Studying Religious Pluralism in Yorubaland: A Tribute to J. D. Y. Peel
In Nigeria, a country associated with conflict and violence, a common phrase in Pidgin English used to characterize the nation is “Nigeria is a war.” However, as J. D. Y. Peel has pointed out in his extensive work, Christian-Muslim relations in Nigeria are not marked just by conflict and violence. Christians and Muslims have long lived side by side in Yorubaland in southwestern Nigeria, often in harmony with practitioners of Yoruba religion—the boundaries between the three not always sharply demarcated (Peel 2000). In line with J. D. Y.’s optimistic nature, his work has a positive message: the Yoruba teach us about how different faiths can co-exist in peace.
J. D. Y.’s last book, Christianity, Islam, and Oriṣa Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction (2016a), brings together the three traditions he had worked on his entire life: Yoruba religion that is marked by the belief in Oriṣa or deities, Yoruba Christianity, and his more recent interest in Yoruba Islam—an under-researched topic in Yoruba studies. Contrary to the ingrained approach to study Yoruba or Oriṣa religion in terms of a ‘traditional religion’, J. D. Y. warns us to study it as a “dynamic entity” that still has relevance today, composed of “fluid and malleable deities, less a single religion than a spectrum of local cult complexes” (ibid.: 7), “each one the product of a unique set of local and historical circumstances” (ibid.: 52). Like ‘traditional religion’, ‘world religion’ is a problematic label in that it essentializes religion. Essentialism, according to J. D. Y., “is pretty much anthropology’s Sin Against the Holy Ghost” (ibid.: 109). Rather than using Christianity and Islam as reifying terms, J. D. Y. understood the religious life of the Yoruba to be derived from traditions that evolve under the diverse influences of historical and cultural contingency. Taking this course, the conventional assumption that traditional religion and world religions are bounded and distinct is untenable. Instead, J. D. Y. studied them in comparison and interaction, thereby making a major theoretical contribution to the study of religion.
Christianity, Islam, and Oriṣa Religion is divided into two parts and composed of 11 chapters, which are all strongly comparative in their approach. While in the chapters in part 1 comparison is mainly an analytical instrument, in part 2 it comes into the picture as part of what is observed, namely, as a key aspect of the interaction between the three religious traditions. Particularly chapters 8, 9, and 10 have become like a Bible to me—chapters to which I often turn for inspiration.
Chapter 8 traces the trajectories of Islam and Christianity in Yorubaland. Starting from a baseline around 1870, J. D. Y. draws a systematic contrast between the Christian project of inculturation or Africanization and the Muslim reformist project, which tends toward the adoption of a more universalizing form of Islam. At the same time, the divergent tendency toward particularism versus universalism is checked by a counterforce that fosters convergence, as illustrated by the reciprocal exchange between Christianity and Islam. A prominent example of convergence is NASFAT—Yorubaland’s largest contemporary Muslim organization that, according to J. D. Y., is “the most effective response to the born-again phenomenon [Pentecostalism], from which it has consciously adopted many practices and strategies” (Peel 2016a: 187). A paradox in the religious situation in Yorubaland is thus that while Christianity and Islam compete to win converts and public space, the very act of competition has led both faiths to borrow from one another to a significant extent.
Chapters 9 and 10 chart the complex patterns of convergence and divergence that have played out between Christians and Muslims over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In these chapters, J. D. Y. compares the Yoruba religious field to a ‘marketplace’ where potential converts act as consumers, choosing between the various religious options available to them, and where local criteria of religious value tend to prevail, giving the competing religious suppliers an “incentive to borrow effective elements from each other” (Peel 2016a: 10; see also ibid.: 173–174, 182). Because of the mutual borrowing between competing faiths, Brian Larkin and Birgit Meyer (2006: 287) conclude in their pioneering essay that reformist trends in Christianity and Islam should be studied as “doppelgangers, enemies whose actions mirror those of the other, and whose fates are intertwined.” Although J. D. Y. agrees with Larkin and Meyer that Pentecostalism and reformist Islam share a great deal of common ground in West Africa in that they have arisen from common structural conditions and, while disagreeing on doctrine, overlap in some of the religious practices on which they depend and the social processes they set in motion, in chapter 10 he weakens their argument that Pentecostalism has its mirror image in ‘fundamentalist’ Islam, that is, Salafism.
For comparative purposes J. D. Y.’s (2016a: 10) argument moves from Yorubaland, “where Pentecostalism is strong, Salafism weak, and interfaith relations peaceable,” to northern Nigeria, where Salafism is strong and interfaith relations often violent. He claims that despite some formal resemblances, Pentecostalism’s and Salafism’s ethos has little in common and has very different implications for the Nigerian public sphere. J. D. Y.’s argument about difference can be explained by his focus on ‘fundamentalism’—a term he invokes to challenge Huntington’s (1996) problematic notion of the ‘clash of civilizations’. According to J. D. Y., there are two large areas of difference, which he labels ‘Prosperity’ and ‘Politics’, between Pentecostalism and Salafism. In recent years, the Pentecostal movement in Nigeria has been dominated by churches that emphasize individual empowerment through prosperity, healing, and deliverance from evil forces—a “state of all-round well-being that the Yoruba call alafia” (Peel 2016a: 79). Such objectives are not promoted by Salafist movements; indeed, they are opposed to the magical uses of Islam for healing and prosperity. Rather than prosperity, the principal feature of Salafism is pressure for the implementation of Sharia law. Pentecostalism, on the other hand, emerged in the social space outside the state, yet “within an order already guaranteed by it” (ibid.: 206). Because Prosperity and Politics are radically different orientations, J. D. Y. concludes in chapter 10 that if we are to understand the importance of what he calls fundamentalism in the two faiths, we have to make full allowance for the profound cultural differences between them (see also Peel 2016b).
However, if instead of fundamentalist ideological tendencies we take daily religious practice as our starting point, the similarities between Christianity and Islam become obvious. Let me briefly illustrate this with an example from my ethnographic research on Chrislam, a religious movement fusing Christian and Muslims beliefs and practices that emerged in Nigeria’s former capital Lagos in the late 1970s (Janson 2016). The movement seemed to make J. D. Y. a bit uneasy: he advised me to write an article about Chrislam and then “move on.” Compared with the Nigerian Pentecostal mega-churches and Muslim mass organizations, Chrislam is indeed somewhat marginal. However, despite its marginality it can be seen as a symptom of wider religious shifts and transformations that are difficult to map because of the ingrained conception of religious traditions as bounded and distinct.
Chrislam’s motto is “You can’t be a Christian without being a Muslim, and you can’t be a Muslim without being a Christian.” The underlying idea is that to be a Christian or a Muslim alone is not enough to guarantee success in this world and in the hereafter, and therefore Chrislamists participate in Christian as well as Muslim rituals, appropriating the perceived powers of both. In line with the ingrained conception of religion as an internally consistent belief system, anthropologists have long couched ‘belief’ in terms of a wholehearted personal dedication and absolute, universal truth (Ruel 1982)—a conception criticized by Asad (1993) as being part of a post-Enlightenment Protestant legacy that needs to be located historically but should not be taken as universally valid. Rather than belief as an interior state, Chrislamists tend to privilege the performative power of religious practice that helps them negotiate their way through the insecurities and uncertainties of everyday living in Lagos—often described in terms of an ‘apocalyptic megacity’ (cf. Koolhaas 2001).
Although I do not deny that Christianity and Islam have their own distinctive traditions in Nigeria, my point is that we should move away from studying religion in terms of normative doctrine and focus instead on how religious practitioners actually ‘live’ religion and how their ways of ‘living’ religion relate to each other. Focusing on the ways of living religion may eventually shift attention from a narrow analysis of world religions as mutually exclusive entities constituted by a belief in God toward a perspective that focuses on ambiguities, inconsistencies, and double standards as the constitutive moments in lived religiosity (see, e.g., Marsden 2005; Schielke and Debevec 2012). J. D. Y.’s larger issue is about comparison: how to conduct comparison across difference. Comparison necessarily requires a common ground. The challenge for us is thus to develop a new conceptual framework for studying religiously plural settings such as Yorubaland that draws out differences and similarities between religious traditions at both the ideological level and that of everyday practice.
Christianity, Islam, and Oriṣa Religion concludes (actually, the book has an open end; the final section is entitled “The Conclusion, in Which Nothing Is Concluded”) with some reflections on the interplay between re-Africanization and universalization, as evident in the revival of Oriṣa religion in the New World. I find solace in imagining J. D. Y. having revived himself into an Oriṣa, most likely Orunmila—the deity of wisdom and knowledge. May he, like an Oriṣa, continue providing us with guidance and protection in our personal and academic lives, and may we, like Oriṣa worshippers, continue celebrating his life and work.
LarkinBrian and Birgit Meyer. 2006. “Pentecostalism, Islam and Culture: New Religious Movements in West Africa.” In Themes in West Africa’s History ed. Emmanuel K. Akyeampong286–312. Oxford: James Currey.
PeelJ. D. Y. 2016b. “Similarity and Difference, Context and Tradition, in Contemporary Religious Movements in West Africa.” Africa 86 (4): 620–627.
Peel and the ‘Intellectualist’ Account of Social Change
Apart from his wide-ranging knowledge, the depth and lucidity of his arguments, and the clarity of his engaging prose—all of which constitute part of his legacy for Africanist scholars and others—J. D. Y. Peel’s core project of illuminating the role of religion and culture in social change resulted in an impressive body of work that teaches us many lessons. I wish to emphasize a few of these lessons here. While his specific focus was on how the Yoruba reconciled and continue to reconcile the theologies of world religions with their indigenous cosmologies, extant modes of worship, and kinship and social structures, examining Peel’s oeuvre can provide a pathway for studying other areas of social, economic, and political lives in many disciplines beyond religion and culture—even beyond sociology and anthropology. In highlighting some of the values of his work on the Yoruba, I hope to point to the implications of this for wider areas of scholarship, including comparative research.
Yoruba Metaphysics and Pragmatics
There are two lessons that I think are evident in Peel’s engagement with Yoruba metaphysics and that form the foundation of his four important books—Aladura: A Religious Movement Among the Yoruba (1968), Ijeshas and Nigerians: The Incorporation of a Yoruba Kingdom (1983), Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (2000), Christianity, Islam, and Oriṣa Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction (2016)—as well as several essays on the Yoruba. The first is his recognition and articulation of Yoruba criteria for pragmatism, that is, Yoruba conception and active creation through centuries of a world and society in which everyone can find a place. For an ancient religious culture that already embraced a plural, democratic attitude toward the relationship between this-worldly agents (principally human beings) and other-worldly elements (ancestors, sprits, Oriṣas, and the Supreme Being), it is fascinating that, in studying the Yoruba past in the present, Peel adopted the framework of the ‘history of the present’, although he did not use this phrase. What are the metaphysical and historical bases for, and continuities in, Yoruba pragmatism? This appears to me to be the question that guided Peel’s research for five decades. In pursuing answers to this core question, Peel shows us, even without invoking John Dewey, that religious plurality and freedom are not possible without pragmatism, the spirit of accommodation, which he found among the Yoruba. Peel’s work presents the Yoruba as approximating what Dewey ( 1997: 204) calls the “one, ultimate, ethical ideal of humanity” through their peaceable attitude toward religious plurality. Peel’s elaborate analysis and theorizing of Yoruba pragmatism provide rich examples for us regarding how to analyze both similar and dissimilar systems of religious thought and practices elsewhere in Africa and beyond. For instance, from reading his work, particularly Aladura and Religious Encounter, one can conclude that Yoruba religious culture is very Judeo-Christian in the sense that it fits the Judeo-Christian maxim as evident in Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” The Yoruba parallel to this is captured by the Yoruba oriṣa, Orunmila, the god of wisdom, knowledge, and divination. The full meaning of Orunmila is orun lo me ni ti o la (only the Heavens know who will be saved). Therefore, salvation, for the Yoruba, is, ultimately, not by might, nor by power. Orunmila thus constitutes an ontological censure against any form of religious fundamentalism. In a culture that has 401 gods, who could have a problem with one more?
In his work, Peel uses Yoruba metaphysics to help us understand Yoruba pragmatism, including the Yoruba embrace of a changing world and how to build better relations within it, reflecting a noted preoccupation with this-worldly matters over those that are other-worldly. Thus, as Peel so superbly demonstrates in Aladura, Ijeshas and Nigerians, and Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba, aye Oyinbo (i.e., the era of Europeans, reflecting both the introduction of Christianity and the imposition of colonialism) is encountered and leveraged by the Yoruba to become aye olaju (the era of enlightenment, development, progress). Through this, Peel teaches us how to study—map, analyze, understand, explain, and/or theorize—social change, particularly a change heralded and defined by religious encounter against the backdrop of cultural history. He shows in his work that we need to pay attention not merely to acculturation as adoption and assimilation, but also to the domestication of powerful alien ‘cultures’, in this case Christianity and the Enlightenment.
