The Sabbatharian Movement:
A Judaeo-Christian development in Igbo-Israel.
Written by Remy Chukwukaodinaka Ilona
Links from www.derushapublishing.com
The Sabbatharians are the Igbo converts to Christianity who resigned from Christianity in the early twentieth century, and formed a new religion that is known among the Igbos as “Sabbath.”
The Sabbatharians are not easy to categorize. The Sabbatharians could be taken for Jews. They could also be seen as Christians. The Sabbath groups observe Saturday, the day that the Lord commanded the Israelites to rest (as is found in the Bible) as a holy day. The groups observe all the biblical feasts and holydays that the Lord ordered the Israelites to observe. For examples; they commemorate Passover, Sukkot, Atonement, etc, on the days that the worldwide Jewish community, with its headquarters in Eretz Yisrael does. They rigidly abhor all the foods that the Lord commanded the Israelites not to eat (as seen in the Bible). The Sabbatharians believed that keeping the Commandments was a true way to please God. In their early years they maintained and stressed that God was distinct and separate from anybody else. Their belief about God could be said to be unitarian in their early years. In that period the doctrine of the Trinity had not become popular and widely known among the Igbos, because Christianity was still new then. ‘Jah Jehovah’ was their preferred designation for the Supreme Being. I cannot recall that they had a position for anybody else in their worship in those their early years. On the Sabbath day which they called ubosi ezumike (day of rest), and other feast days they dress in white flowing robes, and when they get close to the precincts of their missions, as they address their places of worship they remove their foot wears, as they believe that their places of worship are holy ground. An essential aspect of their worship is ibu amuma (prophesying). They have guilds of prophets known as ndi ozi (the message carriers).
For Bibles they used the Tanakh; known by Christians as the Old Testament and by the People of Israel who received it from God as the Hebrew Bible. As the Bible which they use contains the Christian Bible; the New Testament, we can say they also use it. However one thing was discernible. They generally concentrated on the ‘Old Testament’.
Interestingly their main areas of interest in those years were the first five books of the Bible (Torah), and then the Psalms, and the Prophets. As far as I can remember the Sabbatharians were not particularly curious about the New Testament.
There is no evidence that they ever heard about the Talmud. Also they knew next to nothing about other important Jewish texts. Besides what they gleaned from the Bible about Israel; they knew next to nothing about Jewish history; and the modern Jewish religion.
However the Sabbatharians have a place for Jesus in their belief. But they do not equate him to the Almighty God; the Supreme Being. They see and respect him as a messiah.
And in organizational structure the Sabbath is Christian however. A Sabbath is headed by a person; the founder, who is known as onye isi nchu aja. This term could mean high priest. He is assisted by other persons who are known as ndi ozi. As I had observed ndi ozi could be ‘messengers. But the Sabbatharians see them as prophets. In recent years as the English language continues to gain precedence over Igbo language among the Igbos, and Pentecostal culture continues to permeate the Igbo society, the Sabbatharians have started to call the ndi ozi pastors.
A Sabbath could have branches everywhere as Christian churches. But it is remarkable that unlike Christian churches that they do not proselytize. I will try to explain what I think that inhibits them from proselytizing.
