Relations Between Christianity And Yoruba Traditional Religion: Examples Of Misinterpretations And Misrepresentations

by Dr T. F. Jemiriye. Department of Religious Studies, University of Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria

I. Introduction

This paper looks into examples of misinterpretations and misrepresentations of Yoruba Traditional Religion (YTR) by Christians and of Christianity by (YTR). These examples are the broad ones that cut across Christian denominations in Yoruba land and that most people in (YTR) would relate to. There are many other examples that may be considered as special problems of individual Christian denominations or of little local groups of (YTR). These denominational hang-ups have not been considered in this paper because they are often results of doctrinal positions of such denominations. It is noted that the attempt here is not to justify or reject any denomination’s doctrine as this is outside the scope of this paper. Problems arising from the limit of this scope have been left off this study for the denominations to consider from their doctrinal standpoint.

A. From Christian Standpoint Looking at the Yoruba Traditional Religion

1. A Substitute for or an Improvement on?
Many Christian interpreters of YTR did so with a mind of substituting Christianity for YTR while some others did the interpretations with a view of improving the position of Christianity. This is reflected in Parrinder’s writing on “Christianity Today” when he wrote:

The churches have benefited by exploration, trade, colonisation, new communications, education and the international languages. They have put parts of the Bible into more than five hundred African tongues and this has been one of the most influential ways of naturalising the religion, both in the older churches and among the independents.1

This approach of having a substitute or an improvement has been rejected by many Yoruba scholars as being as un-objective approach. This is buttressed by the view that Esu was translated Satan and not Jesus in the Bible.2

Idowu pointed out that it is a “presumptuous notion” that is typical in the “Western world, and with the great monotheistic religions” that the concept of God is clear and he went further to disagree with the notion.3 But this notion has been seen as the basis for the “substitute” or “improvement” attitude of Christians toward the Yoruba concept of God. Idowu emphasised that there is no place,, age or generation which did not receive at some point in its history some form of revelation and that to deny this fact is either to be deliberately blind to facts or to betray a gross ignorance of facts.4 Idowu quoted many writers to prove that most of their interpretations are not really ‘in situ’ with the Yoruba context of God discussed.5 Most of the writers interpreted with the mind of substituting a Christian context at the end. This has caused more negative than positive feelings for the non-Christian Yoruba, especially since the 1950. This has also led to more scrutiny on what part of the concept of God Christianity really focuses upon. An example of this type of focus is on whether the Yoruba God-gods is to be called polytheism or monotheism.

Idowu’s “change or decay”6 fits into this question of a substitute or an improvement and also into the next on monotheism or polytheism. As Idowu concluded in the section, “there is a vacuum in the Yoruba concept of God, and Christianity stands the best chance of fulfilling this.”7 It is now very necessary for Christian interpretation to be well defined whether the goal of such a filling is to be a substitute for YTR or an improvement on YTR. The cry of the Christian groups that advocated a complete substitute for YTR has been that an improvement on YTR will result in syncretism. The other side says anything substituted is a death blow to Yoruba culture, indigenous revelation of God and it will result in planting Western world in Yoruba land under the name of Christianity rather than making Christianity native to Yoruba land as it is now native to Europe and the Western world. Details of this principle have resulted in many denominational differences. Examples include interpretation of how missions, evangelistic crusades, mass media outreach are to be carried out. While it is not easy to define an answer to these problems, it remains that both approaches (substitute or improvement) cannot continue to stand together as they are, if Christianity is to be considered by many Yoruba as a united religion.

2. Polytheism or Monotheism

Booth’s discussion on polytheism or monotheism makes it clear that it s whatever focus is put on that decides whether Yoruba God-gods is to be called polytheism or monotheism.8 The emphasis could be on concreteness or ultimacy, on God or Orisa, on the human level or on the level of God. It seems most of the early Christian interpreters of the Yoruba God-gods concept were ready to apply no other term but monotheism to this same concept! Regardless of what is used in qualifying the term monotheism, the debate still stands.

