One of the critical features of the way that people talk about “witchcraft” in African contexts is the idea that witches do not usually identify themselves publicly. After all, they are engaged in antisocial behavior, and so it is to be expected that they would want to remain hidden from view.[1]

The challenge for ordinary people, then, is to figure out who these hidden witches are. How do you know? How do people arrive at the conclusion that this or that person is a witch?

The Epistemological Challenge

A number of posts in this series have already alluded to this issue (Bob PriestAndy AloSteve Rasmussen; see also Samuel Kunhiyop’s lecture at last year’s Missiology conference, recorded on the Henry Center’s resource page).

It turns out that there are certain ways that people generally go about identifying witches. Sometimes the witch is seen in a dream. Sometimes people consult a diviner who names the witch. Sometimes it is an apparent coincidence of harsh words followed by misfortune that leads to such a conclusion. Sometimes people will put pressure on a person until he or she confesses. Increasingly in many places it is the words of a prophet that convince people that this or that person is a witch.

As I’ve talked to church leaders in the DR Congo about their experiences with cases involving suspicions of witchcraft, one of the areas they have talked about is this epistemological problem. In doing so, they sometimes speak out against and deconstruct the various methods used to determine the guilt or innocence of suspected witches.

  • A number of pastors mentioned the unreliability of dreams, acknowledging on the one hand that these are often shaped in significant ways by our daytime experiences and fears, and on the other that dreams might be manipulated by demonic spirits acting independently of any human witch. The fact, therefore, that one has seen a particular person in a nightmare should not count as evidence that that person is indeed a witch. Satan may simply be seeking to stir up conflict between accuser and accused.
  • The church leaders I spoke to rejected out of hand the validity of recourse to “traditional” diviners, whom they generally see as deceptive trouble-makers. Church members who are found to have consulted a diviner are placed under discipline, warned of the dangers of trusting in these individuals, and urged to place their confidence rather in Christ.[2]
  • Andy Alo’s recent post referred to a form of trial by ordeal. But this approach to identifying witches is a form of magical practice, and as such, as several interviewees noted, is out of bounds for Christians (Deut. 18:9-14).
  • A number of pastors also expressed a great deal of skepticism with regard to the claims of some Christian prophets, particularly in the revival churches, to be able to identify witches. This kind of negative attitude toward the possibility that God would reveal the identity of a witch is not universal. Some church leaders with whom I have spoken recently claimed that the Holy Spirit may at times identify a witch through a gift of discernment or a “word of knowledge.” But the general attitude among the leaders I interviewed tended more in the direction of skepticism with regard to the advisability of seeking to identify witches in this way.
  • As for confessions—these, they recognize, are often extracted under torture or some form of psychological duress or incentive.

All seemed to agree that in light of these epistemological problems, there are far too many people who are innocent of any real engagement in witchcraft, yet become objects of gossip and are slandered, ostracized, beaten, driven from their homes, and in some cases brutally murdered.

A Tale of Two Skepticisms

None of this amounts to Western skepticism, of course. While acknowledging the difficulties that lie in the way of witch identification, virtually all of these pastors nevertheless insisted that “witchcraft is real.” But they questioned most of the methods by which people go about identifying witches. Several interviewees seemed to think that confession, if truly voluntary, could be taken as reliable, and a few had stories of individuals who had, through exposure to the witness of Christians, admitted to being witches and had turned away from that path to faith in Christ. One interviewee, however, qualified his acceptance of the validity of even voluntary confessions by saying that these ought to be made only in private counseling sessions rather than under the pressures of public exorcism as is often the case in the revival churches. Another pastor suggested that while it might be right to ask suspected witches if they know why they are being accused (giving them the opportunity to “come clean”), if they claim to be innocent, the counselor has no right to go beyond that and put any kind of pressure on a suspected witch to make a confession.

As I was teaching at Shalom University a few weeks ago, one of the students asked, “How did witch accusations come to an end in Europe and North America?” According to Malcolm Gaskill in his book Witchfinders [3], one of the significant factors was that both pastors and judges began challenging the epistemology of witch identification. They started to ask hard questions about the kind of evidence that was being used to convict witches: things like “confessions” made after days of sleep deprivation, the discovery of physical marks on the body of an accused person that were supposedly proof that they were in league with the devil, coincidence of angry words from the accused and misfortune in the life of the accuser, and so forth.[4] Some pastors and government officials began to denounce such methods of witch identification as unreliable, not to say superstitious nonsense. Those who raised these questions still believed in witchcraft. They were still convinced that Satan sometimes empowered people to do wicked things to others. But they questioned the practices by which “witchfinders” went about identifying alleged witches.[5] Such questions contributed significantly to bringing an end to fears about the activities of witches in society.

Much more exploration could be done along these lines. It does seems to me, though, that this kind of discussion of the epistemological difficulties involved in witch identification could be a critical way forward in helping church leaders deal with these issues in their churches.



[1] This idea that “witches” would naturally want to remain hidden from public view is significantly very different from what we see in the Bible about “sorcerers” and “magicians.” People like Balaam, the magicians in Pharaoh’s or Nebuchadnezzar’s courts, Simon in Acts 8 or Elymas in Acts 13 all seem to be public figures, who make no effort to hide the fact that they are engaged in some way in the manipulation of occult powers. One implication of this, I would suggest, is that what the Bible says about such individuals and their activities is of only limited applicability to the questions raised by witches in African cultural contexts. In other words, the notions of witchcraft addressed in these blog posts raise questions that the Bible does not address directly. How should Christians think about and respond to those who are suspected of secretly engaging in witchcraft? There really aren’t any examples in the Bible of that kind of “witch,” and so no direct answer to that question in the passages that speak about “sorcery” and “magic.” We need to go beyond those passages to others that address the dangers of accusing someone falsely, about loving enemies, about bearing false witness, about our security in Christ and in God’s sovereign control in our lives, and so forth, in order to understand how Christians should respond to this or that individual who is rumored to be secretly practicing witchcraft.

[2] See Robert J. Priest, “Putting Witch Accusations on the Missiological Agenda:A Case from Northern Peru,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39, no. 1 (2015).

[3] Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy, Kindle ed. (London, UK: John Murray, 2008).

[4] One of the common practices was a kind of trial by ordeal that involved “swimming” an accused person—throwing that individual into the water with their hands and feet tied to see if they would sink. If the person went down, he or she was deemed innocent, but anyone who floated on the water must be a witch.

[5] See Stephen D. H. Rasmussen, “A Case Study of Christian Response to Sickness, Death and Witchcraft in Northwestern Tanzania,” in African Missiology: Contribution of Contemporary Thought, ed. Stephen Mutuku Sesi, et al. (Nairobi, Kenya: Uzima, 2009), 126. Who cites similar conclusions from H. C. Erik Midelfort, “Witchcraft,” in Reformation and Early Modern Europe: A Guide to Research, ed. David M. Whitford, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, No. 79 (Truman State University Press, 2008), 373.