Agnes Okoh: a lens on Africa and Christianity

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Exploring the “Africanisation” of Christianity and the “Christianisation” of Africa through the life and ministry of Agnes Okoh

by Jessica Swift


Agnes Okoh was the founder of Christ Holy Church, an African Independent Church established in 1947 in Eastern Nigeria. Okoh was an exemplary, gifted leader, whose strong sense of calling and supernatural gifts set her apart. She was even more distinctive in that she was a female founder. As Israel Olofinjana highlights:

Okoh experienced struggle and success throughout her life. Her priorities and values regarding the Bible, faithfulness and the community are demonstrated throughout her ministry and secured in the succession of her leadership:

She imprinted the fear of God, dependence on God, ecclesial we-feeling, the priority of preaching the gospel, and the need to be responsible to the followers, on the hearts of those she trained.2

Okoh’s relationship with the spirit-world, her approach to the Bible, and her commitment to the wellbeing of the community all illustrate some key factors that developed the “Africanisation” of Christianity and the “Christianisation” of Africa. Nimi Wariboko sets out Okoh as one of the leaders shaping Christianity in Africa in the 20th century:

The competence of African evangelists in translating the message of the gospel into local idioms and worldviews, correlating existential problems to the resources of the Christian faith, brought about remarkable success. In this vein, the names of Garrick Braide, William Wadé Harris, Simon Kimbangu, Sampson Oppong, Joseph Babalola, Walter Matita, and Agnes Okoh, in the 20th century, stand out.3

The life and work of Agnes Okoh

Okoh was born in 1905 in Ndoni. She was the only surviving child of 13 children born to Onumba Emordi and Ntonefu. Although her parents were not Christian, she occasionally went to the Roman Catholic church. In 1924, she married James Okoh, a Ghanaian immigrant sailor. They had two children. Her husband died in 1930, and by 1938 her daughter had also died. This started a period of suffering and ill-health in which Okoh struggled with debilitating migraines. She sought relief in many places, but found healing in a Prayer House where she met Prophetess Ozoemena. Okoh stayed in the Prayer House receiving prayer and counsel; she was completely healed in two weeks. This event was the beginning of her conversion to Christianity and the start of a vocation to evangelism and healing ministry. The circumstances and qualities of Okoh’s conversion would be markers that would shape her entire ministry: healing, strength, compassion and faith.

In 1943, Okoh heard a voice say: “Matthew 10.” A friend suggested this was a reference to the Bible; since both were illiterate, they had to find someone else who could read it to them. “They both sought for someone else who could read Matthew 10 to them and a young boy came to their rescue and read Matthew 10 in Igbo language to both women.”4 The opening of this Biblical chapter starts: “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and illness.”5 Okoh received this as a call on her life, and followed in the same footsteps as the 12. Under Prophetess Ozoemena’s tutelage, Okoh was encouraged not to rush ahead of God, but to wait prayerfully. It wasn’t until 1946 when Okoh felt like God was leading her to take up her vocation to “proclaim the gospel”. On 15 December 1947, Prophetess Ozoemena commissioned and released Okoh. What followed was a period of prayer and fasting asking for direction and empowerment, whereby Okoh was given a dream. This dream was of John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”6 This became the theme for her ministry.

When Okoh took up her calling, she was an itinerant minister. Her practice was to seek the permission of the elders before commencing her preaching in any town or village. Once it was granted, she would stay until she felt the Holy Spirit prompt her to move to the next place. Although she had a headquarters at Onitsha (the headquarters of Anglicans and Roman Catholics in the region since 1854) that she came back to, she spent many years moving from place to place. Okoh’s ministry was shaped by “word and deed”, she both preached and prayed for healing.

She ended her public preaching by praying with people. People flocked to her with their problems and through her gift of healing many people were healed. Agnes also encouraged people through prophecy and visions.7

There is something both pragmatic and obvious about a religious expression that actually helps people. As captured by Laura Premack in Spirit on the Move, “a religion is only worthwhile if it provides material results: health, money, children”.8 Therefore, the strength and authority of Okoh was validated in that people were healed and restored.

