Photograph by David Coulson in Different Drums
by Michael Wood (London:  Century, 1987)

Chapter 7
Animistic Practitioners

Topics in Chapter:

Etic Versus Emic Taxonomies Types of Animistic Practitioners

It is easy for missionaries entering an animistic context to disparagingly ridicule animistic practitioners and describe them as "crazy lunatics." Early ethnographers, like Levy-Bruhl (1910, 1922) and Radin (1937), amplified these unfortunate perceptions by calling them "pre-logical," "neurotic," and even "psychotic." Howells, an early writer about Animism, reflected the ethnocentrism of his day when he said, "It is easier for most people, primitive or civilized, to believe in witches, which are imaginary, than in the facts of psychiatry, which are real" (1962, 113). Missiologists, like Nida and Smalley, adopted similar ethnocentric terminologies when they called shamans, sorcerers, and mediums "the `lunatic fringe' of society." These practitioners were described as "psychotic, mentally deranged, emotionally unstable" although frequently very "clever" (1959, 58). The use of pejorative terms led missionaries to conceive of animistic practitioners as fakes rather than representatives of real power. And since they could be understood as quacks, they could easily be dismissed as insignificant--like magicians in our own society. Few missionaries understood that, although some were opportunists, many practitioners carried true power based on ungodly allegiances.

Field research by later ethnographers showed these animistic practitioners typically to be respected leaders who divined misfortune and maintained the authority system of their culture. Shweder, in his formative study of the Zinacanteco Indians of Chiapas, Mexico, describes shamans as practitioners who refuse to say, "I don't know," when confronted by events and ideas that baffle the common man. They creatively devise answers concurrent with their worldviews. Shweder says that they have learned to order "the chaos set before their eyes" by imposing "form on unstructured stimuli." He describes their role in society as both "interpretive and constructive" (1972, 408-412).

Animistic leaders are "practitioners" in the sense that they are noted for what they can do. An animist who has become seriously ill frequently travels from one practitioner to the next until he finds one who is able to help him. When healed, he advocates the powers of the practitioner who gave him the means to be healed. Animistic leaders are "practitioners" rather than "instructors" or "disseminators of information" (Hesselgrave 1978, 157).

When a missionary enters an animistic context, he is not confronted by an animistic system as such but by people who believe in personal and impersonal spiritual power and practitioners of this power. It is, therefore, important to determine how insiders of the culture conceive of these practitioners. In some societies they are tolerated yet feared because of their power. In other societies they are greatly respected because of their ability to manipulate, divine, and communicate with animistic powers.

Animistic societies differ in their emphases. Some emphasize spirit possession, others divination of the causes of illness, others witchcraft and sorcery. Because of these different perspectives, animistic practitioners vary from culture to culture. Even in the same culture various types of animistic leaders perform different functions. The Marakwet of Kenya say, "Motiren ko kobol," i.e., "There are innumerable religious specialists" (Kipkorir 1973, 19). This chapter gives a taxonomy of animistic practitioners for the purpose of aiding the missionary in understanding his animistic context.

Etic Versus Emic Taxonomies

Kenneth Pike says that culture can be viewed from two vantage points: the etic and the emic. An etic perspective sees culture from an outsider's vantage point. An emic perspective, on the other hand, looks at culture from a participant's viewpoint (Pike 1971, 37-38).

Etic Perspectives

In religious anthropology broad classifications have been developed to categorize spiritual phenomena. These units of cultural understanding are "etic," available to the missionary before he arrives on the field. After he arrives on the field, these categories provide him with frameworks to decipher the new culture and compare phenomena in this culture to other world cultures. Without such categories a new missionary would be at a loss to decipher a new culture. He would likely see animistic customs without recognizing them.

An experiment within Western culture might help us understand the need for etic categories. Bruner and Postman conducted a card-playing experiment in which subjects were asked to identify a series of playing cards. Many of the cards were normal although a few were irregular. For example, one irregular card was a red six of spades, and another was a black four of hearts. Because participants were not prepared for new types of cards, they immediately fit the anomalous cards into "conceptual categories prepared by prior experience" (Kuhn 1970, 62-63). "They saw only the types of cards for which previous experience had equipped them" (Kuhn 1970, 113). Likewise, many missionaries in animistic cultures can neither distinguish between types of animistic practitioners nor understand their practices and belief systems. Since most missionaries have grown up in cultures where Animism has been only a substream of a highly secular culture, studying etic classifications of Animism helps the missionary become aware of his "blind spots."

The new missionary must realize at least two dangers in making etic classifications. First, since etic classifications are general, specific differences are easily overlooked. There is a danger in saying, "Spiritism of Brazil is like . . . ," because there are many types of Spiritism. Brazilian Spiritism prevalent among the upper classes, called Kardecism, which emphasizes talking with ancestral spirits and social work among the poor, is vastly different from the type of Spiritism prevalent among the lower classes in Bahia, called Condomble, which emphasizes sacrifices made to non-ancestral spirits.

