Co-authored by Dr. Andrew Chesnut and Dr. Kate Kingsbury*
Glaringly absent from most of the news stories on the notorious Houston-based physician and pastor Dr. Stella Immanuel, who has gone viral for her recent endorsement by President Trump, is her religious affiliation.Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a video in which Dr. Immanuel as part of the insidious cabal of physicians “America’s Frontline Doctors” promoted hydroxychloroquine as an efficacious treatment for COVID-19 and questioned the effectiveness of masks in preventing its spread. Anyone who knows anything about Pentecostalism can tell just by glancing at the Facebook page of her “Firepower Ministries” that the Cameroonian-born pastor belongs to what is now the most dynamic branch of Christianity with tens of millions of followers across the globe, especially in Africa and Latin America.
Pentecostals believe that we are under constant demonic attack and that only holy warriors armored with the power of the Holy Spirit are capable of defeating demons, such as Incubus and Succubus who seduce those weak in faith into having sexual relations with them. In that vein Dr. Immanuel has claimed that “Many women suffer from astral sex regularly. Astral sex is the ability to project one’s spirit man into the victim’s body and have intercourse with it.” She goes even further alleging that sex with “tormenting spirits”https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/29/politics/stella-immanuel-trump-doctor/index.html is responsible for gynecological problems, miscarriages and impotence. And reflecting the ludicrous notion that Evangelical Christians are persecuted in the U.S., Immanuel has suggested in sermons that alien DNA was used in medical treatments and that scientists are conspiring to develop a “vaccine” to make it impossible to become religious.
While not all of the pastor’s beliefs are unique to African Pentecostalism, she earned her medical degree in Nigeria and now resides in Houston, home to the largest Nigerian immigrant community in the U.S., many of whom are Pentecostal. If there is an epicenter of African Pentecostalism it’s Nigeria, the most populous nation of the continent almost evenly divided between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. Pentecostalism has had such success on the Nigerian religious landscape that even some Muslim communities have adopted certain Pentecostal practices in order to compete with them. Prominent heads of Pentecostal megachurches wield considerable political power and donations from immigrant communities in cities such as Houston and London play an important role in the day to day operations of the churches.
Witchcraft is so pervasive in parts of Africa that in 2006 the Catholic bishops of Southern Africa, comprising Bostwana, Swaziland, and South Africa, issued a pastoral letter prohibiting their priests from moonlighting as soothsayers and witch doctors! With the future of both Catholicism and Protestantism in Africa, where demand for exorcism is surging, the Vatican under the first pope from the Global South is sharpening its focus on the continent of its future. Without looking into a crystal ball, but merely by crunching the numbers, one might divine that the future of Christianity is in Africa. According to Pew Research, by 2060 more than four-in-ten sub-Saharan Africans will be Christian, thus leading to a 26% increase from 2015. Of this figure Protestants represent the largest group, at an estimated 57%. In particular, the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements are witnessing momentous growth.
Deliverance and healing ministries, such as Immanuel’s Firepower Ministries, are one of the most important magnets attracting converts in Africa who on a daily basis are drawn to the dramatic healing rites causing these charismatic churches to mushroom into ever larger and more powerful congregations. It is indubitably awareness of this trend, and a desire to compete with the dynamic Pentecostals and Muslims that has led the Catholic Church to prioritize ministries of demonic deliverance across the continent. While the Church has been losing members to Pentecostalism and secularism in Latin America and the latter in Europe, it’s hopeful that it can avoid the same fate in Africa through emphasis on one of its most popular spiritual services – exorcism.
Possession rites have long pervaded the African landscape, originating long before the arrival of Christian missionaries. Across large swaths of the continent, peoples of variegated ethnic origins and creeds have traditionally conducted and still continue to carry out possession rites to rid themselves of evil spirits which they deem responsible for misfortunes and maladies ranging from mental, to physical and financial. Likewise they have since millenia invoked spirits to aid them with healing.
In the horn of Africa, for example, there is a widespread belief in Zar, malevolent spirits that possess people, bringing about destruction and sickness that can only be exorcised through rituals. In Nigeria, people have traditionally consulted babalawo, diviners trained in supernatural skills to remove malicious forces invading their souls. Whilst in South Africa, the spirits of ancestors have long been called upon for their healing powers. Across the continent witchcraft beliefs are a lingua franca to describe and decipher inimical events of all descriptions.
