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Milton C. Sernett

The religious odyssey of peoples of African descent in British North America began as a complex interplay of forced acculturation, voluntary adaptation, and assimilation to the dominant European Protestant Christian culture. After the Revolutionary War, African American Christians in the newly founded United States increased in number as the result of the evangelical revivalism of the era. Slaves voiced their longing for freedom in the preached word and spirituals, and met secretly for worship in what has been called “the invisible institution.” Independent black churches, mostly Baptist, began in the South in the mid–eighteenth century, though few survived the restrictions on freedom of assembly imposed following the Denmark Vesey insurrection in 1822 and Nat Turner's uprising in 1831. Approximately one in seven of the nearly four million African Americans held in slavery as the Civil War began belonged to the predominantly white and Protestant denominations Celebrating emancipation as ...


African peoples have created hundreds of distinct religions that, despite centuries of contact with Islam and Christianity, remain important both in Africa itself and to followers in the Americas and in Europe. Approximately half of Africa's current population identify themselves as Muslim. A smaller number identify themselves as Christian or as followers of indigenous African religions, and small groups (under one million each) identify themselves as Jewish or Hindu. This essay focuses on those religions created by African peoples south of the Sahara. While there is considerable diversity in African religions, this essay will emphasize their commonalities.


Edmund Abaka

The ancestors are those who have departed and joined those who had departed earlier for the world of the dead. They constitute the linchpin of African traditional religion. It is to the ancestors that the living look for succour in times of trouble, favor in the event of adversity and difficulties, and blessings whenever a new enterprise is to be undertaken. The ancestors are venerated, not worshipped, for the help that they provide to the living. Specific festivals such as the Adae of the Akan of Ghana are designed to propitiate the ancestors.

In African traditional religion the Supreme Being ranks first among all powers The Supreme Being is given various names in various societies Second in the hierarchy are the deities or the lesser gods who are considered messengers or vice regents of the Supreme Being They represent various manifestations of the Supreme Being and do his bidding Although ...


Funso Afolayan

The word àṣộ (or àshe.) among the Yoruba-speaking people of West Africa and of the African Diaspora in the Americas and other places, means “power,” “authority,” “command,” “energy,” or “life force.” The concept of àṣộ is an affective, foundational, albeit enigmatic, principle that informs religious, social, political, artistic, and philosophical discourses among the Yoruba. Àṣẹ is believed to originate from Olodumare, the Supreme Being of the Yoruba. As the bestower of life and virtue, Olodumare is the very embodiment of àṣộ. As a vital energy, àṣộ sustains all things, whether animate or inanimate, deities, spirits, ancestors, humans, animals, plants, rivers, mountains, rocks, caves, and many more. Intangible and intractable voiced words, eye flashes, a wink, a wave of the hand, and other visual and voiced expressions, such as songs, praises, incantations, chants, curses, and everyday conversations, become powerful and potent as a result of their infusion with àṣộ ...


Debra L. Klein

master bata drummer and broker of Yoruba culture, was born on 6 August 1949 in the town of Erin-Osun in present-day Osun State, Nigeria. Ayankunle was born into a large extended family of traditional bata (double-headed, conically shaped drum ensemble) and dundun (double-headed, hourglass-shaped drum ensemble with tension straps) drummers. His father was Ige Ayansina and his mother was Awero Ayansina. Yoruba drumming lineages train their children in the art and profession of bata and dundun drumming. These families celebrate and worship orisa Ayanagalu (the spirit of the drum). Children born into an Ayan (drum family) lineage are given names beginning with the Ayan prefix, such as Ayankunle.

Passed down from generation to generation bata is a five hundred year old drumming singing and masquerade tradition from southwestern Nigeria The fifteenth century reign of Sango marks the earliest documented use of bata drum ensembles in royal contexts One of the ...


Edison Carneiro was born and lived in Brazil's northeastern state of Bahia. Unlike many mestiços (people of indigenous and European descent) from his generation who denied their African origins, Carneiro dedicated his studies to the customs and traditions of the descendants of Africans in Brazil, particularly regarding religious ritual. This was pioneering work at the time, when African religions were still repressed by the Brazilian government. Carneiro is considered to be the first person to systematically record the practices, beliefs, and history of the Afro-Brazilian people. Among the rituals developed by Afro-Brazilians, Carneiro identified the Nagô rituals as the only authentic variant of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé, as opposed to the Bantu rituals. In his search for the pure African religion, he considered the Bantu sect to be a degenerated form of African religion.

Carneiro combined his studies with a strong political activism He participated in the ...


N. Gregson Davis

Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) was a major literary figure, statesman, and intellectual leader, both in the francophone Antilles and in the international arena, from the middle of the twentieth century. As a young social activist, he played a formative role in the articulation of the seminal concept of négritude, a neologism that he is credited with having invented. As literary artist he has achieved global recognition for his poetry and lyric drama in signal ways; for example, his lyric volume Corps Perdu (Lost Body) was published in a deluxe edition with illustrations by Pablo Picasso in 1950; several of his poetry collections won literary prizes in metropolitan France (e.g., the Prix René Laporte for Ferrements [1960], and the Grand Prix National de la Poésie for moi, laminaire … [1982]). La Tragédie du roi Christophe The Tragedy of King Christophe a play based ...


