Condemned as “ridiculous and heathenish,” “semi-barbaric,” “quasi-religious,” and, in more contemporary terms, “satanic,” trance-possession has faced centuries of public attack. Although lacking a universal definition or expression, altered states of consciousness emerging from intense religious excitement have been deemed a public crisis and outlawed in many communities, across a variety of localities and temporalities. Unsurprisingly, much of the assault spewed against trance-possession has been spearheaded by Europeans against targets throughout the African diaspora. Yet, there is also a history of hostility towards trance-possession within African American communities. In fact, the first three denigrations quoted above were proclaimed by civil rights activists and pioneers of the Black Church in the United States, Daniel Alexander Payne (1811-1893) and James Weldon Johnson (1871-1941), in reference to possession rites in African American expressions of Christianity.1 In order to understand Payne and Johnson’s distaste for their own ancestral practices, it is necessary to trace the existence of and attitudes towards trance-possession from traditional religions in Africa, to Christianity in Africa, and, finally, to the Americas. In doing so, the following question emerges and yearns for an answer: How did trance-possession, an act traditionally praised for its practical utility and transcendent powers across sub-Saharan Africa, come to epitomize heresy?

Given its religious nature, trance-possession resists textual interpretation. Attempts by recent researchers to undo the marginalization of trance-possession in academia have resulted in a scholarly, almost clinical depiction of a transcendent practice. Unfortunately, due to the lack of documented first-hand accounts paired with the inherent difficulty in defining a spiritual custom, I have had to rely on these academic reports in the hopes of beginning to answer the question: What is trance-possession? In this vein, an essay written in 1994 by anthropologist Janice Boddy, “Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality,” which reviews past interpretations of spirit possession and their implications, is useful. According to Boddy, possession “is a broad term referring to an integration of spirit and matter, force or power and corporeal reality.”2 These other-worldly forces “may be ancestors or divinities, ghosts of foreign origin, or entities both ontologically and ethnically alien.”3 The vast range of beings that may enact trance-possession demonstrates the multitude of cultures, religions, and individuals who incorporate this broadly defined practice into their spiritual lives—and, thus, why this concept is so hard to define. For the purpose of this paper, however, only a few strains of trance-possession will be discussed. Specifically, this paper will focus on the human experience of ancestral and divine possession in the African diaspora. Plainly put by historian John Kelly Thornton in his 1992 book, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1680, “In the case of human possession, a being from the other world would enter the medium’s body and speak with his or her voice.”4 These beings may be of any sort outlined above by Boddy, but they must interact with a living human.

Before delving into the world of trance-possession, it is important to note how prevalent this practice is throughout the African continent. To identify this, research lead by Erika Bourguignon and compiled in the 1973 article “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Religious Uses of Altered States of Consciousness,” is helpful. Over the course of five years, Bourguignon and her colleagues reviewed ethnographic literature on over one thousand societies worldwide for the purpose of identifying the “presence or absence in a sacred context of possession trance (PT) and/or of trance interpreted by the participants in some other way (T).”5 Ultimately, the study was narrowed down to focus on 488 traditional—or, in her words, “tribal”— societies.6 Despite the drawbacks of this study, such as its Western and Christian viewpoint, its results are important to note. Namely, Bourguignon and her colleagues found that 81 percent of sub-Saharan African societies feature some form of institutionalized trance or state of altered consciousness, and 82 percent of sub-Saharan African societies believe in the possibility of spirit possession, either during an altered state of consciousness or not.7 Furthermore, this study reports that, “Possession trance is found either alone or in combination with trance in 66% of African societies.”8 Given this data, it is clear that belief in the utility of trance or possession is widespread throughout the region. That is to say that the references to “Africa” and “African culture” below are not intended to be crude generalizations, referring to distinct cultures under a singular term, but rather are informed by the prevalence rates reported by Bourguignon. Still, it is important to note that there is not one coherent African culture that can be drawn upon. Instead, specific instances of trance-possession must be explored. One such example is provided below.