The development of ‘Sabbath’ as this movement is called is in my opinion inspired by some Igbos desire to practice Judaism; the religious culture of Israel. Unfortunately most of the founders of the Sabbaths did not write their personal histories so we do not have first hand information about what they thought about the Igbos descent from Israel. But we can say with certainty that they as most Igbos were aware of the knowledge that the Igbos came from Israel. Thus we can say that they developed the desire to practice Judaism because of this knowledge. But something is puzzling here. From what we know about the founders of the movement they did not know much, if anything about Israel’s religion. Most; especially the earliest founders did not have much Western education. So we can rule out the possibility that they read about Judaism. Even today, in the 21st century most Igbos, including the highly educated ones do not know much about the Jews and Judaism. So we can say quite safely that the Sabbatharian founders did not try to establish Judaic movements because they studied Judaism. Then what happened? Most said that they had visions of God calling on them to establish ‘Sabbath’. I will set out what I think that it happened. The Igbos like almost every other African people were enslaved and colonized by Europeans. The Europeans foisted foreign cultures on the colonized peoples. Initially members of the colonized entities thought that the colonization was beneficial. But with time some of their elites began to realize that colonization could not be beneficial in any way. That its short term gains are more than off-set by its long term disadvantages. The elites of colonized peoples thus always seized the first opportunity they have to throw off the yoke of foreign rule. We saw Herbert Macauley, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, etc, struggling against foreign rule. Unfortunately historians concentrate only on those that used political methods to achieve certain objectives. Well, we must not allow ourselves to digress. After years of striving and failing to stifle the various anti-colonial movements the colonial powers packed and left. But they did not go with the institutions, and the ideas that they planted in Africa. Principal among such institutions is Christianity. We will now talk very briefly about how some of the various peoples of Nigeria reacted to Christianity. After a few years in the Western versions of Christianity the various peoples of Nigeria began to try to head back to their own religions. Naturally they tried to rediscover their religions through Christianity. Naturally they had to match through Christianity because it was what they had grown up in. The Yorubas came up with the Aladura churches: The Celestial Church of Christ, the Cherubim and Seraphim, Jesu Oyingbo, etc. And Pentecostal variant, which they effectively Yorubanized. A good look at the ‘White garment’ churches as the former are known in Nigeria, Nigerian Pentecostal Christianity, and Yoruba religious culture will show that the Yorubas succeeded very well in indigenizing Christianity. The Igbo effort to do the same threw up the ‘Sabbath’. As the Igbos are Israelite ethnically what they would head back to must have distinctive Jewish features. In my estimation that’s why the Igbos ‘created’ a Judaeo-Christian movement. And the rapid spread of this movement throughout Igboland, and to wherever Igbos have migrated to is very interesting. A prominent Sabbath leader mentioned in 2005 that Sabbatharians number eight millions. They might have numbered up to the mentioned figure in the latter parts of the 20th century. Now they would number a million, because they lost many members to the Yoruba dominated Pentecostal movement.
Some of the Sabbatharians gained the respect and gratitude of the Igbos because of the feats which some of them were believed to have performed. Employing prayers, fasting, holy oil, etc, they tried to cure cancers, insanity and other difficult ailments. Many persons believe that they actually cured those ailments. Also the Sabbatharians were not known to have participated in Igbo intra-ethnic religious-denominational discrimination. This discrimination took the following form: Some groups that operate in Igboland have rules that bar their members from marrying outside their group. The Sabbatharians did not bar their members from marrying fellow Igbos. The groups that did contributed to a major problem that is bedeviling the Igbo society today: a glut of Igbo spinsters, and a rising trend in Igbo marital instability. Many persons could not find ideal spouses in their groups, and waited for too long. By the time they realized that they should marry any Igbo with clean family histories they were already old-maids. Also persons that had only very little in common were forced to marry because they found themselves in the same groups. Marital instability resulted in a great many of such arrangements. In addition the intra religious-denominational discrimination forced many Igbos into the traps of non Igbo religious con men who were out to build large congregations by promising everything in the world to vulnerable persons. The Igbos that fell into such people’s traps have turned out to be bitter haters of the Igbo people today, because the con men ensure that they turn them against the core ethos of the Igbos. The Sabbatharians could say with pride that they did not ‘teach’ any Igbo to shun fellow Igbos. Today that the Igbo society is fundamentally divided, and reuniting the Igbos is seemingly impossible many Igbos are beginning to appreciate that groups like the Sabbatharians, and the Anglicans did not join in preaching intra-ethnic religious divisions.
As I have mentioned before, prophesying enjoys preeminence in the Sabbatharian movement, as it did in the ancient version of the religion of Israel. But really there is no basis for comparison. The Israelite prophets were social reformers, and champions of true religious worship par excellence.
And while the Israelite prophet was quite national, and even international in outlook, the Sabbatharian prophet is quite provincial. It is difficult to recall a single Sabbatharian prophet who showed extraordinary concern for the Igbos as a people; as a community. We cannot also say that the poor and defenseless among the Igbos have occupied the attention of the Sabbatharian prophet very much. Nor can we say that they foresaw the dangers that the Igbos would be in as a consequence of their religiously and denominationally induced divisions, and preached against such evils. Almost all were concerned just with the welfare of their communities. Had they seen beyond their own communities they would have with their preeminence in the former years stemmed the collapse of the Igbo society.
However in one respect some of the earliest Sabbatharian prophets resemble the Israelite models. A few railed against Igbos who were trying to import a particularly heinous unIgbo practice: ikpa nsi (poisoning people).
