Christianity has existed in Ghana for over 170 years and has contributed in no small way to the development of Ghanaian society and the well-being of its people.
The first Basel and Bremen Presbyterian missionaries believed that without education it was difficult to preach the gospel effectively. Nor could there be indigenous, self-supporting churches unless church members had employable skills. Therefore, from the beginning, gospel preaching was accompanied by educational and vocational training.
The church in Ghana was the first agency to establish educational, agricultural, trade and medical services. In 1949 it had 2165 primary and middle schools, compared to 1592 government schools.
Today there are many church schools at primary, secondary and vocational levels, as well as church-based teacher-training colleges. Only under Dr Nkrumah did the government overtake the church in providing schools.
It is on record too that it was Presbyterian Basel missionaries who were the first to introduce cocoa planting to Ghana – ten years before Tetteh Quarshie, who is usually regarded as the father of Ghana’s cocoa industry.
The Basel Mission established agricultural training stations and the Basel Trading Company first exported cocoa from Ghana to Europe in 1891. This trade was developed by Ghana’s government and by 1911 Ghana was the leading exporter of cocoa.
Churches, perhaps unwittingly, contributed to nationalism also. Every one of Ghana’s independence leaders in 1957 had been educated in a mission school!
Although Christianity has been a dominant influence in Ghana, this did not come easily. The first missionaries struggled with the ravages of malaria in the days before quinine, and many died from the disease.
They faced the hostility of the priests of traditional African religion, particularly when the latter’s shrines were forsaken by Christian converts. There were frequent ethnic wars, which made evangelisation of certain areas impossible at times.
After the former Gold Coast gained independence, the church was immediately confronted with its first (socialist) president – Kwame Nkrumah. He determined to nationalise all institutions, bringing them under government control.
There were clashes between State and Church over many issues. One was occasioned by Nkrumah’s adaptation of Scripture on a prominent statue of himself. The words on the statue read, ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom and all other things shall be added unto you’.
The offering of pagan libations at State functions became a bone of contention too, as did the increasing deification of Nkrumah, and infiltration of political groups like the Ghana Young Pioneer Movement into the churches.
The result was great hardship for Christians, including the deportation of expatriate missionaries and clergy, and the jailing of local clergymen. This went on until Nkrumah’s government was finally overthrown in 1966.
Then again, under General Acheampong’s regime (1972-1978) there were further blatant attempts to control Christian churches (and other religious groups). The mainline denominations resisted them and criticised Acheampong’s actions. Eventually Acheampong was ousted.
However, Ghana’s Christians had entered upon another very trying period, perhaps the worst. Under the military regime of Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings (1981-1993) there was serious persecution.
For more than a year, evening services were hindered by curfews. Congregations and church leaders were attacked verbally, and sometimes physically. Some pastors and evangelists died in mysterious circumstances.
In one incident in Kumasi, a drunk military officer went armed into ‘The Lord is my Shepherd Church’ and ordered its members to go out and fill potholes. A policewoman in the congregation, in the process of trying to disarm the man, sustained gunshot injuries.
The members, thinking the woman was dead, attacked the soldier and beat him to death. The soldiers responded by going on the rampage and pulling the church building to the ground.
The pastor was arrested and summarily executed in public and his body set on fire. Many church members were arrested, imprisoned and tortured. During this period, Christian broadcasting on State radio and TV was suspended.
Eventually the government passed the Religious Bodies (Regulation) Law, which sought to bring all religious activities under government control. It imposed a scheme of registration, but Christian churches refused to register.
However, with 62% of the population professing Christianity, it became clear that the government was on a collision course with its population. It backed off, and the law was repealed in 1992, with the inception of civilian rule.
Today 64% of the population profess to be Christian. Yet, many of these are nominal Christians; only one fifth of professing Christians attend church; and only one seventh of professing Christians claim to be evangelical.
It is no exaggeration to say that Ghana’s churches need a revival. May God in his grace send it, even in our generation!