Memoirs of an Ex-Pentecostal

Journey to find


in Ideas • Illustrated by Estelle Guillot


During the wee hours of New Year’s Eve, I was reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days and got to the third chapter where I came across an interesting conversation between two characters namely: Flory and the Doctor. In the course of the dialogue, Flory poses a profound question to the Doctor which stopped me in my tracks: 

“But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?”  

This question brought back to mind a lengthy conversation I had with a distant pal on the phone. We talked about different topics affecting our own part of the world in particular (namely, Cameroon) and the world at large. The ongoing conflicts in the English-speaking parts of our country and in the Holy Land, the Russo-Ukrainian War and the Latin Church’s recent aggiornamento regarding the blessing of same-sex couples. My pal (who is female by the way), and identifies as a devout Catholic, felt that the Fiducia Supplicans declaration was both absurd and un-Catholic. “Heaven only knows what inspired him (the Pope), whether it was Sacred tradition or Simone de Beauvoir,” she added. Devout Catholics aren’t supposed to question the Pope’s decisions. After all, he is the Vicar of Christ, and based on the dogma of Papal infallibility, the Pope is always right on theological matters. But here is my devout friend freely attacking his theological viewpoint on same-sex unions, I thought. I was almost tempted to ask her the same question Flory asked Doctor, “But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?” Instead, I did the Christmas thing by giving peace a chance and tossing the question in my brain’s recycle bin. 

My friend is not alone. The recent move has created an uproar in the Latin Church’s community, attracting the ire of conservative clergy in the past of Eastern and Central Europe and most of Africa against their superiors in the Holy See. Personally, it reminded me of what it was like to define my sense of morality based on what some distant sage, priest, or guru thought was right. 

I was raised by devout Pentecostals who loved to brag that they were theological begats of the Pentecostals of the Azusa Street Revival who, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, began speaking in tongues for the first time since the Apostolic age and who trace their theological origins to the Holiness movement kick-started by John Wesley in 18th-Century England. Growing up, I, like any other child, adored my parents and never questioned their views on the Bible and how it should guide our daily lives. Father, the no-nonsense clergyman and Wesleyan-Arminian doctrinaire to the core, still feels that women who wear slacks and jewelry will not make it to Heaven. The town in which we lived, Buea, is situated on the slopes of Mount Cameroon, a mountain which makes us denizens very proud for making us famous nationally (we’ve hosted the annual mountain competition, Race of Hope, since 1995 attracting tourists and hikers from all parts of the world to our banana republic) and internationally (it is West Africa’s highest point above sea level). Father sometimes used the competitions as an analogy to the “greatest race of all,” namely, the heavenly race. Whereas the sprinters receive a corruptible trophy, we shall receive an incorruptible one.  

While most parents of kids born in the Noughties were interested in making their offspring acquaint themselves with the latest technologies of the day, mine felt that the television was the “devil’s box” and encouraged us to study the Bible, dedicate ourselves to prayer and sing hymns and spiritual songs to the Lord for these were nobler and higher pursuits that would be rewarded on the other side of eternity. The blissful thought of seeing Jesus and the early apostles captivated my infantile senses and I thought of nothing else than to serve the Lord in spirit and in truth. Whereas the rest of our town’s populace lined the streets and applauded as the runners descended from the mountain, we spent most of the day in solitude, keeping ourselves unspotted from this “present, evil world.” 

I can still vividly remember when as a 10-year-old, I first watched E.W. Pirkle’s documentaries, The Burning Hell and The Believer’s Heaven, alongside my six siblings and parents. Like most kids, if not all, the horrid scenes in the former of people screaming, wailing, weeping, and gnashing their teeth, worm-infested bodies, and some fellows with their faces disfigured by fire left an indelible mark on my memory. Frightened, almost got my pajamas soaked with urine, I begged my father in the words of Simon Peter’s audience on the Day of Pentecost, “How can I escape from this?” “All you need to do, son, is to accept Jesus as your Lord and personal Savior, get sanctified and spirit-filled and everything will be tickety-boo and if you continue in the faith, Heaven will be yours at the end,” he said, this time around not in the usual fatherly tone but more like the preacher who is excited at the prospect of having a new convert. Right there, in the presence of all my siblings, I said the sinner’s prayer and gave my heart to Jesus. I received a dusty, little King James’ Bible from his bookshelf. This was his own initiation rite into the faith. A new name was recorded in Heaven. Farewell to the present world for there is a better country above the skies that I now call home where God himself wouldn’t be ashamed to call me his own and Jesus will be there waiting for me. Or, so I thought. 

