Fetichism in West Africa
THE IDEA OF GOD—RELIGION
MISSIONARY PAUL of Tarsus, in the polite exordium of his great address to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill, courteously tells them that he believes them to be a very " religious '' people, — indeed, too much so in their broad-church willingness to give room for an altar to the worship of any new immanence of God ; and then, with equal
courtesy, he tells them that, with all their civilization, with all their eminence in art and philosophy, they were ignorant
of the true character of a greater than any deity in their pantheon.
Modern missionaries, also, in studying the beliefs and forms of worship of the heathen nations among whom they dwell,
while they may be shocked at the immoralities, cruelties, or absurdities of the special cult they are investigating, have to acknowledge that its followers, in their practice of it, exhibit a devotion, a persistence, and a faithfulness worthy of Christian marty's. They are very "religious." Verily, if the obtaining of heaven and final salvation rested only on sincerity of belief and consistency of practice, the multitudinous followers of the so-called false religions would have an assurance greater than that of many professors of what is known as Christianity, and much of the occupation of the Christian missionary would be gone.
I say much; but not all, by any means. For the feeling with which I was impressed on my very first contact with the
miseries of the sociology of heathenism, entirely aside from its theology and any question of salvation in a future life, has steadily deepened into the conviction that, even if I were not a
Christian, I still ought to, and would, do and bear and suffer whatever God has called or allowed me to suffer or bear
or do since 1861 in my proclamation of His gospel, simply for the sake of the elevation of heathen during their present
earthly life from the wrongs sanctioned by or growing out of their religion. Distinctly is it true that "Godliness is
profitable unto all things," not only for the life " which is to come," but also for " the life that now is." Those in Christian lands who have no sympathy for, or who refuse to take any interest in, what are known as " Foreign Missions," err egregiously in their failure to recognize the indisputable fact that they themselves are debtors for their possession of protected life, true liberty, and unoppressed pursuit of personal happiness, not to civilization as such, but to the form of religious belief called Christianity, which made that civilization possible. And by just so much as divine law has ordained us each our brother's keeper, we are bound to share the blessings of the gospel with those whom God has made of one blood with us in the brotherhood of humanity.
A pursuit of this line of thought would lead me into an argument for the duty of foreign missions. That is not the direct object of these pages. True, I pray that, as a result of any reader's following me in this study of African superstition,
his desire will be deepened to give to Africa the pure truth in place of its falsity. But the special object of my pen, in following a certain thread of truth, is to show how degradingly false is that falsity, in its lapse from God, even though I
accord it the name of religion.
For my present purpose it is sufficiently accurate to define theology as that department of knowledge which takes cognizance of God, —His being, His character, and His relation to His Cosmos. Whenever any intelligent unit in that Cosmos looks up to Him as something greater than itself, under what Schleiermacher describes as " a sense of infinite dependence," and utters its need, it has expressed its religion. It may be weak, superstitious, and mixed with untruth; nevertheless, it is religion.
When a study of God and the thoughts concerning Him crystallize into a formula of words expressing a certain belief,
it is definitely a creed. When, under a human necessity, a creed clothes itself in certain rites, ceremonies, and formulas
of practice, it is a worship. That worship may be fearful in its cruelty or ridiculous in its frivolity ; nevertheless, it is a worship. Worship is essential to the vitality of religion; without it religion is simply a theory.
Theology differentiates itself from other departments of knowledge, as to its source and its effects. For instance, in
the study of geography, as to its effects, it is comparatively a matter of indifference whether we believe that the earth is
flat or globular, like Booker T. Washington's teacher who in his district school was prepared to teach either, " according
to the preference of a majority of his patrons "; or, in astronomy, whether we believe that the sun is the stationary
centre of our planetary system, or whether, with the late Rev. John Jasper, we assert that the sun "do move " around
But in theology it matters enormously for this present life, whether we believe the supreme object of our worship to be Moloch, and infinitely for our future life, whether Jesus be to us the Son of God.
