The Contribution of Andrew Walls (1928-2021) to the Academic Study of Religion
James L. Cox
Professor Andrew Walls, church historian, missiologist, Africanist and scholar of Indigenous Religions died on 12 August 2021 in Aberdeen, Scotland at the age of 93. In recent years, he was best known internationally for his respected work on the study of Christian missions, but his important impact on religious studies often is underestimated, or even overlooked. In this short article, I want to complement the many tributes Andrew Walls received following his death by drawing attention to the significant contribution he made in the formation of departments of religious studies, particularly in the UK, to methods in the study of African Indigenous Religions and to research on the impact of African Christianity on the recent developments in our understanding of World Christianity.
Religious Studies with an African Emphasis
In 1957, Walls was appointed to a lectureship in Church History in the Department of Theology at the University of Sierra Leone in Freetown. In 1962, he moved to the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, where he headed the Department of Religious Studies, which had been recently founded. He returned to the UK from Nigeria in 1966 to take up a post in Ecclesiastical History in the University of Aberdeen. Four years later, he established the first Department of Religious Studies in Scotland at Aberdeen in the Faculty of Arts and Social Studies rather than the Faculty of Divinity, where it might have been expected to have been located. Walls soon became known in religious studies circles as a scholar of religion with a specialisation in the study of Christianity in Africa. At Aberdeen, he surrounded himself with colleagues who had experience of working in Africa, first James Thrower, who had lectured at the University of Ghana, and soon afterwards, Harold Turner, who had been Walls’s colleague in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. In 1976, they were joined by Adrian Hastings, who had worked extensively throughout east Africa, and two years later by Lamin Sanneh, a scholar from the Gambia with a specialization in Islamic-Christian relations in West Africa. After the addition of Adrian Hastings to the Aberdeen academic staff, Walls forged links with the University of Nigeria at Calabar through the contacts of one of Aberdeen’s graduates, Rosalind Hackett, who later became President of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). In 1967, just after taking up his post in Ecclesiastical History in Aberdeen, Walls founded the Journal of Religion in Africa, which he continued to edit until 1985. In 1977, Walls was elected President of the British Association for the History of Religions (now the British Association for the Study of Religions). He made an immediate impact on the Association by organising its Annual Conference of 1978 on the theme: ‘The Understanding of Christian Mission in the Study of Religion’ (Cox 2006: 153). After the African Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) was founded in 1992 in Harare, Walls became an active member and influenced its direction largely through the many African scholars who had studied under him in Aberdeen and later in Edinburgh.
Wall’s Approach to the Study of Religion: The Primal Element beneath All Religions
A special edition of the Journal Religion, published in 1980, was dedicated to Walls’s friend and colleague, Geoffrey Parrinder, a fellow Africanist, who was Walls’s immediate predecessor as President of the British Association for the History of Religions. As one of the contributors to the journal in honour of Parrinder, Walls chose to explain his own theoretical understanding of the study of religion. He argued that ‘the study of religion is a field in its own right’, irreducible to the many disciplines that contribute to its understanding. He acknowledged that the disciplines ‘can be, and must be applied’ to the study of religion, but he insisted that religion is ‘a well-nigh universal dimension of human life’ and that ‘its manifestations in one place may illuminate its manifestations elsewhere’ (Walls 1980: 148). His non-reductionist position was confirmed when he wrote: ‘Religion can best understand religion’ (Walls 1980: 143). He explained further that ‘religious commitment’ provides the best ‘entrance gate’ for understanding religion because ‘it at least presupposes the reality of the subject matter’ (Walls 1980: 143).
If religion is a universal dimension of human life, Walls reasoned that there must be a basic, primary form that underlies its concrete manifestations in diverse cultures everywhere throughout history. He called this the ‘primal’ component, which is found at the base of every religion and provides for all religions their elemental and common understandings. This explains why many societies around the world share foundational ideas and why the universal religions cannot be understood apart from the way they incorporate primal concepts within their world views. As the universal religions interact with primal religions, new religious movements emerge. This can be seen particularly in the development of Christianity in Africa where, Walls (2004: 215) writes, ‘the old religions’ form the ‘sub-structure of African Christianity’. The scholar cannot ignore this vital relationship: ‘Neither in life nor in study can the two now be separated’ (Walls 2004: 2015).
In line with his conviction that primal religions provide the key to understanding the historical development of religions generally, in 1976, six years after he founded the Department of Religious Studies in the University of Aberdeen, Walls inaugurated a one-year taught master’s programme, ‘The M.Litt in Religion in Primal Societies’. He described the aim of the course as ‘the study of the “primal” (or “ethnic” or “traditional”) religions characteristic of many societies in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania, the effects on belief systems, practices and religious institutions of the meeting of these religions with “universal” religions (notably Christianity and Islam) and the new religious movements arising after contact with Western influences’ (Cox 2007: 22). He justified the creation of the new postgraduate degree by arguing that ‘no part of the formal study of religion is in general so unsatisfactorily treated’ as primal religions, adding that ‘many a substantial book about the religions of the world ignores the primal religions altogether’ (Walls 1988: v).
In 1982, Walls expanded his emphasis on the ‘primal’ element in the study of religions by establishing at Aberdeen a new academic research programme he called the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World (CSCNWW). In an announcement appearing in the Bulletin of the British Association for the History of Religions in 1983, Walls (1983: 10-11) described the CSCNWW as having been founded on the conviction ‘that the churches of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific are now central to the Christian faith, and lie at the heart of most questions about the present and future of Christianity’. In 1987, Walls moved the CSCNWW to the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh and shortly afterwards secured a major grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts aimed at researching in depth Christianity in Africa by forging links with seven universities or research institutes located in Western and Southern Africa. The CSCNWW to this day maintains an active research and teaching programme in the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh under its new name, the Centre for the Study of World Christianity (CSWC).
