African Religion Customs Before Christianity

A representation of a spirit entity of West Africa's Yoruba people.
... Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

For decades people thought of African religious life only from the perspective of its relationship to Christianity or Islam. Any serious consideration of traditional African religion focused primarily on ancient Egypt, which many scholars intellectually removed from the rest of Africa. The comparisons with Christianity were not flattering, as many people viewed African religion as somewhat primitive. Serious scholarship on African religion began in the 1960s and 1970s, but this work still had problems, perceiving a number of separate African traditional religions, rather than witnessing the uniformity across the continent. African traditional religions predated Christianity and had a number of characteristics that all shared. These religions served as the basis of community life and helped African societies through turmoil.

1 Ancestor Worship

Central to traditional African religion was respect for ancestors. Every action undertook by Africans required consideration of the ancestors. Unlike Christianity, in which the dead cannot interact with the living, African religion dictated that the dead, as well as the unborn, are full members of the community. The ancestors were wise spirits whom people could not easily mislead. People who did not fulfill the wishes of the ancestors, who were always watching, could suffer tragedy.

2 God, the Supreme Being

Christian missionaries in Africa often thought the people served multiple Gods; in reality, all forms of African religion held a belief in one supreme God. This Supreme Being was the creator of the known world. God, however, created the world and then remained distant. The Africans held God in such esteem that they believed it impossible for the Supreme Being to be concerned with the daily trivialities of mortals. Africans would invoke God only when the death of the community seemed certain.

3 The African Spirit World

Spirits inhabited the world along with the living. It is they that interacted with humans on a daily basis, rather than God, as is true in Christianity. God created the spirits and could use them to achieve purposes on earth. Nature spirits are those that Africans held to live within non-human physical objects. The existence of these spirits helped explained phenomena, such as lightning, floods or droughts.

4 Polygamy

African religions allowed men to possess more than one wife. Though Christian missionaries found polygamous marriages deplorable and offensive to women’s rights, Africans saw benefits in the arrangements. First, only wealthy men could marry large numbers of wives because each marriage required presenting a considerable dowry, or wedding gift, to the bride’s father. A man had to consider seriously the women with whom he sought to cohabit. In addition, since these were agrarian societies that considered farming a domestic chore for women, multiple wives actually served to lessen the workload.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.