Second, the Christian field worker must not hold so rigidly to etic classification systems that all data is forced to fit his schemes. Sometimes etic systems do not reflect any indigenous reality. New categories must be devised to define the distinctive orientations of that society. For example, shamans all over the world are classified in one category. However, an African shaman is vastly different from a Tungus shaman of Siberia or the Iglulik Eskimo shaman. The African shaman typically divines through analyzing sticks thrown onto the ground or the texture and content of stomachs, intestines, and the liver of sacrificial sheep, goats, or chickens. The Tungus shaman of Siberia divines by means of possession while the Eskimo shaman divines by leading the sick person to confess his sins and thus gain release. While the roles of shamans are similar throughout the world, their methods of divination are vastly different. While the shaman is similar to a medium in Brazil, among Sufi Muslims he might play the role of a mystic. There is a temptation to treat taxonomical categories as if they are "real" rather than general classifications which enable the cross-cultural worker to discover indigenous cultural meanings.

Emic Perspectives

When a missionary enters a new culture, he is not entering a cultural vacuum. The people of that culture already have existing beliefs of God, man, spirits, and magic. They already know how humans relate to the powers and have a culturally formulated sense of sin and salvation. In order to effectively communicate the gospel to people of another culture, the missionary must learn how the people view their world. Malinowski, the father of participant-observation, wrote that the ethnographer must "grasp the native's point of view, his relationship to life, and realize his vision of his world" (Malinowski 1922, 25; Spradley 1979, 3). The missionary, like the ethnographer, must develop an insider's perspective--an emic understanding of how a people mentally order their world.

This necessitates that the missionary begin as a learner when he arrives on the field. Hopefully, he has already studied etic classifications of spiritual powers like those given in the remainder of this book. These classifications prepare him to perceive what he would never see through his monocultural lens. His task, as a new missionary, is to develop an emic understanding of a culture using the etic tools provided in his training.

As the missionary attempts to study culture from an insider's perspective, he must be able to project himself above the culture and objectively study the culture in which he is participating. In this "insider-outsider" relationship the missionary is, to some degree, a biased participant, who, nevertheless, is trained to project himself out of his situation and study what is happening (Spradley 1980, 56-57).

But the missionary is more than an ethnographer whose purpose is to understand cultural meanings and to communicate these meanings to readers who are unfamiliar with the culture. The missionary seeks to understand a cultural context in order to communicate the message of God within that context. He seeks reciprocal dialogue with indigenous cultural leaders on the ramifications of the Christian message upon their culture, a process which integrates the teaching of the Christian message and learning of the culture. The doing of theology within a culture becomes part of emically understanding the culture.

Types of Animistic Practitioners

In the comparative analysis of religious practitioners one of the most useful analytical frameworks is the distinction made between spontaneous religious leaders who challenge traditional religious beliefs and those who represent some religious institution or bureaucracy. Max Weber, who originally formulated this distinction, called the spontaneous religious leader a "prophet" and contrasted him with a "priest" (Weber 1922, 46-59). To him the prophet was either a renewer of a religion or a founder of a new religion. In either role, he was "a force for dynamic social change." The priest, on the other hand, upheld the status quo and served as the "reinforcement of the stability of societies" (Parsons 1963). Weber made this distinction between prophet and priest because of his concern for the genesis and change of religions, especially as societies move from simple to more complex. He noted that as societies become more intricate, they tend to move from emphasizing prophets to emphasizing priests. A rural, face-to-face society tends to have many prophets but few priests; an urban, pluralistic society tends to have many priests but few prophets.

The missionary anthropologist is not so concerned with the origins and development of religions as he is with the statuses and roles of religious practitioners within specific cultures. It will, therefore, be more helpful for him to contrast the priest with the shaman than with the prophet (Turner 1989, 86; Lessa and Vogt 1965, 451-486). Shamans are the informal healers and diviners within world societies while prophets are the individualistic and innovative change makers. Because both the prophet and shaman are informal religious leaders, they are contrasted to the priest in this section. Their roles represent polar opposites: the priest is an institutional religious leader while the prophet and shaman are informal leaders.

Formal, institutional religious leaders are first described in this section followed by informal religious leaders. Finally, the statuses and roles of missionaries

will be analyzed.


The priest is a religious practitioner who receives his authority from a religious organization. He is selected by the organization through election, rituals, or heredity and serves as the institution's ritual leader and spokesman. As a representative of an institution, he attempts to maintain the status quo. Since the priest is "part of a carefully scripted drama, he cannot be an innovator" (Allison 1987). He serves the function of a mediator by speaking to the gods and spirits on behalf of the people. He is commonly a community leader rather than a family or individual leader.

In many societies the priest exists side-by-side with other religious practitioners. The priest, as the official religious leader recognized by the community, acts when all is well to insure continuity and stability as people relate to spiritual powers. But when misfortune interrupts the normal flow of life, the shaman or medium is called upon to restore disturbed relations with spiritual beings and forces.

Sometimes the functions of priest and shaman are combined. For example, among the Saora of India the priest's special function is to maintain the local shrines while the shaman or medium ordains new priests (Von Furer-Haimendorf, 1989, 95). At other times, the functions of priest and prophet may be combined. Among the Maoris of New Zealand the priests interpret the message of the prophets and communicate it to the people (Howells 1962, 139).

Among the Kipsigis of Kenya there is a great contrast between a Catholic priest and a tisindet, a traditional practitioner whose title was typically translated "priest" in English. While the Catholic priest represents an institutionalized religious group, the tisindet was the intercessor between the people and Creator God during times of drought and famine. Unlike the Catholic priest, the tisindet represented no institution but was asked by the people to intercede with God on their behalf during a time of crisis. Forgiveness of sins was sought so that Asis, the traditional name for Creator God among the Kipsigis, would once again send rain. Because of increasing secularization and the spread of Christian beliefs, traditional prayer rites for rain are no longer conducted in Kipsigis. The last such prayer rite that I have personally heard about was in 1965. Except for the tisindet, no traditional religious leader in Kipsigis would be called a priest, and this tisindet did not represent a formalized religious institution.