Dickson D. Jr. Bruce

Born in Michigan, James D. Corrothers was raised in the predominantly white community of South Haven by his paternal grandfather, a man of Cherokee and Scotch-Irish ancestry. He moved to Muskegon at age fourteen, supporting himself and his grandfather. Shortly thereafter he moved to Indiana, then to Springfield, Ohio, working as a laborer. There, in his teens, he began his literary career, publishing a poem, “The Deserted School House”, in the local newspaper.

Corrothers's literary career received a boost when, at eighteen, he relocated to Chicago. Working in a white barber shop, he met journalist-reformer Henry Demarest Lloyd and showed him some poems. Lloyd arranged for their publication in the Chicago Tribune, getting Corrothers a custodial job in the Tribune offices Corrothers was soon asked to do an article on Chicago s African American elite He was chagrined when the story appeared rewritten by a white reporter ...


Samson Fatokun

Most African traditional cosmological myths present the Supreme Being as the Creator of all things in heaven and on earth. African creation stories vary, however, in content from one culture to another. Common to all is the notion of the Supreme Deity as the Creator par excellence. The creative power of the Supreme Being is often reflected in the different names with which this Being is called. For instance, the Mende of Sierra Leone call this Being Ngewo. The name carries the meaning of “the Eternal One who rules from above,” and in that capacity the Being through whom all things came into being. The Akan and Ga of Ghana call Him Onyame and Nyonmo, respectively, meaning the “Bright, glorious God of heaven and earth, who is before and above all things,” or simply put, “the God of fullness or God of satisfaction” (Awolalu and Dopamu, pp. 42–43).

The names ...


Alexis Tengan

Death and the afterlife are two concepts that have always gone hand in hand in African cultural thought and practices as well as in the African mode of philosophical reflections and religious beliefs. The core meanings of these concepts, as retained in tradition and carried through the diverse cultural histories of Africa, relate to a general notion that all life, and not just human life, is commonly owned and shared by all living organisms and species. African tradition also holds that solidarity based on interdependence and the fostering of harmonious and culturally appropriate relations not only with one humankind but with all life forms within a common sphere of life encounter will ensure proper or good death at the most appropriate time. A good death will consequently ensure the most suitable and comfortable position among one’s ancestral kin in the afterlife or the world of the “living dead” (Mbiti).

In ...



Benson Mulemi

Dreams are experiences visualized in images, conversations, and mentally perceptible settings during sleep and may depict infeasible or improbable episodes in waking life. Nineteenth-century ethnologists and sociologists analyzed dreams as a basis for contrasting Western and non-Western systems of thought. They argued that the people in non-Western cultures could not distinguish between objective and subjective reality as depicted in their narratives and understanding of dreams. While Carl Jung, for instance, held that dreams in Western experience were analogous to reality in non-Western thought, Lévy-Bruhl hypothesized that dreams were more important than waking realities in non-Western societies. However, in African societies, dreams and their explanations are embedded in the time-honored indigenous cosmology and spirituality.

African worldviews have common aspects and some differences in the perceptions of the visible and invisible worlds The visible world is inhabited by human beings and other forms of biotic and nonbiotic entities The invisible world has ...


Douglas H. Johnson

Nuer prophet, was the son of and successor to the nineteenth-century prophet Deng Laka. Deng Laka was a Dinka refugee living among the Gaawar Nuer along the Zeraf Valley in what is now Jonglei state, South Sudan, in the mid-nineteenth century. His mother and sisters were sold into slavery by the slavers’ Gaawar ally, Nuaar Mer. Deng Laka, proclaiming seizure by the divinity Diu, organized a force of other disaffected Nuer, defeated and killed Nuaar Mer, and became the dominant leader of the Nuer in the Zeraf Valley. He was usually successful in raids against his southern Dinka neighbors, but he also attracted Dinka young men as his followers and married several Dinka wives. He defeated an invading Mahdist army in 1896, but his relations with the incoming Anglo-Egyptian government at the beginning of the twentieth century, while wary, were peaceful.

On Deng Laka’s death in 1907 his ...


Kathleen Sheldon

founder and leader of a Nigeria-based Christian sect known as the Cherubim and Seraphim Society, was born Abiodun Akinsowon in Porto Novo, Benin. She was the daughter of a Saro family with kin and business connections along the West African coast. Her father, Rev. B. A. Akinsowon, was pastor of a church in Porto Novo, where he also had commercial activities. Baptized into the Anglican Church in Lagos, Abiodun moved between Porto Novo, Ibadan, and Lagos and attended elementary school in Lagos until 1920. Though she had some training as a seamstress, she stayed with an aunt who was a market woman in Lagos and joined her as a trader.