One is prone to ask why the fuss on monotheism and why the reluctance of early Christians or the eagerness of the later Yoruba interpreters of YTR to apply the term monotheism to the Yoruba God-gods concept? Idowu definitely reflected the high tension of whether it should be polytheism or monotheism when he wrote:

African Traditional Religion cannot be described as polytheistic. Its appropriate description is monotheistic, however modified this may be. The modification is, however, inevitable because of the presence of other divine beings within the structure of the religion.9

This Idowu’s position puts any interpretation of the Yoruba God-gods concept that makes it polytheistic a misinterpretation and a misrepresentation of the Yoruba God-gods concept. While this is more of the “half filled or half empty glass,” it could be said that the trend since 1950 seems to be a deflection from the use of the word polytheism and a more general application of monotheism (in any modified form) to the Yoruba God-gods concept. Thus, from many Christians standpoint, polytheism better describes the Yoruba God-gods concept because the pattern does not fit monotheism in the same sense as Christians might see Christianity fit, but this term is seen as a misinterpretation of the Yoruba God-gods especially by the Yoruba who are now applying monotheism to the YTR concept of God and gods.

3. Idolatry or Mediatory Functionaries

Again, the choice is here loaded by the background of the interpreter. The focus on the Yoruba gods has been called idolatry by many Christians looking at YTR. The same Yoruba gods are described as mediatory functionaries and arms of Olodumare by J. O. Awolalu and E. B. Idowu and others. It may then be asked, are those that are called Yoruba gods idolatry misinterpreting or misrepresenting the Yoruba concept of gods and if they are not, how is this to be reconciled with the other side? The only conclusive answer is Booth’s view that it depends on what is being focused by the interpreter.10 But whatever position the focus is put, it seems that the trend now is moving from an interpretation that calls Yoruba worship of God-gods idolatry to one that sees the same as mediatory functionaries.11 In this respect, it is easy to accommodate explanations like Benjamin Ray’s12 that uses psychoanalytic position to say “the Sango cult appears to have a therapeutic character.” While Sango is seen by some as completely wild and negative. Ray’s conclusion on Sango proves that interpretation of Sango could be functional and positive.

4. Gods-Idols or Objects of Veneration

The place of symbols in any religion is very important and also very sensitive. What constitute sacred objects have not always been agreed upon many times, even within the same religion. To some degree, these observations are true of the objects of worship in YTR. There are some gods that have different objects as symbols in different parts of Yoruba land. Many Christian interpreters of YTR saw this difference and concluded that YTR is inconsistent or sometimes different. Awlalu’s treatment of Sango and Ogun illustrates this local varieties.14 These variations have been capitalised upon in many quarters as to get particular results. In some, the objects of worship were turned to ends in themselves; thus YTR was called fetishism or animism. To some Christians, the word “veneration” should not be applied to YTR because it was to be used exclusively for Christianity.

Relating to ?pèlè, cowries,15 and ivory bell16 as symbolising Ifa is difficult to many Christians. Relating to any form

Of a simple more crudely shaped into human form with horns on his head, and a knife or club in his hand; or a piece of laterite or rock stuck into the ground or and earthenware pot turned upside down with a hole in the middle.17

as representing Esu is simply impossible for many especially those outside Yoruba land. Many other symbols like Mariwo (palm front), Omolangidi (carved baby doll) and even special food like Akara (for Egungun) are puzzles to many Christian interpreters of YTR. It must be said that since 1950, the position of worship of the Orisa has been reworked. Objects of worship are seen as sacred objects and as venerated objects. The gods are not seen as idols and the neutrality of objects in themselves. It has been commonly shown within YTR that the significance of the objects exist only within the limit of importance attached to the religion and to the particular god such objects symbolise. The symbols are now projected as visual help, reminder of devotion and sense of belonging to the god. They are emblems of identification of particular gods.

