The Baha'i Church of Calabar, West Africa
Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies, Vol. 1, No. 6 (November, 1997)

"The Baha'i Church of Calabar, West Africa:
The Problem of Levels in Religious History

Anthony A. Lee

Beyond Growth

Inevitably, the history of the first years of the Baha'i Faith in West Africa will be written and understood, especially within the Baha'i community, as the story of how the religion spread and grew in this part of the world from the time of its introduction in the early 1950s by American, Iranian, and African pioneers. The missionary histories of the spread of any religion are usually written in terms of the growth of the Faith, the expansion of the number of believers, and the ultimate triumph of the church--either presently or in the distant future.

Groves's classic four-volume work The Planting of Christianity in Africa(1) certainly takes this approach. Even Hastings,(2) while paying more attention to political and sociological factors, finds his central concern in the growth of the church. Etherington and Ranger have complained about the narrowness of this kind of church history. Nonetheless, issues of growth--and its converse, decline--always seem to make their way to the center of missionary history.

Such an approach is to be expected. The growth of the Baha'i community was, after all, impressive during its first several years of development in West Africa. But, I maintain that this approach to its history will obscure more than it illumines. The history of the arrival of Baha'is, Baha'i ideas, and Baha'i religious identity on the West African scene is--as with all human history--extremely complex. The events and activities associated with it were highly varied, and even contradictory. Certainly, growth and expansion were a part of that history. The various Baha'i pioneers who traveled to West Africa came there with the idea of the expansion of the Faith in mind. And in some cases this expansion was achieved. But that is not all that happened: nor is it necessarily even the most important thing that happened. The whole of this history simply cannot be encompassed or explained by notions of growth and decline, success and failure. A conceptualization of Baha'i history in West Africa primarily in terms of growth will, in fact, obscure most of the historical events associated with the Baha'i Faith in its early years. It will obscure all of the interesting ones.

Philosophically speaking, the number of historical "events" associated with any time period is infinite, and so the vast majority of them deserve to be obscured and forgotten, anyway. No one really wants to know the details of every conversation that Valerie Wilson had with her neighbors or exactly what Enoch Olinga had for breakfast each morning, seven days a week. Nonetheless, it might be well to remind ourselves that most of the daily activities of these Baha'i pioneers did not result in conversions and had no relationship to "growth" in any form.

But, beyond that banal and obvious fact, a history written in terms of the success of various Baha'i teaching plans and the conversion of Africans to the message of the Baha'i pioneers will overlook the importance of the initiatives and ideas of those very converts--which, of course, are the other half of the story. The religion was actively offered; it was also actively received. In fact, it is clear that where the Baha'i Faith was able to find large numbers of converts rapidly, this was always as a result of African initiative. It is only where the converts themselves were able (usually only for short periods) to seize control of the message, the teaching work, and the organizational structure of the Baha'i religion--and shape it to the needs of an African society--that expansion was achieved. In such cases, it is my view that it is this reshaping of the message that is the really important part of the history we want to study, and not the numbers of converts.

Thirdly, a focus on growth and expansion also ignores, and implicitly denies, changes in the content of the Baha'i message as it spread through West Africa and the uniqueness of the community that was constructed as a result of that growth. Such a focus undermines the very question of the meaning of the new religion to the people who adopted it, the nature of the new identity they accepted, and their own contributions to this identity. Of course, these are precisely the questions that I am most interested in answering. Questions which cannot be approached at all with reference only to issues of growth and expansion.


Thomas C. Holt, in a fascinating article, has recently raised what he has called "the levels problem" of history.(3) For Holt, this is the inevitable dilemma of the historian who wants to make sense out of the events of the past. He regards this as "the problem of establishing the continuity between behavioral explanations sited at the individual level of human experience and those at the level of society and social forces."(4) That is, it is the problem of connecting, in some meaningful way, the everyday acts of individual human beings (that actually make up the material of history) with the larger historical trends which are seen by historians as having been produced and reproduced by these acts (and which constitute history, as it is usually written).

Of course, Holt is primarily concerned with how race and racism came to be reproduced in American society, and through American history. But his admonition that the historian must remain aware of the "subtile interaction between various levels and terrains of human experience" is a universal one.(5) He proposes an approach that will bridge the (usually neglected) gap between the global view and the local, the societal explanation and the individual's behavior. While it might be said, for example, that the Baha'i community grew in West Africa, what exactly does this mean at the level of everyday experience? for the pioneers? for the converts?

I will take Holt's point one step further, moreover, and suggest that the historian must also face the problem of exploring the discontinuities which exist in the "terrains of human experience." Not, I might add, for the purpose of integrating all the contradictory bits into one grand scheme of things--but precisely to remind us that our grand schemes do not explain everything. It is the job of every historian to make sense of the everyday events of the past, and equally his task to acknowledge the contradictory events and behaviors which might otherwise be lost or obscured by his analysis.

