Religious Education for Primitive Peoples

Good teaching in any country or lan­guage calls for the presentation of ideas in clean-cut, salient, clearly ex­pressed thought.

By R. L. JONES, Director of the Gitwe Mission Station, Africa

Good teaching in any country or lan­guage calls for the presentation of ideas in clean-cut, salient, clearly ex­pressed thought. In teaching religion to primitive peoples, this requirement is doubly important. When a teacher strips his lessons of the usual references to history, science, current literature, and world affairs, and when the clothing of ideas is restricted to the imagery of an isolated people, his thoughts must stand out in stark nakedness. This lack of mutual basic thinking and background in the lives of the foreign missionary and his peo­ple makes the task most difficult.

There is, in addition to these difficulties, a tendency toward carelessness in religious instruction to primitive peoples, owing to their uncritical nature. If lessons are not well adapted to the native mind and the instruction is artless, results are not immediately apparent. Foreign teachers may preach and teach the Bible for years without the preparation and careful attention necessary in presenting a message that will be well fitted to their peo­ple. If we remember, however, that the task that overshadows all else in the mission field is the building of an indigenous church, and that through our instruction in religious things we are providing the foundation and frame of the structure, we would be much more careful of the far-reaching results of our teaching.

There is need today for careful work in adapting religious education to primitive peo­ples. Time in research and study has been expended in finding the best way to teach various subjects in the mission field, and methods in Bible have not been neglected. But there is still an uncompleted task in the adaptation of religious education. Many of our lessons and methods are more suitable for European races, and the indigenous church suffers because of this today.

Wherever there is a native aptitude for rote memory work, there is a tendency to sub­stitute a veneer of dates, places, names, and texts for a deep love of Bible study. The fault is not peculiar to Africa alone, for most backward peoples tend to mistake sophistica­tion for education and have a facility for acquiring knowledge without making it a part of them. We have a duty to further develop methods and procedure that will mitigate this tendency by engendering a deep spiritual ex­perience through love for religious study.

Some teachers have the faculty for creat­ing such a love for a subject that their stu­dents continue its study throughout their lives. The teacher's natural ability, his personality, and his own personal interest in the subject have an influence in this accomplishment. But almost all teachers can attain a measure of success by a careful adaptation of good teach­ing procedure. We may not need to seek this. skill in teaching all subjects, but we are duty-bound to acquire it as teachers and preachers of religion. We may overlook methods which, cause boredom or distaste in some particular branch of learning, but we cannot judge lightly a teacher's failure to inspire a love for religious study. If the introduction to Bible study is crude and artless, the consequences are eternal, for the pupil who fails in religion fails in all. The responsibility of the teacher of religion, then, is the greatest in the world. Note the following statement:

"There should be most faithful teachers, who strive to make the students understand their lessons, not by explaining everything themselves but by letting the students explain thoroughly every passage which they read. . . . Thoughtful investigation and earnest, taxing study are required to comprehend it [the Bible l."--"Fundamentals of Christian Educa­tion," p. 390.

Knowing the People We Teach

Simple though the thought may seem, there is a whole field of research in the adaptation of our present methods so as to teach the love of the Bible. To adapt religious teaching to the needs of a people, we should know them well. How can we fit the instruction to an unknown people without first taking their measure? Let us take an example. In most animistic religions, there is no conception of the relation of morality and God's blessing. The fear of God as we know it is non­existent. A man may lie or steal, and his life in the hereafter is not supposed to be affected. The idea of accountancy to a su­preme God who deals with all mankind im­partially according to moral law is foreign to most animistic peoples. Emphasis on the wages of sin has sometimes been minimized in an endeavor to preach the love of God.

Among primitive peoples a good course of instruction is needed on the inevitable conse­quence of sin. Along with the presentation of God's eternal punishment of the wicked, we have as an example the end result of losing God's blessing in this life. There is a good series of lessons on the subject in the Old Tes­tament. The blessing of God was real to the patriarchs. It could be bought and sold. It was almost tangible, palpable. An outline could well be supplied to those who are in­structing in pulpit and classroom, particularly to native teachers, which would emphasize the fear of God as taught in the Old Testament. It would serve to stem apostasy and strengthen a weakness in the indigenous church.

A careful study of the people, then, par­ticularly of their native religion, is necessary if we would adapt our teaching to meet the special needs of an indigenous church. Some­times we fail to know other religions because we feel that the religion of Jesus Christ is superior, and that it would be encouraging iniquity to delve into Satan's counterfeits. However, without a sympathetic interest in a people's life, we lose a valuable contact with them. A man's religion will often reveal his character more than any other one thing. His early religious concepts will color his thinking throughout his life. We should know his background if we would change his reli­gion to the way of life.

Much has been written of late in regard to adaptation of the good in African life and customs in the building of the indigenous church. Some of the ideas set forth are not consistent with Seventh-day Adventist teach­ings. Rebirth and conversion from old ways are fundamental among Fundamentalists. There is, however, a modicum of truth in the idea. Conversion does not completely obliter­ate early education, impressions, experiences, and relationships. Many of these former con­cepts can be used to the upbuilding of stronger Christians. There is, for instance, among most Africans a religious instinct that we can use to very good advantage. In his book, "In Witchbound Africa," F. H. Melland says:

"Religion is described as a habitual, all-pervading sense of dependence on, reverence for, and respon­sibility to, a higher power. This seems an admirable definition of native religion. All natives in their natural state live this belief : the belief in the omniscience and universal presence of the spirits."

In taking us to task for calling natives "hea­then," when the definition of heathen is "one without the knowledge of God, and irreli­gious," the same author says, "Natives not only have a real religion, but in a way that cannot be said of European races, they live their religion. It is their life." In our ig­norance of native religion, and by teaching with unadaptable methods, is there not danger that we will rob the natives of that concept which could be transformed into faith in the Living Presence—something often lacking among matter-of-fact Europeans?

The probleni of adaptation of religious edu­cation to primitive peoples is made more difficult because of the many differences that exist in the religion, customs, and language of a comparatively kindred people. It is diffi­cult for a leadership to unify methods so that there will be general progress throughout a mission organization. Unless some system can be devised, success in religious instruc­tion must therefore be contingent upon the individual initiative and experience of local staffs. There is a possibility, however, that advance by the indigenous church as a whole can be made if a system of study and adapta­tion of procedure can be suggested.

The principles that underlie the problem can be made clear. A plan for the study of native religions will make the work of adapta­tion easier. With an outline in hand of principles that run through animism and the various religions that spring from it, the de­tails that differ in each locality are easy to discern. Questionnaires that throw these de­tails into relief are not hard to prepare, and help may be secured in directing investigation in any community. Generalized methods on how to deal with information thus received would further unify our efforts in this vital phase of our work. The very attempt at unity in this respect will serve to encourage inter­est, and it will also draw attention to the im­portance of adaptation of religious instruction to the needs of the indigenous church.


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By R. L. JONES, Director of the Gitwe Mission Station, Africa

June 1940

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