Up till this stage I still can’t find where to place the Sabbatharians. In Christianity or in Judaism? This is because I can’t remember any early Sabbatharian who did not concentrate on ‘Jah Jehovah’ only, as his God, or who did not emphasize the importance of the Laws of God, found in the ‘Old Testament’. I have tried to find the reasons why the Sabbatharians inclined towards an indivisible (Unitarian God) in their early years. I think the reason may be that the prevailing dominant influence rubbed off on them then. Many Igbos as at when the Sabbatharian movement began to rise still retained a memory of only Chukwu as the Supreme Being. In Igbo theology Chukwu (God), was seen as a Person. A single Person. Thus it was easy for the Sabbatharians to revert to a belief on only God (Chukwu Abiama) as God. I think that this factor helped the Sabbatharians to focus only on ‘Jah Jehovah.’
Yet in spite of all the above, particularly their tendency to rigid monotheism, I still cannot bring myself to describe the early Sabbatharians as Jews or Judaists or Israelites in religion. There are features of Israel’s religion as shown in the Bible, which is not manifest in their practices: Oneness for example. From what I have seen of Judaism, or Omenana Igbo, a very important essence of the Jewish way, and the Igbo way, is the perception of the Jewish or the Igbo community, respectively as one. The community’s good is the primary concern of Judaism and Omenana. The Sabbatharians believed in communitarianism too, but they worked towards creating new communities, which were to be distinct from the Igbo community. I know several Sabbatharians who were giants in the Sabbatharian world, but I do not know any who stood out as an Igbo stalwart, as I would expect Jews to stand out in the Israelite world. Also until recent times Israel as a people, as a nation, and as a land was not of particular importance to them, as it is to Jews. I would say that they viewed their communities as kinds of ‘new Israels’.
At this stage I feel like asking some questions. And those questions are:
From what we have shown we can say that there was an effort to go to Judaism; some might call it a teshuvah; to return to keeping the Laws. But that due to dearth of information and other resources perhaps, that the Sabbatharians stopped midway with a new religion. My number one question is: Would the Sabbatharians have developed to become Jews/Judaists /Israelites? Two: Would they have grown if they had been given Torahs and other Jewish texts? Three: Would they have progressed if selfless intellectuals had joined them? Four: Would a Jewish rabbi have made the difference? I ask all these questions because I think that the Sabbatharians thought that they were replicating the Israelite worship.
My answer to these questions is a simple yes!
If they had been given Torahs, teachers; and if selfless intellectuals had joined them, they would have learned how Jews lived, and worshipped God, or how Jews are supposed to live and worship God, and they would have adjusted their practices. They would have seen the similarities between the Igbo and Jewish patterns of living, and they would have started fifty years earlier what many of them are just beginning now.
And just as I can’t call them Jews I can’t call them Christians either. I can’t recall their addressing themselves in those years as Christians, perhaps because in those years, the Igbo identity suffixed for every Igbo; unlike in the present era when the Igbo identity is loosing ground due to the erosion of Igbo culture.
Also their belief that obeying the Commandments (the Laws) of God is enough to earn them salvation clearly makes it difficult to classify them as Christians. This is because central in Christianity is the doctrine that it is Faith, not keeping the Law that saves.
I would still say that the Sabbatharians are Christians transiting to the Igbo religion, which among Jews is called Judaism.
I say this because in recent times, due to more availability of information many Sabbaths have introduced quite a lot of Judaic beliefs, practices and rituals into their practices. Many Sabbatharians have started to dress like Jews. Some wear skull caps, and don tallits while praying. Some have started to learn Hebrew. Many are familiar with elementary Hebrew. A Sabbatharian is likely to greet a friend with ‘shalom’; the customary salutation of peace that Jews are known with. Some have started to use the Jewish Siddurim to pray. And many have acquired Hebrew Bibles designed for synagogue study. And in recent years the biggest Sabbath group formulated a document about burying the dead that its members should be using. In every detail their burial practices would match those of Jews if they implement what they drew up. I will say the following even though it is digressional. If the Sabbath group disseminates the afore-mentioned document widely they would be doing the Igbos a major favor. This is because their document is reminiscent of Igbo burial practices which are Israelite; and which most Igbos have virtually forgotten everything about.
Lastly the Sabbatharians are beginning to become voracious readers of books. And many are beginning to plan to invest in schools and education. As everybody knows the Jews are the people of the Book. I would say that there are many indications that the Sabbatharians are transiting to………..