When high religions, like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, move into an area where low religion predominates, the high religions almost always introduce a more formalized type of religious leadership than existed in the traditional society. Thus the first "priests" in Kipsigis who represented a religious bureaucracy were those who were selected, trained, and ordained by Christian religious groups. The church must reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of this significant change in the nature of religious leaders. To what degree should Christian religious leaders in their context represent a bureaucracy? To what degree should informal, lay leadership be emphasized in areas where religion has not been highly institutionalized? To what degree does increasing institutionalization in the church reflect a similar trend in the political and economic structures of society?

The priest is a ritual functionary within an institutional religious setting. This is in contrast to the prophet, shaman, and medium who are informal leaders who

personally deal with people's everyday problems.


The prophet is a religious practitioner who receives his authority by some prophetic call and proclaims revitalization and change of society without being accountable to any religious bureaucracy. His authenticity is derived from his personal charisma which on one level reflects his ability to inspire and motivate and on another level reflects his capacity to achieve ecstatic states required by one who speaks for God, gods, spirits, and ancestors. As a charismatic innovator, he rejects many tradition-bound rituals and improvises his own or advocates those of his god or spirit. He upsets the status quo by advocating change. Thus the prophet appears to the priest to be a heretic. The prophet is especially active during times of deep cultural stress and anxiety. During this time of anomie, he receives a divine call and speaks the message of his god or spirit to a people overwhelmed by problems and stresses. The prophet communicates with the people on the cosmological as well as the this-worldly level (Turner 1989, 88) and is consequently likely to bring about worldview change. While "in the priest man speaks to God, in the prophet . . . God speaks to man" (Evans-Pritchard 1956, 304).

The roles of Amaziah and Amos in the book of Amos illustrate the contrast between priest and prophet. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, represented the status quo--the entrenched bureaucracy which had rejected the worship of the one true God. After hearing the seditious message of Amos, he immediately informed King Jereboam II and confronted Amos. Amos came from Judah to North Israel to proclaim the need for change--for revival of the worship of God with the resulting punishment of exile if Israel did not repent. When Amaziah ordered Amos to refrain from prophesying in Bethel and return to Judah, Amos refused because his message was from God and he could not refrain from preaching the words of God (Amos 7:10-17). In such contexts there is an obvious tension between priest and prophet. The priest seeks to maintain the status quo; the prophet advocates change.

The prophet William Harris of Liberia was such a change agent in West Africa during the years 1913-15. Harris attended mission schools in Liberia and was a teacher in the Protestant Episcopal schools from 1892 to 1909. In 1909 he traitorously raised the British flag in a land that considered itself free from colonial control and was immediately imprisoned. After getting out of prison, he began a missionary journey down the coast from Liberia through Ivory Coast and into Ghana. On his trip he admonished all who would listen to burn their fetishes, be baptized, worship on the Sabbath, and wait for the White Men who would explain the message of the Bible. Over 100,000 Ivorians and Ghanaians turned from paganism, burned their fetishes, and were baptized. Despite persecution, including the deportation of Harris from French-speaking West Africa and the burning by the French of church buildings built by the new Christians, the movement persisted and thrived. Various independent Methodist churches date their origin back to this early missionary journey of the Prophet Harris (Wold 1968, 117-122). Some prophets, like Harris, are initiators of new religious movements. Others, like Amos, seek to revitalize an existing religion which has regressed into Animism, become institutionalized and less sensitive to the needs of the common person, or been broken apart by political in-fighting.

Movements may be either initiated or revitalized by prophets. They are given continuity by priests. Muhammad, Jesus, and the prophet Harris were all initiators of new religious movements. Amos, on the other hand, sought to revitalize Israelite religion by urging the people to return to their old faith. These prophets could not be quieted by the priests of their day because they believed that their message originated with God.

The need for continuity forces prophetic movements to become priestly. Elijah was at first a lonely prophet standing by himself before the prophets of Baal. The movement pointed toward institutionalization when Elisha was chosen as his successor. When Elisha set up a school of the prophets, this "prophetic" movement became even more priestly. As time passed, kings surrounded themselves with prophets who spoke the words that the kings wanted to hear (1 Kgs. 22:6-8). By the time of Amos the prophetic movement had become so institutionalized that Amos refused to call himself a prophet, saying that he was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (Amos 7:14). As prophets become priests, new prophets are raised up to revitalize, reform, and re-direct the old system. Prophetic movements may become priestly in one generation. Both Billy Graham and Oral Roberts initiated prophetic ministries. Their movements became highly institutionalized with the development of the Billy Graham Crusades and Oral Roberts University. Prophetism is sometimes built into the movement. Some Pentecostal churches of Latin America require a young preacher to start a new church (be a "prophet") before he is ordained (to be a "priest" within the hierarchy) (Wagner 1973, 89-100).

Both the prophet and priest are needed in an on-going movement. The prophet initiates and revitalizes a movement, while the priest provides continuity. Reforms become institutionalized as charismatic, prophetic leaders are forced into a priestly mold. Like the shaman, the prophet is a non-institutional, informal religious leader but, unlike the shaman, is typically not a healer. The prophet, although speaking for a spirit or god, is not possessed by the spiritual being, like the medium, but maintains his own personality.


