Nelson Mandela’s Religion

Religion might not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing Nelson Mandela, but religion played a significant role in his way of thinking. He was raised in the Methodist denomination of Christianity. As a young boy, he was sent by his parents to a local Methodist missionary school. The school helped to shape his early views on religion, and his teacher instilled Christian values in him.


In his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Nelson Mandela wrote about his early experiences with Christianity. As a child, Mandela was baptized in the United Methodist Church. Mandela’s Christian faith influenced his views on social justice and equality. As an adult, he became interested in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. He was inspired by the Satyagraha campaign led by Gandhi and embraced the philosophy of nonviolent resistance during the early years of his activism.

The act of passive protest against oppression influenced the early campaigns of the African National Congress (ANC), of which Mandela was a member. During his 27 years of imprisonment, he read the Bible daily, and his Christian faith helped to sustain him. Ministers also met with Mandela to pray while he was in prison. In fact, the final part of his funeral followed the Methodist service.

Ubuntu Philosophy

Dion Forster, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, described Mandela as a “Christian humanist” but added that much of Mandela’s philosophy could be traced back to the Southern African concept of Ubuntu than strictly to Christian theology.

The concept of Ubuntu is derived from the Nguni language. The philosophy can be summarized with the phrase “I am because we are.” It is often described as a guiding principle in Southern Africa that encourages people to live together in peace and harmony. The famous African proverb “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” can be translated to “A person is a person by other persons,” which means to be a person is to recognize the personhood of others. In other words, it is the quality that makes us human.

In a 2006 interview with Tim Modise, a South African journalist, Mandela explained the concept of Ubuntu with an allegory:

“A traveler through a country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

The philosophy emphasizes the importance of community and interconnectedness. The essence of Ubuntu is that we are human because we belong. We participate. We share. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming others, and not feeling threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.

Religious Tolerance

Mandela was tolerant of all religions. He believed that each person had the right to worship as they pleased. He saw religion as a force for good in the world but rarely talked about his own faith in public because he saw how the apartheid regime used religion as a political tool. He did not want to divide the people when his policy as President was about reconciliation. After his release from prison on February 11, 1990, Mandela met with religious leaders of various denominations to promote national reconciliation. He attended services in different churches, mosques, and synagogues.