It must be said that it took a while for many Christian interpreters who saw in YTR pantheism to polytheism to accept the present presentation that YTR, like other religions, (including Christianity) can venerate any object that is seen as meaningful to her people and to their concept of the particular god the symbol represents. Even now there are still some hard liner Christian interpreters who are not yet so gracious to rant YTR this interpretation of herself. Thus, it has been seen that the gods often called idols by Christian interpreters are seen as venerated objects by YTR. This again, is a case of misinterpretation of YTR by Christianity.

5. Yoruba Culture as it relates to worship

Yoruba culture in relation to worship is a significant area of misinterpretation and misrepresentation by many Christian interpreters of YTR. The secrecy that surrounds many of the worship of the Yoruba gods allowed for many uninformed people to misinterpret and misrepresent YTR. It must be noted that in all religions, only a handful of people know the complicated doctrines of the faith they proclaim to belong. This then allows for the secrecy in YTR as normal. The association of many cultural objects with YTR, hence the subsequent rejection of such object as pagan is an example of misinterpretation of YTR and of Yoruba culture by many Christian interpreters. The association of Yoruba drums, dresses and dancing with YTR and their subsequent rejection as pagan by many mainline Christian churches are examples of how the misinterpretation of YTR and of these unique Yoruba culture have permeated through many levels of Christian thinking to even areas of public worship. The rejection of Bata, Dundun, Ipe, Gangan, Sekere, and Agogo for pipe organs, piano, guitar, trumpet and flutes demonstrates this permeation.

The Aladura churches capitalised on this misinterpretation of cultural issues and they encouraged local life style and the use of local instruments in their churches. Local drums and dancing became a notable feature of their worship. Jack Mendelsohn’s report on the attitude of Africans in relation to drumming and dancing is true when he wrote:

During the days of dancing which followed, I saw this drama repeated many times. Always the theme was the same. Someone whose Christian commitment had kept him from dancing would throw off the restraints and dance, while the others would cheer his “emancipation”, his return to Africanism. It was a drama symbolic of significant happenings in Africa’s religious life.18

Thus, the Aladura only used an African interest in reaching the Africans. This is one of the reasons why the Aladuras are looked upon as merging YTR with Christianity by some other Christians

The Christian interpretation that banned Emu (the Yoruba local brew) because it is used in pouring libation to Orisa, but accepted Coca-cola (and even Champagne) for celebrating or blessing. This is in this same class of misinterpretation. In the same vein, Yoruba dresses were seen as evil, as belonging to the Orisa and hence rejected by many Christian interpreters. Highly conspicuous of this are the clergies who are expected to be in “Western Religious Robes” or at the permissive extreme in Western suit – coat and ties (although the temperature is rarely below 850F in most cases).

Since 1950, all these have been strongly called misinterpretation and misrepresentation of both YTR of Yoruba culture by Christianity. It could thus be summed up that from the Christian standpoint, looking at YTR, there is an attitude of superiority to, and rejection of most things within YTR. This attitude of superiority and/or rejection is mostly the direct result of Christians misinterpretation and misrepresentations of YTR.

B. From Yoruba Traditional Religion Looking At “Christian” Presentation.

This Section B is the other side of the coin presented in Section A of this paper. This consideration of Christian presentation from a YTR perspective is very necessary because this helps to get a balances picture of the relationship between YTR and Christianity.

1. Trinity – A Simpler or More Complex Concept?

The Yoruba understood that the fuss on their religion being called polytheism is because the god is, at least, more than one (as is implied in monotheism). However, when the Yoruba faced the doctrine of trinity which is translated – Olorun Meta Lokan – (Three Gods in One) the confusion was not a small one. The confusion was kept secret to themselves by the Yoruba for years out of fear19 and on the premises that may be an understanding will emerge with time. By the 1950’s, (100 years after the planting of Christianity in Yoruba land). Yoruba were already assuming top positions in Christianity as to be able to say “We think we now see the end limits.” These Christian Yoruba leaders are more easily assessed by their fellow Yoruba, hence the attacks came fully on Christianity.

