Religious Conversion: An African Perspective


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Religious Conversion: An African Perspective includes a selection of key texts which are not easily accessible elsewhere. Most of the chapters discuss the long-standing thesis of Robin Horton who argues that religious change results from social transformation. The contributors provide different perspectives on what remains an ongoing provocative, though inconclusive debate. The book has chapters on conversion in Africa from such authorities as Robin Horton, Humphrey Fisher, and Richard Gray. It also contains chapters on Zambia by Elizaebeth Colson, Brendan Carmody, Austin Cheyeka, Felix Phiri and W Van Binsbergen. This collection of chapters provides an introduction to the discussion surrounding the query: Did the Christian and Muslim messages bring something fundamentally new to the African religious horizon? What has indigenisation meant? What is the role of traditional religion?



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Published 17 September 2018
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EAN13 9789982241168
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Gadsden Publishers P O Box 32581, Lusaka, Zambia
This collection & Introduction copyright © Brendan Carmody, 2015 The copyright of articles for Journals remains with the respective Journals The copyright for other chapters remains with the individual authors
First published in a shorter form by Mission Press, Ndola in 2001
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrievable system or transmitted in any form by any means, without permission in writing from the publishers.
ISBN 978-9982-24-096-3
Conversion Reconsidered: Some Historical Aspects of Religious Conversion in Black Africa
African Conversion: Entering the Fold of Islam
B. Carmody
L.R. Rambo
F.J. Phiri
R. Horton
On the Rationality of Conversion Part I
R. Strayer
B. Carmody
R. Horton
H. Fisher
On the Rationality of Conversion Part II
Mission History in Africa: New Perspectives on an Encounter
Encounter between Advocate and Convert
African Conversion: A Historical Overview
Conversion to Pentecostalism in Zambia
R. Gray
The Nature and Role of Conversion in Zambia
E Colson
B Carmody
B. Carmody
African Conversion
A. M. Cheyeka
W. Van Binsbergen Religious Change in Zambia
The Juggernaut’s Apologia: Conversion to Islam in Black Africa
Catholic Conversion and School in Africa Today
Christianity and Religious Change in Africa
Conversion and School at Chikuni: 1905-1939
R. Horton
Leza into God – God into Leza
H. Fisher
Some of the chapters in this book have already been published. Some have major or minor deletions. The reader is referred in all cases to the original.
Grateful acknowledgement is being given to the copyright owners for permission to use the material listed below. Every attempt has been made to contact the relevant authorities but if some have been omitted, our apologies and contact us.
Carmody, B. “Conversion and School at Chikuni, 1905-39,”Africa 58, 2 (1988): 193-209.
Carmody, B. “Catholic Conversion and School in Africa Today,”Journal of Church and State55, 2 (2013): 245-263.
Carmody, B. “The Nature and role of Christian Conversion in Zambia,”International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church7, 2 (2007):109-133.
Fisher, H. “Conversion Reconsidered: Some Historical Aspects of Religious Conversion in Black Africa,”AfricaXLIII(1973): 27-40.
Fisher, H. “The Juggernaut’s Apologia: Conversion to Islam in Black Africa,” Africa55, 2 (1985):153-173.
Gray, R. “Christianity and Religious Change in Africa,”African Affairs77 (306): 89-100.
Horton, R. “African Conversion,”AfricaXLI (1971): 85-108.
Horton, R. “On the Rationality of Conversion,” Part IAfrica43 (1975): 219-235.
Horton, R. “On the Rationality of Conversion,” Part IIAfrica45 (1975): 373-399.
Rambo, L.R.Understanding Religious Conversion (1993): 87-101. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Strayer, R. W. “Mission History in Africa: New Perspectives on an Encounter,” African Studies ReviewXIX (1976): 1-15.
Van Binsbergen, W.Religious Change in Zambia: Exploratory Studies(London: Kegan Paul, 1981)
INTRODUCTION Conversion, moving from one worldview to another, has formed an important dimension of African history. For the most part it has consisted in a movement from a traditional African worldview to some form of Christianity or Islam though this may be less true in more recent times. The contributions to this volume are focused on this aspect of personal and social religious change. Conversion to Christianity or Islam in Africa has constituted part of the Christian and Muslim missionary expansion since their beginnings. The early Christian period includes such people as Anthony the Copt and St. Augustine of Hippo. Islamic conversion similarly includes such notables as Mansa Musa and Ibn Battuta. Over the centuries the conversion rates to Islam and Christianity varied with the shifting socio-political landscape. For instance the spread of Christianity southwards was halted by the difîculties of traversing the Sahara as well as because of the Muslim North African presence. Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, the continent’s population was 32 per cent Muslim and 11 per cent Christian (Barrett et al 2001, 13). It was not until European reconnection with sub-Saharan Africa in the îfteenth century that conversion became part of the Portuguese explorations. Though, at this time, Christian missionaries were initially well received which resulted in signiîcant numbers of converts to Christianity, this was not sustained. The decline may be partly explained by the fact that the Christian message embedded in western culture assumed a superior and normative approach to traditional African religion and ways of life (Lonergan 1967; Hillman 1989, 1; Berman 1975,5). Such a standpoint made it difîcult to generate any signiîcant dialogue. Moreover, the Christian message was all too often interwoven with imperialistic ideology. This became increasingly true as the Atlantic slave trade expanded between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Somewhat ironically, perhaps because of this close alliance of the Christian and Muslim missionary with imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the conversion rate increased dramatically. Today Africa is reckoned to be 45 per cent Christian and 40 per cent Muslim (Barrett et al 2001, 13). For this dramatic change in the rate of conversion, there have been various explanations of which Robin Horton’s generated much interest (Horton 1971). Horton’s approach represented a new era in the study of mission history in so far as it views conversion from the perspective of converts, leaving behind what Strayer (1976) termed the metropolitan-ecclesiastical and even nationalist moments.