As more and more people were receiving Okoh’s ministry, she began looking for places to establish Prayer Houses. She asked some local elders to give her portions of the “evil forests” (ajaw-awfia or ajo oshia). “Evil forests” in Igbo culture and religion were places where people that did not receive a proper burial were thrown and therefore these places were considered cursed.9 Okoh was cunning because not only did she need space to establish a Prayer House but also it was an opportunity to demonstrate the omnipotence of God. She moved in to the “evil forest”, did not suffer any harm and built a productive commune.

In recognition of her ability to overcome evil forest, turning it into a useful venture, she was called, “Odozi Obodo” which literally means “town repairer” or “nation builder” Agnes Okoh has since been called and known by this name.”10

Africanisation of Christianity

There are two attributes of Okoh’s ministry that illustrate the “Africanisation” of Christianity: her engagement with the spirit world and demonstration of spiritual authority, and her philanthropy, which exposed her priority for everyone’s wellbeing being tied up in community wellbeing.

Christ Holy Church, as all the African Independent Churches, in themselves are expressions of the “Africanisation” of Christianity. They are indigenous in their formation, their leadership and cultural expression. As Wariboko summarises when concluding the history of Christ Holy Church International:

Pentecostalism has helped to make Christianity an African religion. African Pentecostals, like the rest of African Christians, have appropriated the gospel; adapted the faith to their cultural sensibilities, concerns, and agendas; nudged its worldview to properly align with their indigenous maps of the universe; and contextualized its practices. Christianity is a translated religion in Africa.11

The key facet of this contextualisation and interpretation of African Christianity is the relationship with the spirit world. The understanding and experience that the spirit world and the physical world are inextricably interwoven, where each is influencing and informing the other, is a baseline African world view. African Christianity brings an experiential doctrine and theology of pneumatic charism shaped by this worldview. Okoh and other founders between 1900 and 1960 as indigenous evangelists are a part of the wave of prophetic figures who emerged “at the heels of the missionaries, engaging the indigenous worldview with charismatic elements of the Christian canon and symbols”.12

Attention and priority are given to being filled with God’s Spirit. This not only gives focus to the experiential expression of faith, but opens the spiritual experience to be available to everyone.

The role of the priestly class is challenged; individuals can approach God directly without going through licensed clergy. In turn, the Holy Spirit may speak directly to believers, unmediated by a priest or pastor, with religious experience valued over tradition.13

Okoh’s sense of calling in its origin was based in Matt.10, where the Christian call includes driving out spirits and healing. As is exemplified in Okoh’s vocation, engagement with the spirit world is the Christian calling.

Numerous theologians comment on the democratisation of Christianity within African Independent Churches and subsequently Pentecostalism. Faith is primarily experiential and participation universally available because the Holy Spirit is omnipresent. As Ogbu Kalu summarises in describing the Pentecostal movement, “scholars have argued that instead of lacking a theology, the movement is defined by its theology that privileges a personal spiritual encounter with God”.14 By the same token, leadership is exercised by anyone who demonstrates spiritual authority, namely in the expression of supernatural gifts, like those of healing, miraculous powers, prophecy and speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 12). Okoh was an illiterate widow; her authority came from her strong sense of calling and how this was backed up with gifts of healing and prophecy.

There is a pragmatism as well as a valuing of community wellbeing demonstrated in the Africanisation of Christianity. Kalu notes that in Africa, among three listed characteristics of revivals, the third is:

an effort to reshape the interior of a prevalent religious tradition by redirecting the core message to deeply felt needs within the community and thereby provide an answer to socioeconomic, political needs and restore moral order by appealing to supernatural intervention and anchor.15

Faith must be the lived experience of the “proof is in the pudding” – does faith in Christ bring healing, solve problems, indeed make life better? And is it true for the whole community? Okoh was as much known for her philanthropy as anything else expressed in her leadership. Hand in hand with evangelism was the engagement with the real needs and problems of the community, both natural and supernatural. As well as a healing ministry, Okoh helped establish farming communes, and built roads, schools, and maternity clinics.16 Everyone’s wellbeing and health was tied up in the community’s wellbeing and health. The “new life” preached from John 10:10 was caught up with the “Odozi Obodo”.

Christianisation of Africa

Similarly, the “Christianisation” of Africa is seen within the spirit world view and experienced in the community. This is illustrated in Okoh’s complete faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, and how the life received in Jesus is restorative and affirming.

