When Christianity Met African Possession Cults …
Our Easter story begins in days of the North American colonies. Not in the north, where the pilgrim fathers were busy developing their methods for ethnically cleansing the Native Americans, but in the slave plantations of the deep south. The slave-ships that carried their human cargo to Virginia, Carolina, Georgia and other southern states also brought with them the culture, language and religions practiced in Africa. Today, versions of these African religions still survive in the hinterlands of the former slave colonies. In Haiti they are known popularly as Vudon or Voodoo, in Brazil as Candomblé and in Mexico and Cuba as Santería. Despite their differences, these religions observe similar practices and rituals. They are known by anthropologists as “possession cults”, because their Gods can be enticed to descend into the world of men where they will temporarily possess the body of a host. Speaking in the language of the Gods, they will cure the sick, cast out evil and demonic presences and communicate their pleasure or displeasure to the faithful. In order to entice the Gods to descend, elaborate services are held. Dancing and singing are used to put the faithful in a trance-like state so that the spirit of the Loas (Gods) can enter them. Predictably, the Christian slave masters tried to wipe out these alien practices and attempted to convert them to the “One True Faith”.
American seventeenth and eighteenth Century Christians were serious people. Either puritan-inspired protestants committed to hard work, sobriety and Bible study or Catholics devoted to ritual and pageantry. I simplify, but only to emphasize the very real differences that existed between the religions of the slaves and the Christianity of the slave owners. No Christian would have tolerated spontaneous dancing or shouting in God’s house. They would have viewed the possession of a human being by God as sacrilegious or just plain demonic. On the contrary, Christians did their best to wipe out the beliefs of their captives. One of the key measures undertaken to justify the slave-trade was the conversion of the slaves to Christianity. Mass conversions and baptisms were a key feature of plantation life. The tactic worked. Most slaves converted and even the die-hard possession cultists gave their Loas new “Christian” names such as Sante Agatée (Saint Agatha) to replace their old African ones. In this sense, Christianity has triumphed over African religion, banishing it to a few ever-shrinking redoubts. Apart from the odd New Orleans witch-doctor, little more these days than a tourist attraction, African religions have vanished from American soil. Today the sacrifice of Haitian pigs and black cockerels are to be found mainly in the plots of horror story writers.
This is not, however, the whole story. Scratch beneath the surface of things and you find that America is now a Voodoo nation. Its religion is permeated with the language and practices of the possession cults they once tried to obliterate. Look again at any evangelical church service: The Holy Spirit can be enticed to descend into the world of men where it will temporarily possess the body of a host (usually the pastor or preacher). Speaking in tongues (the language of God), they will cure the sick, cast out evil and demonic presences and communicate their pleasure or displeasure to the faithful. In order to entice Jesus to descend, elaborate services are held. Dancing and singing are used to put the faithful in a trance-like state so that the spirit of God can enter them.
No eighteenth century Christian would recognize what goes on in these Evangelical services as anything other than Voodoo. This sea-change in religious practice has also had a profound ideological effect. Unlike Christians, believers in possession cults were always able to petition their Gods for material help; to become rich, get a better job, to cure a painful bunion and so on. Evangelical Christians have done away with that distinction. The asceticism and mistrust of wealth and money that was a feature of Christian rhetoric has waned and Evangelical preachers now claim that Jesus can make you rich in this life as well as the next. Mega-Churches, supposedly dedicated to the Jesus who only ever used violence to kick merchants out of the temple, now have branches of Starbucks and MacDonald’s within them. In essence, these all-singing, all-dancing Christians are Voodoo children at heart.