Ancestor Worship—Why It Persists
By “Awake!” correspondent in South Africa
“WESTERN civilisation,” wrote Protestant missionary Willoughby back in 1928, “is enough of itself to seal the doom of ancestor-worship as a living religion.” Contrary to prediction, though, ancestor worship continues to thrive in Africa. Many live in fear of dead ancestors. And when illness strikes, many still consult spirit mediums and witch doctors in hopes that the ancestral spirits of the patients can cure them.
Why, though, does ancestor worship persist in spite of Christendom’s strenuous efforts to eradicate it? Note what the Encyclopædia Britannica says: “Ancestor-worship has its parallels in Christian cults of the dead and of the saints.” Such “parallels” are due to Christendom’s belief in an immortal soul. Ironically, then, Christendom’s missionaries have done little more than reinforce the African belief that dead ancestors can help and harm. Says Dr. Ngubane in the book Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine: “Usually a Christian Zulu living in a chiefdom [tribal area] does not find Christian beliefs and ancestral beliefs incompatible.”
Even some spirit mediums and witch doctors have found a home in Christendom’s churches. A survey taken by Dr. Chavunduka of the University of Zimbabwe revealed that among 145 traditional healers were Methodists, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Seventh-Day Adventists, and members of the Dutch Reformed Church. “Membership of a church does not prevent an individual from participating in traditional religion,” he concluded.
Another reason why ancestor worship flourishes is the shortage of modern medical personnel. With less than one doctor for every 5,000 Africans, some areas receive only periodic visits by mobile clinics. Traditional healers, diviners, and witch doctors, however, abound. It is therefore simply easier to find a witch doctor than a university-trained doctor.
Surprisingly, many patients are quite satisfied with the treatment they receive. “The ministrations of these healers,” wrote psychiatrists Griffiths and Cheetham in the South African Medical Journal, “appear to have proved significantly effective in alleviating both physical and emotional disturbances, and in the authors’ view they continue to represent a major therapeutic resource within African society . . . Even when Black patients recognize the value and efficiency of Western therapy this is often but a partial acceptance, and many . . . attend the iSangoma [spirit medium] subsequent to hospital treatment in order to ‘complete’ their cure.”
Some health authorities have therefore decided that rather than try to stamp out such “healers,” they should work with them. In 1979, for example, the Catholic Church lent its support to the “Primary Health Training for Indigenous Healers Project” in Ghana. By 1980, 41 traditional healers had been trained in Western medical techniques. “This project,” concluded anthropologist Dr. Warren, “reflects a changing attitude towards the indigenous healer, an invaluable ally in the quest for improved health conditions.”
In the past, the churches opposed spirit mediums and witch doctors. Now they have changed their tactics. While endorsing modern medical trends, they try to retain the support of church members who still cling to ancestral beliefs.
Who Is Responsible?
Why, though, are African traditional healers so often successful in effecting cures? No doubt some of the herbs prescribed have medicinal value. Too, some psychosomatic effect may be involved. Nevertheless, some diseases that have baffled Western medical science seem to respond to the treatment of diviners and witch doctors! Could herbs, alone, be responsible? Not likely. Is it possible, then, that dead ones are really helping the living?
Not so, according to Catholic medical missionary Dr. Kohler. He passed off the activities of African diviners as the work of “clever crooks or crazy cranks.” Indeed, many in Christendom blush at the thought of acknowledging the existence of invisible, superhuman forces.
Belief in such forces, however, cannot so easily be brushed aside. For example, at a seminar held some years ago at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, on the theme “Witchcraft and Healing,” a Professor Jahoda said: “Many of the students I taught there were highly intelligent people . . . I was then struck by the fact that many of them seemed strongly convinced of the existence of a great many phenomena which their peers in this country would reject out of hand.”