This concern with the discontinuities of history, as it is written, has been brought most forcefully to the attention of scholars by Michel Foucault in a number of important volumes.(6) Foucault's profound critique of the conventional understanding of Western history has thoroughly undermined a self-assured reliance on any master narrative for a field or topic of history. His interrogation of Western history reveals "two great discontinuities" in the assumptions which lay at the base of Western culture.(7) Though Foucault himself forcefully denied that he was concerned with discontinuity per se and claimed to be bewildered by this interpretation of his work,(8) nonetheless his insight into the deep breaks in European history represents at least the necessary starting point for his larger work. By noticing those events which are made discontinuous by a master narrative, Foucault was able to focus his attention on the assumptions which make an ordered understanding of history even possible.

This chapter is devoted to just such an discontinuous event, or chain of events, the establishment of the Baha'i Church of Calabar in 1955-56. Here was an independent church based on Baha'i teachings which was established wholly without connection to any Baha'i pioneer, and which existed without communication with any Baha'i in the world, outside of its own congregation, for the duration of its short existence. Nonetheless, for a short time, it succeeded in capturing the interest, the participation, and the allegiance of virtually all of the Cameroonian men on one large palm plantation in eastern Nigeria.

The church was established, flourished, and then collapsed (as the result of a dispute between its founders) after several months of regular services, utterly unrecognized and unknown to the Baha'i pioneers and to the international Baha'i community. It left no converts to count as a part of the Baha'i "expansion." However, as we will see, an examination of the history of this short movement will provide important insights into the religious needs and attitudes of some African converts, their understanding and reworking of the Baha'i message, and their approach to Baha'i identity. These insights can be usefully applied to other Baha'i conversions in the region, and indeed provide a much-needed contrast to the usual historical paradigm of Baha'i expansion.

This instance provides us with a rare and remarkable phenomenon: We are provided with virtually a laboratory model of a purely African Baha'i Faith, separated and developed without in influences of the larger Baha'i community. The church was established purely out of African initiative, without the direction or guidance of foreign believers. The result was a successful independent church.


The Baha'i Church of Calabar was organized in June of 1955 by Oscar Njang and Peter Oban-Itchi, neither of whom were Baha'is. Nor were they in contact with any Baha'is at the time that they founded the church. We do not have a full description of the activities of the church, but its services and teachings were based upon the text of only one Baha'i book, Paris Talks: Addresses given by `Abdu'l-Baha in Paris in 1991-1912.(10) It was clearly conceived of as an independent Christian church, but it maintained a distinct Baha'i identity.

The church was founded on the initiative and oratorical skills of Oscar Njang, a Cameroonian and a Presbyterian of the Basel Mission, who had left his home country to escape the demands of his extended family and community and had come, quite by accident, to Calabar to look for work. There he happened upon Peter Oban-Itchi, a friend (perhaps a distant relative) of his from the Cameroons.(11) Oban-Itchi offered him a job as a supervisor on a palm plantation, the Kalaru Estates, and Njang accepted.

About a week later, Oban-Itchi went off for a weekend trip to another plantation to visit a Cameroonian friend, Michael Nkamato. When he returned, he mentioned to Njang that he had seen a religious book there and had read something in it that "resembled [Njang's] character." Njang was surprised, and (it appears) a bit disturbed. He replied that the Bible was the only religious book that he recognized and that he had never read of anyone in the Bible who resembled him in character. He asked that Oban-Itchi bring the book to him the next week.

When Njang saw the book, Paris Talks, he says that he was immediately impressed by two things. One was a photograph of `Abdu'l-Baha that is reproduced as the frontispiece of the book. This was the first thing that he saw when he opened the book, and it apparently affected him deeply. He says that he stared at the photograph for about ten minutes. The image seems to have reminded him of the face of one of the respected elders in Njang's home village, a man who would settle land disputes among his people.

The other thing that impressed him was the text of the book itself. He read a little and was drawn to the teachings he found there because he felt that they justified the way he had led his life--always helping people and giving away his things. He says that his family had often chided him for his generosity, saying that one day he would be a poor man, "if I scatter all my things--giving, giving." Now he felt that he had been doing God's will all along and that his generous ways were a matter of religious duty. His willingness to help people and his trust of strangers had not been in vain. He looked up from the book and said to Oban-Itchi, "I will teach this Faith."

There is little doubt that the passages in Paris Talks that Oban-Itchi had noticed and that impressed Njang so much were read from the first address of `Abdu'l-Baha which is reproduced in the book, entitled "The Duty of Kindness and Sympathy Towards Strangers and Foreigners."(12) The talk begins:

Njang and Oban-Itchi decided to organize a new church on the Kalaru Estates. There were already two Christian services being offered in the community hall on the plantation. From 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. on Sundays there was a service in the Ifik language, and from 10:00 to 12:00 a.m. there was a Catholic service in Igbo. There was no service available in English to minister to the religious needs of the many English-speaking Cameroonians who lived on the plantation. They, at least the Christians among them, would have been Presbyterians from the Basel Mission. So, Njang and Oban-Itchi decided to offer a Baha'i service in English (probably from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m.) to be based on Paris Talks. To announce their decision, they used the plantation drum to call all of the workers living there to a general meeting.

