African Traditional Religion, Black Lives Matter, and Prosperity Gospel


Anne Kennedy

Article ID:



Apr 6, 2023


Oct 20, 2021

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 03 (2021). ​. For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


African Traditional Religion (ATR) encompasses all indigenous African philosophies, worldviews, and religious practices south of the Sahara Desert. Though by no means a fixed religious system, sub-Saharan African cultures by and large share many similar views of God, the ancestors and spirits, honor and shame, magic and witchcraft, and rites of passage. While God is not considered to be near, or “close by,” he is nevertheless part of a hierarchical yet holistic spiritual world, mediated to humanity by ancestors and spirits. Moreover, spiritual power is bound to the material and physical realm. The separation between the visible and invisible is very thin, in some cases non-existent. The unseen world of ancestors, spirits, and magic orders the day-to-day experience of the African Traditionalist.

Although one should not presumptuously generalize about the rites and customs of each place and people, it is useful to draw out the contours of the beliefs commonly shared by African societies. This is so for at least two reasons. The first is the proliferation of America’s chief export to Africa — the prosperity gospel. The individualistic message of personal wealth accumulation from the hands of God by means of a false definition of faith has taken much of the world, but particularly Africa by storm. The second is the adoption of atomized, “a la cart” rites and beliefs from ATR by younger Americans. For example, the adoption of the Nigerian Ifá religion by Patrisse Cullors of Black Lives Matter (BLM) has a uniquely American flavor. It is useful for Christians encountering certain Ifá or other ATR rites and invocations at, say, a BLM rally, or in reading about them on social media, to investigate their origins as part of understanding how they are exploited in an American context. In this way, Christians might respectfully preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to their neighbors and friends.

As race relations in the United States have devolved over the past two decades, many Black Americans — indeed millennials of all ethnicities, often identifying as “nones” — are finding the Christianity of their childhood unpersuasive. Leaving mainstream institutional churches, they look for other kinds of spiritual worldviews and ideologies to order their lives.1 The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, in particular, has an intriguing, if syncretistic, spiritual component. One of the three co-founders, Patrisse Cullors, “grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness but left the religion out of dissatisfaction with its patriarchal structure. She converted to Ifá, a religion of West African origin. But…that faith also has its challenges for Cullors as a queer woman. One Ifá priest refused to initiate her because of her sexuality.”2 Her journey toward African Traditional Religion (ATR) has shaped not only the political bent but the spiritual tenor of BLM:

After the 2015 exoneration of two Los Angeles police officers who had killed Ezell Ford, an African American man, activists gathered in front of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s home. While the media described the event as a “protest,” participants said it was actually a ceremony. “We did an Ifá ceremony in front of his house,” [Dignity and Power Now3] organizer Evan Bunch recalled later. “The preacher…was able to conjure up Ezell Ford’s spirit and kind of transfer it to the group. And it was evident through the participants that they were feeling something that was not of the temporal world.”4

After the death of Breonna Taylor, Cullors contrasted the way the names of victims and shooters are printed in American news sources, side by side, as if the names alone convey any information about the tragedy, with BLM’s honoring of the slain: “It is literally almost resurrecting a spirit so they can work through us to get the work that we need to get done.”5

As the cracking edifice of Judeo-Christian belief collapses under the weight of bad to non-existent Christian discipleship and Western Christianity in turmoil, ATR and other kinds of religious philosophies are settling in, much like the ancient Croatians moved into the ruins of Diocletian’s palace, taking strength from that solid and imposing structure. ATR, in this new religious multiverse, embodies a uniquely American zeal, as the terms and categories shift to accommodate post-Christian sensibilities. For this reason, the study of ATR is not merely academic. It presses a fresh relevance on Christians in a post-Christian world. Being able to understand some of the hidden but deeply African assumptions and categories in ATR’s rites and practices will afford those encountering similar rituals in the lives of family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers the ability to preach the gospel more fully and truly. In service of cross-cultural apologetics and evangelism, as well as an appreciation for a religious system that covers nearly the whole continent of Africa, I will propose a definition of ATR, look at ATR’s view of God, the spirits and ancestors, power and magic, time, and some cultural mores, particularly shame and rites of passage. Finally, I will look at how ATR is symbiotically sympathetic to the American version of the prosperity gospel and progressivism.