The second lesson in Peel’s engagement with Yoruba metaphysics is that, in attempting to explain the conception of the fundamental nature of being and the world that this encompasses in any African group, we cannot focus only on a group’s religion but must also develop a deep understanding and ‘intellectualist’ analysis of the group’s history.1 This is important for comparative research because Peel’s work is geared toward giving “a sharper definition to probable connections” in a way that has “the potential to flow across from the study of the social process of religion in history to a real-life engagement with them” (Peel 2016: 11, 12). As he makes clear in his first workbook on African independent churches, Aladura, which rejects the prevailing conceptual, theoretical, and methodological orientation of African studies in the 1960s (typified by Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, among others), the convergence of anthropology and history is critical for comparative work. Peel returns to this in his last work, Christianity, Islam, and Oriṣa Religion (2016). The Radcliffe-Brown tradition discounts “cultural factors (including religion)” in search of “social-structural or technoecological factors” (ibid.: 5). Peel has shown not only the limitations of this tradition, but the value of combining ‘deep’ history with a focus on cultural factors in ethnographic and archival studies.
A third lesson is linked to the point I have just made about history and religion. In studying the formation, self-identification, and external acknowledgment of the Yoruba as an ethnic group, even a nation, Peel provides crucial examples, both methodological and theoretical, of the excellent ways of studying how compatibility is made in and through history. Ethno-history is always a mess that is sorted out through what Renan famously described as a selective process of remembering and forgetting. How do we understand modern national history of African ethnic groups? Peel suggests that we do this through studying religious change against the backdrop of history. There are two important contributions he makes here to the study of ethnogenesis and nationalist history. The first is a methodological path that weaves religious culture with history in explaining the past and the present. In this, Peel shows us, through a combination of archival research, textual analysis, historical criticism, and ethnographic insight, particularly in Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba, how the Yoruba resolved the incompatibility between Christianity and Yoruba social being. In the book, Peel (2000: 295) argues that the Yoruba found “ways to represent Christianity as the realization of Yoruba historical destiny.” There is a major lesson here for historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists regarding the study of social change and the social process in general, particularly from the perspective of the history of the present. Past experiences and encounters are critical, but more critical is the way these are appropriated, absorbed, and/or domesticated over the longue durée.
The fourth lesson concerns why we need to pay attention not just to the cultural context that makes ‘change’ (religious, cultural, and social) possible and the structures that facilitate this process of appropriation, absorption, and/or domestication, but, crucially, to agency—that is, the agents whose philosophical orientations, intellectual exertions, and practical work make this change possible. Peel’s important contribution, therefore, is about the centrality of human agency in social change, particularly in the context of ethno-national and nationalist history. Here, his intellectual exertions exist in a continuum, such that every new work takes up or pursues the intellectual agenda provided by, but not exhaustively or conclusively elaborated in, the last work. Thus, understanding the centrality of human agency in religious change and cultural history not only necessitated Aladura but also led to the social history of a sub-ethnic group, the Ijesa, among whom the phenomenon of African independent churches was prevalent. At the end of Aladura and Ijesha and Nigerians, you can see the related questions raised by a new religious movement that infuses African culture into (Protestant) Christianity and the question raised by the future implications of the incorporation of an African kingdom among a people who were rapidly embracing (Christian) modernity. Accordingly, both books became the background for Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba, where Peel uses principally archival materials—the writings and activities of Yoruba priests of the Christian Missionary Society (CMS)—to reconstruct the making and the elaboration of ‘Yoruba modernity’ as well as the making of the ‘modern’ Yoruba. In all this, understanding and accounting for the role of human agency constitute the most important contributions of Peel’s work. The priests were not merely religious agents, they were also cultural workers, local intellectuals who were interpreters and interlocutors of the Enlightenment. In linking his preferred theoretical and methodological orientation to his embrace of the ‘actor-in-history’ perspective, Peel (1968: 13) argues that “in order to produce a genetic, causal account, we must start off from an intellectualist standpoint, and look, above all, at the conscious thought of the men who originated these doctrines. For in their unique experience lies what makes these churches particular and different; to go seeking ‘functions’ would merely tell us in what respects these churches are not unique … [My chosen path would constitute] merely an application of the methodological principles of Max Weber.”
It is therefore not surprising, even if exemplary, that Peel takes the core methodological lesson and intellectual agenda that arose from Aladura (a study of African independent churches) and used it superbly to study missionary Christianity (particularly the CMS) and the making of the Yoruba in Religious Encounter. There are two things that this approach achieved in his oeuvre. First, it helped in placing the emphasis not just on human agency in general, but on African agency specifically. I would like to quickly note here that, unlike many, Peel was never condescending in his study or evaluation of the beliefs of Africans and their practices. Indeed, he approached any religion practiced by Africans as “a coherent and meaningful system of thought,” as he writes in Aladura (1968: 16). Second, this approach links agency with history in centralizing the role of the African agents in the longue durée for understanding the interplay of the context (the past and the larger society) and the activities and reflections of the agents and their audience (both the converted and the non-converted) in relation to the belief and extant social practices. Therefore, while structure is important for Peel, agency is fundamental. As he reminds us, “societies don’t behave… religious, creative individuals” do (ibid.: 18).
The fifth and final lesson from Peel’s body of work relates to his methodological approach: the study of ethnogenesis through religion with an emphasis on history and human agency, as described earlier. As Caroline Ifeka (2006) states, she and others felt that Peel’s methodological orientation in researching Aladura in the 1960s—as evident in the generalizations he was able to reach—challenged “conventional sociological methodologies.” Ifeka and others were quite uncomfortable with how Peel dismissed structural-functionalist and Marxist-materialist theorists writing on religion in Africa while using “the Kantian and neo-Weberian ‘intellectualist’ view” (ibid.). However, from this departure point, Peel was able to interpret what happened from the early-twentieth century in African prayer healing churches, or African Independent Churches (AICs), “in the light of Kant’s argument that reason is the fountain-head of morality and attainment of a social life lived according to civilised principles of peace, tolerance and democracy” (ibid.). His critics later embraced this path, and it has since been used by many other scholars. In Aladura, Peel (1968: 11) argues for a methodological path that “does not claim to be feasible for all religions, but for a particular type of religious situation, of which the Aladura churches of Yorubaland are an instance.” He argues further: “It is, briefly, a situation where, against a background of industrialization, nation-building and the conversion of an African people from their traditional religion to the world religion, new religious beliefs and practices have been created by individuals of a certain social type” (ibid.). To study African independent churches as social anthropologists studied traditional religions in Africa, he suggests, “would not bring out [the] peculiar character” of these churches, which are “the product of social change” as their members’ “immediate forbears worshipped different gods” (ibid.: 13). He concludes that “to produce a genetic, causal, account we must start off from an intellectualist standpoint, and look, above all, at the conscious thought of the men who originated these doctrines” (ibid.). He was able use this approach excellently in his last comparative study of Christianity, Islam, and the Oriṣa religion (Peel 2016).
There is evident unity in Peel’s intellectual orientation, theoretical standpoint, and methodological approach and in the social issues that animated his scholarship for five decades. This unity, I would like to add, could be responsible for the apparent joy with which he pursued his scholarship. Even in his mode of writing, we can learn useful lessons. While many Africanist scholars take Tragedy as the plot of their writings about Africa, Peel embraced Romance as his mode of emplotment. It is always about the story of human triumph, of redemption, despite the challenges of the unending struggle for the extension and deepening of the rewards of the Enlightenment.
It was in his review of Peel’s book Aladura that Robin Horton (1971) developed his ‘intellectualist theory’ of African religion where he argues that explanation, prediction, and the mastering of this-worldly matters are the core concerns of religion in Africa, a fact that is not altered even by conversion to Christianity or Islam.
Narrating History and Anthropology
John Peel was my oga. In Nigerian popular slang, oga connotes ‘boss’ and ‘patron’, and as my PhD supervisor at SOAS in the 1990s, as a colleague in the anthropology department there during the early 2000s, and as my editor, mentor, and friend in subsequent years, he was many things besides. I will always consider myself uniquely fortunate to have received such generous and rigorous support from him over the years, although I am reminded, from similar sentiments in the tributes paid to him since his death in November 2015, that he was, in fact, an oga to so very many of us.
In terms of his scholarship, there can be no doubt that the trilogy of books on religion will be his most significant legacy. His landmark studies were on conversion, on syncretism, on encounters and comparisons. Aladura (1968), Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (2000), and Christianity, Islam, and Oriṣa Religion (2016) are marked, in part, by a methodology focused above all on an inquiry into the nature of the “thing in itself,” as he used to say—a concern to understand religious practices and processes as individual and collective quests for spiritual security. These works stand out because they are studies of social adaptation and profound historical transformation. As such, therefore, they test the ways in which we account for continuity and change.
Indeed, John’s broader contribution to historical anthropology was also remarkable. He insisted on the need for anthropology to reconcile itself with history. He argued that human beings produce socio-cultural form through an arch of memories, actions, and intentions: “Narrative is the way in which that arch may be expressed, rehearsed, shared, and communicated. It is this which gives human action its inherent historicity or lived-in-timeness and which requires an anthropology that, to be adequate to its subject matter, should be essentially historical” (Peel 1995: 582–583). In his social history of a Yoruba town, Ijeshas and Nigerians, Peel (1983) set a benchmark for how to write this form of anthropology. And in the process of this work and other writing he engaged with and shaped one of the most enduring theoretical problems in anthropology—the problem of continuity and change, or the past in the present. Accounting for the underlying structural continuities in otherwise dynamic and shifting social processes has remained a key tension in our theorizing since the 1960s (Ortner 1984). John’s contribution was to draw our attention to the role of narrative and how accounts of the past can shape present and future practice.
In this short essay I wish only to acknowledge and comment on the unique features of John’s views on ‘the past in the present’. His paper that is most closely associated with this analysis is “Making History: The Past in the Ijesha Present,” which was published in Man (now the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute) in 1984, just after Ijeshas and Nigerians was released to such acclaim. A reflection on that ethnography, it is one of those insightful articles in which he reviews, synthesizes, and theorizes.1 Written with John’s characteristic density of argument and comparison, its aim is to show “how a society’s sense of its past is integral to its self-production through time. In other words, how is it that making history, on the plane of social action directed at realizing a future, is so closely involved with making history, in the sense of giving accounts of the past?” (Peel 1984: 111).
Positioning his focus on narratives of the past in the present within the debates on ‘conjectural history’ from, among others, Malinowski, Cunnison, and Bohannan, John devised an agenda for historical anthropology that would address the ‘presentism’ that anthropologists feared. Beyond the distorting effects of present interests on representations of the past—what John called a necessary methodological warning—he argued that the real problems were twofold: how ‘mythical charters’ of the past were believed, and, more broadly, why present interests are necessarily justified in terms of the past.
The first question will be familiar to John’s readers since it appears elsewhere in his work in different guises, for example, in relation to religious belief itself (Peel 2000) and to ethnicity (Peel 1989), as well as to history. John consistently argued that narratives of conversion, belonging, and the past should be explained in their own terms and not reduced to the effects of external pressures. By accepting that beliefs are ‘at least’ what they purported, he asked how these ideational constructs are able to gain traction and become credible, believable, and part of lived experience. How “mytho-historical charters” are legitimated, he argued, has to depend on them “being believed, i.e., on its plausibility to its intended audience, and not simply on the force majeure of powerful agents which wish to promote them” (Peel 1984: 112).
The second problem of ‘the past in the present’ is why present interests should need historical justification at all. Why do societies like the Yoruba, for instance, “seem to require consciously to reconstitute their past as part of their self-production?” (Peel 1984: 112). John’s analysis of the dialectic of present interests in terms of the past took his work in many directions, and he revisited concepts of time, agency, rhetoric, and the philosophy of history in the course of this inquiry. But his particular challenge was to examine the ways in which historical narratives, the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts, are projected into the present and future to legitimate current actions in the name of cultural continuity and historical precedent. He was especially intrigued with how present action was informed by accounts of historical precedent, and hence how ‘making’ history (oral, ritual, or written) not only could appear to reproduce the social order—a form of stereotypical reproduction—but also was integral to its actual transformation.
John’s work at that time inflected many theoretical interests and influences. A visiting professor at the University of Chicago in the departments of anthropology and sociology in 1982–1983, he spoke of his time in Chicago very fondly. While there, he was inspired and challenged by Marshall Sahlins’s ideas. Sahlins had recently published his landmark study, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981). It was a moment—what Bernard Cohn (1981) called a ‘rapprochement’—between the social historians and the anthropologists, and John was at its forefront. In the wake of Sahlins’s study, anthropologists were probing the classic question of continuity and change: how are societies able to endure in the face of radical change, absorb new dynamics, and reproduce themselves in familiar, conservative, stereotypic ways? Sahlins’s (1985: vii) take on the ways in which worldviews could do the ‘cultural work’ of making sense of change “according to meaningful schemes of things” was powerful. And John acknowledged that in tracing the ideational links between the past and the present, it was necessary, in part, to trace how “ongoing practical activity is continuously ‘organized by structures of significance’ (Sahlins 1981: 8) which are not merely derived from the past but are regarded as essentially of the past” (Peel 1984: 111). Indeed, Sahlins (1985: 155) argued that history is sedimented in the institutions and practices of culture, and culture, he famously wrote, was “the organization of the current situation in the terms of a past.”
