Vaudou: Spirit Religion in Haiti

Keynote Address: George Mulrain, President of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas

The Questions

There are a number of fundamental questions that I wish to share with you at this time. They concern the presence of spirit religions in parts of the world such as Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Has the Church in Europe and the rest of the Western world anything to learn from these spirit religions? Can these religions assist in our theological understanding?

Vaudou – Spirit Religion in Haiti

I take as my starting point the phenomenon of Vaudou. The word Vaudou is derived from the Dahomean (West African) term Vodun meaning spirit and therefore describes a spirit religion that was born in Africa. Its worship is based on the veneration of spirits, or loas as they are called. Vaudou came to the French and Créole speaking Caribbean Republic of Haiti at the turn of the sixteenth century when persons from Africa were seized and brought as slaves.

As a religion Vaudou concentrates upon the worship of God, (Bondieu French for ‘good God’) and Gran Met-la (Créole for the ‘great master’). Although Vaudou is an expression of African Traditional Religion, when it was transplanted onto Caribbean soil, not only did it develop and display elements of West African religions, but after a century or so, it also reflected elements of French Catholicism, Amerindian tribal religions and Freemasonry. We are therefore justified if we describe Vaudou as syncretistic, given that we detect in it attempts to reconcile some main influences or schools of thought.

Methodist minister encounters Vaudou priest

Several years ago on my very first assignment as a young Methodist probationer minister in Haiti I had pastoral care of four congregations, one of which was in Giotte, a small rural community. One Sunday, a baby girl was to be baptized. After the service I was taken to the home of the child’s father. He was a Houngan or Vaudou priest. What an awkward situation! I was ill prepared for the confrontation.

I did not necessarily fear the Vaudou religion or its priests, because I convinced myself that as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, I place my confidence in God Almighty. But that Sunday morning I learned a lot about Vaudou. From the point of view of the Houngan, having his child baptised as a Christian was to ensure that she was protected from any curse that the likes of him would try to impose. Vaudou curses never seemed to trouble church members. From the point of view of the church members, if the Houngan’s child becomes a Christian, this would give them a foothold in the Houngan’s camp so as to facilitate winning him over to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were aware that the Vaudou priests believed in the power of Christianity. They were also aware that the respect was especially towards the Protestant Churches. This was because Vaudou contained some rituals that were similar to Roman Catholicism: in Vaudou as in Catholicism there is an altar that occupies a central place in the religious ceremony. In fact there are two altars in Vaudou. One altar is dedicated to good, whilst the other may focus on practices deemed to be evil. It is important to insert here that in many spirit religions God is conceived of not solely as an ethically good being, but, like human beings, God may also be vengeful.

There has been a fear of Vaudou among many Haitians, particularly because of some of the negative practices associated with it. This fear seemed to be erased when persons converted and became Christians. In fact, converts tended to distance themselves from that which resembled the old religion. One of the things I learned shortly after my arrival in Haiti – and this was during the 1970s – was that drums in worship would not be as acceptable as they seemed to be in other Caribbean countries. One young person explained to me: ‘Once those drums start to beat, they encourage the wrong spirits to attend worship!’

Seeking to learn from Spirit Religions

My earliest exposure to Vaudou motivated me to begin research. So in between ministering to congregations I befriended a priest of the religion who was also a biochemist and whose children attended Nouveau College Bird, the Methodist institution at which I was chaplain. This research gleaned from my initial sojourn in Haiti formed the basis of my doctoral thesis at the University of Birmingham.

Can Spirit Religions assist in our theological understanding? My answer is in the affirmative. As long as we can move beyond the accusation that spirit religions are all about evil and harmful magic, we will come to appreciate the overriding concept of God as Creator. God cares for the created universe and has given everything needed for our well being. Trees, plants and herbs contain the ingredients that we need to maintain health. From them we may extract substances to treat illnesses. In addition, there is the teaching – skeptics dismiss it is animistic – that within every tree there dwells a spirit or living force. The result is that spirit religions engender in their followers a profound respect for nature and an attitude conducive to eco-justice and the integrity of creation.

It is interesting to note that even before church clinics had established themselves, the Vaudou priests were prescribing herbal remedies to those who came to them for help. The Vaudou priests have to be knowledgeable in so far as the medicinal properties of leaves, herbs and plants are concerned. I often wonder whether spirit religions attach more credibility to the suggestion as presented in the Book of Revelation (22: 2) that ‘the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’

Spirit religions help us appreciate that theology is a reflection of the culture in which the religion operates. For example the spirits of those who have already departed the present life are very close to God. With God they exist in the spiritual realm, the spirits performing an intermediary role. It is wrongly assumed by onlookers to spirit religions that their followers are praying to the spirits. They are in fact praying through the spirits to God. As in the biblical world, spirit religions give credibility to the idea of God communicating to mortal beings, using various means including dreams and visions.

