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Is African Christianity just 'African culture'?

Is African Christianity just 'African culture'?

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


26 April 2017

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2667/7


Meyer, Birgit. 1998. “‘Make a Complete Break with the Past.’ Memory and Post-Colonial Modernity in Ghanaian Pentecostalist Discourse.” Journal of Religion in Africa 28 (3): 316–49. doi:10.2307/1581573.

Newell, Sasha. 2007. “Pentecostal Witchcraft: Neoliberal Possession and Demonic Discourse in Ivoirian Pentecostal Churches.” Journal of Religion in Africa 37 (4): 461–90. doi:10.1163/157006607×230517.

Other readings

Omenyo, Cephas. 2011. “New Wine in an Old Wine Bottle?: Charismatic Healing in the Mainline Churches in Ghana.” In Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, edited by Candy Gunther Brown, 231–50. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Werbner, Richard. 2011. Holy Hustlers, Schism, and Prophecy: Apostolic Reformation in Botswana. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Other media

Banerjee, Neela. 2007. “A Midnight Service Helps African Immigrants Combat Demons.” The New York Times, December 18, sec. National. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/18/us/18witchcraft.html.

This week's topic

This week we are talking about Christianity in Africa. There is a lot there.

  • Saint Augustine, for instance, is the first African saint.
  • Then there's Naomi Haynes's observations from Zambia.
  • Did you know that some African priests have been taking sabbaticals in US churches because there are so few priests there?
  • And when the Episcopal Church in the US chose to ordain a gay bishop, some dioceses opposed to this decided to join a new fellowship of Anglicans in which they would be supervised by African spiritual leaders.
  • Albert Schweitzer, a man whose name is synonymous with humanitarianism, was a medical missionary in Gabon.
  • Of course he wasn't the first. When European powers started carving up Africa into colonies, they also brought their own religions, and missionaries encouraged people to join by offering schools and medicine.

So, yeah, it's a big topic. Let's narrow it down.

A narrow topic

  • Given that European imperialism has led to so many changes, and continues to be so important to contemporary societies, we can focus on European Christianity in postcolonial African societies.

Within this topic, though, there is also a lot of diversity. There are:

  • the so-called mainline churches, derived from missionary churches, e.g. Omenyo's cases.
  • African Independent Churches, usually founded by local leaders, e.g. “apostolic” churches in Zimbabwe studied by Matthew Engelke.
  • Pentecostal-charismatic churches, e.g. Nsofu in Zambia, or the people described by Meyer.

Explaining African Christianity and its diversity

Here are some key terms I'd like us to think about:

  • Domination, especially colonial domination
  • Globalization
  • Syncretism

But I'd also like us to take a critical approach to these. Just because we can label something does not mean we really know what it is. Meyer says that when you look at African Christianity, take nothing for granted. Just as soon as you think you understand it, it changes!

A brief history: Some of the first Christians were African

  • St Philip and the Ethiopian official: “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36)
  • Coptic Christians
  • St Augustine

A brief history: European Christian and racism

  • European intellectual history is plagued by its reliance on Biblical chronology, or the belief that you can figure out history from the Bible.
  • In this chronology, African peoples were the descendants of Ham, who had been marked by God.
  • Europeans used the Bible (as history) to imagine that non-Western people were separated from God's plan for humanity, and it was up to European colonial powers to bring the Gospel to the “heathens.”
  • Many missionaries also did think that they were simply carrying out the same work as the Apostles, St Patrick, and the Irish missionaries to England. Were they being humble? Or just giving each other high fives for being humble? To be honest, I'm not really sure.

A brief history: On a mission from God

  • The first missions from Europe to the African continent were Portuguese. As with their ventures into other regions, they wanted to spread Christianity, for its own sake, and for reasons of establishing a common language with other people for purposes of cooperation and trade. And slavery. Converts to Christianity in many cases became slaves, and vice versa, often with the permission of local elites.
  • It was not until the 19th century when European Protestant missions came. In this case they were working in the shadow of colonialism. they established schools and missions to minister to people to alter their culture and to, in their minds, improve them.
  • 19th century missions in Africa were motivated by religious revivals in Europe and elsewhere.

A brief history: Beatrice Kimpa Vita

  • The introduction of Christianity into African societies was never simply a one-directional movement. Even when the Portuguese came to the Kongo Kingdom (on the eastern coast of present-day Dem Rep Congo and Angola, south of the Congo River), a female convert to Christianity, Beatrice Kimpa Vita, received a vision that inspired her to start her own church.
  • In her early life, Vita was trained as a medium. She said that St Anthony possessed her and allowed her to travel to heaven to speak directly with God.
  • Her prophecy told her to unite all Kongo people under a new king, to destroy all idols, including the missionaries' icons. She said that Jesus, Mary and St Francis were all born in Kongo.
  • With the support of the Portuguese monks, the king ordered her tried as a witch and heretic and she was burned at the stake in 1706.

A brief history: John of the wilderness

  • In the 1930s in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), a man named Shoniwa was having headaches. Then suddenly he had a vision one night that he was a John the Baptist for Africans. He went into the bush for 40 nights, and took the name Johane Masowe (John of the Wilderness).
  • He began to preach to rural communities of his new message from God. Give up witchcraft and magic. Stop adultery and stealing. Polygamy is OK.
  • And, he said, we don't need the Bible. Africans, he preached, did not have books until the whites came. God will speak to Africans purely through direct revelation.
  • And rather than simply learning the lessons of the Bible from teachers, they would live their faith in their own communities. This small movement in the colonial period drew people from many different cultural groups, and has today led to a large number of very prominent churches in southern Africa, called apostolic churches (see Engelke 2007).

