This Special Issue emerged through a conversation about how to foster new lines of analysis with respect to religious, cultural, and social change on the African continent. More to the point, we recognized that priming discontinuity in studies of “conversion” captures important dynamics with respect to certain types of Christian churches—namely, Pentecostal and charismatic ones. But what other processes of religious change have been occluded by the predominance of this line of (Christian) analysis in the literature on “conversion” in Africa?
Attending to this question is not merely theoretical but also epistemological and methodological. Whose categories, experiences, and mentalities are privileged to be deemed analytically important when it comes to shifts in religious adherence, belief, identity, tradition, and community? Furthermore, scholarly examinations of religious change are often caught in a challenging methodological bind. On the one hand, they can purport to be about an experience of inner transformation. On the other, the historian or even ethnographer often only has access to these interior states through extant written documents or the language that the person uses to convey the change or transformation. These inclinations have made studies of this phenomenon quite dependent upon the category of belief, locating “conversion” in the process of changing a person’s belief, or with respect to communities defined primarily by religious belief or doctrine.
Scholars who study African Christian communities that value discontinuity in “conversion” focus on why converts seek rupture in their religious lives—a stark contrast between their past and present selves. Many studies have answered that question by pointing to the dysfunctions of postcolonial governance in Sub-Saharan Africa, combined with the challenges of “millennial capitalism”. That is, there have been clear, socio-political reasons that account for why many African Christians want to make a break with the past. Though these studies have addressed what had been a lacuna in studies of African Christianity, there is much that the present interest with this form of “conversion” omits from analytical view.
This approach is deeply tied to not only Christian, but specifically Pentecostal, categories and theologies. It is often quite dependent upon verbal testimony as its foundation. It likewise tends to portray a linear development and trajectory (away from a past and towards a future), which does not always reflect the complex ways in which adherents engage with those churches. It has difficulty capturing the sensibilities of Christian traditions and communities other than charismatic and Pentecostal ones, to say nothing of communities that are not Christian, and it cannot easily account for processes by which the past is seen as a desirable resource in the present. “Conversion” in pre-colonial Africa is likewise largely out of its purview. As a result, we wanted to convene a wide range of scholars, including historians of pre-colonial, colonial, and contemporary Africa, along with anthropologists, who would be able to offer fresh arguments and reassessments of religious change pertaining to Africa. The result is comprised of fascinating analyses and interventions that offer critical, creative, and constructive analyses of religious change on the African continent from the medieval period to the present.
We open the issue with a critical introduction to the topic of religious “conversion” in Africa. This article summarizes the concept’s indebtedness to Christian categories and assumptions, and addresses the limitations of this approach with respect to religious change, belief, and practice, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. While acknowledging the term’s biases and limitations, we also note the fact that some Africans have used (and continue to use) the term to describe their own transformations, meaning that “conversion” exists in the scholarship as both an etic and emic category.
While Andreana Pritchard and Kimberly Marshall examine charismatic Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa, they do so with transatlantic sensibilities. They utilize two case studies to good effect in order to show unexpected religious and theological exchanges among North American (a Navajo evangelist and an Oklahoman short-term missionary, respectively) and Sub-Saharan African charismatic Christians. They muddy the issue of continuity in “conversion” by considering the realities that African charismatic ideas, beliefs, and practices have likewise come to shape American Christians’ lives and spiritualities. Their work shows how being overly concerned with continuity or discontinuity in conversionary narratives can draw attention away from the ways in which these communities have created new networks of exchange.
Devaka Premawardhana offers a historiographical overview of the literature on discontinuity and Christian “conversion” before pivoting to ask a different set of questions regarding inculturation and Roman Catholicism in Sub-Saharan Africa. By contrasting a case study of an Italian Roman Catholic missionary in Mozambique with the Pentecostal theologies and communities also present in that region, Premawardhana is able to perspicaciously illumine differences in theological inclinations and processes of “inculturation” among Christian traditions. He then raises comparative questions regarding continuity and exchange among different Christian traditions in Mozambique. Through this analysis, Premawardhana demonstrates the importance of considering style with respect to religious change in a particular context.
Matters of style are central to Shamara Wyllie Alhassan’s article on Rastafari women in Ghana. By “style”, here, we mean two things. First, Wyllie Alhassan provides a fascinating look at what “trodding the path” means in the lives of Ghanaian women, with attention given to the importance of hair and clothing in signifying their Rastafari identity and commitments. These elements are essential to Rastafari ways of being, becoming, and “overstanding”—standing for Black livity and decolonizing one’s self. In this sense, style is also about a style of scholarship and epistemology, and the inseparability of one from the other. For these reasons, Wyllie Alhassan finds the term “conversion” itself inappropriate for analyzing change among Rastafarians.
Dmitri M. Bondarenko and Andrey V. Tutorskiy’s study of “conversion” among Ugandan Orthodox Christians fills in two historical lacunae at once. Orthodox Christians in Uganda have largely been overlooked in favor of Anglicans, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics, and relatively few studies of “conversion” to Orthodoxy in Africa have been done. Their research illuminates the importance of ritual, as well as of the realities of tradition and orthopraxy being important sources of power, authority, and truth for converts. Perhaps most provocatively, Bondarenko and Tutorskiy use the concept of multiple modernities to locate the appeal of tradition as a way of being modern in contemporary East Africa.
Anna Redhair Wells’ fascinating article uses a hagiographical text to examine gender and agents of religious change in medieval Ethiopia. Her analysis shows the importance of gender and family connections in patterns of conversion among Ethiopian saints, ultimately using the text to argue for an agentive space for women in medieval Ethiopian Christianity. Wells’ creative re-reading of extant textual sources provides a model for thinking about processes of “conversion” in Africa prior to the colonial and modern periods.
David Dmitri Hurlbut’s article on “conversion” to Mormonism in postcolonial southeastern Nigeria explores the issues surrounding the reliability of sources produced post-conversion and the value of contextualizing such testimony. While discussions about cultural continuity in processes of religious change have fallen largely out of fashion, Hurlbut shows that cultural endurance continues to shape processes of religious change outside of a Pentecostal context. His article locates important sources of continuity with respect to practice, rituals, and community.
Katrin Langewiesche’s study of Ahmadi “conversion” in West Africa and France highlights the importance of transnational relationships and networks of migration and belonging in relation to changes in religious identity and adherence. Langweische’s article shows that “conversion” is a social process, sustained by practices whereby an individual comes to be seen and understood as a “convert”.
The contributors to this Special Issue on “Religious Conversion in Africa” do not make an argument for a singular new method. The interventions we make are not specific to a discipline. Rather, our hope is that these articles collectively indicate the pluriform ways in which Africans have engaged with religious and social change across time and geography, encouraging others to attend to these contexts with fresh insight and care.