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Religious Affiliation and Ethnicity

The lack of precise information on religious affiliation and commitment in Liberia is reflected in the conflict between a statement in the World Christian Encyclopedia that "traditional religions are the living faith of well over half the population" and a table in the same source showing that just under one?half of the population adhered to tribal religions in 1970. The text is likely to be more accurate than the table. In the same table, 31 percent of the population is said to consist of professing Christians, but that includes two categories: affiliated Christians (about 19 percent of the total population) and nominal Christians (about 11 percent). Because it was not uncommon in some situations for indigenous people to say that they were Christians, many in the category of nominal Christians may be said more accurately to be adherents of indigenous religions. In its table of religious adherents, the encyclopedia gives the proportion of Muslims in 1970 as 19 percent but as 8 percent at one point in its text. Some observers claim, however, that Muslims were increasing in the 1970s and 1980s at a faster rate than Christians and may, in fact, outnumber them.

The Christian denominations most strongly represented in Liberia were the United Methodist church and the Liberian Baptist Missionary and Education Convention (more commonly, the Liberian Baptist Convention). The members of each denomination constituted roughly 17 percent of affiliated Christians in 1970. Next in size were the Roman Catholic church, the Lutheran church, and the Liberian Assemblies of God, each having between 7 and 8 percent of the affiliated Christians. The Episcopal Church of Liberia, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, and the Church of the Lord (Aladura) each had between 3 and 4 percent of the total.

The many other groups ranged in magnitude from single churches having a few hundred members to others that were made up of a number of congregations; all were very active in education and health care and had 2 percent or more of all church members. Among the larger of these were the African Methodist Episcopal church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, and the Seventh-Day Adventists. Among the many smaller ones were the Presbytery of Liberia in West Africa, mainly of the Pentecostal, spiritualist, or healing variety. Some of these were still under mission control in the mid-1970s, but many others were indigenous African churches.

Of the 114 denominations and independent churches in Liberia in 1970, the eight largest included more than two?thirds of all afl`iliated Christians. More than 100 groups accounted for the rest. Although most of these groups had very few members, their existence reflected a widespread trend in Africa?the proliferation of African independent churches characterized by a strong orientation toward some combination of healing and the possibility of direct experience of the Holy Spirit.

The two largest denominations, the United Methodists and the Liberian Baptist Convention, came with the settlers and were still heavily represented among them in the latter half of the twentieth century. President Tubman was a Methodist, and President Tolbert was an ordained Baptist minister. Although Americo?Liberians of these denominations did some missionary work among coastal Africans, most such work among indigenous peoples was accomplished by foreigners, white and black. By the mid-twentieth century, most Methodist and Baptist congregations had come together in these two denominational groupings. Specific churches, however, had separate Americo-Liberian or a indigenous congregations, even if their members lived in the same general area, e.g., Monrovia.

Of the six other large denominations, only the Episcopal church had significant representation among Americo-Liberians. Tubman's Methodist connection and Tolbert's Baptist affiliation notwithstanding, the Episcopal church was the most prestigious among the elite of that ethnic group. More than 10 percent of the membership of the Episcopal church was affiliated with the cathedral in Monrovia. A number of persons of indigenous origin along the coast had become Episcopalians, some as a consequence of their attendance at Cuttington University College, others by virtue of the work of members of the monastic Order of the Holy Cross among the Gbandi in the far northwest. There have also been a few conversions of individuals and families among the Vai in the Cape Mount area who became part of the educated elite and have been associated with politically dominant Americo?Liberians.

The Roman Catholic church had its heaviest representation among the Kruan?speaking people in the southeastern portion of the country, principally among the Kru and to a lesser extent among the Grebo and the Krahn. There were Roman Catholic missions elsewhere, but the greatest concentration outside the southeast in the 1980s was in the Monrovia area, a consequence in part of the heavy Kru and Grebo migration to the capital city.

Lutheran activity and its missionary work have occurred in areas inhabited by the Kpelle and the Loma. Information from the mid-to-late 1970s suggested that the denomination was growing fairly briskly. It remained largely a rural church but had followed some of its converts into the city.

The Liberian Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World also had their strongest representation among the Kru. Both groups had sent missions to the indigenous peoples in their rural homelands, but a large number of their members were urban Kru.

The Church of the Lord (Aladura) was brought to Liberia from Nigeria, where it had originated. A spiritualist church emphasizing healing and characterized by highly emotional services, its congregations were found among the Kpelle, the Bassa, and the Kru. It was more likely to exist in the urban centers than in the rural areas.

Of the remaining churches, whose membership comprised less than 3 percent of all affiliated Christians, few were AmericoLiberians. These were the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, both originating among American blacks and brought to Liberia in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In addition to acquiring a following among nonelite Americo?Liberians, these denominations also engaged in missionary work among indigenous people of the coast. Much smaller than these was the Presbyterian church, which came to the Greenville and Monrovia areas with the early settlers in 1831. It seems to have retained a following among Americo?Liberians but, despite minor missionary effort, to have achieved little among indigenous Liberians.

With rare exceptions the membership of other churches- some fairly large, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists, but most quite small - has been largely indigenous. Even if these churches have done work in several areas and have attracted adherents from more than one ethnic group, each congregation has tended to be ethnically homogeneous. This homogeneity has come about partly because the response to religious messages has been affected by the particular culture of a group and partly because the language used in every service is an indigenous one. English, however, has sometimes been used in portions of a service under some circumstances, especially in urban congregations.

A fairly significant exception to the largely indigenous character of small Pentecostal or spiritualist churches was the Lighthouse Full Gospel Church, more commonly known as Sister Blatch's (or Mother Blatch's) Church. It was founded by an American black who intended it to bring the Pentecostal idea of baptism to Americo?Liberians. When its American founder died, the church was taken over by Sister Blateh, of Kru origin but long linked to Americo-Liberians. Its services were in English and most of its members spoke vernacular Liberian English rather than the standard variety used by the elite in public situations. Most of the members of the church were Americo-Liberian women who were not of elite or subelite families, but there were some who were socially prominent and simultaneously members of more conventional and prestigious churches.

All but a few of Liberia's Muslims are of the Sunni branch (sometimes called orthodox), by far the larger of Islam's two main branches. The Shia branch is not represented in Liberia, except among a few Lebanese. A version of Islam called Ahmadiya (considered heretical or altogether outside Islam by most Muslim authorities) was brought to Liberia in the mid?1950s and has made a few converts. Two groups have been heavily influenced by Sunni Islam?the Vai and the Mandingo. Many of the latter (who are traders) have been proselytizers for Islam. Although no other ethnic categories have been wholly or even largely Islamized, some individuals and families in most categories have become Muslims, and there are some communities in the northwestamong the Gbande, the Mende, the Kissi, and the Gola?that have been almost wholly Islamized.

In the mid-1970s it was estimated that at least half the members of all but a few tribal categories were adherents of indigenous religions. Between 80 and 95 percent of half a dozen tribal groups were adherents of such religions and were least influenced by either Christianity or Islam. These included the Kpelle, the Gio, the Mano, the Loma, the Krahn, and the Gbandi?all in the Hinterland. Most influenced by Islam were the Mandingo (probably more than 90 percent) and the Vai (at least 75 percent); some of the remainder were Christians. The Christian churches among the Kru ranged from Roman Catholic and Methodist to several varieties of Pentecostals, and it was likely that more than half of the Kru were affiliated Christians. It was highly probable that most of the urbanized Kru (more than 45 percent in 1974) were so affiliated.

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