African Religions, Old and New

Jane-Coleman Harbison

The scholarship on African religions is wide and expansive. One of its notable features is its interdisciplinary nature, pulling in scholars of anthropology, comparative religion, archaeology literature, material culture, and geography. Collectively this has the effect of influencing the directions of their respective fields and breaking down the barriers existing across disciplines. One of the key historiographical questions in the study of New World African religion concerns the scholarly fight over the degree to which African culture survived the turmoil of the middle passage and influenced a distinct African-American culture. While only one section of this bibliography is specifically dedicated to the origins debate, essentially every other category on this list tips its hat to the topic. The future of the field may lie in the effort to transcend the debate and examine other factors contributing to the formation of New World African religion, such as economy, politics, and race.

Old World African Religion

Awolalu, J. Omosade. Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites. London: Longman, 1979.

Awolalu is a Christian minister dedicated to properly historicizing and legitimizing indigenous religion. He represents a circle of African scholars of the 1960s and 70s who began writing on this topic from an anti-colonialist perspective. His work provides a broader historical context for the ritual of live sacrifice, which he argues has been widely misinterpreted by western scholars. Awolalu unpacks the animistic elements of the Yoruba religion while also arguing that animism does not constitute the entire Yoruba belief system.

Baum, Robert Martin. Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Baum’s book is one of the few historic studies exploring Precolonial African religion. Through examining the social histories of small religious communities in Senegal, Baum discusses how the transatlantic slave trade brought about a profound upheaval and disruption of daily life. He argues that 18th-century religious life responded rapidly to this trauma, whereas people showed decreased reverence to the Supreme being Emitai, and increased reverence for wealth and individual power. Baum’s methods include looking to oral tradition to understand the new cults and sprit shrines from the period.

Ellis, A. B. The Yoruba-speaking peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa. Oosterhous: Anthropological Publications, 1966.

This ethnographic study, first published in 1894, focuses mostly on contemporary African religious practices, although the beginning chapters include some history of the early modern period. The book contains information on Gods, rituals, proverbs and folk tales. Ellis pays particular attention to how tribal customs have changed over time, ultimately drawing conclusions about which groups of people are in higher stages of progress. There is almost no discussion of the slave trade or colonialism.

Gbadamosi, T. G. O., The Growth of Islam Among the Yoruba, 1841-1908. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1978.

As a groundbreaking work in the field of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, Gbadmosi’s book consists of a series of microstudies examining the various mechanisms at play in the conversions of each distinct sub-group of the diverse Yoruba people (Lagos, Ewo, Ipe, etc.) Gbadmosi focuses on specificities rather than generalized larger patterns of conversions. Still, he does identify some trends. He concludes Yorubas were a tolerant society. When leaders and Kings converted to Islam, it was not a requirement for the people to follow suite, though they often did. Gbadamosi argues the study of the patterns of conversion to Islam can also offer something to learn about the nature of indigenous faiths as well.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. Religion and Society in Central Africa: the BaKongo of Lower Zaire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

In this historic ethnography covering five centuries of religious history in the Congo, MacGaffey describes what he views as the inextricable links between religious ritual practice and political economy. He discusses a cosmology based more on ritual than on ideas. Central African religion was ultimately an instrument of power, as the display in its exercise points to the social status of the practitioner—from chiefs to witches. The work is widely cited by scholars of New World African religion.

Parrinder, Edward Geoffrey. West African Religion: Illustrated from the Beliefs and Practices of the Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, and Kindred Peoples. London: Epworth Press, 1949.

Parrinder was an anthropologist and scholar of comparative religion who wrote in conversation with historians, specifically Melville Herskovits. His book seeks to debunk many of the theories and interpretations of Ellis. Parrinder was an advocate for eliminating the words “fetishism” and “primitive” to refer to African polytheistic religion. He compared African religion to other religions, not as inferior developments, but as equally advanced.

Robinson, David. Muslim Societies in African History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Written in a post 9/11 context, this book speaks to the need to learn about Islam as a diverse and global religion. It is often described as a ‘teachable’ version of the scholarship Robinson has been writing since the late 1970s. Robinson questions the commonly recited narrative of Islam spreading from North African merchants, to Kings, to the common people.

