Religion, Western Presence in Africa

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Religion, Western Presence in Africa

The earliest contact between Western religious presence and Africa occurred when various European nations, including Punics, Greeks, and Italians, colonized the northern regions, the Maghrib. Africa served as their breadbasket. Cultural and religious flows linked this region to the Roman Empire, whose intellectual centers included Alexandria. Europe was pagan at this time. The nationalist Donatists contested foreign religious domination, while Circumcellions displayed the resentment of indigenous peoples against exploitative agricultural merchants.


Egyptian religions dovetailed with Roman mystery cults to produce a variety of enduring religious traditions. In the seventh century c.e., Islamic bands disrupted the Christian presence and constructed a cultural and religious heritage that overwhelmed the Maghrib. Various Muslim dynasties consolidated Islamic influence and attacked Nubia, Ethiopia, and the Iberian peninsula. Ethiopia survived and Iberians initiated the reconquista crusades of the fifteenth century after the military failures of the crusades.

The search for a sea route to circumvent the Muslim monopoly of the spice and gold trades brought Africa into contact with the West. But the Portuguese occupied islands and coastal strips, trading for gold, pepper, and slaves from their feitoras (forts) and avoided the full cultural clash. The lucrative trade attracted other European countries into Africa specifically for commerce and the glory of their nations. Mercantalism as a nascent form of capitalism overawed the subterfuge of missionary enterprise. Only in the Kongo-Soyo kingdoms did they penetrate inland to establish an ornamental Christianity based on court alliance. Popular religion represented by Beatrice Vita Kimpa, who claimed to be possessed by St. Anthony, and her ngunza (divinatory) cult predominated.

Gold trade declined as the pull of the Atlantic slave trade shifted the pattern of Western presence in the seventeenth century. African middlemen, colluding with Europeans, prosecuted internal wars and increased the appetite for gin and manufactured goods that served as the medium of exchange. In the ensuing rivalry, the Danes, Dutch, French, and English established more than twenty-one forts in West Africa, displaced the Iberians, and enlarged the scale of Western presence by the eighteenth century. Christianity survived mainly in the forts until the nineteenth century when the combination of abolitionism, evangelical revival, and imperialism reshaped the scale and nature of Western presence: administrative officers, missionaries, commercial companies, educationists—surged with the intention to establish Western administrative and judiciary structures, a new economy, and Western civilization—mediated through Christianity.

Negative attitudes toward African political structures, religions, cultures, and worldview intensified after 1885 when European nationalist rivalry led to the partition of Africa. Armchair theorists provided the intellectual arsenal; enlightenment worldview supported new technologies, values, and ideas. Western presence created fundamental shifts as conquests and colonization destroyed autonomous African development. Colonialism was a process, an ensemble of institutional mechanisms created to protect European interests with violence, and a culture that regulated the material and mental lives of victims. Christianity domesticated colonial values through translation of the Bible into vernacular, education, and charitable institutions.


The end of colonialism started in the 1960s but its impact endured, especially the attack on indigenous African worldviews. African cultures vary widely but possess a recognizable structure of a worldview. Africans share a cyclical perception of time and a three-dimensional perception of space. Time is measured as events, kairos. Life moves from birth through death to a reincarnation or return. Rites of passage celebrate each phase: naming, puberty, membership in secret societies for youths in age grades, participation in adult roles, membership in adult secret societies, death, first and second burial rites, journey through the ancestral world and back to the human world. The world is divided into the sky inhabited by the Supreme Being and powerful deities (thunder, moon, lightning). The earth is divided into land and water. The Earth Mother controls various spirits: nature (rocks, trees, hills, caves), human, evil, and professional/guardian spirits. In the water, marine spirits rule.

According to the African worldview, the ancestral world is a mirror of the human world; spirits continuously cross the frontiers. Human spirits become ancestral depending on how they lived and died: Those who died with strange diseases, were struck down by lightning, or committed suicide are punished for wickedness and may not reincarnate. They become malevolent spirits that haunt farm roads. Families honor the dead with proper rituals because they are "living-dead" who protect their families. Ancestors are feared because offending them brings bad luck and punishment. It is a charismatic, precarious worldview sustained by religious values, rituals, and sacrifices that afford the powers of the benevolent gods for warding off the malevolent ones and witchcraft.

Festivals follow the agricultural cycle to turn daily human life into sacred activities and renew covenants with the gods of the fathers. Salient environmental ethics emanate from a sacred perception of land and a holistic world. Salvation has immediacy, solid, and material context: people seek for healing, security, protection, fertility, wealth, and harmony with other human beings and world of nature. Religion serves to explain, predict, and control space-time events. Spirits cause events and reshape life trajectories because what is seen is made of things not seen.

Enlightenment worldview essayed to destroy African cultures and their unique worldview and installed new scientific religions like Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and Eckanakar. Cultural transplantation ignored the fact that the biblical worldview that shaped Western imagination resonates prominently with African worldviews: Though the biblical worldview perceives time (kronos) as linear, measured in the abstract, it recognizes kairotic time and a three-dimensional space. It is charismatic because supernatural forces control and imbue human social and political realities with moral quality. Its rituals, prohibitions, symbols, the power attributed to blood, word, and name (onomata), resonate in African worldviews and provide pathways for inculturation.

In culture contact, receivers are hardly passive; they exercise agency, and appropriate through selection and reconstruction. In the twentieth century, Christianity grew massively in Africa by providing answers to questions raised in the indigenous worldviews. Local identities contested global processes because the broken indigenous worldviews had questions that the enlightenment worldview could not answer.

In the twenty-first century indigenous religions remain resilient; but emergent religions proliferate because Africans seek religions that would better perform the functions of the old religions. Africans seek religious structures that are based on a wealth of indigenous knowledge.

see also Missionaries, Christian, Africa; Religion, Western Perceptions of Traditional Religions; Slave Trade, Atlantic.


Appiah, Anthony. In My Father's House. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Magesa, Laurenti. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.

Roberts, Andrew D., ed. The Colonial Moment in Africa: Essays on the Movement of Minds and Materials, 1900–1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Sanneh, Lamin. Encountering the West: Christianity and the Global Cultural Process. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993.

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Religion, Western Presence in Africa

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Religion, Western Presence in Africa