As to the source of theological knowledge, all our other knowledge is evolved, systematized, and developed by patient experiment and investigation. The results of any particular branch of human knowledge are cumulative, and
are enlarged and perfected from generation to generation. But the source of our knowledge of God is not in us, any
more than our spiritual life had its source in ourselves. It came ab extra, God breathed into the earthly form of Adam
the breath of life, and he bcame a living creature, essentially; and radically different from the beasts over which-Jhe was given dominion. Knowledge of God was thus an original, donated, component part of us. It grew under revelations
made during the angelic communications before the Fall. Revelation was continued by the Logos along thousands of
years, until that Logos himself became flesh and dwelt among us in visible form in His written word, and by His
Comforter, who still reveals to us.
I do not feel it necessary here to discuss, or even to express an opinion as to the evolution of the physical species.
I know, simply because God says so, and am satisfied with this knowledge, that "in the beginning God created." As
to when that " beginning " was, there may be respectable difference of opinion; for it is only a human opinion that
asserts when. Assertion may have apparently very reliable data ; but these data often are like the bits of glass, factors
in the geometric figures of a kaleidoscope, whose next turn in scientific discovery dislocates and relocates in an apparently reliable proof of the existence of another figure.
As to what it was that God created in that beginning, there may be also respectable difference of opinion.
Whether, like Minerva, full armed from the head of Jove, Adam sprang into his perfect physical, mental, and moral
manhood on the sixth of consecutive days of twenty-four solar hours each ; or whether, created a weakling, he slowly
grew up to perfect development ; or whether life began only in protoplasm, and gradually differentiated itself into the
forms of beasts, and finally into that of man, back of all was a great First Cause that "created " in the "beginning."
It is all a subject fearfully wonderful.
"My substance was not hid from Thee when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in Thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them."
But all such assertion, discussion, and attempt at proof I allow only to what is physical and finite, and is therefore a
legitimate subject of assertion on merely physical data; for I do not desire to discuss, beyond simple mention, the Spencerian doctrine of evolution, that materialism which would make thought and soul only successions in a series even if
the highest and best) of evoluted developments. To account for the religious nature in man by evolution I regard as a
thing that cannot be done. It is a tenable position held by evolutionists such as Dana, Winchell, and the late Professor Le Conte of California, that "at the creation of man the divine hat asserted itself, and ' breathed into man the breath of life, and man became a living soul. ' Immortality cannot be evolved out of mortality. If Spencerian evolution is true,
either everything is immortal or nothing is immortal; man and vermin in this hypothesis go together."
Man's soul came to him direct from God, a part of His own infinite life, in His "image," and like Him in His holiness.
Man's thoughts of God were holy. The expression of them in words and acts was his practical religion, the visible, audible link that " bound " (ligated) him to God, In this there could be no evolution, unless that, in the many forms and ceremonies used in the expression of religious thought (which ceremonies constitute worship), there could be, and were, variation, change, development, or retrogression.
Therefore I cannot accept the conclusions of those who in their study of ethnology claim to find that the religious beliefs of the world, and even the very idea of a Supreme Being, have been evolved by man himself ab intra. They claim that this evolution has been by primitive man, from low forms of beliefs in spiritual beings, through polytheism and idolatry, up to the conception of monotheism and its belief in the one living God. This process they claim to be able to follow on lines racial and national, under the civilizations of Chaldee, Greek, Roman, Teutonic, and other stocks.
" Until some human being can be found with a conception of spiritual existences without his having received instruction
on that point from those who went before him, the claim that primitive man ever obtained his spiritual knowledge or his spiritual conceptions from within himself alone, or without an external revelation to him, is an unscientific assumption in the investigation of the origin of religions in the world. "
1 Trumbull, Blood Covenant, p. 311.
The rather I find, in my own ethnological observations during these more than forty years in direct contact with aboriginal peoples, that the initial starting-point of man's knowledge of God was by revelation from Jehovah himself.
This knowledge was to be conserved by man's conscience, God's implanted witness, a witness that can be coerced into silence, that may be nursed into forgetfulness, that may be perverted by abuse, that may be covered up by superimposed falsities, that may be discolored by the blackness of foul degradation, but which can never be utterly
destroyed; which on occasions, like the Titans, arouses itself with volcanic force; which at God's final bar is to be His sufficient proof for the verities and responsibilities of at least natural religion ("natural" religion, a recognition of certain attributes of God as revealed in the works of nature). This knowledge of God, a treasure hid in earthen vessels, rightly used and cherished, was to grow and develop under subsequent divine revelation, so that man might become more and more like his divine original ; or, if abused, neglected, or perverted, it would carry him even farther away from God.
