets and whom he depended on for spiritual support. When his body became ill from witchcraft attacks or when his dreams of a better future were not being realized he felt that he needed the prophets’ help and direction. Eventually, when CoP institutional practices failed to meet his expectations he left the church and joined one of the prophets. This new arrangement did not last long as Albert formed his own church and took on the role of a prophet himself. He had become someone who now guided and cared for others and whom others depended on for spiritual support. When I said to him that he was now independent of the influence of others and that his many years working with various prophets had taught him the ways of a prophet and the necessary skills he needed to become one himself, he immediately rejected my assumption. He insisted that the prophetic gift was not something that one could learn or cultivate simply by becoming born again or by asking for it. Albert’s Pentecostal identity was not limited to a singular method of discipleship nor by a single technology of self taught by the church leaders or prophets. It was an intimacy fraught with uncertainty and mediated by Pentecostal form that made him individual and dividual in specific ways, through specific practices and in specific times. If we seek to understand the Christian in/dividual perhaps addressing the domain of kinship while understanding the intimacy of relations over time better speak to the diversity, scales and temporality of both dividuating and individuating experiences.
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I am grateful to the co-curators of AnthroCyBib for their support in publishing this paper. The content and structure of this paper were greatly improved by the comments and insightful suggestions from an anonymous reviewer. This paper has also benefitted from the editorial assistance of Naomi Haynes and from several conversations with Jon Bialecki on the question of Christian personhood.
[i] In ethnographic case studies of Christian conversion in Latin America anthropologists have also described how converts do not simply adopt the teachings and doctrines of the missionaries in whole (Gow 2006; Harris 2006; Vilaça 2011). Rather, non-Christian ideas of the person and indigenous sociality (and human relationships to animals) continue to guide conversion and radical change as converts decide on what aspects of Christianity to accept and what to leave behind and when.
[ii] Working with charismatic prophets (whom he calls “holy hustlers”) in Botswana, Werbner describes how the popularity of these prophets lies in their ability to take on the suffering of others.
[iii] ‘Church leaders’ can be considered both an etic and an emic category: (1) that I apply when referring to the decision makers in the church and (2) that is used by church members to refer to their own leaders. They include members of the Executive and General church committees who also usually hold the position of apostle and include the chairman, the general secretary, the international missions director, and other apostles who hold administrative responsibilities within the church.
[iv] While church leaders are critical of prophets in general, they make a distinction between prophets who belong to the church and those who fall outside its jurisdiction.
[v] Prophets have been central to the popularity and indigenous inception of Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century and in the later expansion of Pentecostalism in Ghana. According to C.G. Baëta (1962: 6-7) the personality of the prophet and the ideas of charisma surrounding him or her were drawn from a particular Ghanaian context of religiosity.
[vi] Church leaders worried that prophetic practices potentially led to ‘syncretism’ and promoted ‘personality cults’ within the church (Koduah 2004: 37).
[vii] For Robbins (2007), a one-sided approach to understanding religious change is tantamount to a problem of “continuity thinking” in anthropology, which does not acknowledge or take seriously Christian claims of discontinuity.
[viii] Maurice Bloch (1973) places kinship within a wider framework. He focuses on the different timelines of moral commitments between people where ‘other types of relationships’ seem to have equal if not more ‘moral commitment than kinship’ (ibid: 77) and that ‘[s]uch relationships provide potential cooperation continuing through the vicissitudes of time’ (ibid: 79).
[ix] One can say that CoP leaders assume a ‘one truth, many cultures’ ontology similar to the ‘one nature, many cultures’ ontology of an ethnocentric multiculturalism that Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (1998) writes about in his work on Amerindian relativism. Viveiros de Castro argues that instead of a model of multiculturalism a model of multinaturalism operates within Amerindian indigenous thought where humans and non-humans share one culture or spirit (instead of one nature) and have different bodies or natures (instead of different cultures). While I do not want to claim that the Amerindian inspired ontologies of Viveiros de Castro (whether multinaturalism or multiculturalism) are the same as the ontological models of similarity and difference represented by the church leaders and the prophets, this comparison is good to think with. Instead of a singular ‘nature’ as the primary basis of distinguishing many cultures in a model of multiculturalism, in born-again Christianity, it is the ‘bible’ that forms this basis of difference: biblical truth is distinguished from multiple cultures through its opposition.
[x] While pastors are seen to have a ‘calling’ they are also susceptible to the corruption of the flesh. Thus no single pastor or church officer can promote a church programme, hold fundraising events, or invite speakers from outside the church without the approval of their superiors.
[xi] In 2011 CoP publicly disassociated itself from “Edumfa” or Edumfa Spiritual Revival and Healing Centre at Abura Asebu Kwaman in the Central Region.
[xii] Her farms produced groundnuts, oranges, cocoa yams, and teak and, apart from these products, manufactures palm nut oil, gari, and starch. It was awarded the accolade of ‘best farm in Ghana’ in 1999 and she has continued to supply produce to the airport and other major companies in the region since then.
[xiii] Ghanaian theosophy represented the belief in an impersonal spiritual power or a life force pervading all things (Baëta 1962: 135; Hagan 2000).
[xiv] A cultural definition of power is important in showing how power is more than a rational and individual pursuit of goals and grounded in cultural resources (Arens & Karp 1989).
[xv] In his seminal piece A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self Mauss (1979) argues that with the shift in meaning from personage to the individual the social influence of the mask never completely faded away but merely shifted in form. Christian individualism is by no means a secular individualism since it is based on a submission to a Christian God and the biblical narrative.
[xvi] What is initially constituted as a constructed role or the persona of a Christian person has become extended to and ‘synonymous with the true nature of the individual’ (Mauss 1979: 81). The mask for Mauss was an important theme that personified the roles that the person could play in a ritual ceremony and, as Mauss argues, is a theme that continues to have meaning today as the ‘true nature of the individual’ (Mauss 1979: 81).