These events raise a number of issues, all of which have important implications for the study of the Baha'i Faith in West Africa. Foremost among these is the vantage point which we have, as a result of the independent nature of this Baha'i church, to examine the specific points of contact which allowed Oscar Njang and Peter Oban-Itchi to adopt a Baha'i identity without being taught by a Baha'i pioneer.

The bridge to the new religion, according to Njang's narrative, consisted of three specific points of fascination which attracted him to the Baha'i teachings--the photograph of 'Abdu'l-Baha, the passage on hospitality from Paris Talks, and the (unstated) fact that the Baha'i teachings were presented in English. It is remarkable how widely these issues diverge from the standard presentation of the Baha'i teachings which was used by (American) Baha'i pioneers at the time.

Njang was initially attracted to the photograph of 'Abdu'l-Baha which he saw when he opened the book Paris Talks. The photo is a portrait which shows only the head and shoulders of 'Abdu'l-Baha, and elderly man with a full white beard wearing a white turban and a traditional Middle Eastern cloak. (See photo.) He looks directly into the camera and is smiling slightly. The photo is a poor reproduction in the 1951 British Edition of the book, which is undoubtedly the edition which Njang saw. The reproduction is dark with high contrast, and it might appear (especially in an African context) that 'Abdu'l-Baha's skin is extremely dark.

Njang says that he was fascinated by the photograph because it reminded him of an elder in his village who would hear land disputes. This was a respected figure of his childhood who would hear such cases and then "speak the truth." This raises the question of whether Njang was, at first, under the impression that 'Abdu'l-Baha was a black man. This may have been the first point of correspondence between Njang and the Baha'i Faith. It is possible that Njang was willing to accept the Baha'i teachings because he saw them as part of an African religion, or at least an independent African church.

Beyond this, of course, Njang felt that his own character was justified by the passages in the book which extol hospitality and kindness to strangers. Oban-Itchi had first suggested that such a religion might be suited to Njang, because of his generosity. He was right, since it was this aspect of the Baha'i religion which initially convinced Njang to set up the Baha'i Church of Calabar.

Finally, the presentation of the Baha'i religion in an English book suited Njang's needs at the time. There were no Christian services in English for the many Cameroonian workers on the Kalaru plantation. These would have been Presbyterians from the Basel Mission who were accustomed to English services since this was the language of the church in their home country. The Efik and Igbo services obviously appealed to specific ethnic allegiances on the plantation. A church in English would appeal particularly to the Cameroonian Presbyterians, and in that sense it became an expression of ethnic identity also.

Peter Oban-Itchi apparently expected to act as the leading figure in the new church, since his position on the plantation was superior to Njang's. He conducted the initial service, reading from Paris Talks, and talking about the Baha'i teachings. Then there were questions from the congregation: One man asked why it was that some people die as children, some die as young people, and some others do not die until they are old.

Apparently, Oban-Itchi did not have a satisfactory answer to this question, and Njang came to the front of the room to address the congregation. He told a parable: Suppose that the overseer of the plantation would give a letter to three men. One letter is to be delivered to a nearby village, another to a place some miles away, and the third letter has to be taken to a far distant destination. Which one of these messengers will return to the plantation first, Njang asked. The worker who carried the letter to the village nearby would return after a few minutes; the other messenger would take a few hours; and the third messenger would not return until nightfall. But, they are all carrying out the instructions of the overseer, and he is equally pleased with each of them. Njang went on to explain that God is like the overseer and that each person dies after the mission that God has given to him is complete.

This short sermon drew an immediate response from the congregation, there were applause and handshakes all around. Njang's answer and his rhetorical abilities seem to have carried the day, winning the approval of those who were present. Oban-Itchi, at that point, asked Njang to lead the congregation, since his parable had been so satisfying. But later, Oban-Itchi became suspicious that his friend may have prepared this sermon beforehand and planted the question with someone in the congregation in order to capture the leadership of the church.

Baha'i services on the Kalaru Estates continued to be held every Sunday for several months. They were attended regularly by about 50 or 60 men. There are no detailed descriptions of the order of the service, though each Sunday was devoted to a different chapter of Paris Talks. It appears that the meetings consisted of readings from that book and a sermon or lecture delivered by Njang. His recollections of the services make no mention of any ritual, music, or even prayer--though these may all have been involved.

In any case, it appears from Njang's descriptions that the services were Christian in character. The congregation clearly understood itself to be a new Christian denomination based on the Baha'i teachings--an independent church. At one point, Njang and Oban-Itchi discussed what form of baptism their church should administer.