" Not alone those who insist on the belief that there was a gradual development of the race from a barbarous beginning,
but also those who believe that man started on a higher plane, and in his degradation retained vestiges of God's original revelation to him, are finding profit in the study of primitive myths, and of aboriginal rites and ceremonies all the world over." 1
I do not impeach the sincerity of those students of primitive thought who teach that man in his religious beliefs has
reached his present monotheism by progressive growths from polytheism, or that he has attained his present conception of the very existence of a Supreme Being by a gradual emergence from a state of ignorance in which even the idea of such a being did not exist; but I do discount the
1 Trumbull, Blood Covenant, p. 4.
competency of many of the witnesses on whose testimony they base their conclusions.
Whatever may be proved in a complete investigation by science into the arcana of nature, of archaeology and other
channels of research, a reverent comparison of these results of finite intelligence will find them not inconsistent with the statements of God's infinite Word. Indeed, that Word was not written to make any definite statement on
astronomy or geology, or any other human science. The only science of the Bible is that of man's relation to his divine Father; its only history a history of redemption, as promised to Eve and her seed, the Jewish nation, and as fulfilled in the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Apparent conflicts of the Bible with science are not always real; too often a claim is set up, based on a single observation, perhaps hastily made, and not verified by a comparison of the variable factors in that observation.
I suppose that it is true that in the theology of even the worst forms of religion there is more or less truth, and almost equally true that in the theology of the best forms there may be somewhat of superstition. This is so because, as I believe, all religions had but one source, and that a pure one. From it have grown perversions varying in their proportion of truth and error.
In this study of the African theologic ideas I shall endeavor to separate these two the false and the true into two divisions : First, Beliefs in God more or less true, which have had their birth in tradition of some divine revelation, which find at least faint echoes in human conscience, and which among exalted nations would be formulated into confessions, creeds, and articles of faith. Second, Animism or beliefs in vague spiritual beings, which, being almost pure superstitions, cannot, from their very nature, be accurately formulated, they being the outgrowth of every individual's imagination, and varying with all the variances of time, place, and human thought.
Eliminating from any theology its superstitious element,
we shall find the highest and truest religion. But if you eliminate from the theology of the Bantu African its superstition, you will have very little left; for, among the religions of the world, it comes nearest to being purely a superstition. So nearly is this true that travellers and other superficial observers and theorists have asserted that the religious beliefs of some degraded tribes were simply superstitions, destitute of reference to any superior being.
I can readily see how the reports of some travellers even of those who had no prejudice against the Negro, the precepts
of the Bible, or missionary work could be made in apparent sincerity, when they state that native Africans have confessed of themselves that they had no idea of God's existence; also, their belief that some pygmy and other tribes
were too destitute of intelligence to possess that idea, that it either must be given them ah extra by the possessors of a
superior civilization, or must be developed by themselves as they rise in civilization.
The difhculty about the testimony of these witnesses in this matter is that, being passers-by in time, they were unable
by reason of lack of ability to converse fluently, or absence of a reliable interpreter, or of being out of touch with
native mode of thought or speech to make their questionings intelligible.
On the heathen side, also, the obsequious natives, unaccustomed to analytic thought, will answer vaguely on the spur of the moment, and often as far as possible in the line of what they suppose will best please the questioner. All native statements must be discounted, must be sifted.
I am aware that some missionaries are quoted as having said or written that the people among whom they were laboring "had no idea of God." Even Robert Moffat is reported to have held this opinion. If so, it must have been in the earlier earlier days of his ministry, under his first shock at the depth of native degradation, before he had become fluent in the native language, and before he had
found out all the secrets of that difficult problem, an African's native thought. Such an unqualified phrase could be uttered by a missionary in an hour of depression, in the presence of some great demonstration of heathen wickedness,
and in an effort to describe how very far the heathen was from God. That the heathen had no correct idea of God is often true.
Arnot, who among modern African missionaries has lived most closely and intimately with the rudest tribes in their
veriest hovels, writes: 1 "Man is a very fragile being, and he is fully conscious that he requires supernatural or divine aid.