Rude shocks came when many Yoruba called Christianity a polytheistic religion on the basis of the Trinity. While the Christian preachers presented the Christian God as a superior God to that in YTR, and they tried to justify the virtues of their God by Western life style (Medi-Care, Western education and Western government – called democracy), the indigenous people saw that the concept of the Christian God was equally very disturbing with many levels – (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, Jesus, the very God of the very God). These only made the indigenes very ready to call Christianity a confused polytheism – If God is not the Jesus, the man of history and Jesus is not necessarily the Holy Spirit and yet Jesus is the very God of the very God.

The canonized code, called the Nicene Creed, gave more force to this challenge on the Trinity. The creed did not help the educated Yoruba mind to rationally come to any sensible position with its statements like:

“God the Father, ---
Jesus the very God of the Very God ---
and I believe in the Holy Ghost ---”

That Jesus is called God while historically He lived in a time and space made Him fit into the defied ancestors in YTR perfectly. That He is said to be born in a miraculous virgin birth or that He was before He was born were seen as absurd articles or exercise of faith to YTR. That Christianity said them differently were no convincing proofs but a choice of word. Really, to believe such were absurd to many, and they therefore saw Christianity as requiring more faith than believing the God-god concept where Sango is not equal to Olodumare.

The origin of the Devil in Job’s story led to a primordial divinity construction which is in line with Esu, Orunmila, or Obatala.20 The fact that Christianity posed as a superior religion to YTR while not answering these questions on origin in any way different from primordial existence as in YTR gave Christianity in Yorubaland a major attack.

Since 1950, the attacks from YTR on Christianity have taken bold form. The attacks are now in the open. There have even been bolder steps aiming at putting Christianity within the Yoruba belief. While this may sound almost sacrilegious to a pious Christian, it remains that this is how some from YTR interpret Christianity. Eades described the attempted syncretism like this:

There are two main ways in which Yoruba belief and the world religions have interacted. The first is syncretism – the blending of the new beliefs with the old. There have been syncretistic religious movements among the Yoruba – reconciling the Bible with Ifa, or fitting Christ into the Yoruba pantheon – but these are of minor importance. The second, and more usual pattern is for those aspects of the world religions to be emphasised which are most in line with traditional beleifs. Olorun becomes God or Allah, while Esu can be identified with Satan. Christians can see witchcraft as the work of the devil, and continue to accept its reality, while archangels take over the roles of the Orisa as messengers of Olorun.21

This passage from Eades clearly shows the extent to which the Christian presentation among the Yoruba has been re-interpreted (at least) if not completely misinterpreted and misrepresented. Also, this comment of J.S. Eades is part of the constructive efforts on the part of Christians to study and effect a better representation between YTR and Christianity.

2. Icons or Idols?

The Yoruba traditionalists were not just defending their Orisas when they questioned the icons in the Christian setting. The deification of Jesus, and of the saints in the Catholic Church came under attack along with the deification of many objects of worship. YTR carved images (called idols by some Christians) were not seen to be different from the statues of Holy Mary, and the stained glasses Wooden cross and other sacred objects in churches became parallel to different objects like shrine, opele and others. As Eades pointed out, parallels included “passages of the Bible” being used instead of “Yoruba incantations” and “Aladura prophecy” can “provide alternatives to Ifa.”22

Desai relating to this type of African interpretation of Christianity wrote “it can really be taken for granted that Christian doctrine employs a form of ancestor worship by deifying its saints. This, many of the educated Africans now believe.”23 It is no surprise, therefore, that the cult of Moremi was later identified as the Christian cult of the blessed Virgin Mary. Also, Oluorogbo was equated to Order of Francis of Assisi and Aiyelala to Our Lady of Apostle. Some others more radical in YTR, would rather see Oluorogbo or Ela equated to Jesus Christ!

