Jump to navigation Jump to search

The word animism was used for the first time by E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) in his theory about the origin of religion. According to this theory religion finds its origin in the application of the idea of the soul (Latin: anima) to all the phenomena that appear in human existence. Everything is seen as caused by personal, supranatural powers. Tylor's theory has met much opposition from cultural anthropologists and historians of religion. The word animism, however, continues to be used to point to those religions that do not belong to the large group of "world religions "—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Animistic religions are also referred to as tribal, or primal, religions.

These "animist" religions neither have holy Scriptures nor do they trace their existence to a historical founder or prophet. In general, they are tied to a certain social group in a specific region, and there are no attempts to spread the religion to people of other groups or regions. Reality is seen and experienced as permeated by superhuman powers, which can manifest themselves in different ways in things, in natural phenomena, and in special persons. The deceased ancestors are believed to have special power. Above the spirits and deities, there is believed to be the High God, the distant God, who does not play an important role in daily human existence. Central in religious life is the ritual (purification, sacrifice, and so on), performed in order to remain in contact with the supranatural powers, to intensify life and to ward off evil powers, especially during the transition from one stage of life to another. A substratum of animistic ideas can still be found among many adherents of world religions.

Christian missions have gained most of their converts among "animists." That is also true in regard to Mennonite mission work. The largest Mennonite churches outside of Europe and North America are located in regions of primal religions (Zaire and rural India). The primal religions have not been able to resist the destructive influence of the modern, secularizing western civilization. The encounter between Christianity and primal religion has contributed also to the birth of the new religious movements, such as the African independent churches.


Mbiti, J. S. African Religions and Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books, 1970.

Taylor, J. V. The Primal Vision. London: S.C.M Press, 1963.

Tylor, E. B. Primitive Culture. 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920.

Author(s) Rolf S Kuitse
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Kuitse, Rolf S. "Animism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 15 Aug 2022.

APA style

Kuitse, Rolf S. (1989). Animism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 15 August 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 28. All rights reserved.

©1996-2022 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.