Yet, for John, this version of the past in the present—the replication of past practice or ‘habitus’, as Bourdieu called it—was premised on too static a notion of culture and failed to include a conscious, constructed account of the past. It was “history turned into nature” (Bourdieu 1977: 78). Sahlins’s model suggested to John that change was confronted with an unproblematic cultural endowment and elided a crucial area of reflexivity (Peel 1993: 172). He argued that plural narratives lead us to see culture as fugitive, contested, reinvented, and vulnerable to historical contingency (ibid.: 175). For John, then, the past was not merely received; it needed to be represented. And that process, ‘making history’, had to be studied in and of itself. It could not be reduced to cultural categories or to the pattern of present interests it reflected. It is this sense of ‘making history’ as representation rather than cultural habitus that John developed: “If the traditional order is seen more in terms of human projects than of a system of cultural categories, then how people represent those projects to themselves, that is histories as told, becomes fundamental to cultural description. Sahlins, despite his declared objective of bringing history and anthropology together on equal terms, inclines to privilege culture over history, to try to show how far history can be enclosed within culture” (ibid.: 173).
John’s ethnographic cases illustrated this examination of the “deeply constitutive place of history-making in the lives of individuals and societies” (Peel 1993: 175). Rather than presenting a model of transitions between given cultural orders or ages of history, John emphasized a dynamic process, premised on a critical dialectic between the present and representations of the past. In the Ijesha case, for instance, narratives of the past are integral to contemporary forms of political practice. Despite the circulation and consumption of written histories, Ijesha itan, the oral histories or charters of social institutions such as title holders, lineages, and communities, remained important at the time of John’s study. A central feature of chieftaincy itan was their paradigmatic quality in dealing with the relationship between chiefs and their subjects. A familiar scenario was rehearsed in chieftaincy itans (chieftaincy histories), as well as an annual ritual ceremony (iwude) in which violent opposition toward abusive and self-aggrandizing chiefs, or owa, was recalled. These traditional accounts of the Ijesha rising up to check the tendency of the owa to exploit them, which were revisited in violence in Ilesha in 1941 and 1966, showed how the ‘doctrine’ of stereotypic reproduction of itan narratives was adapted to present and future circumstances to serve as a kind of control on the modern political class (Peel 1984: 127).
Not only were itan relevant to everyday social reproduction, therefore, but they were also relevant to new and changing configurations of power and conflict. And as such itan shaped the nature of change, which, in turn, was made to accord with the precedent of past practice that the itan narrated: “An itan is an active force because through it, history is made to repeat itself” (Peel 1984: 118). By conflating subjective and objective attitudes to the past, John argued that structuralist histories had failed to capture the dialectical relations between past and present that shaped stereotypical reproduction.2 The conclusion John drew from his analysis regarding this dialectical relationship merits full quotation:
These societies thus give themselves deliberately to a task of ‘stereotypic reproduction’: they strive to make history repeat itself … The important point is the mutual conditioning of past and present which is thus achieved: where possible, present practice is governed by the model of past practice and, where change does occur, there is a tendency to rework the past so as to make it appear that past practice has governed present practice. This stereotypic reproduction serves both to slow down social change and to deny that such change occurs: it must be understood both as an achievement in the face of history and as a constituent of it. This is the dual character of stereotypic reproduction, where practice and representation constantly limit each other to impart some sense of control over the vicissitudes of history.(Peel 1984: 113)
Narratives, John argued, evoked the past for a range of reasons—not just for the stereotypical reproduction of social orders, but for radical social transformation as well. Further dimensions of ‘the past in the present’ emerged in his work on religion encounter, which he developed in “For Who Hath Despised the Day of Small Things? Missionary Narratives and Historical Anthropology” (Peel 1995). Drawing on the journals of Church Missionary Society African agents, John explored their various forms of narrative structure and rhetoric. These missionary narratives projected biblical precedents into prophecy and grafted prayers and parables into indigenous historical chronicles so as to anticipate individual and collective redemption. For individuals such as Samuel Crowther, the Bible offered paradigmatic histories that shaped personal narratives. Crowther relaunched his religious career with the baptism of his mother (from whom he had been separated for 30 years) as Hannah. On a more general level, the missionary strategy, John argued, was to take up indigenous historical assessments of the Yoruba wars and associated enslavement and rewrite them into a new narrative in which Christianity would resolve the problems of the age (ibid.: 605). In this context, “history doubles as prophecy” (ibid.: 601), and “the religious encounter was less a matter of the clash of world views, considered as timeless sets of moral and theological alternatives, than it was a contest between rival narratives or schemes for how individuals and communities should project themselves over time” (ibid.: 600).
In the context of nineteenth-century religious conversion and twentieth-century Ilesha history, John identified not only the relevance of historical narration to future-oriented social formation but a key point about the relationship between past and present: “Making history is really a single process with two strands: the practice of fashioning a future social order entails a constant revaluation of the past” (Peel 1984: 129). As such we must recall that a key part of his scholarly legacy will be an orientation of historical anthropology that focuses on narrative—the ‘making of history’. As John observed, “narratives-as-lived are the proper subject matter of an historical anthropology and any anthropology that takes seriously the idea of human agency will be concerned with how narratives-as-lived are shaped by narratives-as-told” (Peel 1995: 606).
While sympathetic to practice theory as an approach, John argued that narratives were an ‘integral’ but overlooked part of the definition as outlined by Ortner (1984). Narrative, he argued, was a universal human trait, and whether it involved the mundane and personal or the epic and collective, it had universal import in our understanding of human agency: “While narrative as a universal human capacity underlies all forms of historical consciousness, it is always realized in forms that are affected by particular material, social, and cultural conditions. In all its forms, from the simple stories that enable individuals to schedule their activities over time to the complex histories that maintain social hierarchies and national identities, narrative empowers through enhancing the capacity for action” (Peel 1995: 585).
The anthropology of the past in the present has been dominated by structural histories, notions of cyclical time, and stereotypical reproduction, but John’s work on ‘the past in the present’, and his insistence on the dynamic interaction between the two, drew him to a model that sought to embrace the contingencies and vicissitudes of historical transformation. For, as he quite beautifully argued, “the wilderness of history will always tend to overgrow the gardens of culture” (Peel 1993: 178).
Elsewhere John wrote: “The past (qua representations) must be made through an engagement with its traces: the past (qua antecedents) is not just the source of the categories which shape action, but exists in a dialectical relationship with categorizing agents, who make their past as they act to realize their future” (Peel 1993: 175).
PeelJ. D. Y. 1989. “The Cultural Work of Yoruba Ethnogenesis.” In History and Ethnicity ed. Elizabeth TonkinMaryon McDonald and Malcolm K. Chapman198–215. London: Routledge.
PeelJ. D. Y. 1993. “Review Essay: Clio in Oceania: Toward a Historical Anthropology, edited by Aletta Biersack; Culture Through Time: Anthropological Approaches, edited by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney.” History and Theory 32 (2): 162–178.
PeelJ. D. Y. 1995. “For Who Hath Despised the Day of Small Things? Missionary Narratives and Historical Anthropology.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 (3): 581–607.
Days of Small, and Great, Things
I think John would have been amused by the fact that I am writing this short piece at what is literally the very last minute. I have been avoiding getting down to it for months, mostly because it is one of the more difficult things I have ever had to write. But as John knew, I am also a pathological procrastinator. He saw a great deal of that in the 25 or so years that he was my interim supervisor, mentor, SOAS colleague, editor, cherished family guest/host, child-minder/‘uncle’ to my daughters, very dear friend, and, finally, something of a personal savior. From the year in the early 1990s when, as an Oxford DPhil candidate whose supervisor was on leave, I dutifully paid regular visits to his office at SOAS and failed to complete any of the tasks he assigned me, to April 2006, when he convinced the same long-suffering supervisor that, yes, I would actually (finally!) finish my dissertation by early July despite not having written a single chapter, his faith in and support of me and my work never faltered. So it feels impossible for me to try to discuss John’s influence, especially on my own work, in 3,000 words or less. Without John, there would have been no work.
The last time I visited him in June 2015, just a few months before he passed away, we went for one of our Sunday walks from his flat to Highgate to have lunch. Afterward, he asked me, with a grin, “Do you want to visit Marks and Spencer?” Or at least, that is what I heard. I replied, a bit uncertainly, since I knew that impish look, “Sure, do you need some shopping?” He laughed and said, “No, I meant a walk in Highgate Cemetery.” It dawned on me, and I cracked up—Marx and Spencer! Marx’s (relocated) grave is located directly across from Herbert Spencer’s, so we snapped photos on my phone—him in front of Spencer’s and me with Marx. John’s second book was a study of the Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer, and my early training in philosophy and political theory might be depicted as a portrait of a girl as a young Marxist. We spent a long time wandering around the cemetery, chatting and remarking on the various graves. As those who knew him will not be surprised to hear, he amazed me with his knowledge of obscure Eastern European intellectuals in the Marxists’ corner, stories about names I had never heard of now carved onto weathered stones, times I knew little about, as we strolled amid the markers of lost centuries. This was what a walk with John meant—an impossibly erudite but also entertaining running commentary on the world around him and its history. Walking along the South Bank, he would point out the buildings and church spires on the London skyline across the river and regale you with anecdotes and stories, unexpected windows into fragments of local or national history. He once visited my family when we were living in Dijon, and as I walked around the city with him, he recounted its socio-political history through the heraldry I had never noticed gracing many of the old Dijon buildings.
He was often in France, visiting his sister and researching post-retirement work on French churches, adding architecture to his already very full quiver, a work that sadly we will never have the pleasure of reading. John could turn any subject or object into a fascinating narrative. He was also a deeply insightful and extremely meticulous reviewer of others’ narratives. I still have the fading copies of his comments on my final dissertation chapters that he faxed to me when I was living in Senegal, his tiny, neat script pursuing my errors, confusions, and obfuscations across the pages. One small remark in particular on the final manuscript of my book still makes me smile: a correction of the form of a Latin word in one of the citations I had used. I said, “But John, it’s a quote from Talal Asad, I can’t correct a direct quote!” He replied, ever the Oxford classicist: “Well, that may be, but nonetheless, it’s not potens, it’s potentia.” So I put in a footnote. Classicist, sociologist, historian, anthropologist, he had a vast encyclopedic knowledge, stunning in its depth and range, but most of all a deep and abiding curiosity and gleeful passion for thinking. He was remarkable in his time, and it feels that with his passing an era has also revolved: the world of academia no longer fosters intellectuals of John’s stature.
It is difficult to disentangle the personal from the academic in my portrait of John, and others more gifted than myself have given eloquent testimony to the enduring significance of his extraordinary scholarship. But in light of our shared interests in Christianity as a historically and politically productive force and in the rich terrain of Yoruba life, past and present, I would like to reflect briefly on the broader theoretical and historiographical thrust of his remarkable work. Specifically, John’s work is unique and powerful for the place it gives to comparison and a deep and sophisticated reflection on ‘the past in the present’. While we had different approaches, as the many friendly arguments on these questions we had over the years attested, I see the great influence of those conversations much more clearly now. Beginning with Aladura (1968), and looking beyond the sociologically detailed and vivid portrait of this independent religious movement, what emerges are the beginnings of John’s profound methodological and historical insights about religious revival and change, along with a deep suspicion of meta-historical frameworks and metascientificity writ large. He often expressed his dissatisfaction with the book to me, regarding it as too constrained by a sociological framework. Notwithstanding, the signal insight of the book is historiographical, pushing against Durkheim, Malinowski, Balandier, Laternari, Freud, and James, for example, but carefully mining Weber. John’s Weberianism was not of the vulgar ideal-typical kind, but that of Weber the historian, who recognized that what mattered in comparative studies were not the similarities but the differences, which were the contingent products of specific histories. If John focuses on the ideas of the movement’s leaders, it is because of his signal insight, as he says in the book’s final pages, that it is the particularity and singularity of the ideas that matter. Thus, it is perhaps vain to mechanically try to “relate systems of ideas to the social situations which gave them birth” since “the ideas live their own life. Of all elements of a social system, ideas are the most likely to find root in a novel situation” (Peel 1968: 300; see also Fardon 2017: 195).
These insights also animate John’s second book, Herbert Spencer (1971). But why Spencer, who had by that time fallen into obscurity—especially after John’s West African adventure? In the end, the book is less about Spencer per se than it is a reflection on the history of ideas. It expresses John’s concern, which I like to call genealogical, to display the historical origins and hence intellectual limits of a burgeoning developmentalism in sociology at the time he was writing. Spencer provides John with the means to reveal evolutionism’s Victorian specificity. By situating Spencer’s ideas in their precise historical context and recognizing that these ideas are the outcome of this unique context—and thus that the past and the present are studies in contrast—John reveals the impasse in attempts to revive these past ideas in the sociological present.
