Magic and the Millennium: A Sociological Study of Religious Movements of Protest among Tribal and Third-World Peoples

By Bryan R. Wilson | Go to book overview

4
Thaumaturgical Persistence in Non- Tribal Societies

THAUMATURGICAL preoccupations are not easily embraced within stable, consciously-organized associations which serve local congregations. The commitment of the clientele is particularistic, and the independent entrepreneurship of practitioners difficult to contain within such stable systems. But thaumaturgy has become organized into such associations in some instances. It is an apparent paradox that this should not have occurred so conspicuously in advanced countries, but in Africa. That thaumaturgical movements are so unstable in advanced western nations, illustrates again the dissonance between thaumaturgical. response on the one hand, and the dominant cultural, intellectual, and emotional sophistication of these industrial societies, on the other. Africans have welded the many individual thaumaturgical demands into synthetic and persisting communities similar to other sects, and this is a unique syncretistic achievement.

Thaumaturgy is diffuse and institutionalized in tribal society. If anxiety causes greater recourse to sources of supernatural aid, and there is evidence to suggest that this is so, then, when tribal structures are disintegrating, thaumaturgical practice is likely to be stimulated. Growth may occur haphazardly in the multiplication of many different and unassociated local practices. It also occurs in the spread of very specific thaumaturgical techniques of curing, protection from witches, and miracle-working instituted through a movement. Traditional community organization, however, is now a less viable context for thaumaturgy, but among peoples being detribalized new models of religious organization do already exist. These are the missions, which have been everywhere imported. But the missions--a few small sects apart 1--have traditionally made little accommodation for local

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1
The influence of western sectarian missions not only in accommodating, but often also in reinforcing, thaumaturgical demands in African communities has never been specifically studied. (There are studies, as earlier chapters have shown, of their influence on revolutionist millennial movements.) Many sects, the basic orientation of which is conversionist, none the less emphasize healing. Some of these groups have considerably strengthened African thaumaturgy and have unwittingly given it new forms of expression. See, for excellent illustrations of this process, J. D. Y. Peel, Aladura ( Oxford University Press, London 1969), in which the significant role of the (British) Apostolic Church--a pentecostal body which practised divine healing--on two Nigerian independent churches is brought out. Some aspects of similar developments are mentioned in J. M. Assimeng, A Sociological Analysis of the Impact and Consequences of some Christian Sects in Selected African Countries, Unpub. D.Phil thesis, University of Oxford, 1968. The Christian Apostolic Church in Zion of Alexander Dowie had an extensive and widely diffuse influence in South Africa.

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