Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Synopsis

This is the first major study of the Nuer based on primary research since Evans-Pritchard's classic Nuer Religion. It is also the first full-length historical study of indigenous African prophets operating outside the context of the world's main religions, and as such builds on Evans-Prichard's pioneering work in promoting collaboration and dialogue between the disciplines of anthropology and history. Prophets first emerged as significant figures among the Nuer in the nineteenth century. They fashioned the religious idiom of prophecy from a range of spiritual ideas, and enunciated the social principles which broadened and sustained a moral community across political and ethnic boundaries. Douglas Johnson argues that, contrary to the standard anthropological interpretation, the major prophets' lasting contribution was their vision of peace, not their role in war. This vision is particularly relevant today, and the book concludes with a detailed discussion of events in the Sudan since independence in 1956, describing how modern Nuer, and many other southern Sudanese, still find the message of the nineteenth-century prophets relevant to their experiences in the current civil war. From the reviews: `Douglas H. Johnson's new primary study of Nuer prophets brings freshness to a huge second-order literature: what had become a seemingly secure reference point for a discipline in search of coherence, becomes again a challenge to disciplinary habit--and to habitual readings of an ancestral authority. With almost two decades of archival and oral-historical research under his belt, Johnson is uniquely positioned to interpret Nuer prophecy. . . . [He] shows repeatedly [that] prophecy remains a potent ingredient of inspiration and leadership in contemporary Nuer efforts to resist Khartoum. . . . Johnson has been careful in presenting readers with a wealth of information, and leeway to reformulate the problem as they go.' Sharon Hutchinson, Times Literary Supplement `This important work illuminates both the history of the Nuer and Nilotic Sudan . . . and the history of prophecy. It represents a decisive break with previous studies of the region which have portrayed a 'static' model of southern Sudanese societies. The quality of maps and photographs is excellent. In short, Nuer Prophets is a milestone in the historiography of the Upper Nile and a work which, because of its conceptual clarity and wealth of material, lends itself to comparative studies.' Institute of Ethiopian Studies `This is not merely a collection of Johnson's old articles but an entirely new work, comprehensive in its scope, coherent in its argument, and massive in its implications for African history and the history of African religion ... It is not possible to do justice to a book as rich as this one in the space of a short review ... The richness of Nuer Prophets is largely due to the exceptional quality of Johnson's fieldwork.' Journal of African History `It will certainly secure a permanent and respected place among great books on the so-called primitive societies.' SPLM/SPLA Update (Sudan)

Excerpt

NUER, and the neighbouring Dinka, are emblematic peoples in social anthropology. Apart from their personal qualities (attractively stereotyped as tough individualists, bloody-minded renouncers of government), the studies of them by Evans-Pritchard and by Godfrey Lienhardt are a corpus which explores the social organization and spiritual life of stateless people in the southern Sudan. The people and the books together stand for the immensely important proposition that, to paraphrase Professor Gellner, anarchy can lead to solidarity: Hobbes was wrong, and social order does not always and necessarily depend on the existence of state's men.

The books themselves are emblematic of a particular and successful strand of social anthropology. In their different ways they invited readers to perceive a structure of social relations underlying the variety of everyday life. The structure was essentially one of loyalty, of continuities of support, and its form was given by a series of variations on the themes of kinship and descent. The particular brilliance of those works was to show how the structure underlay political, economic, and spiritual activity. The result was a significant development of social anthropology, in addition to their crucially important contribution to political philosophy.

Dr Johnson's work combines the expertises of anthropology and history, and is complementary to that corpus. For some of the earlier work, given its purpose of elucidating a structure of relations, was notably abstract: the day- to-day improvisations on the themes were not always in the foreground. So, to imagine normal everyday life, readers had to emphasize what was under- emphasized in the texts, and to muddy the elegance of the patterns with rather few instances of real people doing real things on specified days. Dr Johnson's book, the fine result of twenty years of fieldwork, archival research, and practical intervention, takes prophets as the key to Nuer political and spiritual organization. By exploring the careers of Nuer and Dinka prophets, of failed prophets, and their relations with other Nuer and Dinka, and with representatives of the governments of Sudan, he has produced a most remarkable work. Prophets were a particular manifestation of spirituality, and one of the many virtues of Dr Johnson's work is that he places prophets in the general context of 'mantic' -- his neutral and inclusive term -- activity. They were part and parcel of Nuer political and religious understanding and experience. But Dr Johnson also shows how many British administrators put the prophets in the same category as the Muslim religious and political leaders of the Sudan, who had supported the Mahdi and defeated General Gordon. Dr Johnson explores both Nilotic and Imperial personnel -- their careers, aspirations, and . . .

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