Atheists and Christians lay claim to Nelson Mandela — but which was he?
In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, both atheists and Christians have tried to claim him as one of their own. The South African dissident who went on to become President Nelson Mandela appeals to both Christian and nonbelievers, but are their clues about his faith that atheists like Stephen Pinker have overlooked?
Pinker tweeted on Tuesday, “Nelson Mandela, great atheist — Hamba kakuhle, comrade!” and provided a link to a piece in the Freethinker — a British atheist magazine — entitled, “Widely understood to be an atheist, Nelson Mandela dies at the age of 95. Hamba kakuhle, comrade!”
However, the article offered no evidence that Mandela was an atheist or that he ever espoused atheist or anti-theist views. Mainly, Freethinker quoted extensively from an open letter written by South African atheist Philip Copeman on the occasion of Mandela’s 93rd birthday.
Copeman urged Mandela at length to renounce Christianity, but Mandela either never replied or the reply has never been made public.
Questions arose earlier this year about Mandela’s faith when Bishop Abraham Sibiya of South Africa’s Christ Centered Church conducted prayer services for Mandela’s health. Atheists protested, saying that Mandela would not have approved.
Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper said again that it is “widely understood” that Mandela was an atheist, and yet it offers no evidence from Mandela’s life or writings to support that claim.
In May, 1994, Mandela did once make reference to the soul in a speech, saying, “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”
There is also a passage in Mandela’s memoir Long Walk to Freedom in which he discusses communism and Christianity in Africa without explicitly endorsing either. He was writing about working with the African National Congress in Cape Town while staying with a Methodist minister, Walter Teka.
During the day, Mandela spent much of this time with two men, Johnson Ngwevela and Greenwood Ngotyana, who were members of the ANC, communists and devout Methodists. In his first week in Cape Town, Mandela asked the men what activities were set aside for Sunday, “a working day for me in the Transvaal — they informed me that the sabbath was reserved for churchgoing. I protested, but to no avail. Communism and Christianity, at least in Africa, were not mutually exclusive.”
Ultimately, however, any doubts about Mandela’s faith can be cleared up by reading the text of a speech that he gave to the Zionist Christian Church on Easter Sunday, April 20, 1992 in Moria, South Africa.
“We affirm it and we shall proclaim it from the mountaintops, that all people – be they black or white, be they brown or yellow, be they rich or poor, be they wise or fools, are created in the image of the Creator and are his children,” Mandela said.
He closed his address to the ZCC by saying, “May this Easter bring with it the blessings of the our risen Messiah and may His love shine upon you all. May the Almighty grant Your Grace the wisdom to continue in your great work of spiritual guidance. You shall remain in our prayers as we shall be in yours.”
Michael Trimmer at Christian Today wrote that Mandela was a lifelong Methodist, that his early schooling was in Methodist schools and that while “it is almost universally agreed that he was a Christian, his exact denominational allegiances remain a source of discussion.”
While Mandela could have had a lapse of faith in late life — a 1992 speech might not necessarily speak to the values he held more than 20 years later at the time of his death — there does not appear to be persuasive evidence that Mandela was an avowed atheist or that he ever renounced Christianity in public or private.