Apart from the distinct revelation given by God in the first chapter of Romans, there is much to prove that the heathen
African is a man to whom the living God has aforetime revealed himself. But he had sought after things of his own
imagination and things of darkness, to satisfy those convictions and fears which lurk in his breast, and which have not
been planted there by the Evil One, but by God. Refusing to acknowledge God, 2 they have become haters of God. 3 The preaching of the gospel to them, however, is not a mere beating of the air; there is a peg in the w^all upon which something can be hung and remain. Often a few young men have received the message with laughter and ridicule, but
I have afterwards heard them discuss my words amongst themselves very gravely. I heard one man say to a neighbor,
'Monare's words pierce the heart.' Another remarked that the story of Christ's death was very beautiful, but that he knew it was not meant for him ; he was a ' makala' (slave), and such a sacrifice was only for white men and princes."
Lionel Decle, 4 who certainly is not prejudiced toward missionaries or the Negro, writes of the Barotse tribe in South Africa and their worship of ancestors: "They believe in a Supreme Being, Niambe, who is supposed to come and take away the spiritual part of the dead." This
1 Garengauze, p. 79. 2 Rom. i. 28, margin.
3 Rom. i, 30. 4 Three Years in Savage Africa, p. 74.
name " Niambe, " for the Deity, is almost exactly the same as " Anyambe," in Benga, two thousand miles distant.
Illustrative of traveller Decle's haste or inexactitude in the use of language, he apparently contradicts himself on page 153, in speaking of a tribe, the Matabele, adjacent to the Barotse: "The idea of a Supreme Being is utterly foreign, and cannot be appreciated by the native mind.
They have a vague idea of a number of evil spirits always ready to do harm, and chief among these are the spirits of
their ancestors; but they do not pray to them to ask for their help if they wish to enter on any undertaking. They merely offer sacrifices to appease them when some evil has befallen the family." Perhaps he and other cursory travellers, in making such hasty assertions, mean that the native has no idea of the true character of God ; in that they would be correct.
The accounts which some travellers have given of tribes without religion I either set down to misunderstanding, or
consider them to be insufficient to invalidate the assertion that religion is a universal feature of savage life.
However degraded, every people have a religion. But they are children, babes in the woods, lost in the forest of ignorance, dense and more morally malarious than Stanley's forest of Urega. In their helplessness, under a feeling of their "infinite dependence," they cry out in the night of their orphanage, " Help ws, O Paia Njambe ! " Their forefathers wandered so far from him that only a name is left by which to describe the All-Father, whose true character has been utterly forgotten, so forgotten that they rarely worship him, but have given such honor and reverence as they
do render literally to the supposed spiritual residents in stocks and stones. "Lo! this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions."
Offering in the following pages a formulation of African superstitious beliefs and practice, I premise that I have gathered them from a very large number of native witnesses,
very few of whom presented to me all the same ideas. Any one else, inquiring of other natives in other places, would not find, as held by every one of them, all that I have recorded ; but parts of all these separate ideas will be found held by separate individuals everywhere. After more than forty years' residence among these tribes, fluently using their language, conversant with their customs, dwelling intimately in their huts, associating with them in the varied relations of teacher, pastor, friend, master, fellow traveller, and guest, and, in my special office as missionary, searching after their religious thought (and therefore being allowed a deeper entrance into the arcana of their soul than would be accorded to a passing explorer), I am able unhesitatingly to say that among all the multitude of degraded
ones with whom I have met, I have seen or heard of none whose religious thought was only a superstition.
Standing in the village street, surrounded by a company whom their chief has courteously summoned at my request,
when I say to him, "I have come to speak to your people," I do not need to begin by telling them that there is a God.
Looking on that motley assemblage of villagers, — the bold, gaunt cannibal with his armament of gun, spear, and dagger; the artisan with rude adze in hand, or hands soiled at the antique bellows of the village smithy; women who have hasted from their kitchen fire with hands white with the manioc dough or still grasping the partly scaled fish ; and
children checked in their play with tiny bow and arrow or startled from their dusty street pursuit of dog or goat, — I
have yet to be asked, "Who is God?"