Eventually, Oscar Njang and Peter Oban-Itchi, the two church leaders, quarreled. Njang received a promotion and was to be trained as a canteen clerk on the plantation. Oban-Itchi complained to the European owner of the plantation about this, and his complaint was the source of the dispute. Soon, the two men could not be in the same room together without arguing. So, Njang was transferred to the palm oil mill in Akpabeyo. He left the Kalaru Estates in February of 1956.

Since Njang had been the leader of the services in Calabar, his transfer disrupted the church. Oban-Itchi seems to have tried to continue the services, but he was not a popular speaker. The church soon collapsed when attendance at the Sunday meetings fell off.

Njang had left his copy of Paris Talks in Calabar when he departed for Akpabeyo. The book actually belonged to Enoch Olinga. It had only been borrowed by Michael Nkamato and was being used by the new church without Olinga's knowledge. However, Olinga's address was written in the book, and now Oban-Itchi wrote to him, telling him about the Baha'i activities in Calabar and the success and collapse of the church. He informed Olinga of Njang's success as a Baha'i leader and of his transfer to Akpabeyo.

Njang apparently had no intention of continuing his Baha'i activities in Akpabeyo. He remained a Christian, however. He says that he began attending the services of the Church of Christ during the first few weeks after his arrival there. Much to his astonishment, he then received a letter from Olinga expounding the Baha'i religion. The letter urged him to continue his Baha'i teaching. "If you are a Baha'i," the letter said, "wherever you go you have to teach the Baha'i Faith."

Njang showed this letter to the evangelist of the church he was attending, but he was accused of following a false prophet. Now dependent on Olinga for all information about the Baha'i Faith, with no Baha'i book to fall back on and apparently no longer willing to rely on ad-hoc interpretations, Njang wrote to Olinga in the Cameroons. He received in return a four-page letter which defended the Baha'i Faith from the charge of false prophethood. He took this letter to his church in Akpabeyo and attempted to repeat his success in Calabar by forming a Baha'i congregation from its members, making a determined effort to split the church. Only five churchmen followed him.

When he wrote to Olinga to inform him of these five new followers, Olinga sent him the standard declaration forms used for Baha'i enrollment. He recalls that his instructions were: "Oscar, first declare yourself. Then declare these people." Njang recalls that he laughed when he read the letter. He remarked to one of the new Baha'is how funny it was that, all the time he had been doing these many things for his new religion, he himself had not been a member!


Oscar Njang was unable to repeat his first teaching success by establishing a Baha'i church in Akpabeyo. This raises the question of what allowed him to be so successful on the Kalaru estates, in the first instance. While personal fascination with the photograph of 'Abdu'l-Baha and appreciation of the Baha'i teachings on hospitality might explain Njang's own attraction to the Baha'i teachings, the interest and allegiance of the other Cameroonian men on the Kalaru plantation to the Baha'i Church is another matter. The initial popularity of the Baha'i services seems to have been sparked by the parable that Njang told at the first meeting of the church in response to a question about death. Therefore, it might be useful to look at the implications of this parable more closely. What would have caused this story to resonate so effectively with large numbers of foreign laborers that it could insure (at least the beginnings of) a new church on the Kalaru Estates?

Primary factors in the success of Njang's short sermon were, of course, that it was delivered in English and that it was decidedly Christian in character. Njang's parable closely resembles in structure the gospel parable of Jesus concerning the laborers in the vineyard.(14) In the New Testament version, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a householder who hires men to work his fields--some in the morning, some during the day, and some near sunset, but they are all paid the same wage for their labor.(15) The identical moral--of the justice of God's judgment despite apparent disparities--is being drawn out in both parables. It is not hard to imagine why the Christian men on the plantation would have found Njang's sermon familiar and appealing.

However, distinctly African concerns are also at play in Njang's parable. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Njang has recast Jesus's parable of the laborers in the vineyard in an African mold.(16) The question of the explanation of premature death is a central one in most African philosophy and occupies a great deal of thought and speculation in African cosmologies. I would suggest that it corresponds to similar European concerns about the problem of evil or the Christian preoccupation with salvation.

African views of the world, at least in most societies, has no difficulty accounting for death per se. It is the nature of things that one should be born into the world, should grow up, have children, and eventually die at an old age to join one's ancestors in the spirit world. That is all good. But, African philosophy generally finds premature death to be a problem that requires explanation. The death of a child or a young mother, for instance, indicates that the natural order of the universe has been disturbed. Something has gone wrong, and it must be set right.(17)

Classic African explanations for premature death include belief in witchcraft. This explanation for early death postulates that one has been harmed by the anger, the evil thoughts, or the envy of a living person. Witchcraft is universally regarded as evil in all African societies. The anger of ancestors or the displeasure of lesser gods and spirits are also explanations that can account for premature death, which is always regarded as an affront to the natural order of things.(18)

Therefore, it is significant that one of the questions that arose during Njang's and Oban-Itchi's original meeting would concern the disquiet that African societies so often feel about premature death. Njang's response to this question avoids the traditional African explanations for this issue and directly rejects the traditional notion that premature death represents an evil and disordered intervention in God's plan for things. Njang's parable focuses on the command of God, eschews reference to any lesser being, and specifically makes no reference to witches as a cause of death. All death results from the will of God himself and is part of his plan.

