In the previous units you have studied the general introduction to religion and a general introduction to African Traditional Religion. In this unit, you will now study the trends about the study of African Traditional Religion.


By the end of this unit you should be able to:

  1. discuss the trends in the study of African Traditional Religion
  2. list some of the scholars that have been involved in the study of the religion evaluate the current trend in the study of African Traditional Religion.


3.1 Early European Christian Missionaries

Early European Christian missionaries as well as colonial soldiers and administrators who worked in Africa are credited with having made the first real effort to study African Traditional Religion and culture. They were motivated largely by curiosity, personal interest and by the practical objective of gaining some knowledge about Africans in order to work and communicate with the host groups. Christian missionaries in particular, needed to understand the language, basic ideas and concepts of the host groups in order to proclaim and preach the Gospel and thereby convert the people. A couple of them, especially those of the British and North American extraction, did in fact, spend sometime
with liberated African slaves in an effort to acquire a working knowledge of the culture and religion of their respective groups. With the help of local interpreters and assistants, some were able to translate hymnbooks and catechism texts in local African languages. Rev. Thomas Jefferson for example, compiled a dictionary of the Yoruba language and wrote sympathetically about the traditional religion of the people in 1857. Several other missionaries who did not publish works

supplied descriptive accounts of traditional religious materials in the periodic reports they sent back to the headquarters of their religious congregations, or sponsoring agencies. Most of those reports are still available in archives in Europe. Several pioneer colonial soldiers and administrators also studied aspects of the tradition of different African groups. Major Arthur G. Leonard, Percy A. Talbot in Nigeria, and Captain R.S. Rattray in Ghana are typical examples. Major Leonard for instance, was a British colonial soldier from Scotland who spent about ten years mainly in south-eastern Nigeria, 1895 – 1905. A year after his departure from Nigeria, he published a book titled; The Lower Niger and Its Tribes (1906). It was a detailed discussion of aspects of the religious beliefs, ritual practices and customs of the peoples of the lower Niger River area.

Trained and Government-Sponsored Ethnographers

The challenges of governance had prompted several local colonial administrators to seek the assistance of trained ethnographers and anthropologists. They were needed to provide vital data and information about the culture and customs, institutions, beliefs and values of indigenous groups to aid administration. In some territories like Nigeria, Kenya and Sudan, colonial officials were struggling hard to contain actual revolts and violent conflicts. The women of Aba in south-eastern Nigeria had actually revolted against the imposition of taxation in 1929. There was therefore, a felt-need in many parts of the Continent for accurate information about the people and their cultures to help in the formulation and implementation of appropriate policies.

A strong impulse in favour of engaging the services of experts in the colonial field was equally felt at the international level. After the First World War the focus of colonial interest shifted from the acquisition to the maintenance of control, and there began the first stirrings about development as a consciously-induced policy. Also, the respected anthropologist and propagator of the field work approach in social anthropology; Bronislav Malinoswki had insisted that people concerned with developments in Africa must first understand the workings of the societies with which they were in contact.

A number of institutions were inaugurated, including The International Institute of African Languages and Cultures in 1926. It was later known as the International African Institute (I.A.I.) by representatives of scientific, missionary and official colonial bodies. It had Lord Lugard as its first chairman. Its defined objective was to bring about a closer association of scientific knowledge and research with practical affairs.

Several trained ethnographers and anthropologists got either recruited, or financially sponsored by the Colonial Office to provide accurate information to bolster the effort of local colonial governments. The development greatly benefited the study of African Traditional Religion. Some ethnographers delved specifically into certain aspects of the indigenous religion, particularly those provoking debate at the time. M.D.W. Jeffreys and W.R.G. Horton for example, contributed their findings on the origin of certain African traditional beliefs and symbols, as well as the debate on the belief in God respectively. Some other discussed issues like witchcraft and the belief in the ancestors.

