African culture, mostly in rural areas, involved a lot of animistic activities – talismans for protection, witchcraft and sorcery for identifying disease and unfortunate experiences, potions for perceived ills. Almost every village had a “spirit hut” where, when misfortune was experienced, the sorcerer would come to offer a sacrifice (of a chicken or of a goat) or grain/flour offerings, trying to find and appease the spirit (of an ancestor) which was causing the problem.
Often, both men and women wore a talisman (the tail of a Thompson Gazelle; the horn of a DikDik (antelope) filled with a special potion given by a witchdoctor; a special white stone on a string either on the arm or around the neck; a small pouch containing potions, often around the stomach or neck of young children) – things provided by the sorcerer after special ceremonies which were to prevent or cure an illness, protect or prosper the wearer.
When someone from that society accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, one of the first actions they took was to burn whatever talisman or pouches that were in their possession. It was a real declaration of Faith and a witness to the community because this burning was mostly done publicly. There was great rejoicing and support from fellow Believers; there was real joy on the part of the person doing the burning; there was a clear statement of the new freedom in Christ.
In the past days, this declaration of Faith was followed by a teaching period of up to six months. This was to a time to instruct the individual in details of the Faith, to help them grow in spiritual maturity and to encourage faithfulness.
At the end of that teaching (Catechism) period, usually at Easter or Christmas, the African church would have a public baptism service performed in one of the nearby large ponds or in a river or the lake. It was a great joy to participate in these baptisms, to officiate at the baptism of men, women and young people who had made a declaration of faith and were taking a further stand for our Lord.
As the candidates for baptism came into the water and up to the pastor to be baptized, they would be asked what name they were taking. They all got a new name when they were baptized, usually embracing a Biblical name which would be theirs for the rest of their lives.
These days things have changed a lot. Bible names are often given at birth; that catechism period has been shortened or eliminated, often for those born into Christian families.
The Lord said that, “… I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. (Matt. 16:18) We rejoice in what He has done; we grieve for the many who have not been Saved – many who have never even had an opportunity to hear of God’s provision.