Generally referred to as Abiodun, in 1925 she watched a Catholic religious procession in Lagos and fell into a trance that lasted for seven days She remained in a coma until Moses Orimolade Tunolase arrived he already had a ...



Phillips Jr. Stevens

Èshù (also Eshu-e.légbá, Eshu-e.légbára, and Le.gba), a character or concept in the cosmology of Yoruba and related peoples in southern Benin (formerly Dahomey) and Togo, has been called by non-Yoruba a “trickster” or “trickster god,” and by early missionaries, a “devil.” In fact, Èshù is an extremely complex concept, both a deity (òrìshà) and a principle, combining elements of deception, ambivalence, and social conscience.

The Western misunderstanding of Èshù s role probably derives from the efforts of early missionaries to find a counterpart to Satan in African cosmologies and to confirm the general European assumption that African peoples had been subverted by Satan were destined for hell and needed saving through conversion to Christianity They readily found such a character in Èshù He does indeed display some elements of the standard trickster character of folklore but Yoruba have such a character Àjàpá or Ìjàpá the tortoise and there ...



Charles Obafemi Jegede

John S. Mbiti once wrote:

According to some societies, individuals or the people as a body or through its chief or king may offend against God. For example, the Barundi believe that God gets angry with a person who commits adultery. The Bachwa believe that God punishes people who steal, neglect aging parents, commit murder or adultery. The Bavenda say that if their chief offends against God, He punishes the whole people with locusts, floods or other calamities.

(p. 206)

He succinctly argues that m ost African peoples accept or acknowledge God as the final guardian of law and order and of the moral ethical codes Therefore the breaking of such order whether by the individual or by a group is ultimately an offence by the corporate body of society p 206 For example before any major sacrificial ritual in any typical African society the priests usually inquire from the ...


Sterling Stuckey

folklorist and minister, was born in Society Hill, South Carolina, the son of Laurence Faulkner, a merchant and postmaster, and Hannah Josephine Doby, a midwife. The decade of his birth and earliest development was one of violent repression of blacks across the South, during which the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, propounded its “separate but equal” doctrine. The fact that both parents were enterprising contributed to a sense of security in William despite the brutal reality of night riders and Klansmen roaming the countryside. In addition, religion was a shield against hardship and a source of hope in his life. Raised in a Christian household, by age six he had taken John the Baptist as his hero.

By age nine, with the migration to Society Hill of the former slave and storyteller Simon Brown Faulkner was exposed to the artistic and spiritual qualities of ...


Isidore Lobnibe

Festivals have long been at the center of African cultural and social life. At the core of African social experience and indigenous knowledge systems are ceremonial events designed to mark critical moments such as the birth of a child, puberty or initiation into adulthood and secret society, marriage, and death. Since precolonial times, many Africans have celebrated Id al-fitr and Id al-kabir, Muslim gift-giving festivals that they embraced following the nineteenth-century West African Islamic Jihads. Calendric times are also marked by agricultural seasons, or taboo periods for the consumption of certain food products, to celebrate, ritualize, and privately or publicly mark the moment, with suitable observances to either pay homage to an individual or impress the significance of the dead and living members of the community (Turner).

The esoteric and sacred rituals displayed in African festivals have been documented in early nineteenth century European explorers chronicles missionary reports and ...



Hussein Ahmed

Ethiopian clairvoyant, was a native of Werre Himeno in west-central Wello, north Ethiopia. Shaykh Husayn was a clairvoyant of wide reputation who is said to have prophesied the occurrence of a number of events in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Not much is known about his early life and upbringing except that he received a limited amount of traditional Islamic education in various localities under several teachers. One can assume that he was informally introduced to the world of mysticism and other esoteric sciences that stimulated and inspired his later inclinations toward meditation and spiritual retreats. According to the brief biographical account compiled by Boggala, Shaykh Husayn’s father, Jibril, served as a murid novice of the celebrated scholar saint al Hajj Bushra Ay Muhammad d 1863 of Geta Qallu in eastern Wello for thirty years After receiving the blessings of al Hajj Bushra for his loyal services he moved ...



Richard A. Bradshaw

Central African religious leader whose prophetic vision and teaching of nonviolent resistance to foreign domination in the 1920s helped inspire the so-called Baya Revolt or Hoe Handle War (Biro Konggo Wara), was born Barka Ngainoumbey during the 1890s in the village of Seri-Poumba, near Bouar and the Cameroonian border in western Ubangi-Shari. His name is also spelled Karnou. His father, Gbayanga Ngabanan Ngaiwen, belonged to the Gbaya (Baya) ethnolinguistic group, and thus so did his son. Barka’s parents separated while he was still very young, and his mother took him back to her village with her. Little is known for certain about his youth, but it is said that as a teenager, Barka was initiated into the Labi cult, which is associated with the acquisition of certain extraordinary powers, and that Barka was known for his hunting and fishing skills.

It is said that when Barka went to ...