The history of religion is full of upstarts who started out making dubious claims of divine revelation but ended up shaping history in profound ways. The late Prophet TB Joshua of the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) was one. I have severely criticised him in the past for some of his practices, and I thought he should have suffered legal consequences for the more than 100 deaths from a collapsed structure in his church headquarters. But I also think that what he achieved as a man of the cloth deserves to be situated within the broader context of Nigeria’s Pentecostalism history. When his critics say that he had occult powers and that he achieved all he did through satanic powers, they give away their perennial inability to think of issues outside supernaturalism and also deny Joshua credit for his savvy understanding of social management.
Joshua understood people implicitly and manipulated them accordingly, and that was why he was one of the most influential Africans of his generation. From celebrities to politicians, SCOAN was a phenom. Joshua himself wielded political influence, though he understated it. From Malawi to Tanzania to Zambia, he was serially invoked in their high-wire politics. You will also recall that during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Lagos State health officials visited him to solicit his cooperation in combating the virus by asking him to tell his followers to stay in their various countries. It is a well-documented fact that a huge chunk of religious tourism to Nigeria owes to the pilgrimage to SCOAN, a church like the United Nations. A few Nigerian Pentecostal pastors have had the privilege of ministering to a multi-racial audience after Archbishop Benson Idahosa; Joshua was outstanding in that respect. He was a prophet who would hold a crusade in another country, and their locals would fill the seats.
Since his death two weeks ago, remembrances of him have been situated between two extremes: denunciation and adoration. It is understandable; Joshua was a controversial figure. Some of us came to know him from the days of broadcaster Kola Olawuyi’s investigation of SCOAN on his famous radio programme, Nkan Mbe. The pastor Olawuyi described was crass, perverse, and nothing about his methods spelled either “Christian” or “Pentecostalism.” Joshua was branded with occultism, and it was a tag that he never could shake off — even in death.
He was different, and the world is not always kind to outliers. The early Joshua was barely literate and had none of the grooming of the PhDs or Jeri-curled hair pastors. He was not a magnetising preacher, neither did he possess the charisma we had begun to associate with Pentecostal pastors. Crudeness, however, has its own appeal and eventually finds its select audience, and that was how Joshua thrived. But his radicality also made many uncomfortable. He was always performing all these fantastic miracles, and the excessiveness made him suspect. Pastors inquired about his background, but Joshua, probably embarrassed by his lowly beginnings and lack of tutelage by any of the established Daddy of Nigeria’s Pentecostalism, turned himself into a mystique.
At one time, pastors were all claiming one “origin myth” or the other. This pastor would say God called him in a vision that lasted 24 hours, and another would say something equally dazzling. Joshua too tried to do the same, but his lack of theological sophistication was instantly apparent when he claimed that he had spent 15 months in his mother’s womb and even got born again before birth. That was a problem. In Christendom, the second birth is a wilful decision. By claiming his own salvation was prenatal, he was aberrant. As much as an origin myth needed to stand out, it also has to be scaled to size, or people will be terrified by the excessiveness. Thus, they launched a vicious attack on Joshua and never reconciled with him.
Past executive vice president of Christ for All Nations, Peter Vandenberg, once noted that he sat in a meeting of around 2,000 Nigerian pastors where every one of them said Joshua practised occultism and out of line with doctrines. Thus, the CFAN and similar organisations had to distance themselves from Joshua.
When Pentecostal leaders asked him, ‘Who is your father?” and he had no answer, Joshua became affirmed as an interloper. You will recall that a similar question was asked of Ifedayo Olarinde (Daddy Freeze) last year. His fans, not knowing the subtext, responded with images of his biological parents. Questioning “fatherhood,” coming from Nigeria’s Pentecostal potentates, is not about biology. What they are inquiring is which member of their cliques of patriarchs legitimates you. Some scholars have said that the Pentecostal movement lacks a central organising structure, and anybody can become a pastor/prophet simply by claiming divine revelation. The drama of attacks on Joshua is proof that this is not entirely true. There are controls, regulations maintained by the Daddys-in-the-Lord. When Joshua had no one to point to as his spiritual father, he was ostracised as a Pentecostal outsider.
As it turned out, working outside normative legitimating structures, as Joshua did, is not always a bad thing. Outsiderism enforces a higher level of creativity. When his miracle broadcasts were yanked off local television stations, Joshua turned to the emerging technology of the Internet and built a massive following. By the time YouTube yanked off his Emmanuel TV in April for pathologising homosexuality, he had about five million subscribers, a big deal by any standards. Joshua has been on top of many rankings of pastors/churches with the largest social media followings worldwide. The curveballs thrown at him spurred innovation, and his continued success despite so much antagonism is why some insisted he was occultic. During COVID-19 lockdown, while some pastors angled for their churches to be opened by alleging there was an attack on Christianity, Joshua unveiled an electronic church through his Distance is not a barrier service that featured a savvy use of technology and spectacularisation of the supernatural. That style, I have observed, is now being copied by other pastors.
That was another thing about him: he understood the power of images to impress on public consciousness, and he exploited it to the fullest. Right from the early days of his church, he kept a video journal. If he swept the floor of his church or did menial labour, it had to be filmed. When he gave out to charity, there had to be cameras to let his right hand know what his left hand was doing. He might not have been a charismatic preacher, but he was perceptive. An astute exploiter of the definitive power of images, Joshua knew how to look good. In a country where pastors boasted how much money they had, he made a show of abjuring materiality. While pastors aggressively demanded money from their congregation to build fancy cathedrals, Joshua filmed himself giving out money to poor people. While fellow pastors tore him apart and declared him an occultist, he was prudent enough to focus on preaching the love of Christ. He came out looking good, while they ended up as petty and jealous.
He said in a sermon that the more his fellow Christians antagonised him, the more they aroused public curiosity. That was another thing about him. Probably due to his lowly background, he instinctively understood folk psychology and the allure of demonisation better than his traducers. In a society where adherents go to church or mosque in the morning and consult Babalawos in the night, accusing a pastor of using occult power to manipulate reality was, in fact, good publicity. It meant they could collapse two trips into one without having to deal with the guilt of hypocrisy. Multitudes streamed to his church.
A lot has been said about whether Joshua’s miracles were real or fake. That is not a matter that can ever be conclusively debated because, for every one person who claims they were scammed by his healing or prophesy, there are others who claimed otherwise. Miracles are subjective and hard to assess objectively. I would rather aver that the biggest miracle that Joshua performed was the miracle of his own self-reinvention. He transcended his limitations, going from a semi-literate preacher with scant biblical knowledge to emerge as a famous preacher, respected across several nations. Today, the economy of Ikotun Egbe, Lagos, where SCOAN is located, is built around him. That is no mean feat. Like any other God’s general anywhere, he was flawed and had his share of moral baggage. We should note all that, and at the same time, also acknowledge his achievements as a Nigerian/African Christian internationalist, creative pastorpreneur, and a prophet like no other.