I now understand better the specific arguments we had concerning the place of Yoruba history and culture in their twentieth-century present, and how I often misunderstood in my early years the sophisticated way in which he read ‘the past in the present’. A péché mignon among those studying Pentecostalism is that its scholars see rupture where anthropologists see continuity, but John showed me the methodological pitfalls of the rupture-continuity binary. He brought his conception of comparison-as-distinction and dare I say a Foucauldian respect for the ‘evental’ logic of historical change to its full fruition in Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (2000)—his magisterial account of the role of Christianity in the process by which the Yoruba came to see themselves as a distinctive people. His focus on the question of historical encounter saw him take on the ‘grand narrative’ anthropological accounts of conversion, such as those of Robin Horton, in which conversion was conceived “less as the outcome of an encounter” than as “a matter of cognitive and practical adjustment to changes in social experience, within the terms of an existing paradigm” (ibid.: 3). For John, it was the specific contours of this unique encounter that were historically significant, an account in which local religious change had to be at the fore. Understanding Yoruba Christianity and Yoruba identity as a process of emergence meant seeing how, to revert to my default Foucauldianism, it developed ‘in the interstices’ of this encounter. Thus, the privileging of the local, John contended, was also the means by which to understand “the longest durée of all, that of the world religions themselves” whose function as “vehicles of trans-historical memory” operated through the reflective practices of their adherents across the ages (ibid.: 9). He cites the African pastor William Allen at his ordination in 1865, thinking “back to ‘the days of good bishop Cyprian’” (ibid.).
So John’s history is, as he put it “less like a chain or a ladder, whose links or steps represent phases of economic, cultural, and political change which all correspond, than a multi-colored woolen cord, with component fibers of different lengths—Yoruba, colonial, Christian, and other—that give it structure by pulling both together and against one another” (Peel 2000: 9). I think I now like this metaphor better than the one I borrowed from Paul Veyne (1978: 207): “History is a kaleidoscope, not a nursery; there are no eternal objects—religion, the state—that grow throughout history like ancient trees.” If John was not totally on board with the kaleidoscope idea, he did agree about the nursery, despite his extraordinary talent for gardening. And he did like Veyne’s claim that while one thing does lead to another, we must be vigilant about false continuities, especially those that can be perceived only through meta-historical lenses—that it is in the “unexpected contours and ornamentation [tarisbiscotages]” of the objects of historical study that we find “the key to their enigma” (ibid.). I could not possibly have written Political Spiritualities (Marshall 2009), a short chapter in the history of Nigerian Christianity, without John’s historical groundwork. It enabled me to see beyond the sterile debates between rupture and continuity, to begin to uncover the ways in which the colored chips of the complex pattern impelled by the missionary encounter rearranged themselves into Aladura independency and then the resurgent Pentecostalism of the late-twentieth century.
I have realized over the years that if John never objected to my strongly Foucauldian approach, it was likely because in many ways he himself saw history in something like the “genealogical mood” that Foucault (1984: 133) characterized as a ‘happy positivism’ that stood against a Hegelian-Marxist dialectical historicism. I think he might also have recognized himself in Foucault’s (1972: 164–165) explanation: “If in substituting the analysis of rarity for the search for totalities, the description of relations of exteriority for the theme of the transcendental foundation, the analysis of accumulation for the quest for the origin, one is a positivist, then I can easily own that I am a happy positivist.” In this sense, John pursued a history in which ideas mattered, a history of ideas that sought the detailed pattern of a specific history rather than its meta-scientific truth, the complex cloth that the entwining colored strands—of Christianity, mission, colonial power, Yoruba history, culture, and practice, inter alia—wove as they pulled against one another.
Central to his work of reading and writing Yoruba history was the privileged place John gave to narrative, so beautifully expounded in one of my favorite essays: “For Who Hath Despised the Day of Small Things? Missionary Narratives and Historical Anthropology” (Peel 1995). As a political theorist enamored of Hannah Arendt, for whom speech and the capacity for constructing stories and narrative accounts represents the highest form of political practice and human activity, I could only enthusiastically endorse his observation that while “narrative as a universal human capacity underlies all forms of historical consciousness, it is always realized in forms that are affected by particular material, social, and cultural conditions. In all its forms, from the simple stories that enable individuals to schedule their activities over time to the complex histories that maintain social hierarchies and national identities, narrative empowers through enhancing the capacity for action” (ibid.: 585). This essay explicitly examines the very deep differences in conception and methodology between his own historical work and the historical anthropology of the Comaroffs through John’s insistence on narrative—both narratives-as-lived and narratives-as-told—those authoritative Ur-narratives of the Bible, those of the missionaries and informants, but also those of anthropologists that privilege the ‘reading’ of non-narrative signs found in “dispositions” and inscribed on bodies over “propositions.” For John, it is “narratives-as-lived” that are “the proper subject of an historical anthropology,” and “any anthropology that takes seriously the idea of human agency will be concerned with how narratives-as-lived are shaped by narratives-as-told” (ibid.: 606).
What is distinctive about John’s conception of history and historical change is the way that it informed, as intimated above, his understanding of comparison. This for me is one of the signal achievements of his many works, which are impossible to confine to the extraordinary comprehension and mastery of Yoruba history, politics, religion, and culture. Those who object that grounding our understanding of the past in historical specificity in all its detail does not help us with the comparative enterprise are sorely misguided, and John’s work demonstrates this point over and over again. The historian’s, if perhaps not the anthropologist’s or social scientist’s, understanding of the essence of history is comparison understood as contrast. The past and the present are not analogues; they are bound together by relation, by kinship, we might say. John’s comparative method based on distinction and a deep understanding of the specificities of his historical subjects also helped me better see the substance of our ongoing debate about the ‘comparability’ of Pentecostalism and Islam in Nigeria over the years. It is fitting that his final book, Christianity, Islam, and Oriṣa Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction (2016), which was completed just a few weeks before he became too ill to work, is a study in comparison. It is also fitting that the cover of this work depicts a beautiful dyed adire cloth that graced his wall at his home. Reading this book after he was gone, I was suddenly struck by the shocking and painful realization that we never had a conversation about it, that I would not be able to thank him for his shout-out in chapter 10 on Pentecostalism and Salafism. To my surprise, he approvingly cited my argument that these two movements could be seen as ‘doppelgangers’ of sorts, after roundly critiquing other scholars who had made the same claim, arguing that they had failed to establish “what significance is to be attached to similarities and differences” (ibid.: 194) and that they had discounted the very significant differences between these two. I was childishly delighted by this endorsement, which, given our previous conversations on the topic, I felt was rather undeserved. The delight came from my sense that I had not disappointed, that my study had paid sufficient attention to the historical, political, theological, and cultural specificity of Nigerian Pentecostalism, that I was a credit to my oga and baba.
It seems impossible to conclude, as John always did so beautifully, ‘rounding out’ his own masterful narratives-as-told. I suppose this is because I am still bereft and unwilling to accept that John’s marvelous narratives and stories, both scholarly and everyday, have come to an end. But as he put it in reference to the missionaries’ long labor to do the work of God through days of ‘small things’ that must not be despised, “the narrative ‘sense of an ending’ is achieved less by the completion of sequence described than by the way in which its telling is concluded” (Peel 1995: 592). The sequence of John’s remarkable life may have come to a cruel, untimely close, but the telling of it and of all his remarkable academic work has not. His intellectual ‘children’ know that in singing his praise, we could all ‘speak until tomorrow’.
FoucaultMichel. 1984. “The Order of Discourse.” In Language and Politics ed. Michael J. Shapiro trans. Ian McLeod108–138. Oxford: Blackwell.
PeelJ. D. Y. 1995. “For Who Hath Despised the Day of Small Things? Missionary Narratives and Historical Anthropology.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 (3): 581–607.
I was never John’s student in any formal sense. But it is safe to say that my career and work would not have taken the shape that they have without John’s mentorship, his unflagging support, and, most of all, his intellectual inspiration. I first met John in 1991, soon after I had published the book based on my dissertation, Das Exil der Götter: Geschichte und Vorstellungswelt einer afrokubanischen Religion (The Exile of the Gods: History and Worldview of an Afro-Cuban Religion) (Palmié 1991). I was then doing research at the Public Record Office in Kew, and Richard Rathbone, who knew some of my work, told me, “You need to meet Peel.” I had read quite a bit of John’s work—and for obvious reasons. After all, along with Maupoil, Bascom, Verger, Morton-Williams, and Lloyd, John’s publications on the Yoruba were my major source for the ‘African background’ (however naively I conceived of it then) of one of the best-known Yoruba-derived, or perhaps Yoruba-inspired, Afro-diasporic religious formations: Cuban Santería, or, more properly Regla de Ocha. In other words, John was what my teachers used to call ‘an authority’, like Herodotus on the Scythians—which might give you an idea of the training I received in Munich in the 1980s, a time when few of my teachers had done any fieldwork at all.
Back in 1991, John and I had a brief phone conversation, and he agreed to meet me in his office. I was rather awed to be in the presence of the great J. D. Y. Peel, particularly since his essays “Making History: The Past in the Ijesha Present” (1984) and “The Cultural Work of Yoruba Ethnogenesis” (1989) had been a major inspiration for a critique of Mintz and Price’s (1992) ‘rapid early synthesis’ or ‘creolization’ model in the emergence of African-American cultures that I had just written (Palmié 1993). Perhaps predictably, John showed polite interest in (what I thought of as) the New World permutations, even prolongations, of the processes of Yoruba ethnogenesis that I was interested in then and that he had just written about. But it was in the context of Dick Werbner’s Satterthwaite colloquia in the early 1990s that I really got to know John. I always appreciated being ‘adopted’ by Africanists (as some New World cousin, perhaps), and I met many of my dearest friends at Dick’s conferences, where academic rigor went along with the asceticism of mattress camps and coin-operated heaters. This time around, Kit Davis—bless her heart—had decided to pair me up with John in a hotel room (I having somehow graduated from the mattress camp I had shared earlier with other small fry), and John had brought a bottle of single malt Scotch. We wound up talking for hours and hours. It was the beginning of a long conversation that continued until only a few months before John passed away. I saw him last in August 2016, and he was full of plans for the future.
On a somewhat embarrassing note, John was instrumental in (almost) bringing me to SOAS twice. I say almost, because, for complicated reasons that are irrelevant here, I saw myself forced to reject the job offer both times—once in 1996 and again almost 20 years later. But our friendship endured nonetheless. For me, John was a most exacting yet invariably generous critic of my work. I have fond memories of him lounging in my sunroom in Chicago in 2010, reading through a manuscript of what eventually became the essay that I published in Paul C. Johnson’s volume on Spirited Things (Palmié 2014) and pronouncing me one of the most accomplished ironists in our line of business. On this trip he first presented his now famous essay, “The Three Circles of Yoruba Religion,” to American audiences at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Yale University, and I vividly recall how honored I felt that his analysis of the ‘third circle’ referred, at least in passing, to my own work. In the aftermath, perhaps I can say that a personal circle closed, and did so all too soon.
But let me say a few words on why John’s work was so important to the kind of perspective that I (and others) have been trying to develop on what were once erroneously called ‘Yoruba survivals’ in the New World. I say ‘erroneously’ not just because the word ‘survival’ belongs to a now happily past phase of our discipline (it seems to originate with Tylor’s and Frazer’s fulminations against the ‘savage’ underbelly of what the latter once called the ‘thin crust of civilization’ in Europe itself). I say so rather because if John’s magisterial Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (Peel 2000) has made anything clear, it is that, from John’s rigorously historicist perspective, there never were any Yoruba in Cuba. Yoruba speakers, yes, enslaved in the course of the devastating wars racking the Bight of Benin for much of the nineteenth century (not for nothing did it become known as the ‘slave coast’ of West Africa). But not Yoruba in the pan-ethnic sense that arose in the context of the missionary encounter and the politics of colonial Nigeria.
But the concept of ‘survival’—as it dominated African-Americanist anthropology for all too long—thrives on even more troubling assumptions. It is not only that in aiming to uncover connections between Africa and the Americas, pioneers of African-Americanist anthropology, such as the Brazilian Raimundo Nina Rodrigues, the Cuban Fernando Ortiz, the Haitian Jean Price-Mars, or the American Melville J. Herskovits, produced utterly spurious cultural history by short-circuiting contemporary New World ethnography with colonial West African data to arrive at presumptive baselines of cultural change. Rather, as John so brilliantly put it in “The Pastor and the Babalawo,” in disregarding the “epistemological priority of interaction” (Peel 1990: 339), they (much like Africanist anthropologists writing of Christian or Islamic influences as spurious additions to ‘the real thing’) also obscured and distorted what John called the “perception of religious change” (ibid.)—that is, the concrete historical sociology of processes of cultural transmission and transformation on both sides of the Atlantic.
