Jacob K. Olupona Shares a Tribute to Mwalimu John Mbiti, Patriarch of African Philosophy and Religion Studies

John Samuel Mbiti at Stellenbosch University in South Africa in 2016. Video screengrab via Dion Forster

Jacob K. Olupona is professor of African and African American studies in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, with a joint appointment as professor of African religion at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author or editor of numerous books and articles, on topics including religious pluralism, African immigrant religious communities, world Christianity and the globalization of African religious traditions. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


John Samuel Mbiti, longtime professor of ecumenism and mission at the University of Bern and an ordained priest in the Anglican Communion, died recently.

In every generation there rises a mwalimu, someone who completely transforms the pace and trajectory of a scholarly tradition. The bravery and brilliance it takes to accomplish such an enormous task are not only rare but are bound to leave a mark on scholarship forever. Such scholars pave the way for those who will come after them, encouraging them to follow in their footsteps and build on the foundation they have laid. Mbiti was one such scholar and his research and teaching have irrefutably shaped the academic study of African religion as we have come to know it today.

Few scholars in the field of African studies, religion and African philosophy can confess to being unfamiliar with Mbiti’s work. Most Africanists and scholars of Africa will have at some point either read his work or engaged it in one way or another in their own research. Mbiti’s indelible influence on the field reaches far and wide, demonstrating the extraordinary impression his pioneering spirit and scholarly determination have left on us all.

Born in Mulango in Kitui, Kenya, on Nov. 30, 1931, he was the eldest of six children. Growing up in the colonial era, a young Mbiti was trained in missionary-founded schools and became a devout Christian. As noted in the 1993 book “Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honour of John S. Mbiti” (which I co-edited),  “This early inspiration and education made a deep imprint on Mbiti’s life and was to influence his future career and academic interests.” Mbiti’s academic career took him to numerous academic institutions both on the continent and around the world, and his passionate commitment to ecumenicity and the development of African theology spurred him on to work with like-minded institutions and organizations throughout his life.

Mbiti was committed to expanding the lens through which Africa, its peoples, its knowledges, its religions and its culture were studied, and he stayed so committed until his final breath. Mbiti was ahead of his time. He sensed the danger in compartmentalizing African systems of knowledge and articulated a kind of unity between African thought systems espoused through philosophy and African spirituality. His most famous book, “African Religions and Philosophy” (1969), opened the way for the study of religions and philosophy in African, European and North American universities. His numerous publications have become durable classics in the fields of African Christianity and theology and continue to be staples in classrooms where African religious traditions are taught.

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Source: Religion News Service