Robin Horton, in a celebrated exchange with Humphrey Fisher argued that the large-scale conversion of Africans to Christianity and Islam in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries can be partially explained by the transfer of significance (and life experience) from the microcosm to the macrocosm.(19) Horton proposes a two-tiered model of African traditional cosmology, which is admittedly an oversimplification, but nonetheless useful for purposes of analysis. In this model, the lesser spirits and beings of African religions are associated with family, village, clan, and the local landscape--the microcosm of daily life. While these same religions recognize a supreme being, God, who is concerned with the larger world, the macrocosm.

Horton suggests that, especially in the nineteenth century, as the importance of the macrocosm to African life expanded--through state formation, the movement of people, long-distance trade, foreign conquest, colonial rule, and so forth--the adaptive potential of the largely underdeveloped African concept of a supreme God was actualized. The minor spirits came to be regarded as less important, in retreat, or even positively evil; while the supreme God was now seen to play a more active role in African life. As people were forced by circumstance to leave their local areas and live outside the traditional microcosm, the lesser spirits became irrelevant.

Using this model, Horton suggests that "acceptance of Islam and Christianity [in Africa] is due as much to development of the traditional cosmology in response to other features of the modern situation as it is to the activities of the missionaries."(20) In this sense, Horton's theory rejects the notion that even large-scale conversions to monotheistic religions represent the rejection of a traditional African religious cosmology. Rather, Christianity and Islam are regarded as "catalysts," that is, stimulators and accelerators of religious change--of a religious conversion which was "in the air" anyway, for purely indigenous reasons.(21) The traditional local spirits that are of such immediate and constant concern in village life, no longer provide the explanations that are needed when the wider world (the macrocosm) intrudes. But African religions, in this theory, can always call upon the (traditionally distant and otiose) High God as a means of explaining these new events. Horton maintains that they did.(22)

Njang's parable, with its uncompromising focus on God as the cause of all death, insists on the overwhelming significance of the macrocosmic forces of the universe. The microcosm of lesser gods and spirits, witches, and even ancestors is ignored altogether. According to Horton's schema, this approach would represent a statement that the lower tier of African cosmology is of no importance, and perhaps has even disappeared as a religious category.

Of course, as Horton suggests, the impositions of the modern world and conversion to Christianity and Islam in Africa had already helped this process along considerably by the 1950s. Surely, God was known and was already important in African thought before Njang told his parable. But for those men working far from home on the Kalaru Estates, cut off from local networks and even local churches, the insignificance of the micro-spirit world must have seemed especially obvious. The appeal of Njang's sermon may have been precisely its willingness to discard the microcosm completely--even more completely than most African Christians would have done while living under normal circumstances with family and relations within their home communities--in favor of a conversion to rigid monotheism.

If this is true, then the Baha'i Church that Njang and Oban-Itchi founded would have represented a real conversion even for the Christians among the congregation. Certainly, the two founders of the church regarded it as such, feeling that they had truly changed religions. That significant numbers of other men were willing to follow them indicates that the change met a commonly felt need. The migrant laborers who attended the Baha'i services were, in Nigeria, utterly dependent on the world beyond their kinship and ethnic networks for work, money, and survival. Their conversion to the Baha'i Church may have been, among other things, a conversion to the exclusive significance of the macrocosm in their spiritual lives, as well.


The success of Njang's efforts in Calabar, I have suggested above, can be attributed in large measure to the power of Baha'i teachings and Baha'i identity to capture the imagination of Africans who were newly experiencing the importance of the macrocosm in their lives. If this is true, then the question must immediately arise of why Njang was unable to repeat his conversion success in Akpabuyo. Why didn't he go on to organize a successful Baha'i church there and attract a congregation of believers, as he had before?

Both Njang and Oban-Ichi remained Baha'is after the collapse of their church. They went on to form the first local Spiritual Assembly of Nigeria in Calabar in April 1957. Njang remains a Baha'i today, having served as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Nigeria and later as an Auxiliary Board in that country. Oban-Itchi also remained a Baha'i for the rest of his life. However, neither of them ever again was able to form a Baha'i church or accomplish the significant number of conversions to the Baha'i Faith that they had initially.

Certainly, Njang in Akpabeyo no longer had access to the book Paris Talks, which had become the basis of church services on the Kalaru Estates. But, undoubtedly, he could have reclaimed the book or obtained other Baha'i literature, especially after beginning a correspondence with Enoch Olinga.