ATR refers to all the indigenous religious traditions of Africans south of the Sahara Desert. It does not include Islam and Christianity — both of which have an ancient residence on the continent — but rather the cultural and spiritual assumptions that arose from within Africa itself. “In Africa,” writes Gerrie ter Haar, “religion does not represent a philosophy of life that searches for ultimate meaning, as it does for many Western Christians today. Rather, it represents a view of life that acknowledges the existence of an invisible world, believed to be inhabited by spiritual forces that are deemed to have effective powers over one’s life”6 — a world Paul Hiebert calls the excluded middle.7 Although one should not generalize too much about any particular group’s view of God and the cosmos — to do so would be presumptuous and would flatten a luxuriant landscape of religious expression — many cultures across Africa share similar traditions about the nature of God and the world. To try to puzzle out some of the contours of this landscape is possible for an outsider.

What Is God Like?

God, for many African groups, does not live nearby. His realm is far off, as distant as the sky, with whom he sometimes shares his name.8 He cannot be approached personally or directly. To answer why this is so, the continent is suffused with stories about God’s departure. “The African myth does not tell of men driven from Paradise,” writes John Taylor, “but of God disappearing from the world. It is man, not God, whose voice calls through the desolate garden, Where art thou?”9 John Mbiti, in his seminal work on ATR, uses the word “transcendent” to describe a God who is made “immanent through the mediation of the spirits and ancestors.”10 He is far away and does not ever come down here, though he is constantly invoked in blessing — “May God give a child,” “May God bring the rain,” “May God give health.” He provides for all of humanity’s needs.

God is most important in his role as Creator. “Ila,” writes Mbiti, “have three names for God by means of which they describe His creative work. They speak of Him as Creator, Moulder and Constructor.”11 Likewise, “The Ashanti believe that God ‘created things in an ordered fashion,’ and made an orderly and harmonious world where everyone could perform his own duties.”12 God is the organizer of the weather, particularly the rain,13 and most important of all, he gives children.14 In all ways, God is a beneficent entity, though, from a Western perspective, he is not intimately involved in the day-to-day affairs of humanity.

Many African cultures recount that God was once close to men but then something broke their close communion. “The Banyarwanda tell that when a woman decided to hide death, contrary to God’s law not to do so, He decided to let men keep death, and so death has ever since remained with men.”15 The Westerner, however, should be cautious about taking a wrong impression from Mbiti’s term “transcendent.” One should not insist on a division between transcendence and immanence. Hearing that God is “up there” and never comes “down here,” one might conclude that no one “knows” God in any meaningful sense, nor that God has anything practically to do with his creation. Within ATR, this is not so.

Whereas for the Christian the two opposite characteristics — transcendence and immanence — are married together in Christ, for the African Traditionalist, they come together through the principles of hierarchy and holism. “The assumption,” writes Yusufu Turaki, “is that if God is active behind the various gods and divinities, He is automatically also approached when they are approached. But the Supreme Being and the lesser beings are part of the same cosmic community.”16 One should not imagine, then, that just because there are so many “lesser lights,” the great Light is not infusing and animating them all. The Traditionalist, when he goes into a sacred grove to sacrifice a chicken or offer some coins or pour a libation on the ground because he has heard there are jinn (spirits) and is worried about what they might do to his crops or to his family, does not necessarily think in terms of worship. Rather, the Traditionalist is part of a great hierarchal and holistic creation that proceeds from and is sustained by God.17

The Spirits and Ancestors

Nevertheless, God is far-off. Though he is invoked in blessing and even in curses, to cope with the daily affairs of life the Traditionalist has to contend with the intermediate realm of spirits and ancestors. Spirits are those invisible spiritual beings who relate more closely to God and are generally bound to a particular location — a grove of trees, a stream, or some part of the highway. They are not moral or immoral per se. “The moral nature of spirits traditionally [depends] largely on the quality of the relationship between the human and spirit world. For a prosperous and stable life, many Africans believe, humans need to maintain a good relation with the spirit world.”18

Ancestors, likewise, live in an unseen world that is very close to ours. In the context of ATR, the word “ancestor” is problematic. Mbiti prefers the term “Living Dead,” which, before the age of zombie literature, aptly captured the sense of the place of the ancestor in African society.19 An ancestor isn’t just your grandfather who died last year whom you miss and whose same features you see in your own son. Your ancestors — plural — are a living and active part of your life now, though they have gone to live in the “village of the dead.” They, like the spirits, are tied to the land where they lived before they died and were buried. It is not so much their power, writes Mbiti, but that “men experience a sense of psychological relief when they pour out their hearts’ troubles before their seniors who have a foot in both worlds.”20