The shaman is a diviner who seeks to discern what spiritual being or impersonal force is causing sickness, discord, or catastrophe in order to prescribe some remedy. In contrast to community leaders, like the priest and prophet, the shaman is an individual or family practitioner. He is a "personal diviner" called upon to solve urgent personal problems. He "deals in a personal and specific way with spirits and lesser deities" but seldom, if ever, dialogues about Creator God, the source of evil in the world, or cosmological issues (Turner 1989, 88). Since he holistically treats the symptoms of disease and dispenses herbal medicines, he is sometimes called a "medicine man." In addition to medical treatment, he gives spiritual prognoses discerning what god, spirit, spiritual force, sin, or black magic has caused the illness or catastrophe. Since he frequently divines and cures problems created by witches, he is called a "witchdoctor." The shaman uses spiritual power for beneficent purposes to help people counter magic, evil spirits, and the results of sin in their lives. He champions the cause of the people as they confront the evil powers always present in the animist's world.

In many rural, face-to-face cultures every extended family has its own shaman. He contacts the ancestors and spirits on behalf of his own people and discerns what powers are being used against them. In urban centers, where specialties develop, divining the powers becomes a trade. Shamanistic specialists may join together and form spiritist centers where people come for spiritual and physical prognoses.

The term shaman originated with the Tungus people of Siberia. These nomadic reindeer herders and fishermen believe in three realms of existence: a higher sphere where good spirits and light exist, a middle realm where people live along with the spirits of the world, and a lower domain where evil spirits dwell in darkness. The shaman is understood as the beneficent practitioner who is able to go to the realm above or the realm below on behalf of the living. He divines various causes of illness. A person may have a disease spirit inside him which has to be exorcised. Or, a person may have lost his soul and the shaman may have to confront demonic powers of the lower realms to retrieve it. The shaman uses his spiritual power to help people and is given public recognition and respect by them (Howells 1962, 125-127). Although taken from the Siberian context, the term "shaman" is used for the general practitioner who helps people deal with the problem of evil in their lives and unlock the secrets of the unknown.

The shaman is the most frequently used type of religious leader in animistic contexts. When a Brazilian lady wonders how she might induce a man to pay her special attention, a diviner is used. When a Chinese family wants to find out whether an ancestor is comfortable, a shaman reveals the world of the dead. When an African child becomes seriously ill, a shaman determines the cause and cure. When a Korean family is deciding on a date for a wedding or a funeral, the shaman determines the auspicious day. When a Hong Kong businessman wants inside information about the stock market, he seeks a diviner to discern the market. When a Zinacanteco Indian of Mexico moves into a new house, the shaman first purifies it.

A shaman's universal function is healing those broken in body or soul. He first divines the cause of sickness and then prescribes some type of cure. If sin is thought to be the cause of illness, the shaman will likely lead the patient to confess so that he can be healed. For example, Rasmussen records how an Eskimo woman was led by a shaman to confess her sins. Her sins included eating taboo food, touching a dead body, concealing a miscarriage to avoid certain taboos, and having intercourse with men while unclean. As her sins were confessed, listeners pleaded for release from sickness. The shaman encouraged her to confess all, saying, "She grows cleaner with every confession, but there is more to come" (Rasmussen 1965, 410-414).

Among the Kipsigis of Kenya sickness is also frequently connected with sin. Kipsigis believe that sin disrupts society and brings disharmony. The phrase they use to speak of this is "amech tengech," literally meaning, "ours sins are eating us up." Harmony can only be re-established by forgiveness of sins and restitution. Other causes of sickness include spirit possession, witchcraft, and sorcery. In other societies, soul-loss and object intrusion, which occurs when spirits or sorcerers magically project foreign substances into their foe's body, are other plausible causes of sickness among animistic people (Burnett 1988, 179-182). In animistic societies nothing is left to chance or to the forces of nature. There is a spiritual cause for every extended illness. The shaman divines the cause of the illness and suggests a remedy.

One becomes a shaman in various ways. Among the Zulu of South Africa the outward symptoms of becoming an inyanga are abstaining from different kinds of food, complaining of pain in different parts of the body, dissipating one's wealth in order to seek a cure, becoming very sick for a long period of time, dreaming dreams, and weeping and singing loudly at night. Finally, an experienced inyanga will divine that he is being possessed and is not sick as other people are sick. A person with these symptoms disturbs the community because he is in a state of transition. He is no longer just a man but not yet a diviner. When the people perceive his being torn between two worlds, they encourage him to go to an established inyanga so that induction into shamanhood might be facilitated. After these initiatory rites he comes back a new man with the facilities to divine the unknown (Radin 1937, 123-126).

Among the Zinacanteco Indians the call to be a shaman comes by seeing into the realms of gods and ancestors through dreams and visions (Shweder 1972, 408). In much of West Africa the shaman receives his call when he is possessed by some spirit. This belief was imported by slaves into Brazil so that almost all shamanistic practitioners can only divine when they are possessed by various orixas or lesser gods. A shaman's helper can become a diviner only when an orixa possesses him in the orunko ceremony. Among Koreans sinbyong ("possession sickness") is prerequisite to becoming a shaman (Harvey 1989, 42-43).

These illustrations from throughout the world demonstrate that joining with the spiritual beings in some type of ecstatic experience, especially through possessions and dreams, is prerequisite to becoming a shaman. While Westerners might consider these people as "crazy," their transformations into sane practitioners who divine the unknown reveal to animistic peoples some sort of union between the human and the spiritual worlds. "Shamans are separated from the rest of society by the intensity of their religious experience" (Von Furer-Haimendorf 1989, 96).