There is also the fact that Njang tells us that he had no intention of continuing his Baha'i activities once he moved to Akpabeyo. Finding the need for religious observance, he joined the Church of Christ there.(23) But, after receiving his first letter from Olinga, Njang reaffirmed his commitment to a Baha'i identity. His lapse of faith lasted only a few weeks at most, and he was soon determined to establish a Baha'i group in his new location.

The practical situation that Njang faced in Akpabeyo was certainly different. The services of the Church of Christ were in English, and so the need for Christian services in English on this plantation would not have been as keenly felt as on the Kalaru Estates, where there had been none. He faced a rival evangelist who would soon preach against him. He did not enjoy the same friendship with a company headman that his acquaintance with Oban-Itchi had afforded him.

However, the explanation for the now few number of converts which Njang could find, it seems to me, lies more in understanding the nature of the international Baha'i community to which he was now attached than with any differences in the local conditions that he faced. It seems that, in coming into contact with Olinga and the Baha'i community of West Africa, Njang and Oban-Itchi were themselves converted from their own Baha'i Church to a more primitive and demanding Baha'i "circle" of disciples, more or less focused on a single leader. This new conception of the Baha'i Faith as a closed "circle," rather than an open "ecclesiastical body," is what rendered the repetition of the success of the Baha'i Church of Calabar impossible in Akpabeyo, and even in Calabar itself.

Joachim Wach, in his classic Sociology of Religion, suggests a three-phase model for the historical development of the great religions.(24) He illustrates his model with evidence drawn from various religious traditions, including the Baha'i Faith. Wach proposes that the founded religions begin with an initial phase during which their teachings are established by an individual through the force of his own charisma. This individual becomes the center of a "circle" of disciples who are personally attached to him. This "circle" represents the entire body of believers.

After the death of the founder, a new phase in the development of the religion begins during which the "circle" is transformed into a new kind of organization which Wach termed the "brotherhood." Whereas during the life of the founder the doctrine and truth of the new religion centered on him alone, after his departure the teachings must be carried on by his close disciples. Typically, only believers who have known the founder personally and were members of the original "circle" will achieve positions of leadership in the "brotherhood" phase of the religion's growth. But these new leaders will reorganize and reinterpret the prophet's work--seniority and direct contact with the prophet's charisma becoming the sources of their authority.

This "brotherhood" must, of course, gradually disintegrate; and the third phase of the religion's development is marked by its slow transformation into an "ecclesiastical body," or a church. This last stage represents the full routinization of the founder's charisma, during which the teachings, the rituals, and the authority of the church and its functionaries become formalized.

Margit Warburg, using the example of the establishment of the Baha'i Faith in Denmark, has demonstrated the value of Wach's model to the understanding of the spread of an existing religion into a new country.(25) Warburg maintains that the same three phases of "circle," "brotherhood," and "ecclesiastical body" can be seen, over a much shorter period of time, to have characterized the history of the Baha'i Faith in Denmark. Introduced in 1947, by two women--American pioneers who played the role of "founders"--the Baha'i community was initially established as a "circle" of believers centered around them. The community experienced a painful reorganization into a "brotherhood" after the pioneers left the country in 1951, and then later began its development toward routinized organization and formal hierarchy--developments which are still in process today.

Warburg finds major structural similarities between the founding of a new religion by a prophet, as described by Wach, and its subsequent introduction into a new area of the world by the first missionaries. At least three characteristics are nearly identical:

1. The religion was previously unknown in a particular area to the public at large;

2. The founder and/or the first missionaries hold a monopoly on information about the new religion;

3. To the new converts, the founder and/or first missionaries are undisputed religious authorities.(26)

Warburg is careful to clarify that this comparison of founder and first missionaries is valid only from an academic, sociological perspective. It does not represent the point of view of the missionaries themselves, who would regard the two situations as fundamentally different. Such a comparison would also be rejected by the adherents of the religion, since naturally they would regard their prophet as beyond comparison to later missionaries, and might even be offended by such an idea.

Nonetheless, Warburg usefully suggests that:

I would propose that these structural conditions apply to the introduction of the Baha'i Faith into the Cameroons and Eastern Nigeria, with Enoch Olinga playing the role of the first missionary who attracted a circle of believers around himself. The Baha'i Church of Calabar, on the other hand, exhibited no such characteristics. It was initiated by Njang and Oban-Itchi as an ecclesiastical body in the tradition of Protestant Christianity, and it saw itself not as a founding "circle" but as a new church. As such, this church was free to attract an immediate attendance to its services of a large number of worshippers who were familiar with that tradition.

After Njang's move to Akpabeyo and Oban-Itchi's failure to maintain the church in Calabar, both men eventually turned to Olinga as the authority on the Baha'i Faith and attached themselves to him. He was already established as the center of a new "circle," and they--in effect--became his "disciples" (in a structural sense). This created a situation which was entirely distinct from their previous presentation of the Baha'i Faith as a church. As a "circle" the Baha'i religion would have much less appeal to large numbers of Christian men in West Africa than would a church.