Researchers like S.F. Nadel, K. Little, Monica Wilson, Mary Douglas and Godfrey Lienhardt incorporated substantial materials from the indigenous religious tradition in their respective works on other aspects of the indigenous culture of Africans they had worked on. Charles K. Meek, one of the official ethnographers who researched into traditional Igbo social, political institutions and legal systems published a book titled Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe (1957).

The work of the anthropologists affected Christian missionaries in more ways than one. First, it helped to improve their attitude towards African traditional religion in general. A clear evidence of the better appreciation of traditional beliefs and practices was the incipient effort made to adapt certain local elements by a number of missionary church groups. More relevantly, several expatriate missionaries who had spent many years in Africa like Rev. George T. Basden (spent about forty years in Igboland), were encouraged to publish their studies of the beliefs and customs of the various groups and areas where they had lived and worked. Interestingly, the approach of the research of most of these missionary writers resembled very much the method of the ethnographers and anthropologist. The essays on the traditional African ideas and beliefs about God published in the edited anthology by Rev. Edwin W. Smith; African Ideas of God (1950) is a typical example.


What are the contributions of the early Christian missionaries to the study of African Traditional Religion?

3.2 The Effort of Early African Writers and Scholars

The entry of indigenous African writers and scholars into the study of African traditional religion was a significant development in the evolution of the subject. The group includes African writers and scholars of the pre-independence era as well as ordained ministers and clerics with Christian theological background of training belonging to both the Francophone and Anglophone traditions. Given the prominent place of religion in traditional African life and culture, it was not a surprise that many early western-educated Africans should discuss and incorporate aspects of it in their publications.

Most of them were strong nationalist writers and include people like Mbonu Ojike, J.B. Danquah, and Kenneth Kaunda. They were keen to disabuse the minds of Europeans concerning the widely publicised inferiority of the black race and the distortion of their culture in the writings of colonial writers and some Christian missionary authors. Danquah (1944) in particular,was furious with those European authors who sought to discriminate against the belief of indigenous Africans in God. He strongly contended that Africans have as much genuine belief in God as Europeans.

The aim of the first and second generations of ordained African cleric- scholars with Christian theological background of training may be more religious than political. But, like the nationalists they also tried to correct misrepresentations of the indigenous culture in western scholarship, as well as show that Africa has viable traditional religious ideas, ritual practices, institutions and values that could be adapted to benefit Christianity in the Continent.

Vincent Mulago and A. Kagame were among the first generation ordained African cleric-scholars of the Francophone background who took up the study of Bantu cosmology from where the Belgian
missionary author, Placide Temples left off. They tried to present the traditional worldview along the lines of scholastic philosophy. Their theory of vital force and hierarchy of beings drew mainly on the
indigenous religious traditions of the peoples of Central Africa. Mulago for example, suggested that Bantu traditional religion is based on the belief in two worlds, one visible and the other invisible, the belief in the communitarian and hierarchic character of these two worlds; the interaction between the two worlds, and the belief in a Supreme Being, Creator and Father of all that exists.

Other French-speaking scholars influenced by Temples’ theory include F.M. Lufuluabo and E.N. Mujynya. African cleric-scholars of the Anglophone tradition have been more theological than philosophical in their approach. Between late 1950s and early 1970s, a number of these scholars including, Harry Sawyerr, E.B. Idowu, J.S. Mbiti, F.A. Arinze, S.N. Ezeanya, and E.C. Ilogu worked on a wide range of issues in African traditional religion. Mbiti and Idowu wrote general texts to guide the systematic study of African Traditional Religion. Others including Sawyerr, Arinze, Ezeanya investigated important aspects of the subject like the belief in ancestors, ritual sacrifice and traditional morality.

In addition to their individual writings, many of these early African cleric-scholars played notable roles, in the footsteps of a handful European pioneer scholars like E G Parrinder, in promoting the study of African Traditional Religion in institutions of higher education, including universities and theological faculties in different parts of Africa; Ghana, Nigeria, Congo and Kenya among others. Idowu, Mbiti, Ezeanya, Mulago and others designed and taught courses in African Religion in departments of religious studies and theological faculties. They trained successive groups of graduates and scholars to carry on research on different aspects of the traditional religion.