Like other founders, Okoh “recognised the powers of the indigenous worldview but confronted these with the power of Christ”.17 For her it was exemplified when she approached village elders over the evil forests. “Agnes Okoh was noted for her disregard of traditional beliefs that were inimical to the spread of the gospel and to development of human potential.”18 This is the Christianisation of Africa in that there is the recognition of the power and influence of the spirit world, and this is then seen through the lens of the Christian world view where Christ has conquered all (Rom. 6:9). Allan Heaton Anderson describes this as continuity and discontinuity that accounts for the growth of Pentecostalism in Africa –

scholarly studies about the rapid expansion of Pentecostalism in different regions worldwide have not explored thoroughly what I consider to be a principle [sic] reason for its popularity – the extent to which Pentecostalism, through its experiences of the Spirit, often unconsciously taps into deep-seated religious and cultural beliefs. Pentecostalism draws from these ancient sources in continuity with them, while simultaneously confronting them in discontinuity. In doing so, it uses a biblical rationale for its beliefs and practices.19

The emergence of African Independent Churches was fuelled by and occurred during national journeys to independence. Okoh’s original preaching was borne from the inspiration of John 10:10, the new life Christians are given in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The theme of her message and the basis of the ministry she led was new life in Jesus, giving emphasis to repentance, righteousness and holiness.20 Identity and status given in Christ provided a foundation for regaining African pride and restoring human and cultural dignity. Churches like Christ Holy Church:

were seen as committed to taking seriously and honouring indigenous life and cultures in communicating the gospel. This signals the heightened sense of pride in race, nation or tribe on the basis of which these churches sought to purge themselves of foreign influences.21

Okoh’s own journey of leadership and prominence mirrored this experience of regaining dignity and status in Christ.

About the author

Rev Jessica Swift grew up on the east coast of Canada; her background is in forestry. She came to the UK as a student and was ordained in the Church of England. She has been a parish priest for over 20 years and is currently in a church in Tottenham, as well as studying on the African Diaspora MA with CMS.

More from this issue


  1. Israel O. Olofinjana, 20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria: Their Lives, Their Legacies, Volume 1 (Xlibris, 2011), 64. ↩︎
  2. Thomas Oduro, “Okoh, Agnes,”, Dictionary of African Christian Biography, 2007,, accessed 4 April 2023. ↩︎
  3. Nimi Wariboko, “Pentecostalism in Africa,” Oxford Research Encyclopedias,26 October 2017,, accessed 6 April 2023. ↩︎
  4. Olofinjana, 20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria, 66. ↩︎
  5. Matt. 10:1 (NIV). ↩︎
  6. John 10:10 (NIV). ↩︎
  7. Olofinjana, 20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria, 68. ↩︎
  8. Laura Premack, “Bless Us with Children: Pregnancy, Prosperity, and Pragmatism in Nigeria’s Christ Apostolic Church,” in Spirit on the Move: Black Women and Pentecostalism in Africa and the Diaspora, eds. Elizabeth A. Pritchard and Judith Casselberry (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 194. ↩︎
  9. Olofinjana, 20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria, 69 ↩︎
  10. Ibid. ↩︎
  11. Wariboko, “Pentecostalism in Africa”. ↩︎
  12. Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press: 2008), p. 23. ↩︎
  13. Donald E. Miller, “Introduction: Pentecostalism as a Global Phenomenon,” in Spirit and Power: The Growth and Global Impact of Pentecostalism, eds. Donald E. Miller, Kimon H. Sargeant and Richard Flory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 8. ↩︎
  14. Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 6. ↩︎
  15. Ibid., 28. ↩︎
  16. Olofinjana, 20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria, 70. ↩︎
  17. Kalu, African Pentecostalism, 36. ↩︎
  18. Oduro, “Okoh, Agnes”.]. ↩︎
  19. Allan Heaton Anderson, Spirit-Filled world: Religious Dis/Continuity in African Pentecostalism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 3. ↩︎
  20. Oduro, “Okoh, Agnes” ↩︎
  21. John S. Pobee and Gabriel Ositelu II, African Initiatives in Christianity: The Growth, Gifts and Diversities of Indigenous African Churches – A Challenge to the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva : WCC Publications, 1998), 32. ↩︎