The ‘Origins’ Debate and the Persistence of African Culture after the Middle Passage

Frazier, Edward Franklin. The Negro Family in the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1939.

Frazier was an African American sociologist who argued that African culture and religion did not survive the horrors of the middle passage in the transatlantic slave trade. He wrote that cultural upheaval of the trade itself and the violence of the ensuing forced labor was so damaging that there is next to no African influence on the make up and culture of black families in America. Although this claim has been voraciously contested since its inception, it was an incredibly important book at the time due to its tendency to force scholars to think about the intense psychological damage of the middle passage and the affect that it had on the rebuilding of (or the failure to rebuild) African society in America.

Frey, Sylvia and Betty Wood. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in The American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

This study of the African American conversion to Protestant Christianity looks beyond the issue of the middle passage and rather examines the cultural changes and adaptations that occurred towards the end of the 18th century. The book seeks to portray Africans as proactive rather than reactive in the formation of their religious identity, looking at conversion as a “reciprocal process” of cultural interaction.

Gomez, Michael. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Although stopping short of the claim that all vestiges of African culture were irradiated on the middle passage, Gomez does argue that African identity in the New World was nevertheless extremely fractured. The slaves of the American South arrived with diverse African ethnic backgrounds, and in order to survive the horrors of enslavement, they needed to form a new collective identity. In his final chapters, Gomez argues that white Christianity played a large role in filling the cultural void created by the middle passage. In the process of adapting to this new religion and reconstituting it as a black faith, the identity of African slave transformed from one of ethnicity to one of race.

Herskovits, Melville J. The Myth of the Negro Past. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941.

In the mid twentieth century, Melville responded to what he saw as decades of scholarship denying the presence of an African influence on American culture. His book debunks the myth of Africans as child-like and easily adaptable to horrible living conditions. Before Melville, most scholars assumed enslaved Africans were poorer and less intelligent than the Africans who remained on their home continent, and since the slaves came from diverse regions of Africa and mixed with each other upon their arrival, any authentic African culture was certainly eradicated. Melville also attacked the myth that in instances where whole tribes made the passage together, their civilization was too lowly and underdeveloped to survive.

Morgan, Philip. “The Cultural Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade: African Regional Origins, American Destinations and New World Developments.” Slavery and Abolition 18:1 (1997): 122-145.

Morgan’s essay presents a model for understanding slave identity as a three-pronged process of cultural development: adaptation, modification, and invention. Morgan steps slightly back into the Frazier camp, arguing that African ethnic identities were definitely significantly altered after the middle passage. He does not argue, however, that the enslaved persons simply absorbed the cultures of their masters. Morgan describes a process of ethno-genesis and religious syncretism where the slaves absorbed new influences without abandoning all African origins.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Raboteau uses the term “invisible institution” to describe the history of black religion under slavery. The book beings by distinguishing the religious experiences of slaves in North America from the heritage of those in Brazil and the Caribbean, where for various reasons, religious syncretism abounded in a way unseen in the United States. Raboteau articulates how in the American South, Christianity filled a cultural void for the black slaves without forcing them to adopt white mores. The obvious African influence on the black church can be seen through charismatic preaching styles and rhythmic dances of praise and worship. Raboteau’s book ultimately argues that the invisible institution undermined white power in the master-slave relationship.

Sweet, James. Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 2003.

Sweet departs from what he describes as the fashionable “Atlantic World” approach to the African Diaspora, arguing that scholars should place less emphasis on the process of creolization and greater emphasis on the influence of African culture on new world society. Sweet’s work on the similarities between Central African cosmologies and Brazilian slave religion highlights how the origins debate extends beyond the study of the British Atlantic.

Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. New York: 1992.

Thornton passionately engages with questions “concerning the exact way in which Africans have affected New World societies as cultural actors (as opposed to their undoubted role as workers).” His research supports the idea of Africans as active participants in their own history, as well as influential players in a broader Atlantic World. In his discussion of slave religion, Thornton disagrees with the assertion that slaves came from too many different ethnic backgrounds to maintain a common culture in the new world, arguing that that the majority of slaves in American came from only three distinct cultural zones united by common linguistic families: Upper Guinea, Lower Guinea, and Central Africa.