John concerned himself with New World materials only late in his life, and for comparative purposes, although he did visit Cuba as part of a delegation of the British Academy (and got into a bit of an argument with local cognoscenti, or so I hear). But the sophistication that research on (now patently globalized) worlds of thought and practice related to the Oriṣa has finally attained would be unthinkable had it not been for the example John set for all of us. Apart from his meticulous empirical research on which we all came to depend, John taught us a principally simple but powerful lesson: history needs to be written forward and with a view toward the minutiae of what, speaking of African processes of conversion, he called “impassioned communication” (Peel 1990: 339). This is perhaps a fitting note to end on. As everyone who knew John as a friend and scholarly interlocutor will surely agree, he was passionate about what he had to say, whether the subject was gardens, cookbooks, cathedrals, anthropology, novels, the state of academia, or British politics. And here I should say that even though John was a deep Euroskeptic, I wager that he would be appalled at the way Brexit is being conducted. We all will miss John’s terrific sense of humor, his kindness and generosity, his never-ending curiosity and scholarly brilliance. But what I will perhaps miss most is John weighing in. All of us who knew him will surely remember that John always had an opinion, and if he valued yours at all, you would be sure to hear his.
Other than the paper that appears in this portrait section, John’s family decided not to make his unpublished writings available to those who knew him and those who might have profited from the record of his scholarship in Nigeria, which spanned the period from the immediate aftermath of decolonization to the beginning of the twenty-first century. We now cannot help but live with this decision. What we can do is to recall John, in due fashion, as an intellectual ancestor—one of those giants on whose shoulders we all totter—and as a friend whose personal decency and deep concern for the intellectual mission of our discipline should be a model for us all.
As practitioners of Regla de Ocha say in homage to the departed: “Ibae bae tonu, John!”
PalmiéStephan. 1993. “Ethnogenetic Processes and Cultural Transfer in Caribbean Slave Populations.” In Slavery in the Americas ed. Wolfgang Binder337–364. Würzburg: Königshauser und Neumann.
PalmiéStephan. 2014. “The Eyamba of North Fairmount Avenue, the Wizard of Menlo Park, and the Dialectics of Ensoniment: An Episode in the History of an Acoustic Mask.” In Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions ed. Paul C. Johnson47–79. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
PeelJ. D. Y. 1989. “The Cultural Work of Yoruba Ethnogenesis.” In History and Ethnicity ed. Elizabeth TonkinMaryon McDonald and Malcolm K. Chapman198–215. London: Routledge.
PeelJ. D. Y. 1990. “The Pastor and the Babalawo: The Interaction of Religions in Nineteenth-Century Yorubaland.” Africa 60 (3): 338–369.
J. D. Y. Peel’s Round Table
Olóúnjẹ ẹ́ tóó bá kú.
(Someone who has food is worth dying with.)— Yoruba proverb
The memory of John’s culinary talent is inseparable from his intellectual attributes as they generally reached his table together. He took equal pleasure in making a meal as he did in assembling its consumers around his round wooden table, which could seat six people at a squeeze. As anyone who had the good fortune to be seated there will know, much of John’s evolving research and his views on the output of other scholars emanated from his tiny kitchen and now legendary table, where many a mini-conference spontaneously materialized among his graduate students, academic colleagues, friends, and friends of friends.
Although I can find no trace of the event online, the first time I met John was perhaps as early as 2000, soon after I started my PhD in ethnomusicology at SOAS. I knew little of his work at the time, but I already had a sense of J. D. Y. Peel’s importance in the wider field of Yoruba studies. I arrived at a small room in Russell Square for what was evidently a poorly advertised colloquium about gender in Yoruba religion. Unfortunately (and unusually) for John, only two of us showed up. As I recall, the other student was a young woman visiting from the United States, also unknown to John. It was our good fortune to be able to discuss his paper in length, leaving me with an initial impression of his open and unassuming manner. Thereafter, I was compelled to immerse myself in John’s publications, among which was the article that emerged after the colloquium, “Gender in Yoruba Religious Change” (Peel 2002).
Perhaps two years later, when I was halfway through my part-time PhD about devotional bata drumming in Nigeria and its diasporic form in Cuba, I increasingly felt the need for a Yoruba specialist to take my study deeper. I know better now than to knock on an eminent professor’s door without an appointment, but I was met with a friendly face as John remembered me from the colloquium. He listened carefully as I explained why I wanted to bring him in as a co-supervisor. He responded, “It sounds very interesting, but I don’t know anything about music.” I later found this to be untrue, but at the time I managed to convince John that it was not musical expertise I needed, so he cautiously agreed to look at a thesis outline and my introductory chapter.
Our first conversation about my work in the follow-up meeting was unforgettable. Before we had reached our chairs, John grasped my draft and declared, “I must say, this has got a lot of problems.” Far from discouraged, I recall my excitement as I received his specialized feedback, and I remember those initial ‘aha! moments’ as John systematically dismantled the many assumptions I had uncritically reproduced from mainstream scholarship. Unqualified terms such as ‘Yoruba thought’, ‘Yoruba religion’, and ‘Yoruba tradition’ were permanently problematized. After that introductory discussion, John agreed to be my co-supervisor despite the shortcomings of my work at the time.
Although John’s supervision sessions were both formal and focused, they did not stay within the four walls of his SOAS office for long. After a few months I was invited to the round table in his domestic sphere. Visiting John’s north London home was always an event. In the warmer months, his culinary delights were often prefaced by a tour of his large garden with a glass of bubbly in hand, where he explained his latest horticultural projects. Yet it was in his office that I first discovered John’s passion for gardening. During an early supervision meeting, I was surprised to see several spelling corrections of Latin terms on my detailed botanical table documenting the kinds of wood that Nigerian and Cuban drummers use to carve their instruments. When I queried John as to how he knew about such things, he laughed, “That’s one of my things,” confessing that he was “a plant nerd” as a teenager, which later manifested as a passion for gardening and classical languages.
The excursion from John’s garden tour to the dinner table took his guests past some of the many treasures he had collected. At the top of the stairs, one came face to face with a recent addition to the family, a kokpa full body mask of the Poro secret society, given to John by his wife Anne. This ‘laughing mask’ towered over us as a symbol of John’s cherished trips to the Grand Cape Mount region of Liberia while Anne was working there. He took to e-mailing a group of us during these trips, sending us regular written accounts of his experiences and journey of discovery, now posthumously compiled in Letters from Liberia (Peel 2016b). After brushing past the long raffia hair of the Poro mask, one faced a large antique hand-printed Yoruba adire. cloth that was mounted on the wall, similar to the one appearing on the cover of his last monograph, Christianity, Islam, and Oriṣa Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction (2016a). (In August 2015, John enthusiastically e-mailed me a jpeg and asked, “Do you like the cover design, the famous adirẹ cloth called Ibadan dun?”)
As one was seated, equally alluring objects flanked the dinner table and never failed to serve as conversation pieces. Most spectacular was the carved anthropomorphic Ẹpa mask from eastern Yorubaland, standing from the floor to waist level. John liked telling the story of how she came into his possession and that her male companion resided with one of his academic peers. On the mantelpiece several more delicate Yoruba woodcarvings lived among photographs of four Peel generations. We would dine alongside an antique pair of ibeji (twin deities), an exquisite little beaded man on a horse, and my favorite, an oṣe Ṣango, the hand-held double-axe dance staff precious to devotees of Ṣango, “conventionally regarded as the fourth Alafin [king] of Ọyọ” (Peel 2011: 340). This one was gifted to John by the celebrated French ethnographer Pierre Verger (1902–1996), who was perhaps the first European initiate of Ṣango. Once we were fully installed at the round table, the food started arriving, always three courses and usually Mediterranean.
Just as John had culinary flair, he had a knack for putting people together. On one particularly memorable occasion, our animated exchanges organically bounced around the table; one minute we were on Yoruba language computer technology, and the next on surrogate speech in drumming. A few mouthfuls later, we were talking about medicine and magic in Yoruba Christian churches and the Ifá divination cult. By the time the main course was served, we had shifted from Sharia law in Iran to northern Nigeria, then landed in a medieval library in Afghanistan before the table was cleared. The thought our host had given to his small guest list gradually revealed itself. This particular assemblage included a British scholar of Aladura Christianity in Nigeria, an Australian Oriṣa music researcher, a Yoruba information scientist whose father was a scholar of comparative religion and the former Methodist Bishop of Nigeria, and the daughter of a prominent Iranian cleric who is herself a scholar of Islam. Over dessert John admitted that he wanted to bring a couple of ọmọ alufa (children of priests) to the table. As always, his guests digested many things as new friendships were forged. As for John’s consumption, I remember one of those ọmọ alufa introducing him to YouTube during the evening.
After dinner, more treasures awaited as one moved to the adjacent room for a digestif. An elaborate wooden chest carved by one of Nigeria’s most famous traditional woodcarvers, Lamidi Fakẹyẹ, and a wall-mounted figurative traditional batik of the river Oriṣa Erinle. were traditional storyboards of Yoruba sacred myths. John and I, and anyone else versed in Yoruba culture, would sink into the sofa and entertain ourselves by interpreting the symbols and attempting to elucidate their narratives. The conversation could just as likely revolve around John’s grandchildren, British or Nigerian politics, or a new book that had just come out.
Beyond the social chat, John and I spent many hours discussing the area where our research interests met most strongly—Oriṣa devotion in Nigeria and, in more recent years, its diaspora in the Atlantic world. As books in this area have proliferated since the 1990s, numerous of which John reviewed, I became increasingly curious about why his own scholarship was underquoted, marginal, or even ignored by upcoming scholars of Oriṣa devotion on the other side of the Atlantic. Although not conceited about his own work, John found it hard to understand why the Church Mission Society (CMS) archive in Birmingham is not routinely consulted or even cited by Oriṣa researchers. In his review of the collection Ṣàngó in Africa and the African Diaspora (Tishken et al. 2009), John complains, “It seems extraordinary that there is virtually nothing here on the Ṣango cult as it operated in nineteenth-century Yoruba towns, where the evidence is relatively plentiful and which is the essential baseline for its further development after it crossed the Atlantic” (Peel 2011: 340).
Perhaps few people have known the CMS archive as well as John did. He spent several years studying the handwritten journals and letters of nineteenth-century missionaries in Nigeria and generated dozens of meticulously labeled notebooks from this exhaustive archival survey, only a portion of which is reported in Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (Peel 2000). The painstaking detail of John’s notebooks reveals his methodological rigor and patience and his savvy for extracting themes. His margin annotations list dates, subjects, and themes, some social and historical, such as “heathen kindness” and “Lagos civil war,” while a great many of the notes pertain to Oriṣa names and practices such as “sacrifice,” “divination,” “dreams,” and “leaves.”
Many of John’s annotations highlight particular personalities that captured his imagination. One that captivated us both was Ajaka, who features over a substantial period in the journals of the missionary James White. While John was most interested in Ajaka’s religious conversion and the pastor who shepherded him, I am intrigued by the musical details. To my knowledge, Ajaka is the earliest example of a bata drummer who was named and brought to life through written text. Our mutual interest led to a small project to track down Ajaka’s drums, which had eventually been surrendered to White as part of Ajaka’s Christian conversion. After scouring John’s notes to determine where White may have taken those drums, our own mission started. John and I called an elderly librarian he knew who still worked in the CMS archive, and then I combed some British private collections and museums. I am sorry to report that the drums have not turned up yet, but what did materialize was a poignant piece about Ajaka written by the man who once said he does not know anything about music (Peel 2015).
To return to my question, why then is John’s meticulous labor often overlooked? He once confided that he had been told by various people over the years that he could not research Christianity because he was a Christian and therefore lacked objectivity, and, conversely, that he could not research Oriṣa devotion as he was a religious outsider and so was compromised by his Christian prejudices and his lack of access to reliable data. Sociologist Rogers Brubaker (2001: 533) was the first to label such assumptions as “epistemological insiderism.” In a recent New York Times feature, Brubaker (2017) explains the term for a lay readership as “the belief that identity qualifies or disqualifies one from writing with legitimacy and authority about a particular topic … subtler forms of epistemological insiderism are at work in the practice of assessing scholarly arguments with central reference to the identity of the author.” Within the broad field of Yoruba scholarship, it sometimes seems that the former structure of entitlement (especially that of white men) from the ex-colonial group has morphed into an inside-out form. Epistemological insiderism in Oriṣa studies manifests not only in terms of religious orientation and initiation status, but with reference to gender, ethnicity, and phenotype. John made reference to some of these emotive issues in his recent book reviews.
However, the reviewer, in the end, does not land on the side of the editors, but concludes by highlighting what he sees as the major sticking point: “Perhaps the cardinal choice faced by the Oriṣa tradition in the Americas [is] whether it is to be primarily a vehicle for black consciousness or to spread itself as truly a ‘world religion,’ which means emancipating itself from race” (ibid.).