Do spirit religions have insights as to how we might be more creative in worship?  One challenge given to us by spirit religions is how to make use of God- given talents and gifts in worship. Several attempts are made for worship to reflect the people’s everyday cultural reality.

As a Vaudou ceremony develops, there is music and dancing as worshippers move to the rhythm of the drums or other indigenous musical instruments. One is less inhibited and actually feels liberated for not just the heart and head but for the entire body to be employed in worshipping God.. The challenge today is for more experiments with the artistic gifts with which God has blessed us. Worship can be exciting, if we would dare to be creative, including the use of art, dance and drama, and ensure that worship is a celebration in which all five senses are being used.

The spirits and the Holy Spirit

My research into a spirit religion helped to enhance my understanding of spirit reality. The phenomenon of spirit possession in Vaudou made me appreciate, however that there is a basic difference in the concept of possession by a Loa and possession by the Holy Spirit. Possession by a lesser spirit tends to be accompanied by a change in the individual’s personality. For the entire duration of possession the individual actually becomes the spirit and assumes its character traits. But in possession by the Holy Spirit, there is no drastic alteration of personality. Aspects of the individual’s personality may be enhanced, but he or she does not become the third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit remains the “wholly other”, integral to the Godhead.

I may add here that possession by a lesser spirit is not always to be welcomed. There can be involuntary spirit possession that takes place even outside the context of worship. When this occurs one is presented with a phenomenon that parallels or is even identical with demon possession. This can only be corrected using the rituals and symbols associated with exorcism, thereby showing that not all human conditions resembling neuroses can be treated by counseling and psychotherapy.

The spiritual leadership of women

We should note the value placed on the spiritual leadership of women in spirit religion. Women serve, not only as mediums but as in the case of Vaudou they are mambos or female priests. Herein lies a challenge to those branches of the Christian Church where there is skepticism accompanied by resistance to the idea of women holding or assuming positions of spiritual authority.

Do spirit religions have anything to contribute as to how we might be more effective in mission and outreach? One of the complaints that has been leveled against western Christianity is that it caters for intellectuals and middle class folk. By contrast spirit religions appeal to the poorer working classes. The question is whether those of us who are numbered among the upper echelons of society will be humble enough to learn of the reasons why we might have failed. Is it that we no longer speak the same language that the masses speak? The spirit religions seem to bridge the gap between what one does in church and what happens in the rest of the world. Christianity must affirm that God is interested in every sphere of life. In fact, historically this was a message to which Vaudou felt committed. In the drama of Haitian liberation, it was a religious ceremony of Bois Caiman held in 1791 that bonded the slaves together, so that in their eventual battles with Napoleon’s forces they were convinced that their spirits were alongside them. In 1804 the inevitable occurred; they gained their freedom from the French. Vaudou is one of those spirit religions that challenge us to address matters of liberation and justice because the God revealed in Jesus Christ is interested in all such issues that affect the people of God today.


Based on what we have shared today, I contend that there is an awful lot that the Church can learn from spirit religions if we would, in humility, allow them. For one thing, their existence is a reminder that God continues to give revelations of Self in many and varied ways. Because of them our cosmological knowledge is improved, given that they help us to appreciate the reality of the spirit world and of ways whereby both spiritual and material worlds may interact with each other. By making use in worship of art, dance, indigenous musical instruments, and day to day cultural facets including language, we are challenged to be more creative liturgically. Spirit religions encourage us to further investigate the spirit concept with a view to greater understanding of the relationship between the lesser spirits of the universe and the Great Spirit, the third Person in the Holy Trinity. They challenge chauvinistic attitudes within Western Christianity as they affirm the spiritual authority of women. They also challenge elitist trends as we are called upon to incorporate in the life, witness and mission of the church the masses of people who might be poor and marginalized. They help us to appreciate God’s providential care, namely that in nature God has given to us everything needed for health, wholeness and the overall well-being of God’s people – the leaves of the trees for the healing of the nations. Drawing heavily upon on the example of Vaudou a spirit religion in Haiti, we are all reminded that that the Church throughout the world must address liberation and justice concerns and whatever other issues might affect the people of God in the twenty-first century.

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