In most African cultures, not everyone becomes an ancestor. Usually, it is someone who is very old, who has died quietly, at home, and who was able to be at peace with all his relations. Even then, he must be properly buried and everyone in his extended family will have to play their part as he goes to the village of the dead.21 When a person has successfully entered the community of the ancestors, in some societies it is believed that the individual may come back to the land of the living through the soul of a new child.22

Power and Magic

The question of power is uppermost for Traditionalists in Africa. Life is precarious. Illness and trouble lurks in every shadow. Like so many religions of the world, making life all right now and getting safely into the next one are the preoccupying considerations of most practitioners.23 How can I keep my children from getting sick and dying? How can I keep my crops from being destroyed by a natural disaster? How can I remain on good terms with my controlling and difficult co-wife so that my husband won’t curse my child? Like most religious systems since the dawn of time, ATR “works.” There are ways to get what you need and want out of God and all the spirits and ancestors who mediate his presence in the cosmos.24

The rise of the Harry Potter genre mainstreamed lighthearted magic for the millennial generation. For the African Traditionalist, however, the subject is neither theoretical nor light-hearted. Just as the spirits and ancestors have real and sometimes malign power, and gain power by sacrifices and ablutions poured out on the ground, so practitioners of magic are to be feared.25 They may be approached for their knowledge of certain powerful “medicines” or to find out why something bad has happened. They are able both to diagnose and prescribe a remedy in the face of want or tragedy. The “medicine” they prescribe would not be a pharmaceutical drug, but some rite to perform, or perhaps a journey to take, some object to wear, or an amulet in which is hidden a bit of paper inscribed with a Qur’anic verse.26 The practitioner of magic — like the spirit — may or may not be considered evil depending on the outcome of the magic. If you suspect that your co-wife is poisoning you, you might seek help from a practitioner of magic only to find that your co-wife has put a hex on you.

In this way, spiritual power is bound to the material and physical realm. The separation between the visible and invisible is very thin, in some cases non-existent. The unseen world of ancestors, spirits, and magic orders the day-to-day experience of the African Traditionalist. Where he goes, what he eats, what his name is, and whether his crops will succeed is all determined by a spiritual society that presses close in, though so many visitors to Africa cannot see it.27

Shame and Rites of Passage

The journey of men and women from birth to the grave and beyond into the realm of living though non-corporeal ancestors must be marked by certain rites of passage. It is not the case that one is just born, grows up, and sets off into the bright future to enact one’s destiny. One’s life is a delicate dance to discover what the unseen community desires for one to do. Practically speaking, rites of passage solidify communal norms and assumptions from one generation to another. Cultural cohesion is maintained because every individual is brought along into a greater and greater knowledge of the community and its practices and beliefs. Some of these rites include ceremonies and practices around the naming of a child, circumcision, feats of strength and courage at the time of adolescence, marriage, being welcomed into certain secret groups, and finally, the most important of all — death and burial.28

Alongside the necessary rites of passage that bind a person to his family — both living and dead — are the guardrails of honor and shame. These are powerful controls that a community exerts over its members. Shame is not entirely negative, nor exclusively psycho-social. One should not think of the work of Brené Brown, for example, when confronted with shame in another cultural context. Rather, shame and honor often have to do with forgiveness and reconciliation. “In a communal culture — such as Africa…a transgression is never directly addressed because it may undermine a person’s honor. The insult may be even worse than the transgression itself.”29 Learning what is considered shameful, and what is for honor, may be a bewildering maze for the Westerner who accidentally violates not only social norms, but even taboos, in the effort to be kind and friendly.

Time and Eternity

Many people visiting Africa for the first time will find themselves both astonished and frustrated by the pace of life. Though the larger cities of the continent are shifting to the bracing pace of business and industry endured by the rest of the world, it is possible to find oneself sitting, waiting long past the agreed upon hour, wondering if anyone will show up. Growing up as I did in a small Malian village, for example, it was my experience that church began when most people had assembled and the pastor had come over from his thatched house. Though the hour was printed on a sign, the only people seated on the rough wooden benches at that moment were foreign visitors.