Keeping the intended chronology of trance-possession in mind—from Africa, to African Christianity, to the Americas—it is important to look towards African nations whose people followed a similar journey, such as the Yoruba. Yorubaland in West Africa was one of the most heavily targeted regions of Africa during the slave trade. Comprised of modern-day Benin, Nigeria, and Togo, the Yoruba people are perhaps most well known for their influential religious tradition—remnants of which can be found in religious practices across the Americas, most notably in Santería and Condomblé. Developed well before the slave trade, the Yoruba religion is an illustrative example of the customary use of trance-possession. Robert Farris Thompson’s influential 1983 book Flash of the Spirit, which reviews how five African civilizations, one being Yoruba, contributed to the culture of the “new world,” discusses Yoruba religion in depth, attesting to its complexities. Through his discussion of the Yoruba society, the significance of ancestors and trance-possession is emphasized: “To become possessed by the spirit of a Yoruba deity, which is a formal goal of the religion, is to ‘make the god,’ to capture numinous flowing force within one’s body.”9 In the Yoruba culture, possession is thought to be emblematic of ashé, the driving power behind worldly existence, and thus a divine and highly regarded custom.10 Yet, because of this holy connection, trance-possession cannot be condensed into language: It is “untranslatable.”[11.Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 9.] It can, however, be witnessed. Thompson details a typical episode of possession as characterized by the possessed individual’s face freezing into “a mask,” such that they, “look about grandly with fixed expressions, with eyes sometimes wide and protuberant. The radiance of the eyes, the magnification of the gaze, reflects ashé, the brightness of the spirit.”11 In the Yoruba community, the drama of possession always attracts a crowd—not only because it is a visual spectacle, but also because the Yoruba generally believe that the possessed follower has the power to predict the future.12 The spectators look to the possessed for guidance on the wellbeing of their community and news of what is to come. Therefore, although the true essence of possession can only be understood by the individual undergoing it, the community at large benefits from this other-worldly intervention.

Human trance-possession is not only a major component of the Yoruba religion but is embedded in a multitude of African cultures, for an abundance of purposes. Perhaps surprisingly, one such purpose was for the dissemination of the Christian tradition. As explained by Thornton, “Spirit mediumship would play a role in the merger of traditions in Africa, especially when [Christian] saints possessed mediums or when ancestors advised their descendants through mediums to take up Christian practice.”13 The tradition of possession in a community typically meant that the words uttered in a possessed state were given an elevated importance, as evidenced by the Yoruba belief in the possessed believer’s powers of augury. 14 Therefore, ancestral guidance to take up Christianity, if conveyed through trance-possession, would have been highly regarded. Moreover, these instances of saintly or ancestral possession served to make Christianity more palatable to sub-Saharan Africans by incorporating local figures, customs, and spaces into the culturally and geographically distant tales featured in the Holy Scriptures. 15 For example, “Instead of consulting a book of revelations like the Bible to determine the course of action in any given situation, Africans would simply approach a priest or spirit medium and could expect an answer on a very specific topic almost immediately.”16 The fluidity of trance-possession, whereby the religion is shaped through real-time interactions between believers and sources of spiritual guidance rather than a static doctrine, is what allowed a European tradition to take root in sub-Saharan African communities. While African converts did not necessarily accept the structured expression of faith dictated by the Church in European Christianity, their traditional religious practices could accommodate Christian texts and teachings.

African cultures’ reimagined embodiments of Christian elements forced a theological flexibility on Christianity that was disliked by Europeans, despite the fact that other-worldly revelations were a key component to both European and African conceptions of religion. According to Thornton, traditional African and European religions proposed the notion that, “there was another world that could not be seen and that revelations were the essential source by which people could know of this other world.”17 Where they differed was in their belief in the frequency of revelations: For Africans, revelations could and should be continuous; for Europeans, revelations were a matter of the past.18 Furthermore, as  Bourguignon explains, “The classical Graeco-Roman tradition and the Judaeo-Christian tradition both include belief in types of possession by spirits and patterned forms of mystical practices,” however, “in these societies ‘possession’ and ‘trance’ are background factors,” considered basically irrelevant to modern practice.19 Therefore, although ancestral and saintly possessions had a precedent in Christian history and often served to convert Africans to Christianity, Europeans associated such revelations with the Devil, thus negating their spiritual potency.[21.Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 239.] Europeans reacted so extremely as to label those who believed in the sanctity of possession as followers of witchcraft, and burn them alive.[22.Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 250.] Thus, the holy intentions of trance-possession were misconstrued as abominable and heretical because of a disagreement on the meaning of revelation.