As the editors suggest in the Introduction, pushing ahead of any of the contributors, of Oriṣa devotion as a world religion—that is, one which, if not up with the ‘big three’ of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, might at least be compared with the second tier of faiths such as Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, or Jainism. Since ‘having a history’ is one of the key criteria here, the division of papers between ‘Yoruba religious culture’ in Africa and beyond Africa has potentially an analytical point, for history connects them.(Peel 2010: 107)
John addresses the thorny issues of race and ethnicity more directly in his review of Hucks’s (2012) Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism. Exemplifying what Brubaker (2001: 533) deems the “disabling consequences of identity politics,” John summarizes the book’s trajectory: “Hucks’s subject is not the Yoruba themselves, nor the interaction between Nigerian Yoruba and ‘Yoruba Americans,’ but rather what Africa and the Yoruba have meant in the African American imagination” (Peel 2014: 1713). Along the way, Hucks’s study of black religious nationalism and its various positions on racial separatism lay bare a continuum with animosity and exclusion of white people on one end and tolerance and acceptance on the other. Discussions reported by Hucks on whether or not Caucasians should be initiated uncritically spill over into the arena of scholarship, where several respondents, in “moments of approval,” list white devotees who were “favorably invoked” (Hucks 2012: 287). Almost all of the named white people are religious scholars from John’s generation. Hucks closes the section with a quote from one of her respondents: “The literary contributions to Orisha worship of Bascom, Verger, Bier, and Thompson are noteworthy, but history documents that these Oyimbo are a rare breed among their people, and an unusual exception rather that the rule” (ibid.: 288). It is unclear whether John is regarded as “an unusual exception” or “the rule” by Hucks and her respondents as his work is not cited in the book. But John’s review of the monograph is unlikely to win over those who self-identify as Yoruba Americans. Dismantling this core assertion of Hucks’s argument, John (2014: 1714) concludes:
There are some massive ironies to this often poignant story, the most glaring of which concerns relations between “Yoruba Americans,” and Nigerian Yoruba. Nigerian Yoruba see the self-ascription of some African Americans as “Yoruba” as unjustified, even absurd … If Yoruba religion for these African Americans is “about home,” what does it mean for them that this is now so largely a love unrequited and a devotion unshared by those who are its source and its object? Indeed, African Americans are classified by Yoruba as oyinbo (“Europeans, whites,” the term having a primarily cultural rather than a racial connotation).
Finally, I loop back to the article that emerged after my very first meeting with John, “Gender in Yoruba Religious Change” (2002). The article subjects materials in the CMS archives to gender analyses, along the way vigorously challenging Oyěwùmí’s (1997) monograph-length argument that gender did not exist among the Yoruba prior to colonization but was imposed by the West. This book, The Invention of Women, is considered both innovative and controversial and led to some heated rejoinders between Oyěwùmí and Matory (see, e.g., Matory 2008). In her latest monograph, Oyěwùmí (2016: 117) appears to have abandoned arguing with Matory and turns her attention to academics whom she calls “gender dictaters (rhymes with ‘dictator’)”—that is, John Peel and Jacob Olupona. In response to John’s critique of her work in his 2002 article, she introduces him with a deferential tone as “without a doubt one of the most renowned documenters of Yorùbá society and social change” (ibid.: 118), but she eventually “takes the boat out too far,” as John once remarked of her gender argument in The Invention of Women. Midpoint in the chapter, Oyěwùmí writes: “Yorùbá categories cannot be assimilated into the gender-dichotomized and male-privileging English worldview to which the Yorùbá missionaries and Peel subscribe. Thus we cannot take their observations at face value, as Peel has done” (ibid. 129; emphasis added). This leaves one wondering how much ‘Englishness’ Yoruba-speaking Saros internalized during their mission education in the mid-nineteenth century, and what they might have in common with a twenty-first-century Scottish-born, self-proclaimed northerner. Sadly, we will never get to read what would doubtless have been an entertaining rejoinder from the English professor in question.
What John did leave us scholars of global Oriṣa devotion is an entirely new paradigm that he named “The Three Circles of Yoruba Religion” (Peel 2013; 2016a: chap. 11), which I have put into visual form (see fig. 1). As he focused on diasporic Oriṣa worship relatively late in his long career and made only one trip to Cuba, John viewed the global development of ‘Yoruba religion’ through a fresh lens. Where the default assumption of the three areas of Yoruba religion has historically been (1) Oriṣa devotion, (2) Islam, and (3) Christianity, John deconstructs the old paradigm in several ways. Although he has also clustered the various Yoruba traditions in roughly chronological order with circle 1 reflecting the earliest traditions and circle 3 the most recent, his merging of the Abrahamic faiths (2) and his partitioning of Oriṣa devotion in the homeland (1) and diaspora (3) is a larger paradigmatic shift.
In his exposition of this paradigm (published in earlier form in Spanish in 2013 and as the final chapter in his 2016 monograph), John had a good deal to say about the overlaps of circles 1 and 2 and 1 and 3 and, most pertinently, the absence of any overlap of circles 2 and 3. First explaining the historical and cultural overlap between circles 1 and 2, John explores the mutual influence of Oriṣa devotion, Islam, and Christianity. Likewise, he approaches Oriṣa devotion at home (1) and abroad (3) as merely overlapping, thus undercutting the assertion of Oriṣa devotion as a world religion while simultaneously asking “the most radical question of all: Is precolonial YTR [Yoruba traditional religion] strictly to be considered a ‘religion’ at all?” (Peel 2016a: 217). Replacing actual origin with contemporary imaginary, John states: “It is hard to resist the conclusion that, just as it was missionary outsiders in Yorubaland who first discursively fashioned Yoruba heathenism (YTR), so it was practitioners in the outside of the Americas who first created the reality of a single Yoruba religion” (ibid.: 225).
In terms of the future of researching ‘Yoruba religion’, the separation of circles 2 and 3 reflects a theoretical inversion, whereby Yoruba people (i.e., those of recent African lineage) in diaspora, the vast majority of whom are Christians or Muslims, are entirely separate from Oriṣa devotees outside of Nigeria (a tiny minority of whom are of recent Yoruba lineage). Throwing down the gauntlet, John insists that “the partition that has tended to exist between students of Oriṣa religion, wherever practiced, and of Christianity and Islam needs to be broken down” (Peel 2016a: 215). The assumption that these are entirely different spheres, I believe, explains why John’s scholarship is undercited or ignored by numerous researchers of Oriṣa devotion. I also believe that John was ahead of his time. It is my hope that a new generation of laterally minded, outward-looking researchers will discover the extremely rich resources cited and left by J. D. Y. Peel.
Just as John deconstructed prior theoretical models with his three circles theory, one of the major things I learned from my former supervisor was to interrogate handed-down paradigms. After also enduring years of various forms of ‘insiderism’ in the course of my own fieldwork, the last theoretical conversation I had with John in August 2015 was about transcending simplistic insider-outsider binaries and the enduring emic and etic model inherited from linguistics. To work through my ideas, I had been tinkering with an elaborate diagram for some time. Not knowing whether I was barking up the wrong tree, I sidled up to John while he was cooking and showed him the diagram. Half expecting to hear, once again, “This has got a lot of problems,” my idea was met with enthusiasm, giving me the confidence to forge forward.
The following day was the last time I saw John. Stephan Palmié and I went to a pan-Asian restaurant near his house where John knew the proprietors and everything on the menu. Stephan and I were entertained by his usual jovial presence and sharp wit. This reminder of John’s passion for food, people, and life itself was followed by the shocking news just weeks later that he had joined the ancestors. It was hard to comprehend that I would never enjoy the privilege of dining at J. D. Y.’s table again. Beyond my deep regret that he did not get to see through many of the things he talked about over our last meal, I selfishly felt it too early to pick up the little piece of the mantle that he had passed my way. But I remember something that says so much about how John lived and what he wanted from us all. After that last theoretical conversation in his kitchen, he asked how my latest book was coming along. Before I could formulate an answer, he gripped my shoulders, giving them an affectionate shake, and exclaimed: “Just get on with it, woman!”
BrubakerRogers. 2001. “The Return of Assimilation? Changing Perspectives on Immigration and Its Sequels in France, Germany and the United States.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24 (4): 531–548.
BrubakerRogers. 2017. “The Uproar Over ‘Transracialism.’” New York Times18 May. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/18/opinion/the-uproar-over-transracialism.html.
PeelJ. D. Y. 2010. “Review of J. K. Olupona and T. Rey (eds), Yoruba Religion as a Global Phenomenon.” Journal of African History 51 (1): 107–108.
PeelJ. D. Y. 2011. “Review of J. E. Tishken, T. Falọla and A. Akinyẹmi (eds), Sango in Africa and the African Diaspora.” Africa 81 (2): 340–341.
PeelJ. D. Y. 2014. “Review of Tracey E. Hucks, Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism.” American Historical Review 119 (5): 1713–1714.
PeelJ. D. Y. 2015. “A Drummer’s Tale: Ajaka of Ota.” In The Yorùbá God of Drumming: Transatlantic Perspectives on the Wood That Talks ed. Amanda Villepastourxi–xxv. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
PeelJ. D. Y. 2016b. Letters from Liberia. London: International African Institute and Centre of African Studies, SOAS, University of London.
The Iconoclastic Impulse in Yoruba Culture
Edited and with a postscript by Richard Fardon and Ramon Sarró
Today I want to talk about a counter-cultural stance towards central features of Yoruba culture that has itself become a major component in Yoruba culture, what I have called its ‘iconoclastic impulse’, confronting which poses a challenge to students of art history.1 Doing so one has particularly to challenge a highly unified and essentialized view of Yoruba culture, often held by Yoruba themselves, one that is rather reluctant either to recognize how much Yoruba culture varies in both time and space, or to acknowledge the many dissentient voices within it. In this view, variation and dissensus tend to disappear from the normative, authoritative statements of Yoruba cultural discourse. A further point: this discourse makes much use of a notion of authenticity, defined as how the culture was before the impact on it of Islam and Christianity. These were more important, I think, than colonialism per se. It also makes ‘traditional religion’, and the symbols/values associated with it, central to that posited authentic core. Of the sheer empirical difficulties in establishing what the authentic core was before the external impact, I will not say much. The essentialized conceptions which result tend to a mutual assimilation of past and present, and the problem with that is that it erases history: it prevents us from appreciating Yoruba culture as a historical accomplishment, achieved through much argument and dissensus, rather than a common heritage passively received. In Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (2000) I wrote of the remarkable ‘vitality, adaptiveness and tenacity’ of Yoruba culture. Vitality speaks for itself; tenacity means that Yoruba culture retains over time its very distinctive character; adaptiveness means that it is always on the move, adjusting itself to new challenges. This dynamic energy, manifest in all its works, is best appreciated if we focus on key cleavages, or focuses of dissensus, within it. The most revealing way to view a culture, I suggest, is to look at the arguments it has with itself.
The theme of these seminars, as explained to me by Sidney Kasfir, is the place of art history in Yoruba studies. ‘Classic’ Yoruba art is, of course, closely linked to traditional religion, particularly the worship of the Oriṣa, and to the royal palaces, the seats of sacred kings and the location of many shrines.2 It is a simulacrum of this that is produced when modern people want ‘traditional Yoruba culture’, as at Oyotunji village.3 The irony is that for some centuries now, and especially since 1900, Yoruba have converted to two versions of the world religions—Islam and evangelical Christianity—which had regarded the icons of the Oriṣa as their special target and had been hostile to representational religious art more generally.
Islam predates Christianity in most of Yorubaland by many decades, but it’s hard to assess the impact of its strong inherent iconoclasm. Nevertheless, quite widely, as in many other parts of West Africa, it seems to have formed a sort of dualist accommodation with the oriṣa cults and their icons (cf. Bravmann  on the northern Ivory Coast): the oriṣa themselves could be positively Islamized as maleka (messengers, angels); as well as negatively so as anjọnu (demons). Evangelical Christianity never permitted this degree of accommodation, even in its informal, lay practice. In the nineteenth century, Muslims were sometimes criticized for effectively practising two religions; there was no way to pair off Christian saints with oriṣa, as was done in the Iberian Catholic regimes which produced Santeria in Cuba, Candomblé in Brazil. The only partial exception was with Orunmila, the oriṣa of Ifá, whom some Yoruba religious intellectuals compared to Christ as a saviour.
Evangelical Christianity demanded the renunciation of all Oriṣa practice, and the handing-in and destruction of idols (and other religious equipment, like Ifá palm nuts and ọpẹlẹ [divination chains]) was a major part of the process of declaring oneself a Christian. In the Church Missionary Society (CMS) journals, the detail of all this is much more prominent in African than European witnesses—which I assume was because they took them much more seriously as forces as well as icons of power: sometimes over a dozen different ones are named. They were handed over to the missionary for destruction, though some found their way into ethnographic collections. For the nineteenth century, our most remarkable witness is an African pastor, James White, who was at Ota (a few miles northwest of Lagos) from the 1850s–1880s.