Mbiti demarcates two kinds of time for Traditionalists using the Swahili words Sasa and Zamani. Sasa conveys “the sense of immediacy, nearness, and ‘now-ness” — the “Micro-Time” constituting “‘where’ and ‘when’” people exist experientially. Zamani is “Macro-Time,” the wider “‘past,’ ‘present’ and ‘future,’” and the all-enveloping “ocean of time in which everything becomes absorbed into a reality that is neither after nor before.”30 Though Mbiti extrapolates these concepts to the whole continent, and though the theory has been criticized by scholars for borrowing too heavily from Western philosophical categories, there is a sense in which the African view of time is particular to the kind of theological worldview held by the Traditionalist:

The question of time is of little or no academic concern to African peoples in their traditional life. For them, time is simply a composition of events which have occurred, those which are taking place now and those which are immediately to occur. What has not taken place or what has no likelihood of an immediate occurrence falls in the category of “No-time.” What is certain to occur, or what falls within the rhythm of natural phenomena, is in the category of inevitable or potential time.31

In oral cultures, time, of course, is not a scientific accounting. As the particular names of ancestors and events fade into the past, they become part of Zamani. As Traditional Religion more and more is shaped by creeping Western materialism, by Islam and Christianity, and by global industries, African views of time have also shifted to be more like the rest of the world. Still, in Africa, “Man,” writes Mbiti, “is not a slave of time; instead, he ‘makes’ as much time as he wants.”32

African Traditional Religion and America:

The Prosperity Gospel

One movement is sweeping across Africa and transforming religious life more than almost any other in recent memory. While Africa may largely be viewed as more Christian than Europe, or perhaps even America at this point, African Christianity risks being coopted and corrupted by the prosperity gospel. Dieudonné Tamfu writes that “there is nowhere to hide in West Africa from the American idols of health and wealth. They have infiltrated even orthodox churches. Preachers who are faithfully teaching the gospel cannot reach into their members’ homes and shut off the televisions that constantly broadcast healing and miracle crusades.” Tamfu concludes, “Africa needs cleansing from the foreign deities from the West, the land where health, wealth, and might have become gods.”33

“The teaching,” writes Peter Young, “has been introduced to Africa largely through Rienhard Bonnke’s Christ for all Nations crusade which has been active in various centres throughout Africa….This teaching has also been taken up by various indigenous preachers, including Archbishop Benson Idahosa of Benin City….[It] is now a prominent feature of many of the neo-Pentecostal churches and large evangelistic rallies in Nigeria.”34 Young quotes the charismatic and brilliant Idahosa, “No one in God’s family was ever destined to exist in sickness, fear, ignorance, poverty, loneliness or mediocrity. God’s abundant goodness will be enjoyed and utilised by those who discipline themselves, become decisive, bold, adventurous, believing, daring, risking and determined.”35

Given the presuppositions of the ATR worldview, the prosperity gospel appears to work. If you have enough faith, God will give you money and health. It is possible, in this kind of world, to twist God’s arm into giving you what you need or want by various acts of prayer and devotion, though chiefly by sending money. It is no wonder that the prosperity gospel has swept across Africa. Young explains:

Another important factor in prosperity teaching’s appeal lies in the fact that it gives answer to very real questions that arise in people’s lives. The African holistic world-view demands that the problems of poverty and pain be squarely faced and not ignored or spiritualized in the way that Western theology has tended to deal with them. Prosperity theology provides such an answer and in this way has been (almost paradoxically) linked with liberation theology, which provides rather a different answer. The prosperity solution to the problems of ever-present suffering and poverty is particularly appealing because the individual is left in control over these elements, they are not left to any unpredictable and ambiguous action like that of a sovereign God.36

It is easy to see how traditional religious views would meld beautifully with various kinds of prosperity heresies. The word of faith movement, for example, echoes the beliefs about power that many Traditionalist’s hold. Certain kinds of blessings, for example, might put a spiritual hold on not only a jinn or a fetish but on God himself. Likewise, to say something negative — “It might not rain,” for example — is taboo in many places, for fear that the spirits will hear the words and bring them about. Traditionalists encountering “Christianity” under the guise of the prosperity gospel may feel that God makes very good sense to them.


Post-Christian America is ripe for a syncretistic fascination with ATR. The Otherworldly Oracle, for example, has a primer on “The Seven African Powers for Beginners,” which, the author (aka Kitty) claims, originated in Yorubaland in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. She claims these spirits — Orishas — are invoked by other religions, including folk Catholicism, and provides instructions for how to summon these spirits and benefit from their spiritual power.37 The website is a fanciful mixture of African terminology and American individualism. In discussing the origins of these spirits, for example, she says, “I…believe this [claim that the Seven African powers are seven Catholic saints] is a dogmatic and patriarchal way to shut down indigenous original religion. Ultimately, it’s up to you what you believe about the Seven African Powers.”38 In this way she melds the egalitarian principle of American spirituality with a supposed pantheon of African spirits, ignoring, of course, how very hierarchical African Traditional Religion is.