‘Might there be something to ancestor worship after all?’ wonder some. The Bible clearly answers: “For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) When a person dies, “his spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.” (Psalm 146:4) There is no immortal soul to perform cures or to terrify living ones. For the Bible clearly shows that “the soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 3:23) What, then, accounts for all the phenomena associated with ancestor worship? Wicked spirit creatures (demons) led by Satan the Devil! (Revelation 12:9, 12) Apparently, Satan’s demon followers delight in misleading humans by posing as deceased ancestors.—Compare 1 Samuel 28:7-19.
True, Christendom’s clergy often vehemently deny the existence of demons. But Jesus Christ himself had a personal encounter with Satan the Devil. (Luke 4:1-13) The Bible even tells of his casting evil spirits out of demon-possessed victims. (Luke 4:33-37; 8:27-33; 9:37-42) Ancestor worshipers are thus unwittingly cooperating with man’s greatest enemy—Satan!
Freed From Fear of the Dead
By introducing people to these Bible truths, Jehovah’s Witnesses have helped free many Africans from fearing and worshiping the dead. This has not always been easy. One 19-year-old boy named Thembukwazi began a study of the Bible. After learning that ancestor worship is wrong, he refused to thank his dead ancestors at a family ritual. This so offended his family that he eventually had to leave home. In fact, a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses that accommodated him was threatened with murder! Thembukwazi, though, continued studying the Bible and in 1979 was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A woman named Alphina likewise had a struggle breaking free from superstitious worship. A minister of the Nazarene Church in Hammarsdale, South Africa, introduced her to spiritism. Inviting her to stay in one of his homes, he promised that she would be given a “special gift” from her ancestors if she did so. She accepted his invitation, but soon problems developed. “I began to face an intense attack of wicked spirits,” Alphina recalls. “My body would shake violently and then it would feel as if my muscles were torn by a sharp instrument.” Soon, though, she received the “gift”—powers of “miraculous healing”! However, demon attacks continued, and after four years she left the church in despair.
Later she was contacted by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who began teaching her the Bible. “It became quite clear to me that those whom I thought were my ancestors were really wicked spirits. So after I destroyed things pertaining to demonism,” she says, “I was freed from wicked spirits.”—Acts 19:18-20.
A Witch Doctor Abandons Ancestor Worship
Young Simon had advanced from spirit medium to witch doctor. “Does the Bible forbid a person to become a spirit medium or a witch doctor?” he asked his cousin Joyce, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Yes,” she replied, showing him the Bible passage at Deuteronomy 18:10-12, which says: “There should not be found in you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, anyone who employs divination, a practicer of magic or anyone who looks for omens or a sorcerer, or one who binds others with a spell or anyone who consults a spirit medium or a professional foreteller of events or anyone who inquires of the dead. For everybody doing these things is something detestable to Jehovah, and on account of these detestable things Jehovah your God is driving them away from before you.”
Often those who feel they have received a “calling” to be witch doctors fear that giving up their craft could be fatal. Yet Simon’s interest was aroused and he agreed to having a regular Bible study.
“During the initial studies,” explains Joyce, “he would sometimes experience a demon attack. I would see his whole body begin to shake. I began to pray every time the attack started and the demon would depart. Because of these attacks, I decided to study with Simon out of the booklet Unseen Spirits—Do They Help Us? or Do They Harm Us?a I also began opening each study with prayer, asking Jehovah God to help us so that we would not be troubled by demons. A demon never interrupted our Bible studies again.”—Matthew 6:9, 13.
In time, Simon was moved to give up his practice as witch doctor, throwing all the items connected with witchcraft into a river. “Such a thing is considered dangerous in African society,” Joyce explains, “and Simon’s father was worried. He reported the matter to the witch doctor who had trained Simon. This man said that Simon would be killed by his ancestors for disobeying them.”
But Simon is still alive! Indeed, in 1983 Simon was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “I am happy that Jehovah helped me to break away from the worship of demons,” says Simon.
So are the thousands more who have likewise been freed from the fear of dead ancestors!
a Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
[Blurb on page 24]
The teachings of Christendom worked to reinforce ancestor worship among Africans
[Blurb on page 25]
Jehovah’s Witnesses help people to understand that the dead are really unconscious