Religiously motivated resistance, revolt, rebellion and maroonage

Brown, Vincent. The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power In the World of Atlantic Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Brown examines the enormously high death rates in colonial Jamaica to form the basis of   his thesis on the “mortuary politics” at play in modes of slave resistance, emancipation, the growth of African Christianity, and the more recent memorialization and collective memory of the slave trade. Brown argues that slave rituals surrounding death had strong roots in Central African beliefs concerning the relationship between the living and the dead. The book includes an interesting account of the phenomenon of slave suicide as a mode of resistance, whereby death equated to a spiritual return to Africa.

Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French   Caribbean, 1787-1804. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Although Dubois’ work does not specifically address the topic of African religions, it is included in this list because of his interesting explanation of the role of secular virtues in the slave rebellions of Guadeloupe. Dubois downplays the significance of abolitionist movements on slave rebellions (religious influence) and emphasizes the impact of the French Revolution (secular influence). In the 1790s, slave rebels sided with revolutionary troops against a British occupation supported by French royalists. The book speaks to the religion of citizenship, where slaves embraced and fought for the universal rights guaranteed to them as Frenchmen. Dubois concludes by discussing the strong influence that the revolts in Guadeloupe had on the Haitian revolution in the next decade.

Frey, Sylvia. Water From the Rock: Black Resistance In A Revolutionary Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Frey examines the roles of slaves and free blacks in the American Revolutionary War, drawing conclusions about the influence of prewar period on the postwar ideologies of slave resistance.  Frey describes to the ‘triagonal’ nature of the conflict, where African slaves in the south used the chaos of war to their own advantage. Black slaves volunteered to fight for both the Americans and the British in the hopes of gaining their freedom, though many who sided with the British were at the ultimate disadvantage. When the British lost, the slaves were forced to return to their former masters, who had been willing to fight for their own liberty while curtailing the liberty of others. Frey argues that this hypocrisy did not go unnoticed. While the planters used Christianity to emphasize the paternalistic nature of slavery as a system of mutual obligations, the slaves used the church to create a distinct faith system, which resisted white authority.

Reis, Joao José. Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

This monograph on the urban slave uprising in Brazil recounts the story of the Male revolt. Reis argues this rebellion is distinguished in history by the Afro-Muslim influence of the organizers. Many of the leaders were among the recent African arrivals in the Americas, and as such they shared  strong Muslim faith which served as a uniting bond. However, Reis is careful to articulate that this was not a jihad or holy war. Although Muslims made up the bulk of the leadership, there were actually more non-Muslim slave rebels involved in the attack. Reis ultimately adds to the historiography by discussing the process in which Africans from different linguistic and religious backgrounds were able to reconcile differences and develop a common community goal.

Thornton, John. “African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion,” American Historical Review 96:4 (October 1991): 1101-113.

Thornton’s article is the first detailed look at the role played by African culture and religion in the Stono Rebellion of 1739. The article is valuable to historians not only for the argument about slave resistance, but also because of Thornton’s detailed description of Kongolese culture from 1680 to 1760. Thornton rejects the practice employed by many historians of relying upon the work of modern anthropologists in their study of African religion, favoring evidence from primary documents from the early modern period.

Young, Jason. Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.

Anthropology, Archaeology, and other disciplines

Fernándes Olmos, Margarite and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, eds. Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the Caribbean. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Pres, 1997.

This book of essays focuses on the theme of religious syncretism in the Caribbean. Most essays note the similarities while also discussing the differences of the various African-based belief systems throughout Latin America. The essays speak to the religions’ ability to transmit narrative and memory, as well as their processes of adaptation to hardship and change.

Murphy, Joseph M. Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

A modern anthropological study comparing Santeria, Candomblé, Vodou, Obeah and the black church in America. The book examines similarities in the ceremonies, rituals and            traditions of each religion.