The interest and effort of anthropologists and sociologists did not completely cease in the study of African religion. Rather, with the ever-growing success of the missionary religions, mainly Christianity and Islam in many parts of Africa, a number of Western scholars diverted their attention to the study of religious change and conversion as well as new religious movements in Africa. Interestingly, their investigation of the cause, course and consequence of religious change often bring them face to face with the traditional religious culture of the people. It is pertinent therefore, to note that many of the published works, including those of R. Horton, J.D.Y. Peel, R. Hackett on the themes of conversion and new religious movements in Africa often incorporated considerable materials from African traditional religion.


Evaluate the contribution of the early African writers and scholars to the study of African Traditional Religion.

3.3 The Contemporary Stage

The cumulative effort of researchers and writers finally led to the emergence of African traditional religion as a full-fledged academic discipline about four decades ago. African Traditional Religion has since become part of the curriculum of several academic institutions in Africa and other parts of the world. It is a major course offered in Departments of Religious Studies in Universities, Colleges of higher education and research institutes. Students are free to major in African Traditional Religion at diploma, bachelor, masters and doctorate degrees. In Nigeria for example, the “Minimum Academic Standards of the National Universities’ Commission” places African traditional religion on a similar pedestal as Christianity and Islam, that is, weighted one third of the total credits required for a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. African traditional religion is also a favoured area for research students, as several candidates register for their graduate programme on the subject.

The systematic study of African Traditional Religion has achieved a measure of acceptability as an academic discipline. It is generally classified in the group of traditionallindigenous religions or primal world-views of humankind. The general aim of the study is to present systematically the authentic experience of the sacred by the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa (within the Continent and in Diaspora), in their different socio-historical circumstances and backgrounds. African Traditional Religion is essentially an oral and folk religion. A persistent effort is currently being made by scholars of different intellectual hues and backgrounds to push forward the frontiers of the subject through a critical approach to certain important issues of methodology and conceptual scheme that are adopted for the study.


Discuss the factors that have led to the contemporary stage of the study of the African Traditional Religion.

3.4 Key Issues in Contemporary Scholarship

Notwithstanding the progress already made in the systematic study, African Traditional Religion is still a relatively young academic discipline. It is barely forty years old as a subject in its own right. The volume of literature that has accumulated is sizeable, although this says nothing about the quality of the publications. The subject has no doubt, surmounted certain teething problems, including long-standing prejudice and discrimination to bring it to the present status. But there are a number of key issues, many of them deriving from the historical roots of  the subject, while others are part of the rigorous requirements of the subject as a serious academic discipline. For purposes of our discussion, I shall group these issues into three broad categories, namely; issues of nomenclature and terminology, issues relating to methodology and theoretical presuppositions as well as schemes of interpretation, and finally issues connected to the content of African Traditional Religion.


The study of the African Traditional Religion had been in successive stages beginning from the early European Christian missionaries. These were in turn followed by colonial soldiers and administrators. After this, the colonial government sponsored and trained some ethnographers to study the African culture including the religion. This yielded better results but was still tainted by racism. It was after this that the early African writers and scholars who incidentally were defensive of their culture and religion came and this eventually led to the contemporary stage in the study of the African Traditional Religion.


The following are the major points that you have learnt in this unit:

  1. The first effort to study African Traditional Religion started from the early European Christian missionaries.
  2. The efforts of the missionaries were complemented by the colonial soldiers and administrators.
  3. These were followed by colonial government trained and sponsored ethnographers.
  4. These were also followed by early African scholars and writers.
  5. The emergence of the African writers and scholars led us to the contemporary stage.


Discuss the contributions of each stage in the study of African Traditional Religion to the development of the study of the religion.