Sunday, April 17, 2016

Something Old, Something New- Spirituality in Kongo

Cosmology of Kongo 

From its inception, Christianity in Kongo was formed on Kongolese theology, a theology that dates much further back than the Portuguese arrival to the region in the late 15th century. While not much is known about the Kingdom of Kongo before this date, through the syncretic nature of Kongolese Christianity, scholars have concluded that Kongolese cosmology stressed the importance of ancestors and a high god, often referred to as Nzambi a Mpungu. It was Nzambi a Mpungu who existed outside of the living world and created it, and bakulu, or ancestors, who had once been living in the world but now inhabited this other dimension. Kongolese theology also included powerful guardians called simbi who protected certain areas such as rivers, springs, and mountains. These guardians were considered to be the souls of long departed inhabitants or sometimes the original inhabitants. There were also beings that could inhabit nksi or a type of charm. This belief in the power of a nksi would travel across the Atlantic to the Americas through the slave trade. In Kongolese cosmology ancestors, nkisi, or simbi were not inherently good or evil. The nature of supernatural forces depended on the intentions of the person calling them into use.

Dikenga dia Kongo, a Kongolese Cross that symbolizes the cyclical nature of the natural world and the spiritual journey
Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World

Kongolese Christianity

When Roman Catholicism arrived in the Kingdom of Kongo with Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão in 1483, Christianity was brought into traditional Kongolese Cosmology. Shortly after the Portuguese 1483 arrival there was an exchange in Portuguese-Kongo hostages, and the ruling Kongo king Nzinga a Nkuwu granted missionaries to come into the Kingdom. The missionaries arrived in 1491, first converting the provincial ruler of the coastal province of Soyo, and then heading inward. Nzinga soon willingly converted to Christianity and was baptized that year. After his baptism he took the name João I in tribute to the Portuguese king João II. Nzinga advised his court, other noble officials, and peasants to follow suit with this conversion. Nzinga’s son Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga was stationed at the provincial post of Nsundi. Many missionaries accompanied him there, and unlike his father, who reverted to his previous beliefs before his death, Afonso became deeply embedded with the faith.

After Nzinga’s death in 1508, Afonso and his half brother Mpanzu a Kitma challenged each other for the throne. Afonso was able to overcome his brother in battle and gave credit to the appearance of Saint James the Great. Afonso went to great lengths to establish a Catholic church in Kongo. This process is described in his letters to Portugal. Afonso described his position and laws he put in place against the worship of idols. Afonso made the church legitimate and sustainable by training the kingdom’s schools in religious instructions and providing the church funding through royal assets and taxation. Afonso created a syncretic version of Christianity that would appeal to the people of Kongo. He worked with several Portuguese priests, particularly Rui d’Aguiar who stated that Afonso knew more of the Church’s tenants than he did. Afonso also collaborated with Kongolese who were educated in Europe, including his son Henrique who was named a bishop by the Roman Catholic church in 1518.

Years later, Afonso’s grandson, King Diogo I Nkumbi a Mpudi, created a Konoglese lay organization to account for the lack of foreign ordained clergy in Kongo. Diogo I helped spread the church to rural areas of the kingdom and also arranged missionary activity in the kingdom’s northern territory. Along with the Kongolese lay organization, early missionaries of the Jesuit Order also worked in the kingdom during Diogo’s reign.  Diogo I became increasingly disillusioned with the Jesuit presence as they demanded more and more acknowledgement and often proceeded directly in matters that defied the king’s interest. The church during Diogo’s rule grew strong and the Portuguese began to make attempts to gain control of it. The Portuguese sought to have the Pope place the Kongo church under the bishop of Sao Tomé. In 1540, the bishop of Sao Tomé attempted to exercise his control, but Diogo I refused to renounce his personal confessor, Manuel Afonso, as the bishop requested. The Portuguese made another attempt to secure power of the church in the late 16th century, and then finally attempted to destroy the church by moving the bishop to Luanda in the rival Portuguese colony of Angola and ceased to ordain any new clergy in Kongo.

In light of Portugal’s abandonment of the Kongolese church, like Diogo I before them, Kongolese kings maintained a solid laity. The limited ordained clergy would perform sacraments and the lay organization maintained education. These lay members of the church were called mestre and were salaried workers typically pulled from the nobility and paid by the state who taught literacy and religious education. The Jesuits would eventually return in the early 17th century and would be followed by Italian Capuchins who were sent as a compromise when the Konoglese church requested to the pope that they be split from the Portuguese church for good. The Kongolese Christianity that began in 1491 under king Nzinga lasted in the kingdom for over 200 years.