Ultimately, the nones should be cautious about adopting the religious inclinations of other parts of the world, being so far removed from the whole picture of African life. Individualism — though so many decry it — is central to the American psyche. When Americans with Judeo-Christian vestigial presuppositions encounter other kinds of spiritual practice, they typically imagine that personal moral preference will win out. But Africa is a continent of true worshipers who do not easily disconnect themselves from the ground in which their ancestors are buried, the groves of trees where the jinn live, and the spirits that mediate God to them. They do not have a Western sense of personal identity or choice at all. No Westerner should imagine that the “Seven African Powers” divined on a website will truly resemble what Africans believe.

Do Not Be Afraid

As Christianity fades from the West, ATR is taking its place as one of the most fascinating and potent religious ideas. Many malign spiritual powers are setting up residence not only in the hearts and minds of millennial nones, but in the groves and beside the highways of our landscape. What is a Christian to think? Should we be afraid and retreat into our churches and separate ourselves from the world? Absolutely not. St. Paul admonished the Corinthian church:

What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor. 10:19–22 ESV)

The spiritual forces in this world — though even Western Christians have ignored them — are real, and can be defeated only by the power of Christ.39 Christians should not be afraid of other kinds of spirituality, but rather, humbly, and with a little knowledge at their fingertips, go out to engage spiritual worshipers in a spiritual world. After all, God did not flee from His creation, but rather came down — the Ancient of Days with a foot in both worlds — and lived as one of us to reconcile us to God. He has all the power of the cosmos, we have only to trust Him and He will give us all that we need.

Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People (SquareHalo Books, revised 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on


  1. For an excellent primer on the subject, see Rebekah Valerius, “Bespoke Religiosity and the Rise of the Nones: A Review of Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” Christian Research Journal, November 19, 2020,
  2. Livia Gershon, “Healing, Spirituality, and Black Lives Matter,” JSTOR Daily, June 10, 2020,
  3. Patrisse Cullors founded Dignity and Power Now in Los Angeles (2012). “About,” Dignity and Power Now,
  4. Gershon, “Healing, Spirituality, and Black Lives Matter.”
  5. Alejandra Molina, “Black Lives Matter Is a ‘Spiritual Movement,’ Says Co-founder Patrisse Cullors,” Religion News Service, June 15, 2020,
  6. Gerrie ter Haar, How God Became African: African Spirituality and Western Secular Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 28.
  7. Paul Hiebert, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” Missiology: An International Review 10, no. 1 (1982): 35–47.
  8. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition (London: SCM Press, 1973), 154.
  9. John Taylor, The Primal Vision: Christian Presence amid African Religion (London: SCM Press, 1963), 84.
  10. John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York: Praeger, 1969), 33.
  11. Mbiti, African Religions, 40.
  12. Mbiti, African Religions, 40.
  13. Mbiti, African Religions, 41.
  14. Mbiti, African Religions, 39.
  15. Mbiti, African Religions, 39.
  16. Yusufu Turaki, Foundations of African Traditional Religion and Worldview (Nairobi: Word Alive, 2006), 56.
  17. Turaki, Foundations, 58.
  18. Ter Haar, How God Became African, 35.
  19. Mbiti, African Religions, 83.
  20. Mbiti, African Religions, 83–84.
  21. Jacob Olupona, African Religions: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 31–32.
  22. Taylor, Primal Vision, 97.
  23. Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 100.
  24. Turaki, Foundations, 35.
  25. Taylor, Primal Vision, 191.
  26. Mbiti, African Religions, 114.
  27. Bediako, Christianity in Africa, 95.
  28. Mbiti, African Religions, 124–26.
  29. Arnold Meiring, “As Below, So Above: A Perspective on African Theology,” Theological Studies 63, no. 2 (2007), 738,
  30. Mbiti, African Religions, 21–22.
  31. Mbiti, African Religions, 17.
  32. Mbiti, African Religions, 19.
  33. DieuDonné Tamfu, “The God’s of the Prosperity Gospel: Unmasking American Idols in Africa,” Desiring God, February 4, 2020,
  34. Peter R. Young, “Prosperity Teaching in an African Context,” African Journal of Evangelical Theology, 15.1 (1996): 4,
  35. Young, “Prosperity Teaching,” 5.
  36. Young, “Prosperity Teaching,” 16.
  37. “The Seven African Powers for Beginners (African Spirituality and Magic),” The Otherworldly Oracle, January 18, 2020,
  38. “The Seven African Powers for Beginners.”
  39. For a primer on spiritual warfare, see Hank Hanegraaff and Lee Strobel, “The Covering: God’s Plan to Protect You from Evil,” Christian Research Journal 25, no. 3 (2003), Christian Research Institute,


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