Under the slightly varying form of Anyambe, Anyambie, Njambi, Nzambi, Anzam, Nyam, or, in other parts, Ukuku,
Suku, and so forth, they know of a Being superior to themselves, of whom they themselves inform me that he is the Maker and Father. The divine and human relations of these two names at once give me ground on which to stand in beginning my address.
If suddenly they should be asked the flat question, " Do
you know Anyambe ? " they would probably tell any white visitor, trader, traveller, or even missionary, under
a feeling of their general ignorance and the white man's superior knowledge, " No ! What do we know ? You are white people and are spirits ; you come from Njambi's town, and know all about him!" (This will help to explain, what is probably true, that some natives have sometimes made the thoughtless admission that they "know nothing about a God.") I reply, "No, I am not a spirit; and, while I do indeed know about Anyambe, / did not call him by that name. It 's your own word. Where did you get it?" "Our forefathers told us that name. Njambi is the One-,who-made-us. He is our Father." Pursuing the conversation, they will interestedly and voluntarily say, " He made these trees, that mountain, this river, these goats and chickens, and us people." That typical conversation I have had hundreds of times, under an immense variety of circumstances, with the most varied' audiences, and before extremes of ignorance, savagery, and uncivilization, utterly barring out the admission of a probability that the tribe, audience, or individual in question had obtained a previous knowledge of the name by hearsay from adjacent more enlightened tribes. For the name of that Great Being was everywhere and in every tribe before any of them had become enlightened ; varied in form in each tribe by the dialectic difference belonging to their own, and not imported from others, —for, where tribes are hundreds of miles apart or their dialects greatly differ, the variation in the name is great, e.g. "Suku," of the Bihe country, south of the Kongo River and in the interior back of Angola, and " Nzam " of the cannibal Fang, north of the equator.
But while it is therefore undeniable that a knowledge of this Great Being exists among the natives, and that the belief is held that he is a superior and even a supreme being, that supremacy is not so great as what we ascribe to Jehovah.
Nevertheless, I believe that the knowledge of their Anzam or Anyambe has come down — clouded though it be and fearfully obscured and marred, but still a revelation — from Jehovah Himself. Most of the same virtues which we in our enlightened Christianity commend, and many of the vices which we denounce, they respectively commend
and denounce. No one of them praises to me theft or falsehood or murder. They speak of certain virtues as "good," and of other things which are "bad," though, just as do the depraved of Christian lands, they follow the vices they condemn. True, certain evils they do defend, e. g. (as did some of our New England ancestors) witchcraft executions, justifying them as judicial acts ; and polygamy, considering it (as our civilized Mormons) a desirable social institution (but, unlike the Mormons, not claiming for it the sanction of religion); and slaverery, regarded (as only a generation ago in the United States ) as necessary for a certain kind of property. But theft, falsehood, and some other sins, when committed by others, their own consciences condemn, — closely covered up and blunted as those consciences may be, — thus witnessing with and for God.
While all this is true, their knowledge of God is almost simply a theory. It is an accepted belief, but it does not often influence their life. "God is not in all their thought." In practice they give Him no worship. God is simply "counted out."
Resuming my street-preaching conversation: Immediately after the admission by the audience of their knowledge of
Anzam as the Creator and Father, I say, " Why then do you not obey this Father's commands, who tells you to do so and so? Why do you disobey his prohibitions, who forbids you to do so and so? Why do you not worship him?" Promptly they reply: "Yes, he made us; but, having made us, he abandoned us, does not care for us; he is far from us. Why should we care for him ? He does not help nor harm us. It is the spirits who can harm us whom we fear and worship, and for whom we care."
Another witness on this subject is the Rev. Dr. J, L,
Wilson. 1 Speaking of Africa and its Negro inhabitants, he says: "The belief in one great Supreme Being is universal.
Nor is this idea held imperfectly or obscurely developed in their minds. The impression is so deeply engraved upon
their moral and mental nature that any system of atheism strikes them as too absurd and preposterous to require a
denial. Everything which transpires in the natural world beyond the power of man or of spirits, who are supposed to
occupy a place somewhat higher than man, is at once and spontaneously ascribed to the agency of God. All the tribes in the country with which the writer has become acquainted (and they are not few) have a name for God ; and many of them have two or more, significant of His character as a Maker, Preserver, and Benefactor. (In the Grebo country Nyiswa is the common name for God ; but He is sometimes called Geyi, indicative of His character as Maker. In Ashanti He has two names: viz.^ Yankumpon, which signifies 'My Great Friend,' and Yemi, 'My Maker.') The people, however, have no correct idea of the character or attributes of the Deity. Destitute of (a written) revelation, and without any other means of forming a correct conception of His moral nature, they naturally reason up from their own natures, and, in consequence, think of Him as a being like themselves.