Questions and answers

  • What are some research questions we can ask about Johane Masowe and Masowe Apostolic Churches?
    • A good research question will have more than one answer, and each answer will need an argument to explain why it is right.
  • What are some possible answers, or thesis statements, that we can pose in response to these questions?

The origins of Pentecostalism

The Asuza Street Revival, led by William Seymour, 1906-1909:

Men and women would shout, weep, dance, fall into trances, speak and sing in tongues, and interpret their messages into English. In true Quaker fashion, anyone who felt "moved by the Spirit" would preach or sing. There was no robed choir, no hymnals, no order of services, but there was an abundance of religious enthusiasm. (Synan 1997: 98)

How Pentecostalism differs from other holiness churches

  • The receipt of Pentecost, or a baptism of the Spirit.
  • Very loose organization, and very egalitarian. Anyone can preach or minister.
  • Many small churches, often completely independent, communicating through various media.
  • Use of mass media, including films, radio and television, from very early on.

The global movement of Pentecostalism

  • Spreads through grass-roots networks.
  • Paradoxically both world-making and world-breaking (Robbins 2004).

Pentecostal churches in Africa

Pentecostalism came to African societies relatively early in its history. One good example is the Christ Apostolic Church of Nigeria, founded in 1918.

In these churches, believers became born-again Christians. They received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the gift of healing.

Are Pentecostal and Independent churches different?

Independent Pentecostal
founded by African converts introduced from abroad
syncretic reject traditions
rural urban
resist cultural domination “progressive”, “modernist”

But Birgit Meyer (2004) argues that actually there's a lot of crossover. They only look different.

Why do foreign observers use these classifications if they are so fuzzy?

In a 2004 review article on Pentecostalism in Africa, Meyer argues that the distinction between Independent and Pentecostal churches really has more to do with the theories that outside observers use to understand African religion.

In the middle of the 20th century, people were interested in the impact of colonialism on indigenous African societies. Some interpretations of this centered one of these two concepts

  • African societies find ways to resist colonial domination.
  • African religious practices mix indigenous and foreign elements, also known as syncretism.

In more recent years, people have moved to theories of globalization as new explanation.

  • African religion is a form of “alternative modernity”
  • Pentecostal Christianity allows people to participate in global, transnational identities.

Meyer argues that all of these religious types, Independent and Pentecostal, are really just variations on a theme. The concepts scholars bring to them are different.

Witchcraft and sorcery

Many cultures throughout the world find invisible causes for otherwise material, physical events, like illness, death and misfortune. Let's call any kind of belief of this nature magic.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard, an anthropologist who studied the people who live in what is today South Sudan, has been very influential in helping anthropologists think about magic in social terms.

Key points about witchcraft and sorcery

Some key points:

  • Witchcraft is mentioned every day, and invoked to explain any number of bad things, from minor incidents to death. “Witchcraft is not less anticipated than adultery” (which is also common) (Evans-Pritchard 1976 [1937]: 19).
  • Witchcraft belief coexists with reason and logic. When the granary collapsed on top of a person, and people saw that termites had eaten away the posts, they reasoned that termites made the granary fall, but a witch made sure it fell on that person at that time (Evans-Pritchard 1976 [1937]: 22).
  • Witchcraft doesn't explain everything: when people commit certain acts, like lying and adultery, they cannot claim that they have been bewitched (ibid.: 26). Similarly, sickness that results from breaking a taboo is not caused by a witch (ibid.: 28).
  • Witchcraft comes from an organ; one is born a witch, and one inherits from the mother and mother's brother. Sorcery by contrast is learned. “A witch performs no rite” (ibid.: 1).
  • If someone's witchcraft causes death, then the witch is killed in vengence (ibid.: 5).

Witchcraft and sorcery beliefs are common

Many societies have very similar beliefs. We can speak of these beliefs as forming a package, because they often go together too.

Some key variations:

  • Is the witch an “insider” or an “outsider”?
  • Is the witch typically male or female?
  • Is witchcraft always unintented or just covert?

Witchcraft: a gold mine for social theory

Social anthropologists loved talking about witchcraft and sorcery. It seemed a perfect test case for their ideas about social function:

  • Witchcraft and sorcery functions in relation to ideas about egalitarianism. Only equals bewitch each other (Fortune 1932).
  • Witchcraft is a way of mediating social conflicts (Nadel 1952).
  • Witchcraft is a collective representation of deviance itself, the “standardized nightmare” of the society (Wilson 1951: 313).

Witchcraft exist in an equilibrium, and is part of a process of maintaining social equilibrium.

Witchcraft has not gone away

People have long debated the persistence and growth of these beliefs in the postcolonial period.

Some, like Comaroff and Comaroff (1999), argue that they are not a belief in magic at all, but a diagnosis of the real workings of neoliberal global capitalism in Africa.


Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. 1999. “Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Postcolony.” American Ethnologist 26 (2): 279–303. doi:10.1525/ae.1999.26.2.279.

Engelke, Matthew. 2007. A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. 1976. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Abridged edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fortune, R. F. 2013. Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of the Western Pacific. Routledge.

Meyer, Birgit. 2004. “Christianity in Africa: From African Independent to Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (1): 447–74. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143835.

Nadel, S. F. 1952. “Witchcraft in Four African Societies: An Essay in Comparison.” American Anthropologist 54 (1): 18–29. doi:10.1525/aa.1952.54.1.02a00040.

Robbins, Joel. 2004. “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (1): 117–43. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.061002.093421.

Synan, Vinson. 1997. The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Wilson, Monica Hunter. 1951. “Witch Beliefs and Social Structure.” American Journal of Sociology 56 (4): 307–13.

A guide to the unit

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