It must be said that the attempt here is not to say that these interpretations are necessarily correct or incorrect. The attempt here is to point out that the YTR adherents equally found Christian presentation to be as complex and difficult as Christians trying to interpret YTR. Definitely, the Christians will see the YTR view as misinterpretations and misrepresentation of their faith too. It must be admitted by the Christians however, that the facts of the iconoclastic controversy (717 – 802)24 is no more a secret that is known only by students of history. Also, that these venerated objects still exist in some churches today make any interpretation possible depending on what the interpreter focuses upon and depending on the interpreters loaded background. This takes the issue back to the “half empty or half filled glass”!

3. A Way of Life or an Intellectual Concept?

As pointed out earlier, to the Yoruba, their religion is all in all as to life. Idowu puts the Yoruba life style orientation in these words:

The keynote of their life is their religion. In all things, they are religious. Religion forms the foundation and the all-governing principle of life for them. As far as they are concerned, the full responsibility of all the affairs of life belongs to the Deity; their own part in the matter is to do as they are ordered through the priests and diviners whom they believe to be the interpreters of the will of the Deity.25

The early Christian apologists portrayed a way of life that is regarded as consistent with Christianity and hence acceptable to the Christian God. This Christian way of life includes marriage – monogamy, a social standard of equality (at least in some theoretical ways) and a high sounding ethical code of love your neighbour and enemies. Most of these Christian ethical codes were not strange to the Yoruba who had similar but unwritten ethical codes. Since 1950, the Yoruba have seen much changes in the Christian ethical code.26 These not only undercut the Christian presentation of the Christian’s God as a loving God, but it makes Christianity as a way of life very unacceptable to the intelligent Yoruba mind.

In very recent days, with travels around the world, international situation in countries with many Christians have caused many Yoruba who are affiliated with YTR to ask the Christian Yoruba questions like: Where are you heading to with your ethical proposal? If your Christianity is the same with the outside (Western) world that we have seen, why can’t the long established Christian countries present their context with peaceful Christian solutions from the high sounding Christian ethic? The wars and inhumanity in the west had occasioned the questions. This same spirit is shown by Desai when he wrote: “Why can’t he preach to his own society?”27

While it could again be said that this view of some Yoruba scholars who sided YTR is a misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the Christian ethic, it remains that it is what some have seen. This fact should call for a real effort at rectifying this misinterpretation and misrepresentation, especially as this is based on the amount of dedication (ordering of the Christian’s life) that Christians give the Christian God in comparison to how the YTR man is dedicated to the YTR God-gods. It seems YTR is interpreting the Christians dedication to the Christianity God as an intellectual concept rather than a way of life. This is specifically confirmed by Booth’s description of 95% still practising the traditional religion!28

Christianity should take this seriously and define clearly whether the Christian God is to be seen only as an intellectual concept or as “a” or “the” force ordering every day life in a total, practical, or living sense. For Yoruba Christianity to allow YTR to hold to the form of interpretation given above will surely not help build a good future for the Christian faith in Yoruba land.

4. Conversion – Its Motivation and Form

The motivation and form of conversion is another important aspect on which some Yoruba siding with YTR have interpreted Christianity. The motivation for conversion as in Christianity is absent in YTR, hence the Yoruba look for reasons for the strong (missionary or evangelical) interest to convert Yoruba land to Christianity. Reasons were looked for beyond the concept of God that Christianity presented. With the nationalist overtone, it did not take long before Christianity was accused of being collaborators in the conquest of Africa (and Yoruba land).

The popular story –

The missionary came here and said ‘let us pray’, and we closed our eyes, and when we responded ‘amen’ at the end of the prayer, we found the Bible in our hands, but lo and behold, our land had gone into the hands of the missionaries.29

shows a search for motivations beyond the “God” the Christians (the missionaries in this story) presented. May be it could better be said that our economy had gone into the hands of the foreigners, the missionaries fronted for.

Booth gave the process through which YTR gains converts (if these terms could be used for YTR). “People became worshippers of deities not only through inheritance but also as a result of certain needs which became manifest through disease or other difficulties.”30 The fact that this principle is not workable in the Christian context makes some Yoruba to doubt if Christianity really has anything to offer to her adherents.