Although Warburg is not concerned with this aspect of his analysis, Wach--in proposing his model for the development of founded religions--has noted the different levels of demand and commitment required of believers at the different stages of "circle," "brotherhood," and church. Membership in the original "circle" requires "a complete break with the ordinary pursuits of life and a radical change in social and religious relationships. Ties of family and kinship and loyalties of various kinds are at least temporarily relaxed or severed."(28) The "circle" demands intense bonds of solidarity among the believers, who are expected to be few. They are asked to leave everything behind to follow the new religion and adopt "a revised attitude toward the nature of ultimate truth as well as toward the world and its inhabitants." They adopt a new identity and should expect to suffer hardships, suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom.(29)

This approach to religion very much characterized the demands and expectations of the Baha'i pioneers in West Africa toward their converts during the first years of its growth there. The very first converts in Cameroon were almost immediately asked to leave friends, family, and fellow believers behind, and to scatter as pioneers to various parts of the region. As we have seen, many of them did just that.(30)

By the time the religion develops into a church, Wach observes, these expectations are relaxed--at least for the majority of believers. A "double standard of perfection" distinguishes the "clergy" from the "laity." Most members of the church pursue their lives in an ordinary way within a stable, if sacred, organization.(31)

After coming into contact with Olinga, I would suggest that Njang and Oban-Itchi found their conception of the Baha'i religion changed from the assumption that it was a church among other Christian churches to the realization that it was--at least in Cameroons--conceived as a "circle." Olinga's first letters to Njang do not instruct him to form a Baha'i church in Akpabeyo that might duplicate the success he had achieved in Calabar, it should be noted. Olinga's first instructions were to have all of the Baha'is in Akpabeyo "declare" their faith and register their names as members of a new religion. This declaration procedure, however normal in the Baha'i world, was unfamiliar to Njang, as it would have been to his new converts. Certainly, this was an act that implied a radical change in religious identity. It was this new concept which effectively brought a halt to Njang's Baha'i church project and connected him to the wider international Baha'i community which conceived of itself quite differently.


So, what are the results of our laboratory experiment which offered us, in West Africa in the 1950s, in effect, a Baha'i Faith without the Baha'is? What can we learn from the brief life of the Baha'i Church of Calabar?

Certainly, the first thing that is obvious is the enormous role which the initiative of African converts played in the establishment of the Baha'i Faith in West Africa. In the Calabar case, the Baha'i teachings alone were extremely effective in establishing a substantial following of converts without any effort whatsoever being made by foreign Baha'is. Conceived, of course, as a Christian teaching, the Baha'i message alone had enormous appeal to West Africans--quite independently of its missionaries. Such appeal implies, not only the persuasiveness of the message itself, but more importantly the readiness of Africans to adopt it on their own initiative. As an independent Christian church, which is how it was recognized and reworked in Calabar, the Baha'i Faith was an extremely successful movement.

Second, we may note that the points of attraction to the Baha'i message from an African perspective were quite different than the Baha'i pioneers may have imagined. The photograph of 'Abdu'l-Baha, the Baha'i teachings on hospitality, the English translation of Baha'i texts, and an unorthodox (32) explanation of the cause of premature death were the elements which allowed a bridge to large-scale conversion in Calabar. The usual elements of Baha'i teaching--the concept of progressive revelation, the Baha'i principles, claims for a new prophet, call to a new religious age--were absent.

One point of conversion between the conventional Baha'i message and the Calabar doctrine, however, may have been agreement on the overwhelming significance of the macrocosm to the life of its converts. This may have been expressed in the form of a strict monotheism in the new Baha'i church which would have marked the arrival of the modern world in West Africa and the end of the traditional, village order. For the larger Baha'i world, this idea would be understood as the fundamental Baha'i belief in the unity of humanity, the oneness and wholeness of the human race.

And again, the Baha'is of Calabar and the Baha'is in the larger international Baha'i community may have shared a common experience of conversion to a new Faith, though a Faith with deep roots in their old tradition. Insofar as the Calabar Baha'is experienced their Baha'i services as a move beyond the Basel Mission to a post-Christian religion--in some sense, a post-colonial religion, they shared this experience of conversion and renewal with every other Baha'i in the world.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our laboratory experiment indicates clearly that the conception of the Baha'i Faith as a closed "circle" of believers, believers who are expected to break with the past and pursue the promulgation of the religion at any cost to themselves, failed to attract large numbers of converts in West Africa. On the other hand, the presentation of the Baha'i Faith as a new Christian church with a fresh message for its followers was enormously effective. The initial success of Njang and Oban-Itchi is organizing a Baha'i Church stands as an important counter-example to their very limited success in finding converts to the Baha'i Faith once they were converted to Enoch Olinga's circle. Furthermore, it stands in similar contrast to the efforts of foreign pioneers in establishing the Baha'i community in other parts of Africa.