White noted great emulation between the quarters of the town: people came in from neighbouring towns and villages for the spectacle. He thought that the 1871 Gẹlẹdẹ was the grandest that he had witnessed.
Today there was a grand play in this town [13 January 1871, JDYP] which may be called the Gelede exhibition—the principal amusement of the nation … The principle object of this amusement is to display the skill of the artists in producing the best workmanship in carving and painting, and the wealth of that particular section of the town which provides for the amusement in exhibiting the most costly cloths.
He was also told of one Gẹlẹdẹ ‘player’ who ‘had two figures of children attached to the side [of the mask, JDYP], all showing motion as if they were living creatures’. When the Gẹlẹdẹ was on, he tells us ruefully, the church was thinly attended, as the many still-pagan ‘hearers’ were lured away to the entertainment.
‘The best masks’, he goes on, ‘are those on the top of which are standing carved figures of the banana tree bearing fruit, some painted red to represent ripeness and finished off with parrots attached to their appendices.’4
Nine years earlier White had first referred to Gẹlẹdẹ when he called at the house of ‘a man called Kudoro, a celebrated Otta artist who carves masks for public amusement’. So what did this aesthetically-aware African pastor make of Gẹlẹdẹ and its art? Interestingly he says nothing about the religious point of Gẹlẹdẹ—which he was not likely to have been unaware of—but focuses exclusively on its character as art and entertainment. His rejection of Gẹlẹdẹ harbours a contradiction. On the one hand, he thinks it a waste and a distraction.
It is a great pity to see the interest and zeal manifested by each individual and the considerable amount of money lavished on mere fleeting, momentary and unprofitable pursuits and gratifications, whereas the great important truth of their being great sinners in the sight of God … is treated with as much indifference as a child’s plaything.
Art, it seems, diverts men from la vie sérieuse. On the other hand, God is himself seen as ‘The greatest of Artists’. Even more, White, very daringly, compared God to Kudoro, arguing that if Kudoro was ‘superior … to his carved images and … praise [was, JDYP] due to him for his skill’, then how much was God, creator of all things, to be considered as ‘the most proper object of our worship and adoration.’ Here, alongside the oft-repeated missionary claim that idols are merely the work of men’s hands, so that worship of them was misplaced, there is implicitly something like the Renaissance view that the artist partakes something special of the nature of God, because he too creates (‘the divine Michelangelo’). Only White’s capacity to appreciate the art itself could have led him to this view.
The specifically religious dimensions of White’s attitudes towards art and culture become plainer in relation to another episode in his career at Ota. His conversion of a drummer, Ajaka (cf. Peel Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba, pp. 290-291). Some while after Ajaka’s conversion, White broached the question of whether he should still play his drums; he eventually gave them up, as incompatible with Christianity; and eventually gave them to Townsend, refusing the payment offered.5 Why did they have to go? It was not just a vague association with Oriṣa—as White says, without the drumming ‘the idolatrous devotion of the pagans would be cold and devoid of life for … it was necessary to drum the attributes of the various deities and awake them to be propitious to them’—but the fact the drum was itself a vehicle of the power of the Oriṣa especially the Oriṣa Àyàn. As White notes, Ajaka ‘loves it as his god and actually sacrifices to it’. The work of my doctoral student Amanda Vincent [Villepastour] on the bàtá drum in Nigeria and Cuba has shed much light on the religious dimensions of drumming, and makes White’s attitude fully comprehensible.6 Drums are sacralized by sacrifice and the medicine which they contain. Amanda’s work solves a further ethnographic puzzle—the identity of the mysterious entity ‘Gisonrin’, named among the Oriṣa given up by converts: this is surely the iron ring called kusanrin attached to a bàtá drum, which confers Ogun’s power.7 Christian sensitivity to the pagan associations of drums—especially the two-membrane drums like bàtá and dùndún—has continued to this day: they are explicitly proscribed in most Aladura churches. One reason for the great appeal of the Salvation Army in the 1920s was its introduction of ‘secular’ drums, which enabled drumming to be incorporated into church services.8 White’s combination of a high degree of aesthetic awareness and an evangelical sense that cultural forms saturated with paganism were impermissible was surely why he became a pioneer in the development of indigenous church music.
White’s case shows the complexity of the motives behind religion’s hostility to art and culture. Since White’s motivations had deep Christian as well as Yoruba roots, it’s helpful at this point to stand back and for a few moments to review iconoclasm in the Christian longue durée. Clearly it has deep roots in ancient Judaism, and particularly the First Commandment,9 having to do with the unique and transcendent character of the Deity. [It was] moderated in early Christianity as the church shed Jewish iconophobia and adopted classical iconographic styles. Iconoclasm so-called was an anti-imagistic movement in the Eastern Church that developed in [the] early eighth century in response to the rise of Islam. Islam’s military successes and its accusation of idolatry against Christianity led to the adoption of iconoclasm—the removal of images from churches—in a spirit of repentance to secure divine favour and protection. Western Christianity was throughout opposed to iconoclasm, though it too harboured, independently, a tradition of hostility to imagistic excess: instances include the architecture of the Cistercian order founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux (early twelfth century), which insisted on plain buildings as part of a return to the original monastic austerity, or the career of Savonarola in Florence in the 1490s, who, at the heart of the Renaissance, inspired a short-lived ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ (il falò delle vanità),10 on which luxuries including pictures went up in flames. But it was Protestantism which institutionalized iconoclasm within Christianity, more specifically the Reformed branch taught by Zwingli and Calvin rather than Lutheranism. Luther himself did not oppose images as devotional aids, and drew some of the greatest German artists to his cause: Dürer and Cranach. But where Reformed teaching took root there was a major onslaught on existing religious art—statues, paintings, shrines, stained glass, altar pieces, rood screens, etc.—well-documented for England in Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars . In England it occurred in two episodes: during the ‘Tudor Church Militant’ of King Edward VI (1547–53) and during the Puritan Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s—when a parliamentary commissioner, William Dowsing, toured the great churches of East Anglia to complete the work left undone by the Edwardian iconoclasts of a century before. The Puritans, of course, were theologically of the same stamp as the Pilgrim Fathers, and institutionalized an iconoclastic attitude within American Protestantism. On both sides of the Atlantic, evangelicalism and its offshoots, down to Pentecostalism, have preserved a distrust of visual art, as a temptation to idolatry and superstition. This was no doubt consolidated by Protestant representations of the Catholic Other.
A final point. If we suppose that human beings are ‘programmed’ for art and that religions will always need to represent their gods, then iconoclasm (directed as it is specifically at visual representations) will often stimulate creative surges in other directions. In fact, two opposite directions—sacred art in non-visual media [and] visual art in secular forms (Bach and Rembrandt), as we saw with White’s sponsorship of African hymns.
Yoruba evangelicalism thus had iconoclasm built into it from its theological ancestry. But later episodes of iconoclastic practice suggest that this external tradition tapped into some indigenous practices. The most spectacular episodes were associated, not with European missionaries but with African prophets. It occurred widely throughout West Africa: first with W. Wade Harris in Ivory Coast c. 1912–15, then with Garrick Braide in the Niger Delta 1916–18, finally with J. Babalọla and the lesser Aladura prophets in the early 1930s, especially in Ilesha and Ekiti. Their mass baptisms, sanctification of water for healing and denunciation of witches took place in an atmosphere highly charged with the expectation of a radically new dispensation, accompanied by the handing in and destruction of charms and idols. Photographs of Babalọla at Ilesha: a vast pile of charms, calabashes, carvings (e.g. Ẹpa masks) stacked at the back (also Ṣango etc.).11 Much very fine religious art from the rich northern Ekiti area must have been lost—Amaury Talbot is said to have collected a lot from south-east Nigeria in the wake of Braide. Attitudes to the abandoned object were complex: partly that they were useless and outworn, partly that they were dangerous. There seem to be some cultural precedents for this (just as there were precedents for the idea of a healing ‘revival’): new cults involve destruction of old cult objects, the charms of deceased chiefs (cf. Ṣokẹnu at Abeokuta in 1861). ‘Art’ objects like carvings were not expected to last forever, charms lose their power over time … iconoclastic episodes express a sense of social crisis, but promise renewal, and the re-equipment of the community with new means of spiritual enhancement and protection. Prayer replaces sacrifice, the Yoruba Primer replaces one’s Igba Ori or ikin, the Word replaces the Image/Icon; but, as so often, the replacements form a system which preserves the structure of the older set to which they stand in dualistic opposition.
Aladura offers a paradox: despite this hostility to the icons of traditional religion, it was the most ‘inculturated’ form of Christianity to date—the one that most fully embodied the cultural demands of the old religion—which of course was why it could afford so to trash the works of the old religion and why, in a sense, it had to, since they were rivals on the same plane. Functionally and sociologically, a small Aladura church is most like an Oriṣa cult group. From the late 1940s, with the rise of nationalism, Aladura churches were widely regarded as most in tune with the times. Mainline churches, sensitive to the charge of secular nationalists that missions had disparaged/destroyed so much of traditional culture, developed ‘African theology’. But in contrast to Aladura, they sought to put themselves right with nationalism by adopting external expressive forms. Significantly it was the Catholic Church—farthest from the evangelical tradition and the most organizationally dominated by Europeans, well into the 1960s—which sought most strenuously to reconnect Christianity with visual art. I am thinking of Fr. Kevin Carroll, his links with Ekiti carvers like Fakeye,12 and his good relations with Ulli Beier and the Oshogbo circle,13 who created a modern Yoruba art aligned with the great tradition of Yoruba religious art and antithetical to the iconoclastic tradition. The irony was that this revival was associated with initiatives from above and outside. It always struck me that expatriates with cultural interests (and an appetite for the authentically traditional) were easier with all this than most educated Nigerians. The latter might decorate their living rooms with ebony heads and egrets carved out of cattle horns, but were uncomfortable with ibeji, the carved thunderaxes (oṣe) of Sango or statutes of Eṣu … they just didn’t go with the Bibles and hymn-books you’d see on their shelves!14
Expatriate scholarship, especially anthropological, has also tended to be uneasy with this iconoclastic tradition. Though criticized from a nationalist perspective (cf. Okediji ‘zealous missionaries and pseudo-anthropologists’!),15 it adopted a distancing perspective on the evangelical project of Christian conversion. Hence the theoretical Afro-centrism of Horton’s [1971, 1975a, 1975b, 1997] theory of ‘African conversion’, which treated missionaries as no more than a catalyst for changes rooted in the interplay of social circumstances and indigenous religious premises. Hence too Horton’s robust critique of scholars (whether European or African) working from a base in the evangelical tradition: what he called ‘the devout opposition’. My own take on Horton[’s theory] finds its weakness precisely in his reluctance to accept that Yoruba have taken as their own the external iconoclastic traditions of Christianity and Islam.16 This weakness is even more evident in Andrew Apter’s work, who has consistently sought to marginalize it, or argue it away, from narratives where it needs to be central. So he virtually elided the Aladura iconoclasm of the early 1930s from his account of Ayede-Ekiti. More astonishing still in Black Critics and Kings is [Apter’s] attempt to make out that Bishop Crowther—despite his evangelical orthodoxy on the subject of heathenism and idolatry—was at some deeper level on the side of the Oriṣa, specifically Ọbatala [1992: 193–204]. In his later work The Pan-African Nation—focused on the final effervescence of cultural nationalism, FESTAC 1977—Apter briefly acknowledges the hostility of ‘Christian-Muslim fundamentalists’ to what they saw as a ‘pernicious pagan revival that would derail the nation’s moral and economic development’ [2005: 200].
Now it is true though that we have, as it were, entered a further age of iconoclasm since the late 1970s. 1977 was a turning point: not just FESTAC, but the beginnings of the Sharia arguments and a definitive upping of religious consciousness in the national political arena—Neo-Pentecostalism on the Christian side and more consciously orthodox forms of Islam. (‘Fundamentalism’ is a lazy term, raising as many problems as it solves; and it diverts attention from the specific historical and cultural conditions of the particular manifestations.) By now, of course, Oriṣa religion had become a minority activity except (mainly) for some high-profile ‘civic’ festivals, like Egungun in some Oyo towns, Agẹmọ in Ijẹbu (Drewal ), Ọlọjọ at Ifè, Ogun at Ilesha and Ondo, Gẹlẹdẹ in some towns of the southwest [Drewal and Drewal 1983]. Significantly, these had often been ‘resignified’ as cultural rather than religious festivals: a device to ease the consciences of Christian/Muslim elites participating in them. The Neo-Pentecostals or ‘Born-Agains’ challenged this ambiguous accommodation: they needed their demons and so (within their iconoclastic vision) paradoxically helped to keep an image of the old religion alive—and even provided new icons (or anti-icons) of it in media representations of it (for instance in films and videos [portraying demons]) …
So iconoclasm cannot be counted out of Yoruba culture, since for over 150 years it has played such an important part in the historical self-realization of the Yoruba. Not merely that, but it has become attached to a key positive value; it doesn’t just say no to the images of Oriṣa-religion. We get a clear sign of this in a comment of Apter on FESTAC: ‘Political luminary and Yoruba cultural nationalist Chief O. Awolọwọ … condemned the festival as a wasteful venture during its planning stages, calling for science, agriculture and education rather than atavistic “primitive exhibitions”’ (2005: 200). Awo’s viewpoint is virtually identical to James White’s: FESTAC, like Gẹlẹdẹ, is a wasteful diversion as well as backward-looking—the opposition to idolatry/iconophily is pragmatic/utilitarian as much as it is religious. More than that, it is linked to the cardinal Yoruba value of ọlaju (sophistication, enlightenment, modernity). The Yoruba as a nation pride themselves on two value constellations that are both antithetical and complementary: first, their being an especially modern and enlightened people, in contrast to other Nigerian peoples (this underlies Yoruba attitudes to the presidency of Nigeria—that it is more rightfully ‘theirs’ than anyone else’s); second, their having a traditional culture of exceptional richness and high level of aesthetic recognition.