Price, Richard. Alabi’s World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

In this work of historical anthropology, the reader is invited to participate in “the act of historical imagination,” where Price makes a “conscious effort to evoke a past world rather than simply to represent it.” Price uses a mix of oral histories, missionary accounts, and ethnographic studies to evoke the world of 18th century maroon community in Dutch Surinam. At the height of the widespread maroonage in the colony, 1 in 10 Africans lived in hidden villages buried in the rain forest. The book tells the story of Saramaka leader called Alabi, who led a fight for independence against the Dutch, negotiated a fragile truce, and ultimately attempted to convert his followers to Christianity.

Samford, Patricia. Subfloor Pits and the Archaeology of Slavery in Colonial Virginia. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Samford is an archeologist writing in conversation with historians of slave religion. Her research concerns the information pulled from fragments of material culture excavated from archeological digs at three Virginia plantations. She specifically explores the symbolic meaning of objects found within the subfloor pits of slave cabins. While these root cellars are traditionally believed to only serve the domestic function of storing vegetables and perishables, Samford found that these pits often contained charms and amulets. Samford argues that the subfloor pits were spaces of ritual resistance where slaves could hide forbidden items and create a spiritual space for preservation of African culture and religion.

Voeks, Robert. Sacred Leaves of Candomblé: African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

Voeks, a professor of Geography, discusses Candomblé ethnobotany as a means to tell the story of African victors transcending European cultural dominance. He writes about the consistency, continuity, and persistence of African religion and healing tradition after the middle passage. Voeks argues that African culture was able to survive due to a process of adaptation where Africans “were willing to absorb, eagerly without apology, relevant spiritual and folk medicinal practices from their European captors and their Amerindian coworkers.” He uses the metaphor of a bending culture rather than a breaking. Voeks asserts that the practice of Candomblé actually became more homogenized in Brazil than it had been among the various Yoruba tribes in Africa, as the new world context led to the breaking down of linguistic and cultural barriers.

Compilations and General Studies

Block, Kristen. Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

In a series of four microhistories of ordinary Caribbean lives, Block unpacks the idea of “Christianity as a force for social inclusion and exclusion” in the early modern period. Amidst the explosion of capitalism in the Carribbean region, Block argues Christianity was used by poor whites, free blacks and slaves as a tool to navigate a changing world and to search for opportunities for advancement. Block uses the Caribbean lens to show how shifts in economic thought from mercantilism to proto-capitalism saw a parallel shift in religious identity from a Catholic hierarchy based on communion and solidarity to a more individualized form of salvation. Block also traces “the early modern shift form religion as a primary basis for political and social identity to that of race.”

Edmonds, Ennis Barrington and Michelle A. Gonzalez. Caribbean Religious History: An   Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

This collection of essays compiles one of the first comprehensive studies of African-based religions in the Caribbean. Beginning with the early modern period and the work of the Spanish missions, the remaining essays cover a range of topics from the religious syncretism of Vodou and Santeriá to the legitimation of twentieth-century Rastafarianism.

Falola, Toyin, and Matt D. Childs, eds. The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

The essays in this compilation focus specifically on the Yoruba people on both sides of the Atlantic between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. A common theme addressed by all authors is the challenge presented to Price and Mintz that the slave trade caused a crowding and melding of African cultures, eradicating distinct forms of language and identity. By focusing only on the Yoruba, the essays show how distinct cultural groups were indeed able to survive and transplant practices and beliefs across the Atlantic Ocean.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. Religion and Slavery. New York: Garland, 1989.

This anthology is part of an eighteen-volume set called Articles on American Slavery, which compiles “nearly four hundred of the most important articles on slavery in the United States.” Essays by Eugene D. Genovese, Albert Raboteau and other noted scholars address themes relating to the origins, debate, the rise of the black church, proslavery Christianity, and slave conversions. Although it is not a good resource for understanding the state of current scholarship, the anthology provides interesting insight into the state of the field in the late 1980s.

Heywood, Linda, ed. Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

A collection of essays by Joseph C. Miller, John Thornton, Linda Heywood, Mary Karash, Jane Landers and others covers a range of topics relating to Central African culture throughout the Atlantic world. Several of the chapters specifically address the issue of slave religion, “The Great Porpoise-Skull Strike: Central African Water Spirits and Slave Identity in Early-Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro” by Robert W. Slenes and “Twins, Simbi Spirits and Lwas in Kongo and Haiti” by Wyatt MacGaffey.