Empire of Religion Imperialism and Comparative Religion
by David Chidester
University of Chicago Press, 2014
Cloth: 978-0-226-11726-3 | Paper: 978-0-226-11743-0 | Electronic: 978-0-226-11757-7
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

How is knowledge about religion and religions produced, and how is that knowledge authenticated and circulated? David Chidester seeks to answer these questions in Empire of Religion, documenting and analyzing the emergence of a science of comparative religion in Great Britain during the second half of the nineteenth century and its complex relations to the colonial situation in southern Africa. In the process, Chidester provides a counterhistory of the academic study of religion, an alternative to standard accounts that have failed to link the field of comparative religion with either the power relations or the historical contingencies of the imperial project.
 
In developing a material history of the study of religion, Chidester documents the importance of African religion, the persistence of the divide between savagery and civilization, and the salience of mediations—imperial, colonial, and indigenous—in which knowledge about religions was produced. He then identifies the recurrence of these mediations in a number of case studies, including Friedrich Max Müller’s dependence on colonial experts, H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan’s fictional accounts of African religion, and W. E. B. Du Bois’s studies of African religion. By reclaiming these theorists for this history, Chidester shows that race, rather than theology, was formative in the emerging study of religion in Europe and North America. Sure to be controversial, Empire of Religion is a major contribution to the field of comparative religious studies.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

David Chidester is professor of religious studies and director of the Institute for Comparative Religion in Southern Africa at the University of Cape Town. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including the award-winning Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in South Africa. He lives in South Africa.

REVIEWS

“There is a growing body of scholarship that explores the complex relations between European imperialism and the modern field of comparative religion, but Empire of Religion is the first to really interrogate the relations between colonial Africa and the modern study of religion in a comprehensive and sophisticated way. Elegantly pairing key themes and authors in each section, Chidester’s lucid and powerful book will be of central importance to specialists in African religions and history, and the larger genealogy of religion as a modern category.”
— Hugh B. Urban, Ohio State University

“Here, for perhaps the first time, is a genuinely empirical study of the empire of religion. Chidester doesn’t merely name a genealogy and geography of power, he proves it in the form of triple mediations that spin out from a very specific place, South Africa. Moving restlessly between the accounts of local actors, colonial officials and, most importantly, metropolitan theoreticians, Chidester ‘doggedly’ (see the book!) disentangles the dubious series of transactions and translations that generated the fetish called theory, and exposes its imperial encumbrances.”
— Paul Johnson, University of Michigan

“Chidester renders highly original readings of major figures like Max Müller, Charles Darwin, James Frazer, Herbert Spencer, E. B. Tylor, and W. E. B. Du Bois. . . . By foregrounding the complex apparatuses of imperialism, racialization histories, and the imbrication of racial knowledge with colonial power, Chidester offers a game-changing volume that will shift scholarly understanding of empire and religion. . . . Essential.”
— Choice

“Chidester makes vivid his story by focusing on important figures in the discipline, including Friedrich Max Müller, E.B. Tyler, Andrew Lang, James Frazer, and W.E.B. DuBois. Even H. Rider Haggard and Mo­handas Gandhi also figure in this genealogy. . . . Chidester’s critical analysis of how the early scholars navigated their cultural heritage suggest lessons modern scholars might consider.”
— Catholic Library World

“Brilliantly illustrates the epistemological perils associated both with positing the insider as a “mystical postulate of authenticity” . . . on the one hand, and with conferring objectivity to outsider status as though it could neatly erase tacit realities of privilege, power, and (in this case) empire, on the other. . . . Essential reading for graduate students and professional scholars.”
— Journal of Religion

“Chidester productively treats the famous scholars of religion as unintentional informants to their peculiar, imperial, and metropolitan society. . . . [His] discussion on the production, authorization and circulation of knowledge about religion is instructive. . . . The reader also encounters many fascinating themes, one and each worthy of an extensive article.”
 
— Religion

“This book challenges scholars of any field that relies on comparison—who do we cite and what counts as evidence and as expertise? It lays bare the incestuous acts of scholarly citation and recitation by reminding us of the materiality, multiple meanings, and power relations of cultural encounters in Africa.”
 