(1) Charles Pelham Groves, The Planting of Christianity in Africa (London: Lutterworth Press, 1948-58).

(2) Adrian Hastings, A History of African Christianity, 1950-1975 (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

(3) Thomas C. Holt, "Marking: Race, Race-making, and the Writing of History," The American Historical Review, vol. 100, no. 1 (February 1995) pp. 1-20.

(4) Ibid., p. 7.

(5) Ibid., p. 6.

(6) For this discussion I am relying most heavily on Foucault's Les Mots et les chose, translated as The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, 1970). See also, Madness and Civilization (New York: Random House, 1965) and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1977).

(7) Ibid., p. xxii.

(8) See interview in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

(9) All the factual information concerning the Baha'i Church of Calabar that is presented in this chapter is taken from two taped interviews with Oscar Njang: one recorded on June 27, 1981 by Don Addison in Ikot Uba Village, Cross River State, Nigeria; the other recorded in January 1992 by ???, the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Nigeria (and apparently with an audience at a Baha'i meeting) in Lagos.

(10) London: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1912 (Ninth British Edition, 1951).

(11) They were both Bayangi.

(12) Notes of talks given October 16th and 17th, 1912. Paris Talks, pp. 15-17.

(13) Cf. Matt 20:1-19, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Njang would have been intimately familiar with this parable from his mission training. The resonance of his speech is largely drawn from the familiarity of the parable which is now turned to suit African theological concerns. See below

(14) Matt. 20:1-19.

(15) Presumably meaning that late-comer converts to Christianity will have the same status as early believers--both in this world and in the next.

(16) Here I am not maintaining that the parable was necessarily original to Njang. He may easily have heard this explanation of death during his years of mission education and simply repeated it here. The parable does appear to have been new to the other men on the plantation who may have heard it for the first time at the Baha'i service, but possibly it was just familiar. There is no question that it was satisfying as a response to the question of premature death.

(17) See, for example, Geoffrey Parrinder, African Traditional Religion (London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1954) pp. 58-63; John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970) pp. 31-34, 48 and Introduction to African Religion (London: Heinemann, 1975) pp. 110-25.

(18) On witchcraft, in addition to works cited above, see E. E. Evans-Pritchard's classic study of the Azande, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937). See also, Lucy Mair, Witchcraft (New York: World University Library, 1969); John Middleton, ed., Magic Witchcraft and Curing (Garden City, NY: The Natural History Press, 1967); Mary Douglas, ed., Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations (London: Tavistock Publications, 1970)

(19) Robin Horton, "African Conversion," Africa, vol. 41, no. 2 (1971) pp. 85-108; and "On the Rationality of Conversion," Africa, vol. 45, nos. 3 and 4 (1975) pp. 219-35, 373-99. See also, Humphrey Fisher, "Conversion Reconsidered: Some Historical Aspects of Religious Conversion in Black Africa," Africa, vol. 43, no. 1 (1973) pp. ???.

(20) Horton, "African Conversion," p. 103.

(21) Ibid., p. 104

(22) For a critique of Horton's model (beyond Fisher's reply, which was effectively dismissed by Horton's second Africa article in 1975), see André Droogers, "From waste-making to recycling: A plea for an eclectic use of models in the study of religious change," in Theoretical Explorations in African Religions, ed. by Wim van Binsbergen and Matthew Schoffeleers (London: KPI, 1985) pp. 116-19.

(23) It should be observed that this was not the Presbyterian church in which he had been educated and baptized in Cameroon. This Church of Christ affiliation underscores, perhaps, the flexibility of Christian observance among the working men on the palm plantations in Nigeria.

(24) Joachim Wach, Sociology of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944 [1971]) pp. 130-45.

(25) Margit Warburg, "The Circle, the Brotherhood, and the Ecclesiastical Body: Baha'i in Denmark, 1925-1987" in Religion, Tradition, and Renewal, ed. by Armin W. Geertz and Jeppe Sinding Jensen (Aarhus University Press, 1991) pp. 201-221.

(26) Ibid., p. 203.

(27) Ibid., pp. 203-204.

(28) Wach, Sociology of Religion, p. 135.

(29) Ibid., p. 136. These kinds of demands and expectations certainly characterized the Baha'i community in the United States during the 1950s and, to a much lesser extent, continue to characterize it today.

(30) This refers to early chapters in the (proposed) dissertation that discuss how the early Baha'is in Cameroon were urged to pioneer almost immediately during the first year of the Ten Year World Crusade.

(31) Wach, Sociology of Religion, p. 144.

(32) Unorthodox from a Baha'i point of view, that is. And only in the sense that Njang's parable cannot be found in official Baha'i texts.

  • Return to Index of Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies

  • Return to H-Bahai Home Page

  • Links to pages with similar resources