How should the Christian community in animistic contexts treat the shaman? Rarely would they ridicule or question that he has the power to know the unknown. They would recognize that his power comes from a union with powers that are not of Creator God, even if the power is used for benevolent purposes. One cannot be tied to these powers and give allegiance to God. The slave girl having the spirit of divination in Acts 16:16-18 was a shaman. Using her power, she was able to accurately divine who Paul and his co-workers were. In this case Paul did not strike her blind like he had done with the sorcerer of Acts 13:8, but he healed her to show the power of God over all the non-godly powers.

In summary, the shaman does not necessarily advocate change like a prophet nor does he conduct ceremonial rituals like the priest. He is a diviner who prescribes cures for those who are sick or have other personal problems. He holds special powers because of his relationship with the spirit world and sometimes serves as a medium as well as a diviner. As a beneficent practitioner, he stands out against malevolent forces of the witch and sorcerer. Although benevolent, Christians cannot use this practitioner because his power is not of God.

One of my most effective sermons in Kipsigis contrasted the prayer of Hannah asking God for a son to a childless Kipsigis woman who seeks animistic power through a traditional shaman, called a Chepsogeiyot. While Hannah relied on God and waited faithfully for him to act, the Kipsigis lady, following the dictates of the shaman, sought to overcome the curse of a recently deceased aunt. She sought to appease through a propitiatory sacrifice. Hannah related to sovereign God, the one who gives children (Ps. 113:9; 127:3). The traditionalist related to the ancestor because she had no higher power. Hannah's relationship to God was one of praise (1 Sam. 2:1-10); the traditionalist had an allegiance which blocked her relationship with God (Isa. 8:19). Such preaching contrasts the way of God and the traditions of Animism. Chapter 3.


A medium is a human oracle through whom an ancestor or spirit communicates directly with the living. The medium is totally possessed by the spiritual being. Unlike a prophet, a medium does "not recount a revelation" after he hears it. Neither does he briefly participate in the spiritual world during periods of ecstasy and then return to himself in order to communicate with the living, like a shaman. Rather, a medium speaks "publicly with the very voice of the god himself" (Howells 1962, 78). The god or spirit enters the medium, suppresses the spirit of that person, and uses his organs to communicate to others.

Ancient examples of mediums are numerous. Greek and Roman gods frequently spoke to the people through mediums. As early as 1100 B.C. Delphi in Greece was considered sacred to the god Apollo. A medium, uttering weird sounds while in a frenzy, was believed to speak the words of Apollo. These words were recorded and interpreted by the priest of the oracle. The kaula in Hawaii was also possessed by a god usually at the time of some feast. The medium spoke in the shrill, squeaking voice of the god. As at Delphi, the priests communicated the message of the god as he spoke through the medium (Howells 1962, 78-79).

A study of mediums is very important to those ministering in certain contemporary, urban societies. In these contexts there has been a great upsurge in the belief that ancestors, spirits, and astral beings speak to the living through mediums. This has been a shock to those who believe we have entered an "age of demystification," a term coined by Weber to chart man's evolutionary growth from Animism to polytheism to monotheism to demystification. But the urbanite frequently begins to question his secularity and seek meaning beyond material existence.

Spiritist Mediums of Brazil. Within the last fifty years, a new mediumistic movement has developed in Brazil. Folk Catholicism has met with other animistic influences in the city and has reformulated itself into a new animistic religion, called Spiritism (Cook 1982). The core belief of Spiritism is that mediums are possessed by saints, gods, and ancestors, and while possessed divine the problems of believers and provide solutions.

In a typical spiritist center there are three tiers of animistic practitioners. The highest position in a given center is occupied by the chefe, the chief medium of the center (Brown 1979, 278). He has the right "to create and enforce his own rules" (Maggie 1987, 103) and plays a central role in all sessions whether or not he is possessed. The chefe might be called the mae de santo ("mother of saint") or iyalorixa if she is a woman and pai de santo ("father of saint") or babalorixa if he is a man (Shipp 1982, 23-24). As the chief medium of a spiritist center, the chefe is frequently called the father or mother of a god or saint.

The second tier is the corps of mediums, called cavalos ("horses") because they are ridden by the gods during possession (Souza Lima 1970, 122). Because of their place within the institution, they are called sons/daughters of the saints/orixas (McGregor 1967, 162). In some spiritist centers one medium is chosen as an assistant to the chefe and becomes his successor when he dies (Souza Lima 1970, 122). When mediums feel stifled by the controls of the chefe, they tend to leave and start their own spiritist centers.

On the lowest tier there are various helpers, called cambonos, who assist the chefe and mediums at the ceremonies but who are not ritually possessed (Shipp 1982, 65). These attendants assist the mediums with their ritual garments once the mediums become possessed (Maggie 1987, 104). Many of these attendants will become initiates in the orunko ceremony to receive their orixas and begin to serve as cavalos.

Being a medium is a prerequisite to developing as a leader in a spiritist center. They go through a lengthy initiation rite after a period of training as an initiate. Once a person has become a cavalos for the orixas, he cannot quit without being overpowered by the orixa who has begun to control his life (O'Gorman 1977, 66).

