John S. Mbiti Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Collecting and synthesizing indigenous concepts of God, myths and stories, prayers, and proverbs into a religiously oriented “African worldview,” Mbiti has explored the complex relationship between African and Christian ontology, theology, and ethics.

Early Life

John Samuel Mbiti, one of six children born to Samuel Mutuvi Ngaangi and Valesi Mbandi Kiimba, was the first to survive; thus, John Samuel was surnamed “Mbiti” (literally “hyena,” symbolically “a child vowed unto God”), the name being in effect a prayer in thanksgiving and for survival. His strongly Christian family saw to his religious Westernized academic education, through the African Inland Church; Alliance High School near Nairobi, Kenya; and University College of Makerere, Kampala, Uganda, an “external college” of the University of London. Influenced by a combination of his name, an early personal religious experience, and his undergraduate studies and teachers, Mbiti was moving toward the priesthood when he graduated from Makerere in 1953. He received another bachelor of arts degree and a bachelor of theology degree from Barrington College in Rhode Island in 1956 and 1957, lectured on religion in Kenya and in England in the late 1950’s, and earned a Ph.D. in theology at Cambridge University in 1963. His doctoral dissertation, “Christian Eschatology in Relation to the Evangelisation of Tribal Africa,” was of seminal importance for his subsequent theological and philosophical writing. His ordination in the Church of England followed his graduation from Cambridge.

Mbiti’s development as a promising young Christian academic is, however, only half the story. He is a member of the Akamba people, who occupy Ukambani, an area in eastern and south-central Kenya. As a boy and a young man, Mbiti was systematically and deeply immersed in Christian life and doctrine. His education was Christian and Western; it was not traditional and African. There was, however, another, informal education for young Mbiti—Akamba stories and the art of storytelling. Evidently, Mbiti was fascinated by the entire process—the stories themselves, the dramatic and poetic narration, the moral and practical lessons they taught, and broadly, the entire vision of the Akamba world they presented. He wrote and published a novel, Mutunga na Ngewa Yake (1954), numerous poems and short stories, and an English-Kamba Vocabulary (1959). Beyond these, he sought out and recorded about fifteen hundred traditional stories, publishing a representative selection as Akamba Stories (1966).

By the age of about thirty, Mbiti was both a budding Christian theologian and a collector and student of materials illuminating portions of traditional African life. At the root of his activities was a profound sense of the needs of a changing Africa, especially its young people. Both Christianity (including Western technological civilization) and African traditionalism were necessary; neither alone was sufficient. Mbiti saw that a conjoining of these elements, a syncretism, must occur, and he would make a major contribution.

Life’s Work

Mbiti’s approach to the problem of syncretism has always been religious, but initially it was specifically theological. His 1963 Cambridge dissertation, published in 1971 as New Testament Eschatology in an African Background, inquires into the deepest psycho-spiritual grounds whereupon Africans and Christians might meet. These grounds are eschatological; that is, they draw on a concern, shared in traditional Akamba society and in Christianity, with the ultimate destiny of human beings. For each, as Mbiti reads the Akamba and the New Testament, this destiny is both otherworldly and corporate. After a relatively brief period of several generations as “living-dead,” the Akamba lose individual personhood to a generalized spiritual status in the endlessly receding past, the Tene. Christians, too, understand their being spiritually, but not in the distant past—nor, Mbiti argues, in the future. Instead, they see their spirituality in the present/presence of Christ, whereby individuals become a “many-in-one.”

New Testament Eschatology in an African Background is a learned, brilliant, spiritually infused work of comparative theology, much more than a work in “African religions.” By 1964, Mbiti had been in the West for most of ten years, in a rarefied intellectual atmosphere. That year, he returned to Africa to teach in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Makerere University. As he studied, researched, and taught, he moved beyond Akamba to Africa, seeking to understand the worldview of sub-Saharan African peoples as a whole.

Mbiti’s movement from theology to religion had parallels in his ecclesiastical and personal life. As a clergyman at Makerere, he had the duty of pastoral counseling, often on marriage problems. This counseling reflected and developed Mbiti’s abiding concern with practical ethical issues. This concern, and its relation to broader philosophical questions, is manifest in his writings, especially Love and Marriage in Africa (1973).

He did not lack firsthand experience with married and family life. On May 15, 1965, Mbiti married Verena Siegenthaler, a teacher of languages and social worker. Verena and John had three daughters (Maria Mwende, Esther Mwende, and Anna Kavata) and a son (Kyeni Samuel). Mbiti became a devoted family man, drawing on this practical experience to help him formulate a well-developed philosophy of marriage incorporating traditional African, Christian, and modern liberal elements.

Throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Mbiti engaged in extensive research into the beliefs and practices of literally hundreds of African peoples. Always a collector, he amassed roughly three hundred African concepts of God and more than three hundred African prayers, which he published as Concepts of God in Africa (1970) and The Prayers of African Religion (1975). He also collected roughly twelve thousand traditional African proverbs as a portion of the data for African Religions and Philosophy (1969) and Introduction to...

(The entire section is 2563 words.)