A prime example of the dynamic interplay between African possession and Christian doctrine is found in Dona Beatriz’s embodiment of Saint Anthony in the seventeenth century Kingdom of the Kongo. Another book by John Kelly Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706, details the experience of Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, a Kongolese prophet and Christian leader, which perfectly illustrates the tension between African Christianity and European Christianity. As Thornton explains, “It would be in Christian terms—but drawn from the Kongo’s own variety of this tradition—that Dona Beatriz would become a human home for Saint Anthony.”20 Dona Beatriz’s link to Saint Anthony, who appeared at her death bed and commanded her to “preach to the people,” was completely rooted in the current issues that faced her community in the Kingdom of the Kongo. Her revelations from Saint Anthony emphasized “[moving] the restoration of the Kingdom of the Kongo forward,” and, consequently, “[telling] all who threaten you that dire punishments from God await them.” 21 In regard to this latter condemnation, it is important to note that at the time of Dona Beatriz’s possession the Kongo was already predominantly Catholic. Catholicism deeply influenced the Kongo’s national perception, such that, “Christianity set true Kongolese aside from their neighbors, and in their view made them superior to the ‘heathens,’ even those to the north and east who spoke dialects of the same Kikongo language.”22 Therefore, Dona Beatriz’s channeling of Saint Anthony would not have been completely unprecedented. Rather, it followed in the strain of African Christianity outlined above, where Christianity is used in an interactive fashion rather than a scriptural-based manner. It is this interactive nature, demonstrated by the fact that possession was what incited Dona Beatriz to spread the Christian faith, that marked her as distinct from European missionaries tasked with the same job, despite their shared holy intentions. Ultimately, it was this distinction that led her to being burned alive.[26,Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony, 183). In the words of the European missionaries who condemned her, Dona Beatriz’s grave crime was, “having fooled the people with heresy and with lies, under the false name of Saint Anthony.”23 Thus, the life and death of Dona Beatriz serve as a tragic example of the vilification of trance-possession.

As the possession and defamation of Dona Beatriz at the hand of European Christians was occurring in the Kongo, African Christianity was cementing itself within the Americas. It is well known that one of the great efforts of the slave trade was that of spreading Christianity. Once on the plantation, enslaved Africans had little defense against slave owners’ insistence that they attend church services and become Christian—at least openly. Covertly, however, as historians of the African diaspora have demonstrated, enslaved Africans found creative ways to keep their cultures alive. From the translation of the Yoruba Orisa to Catholic Saints to the disguised practice of capoeira in Brazil , it is no question that Africans were able to foster a distinct and intricate culture while in economic, and often physical, bondage.24,25 Thus, it is clear that enslaved Africans would have needed to be similarly secretive while enacting trance-possession. However, given the nature of possessed states, described earlier as always able to “attract large crowds wherever they appear,” secrecy may have been a more challenging task. 26 Therefore, instead of seamlessly incorporating trance-possession into an African take on a European tradition, possession came to epitomize the differences between Americans of European and African descent. This is most apparent in the insular culture of the Black Church.

Drawing upon the expressions of trance-possession in Christianity on the African continent, enslaved Africans in the Americas continued to utilize ancestral and spiritual possessions as a way to convey messages and demonstrate spirituality within Christianity. One clear example of this translation is a tradition known as “The Shout.” A first-hand account of the shout by James Weldon Johnson depicts a dance where, “The shouters, formed in a ring, men and women alternating, their bodies close together, moved round and round on shuffling feet that never left the floor. With the heel of the right foot they pounded out the fundamental beat of the dance and with their hands clapped out the varying rhythmical accents of the chant.”27 Furthermore, in C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya’s book, The Black Church in the African American Experience, it is written that the tempo of the dance gradually increases throughout the seven or eight hours of the shout.28 During the dance, some believers are said to be, “filled with the Spirit,” or, “get happy,” and enter into the middle of the circle.[33.Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church  in the African American Experience, 353.] This possessed state is encouraged, as it demonstrates a deep connection to the Holy Spirit, and thus an elevated spirituality.29 The similarity of the shout to practices in Africa are obvious: According to James Weldon Johnson’s first-hand account, “the music was, in fact, an African chant and the shout an African dance.”30 Expanding upon these connections, the act of possession can be said to be an African act. This parallel incited a multitude of racially charged reactions: Johnson disparagingly observed in the early 20th century that the shout is in actuality, “a whole pagan rite transplanted and adapted to Christian worship.”31 Years later, Lincoln and Mamiya echo Johnson’s distaste, writing that this dance  has been widely understood as, “a stubborn retention of African religious ritual firmly fixed in the transition to Christian forms in America.”32 The fact that black Americans tasked with simply describing the shout cannot subtract their bias demonstrates the level of hostility that the practice of trance-possession met in the Americas. Moreover, it represents the power of a dominant narrative to permeate and alter the beliefs of the minority—in this case pitting Johnson, Lincoln, and Mamiya against their own ancestral practices by positioning the whole of European-American culture against trance-possession.