— Journal of African History

“A singularly erudite book and a signal contribution to the burgeoning literature in the field of African comparative religion and missionary history.”
— Anglican and Episcopal History

"The story Chidester tells, however, is much more interesting and complex than a simple description of knowledge and scholarship as tools of colonial domination. Instead, he traces what he calls the “triple mediation” of imperial, colonial, and indigenous agents, sources, and voices in the creation of knowledge about religion."
— Victorian Studies

TABLE OF CONTENTS

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0001
[African religion, colonialism, comparative religion, imperialism, indigenous religion, South Africa]
As an introduction to a history of comparative religion, this chapter identifies the material mediations—imperial, colonial, and indigenous—that produced, authenticated, and circulated knowledge about religion and religions. Highlighting the importance of indigenous African religion, especially Zulu and Thonga religion, in the emergence of imperial comparative religion between the 1870s and the 1920s, this chapter situates the history of the study of religion in the imperial, colonial, and indigenous exchanges within one zone of interaction, South Africa. Reviewing selected literature on the history of the study of religion and religions, the chapter shows how the discourse has moved from discovery, through invention, to intercultural mediations of knowledge about religion and religions. (pages 1 - 24)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0002
[British Association for the Advancement of Science, Dube, Gandhi, Haddon, Hartland, Junod, totemism, war dance, Willoughby, Zulu religion]
Beginning with the 1905 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in South Africa, this chapter illustrates the imperial, colonial, and indigenous mediations that produced knowledge about Zulu religion and by extension indigenous religion. A Zulu war dance provides an occasion for considering theories of indigenous religion in shifting political contexts. This chapter examines relations among imperial theorists, especially Alfred C. Haddon and E. Sydney Hartland, and local experts, such as Henri-Alexandre Junod and W. C. Willoughby, in theorizing religion, but also introduces local interested parties, particularly John Dube and Mohandas Ghandi, who participated in the visit of the British Association. In these engagements, a key imperial category, totemism, was differently defined by imperial and colonial actors. The chapter concludes by highlighting the importance of imperial conferences—the International Congress for the History of Religions (1908), the World Missions Conference (1910), and the Universal Races Conference (1911)—in mediating knowledge about indigenous religion in Great Britain. (pages 25 - 58)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0003
[Bleek, Callaway, classification, colonialism, imperialism, Khoisan religion, language, Max Müller, Zulu religion]
Concentrating on the work of Friedrich Max Müller, who is often identified as the founder of the modern study of religion, this chapter shows how Max Müller's classification of religions based on language was both reinforced and undermined by evidence from South Africa. The chapter recovers relations among imperial theorists, colonial experts, and indigenous informants to examine the colonial classification of religions advanced by W. H. I. Bleek and Henry Callaway, who distinguished between the poetic Khoisan religion of the sky and the prosaic Zulu religion of ancestors. By attending to Max Müller's relations with South Africa, this chapter identifies basic features of imperial comparative religion—its global scope, centralized intellectual production, and complex intercultural mediations that linked theorizing at the imperial center with colonized peripheries of empire. (pages 59 - 90)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0004
[animism, cognitive science, Darwin, dogs, dreaming, psychology of religion, Tylor, Zulu religion]
Locating cognitive studies of religion within the history of imperial relations between Great Britain and South Africa, with special attention to the work of Charles Darwin and E. B. Tylor, this chapter examines Darwin's theory of the origin of religion, based on an animal psychology shared by dogs and savages, in the attribution of life to inanimate objects and the submission to a higher power. Against this background, the chapter explores how imperial psychology of religion intersected with race, gender, and social class. Turning to the father of British social anthropology, E. B. Tylor, the chapter traces Tylor's theory of animism to reports about Zulu dreaming, especially the diviner who became a “house of dreams” in Henry Callaway's Religious System of the Amazulu (1868-70). Tylor's reduction of religion to animism ignored not only the colonial conditions in which his data was produced but also the hermeneutics and energetics of dreams in Zulu religion. (pages 91 - 124)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0005
[Buchan, chiefs, cultural studies, diviners, Haggard, Lang, religion and politics, spiritualism]
Locating cultural studies of religion in the history of imperial relations between Great Britain and South Africa, with special attention to the interchanges between the theorist Andrew Lang and the adventure novelists H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan, this chapter revisits the theoretical controversy over the priority of supreme beings or spirits in the origin of religion. The chapter compares anthropological and fictional accounts of Zulu spiritualism in the context of research on spiritualism, telepathy, and other psychic phenomena. The chapter also examines the link between religion and politics in anthropological and fictional accounts of Zulu chiefs and diviners. Finally, exploring relations among religion, fiction, and scholarship, this chapter explores how representations of Zulu religion contributed to the re-enchantments of fiction and knowledge about religion in imperial scholarship. (pages 125 - 158)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0006