There are many reasons why Brazilians seek help from mediums. First, Brazilians go to mediums to find solutions to romantic problems. According to one spirit medium, 80 percent of the women who come to spiritist centers are seeking answers to love problems (St. Clair 1971, 181). One medium, while possessed, told one seeking love to:

. . . pour "cachaca" (cane brandy) around the base of a tree and place three candles in a row. Then take a small photograph of himself and write the name of the person who has scorned his love on the back of the photograph. Then burn the photograph with the flame of the middle candle. The smoke will unite his face and the person's name. They will be married soon after (Lachler l982, 4).

Second, Brazilians go to mediums for healing. A common statement in Brazil is that "Umbandistas," participants in the fastest growing spiritist cult, "come to Umbanda through the door of suffering" (Brown 1979, 280). The poor of Brazil, who frequently cannot afford hospitals and doctors, have learned to rely upon mediums. Third, others go to mediums for resolution of financial difficulties. David St.Clair, a Western journalist stationed for years in Brazil, concluded his walk from cynicism to faith in spiritism when he believed the spiritists who told him that his "paths were crossed." St. Clair went to a medium of Exu, the god of evil, to have his paths straightened. When St. Clair had his way straightened, his financial problems were immediately remedied (St. Clair 1971, 271-302).

These reasons for the use of mediums are immediate and this-worldly. A spiritist seeks the powers of the spirit world to solve the immediate problems of life. Spiritism is a very practical religion. If one medium does not help, another is tried; if one spirit does not help, another is sought.

New Age Channelers. In the New Age Movement mediums are called "channels." Their function is described as "channeling," "the communication of information to or through a physically embodied human being from a source that is said to exist on some other level or dimension of reality than the physical as we know it, and that is not from the normal mind (or self) of the channel" (Klimo 1987, 33).

New Age channelers are well-known on the American scene. Jane Roberts initially started receiving messages from someone called "Frank Withers" while experimenting with the Ouija board. "Frank Withers" soon identified himself as part of a greater entity called "Seth." After four Ouija board sessions with "Seth," Jane began to receive him clairaudiently, then in a light trance, and finally in a full trance. Based on these experiences, Jane Roberts has written a book on ESP, two books about how she began to channel "Seth," and five books said to be dictated by "Seth". Helen Cohn Schucman, a once-secular psychologist employed by New York's Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, began hearing voices within saying, "This is a course in miracles." After initial struggles to reject this inward call, she became the channel for a three-volume, 1200-page work entitled A Course in Miracles. Kevin Ryerson, an articulate channel who has appeared on numerous talk shows, entered channeling through experimenting with Eastern type meditation in order to alter his "state of consciousness" (Klimo 1987, 35-38). These illustrations demonstrate how New Agers were induced to enter the mediumistic movement through the Ouija board, hearing an inner voice, and Eastern type meditation.

Channeling is based on the presupposition that all reality is composed of one spirit. Man is considered an individuation merely for the sake of his own self-expression. Both he and his world are thought to be illusions, part of God rather than creations of God. By his beliefs and desires, humankind has created an illusion that appears to be reality. He is a part of one reality, which might be called God. Within this conceptual system channeling is "the growing awareness of any part of the one Being that it can access any of the rest of itself" (Klimo 1987, 35-38). Contrary to Christian belief, New Age thinkers do not conceive of man as being separate and apart from God yet created by him. The world of the New Ager is an illusion rather than an awesome demonstration of the invisible attributes of God (Rom. 1:18).

How should the people of God view the medium? In the scriptures, turning to mediums was considered a denial that Yahweh was God, the sovereign Lord of the Israelites. The Levitical writer said, "Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:31). Isaiah told the people of Judah, "When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?" (Isa. 8:19). The writer of the Chronicles documented the reason why King Saul died. He was killed not only because "he did not keep the word of the Lord" but also because he "consulted a medium for guidance and did not inquire of the Lord" (1 Chr. 10:13-14). Therefore, the follower of God must realize that although the medium might be able to reveal the cause of a problem and provide a solution, turning to a medium is a denial of faith in God.

Witch and Sorcerer

Many world societies make no distinction between sorcery and witchcraft. For example, in Europe and North America the terms "witch" and "sorcerer" have been lumped together and are used interchangeably. Evans-Pritchard, in his study of African peoples, first made the distinction between witch and sorcerer. Differentiating between types of malevolent religious practitioners is especially helpful in Africa, where the distinction between witchcraft and sorcery is necessary for clarity of cultural understanding.

Witches and sorcerers both use spiritual power to inflict harm on others. A witch, whose power is internal, may not be aware that he is a witch until he is accused. He unknowingly energizes spiritual power to hurt someone. Josep Lang'at, a Christian among the Kipsigis of Kenya, has said,"Anger takes upon itself a power of its own and can kill. Hitting with a stick only hurts the body but hitting with anger hurts both spirit and body." Josep was acknowledging that anger and jealousy, major sins in most animistic contexts, can become forces to bewitch. When a man encounters some catastrophe, a neighbor who has been angry with him may be accused of witchcraft. He probably will not deny the charge, believing that his feelings of animosity may have activated the power of witchcraft. Evans-Pritchard writes that among the Azande of Sudan "a witch performs no rite, utters no spell, and possesses no medicines. An act of witchcraft is a psychic act. . . ." (1937, 21).