Beyond the shout, trance-possession has been incorporated into African American Christian services. Bruce Rosenberg’s essay, “The Psychology of the Spiritual Sermon,” details his interest in studying the unique form of preaching that exists in the Black Church. Referring to the services he attended, Rosenberg writes that, “they were marked by an active participation by the congregation in the form of speaking in tongues, possession, ecstatic dancing, clapping, tapping, spontaneous singing and shouting.”33 Hall explains that these characteristics of prayer have “been variously attributed to innate primitive emotionalism, residues of African culture, or just the simple emotionalism of unwashed and uneducated masses.”34 Such opposition to the expression of religious excitement again demonstrates the long-standing European distaste for trance-possession. When these practices were transferred to the Americas, those of European descent immediately took issue with them. As argued by Eileen Southern, “Nowhere in the history of the black experience in the United States was the clash of cultures—the African versus the European more obvious than in the differing attitudes taken towards ritual dancing and spirit possession.”35 Ultimately, in reaction to these popular conflations of trance-possession with barbaric tendencies, many Christian African American communities have distanced themselves from this previously key aspect to African Christianity. Even one of the founders of the Black Church, Melville Jean Herskovits, condemned “religious hysteria” in the black community. Such denunciations of the shout and its parallel rituals from influential figures undoubtedly contributed to the near obliteration of these practices within the Black Church.

Trance-possession has faced a litany of legal, cultural, and emotional retribution, from the historic punishment of being burned alive to the vocal marginalization within the Black Church. Described as “idol worship,” and denounced as an experience had by “neither true spirituals nor truly religious” individuals, trance-possession has been met with cold rebuke in the United States. In turn, it has slowly left public view, and even private practice. Ultimately, it appears that trance-possession was determined to be the one element blocking the development of, “a type of Christianity that could satisfy both African and European understandings of religion,” despite the rich history of revelations through possession that is present in both cultures.[39.Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 235.] Unfortunately, as evidenced by the absence of trance-possession in the contemporary expression of African American Christianity, the colonial-era European understanding won out. Such a purposeful erasure of a spiritual activity is a prime example of the power of majority-dominated public opinion that minority groups must fight against.

  1. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990, 354.
  2. Janice Boddy, “Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 23 (1994): 407.
  3. Boddy, “Spirit Possession Revisited,” 407.
  4. John Kelly Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1992, 243.
  5. Erika Bourguignon, “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Religious Uses of Altered States of Consciousness,” Religious Movements in Contemporary America, edited by Mark Leone and Irving Zaretsky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 229.
  6. Bourguignon, “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Religious Uses of Altered States of Consciousness,” 229.
  7. Bourguignon, “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Religious Uses of Altered States of Consciousness,” 232.
  8. Bourguignon, “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Religious Uses of Altered States of Consciousness,” 240.
  9. Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit (New York: Random House, 1983),9.
  10. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 9.
  11. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 9.
  12. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 9.
  13. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 243.
  14. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 9.
  15. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 251.
  16. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 251.
  17. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World,136.
  18. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 249.
  19. Bourguignon, “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Religious Uses of Altered States of Consciousness,” 231.
  20. John Kelly Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 35.
  21. Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony 10.
  22. Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony, 17.
  23. Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony, 183.
  24. John Mason and Gary Edwards, Black Gods-Orisha Studies in the New World (Brooklyn: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1985).
  25. Gerhard Kubik, Angolan Traits in Black Music, Games and Dances of Brazil (Lisbon: Junta de Investigacoes Cientificas do Ultramar), 1970.
  26. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 9.
  27. James Weldon Johnson quoted in Robert Hall, “African Religious Retentions in Florida,” Africanisms in American Culture, edited by Joseph Holloway, Joseph E. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 236.
  28. Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 353.
  29. Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience,  354.
  30. Hall, “African Religious Retentions in Florida,” 236.
  31. Hall, “African Religious Retentions in Florida,” 236.
  32. Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience,   352.
  33. Bruce A. Rosenberg, “The Psychology of the Spiritual Sermon,” Religious Movements in Contemporary America, edited by Mark Leone and Irving Zaretsky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 137.
  34. Hall, “African Religious Retentions in Florida,” 237.
  35. Eileen Southern quoted in Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 353.
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