Ancestor Worship: The Religion of Africa

Paul K. Williams
South Africa

Drums beat their monotonous single-beat rhythm announcing another ceremony of the sangomas (one of the Zulu words for "witch doctor"). Onlookers, both curious and devout, gather as the sangomas begin their ritual dance. Dressed in skins, feathers and beads they go through various gyrations, calling on the ancestors and working themselves into a state where they can commune with the spirits.

Someone gets married. Very important in the ceremony is the sangoma, sprinkling water mixed with chicken blood and invoking the blessings of the ancestors. The father of the bride gives a cow to his daughter which will be the cow of her ancestors. Whenever she wishes to commune with the ancestors of her family she can talk with the cow. It will not be killed or mistreated. It is a holy cow.

One of the huts of the family is dedicated to the ancestors. In the back is a small area filled with ashes. This is a special place for communing with the ancestors.

A young man has been rejected by a girl. He goes to the sangoma for help. She (or he) first drinks a concoction that makes her vomit. Then she sits on the ground and throws a handful of bones, stones and coins. After studying the way the bones have fallen she tells the young man his troubles. Finally she gives him a love potion guaranteed to cause the girl to love him.

A person has died - young or old, it makes no difference. The family of the dead one goes to the witch doctor and inquires why that person died. After throwing the bones the sangoma finds that a close neighbor "witched" the person and caused his death.

Thunder is greatly feared, so the witch doctor is called. He sprinkles his medicine all around the dwellings, protecting the inhabitants.

Two young wives in the kraal (cluster of dwellings which include the father, his wives, their sons, their wives and children) have failed to become pregnant. The inyanga (another kind of witch doctor) cuts all the adults with a razor blade, making shallow slits on their foreheads, chests and backs and then rubbing medicine into the cuts.

A funeral is held. All relatives and friends are present because if any one is not there, he is suspected of having caused the death. Among other rituals, a special concoction must be drunk by the relatives.

A teenaged girl was being treated for glaucoma at the hospital in Durban. Her mother took her away from that treatment and sent her to stay with a sangoma who promised a cure. The girl is now blind and a Christian. The mother continues to put hope in sangomas and I have driven long distances twice in order to bring her back from witch doctors.

A soccer team employs a witch doctor to give them medicine which will make them win. Soldiers believe that the witch doctor can make them invincible even to bullets.

The Universal Religion of Africa

Ancestor worship is the almost universal religion of Africa. Though Islam has conquered north Africa and Christianity (as the world sees it) has conquered the rest, through it all is the power of ancestor worship. It is common knowledge that the African preachers of the leading denominations consult witch doctors. The most popular denominations openly combine Christianity with ancestor worship, much as Roman Catholicism combined idolatry and Christianity in centuries past.

It makes no difference whether a person is educated or not. At a Zulu College of Education when someone stole a TV set the students seriously considered calling a witch doctor to determine who did it. (That threat worked, for the TV was returned one night.)

Their Concept of God

Africans believe in a supreme God, whom the Zulus call UNkulunkulu; however they do not understand him. To them he is far away. He sends thunder on people for unknown reasons and sometimes does bad things. It is impossible for living people to communicate with him but when a person dies his spirit goes to that land where UNkulunkulu lives. That spirit then can have some influence with him and can have influence on the lives of people living on the earth. The ancestors stand in relationship to UNkulunkulu in much the same way as the Catholic saints stand in relationship to Jehovah.

A Religion of Fear

Ancestor worship (sometimes called "animism") is a religion of fear. The believers are always in fear of angering the ancestors. When anything goes wrong the sangoma is consulted. Invariably the diagnosis is that the worshiper has angered the ancestors and that a feast must be held. A feast is expensive because everyone must be allowed to come and eat. A cow or a goat is killed by the witch doctor in a traditional way, much beer is made, and great pots of stiff corn meal porridge are prepared. All relatives and friends and neighbors attend and many get drunk. Of course, the witch doctor gets a nice fee for his services plus the best piece of meat.

Older people are greatly honored because they will soon become ancestors. It is to your advantage if the old person dies liking you. Then he or she will be willing to help you from the spirit world.

But the ancestors are not very bright. If you move house, you must first tell the ancestors and spill beer in the right places so they will not lose track of you. If you displease the ancestors, it may be that they will kill someone else. Recently a young Christian married with out having her parents at the wedding. She was informed by her mother-in-law that the ancestors are angry with her and that they will kill someone in the family. The Christian replied, "The ancestors must be very stupid to kill someone else when I am the one who made them angry!" The mother-in-law replied quite complacently that that was true.

It is a backward-looking religion. The standards of the ancestors are the all-important things. This retards progress because progress is not according to the traditions. I think this is one very big reason why Africans failed to progress in scientific knowledge the way the Europeans and Asians did. As with the ancestor-worshiping American Indians, not even the wheel was known until the Europeans arrived.

The more I see of this religion the more I hate it. It breeds hate, suspicion and fear. There is nothing ennobling about it. The worshipers are truly slaves.

The Bible is uncompromising in its condemnation of ancestor worship and all the ceremonies that go with it. I have been surprised to see how often this false religion is condemned in the Bible. Some passages which we have typed out and duplicated for use in teaching on this subject are: Deuteronomy 20:2-6; Matthew 4:10; Acts 10:25-26; Revelation 22:8-9; Leviticus 19:31; 20:6; 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:9-15; and Isaiah 8:19-20. There are many other passages which show that the dead have nothing to do with the living.

In standing uncompromisingly against ancestor worship the Lord's church is unique and this causes Christians to be persecuted by their families. Almost every African Christian can tell stories about such persecution. A number of young people here have been driven from home because they stopped worshiping the ancestors. Their courage and devotion to the Lord is an inspiration.

In thinking of the influential religions of the world, do not underestimate the religion of Africa - the worship of ancestors.

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 10, pp. 300-301
May 16, 1991