Unlike a witch, whose power is internal and may be used unconsciously, a sorcerer uses the external power of magical rites and paraphernalia to consciously inflict harm on others. Because of his hostile intent, the sorcerer is the most feared person in animistic society. He has a repertoire of techniques for accomplishing his evil purposes. Stevens describes sorcery as "evil magic, involving the learned use of objects or words . . ." (Stevens 1989, 214). While a witch may be allowed to undo the harm he has done by reversing the magic and making restitution for the suffering of the victim, the sorcerer is so feared and hated that he may be killed upon detection. Both of these practitioners injure people, one consciously and the other unconsciously.

Witchcraft and sorcery are believed to cause untimely deaths. In 1985 Horace Owiti, a Luo member of Kenya's Parliament running for re-election, was brutally slain and his chief rival, Aggrey Ambala, charged with the murder. On the day that Owiti was buried, Ambala died suddenly in prison. Speculation was rampant concerning the cause of his death. This type of speculation is very typical at Luo funerals when a person dies unexpectedly. The postmortem examination showed that Ambala had died of a heart attack and hypertension. Yet most Kenyans felt that behind the natural causes was some spiritual causation. Numerous Kenyans believed that sorcery was the cause (Weekly Review 1985, 3-5). Some Kipsigis felt that Ambala's sin had returned to punish him.

Sorcerers are also believed to manipulate sports events in many parts of the world. A columnist for Kenya's major newspaper wrote, "It cannot be denied that nearly all soccer teams in Africa hire witchdoctors [sorcerers] in the hope that they will help them win matches" (Daily Nation, January 5, 1986, 3). For example, the Simba Sports Club of Tanzania was playing Kampala City Council for the East and Central Africa Club Championship in Uganda in 1978. Players of the Kampala City Council charged that a Simba goalkeeper had a magic cap which prevented them from scoring. When officials took the cap away, magical particles were found in it. After the magic was removed, Kampala City Council scored an equalizer to make the score end at 1-1 and outscored Simba 4-2 in the shoot-out to win the game. It was noted that the Simba goalie missed his kick in the overtime shootout because he did not have his magic (Daily Nation, January 5, 1986, 3).

In 1985 I took a survey trip among the Sukuma of Tanzania to show a future missionary a largely unchurched area where people would likely turn from Animism to some form of Christianity or Islam in the present generation. While driving into Sukuma for the first time, we saw numerous dancers marching in formation up the major road wearing feather headdresses and skins and armed with bows and arrows. Such traditional garb is seldom seen in present-day Africa. I immediately stopped the car and asked a man on a bicycle who this large group was and what they were doing. With some hesitation he replied that they were the Sungusungu, a society set up to find thieves. After getting to know some people and learning how to ask questions within the context, we learned that Sungusungu was a traditional institution which had originated among the Nyamwezi tribe to the south. Wherever livestock were stolen or wherever witchcraft or sorcery was thought to exist, the Sungusungu came into the area to determine by means of divining and ordeals who was guilty. The prevalence of these customs was indicated by the fact that the government police allowed this traditional society to usurp much of their authority; and Sokoine, the highly respected, former Vice President of Tanzania, was reputed to have stood behind their activities.

Witchcraft and sorcery exist among the Kipsigis people of Kenya but are not as prevalent as in surrounding tribes. Kipsigis say that while they fear the ancestors, the Kisii, an adjoining tribe, greatly fear witchcraft and sorcery. The Kipsigis realize that there are many more types of sorcerers in Kisii than there are in Kipsigis. Nevertheless, fear of malevolent spiritual power continues to exist. One day the local judge was taking bribes to influence his decisions. A wronged party decided to take justice into his own hands and curse the judge. Late one night the judge heard a sound at the door and opened it to find thorns from the lelwet tree, frequently used in curses. He died instantly from a heart attack. For days the Kipsigis talked about the causes and reasons for the use of sorcery. Who had performed the sorcery? Was the person a Kipsigis? How could a Kipsigis do such a thing?

In Kipsigis there are various kinds of sorcerers and witches. The most powerful is the orgoiyot, who is powerful enough to perform sorcery against the whole tribe or even to stop rain. This personality is so powerful that he has his own prophets ("maotik") who are sent to speak to the people. Unlike sorcerers in other contexts, the orgoiyot does not camouflage his identity because he has power over all the land. During times of drought, traditionalists give money to the orgoiyot to encourage him to use his powers to induce rain. Although feared for his power to work black magic, the orgoiyot at one time gave tribal blessings. In pre-colonial times the orgoiyot decided when and if the warriors should go to war, but in recent years most of these traditional leadership functions have been lost. One or more of his children will likely inherit the father's powers.

A common witch in Kipsigis is called a bonindet. Kipsigis say that one may be a bonindet whether or not he knows it. When accused, he typically does not refute the charge. A person goes to the chepsogeiyot, the Kipsigis female shaman, in order to determine who is the bonindet.

Witchcraft and sorcery not only exist in Africa but are also present in most world societies. These malevolent powers continue in societies that are predominately Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu. Howells comments that "Christianity fought the old cult tooth and nail for centuries before it won the battle" (Howells 1962, 105). As the Christian movement declines in the West, Satanic cults, using malevolent powers, are on the increase. Anton LaVey's Church of Satan has institutionalized part of this movement. Satanic symbols, like the upside-down cross, pentagram, seal of Solomon, and swastika, are frequently found today in such prominent places as record album covers. A police officer who speaks frequently on the occult and investigates occult phenomena estimates that 10 percent of all high school students in Abilene, Texas, have dabbled in the occult (Reed 1989). An ancient guidebook for European practitioners of witchcraft and sorcery, called The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, continues to be used in various European contexts (Koch 1971, 131-141).

