John Mbiti, 87, Dies; Punctured Myths About African Religions


But, he said, Mr. Mbiti was criticized, most famously by the Ugandan writer Okot p’Bitek, for casting his arguments in intellectual terms that had been established by the West. Mr. Mbiti insisted, for example, that African cosmologies ultimately align with Christian views of God as omnipotent, omnipresent and eternal.

“The African deities of the books, clothed with the attributes of the Christian God, are, in the main, creations of the students of African religions” like Mr. Mbiti, Mr. p’Bitek wrote in “African Religions in Western Scholarship” (1970). “They are all beyond recognition to the ordinary Africans in the countryside.”

Mr. Mbiti never responded to the criticism, according to Derek Peterson,a professor of history and African Studies at the University of Michigan.

John Samuel Mbiti was born on Nov. 30, 1931, in Mulango, Kenya. His father, Mutuvi Ngaangi, and his mother, Valesi Mbandi, were farmers. Raised and schooled as a Christian, he accepted the prevailing view of traditional African religions as demonic.

After graduating from a high school near Nairobi, Mr. Mbiti studied English, sociology and geography at University College of Makerere in Kampala, Uganda, in 1953. He then received a bachelor’s degree in theology from Barrington College, a Christian liberal arts school in Rhode Island.

After teaching briefly in Kenya and Britain, he earned a Ph.D. in theology at Cambridge University, where he met his future wife, Verena Siegenthaler. Around that time he was also ordained as an Anglican priest by the Church of England. He served as a parish priest in England for a while before returning to Makerere in 1964 as a teacher of traditional African religions.

His lack of knowledge about the subject led him to his field work, and to the publication of “African Religions and Philosophy.”

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