From that moment on, I felt it was my duty to tell everybody about my newfound faith. Sometimes, Father took me out for his “evangelistic outreaches” or “morning cries” where I would quote from memory a few Bible passages related to salvation and eternal damnation. We sometimes used to attract the ire of some fellows, especially when we screamed, “Hell has enlarged itself because of drunkards,” just outside beer parlors and local speakeasies. On one occasion, one of the winebibbers walked up to us and called Father a “sanctimonious dingbat.” Grandiloquent words for an alcoholic, I thought. Then he stooped down and whispered to me, amidst the repulsive smell of gin and Father struggling to separate me from him, in a husky tone, “Read more books, ma boi. Free yourself from your old man’s scrap. In the future, you’ll be grateful you did.” 

Talking of books, we were allowed to read a few novels but that was not until you’d read at least seven chapters of the Bible. We used to call it, “Dad’s offering.” Like Wesley, his favorite Christian hero of the past, Father is a diehard homo unius libri, which is to say “man of one book”: The Bible. Sola Scriptura, as Martin Luther would’ve put it. Like most biblical literalists, he holds the belief that the scriptures were dictated by Yahweh to the Hebrews and early Christian authors who supernaturally were immune to human fallibility and as such they contain no error, even though it has been translated and transliterated over the centuries. What a fabulous team of divinely inspired, unerring stenographers! 

Books. Yes, books. Father has a lot of them for someone who thought of himself as a man of one book. Authors ranging from John Wesley, Charles Finney, William Kumuyi, Reinhard Bonnke, Benny Hinn, Billy Graham on topics ranging from miracles and missionary journeys, among others. On one evening, a couple of years later, unbeknownst to him, I stole a copy of Reinhard Bonnke’s Living a Life of Fire: An Autobiography where he recounts all the happenings of his early life through to adulthood. I was befuddled when I discovered that he didn’t believe that drinking alcohol was sinful. His argument was that it was drunkenness, not the taking of liquor, which was sinful. This didn’t sit well with me. Aren’t all “true believers” supposed to be teetotalers? Will this renowned evangelist be among those gnashing his teeth in that “lake that burns with fire and brimstone”? Anyway, who am I to determine the eternal destiny of a man who has greatly contributed to the spread of the Gospel on our continent, a continent filled with fetish practitioners in rural areas, dubious and avarice-driven businessmen and politicians in capital cities preying on the helpless, ignorant hoi polloi? Who am I to judge this man, I thought to myself. But deep down, a seed of skepticism had been sown in my inquisitive mind. 

Unlike most of my peers, I had my first smartphone when I turned 18. Still knee-deep in my doubts, I began to browse the internet in the hope of finding something to reassure me that the “fathers of faith” lived most the quintessential Christian life. Unfortunately, all I saw were scandals surrounding sexual improprieties, staged miracles, the use of scriptural passages to encourage their congregants to finance their own selfish ambitions like the acquisition of private jets. Jetmania, as I like to call it, was this craving desire among televangelists to get not just one but multiple private jets. Who were these folks preaching for? I asked myself. Definitely not the one who said that, “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head.”  

Jimmy Swaggart, a man whose musical abilities as a fine singer and pianist made me, at one time, think of becoming a musician and who, according to Wikipedia, “owns and operates the Sonlife Broadcasting Network,” was involved in a messy scandal that cost him most of his followership both on the airwaves and in the pews. One of the sex workers, with whom he was involved with, said, in an interview with Eileen Prose, that sometimes she and Swaggart would engage in coitus just after his revival meetings! Pffffffff, I hissed while watching. Heaven only knows what lascivious thoughts he was ruminating on while standing on the podium and rattling in tongues and was supposedly filled with the Holy Spirit! 

Well, maybe these ones are just the bad guys. The poorly trained chefs spoiling the sweet, savory soup of our Savior’s saving Gospel. Surely, if one tastes and sees that which is true, they wouldn’t be deceived by these religious charlatans. What then, I asked myself, is the true Gospel? The journey to find that lead me back to my father’s bookshelf which was becoming for me some sort of Garden of Gethsemane. A refuge from the army of doubts and whispers of reason, so to speak. I devoured with great reading appetite John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection and Billy Graham’s Just as I Am. After reading the accounts recorded in the former, of how the early Methodists received the “second blessing” and how their struggle to bring that doctrine into the wider Anglican establishment turned out to be futile, I wondered why the Lord would select a handful of people in 18th-Century England for his great purposes, and leave the rest of erstwhile Western European Christendom in the cave of state churches which often entailed rituals and liturgy without involving the heart. Was the Lord partial? Billy Graham’s role as a player in American politics and his association with devious fellows seem to be very un-Christian and unfitting for someone who saw himself as a soldier for Christ. 