Of these two defining value constellations the first is most relevant in intra-Nigerian contexts, the second in extra-Nigerian contexts. As I said at the outset, the literature on the Yoruba has always been shaped by the agendas of Yoruba themselves. And this contrast between the intra-Nigerian focus on Yoruba modernity and the external focus on Yoruba tradition seems to find expression in the gulf between the literature on Born-Again Christianity in Nigeria and the efflorescence of Oriṣa-religion outside Nigeria. I feel that a major challenge in Yoruba studies, perhaps the major challenge today—in the contemporary context of transnational movements of people and global cultural comparisons via electronic media—is to find a way to relate these counter-currents to one another. Only in that way will we be able to appreciate Yoruba culture both in its wholeness and in its historicity.
Had John brought this paper to publication, it is likely he would have taken into account the emergence of a contemporary literature on iconoclasm in African art history circles; however, at the time he wrote this piece, the strands of an emerging discussion had not yet meshed and much remained to be published. He was apparently unaware that before interest in African iconoclasm became mainstream, Elisabeth L. Cameron and Zoë Strother presented papers on the subject during the 1990s, including Cameron’s unpublished manuscript, “Out of the Wilderness: Iconoclasm and Change among the Sala Mpasu of Zaire” (delivered that April, according to the 1991 ACASA Newsletter), which was inspired by a pioneering but largely forgotten essay by John Janzen (1971), “Kongo Religious Renewal.” During 2000–2001, Strother and Barry Flood ran a reading group on iconoclasm at the National Gallery of Art, and Strother organized a conference panel, to which Cameron also contributed, on “Iconoclasm in Africa” to encourage research in the field (College Art Association, Annual Meeting, New York City, 24 February 2000, sponsored by the Arts Council of the African Studies Association). The following year, Strother delivered the first in what would be a series of papers exploring the topic “When It’s Time for an Image to Die: Iconoclasm in Africa” (Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery, Washington, D.C., Colloquium CLXVIII, 8 March 2001).
Following the growth in writing on iconoclasm in wider art history and visual studies from the 1990s—under the influence of such early milestones as David Freedberg’s (1989) The Power of Images, Hans Belting’s ( 1994) Likeness and Presence, and Alain Besançon’s ( 2001) The Forbidden Image—by the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, conversations between the role of destruction within art and religion in Africa and elsewhere were connecting productively. In the United States, Strother (2002) contributed a brief essay, “Iconoclasm by Proxy,” to Bruno Latour’s influential Iconoclash: Beyond the Image-Wars in Science, Religion and Art, and with Cameron in 2004 she proposed an exhibition that, had it taken place, would have cemented the contemporary debates on iconoclasm generally and within African art scholarship. Latour’s provocative move from ‘-clasm’ to ‘-clash’ was an invitation for scholars to pay less attention to the breaking (-clasm) of images and more attention to the play (-clash) between competing icons and images, on occasion to signal distinct events. Iconoclasts may destroy objects not for the sake of living in a non-iconic vacuum, but rather so as to replace problematic visual representations. An author often forgotten to have been among the earliest to explore iconoclasm in Africa was the British social anthropologist, later historian, Jack Goody. His essay “Icôns et iconoclasme en Afrique” published in 1991, was later anthologized in a volume of his essays (see Goody 1997). While he does not cite him, John was well aware of Goody’s ideas more generally and may have known about this essay.
In 2005, Ramon Sarró, another contributor to Latour’s book, completed a monograph he had provisionally entitled Iconoclasm Done and Undone. By the time of publication, this had become, at his publisher’s request, the subtitle of The Politics of Religious Change on the Upper Guinea Coast: Iconoclasm Done and Undone (Sarró 2009). John was editor of the series in which the book appeared, and the two held long conversations about it. Iconoclasm was an element of state-promoted modernization in Guinea, a topic Sarró discussed extensively at the time with other country experts, notably Christian Højbjerg (2007) and Mike McGovern (2013), who wrote their own monographs on Guinean state iconoclasm.
Meanwhile, Peter Probst and Sidney Kasfir were engaged in active discussions in the United States. Explicitly influenced by Latour, Probst (2012) went on to edit a special issue of African Arts entitled “Iconoclash in the Age of Heritage,” with a ‘first word’ by Strother, a tour d’horizon by Probst himself, and five case studies (including essays by Cameron and Kasfir).
John was only an occasional party to some of these conversations from the symposium at Emory in 2006, when he presented this paper in the company of Kasfir and Probst, throughout the pre-publication discussions around Sarró’s 2008 monograph, to the occasion in 2009 when he gave a copy of this essay, of which they had been unaware, to Cameron and Strother in London. John was familiar with the works of Højbjerg and McGovern and had met them both on several occasions. All this said, no revision of this paper has survived, so we must assume he was not moved to return to a topic on which he was among the earlier commentators. His own interest relates most explicitly to Yoruba Christian history, the subject that remained closest to his heart, but this essay deserves a readership in the history of African art scholarship as more than a footnote to a period when few art historians were willing to explore so Byzantine a concept in an African context.
John’s talk was delivered on the first day of a seminar titled “Yoruba History and Culture,” which was convened on 17–18 April 2006 by Sidney Kasfir and Kristin Mann at Emory University. Peter Probst also spoke, on the topic “Producing Presence: The Art of Heritage in Oshogbo,” and Babatunde Lawal, cited in this essay, was another invitee. This transcription is based on a photocopy of the handwritten original, titled simply “Iconoclasm,” which was given to Ramon Sarró by John in 2010. We have substituted the title under which the presentation was advertised at Emory because its main phrase is echoed in the first sentence and because it seems likely John would have adopted it. When she visited London with Elisabeth L. Cameron, Zoë Strother (pers. comm.) was given an identical photocopy by John on 4 December 2009, to which John added the handwritten annotation “unpublished lecture at Emory University, 2006.” Zoë and Elisabeth were working (previously unknown to John) on a project under the title “Art That Dies: Iconoclasm in Africa.” The original manuscript of John’s “Iconoclasm,” which is presumed lost, was handwritten on ruled A4 paper, as was his habit. In photocopying the paper, the left-hand margin (of both surviving copies), which John had mostly used for the section headings, was cropped, so some guesswork has been required to reconstruct almost all of that content. The paper was heavily annotated, particularly in its opening paragraph, and it lacked references, other than those cited by title in the text. Because it had not been revised to publishable standards but nonetheless expresses ideas unavailable elsewhere in this concise form, the paper has been edited for publication. Unless annotated as ‘[JDYP]’, notes and material in square brackets are editorial emendations. In addition to the editorial notes, a broader postscript on African iconoclasm has been added that is quite distinct from John’s text. Our thanks are owed to Sidney Kasfir, Kristin Mann, and Zoë Strother for clarifying the occasion and its context, to David Pratten for help with deciphering John’s handwriting, to Karin Barber for regularizing Yoruba diacritics in John’s preferred style for publication, to John Picton for his wide-ranging comments, and to Amanda Villepastour for substantial advice on completing the academic apparatus based on her recollections of contemporaneous discussions with John. A copy of the original document is available on request for scholarly purposes from Ramon Sarró.
John added a marginal note here that seems to have provided Yoruba translations of these terms, but it is so cropped that even the advice of Karin Barber has not allowed a conjectural reconstruction.
A village established in Sheldon, South Carolina, in 1970. Before writing this paper, John had reviewed Kamari Maxine Clarke’s (2004) Mapping Yorùbá Networks (see Peel 2006). The contrasting religious orientations involved in claims to Yoruba identity in Nigeria and in the diaspora are key to an argument of John’s final book (Peel 2016), and to three late lectures delivered to Yoruba audiences in Nigeria, as discussed in Fardon (2017: 208–212).
Cf. Lawal [JDYP]. [John’s reference was presumably to Lawal (1996), and specifically to his elaboration of the symbolism of the African grey parrot, associated with blood by virtue of the redness of its tail feathers (ibid.: 241–244), and of the banana/plantain, its capacity for regrowth connoting “fecundity, regeneration, and deliverance” (ibid.: 251–252).]
Amanda Villepastour (pers. comm.) recounts that she and John tried unsuccessfully to find these drums in the collection of the British Museum.
Amanda’s doctorate was awarded in 2006, and her research was subsequently published as Villepastour (2010) and Villepastour (2015). In his preface to the latter, John returned to the subject of the drummer Ajaka (Peel 2015).
John was probably thinking here of the work of another of his doctoral students, Hermione Harris (2006).
‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God …’ Exodus 20:4–5 [JDYP].
Isabella Lepri Simpson (pers. comm.) kindly advises us that this phrase for ‘bonfire of the vanities’ is more usual than the bruciamento delle vanità in John’s manuscript.
At this point, John showed the photograph he described, which carried the original caption: “Idols given up at Ilesha. Joseph Babalola, ‘the Prophet,’ is standing by.” The copy he gave Sarró is of poor quality, and our wide-ranging inquiries have not discovered its source, although based on the font of the printed caption, it appears to have been in a mission magazine or suchlike.
For instance, see Carroll (1961).
See, for instance, Beier (1991) and Pemberton (2002). John Picton (pers. comm.) cautions that John may have misjudged the cordiality of relations between Beier and Carroll and the compatibility of their aims. He writes to us that while Carroll did indeed work with Ekiti carvers such as George Bandele and put Lamidi Fakeye to work with Bandele, Lamidi himself was not an Ekiti man but Igbomina. What Carroll also did, which in Picton’s view distinguishes him from the Oshogbo school, was to identify a new generation of artists emerging in the early 1960s from places like the Department of Fine Art at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, notably Bruce Onobrakpeya. In this commitment, Carroll avoided what Picton would see as middle-European, romanticized neo-primitivism.
As John Picton (pers. comm.) commented to us, here John has overlooked the iconoclasm implicit in the anti-witchcraft movement of Ghanaian origin, atinga, which was active in western Yorubaland after World War II and of which he would have been well aware, thanks to the work of Peter Morton-Williams (1956). John’s interest at the time of writing this paper, as he explained to Ramon Sarró in an e-mail in 2010 (pers. comm.), was restricted to an exploration of “the iconoclastic activities of Yoruba themselves, especially the Aladura and the Muslims” (although he had yet to deal with Islam, a subject in his final book, which was completed with urgency because of his illness). A more comprehensive study of iconoclasm in Nigeria would have had to include an analysis of atinga and probably other cults, as Peter Probst’s (2013) work indicates.
See Okediji and Okediji (1970: 7). In a 1987 essay, John suggests that most historical narratives are, in highly variable degrees, both ‘progressive’ (particularly in relation to technical matters) but also ‘recursive’ (in a forward loop back toward origins, notably to recuperate ethical and moral values). John examines the plotting of Samuel Johnson’s (1921) History of the Yorubas as a pre-eminent example of progression/recursion and finds similar qualities in N. A. Fadipe’s 1939 doctoral thesis, “The Sociology of the Yorubas.” When Fadipe’s doctorate was edited by the Okedijis for publication in 1970, they bowdlerized his text by removing or replacing terms that they felt resulted from the influences described in the phrase here (see Peel 1987: 283). The upshot was to change a voice belonging to the 1930s era of indirect colonial rule into one acceptable to an immediate post-independence, nationalist sensibility.
This critique of Horton’s theory is notable given that Horton’s earliest iteration of it was based on John’s first monograph about Aladura churches (Peel 1968). John’s later writings place more emphasis on the significance of Christian beliefs and commitments to progress than do his earlier, more sociological works. This accords with his profound admiration of the Yoruba intelligentsia for their intellectual work in urging progress as a value of collective identity.
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GoodyJack. 1997. “Icons and Iconoclasm in Africa? Absence and Ambivalence.” In Representations and Contradictions: Ambivalence Towards Images Theatre Fiction Relics and Sexuality35–74. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Originally published in French in 1991 as “Icôns et iconoclasme en Afrique” Annales ESC 6: 1235–1251.
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