During the colonial era, when vast chunks of the African continent were converted to Christianity by European missionaries, possession rites, spirit ceremonies and notions of witchcraft were not wiped out by the shift in religious belief. Upon colonisation, African notions of the spirit world, sorcery and possession were re-mapped according to a Christian chorography, transcribing local malevolent forces into the Christian world of devils and demons. Autochthonous benevolent spirit forces previously supplicated were transmogrified into petitions to the Holy Spirit, resulting in the widespread popularity of a pneumacThereentric form of Christianity across the continent. Hence possession and healing rituals coalesced with Christianity to form novel syncretic spiritual modes, causing the faith to burgeon to new heights.
More recently, influenced by the charismatic movements in the USA, a mixtion of traditional and foreign beliefs as well as practices have spawned new churches in Africa (African Initiated Churches or AICs) that have attracted massive followings, predominantly Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. These churches’ popularity stems primarily from their spiritual offering of deliverance and healing ceremonies which have their origins in the indigenous spiritual landscape. Where previously possession rites and appeals to spirits had been conducted by traditional healers, within Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, deliverance ceremonies are led by clergy and even fellow congregants who invoke the Holy Spirit or cast out demons in healing rituals that are a panacea for all troubles, and rid one of the satanic forces responsible for everything from COVID-19 to financial troubles, weight loss to sex addiction, impotency, kleptomania and homosexuality.
Steeped in African Pentecostal homophobia, Pastor Immanuel has a long history of anti-LGBTQ rants in which she has claimed that homosexuality is the “agenda of the Devil” and is “perverted, vile behavior that is being taught to our children.” Unlike in Catholic churches, no special training is required to perform a healing ceremony and thus with no specific rules nor regulations in place, AICs offering deliverance and healing ceremonies have proliferated across the African continent. Witchcraft ideals perdure within the context of these rites, as the imagined contiguity of sorcery and Satanism entails that people who participate in deliverance rituals are often seen as having been manumitted from witchcraft.
Currently the top ten largest churches in Africa all boast either healing and/or deliverance ceremonies. For example, the Zion Christian Church, in South Africa, has over 3 million members. It is believed that the Lekganyanes, the family who established and still lead this Zionist church are modern manifestations of Moses, prophets who have a direct channel to the Holy Spirit who anoints them with powers during services. Much as in the traditional role of diviners that conducted rituals prior to the arrival of Christianity, these leaders are viewed as seers able to receive the revelations of God and see the sources of sickness within congregants. As prophets the leaders promise an exodus from previous vicissitudes that includes liberation from trouble, sickness, oppression, evil spirits, sorcery and poverty.
Deeper Christian Life Ministry based in Nigeria boasts 65,000 congregants and offers healing ceremonies on a regular basis, whilst Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), also in Nigeria has, over 400,000 YouTube subscribers and over 50,000 people attend the weekly services. SCOAN’s popularity derives in large part from the weekly deliverance ceremonies that have even featured ‘celebrities’. For example, Richard Kingson’s wife was ostensibly exorcised of a satanic spirit that had prevented her husband, a notable Ghanaian goal keeper, from securing a contract. Whilst the renowned Ghanaian singer Denise Williams was delivered from a demon that had caused her to become suicidal and addicted to drugs.
In short, the African-style Pentecostalism that Pastor Immanuel preaches in Houston informs her irresponsible medical practice in which snake oil such as zinc and hydroxychloroquine is recklessly promoted for treatment of COVID-19 along with a potentially lethal anti-masking stance. Some of her supporters are making the bogus claim that her religious beliefs shouldn’t be subject to criticism, but it’s patently obvious that her Pentecostal faith has a profound influence on her medical practice, which includes a malpractice suit against her in which a woman from Louisiana died in 2019 shortly after being in Immanuel’s care.
*Dr. Kate Kingsbury obtained her doctorate in anthropology at the University of Oxford and is author of the forthcoming “Daughters of Death: The Female Followers of Santa Muerte” with Oxford University Press. She is a polymath interested in exploring the intersections between anthropology, religious studies, philosophy, sociology and critical theory. Dr. Kingsbury is Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta, Canada. She is a staunch believer in equal rights and the power of education to ameliorate global disparities. She also works pro bono for a non profit organisation that aims to empower and educate girls in Uganda.