Spiritism and African Christians

Spiritism and African Christians

Donald Cole

The African church is witnessing a subtle drift back to the spiritism from which many were supposed to have been delivered. If the assemblies of believers now in central Africa were to be abandoned suddenly by missionaries, it is probable that many would quickly assume some or all of the following features: a blending of Old Testament legalism, social structure, and morality, with whatever New Testament propositions are congenial to the African temperament and definite concessions to the world of demonic spirits.

In one sense, these facts are not surprising. Long an animist, the African has no sense either of the holiness of God or of the true nature of sin. Sin is seldom more than an offense against propriety, and then only when found out.

To many African believers, God is a Supreme Being whose anger quickly cools in the face of an adequate confession.

In this, He is not much different from other deities who demand sacrifice and cash payment. The difference is mainly in the kind of payment required.

To us, it seems strange that a believer could contend for the Lordship of Christ (1 Cor. 12:3) and at the same time genuflect before demons. Still, when we think more about it, the letter to the Corinthian believers makes it quite clear that this was a real problem in the early Church. To some, the question of their attitude towards demons and meats sacrificed to them was vexatious indeed (1 Cor. 8-10).

At the root of the African believer’s trouble is the fear that Jesus does not concern Himself with every trial which the black man may face. How to determine the extent of His interest — that is the difficulty!

When the white man’s sulpha pills or penicillin injections fail to cure, and when prayer to God goes unanswered (seemingly), the African experiences a powerful temptation to direct his appeal elsewhere. He fears that his particular trial lies in an area outside the sphere of God’s normal activities. Death, for example, is thought to be controlled by the devil, as are certain illnesses such as lunacy and epilepsy.

The following examples illsutrate the power of spiritism over the African mind. These are actual cases, investigated personally during the past few months. In every case, at least one of the principals was a “believer”. None appeared to feel that his recourse to spirits was a denial of the essential truths of Christianity since, in his judgment, the peculiar trial sprang from sources not within the scope of Christ’s beneficent activity. It is this willingness to worship Jesus as Lord while making definite concessions to the power of the underworld that is increasingly characteristic of uninstructed and perhaps also unregenerate “believers”.

Becoming a Headman

A man formerly in fellowship in a nearby assembly was named by the local chief to be headman in his village, with the responsibility to represent the villagers before the authorities. Following his appointment, he built a miniature house for the spirits of his predecessors. Since they were not believers, he reasoned that their disembodied spirits were not subject to Jesus’ power. Because they were not in heaven, the domain of “vakua-Yesu”, they were of necessity haunting the scenes of their earthly existence.

Then he invited friends from surrounding villages to hunt for a deer. Failing to find one, they came up with a ram. This was sacrificed before the etambo (spirit house), and its blood was smeared on the door frame and four corner posts. The sacred meat was eaten, and by these acts, the man satisfied the spirits of his non-christian predecessor and qualified himself for the post of headman.

Treating an Illness

A middle-aged believer at Canguen-go suffered strangling sensations at night, and in his distress he saw, or imagined that he saw, “little black men” standing by. Aspirins and sulpha pills, the white man’s cure-alls brought neither relief from the choking feeling nor deliverance from the horror of the visions of the little men.

One day, a “guest” arrived. This man’s identity was never disclosed. Probably the sick man had sent for him, knowing him to be a witch-doctor.

Divining that a vengeful enemy had cast a spell upon his patient, the witch-doctor dug up the floor under the cooking pots. He carried the dirt outside and sifted it carefully. At last he found what he wanted — a human tooth. This, he said, had been taken from a recently buried corpse in a distant graveyard, and was poisoning the victim’s food.

Its discovery had a powerful psychological effect on the man, who sensed immediate relief. The “guest” left some medicines which I tasted and found to be harmless fibres from an unknown root. These are to be taken in the event that the “little black men” reappear.

Guidance by Vision

A young man bought a house formerly occupied by the village teacher, Soon after moving in with his wife and possessions, he began to waste physically and was troubled by perpetual weakness. Medicines were ineffectual.

At last, in a vision in the night, he discovered the truth—a neighbour had captured his soul and had put it to work in his fields at night. The sufferer woke up tired because he worked all night in his captor’s fields.

In a way not explained, the secret of the capture of his soul was connected with his new home. Therefore he moved out, and when I saw him, he was living in a grass hut in unspeakable misery, waiting for courage to cut his throat at the door of his captor.

Dreaming of Death

Three months ago, we camped in a distant village. I had taken with me an intelligent Christian, Samuel, who was to assist me with translating of Bible courses. One night the assistant, a teacher in the mission school, dreamed that an unidentified person was crossing a broad river. The same night, our cook dreamed that rain had fallen.

Since it was the dry season, the rain in the dream could mean only tears. The deep, wide river was a symbol of death, and taken together, the meaning was unmistakable: a Chilonda person had died in the night.

In the morning, Samuel and I returned to Chilonda on the motorcycle. Half-way there, we were stopped by a man coming from the mission. He told us that an old woman had died shortly before dawn. It was then that Samuel told me the dream.

Menaced by Demons

A girl born at Chilonda and taught on our station, lost her hearing through an overdose of anti-malarial remedies, according to her report.

For months she has been stone deaf, but recently, she has begun to “hear” a cock crowing, a child moaning in pain, a man with a hacking cough, and the bleating of a goat.

At night, strange lights like the beam from a flashlight play up and down the walls of her house. One night her father saw them and spoke sharply, saying, “Satan, get out.” The light slid down to the ground and faded.

Believing herself to be menaced by demons, the girl called for the elders of the church and asked for prayer.

In League With Satan

An old man at Capeio was suffering the usual aches and pains of advancing age. Feeling however that his life force was slipping away too swiftly, he suspected mischief.

One night in his dreams, he saw an elder of the local assembly, and in the morning he levelled against this elder the terrifying charge of being an “onganga”; i.e., one who kills by demonic powers. The upshot of it all was that the accused had to leave the village, so great is the African’s fear of one whom they suspect to be in league with Satan, the lord of death and sickness.

Passages such as Heb. 2:14 confirm their belief that men in league with Satan share his power of death. It is not easy to convince them that men die by divine appointment (Heb. 9:27), and that the holding of the power of death does not necessarily imply the power to inflict it.

A Problem for Prayer

Here then, is the root of the trouble: the belief that in some spheres, Satan shares equal power with the Lord Jesus Christ, or at least has freedom to make mischief according to his perverted will. Instead of drawing the afflicted believer closer to the Lord, suffering sometimes drives the African back to his slavish abasement before demons.

Whether or not the professions of faith are really genuine in the cases of the persons mentioned above, we sincerely hope that these alarming facts will compel you to steadfast, intercessory prayer on behalf of the African Christian.