Alas! I found myself amid a raging storm. Crisis of faith, so to speak. Nobody knew about my doubts. Reflecting on this new information I had just received, I came to the same conclusion as that of Voltaire, the time-honored French thinker of the Enlightenment era that, “Theology is the place where we find the madness of the human spirit in all its plenitude.” 

Many thanks to YouTube’s algorithm, I found Bart Ehrman’s videos on the historicity of Jesus, the errors found in Holy Writ and his journey from fundamentalist, Biblical literalism to unbelief. At first, I was scared to click: Was I becoming an apostate? Haven’t I already entertained a great deal of doubt? What if I burn for all eternity if I no longer have faith in the Messiah? Then that still voice of reason urged me to press on. Click. Watch. 

What made this Moody Bible Institute alumnus leave the faith?  

Dr. Ehrman’s story was the straw that broke the camel’s back with respect to my boyhood faith in Christ. His slow, calm voice and Mid-Western American accent were reassuring rather than the violent expressions we were made to think of backsliders. By the end of watching his videos, I felt strangely different. It was akin to a religious experience. What a devout Methodist will refer to as an Aldersgate experience though in my own case, it was the reverse of what happened to Wesley. I had examined myself and found out that I had no reason to believe. I was now an apostate. Reprobate. My faith in the “risen Lord” hadn’t just waned, it had utterly diminished. It wasn’t some sort of Alleluia moment though. 

Now, I think of myself as a cultural Christian. I still sing hymns and Christian songs. I can’t resist Ray Overholt’s He Could Have Called 10,000 Angels and Don Moen, my favorite childhood musician. He is still my go-to musician when I’m at my lowest. But no one knows about my unbelief. 

In my part of the world, many young men start small denominations and dress in Oral Roberts-styled suits. Tulsa, Oklahoma on African soil, I sometimes say to myself. One can only hope that their congregants can apply just a bit of skepticism to avoid the sickening tales we just heard and saw from the recently released BBC News Africa documentary, Disciples: The Cult of TB Joshua. The Lagos-based prophet (who died in June 2021) had been the center of controversy during his lifetime for his unorthodox methods. There had been whispers about his sexual misconduct, but they were dismissed. Needless to say, his deluded followers, even at this moment, believe that the BBC documentary is a staged conspiracy to tarnish the image of the deceased cleric. That is the exact response you get when people take leave of their senses and hold onto dogmas even when they don’t help them. Voltaire, as usual, was right when he said, “Those who make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Only the twin weapons of logic and free inquiry can set such minds free. I feel deep pity for the victims of that charlatan. I pray they find healing. 

Talking of healing, I am currently undergoing a healing process. Some call it deconstruction. For me, it is a process of learning and unlearning, of freeing myself from the dread of Hell and facing the grim reality of death. The comfort of seeing long-departed loved ones in heaven above and joining the celestial choir in eternal adoration and adulation in Paradise is no more. Honestly, I miss that. 

Recently, my father was called to deliver a eulogy during the funeral of one of our brothers in Christ. His homily was culled from the last chapter of St John’s Apocalypse where the Apostle talks of a “New Heaven and a New Earth” where God himself will “wipe every tear from their eyes.” Seeing his bereaved family members consoling themselves with (what I now consider as) meaningless words evoked, in me, mixed feelings of pathos for the grieving family and nostalgia with regard to my boyhood faith. 

I culled the line, “To every man upon this, death comes soon or late,” from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome and turned it into my screensaver to remind me of the brief time I have to spend on this island planet. In many ways, this makes me more responsible for my actions than when I was a devout Christian. Knowing that I would not see my loved ones forever, I express that love to them now. Tell them how much they mean to me now. This, in my opinion, is more noble than postponing everything in the hope of another life. 

As for those of us who have succeeded in freeing ourselves from religious dogma, I believe it is our responsibility to aid our fellow humans. To foster scientific reasoning and skepticism above revelation and harmful traditions. Let us create a brave, new world where the dignity and worth of the human person is the sole creed adhered to by all. Yes, we can have Paradiso now and not in the hereafter. Venceremos!.•

Source images courtesy of Ryan and jolygon via


Joseph Bassey is an aspiring writer who lives in Buea, Cameroon. Music and traveling are his favorite hobbies. At the moment, he doesn’t have any social media accounts and advocates for more face-to-face interactions.