Is African Christianity just 'African culture'?

Is African Christianity just 'African culture'?

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)

26 April 2017

Available at


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.

This week's topic

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

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

A narrow topic

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

Explaining African Christianity and its diversity

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

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

A brief history: European Christian and racism

A brief history: On a mission from God

A brief history: Beatrice Kimpa Vita

A brief history: John of the wilderness

Questions and answers

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 global movement of Pentecostalism

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

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

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 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:

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 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.

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