In the West the tradition developed that sorcerers and witches held their powers because they had made a "deliberate pact with the Devil" (Thomas 1978, 521). In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a decree against witchcraft. This decree influenced two Dominican friars, Heinrich Kraemer and Johann Sprenger, to write an encyclopedia of demonology called Malleus Maleficarum, "The Witches' Hammer." This book accused witches of being worshippers of the devil, the worst of all sins, rather than merely maleficent practitioners. In the ensuing inquisition, an estimated 9 million people were accused of witchcraft and killed over a period of about a hundred years. This belief that malevolent practitioners had made a pact with the devil became a part of English law. Thomas writes that this early legal definition originated with Sir Edward Coke who defined a witch as "a person that hath conference with the Devil to consult with him or to do some act" (1978, 523-524).

How do people of God relate to the sorcerer? The Old Testament directive was, "Do not allow a sorceress to live" (Exod. 22:18) and "Do not practice divination or sorcery" (Lev. 19:26). Sorcerers are always ardent enemies of the people of God. Confrontation between them and Christian evangelists frequently occurs in animistic contexts. Elymas, a Jewish sorcerer, opposed Paul, who had been teaching the proconsul, Sergius Paulus of Cyprus, and was struck blind (Acts 13:6-12). When sorcerers become Christians, as in the case of Simon of Samaria, the temptation is to look on Christian power as a manipulating force. The context of Acts 8 infers that Simon desired to be a Christian power broker in an animistic sense, and this led him to desire the gift of the laying on of the apostles' hands (Acts 8:19-24). Typically the sign of a sorcerer's conversion is the burning of magical paraphernalia used in his evil endeavors.

Christians are called to be holy as their father in heaven is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16). A people of holiness cannot touch anything as wicked as sorcery. Attitudes of jealousy and hatred which breed witchcraft are uprooted by Christian love. Where Christianity takes root, sorcery and witchcraft wane. Paulo Koech, a long-time Kipsigis friend and helper, testified that "we have not been affected by witchcraft since the days of my father because we have been Christians." The holiness of God abhors all contact with sorcery and displaces all attitudes which breed witchcraft.


A missionary's status and accompanying roles must be worked out in relationship to categories already existing in the host culture. Many animistic peoples have no status called "missionary" for understanding the foreigner who comes into their context for the purpose of communicating the gospel. As much as his new culture allows, the missionary must define his statuses and roles according to categories already present in the host culture. He must avoid negative statuses like colonialist, landlord, policeman and reformer, spiritual father, administrator or technician (Hiebert 1985a, 261-273; Loewen 1975, 434-440) while seeking positive statuses concurrent with being God's emissary in the new culture.

What are positive missionary statuses within the context of animistic cultures? Almost all societies have some category called "learner." For example, while making a dialect survey among the Choco of Panama, Loewen assumed the role of a "young man getting to know the world" (Loewen 1975, 439). Accepting some status defined by the English word "learner" helps the missionary comprehend how the people think, how their animistic world is ordered, and the way to communicate the message of God's work in Jesus Christ within the new context. During this time, the missionary is developing warm, personal relationships with the people of the culture. Frequently, these relationships result in bringing people to Christ. The first church among the Kipsigis, for instance, was established as a result of working with those who taught us the Kipsigis language. However, the status of learner can only be limited to the initial period that the missionary is on the field. The people expect the learner to develop other statuses within their society.

In determining statuses beyond that of "learner," the missionary might do well to study the nature of prophets within society. Prophets are the religious leaders who bring change and revitalization to existing culture. Because both are change agents, the missionary's role is similar to that of a prophet. However, the prophet is an innovator within culture, while a missionary advocates change as an outsider. We might call this status "God's advocate" with the function of "proclaiming God's sovereignty." As God's advocate, he teaches people how to come into a relationship with Creator God through Jesus Christ. He announces that all principalities and powers lay naked and defeated before His power. He defines magic as a force of the realm of Satan which cannot be employed by people of God. He empathizes with people who follow animistic practitioners, yet encounters and challenges allegiances which conflict with God's sovereignty. He becomes God's advocate for change.

As the church becomes better established, the missionary is tempted to become a priest, the authoritative representative of an established religion. There is, however, a danger in an outsider becoming an institutional religious leader. Problems of discipline are handled by the outsider. He defines God's morality and ethics for the host people. Christian alternatives to traditional marriage and coming of age ceremonies are determined by those born and enculturated in another context. Such a priestly role for a missionary appears paternalistic and leads the national church to desire self-government. An alternative status of "catalyst" of cultural options is therefore suggested. The missionary frequently has a broad vision of the world, which enables him to bring to developing national leaders options of how to handle problems within their context. The missionary's role becomes a "mirror, source of alternative, friend of the court . . ." (Loewen 1980, 128). As a catalyst, he works with the national church as a brother rather than as a father.

These three types of statuses and roles--a learner, an advocate of God's sovereignty, and a catalyst of a maturing church--are suggested for missionaries in animistic contexts. As a learner, the missionary realizes that he has a lot to comprehend about his new environment. As an advocate of God's sovereignty, he proclaims the supremacy of God over the principalities and powers. As a catalyst of a maturing church, the missionary expresses the confidence that the people can order their lives according to the word of God and, therefore, can work with them as a brother and not a father.


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