Religious Conversion: An African Perspective
For Horton, African conversion was a consequence of major social change where the worldviews of people were expanded. In order to provide adequate ultimate explanations of life, people had to shift their traditional lenses. This did not necessarily imply major change of worldview but it did mean a new perspective which, if Christianity or Islam were available, might easily provide aspects of this. In this way, conversion to Christianity or Islam largely modiîed or cognitively reorganized the traditional worldview (Young 2012, 118). Not surprisingly, Horton’s thesis had critics including Humphrey Fisher (1973, 1985). While Fisher agreed with Horton that the traditional worldview was fundamental to any change of viewpoint, he nonetheless argued that Christian and Muslim conversion, if taken in its fuller sense, was more than a new shape of the tradition. It entailed a radical reformulation of it. In his analysis, Fisher clariîed the conceptualization of conversion whereby he identiîed its various stages which he termed quarantine, mixing and reform. From this perspective, Fisher indicated that Horton was speaking of conversion as adhesion or mixing, not deliberate turning or reform which is the proper sense of conversion in Fisher’s view. Thus, calling oneself Muslim or Christian may not mean any major change.Identifying oneself as a Christian or Muslim in association with the respective traditions normally entailed deep-rooted commitment which resulted in renunciation of something precious in oneself or one’s culture. At the same time, aspects of tradition could sometimes be employed in elaborating the message of Christianity or Islam. Accommodation was made between the traditional view of God and what Christianity or Islam brought, as Colson’s reections indicate largely underwriting the Horton thesis. There were however numerous instances where becoming a Christian entailed breaking with tradition especially but not exclusively in the case of polygamy. Most Christian churches demanded this – much to the dismay of mostly male converts. Similarly, a time came when old ways had to be superseded in Islam as evidenced by numerous jihads noted by Phiri. The Horton-Fisher debate provides a lens through which the complex conversion process can be analyzed. Undoubtedly, conversion oftentimes entailed little major change as Horton indicates, and so what emerged was tradition in new dress. However, as Fisher and other authors argue, this was not the whole story. With ever increasing involvement in the world of modernity and capitalist expansion, a new worldview was emerging as Van Binsbergen
(1981) and Shillington note (2012, 373-378). A signiîcant road to that world was the school and the literacy skills it provided (Berman 1975, 41-43). Often, the new religion appeared to work hand in hand with the new socio-economic environment so that becoming a Christian or Muslim in school could provide the young person with what he/she needed as Carmody (1988) indicates. What often results from this is the formation of a person with two separate world views side-by-side—that of tradition and that of modernity. In focusing thus, conversion discourse has moved in two opposing directions. On the one hand, there is much reection on what has been termed inculturation after a period of wholesale neglect. At the same time, there also has been an emphasis on socio-cultural development (Ela 1981; Carmody 2013, 253-254). In both cases, there is a danger that never the twain do meet. Conversion as reform resulting from critical self-assessment does not take place. Commonly this seems to characterize Christian and Muslim converts today where they go to church/ mosque in the morning and to the diviner in the afternoon. There continues to be a challenge to integrate what appears to be two radically different worldviews which may be poorly met especially if religious education programs become ever more part of the modernizing system. It is hoped that the contributions offered here which focus mainly on Zambia will provide resources for further discussion of conversion. Even in narrowing the area of study, there is need for caution when generalizing. This set of essays is aimed at empowering students at third level institutions to become more religiously literate when treating this signiîcant topic of conversion. References Barrett. D.B., G.T. Kurian, T.M. Johnson,World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative survey of churches and religions in the modern world Vol.1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Berman, E. H. ed.African Reactions to Missionary Education (New York: Teachers’ College Press, 1975).
Carmody, B. “Conversion and School at Chikuni, 1905-39,”Africa58, 2 (1988): 193-209.
Carmody, B. “Catholic Conversion and School in Africa Today,”Journal of Church and State55, 2 (2013): 245-263.