Christianity in Liberia
The Liberian church was born out of the missionary fervour that gripped Western Europe and America in the nineteenth century. Baptists, Methodists and Episcopalians were among the first to engage in Liberian mission.
All three denominations recognised ‘a unique opportunity for Protestant missions in Liberia’1 and had missionaries on board the S. S. Elizabeth as it brought the first settlers to Liberia.
The early to mid1800s saw the establishment of an indigenous church among former American slaves who had been freed and repatriated to Africa.1-4 The early missionaries were convinced that Christianity was synonymous with civilisation.
Later, the Liberia Inland Mission and SIM (then the Sudan Interior Mission) spread the message of the cross by church-planting and through medical and educational missions. In the twentieth century, radio broadcasting became a powerful tool for preaching the gospel, as SIM utilised shortwave broadcasting into rural areas.
Many church leaders in Liberia (and others parts of Western Africa) are grateful for SIM’s part in bringing the gospel in the vernacular languages.
Christian schools and Bible colleges, such as Africa Bible College, Carver Bible College and Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary, were established to train leaders for the growing church. These were especially important in the late 1970s and 1980s in laying a foundation. Today, many who have graduated from these seminaries are in key church leadership positions and seeking to spread the gospel.
Partly because of this emphasis on leadership training, many people professed Christ and were nurtured in the faith. The church encountered resistance, however, in the western and northern regions where Islam is strongest.
The increasing impact of Christianity on Liberia had its downside. Christians found themselves in a political system that outwardly embraces Christianity – and some denominational leaders have exploited this to advance their own political ambitions. For example, some have become members of the Masonic Order. This compromise sends a mixed message to the Christian community.
However, hope for the growth of the church in Liberia remains bright. The nation’s president and vice-president are respected Christians who are trying to bring the nation back to God. They have urged church leaders to promote the exemplary values of Christianity and pray for a government striving to restore the nation to its lost dignity.
The Liberian church is still growing. However, along with growth has come a wide spectrum of church practices and beliefs. These contribute to enormous tensions within the Body of Christ.
Most professed Christians subscribe to the formula ‘salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ’ (Ephesians 2:8-9), but in practice many believe that salvation is attained through grace and works.
There has also been an increase in the number of preachers bringing a ‘prosperity gospel’ message. They try to persuade believers who lack material wealth that their sins are hindering them from obtaining God’s full ‘blessing’.
There is an immense need for sound Christian literature, coupled with a need to develop biblical and theological libraries for pastors and church leaders. The majority of pastors only have access to good books while in theological training. After graduation, many return to remote places where libraries are inaccessible.
Coupled with this are the challenges of making Christian books affordable and of disseminating literature – in a culture which sets a high value on oral communication. Perhaps these needs could be met, in part at least, by building partnerships between Liberian and Western churches, since the latter have a rich heritage of Christian literature and teaching.
The contemporary Liberian church faces many problems. There is pressure from Islam and traditional African religions. The most recent 14 years of civil conflict has left the church with the daunting task of effecting biblical reconciliation and helping people deal with the aftermath of civil war.
There is the need to care for orphans and help reintegrate child-soldiers into society. However, church leaders must not be so focussed on meeting physical needs that they neglect spiritual ministries.
There is also a growing HIV/AIDS problem with, so far, muted publicity on the subject due to a lack of appropriate education and to the stigma accompanying the disease.
Another problem is the rise of the new African Independent churches with their hyper-charismatic orientation. Many of these are led by individuals whose doctrine is contrary to basic biblical truth and who will not listen to or respect the leadership of Evangelical churches.
But while there are many problems, there are also opportunities. Those considering missionary service in Liberia should be willing to enter into partnership with national Christians. For too long a paternalistic paradigm was perpetuated by mission agencies and this created problems within the churches.
Furthermore, any mission agency considering partnering Liberians should focus on equipping and empowering them for works of service. With the civil war over, there are opportunities for missionaries in a variety of disciplines. A new generation of Christians must be prepared to advance the gospel in Liberia.
The Association of Evangelicals in Liberia (AEL) represents over 300 Evangelical churches and offers many opportunities for practical ministry. Its leaders are nationals burdened to train their own people.
The Liberian church is Christ’s church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, even in the midst of the post-war challenges.
Dennis ‘Dee’ Walker
1. God’s impatience in Liberia; Joseph Conrad Wold; Eerdmans; 1968.
2. A history of the Episcopal Church in Liberia 1821-1980; D. Elwood Dunn; Scarecrow Press; 1992.
3. Alexander Crummell (1819-1898) and the creation of an African-American Church in Liberia; J. R. Oldfield; Edwin Mellen; 1990.
4. ‘White’ Americans in ‘black’ Africa: Black and white American Methodist missionaries in Liberia, 1820-1875; Eunjin Park; Routledge; 2001.
Republic of Liberia
Neighbours: Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.
Area: 38,250 square miles.
Environment: The climate is tropical; the terrain mostly flat with equatorial forest.
Population: 4 million. There are up to half a million refugees in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Infant mortality: 150 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Life expectancy: 41 years.
Ethnic groups: Indigenous African 95%; Americo-Liberian 2.5%
(descendants of former US slaves); Congo 2.5% (descendants of former Caribbean slaves).
Language: English 20% (official); about 20 ethnic languages.
Literacy: Male 73%; female 42%.
Capital: Monrovia (1.5 million).
Economy: Civil war, corruption and government mismanagement have destroyed much of Liberia’s economy and infrastructure. Until then Liberia had been an exporter of basic agricultural products, especially timber and rubber.
Religion: Traditional ethnic 48%; Independent African churches and unaffiliated 21%; Protestant 13%;
Muslim 13%; Catholic 4%; others 1%. There are many occult secret societies.
Protestant denominations: Various Baptist; United Methodist; various Pentecostal; Lutheran; Episcopal; and others.
History: Liberia became the first independent black African nation in 1847. It was founded by Americans, many of whom were freed slaves. From 1980-2003 there were several civil wars. There were democratic elections in 2005 and today the UN maintains a strong military presence.