An African Religion- Syncretism 

As opposed to other areas of the Atlantic world where European Christianity was brought to native populations through oppression and violence, Christianity came to the Kingdom of Kongo relatively peacefully. This is because the Kongo Christianity was an expansion of traditional Kongolese theology. It was viewed as a constructive force rather than a destructive one, as many parts of Kongolese cosmology were accepted and used in this form of Christianity. The Christian doctrine was translated into Kikongo, the local language, as Portuguese missionaries wrote Kikongo dictionaries and translated religious texts with the help of the local literate class of priests formed under the rule of Afonso I. The church established under Afonso was not a reproduction of the Portuguese church but an embrace of Kongo ideology. Many Kongo believed in ancestors who lived in another world, thus the Holy Trinity was described as “three people”. The word ukisi a noun from the same root as the word nkisi (which was meant to describe a sacred charm or idol) was used as the word for holy. Key religious terms were taken from Kikongo words such as the same name for previous priests- nganga and the word for God- Nzambu Mpungu. This care in the creation of the theology developed by Afonso and his advisors, both Kongolese nobles and Portuguese priests, created a Christianity that seemed more native than foreign. This syncretic version of Christianity can be observed in religious Kongo art.

Crucifix, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This carving from the 16th or 17th century, depicts a Kongo icon called the Four Moments of the Sun, which is circled around a roman cross (the cross itself an important motif in Kongo culture). The icon represents the four divisions of day, representing the journey of human life from birth the ancestral afterlife. While this icon is of Kongo cosmology, Christ is portrayed in a European manner representative of European models of the time.

Substance or Superficiality 

There is much scholarly debate over how authentic Kongolese conversion to Christianity was. Many have argued that the conversion was superficial and rejected by the majority of the population. They have cited Nzinga's return to his old faith after his initial conversion, as proof that it was not a genuine conversion, but one done for political gain. While it is true that Kongo’s Christian status helped cement political and economic ties between the Portuguese and the people of Kongo, it does not disprove the sincerity of the kingdom’s adoption of Christianity that lasted 200 years.  The end of the Kingdom of Kongo’s Christianity came in the 19th century when European priests arrived in Kongo during Portugal’s colonial occupation. It is here where they rejected the local form of Christianity. J.K. Thorton discusses that the disappearance of Christianity in Kongo in the nineteenth century was due the changing definition of Christianity among European clergy, including Rome. Thorthon cites the 200 plus years that the Catholic church acknowledged Kongo’s syncretic Christianity as Orthodox. In doing so Thorton speaks to the scholars of the 1960s and 70s like David Birmingham who viewed Kongo Christianity as a façade. It is clear to me that 200 years of religious practice is much more than a superficial, political ploy. Perhaps Nzinga converted to Christianity in 1491 under some other pretext, but the implications of this conversion were very real, not only in the Kongo but also in the new world as Kongolese Christianity played a role in both the Afro-Brazilian Quimbana religion as well as the formation of Voodoo in Haiti.

Birmingham, David. "Central Africa from Cameroun to the Zambezi." The Cambridge History of Africa 3 (1975): 519-20.

Crucifix. 16th-17th Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Angola; Republic of the Congo.Metmuseum. Web. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/acko/hd_acko.htm>.

Fennell, Christopher C., and Kevin M. Bartoy. "Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World." African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 11, no. 4 (2008): 33.

Heywood, Linda M. Central Africans and cultural transformations in the American diaspora. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. "Religion and society in central Africa: the BaKongo of lower Zaire." (1986).

Thornton, John. 1977. “Demography and History in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1550-1750”. The Journal of African History 18 (4). Cambridge University Press: 507–30. 

Thornton, John K. "Religious and ceremonial life in the Kongo and Mbundu areas, 1500-1700." 
Central Africans and cultural transformations in the American diaspora (2002): 71-90.

Thornton, John. 1984. “The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491-1750”. The Journal of African History 25 (2). Cambridge University Press: 147–67. 


  1. Johanna,
    This was an absolutely amazing blog post to read and think about. You can tell that you put a lot of effort into the research and writing of this article, and it seems like you truly care about the topic. I really like where you discuss whether the conversion of the Kongolese people was superficial or not, I thought that really put the whole blog into perspective. Overall this has been one of the most interesting blogs I've read, and I really appreciate you putting this out there!

  2. Johanna,
    Your attention to detail is amazing. You use the pictures very well. The circle signifying a cross is very interesting. I also noticed that you used a crucifix similar to the one Dr. Shaw showed in class. I like how you explain its meaning and the time period in which it was popular. The Kongolese conversion to Christianity is very interesting. These people seemed for the most part to truly embrace Catholicism. It is once to know that bringing them Christianity was not violent. The debate over whether or not the truly converted seems to be put to rest considering the evidence of Christianity in their lives. This is one of the most inclusive posts I have read. Great job!