Walls’s Interpretation of Primal Religions
In his Foreword to Phillipa Baylis’s An Introduction to Primal Religions, Walls (1988: v) reaffirmed his longstanding conviction that ‘primal religions … underlie all other religions’. He explained that ‘though we think of ourselves as Christians, Buddhists, Muslims or unbelievers, we are all primalists underneath’. Although he admitted that it is extremely difficult to offer a comprehensive definition of primal religions due to their complexity and local variations, he maintained that the relationship between primal religions and universal religions must be understood if we are to appreciate religion in the contemporary world ‘long after adhesion takes place to Christianity, or Islam, to Hinduism or Buddhism’ (1987: 250).
By contending that all religions are built on a primal sub-stratum, Walls maintained that world religions not only have adopted elements of primal world views into their own belief systems, but they have been prefigured in the primal religions. To demonstrate this, Walls introduced the concept ‘cultural translation’, whereby, just like a language, the ideas, thoughts and beliefs of the universal religion are translated into the primal world view, which turns them into appropriate conveyors of meaning within their own cultural contexts. Walls argued that if the universal religions had not been built on the primal perspective, the process of translation could not have occurred. He called this the ‘translation principle’ (Walls 1990b: 25) or, in an earlier publication, he referred to the same procedure as the ‘indigenising principle’ (1982: 97-8). African Initiated Churches (AICs), he contended, provide an excellent example of how this principle operates because AICs have incorporated many Christian ideas introduced by missionaries into their traditional practices, while at the same time, transforming the Christian practices into African customary ways of honouring ancestors and maintaining traditional social regulations. Throughout this analysis, Walls’s primary aim was to explain how universalising forces stimulate cultural change from the outside and how, once the changes take effect, they are incorporated into localised cultural contexts. The circle is then completed when the global religions adopt new beliefs and practices under the influence of primal religions.
The Lasting Impact of Andrew Walls on the Study of Religions
The broad approach to the study of religions advocated by Andrew Walls and the analytical tools he employed are consistent with methods employed widely within the academic study of religions, particularly the phenomenological tradition that was so dominant among scholars of religion throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Walls clearly adopted an empathetic attitude towards religious communities by privileging the perspectives of believers. At the same time, he sought to establish the study of religions within an academic context that was distinguishable from theology and that employed a combination of historical and typological methods for understanding religions. He underscored the relevance of the social sciences and theology for religious studies, but safeguarded a place for the study of religions that was neither purely social scientific nor theological. Through the idea of the translation or indigenising principle, Walls set out a method for analysing the dynamic processes of religious change by describing a balanced interaction between universal and local forces.
Walls’s use of phenomenological principles was not particularly innovative, but his emphasis on the central place of the study of primal societies in the formation of global religions foreshadowed research into what we now generally refer to as Indigenous Religions. In this sense, Andrew Walls was truly a visionary figure. Testimony to his continued influence is confirmed by the increasing number of academic programmes around the world devoted to the study of Indigenous Religions in their multifaceted and complex manifestations. In my view, it is the manner by which Andrew Walls analysed the impact of cultural change on Indigenous societies while, at the same time, underscoring the power of local agency that marks his primary and lasting contribution to religious studies. When applied to the study of religions in Africa, his method highlighted the transformations that were occurring as a result of the dynamic interactions between global religions, primarily Christianity and Islam, and African Indigenous Religions.
Cox, James L. (2006), A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion: Key Figures, Formative Influences and Subsequent Debates, London and New York: T & T Clark (Continuum).
Cox, James L. (2007), From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions, Aldershot: Ashgate.
Walls, Andrew F. (1980), ‘A Bag of Needments for the Road: Geoffrey Parrinder and the Study of Religion in Britain’, Religion 10 (Autumn): 141-50.
Walls, Andrew F. (1982), ‘The Gospel as the Prisoner and Liberator of Culture’, Missionalia 10 (3): 93-105.
Walls, Andrew F. Walls (1983), ‘Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World: University of Aberdeen, Scotland, British Association for the History of Religions Bulletin, 39: 10-11.
Walls, Andrew F. (1987), ‘Primal Religious Traditions in Today’s World’, in F. Whaling (ed.), Religion in Today’s World, 250-78, Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
Walls, Andrew F. (1988), ‘Foreword’, in P. Baylis, An Introduction to Primal Religions, v, Edinburgh: Traditional Cosmology Society.
Walls, Andrew F. (1990a), ‘Religious Studies in the Universities: Scotland’, in U. King (ed.), Turning Points in Religious Studies: Essays in Honour of Geoffrey Parrinder, 32-45, Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
Walls, Andrew F. (1990b), ‘The Translation Principle in Christian History’, in P. C. Stine (ed.), Bible Translation and the Spread of the Church: The Last 200 Years, 24-39, Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Walls, Andrew F. (2004), ‘Geoffrey Parrinder (*1910) and the Study of Religion in West Africa’, in F. Ludwig and A. Adogame (eds), European Traditions in the Study of Religion in Africa, 207-15, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
James L. Cox is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh. He earned his PhD in 1977 from the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of Andrew Walls. From 1993 until 1998, Cox co-ordinated the University of Edinburgh’s African Christianity Project, a research programme that Andrew Walls conceived and directed until his retirement in 1995.