Onyioha’s presentation of Christianity is a classic example of the nationalist interpretation. Onyioha, discussing the Christian Church, wrote:

So divided is the Church that there are today over 300 mutually antagonistic denominations of Christian religion --- 300 denominations holding the Bible and talking Christ but yet hating one another--- a fact which has taken the salt off Christianity’s sweet doctrine of “love thy neighbour” and rendered Christianity no longer helpful in man’s effort to build a peaceful society.31

This is self-explanatory as to how Onyioha interprets Christianity.

As Parrinder puts it, “If Christianity has made great progress in Africa, it also faces problems and challenges.”32 YTR definitely poses as a problem and is a challenge to Christianity in Yoruba land. The fact that Christianity in Yoruba land preached against many cultural and social practices like bride payment, (dowry), polygyny, clitoridectomy, ancestor worship, sacrificial offering, and isede (local curfew) have all been presented as motivation for conversion at different stages. Also the fact that some Christian preachers (in Yoruba land) have required the stopping of these practices as conditions for the Yoruba to be acceptable (pleasing) to the Christian God, has led to making the Christian God very political in His demand, more so when these things are not even in the Bible directly!

What has been done in this work is to present the misinterpretations and misrepresentation of one by the other in the relation between Christianity and YTR in Yoruba land. This has been done with the concept of God as the basis and cultural religion as the general environment.


1. G. Parrinder, Africa’s Three Religions, (London, Sheldon Press, 1969), p. 164.
2. J.O. Awolalu, Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, (London, Longman, 1979), p. 28-30 and Dopamu, Esu: The Invisible Foe of Men, Shobalatin Press,
3. E.B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition, (London SCM Press Ltd., 1973), p. 141.
4. Ibid. p. 140.
5. Ibid. p. 140-160.
6. E.B. Idowu, Olodumare, God in Yoruba Belief, (London, Longman Group Ltd., 1962), pp. 202-215.
7. Ibid. p. 215.
8. N.S. Booth, Jr. Ed. African Religions: A Symposium, (New York, NOK Publishers, Ltd., 1977), pp. 176-177.
9. Idowu, ATR, p. 168.
10. N.S. Booth, Jr. Loc. Cit. pp. 176-177.
11. J.O. Awolalu, Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, (London, Longman, 1979), p. 50.
12. Benjamin C. Ray, African Religions, Symbol, Ritual and Community, (New Jersey, Prentice-Hall Inc. 1976), pp. 70-71.
13. Ibid. p. 71.
14. Awolalu, Loc. Cit., pp. 31-38.
15. Awolalu, Ibid., pp. 123-126. Idowu, Olodumare, pp. 77-80.
16. William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, (New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 108.
17. Awolalu, Loc. Cit., pp. 30.
18. Jack Mendelsohn, God, Allah and Juju, Religion in Africa Today, (Boston, Beacon Press, 1965), p. 26.
19. The fear was one of ignorance as well as that of possible harm. The fear of harm is supported by events like invitation of troops that resulted in evangelism!
20. Awolalu, Loc. Cit., pp. 21-25.
21. J.S. Eades, The Yoruba Today, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 143.
22. Ibid.
23. Ram Desai, Ed. Christianity in Africa as Seen by Africans), Denver, Allan Swallow, 1962), p. 20.
24. Will Durant, The Story of Civilisation, IV, The Age of Faith, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1950), pp. 425-427; A.M. Renwick, The Story of the Church, (London, The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1963), p. 82. Here the dating of the Icon controversy is put as 726-794.
25. Idowu, Olodumare, p. 5.
26. The issue of marriage and trade are areas where these changes are easily shown.
27. Desai, Loc. Cit., p.14. Desai directed this at the Christian missionaries in Africa.
28. Booth, Loc. Cit. pp. 159-160.
29. Desai, Loc. Cit., p.17.
30. Booth, Loc. Cit. p. 167.
31. K.O.K. Onyioha, African Godianism, (New York Conch Magazine Ltd., 1980), p. 8.
32. Parrinder, ATR, p. 165.

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