[Durkheim, Frazer, Junod, magic, Mauss, ritual, Robertson Smith, sexuality, Thonga religion, Van Gennep]
Highlighting exchanges in ritual theory between imperial theorist James Frazer and Henri-Alexandre Junod, missionary to the Thonga in South Africa, this chapter contrasts imperial and colonial theories of magic, religion, and science. With special attention to theories of ritual developed by Frazer, William Robertson Smith, Arnold van Gennep, Emile Durkheim, and Marcel Mauss, the chapter also shows how theory was appropriated and transformed in colonial South Africa. Finally, the chapter examines how Junod revised his ethnographic monograph, The Life of a South African Tribe, to recast indigenous African tradition from religion, a translatable term, to magic, a term of opposition. While imperial theorists of ritual distilled a primitive mentality, in the colonial context ritual theory was related to political subjugation, migrant labor, and sexuality. (pages 159 - 192)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0007
[African religion, Black Church, diaspora, Du Bois, fetish, God, Otto, Shango, Yoruba]
Identifying W. E. B. Du Bois as a historian of African religion, this chapter examines his rethinking of fetish, God, and the continuity between African religion and African American religion. Originally agreeing with imperial comparative religion that fetishism marked the beginning of religious evolution, Du Bois eventually critiqued the notion of the fetish as a European invention and an ideological supplement to the slave trade. Initially relying on European reports that the Yoruba believed in God, Du Bois came to emphasize the Yoruba God Shango, who was not like Rudolph Otto's “wholly other” but a deity of political sovereignty. By contrast to an early confidence in the transatlantic continuity of African religion into the Black Church in America, Du Bois eventually stressed the disruptions of slavery and colonialism that separated African religion in Africa from the diaspora. (pages 193 - 222)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0008
[anthropology, Bryant, Dhlomo, Frazer, Harrison, history, Max Müller, Molema, psychology, Sachs]
Focusing on the production of knowledge in imperial comparative religion, this chapter uncovers the work of thinkers in South Africa who reversed the flow of knowledge production in the philology, psychology, history, and anthropology of religion. Challenging imperial theorists, the Zulu philologist A. T. Bryant, who adopted the pseudonym uNemo to contradict Friedrich Max Müller, demonstrated the increasing independence of local experts in South Africa. The psychoanalyst Wulf Sachs, who developed a case study of the diviner John Chavafambira, eventually realized that a psychology of religion had to be related to social, economic, and political context. Turning imperial theorists such as James Frazer and Jane Ellen Harrison into informants for their own intellectual projects, the Tswana historian S. M. Molema and the Zulu scholar of religion, ritual, magic, and drama, H. I. E. Dhlomo, produced alternative knowledge about religion and religions that was situated in South Africa and attentive to relations between theory and race. (pages 223 - 256)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0009
[authentication, Frazer, interfaith, Lang, Max Müller, Theosophy, Thoka, Tylor, Younghusband, Zulu religion]
Focusing on the authentication of knowledge about religion and religions, this chapter examines three versions of authenticity—interfaith, theosophical, and critical—that emerged within imperial comparative religion. Interfaith comparative religion, which is illustrated by the Religions of Empire Conference organized in 1924 by the colonial agent and nature mystic Francis Younghusband, was authenticated by adherents describing their own faiths. The presentation by South African Albert Thoka demonstrated problems in this approach by rendering African religion as nature mysticism. Theosophical comparative religion, which invoked secret wisdom as authentic knowledge, directly challenged mainstream scholarship. In 1927, the theosophist Patrick Bowen published his discovery of secret wisdom among the Zulu of South Africa that was authenticated by being the same as Theosophy. Critical comparative religion, which relied on the authenticating power of the footnote, is illustrated by comparing the handling of the Zulu term Itongo (spirit) by Friedrich Max Müller, E. B. Tylor, Andrew Lang, and James Frazer. (pages 257 - 286)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Chidester
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226117577.003.0010
[African American religion, Ancient Near East, circulation, folklore, imperial comparative religion, Jastrow, Middle East, Native American religion]
Focusing on the circulation of knowledge about religion and religions, this chapter shifts focus from Europe to the history of the study of religion in the United States, highlighting the importance of Morris Jastrow Jr. in the emergence of an academic discipline in America. Like imperial comparative religion, this study of religion was structured by the divide between savagery and civilization, with Native Americans and African Americans cast as proximate savages. This chapter also reviews research in American folklore, anthropology, and religious studies that contrasted the visionary quality of Native American religion with the emotional character of African American religion. In the study of the religions of ancient civilizations, the British interest in India was superseded by the American interest in the Ancient Near East. Between 1914 and 1920, Jastrow dedicated his scholarship to analyzing conflicts and identifying conditions for peace in the Middle East. The chapter concludes with observations about the persistence of imperial comparative religion. (pages 287 - 314)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online