" Nor have they any correct notion of the control which God exercises over the affairs of the world. The prevailing notion seems to be that God, after having made the world and filled it with inhabitants, retired to some remote corner of the universe, and has allowed the affairs of the world to come under the control of evil spirits ; and hence the only religious worship that is ever performed is directed to these spirits, the object of which is to court their favor, or ward off the evil effects of their displeasure.
" On some rare occasions, as at the ratification of an important treaty, or when a man is condemned to drink the ' redwater ordeal,' the name of God is solemnly invoked; and, what is worthy of note, is invoked three times with marked
1 Western Africa, p. 209.
precision. Whether this involves the idea of a Trinity we shall not pretend to decide ; but the fact itself is worthy of
record. Many of the tribes speak of the 'Son of God.' The Grebos call him ' Greh,' and the Amina people, according
to Pritchard, call him 'Sankombum.' "
The following testimony I gather from conversations with the late Rev. Ibia j'Ikenge, a native minister and member
of the Presbytery of Corisco, who himself was born in heathenism. He stated:
That his forefathers believed in many inferior agencies who are under the control of a Superior Being; that they were therefore primitive monotheists. Under great emergencies they looked beyond the lower beings, and asked help
of that Superior; before doing so, they prayed to him, imploring him as Father to help;
That the people of this country believed God made the world and everything in it; but he did not know whether they had had any ideas about creation from dust of the ground or in God's likeness;
That they believed in the existence, in the first times, of a great man, who had simply to speak, and all things were made by the word of his power. As to man's creation, a legend states it thus: Two eggs fell from on high. On striking the ground and breaking, one became a man and the other a woman. (Apparently there is no memor}^ of any legend indicating the name, character, or work of the Holy Spirit.) That there is a legend of a great chief of a village who always warned people not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree.
Finally, he himself ate of it and died;
That there was no legend, but, among a few persons, a vague tradition of a once happy period, and of a coming time
of good ; but he knew of nothing corresponding to the story of Cain and Abel;
That there is a fable that a woman brought to the people of her village the fruit of a forbidden tree. In order to hide it she swallowed it; and she became possessed of an evil spirit, which was the beginning of witchcraft;
That there was some tradition of a Deluge (he was not aware of any about the Dispersion at the Tower of Babel);
That all men believed they were sinners, but that they knew of no remedy for sin;
That sacrifices are made constantly, their object being to appease the spirits and avert their anger;
That many of the tribes are, and probably all, before they emerged on the seacoast, were cannibal (of the origin of cannibalism he did not know, but he was certain it had no religious idea associated with it 1);
That there was a legend that a " Son " of God, by name Ilongo ja Anyambe, was to come and deliver mankind from
trouble and give them happiness ; but as he had not as yet come, the heathen were no longer expecting him;
That there was a division of time, six months, making an "upuma," or year^ and a rest day, which came two days after
the new moon, and was called Buhwa bwa Mandanda, — it was a day for dancing and feasting;
That the dead were usually buried; but persons held in superstitious reverence, as twins, Udinge, etc., were not buried, but left at the foot of a ceiba, or silk-cotton tree, or other sacred tree;
That burial-places are regarded with a mixed feeling of reverence and awe;
That the immortality of the soul is believed in, but that there is no tradition of the resurrection of the body;
That they believe God gave law to mankind, and that, for those who keep this law, there is reserved in the future a "good place," and for the bad a "bad place," but no definite ideas about what that "good " or that " bad " will be, or as to the locality of those places;
That they believe in a distinction of spirits, — that some are demons as in the old days of demoniacal possession, this distinction following the Jewish idea of diaboloi and daimonai.
1 I am strongly disposed to think that, in its origin, there was a sacrificial idea connected with cannibalism. — R. H. N.