SOAS University of London

Professor J D Y Peel

10 November 2015
J Peel

JDY Peel, FBA, Professor of Anthropology and Sociology with reference to Africa in the University of London, has died after a long battle with melanoma shortly before his 74th birthday.

Born in November 1941 in Dumfries, he was educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and Balliol (1959-63) where he won first class honours in finals of Literae Humaniores, and LSE (1963-66) where he wrote his doctorate on Nigerian independent churches. His first academic post was at the University of Nottingham, and then he held positions at LSE, Ife (Nigeria), Liverpool, before moving to SOAS in 1989, retiring in 2007.

He published widely, in development studies, sociological theory, and diverse aspects of African religion, including religious change, conversion and gender. His strength was to combine history, social anthropology and sociology. He was a beautiful stylist, and incapable of writing an unintelligible sentence. His thrust was generally Weberian, insisting that religion could not be reduced to material or class interests.

The jewel in his crown will undoubtedly be judged his trilogy on Yoruba religious change. The first was Aladura: a Religious Movement among the Yoruba (OUP 1968), virtually the first study to take African independent (or non-mission) churches seriously and thus creating considerable debate; indeed, it was in reviewing this book that his friend Robin Horton first formulated his ‘intellectualist theory’ of African religion (that religion in Africa is concerned with explanation, prediction and control of this-worldly events, a worldview which tends to persist even after ‘conversion’ to a world religion like Christianity or Islam).

In the second, Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (Indiana UP, 2000), he argued that it was through the encounter between evangelical Protestant missionaries and the Yoruba, at a time when the great majority were still ‘pagan’, that modern Yoruba identity was first formed. The book was based on missionary archives of the period 1845-1912, although giving primary agency to the African pastors and teachers who became the founders of the modern Yoruba intelligentsia. The unique religious dynamics there, since Islam and Christianity reached the Yoruba about the same time and have had almost equal success and coexist remarkably amicably, enabled him to plot the diverse appeal of each of the world religions. This influential study deservedly won both the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association of the USA.

The third of the trilogy was completed just before his death and is to be published later this month: Christianity, Islam and the Orisa: Comparative Studies of Three Religions in Interaction and Transformation (University of California, 2015). Here, as the title indicates, he traces the interaction and mutual transformation of the three religions, right up to the present day with its proliferation of Pentecostal churches and the arrival of salafism. This book has a markedly more theoretical component, developing a notion of tradition that allows the recognition of the distinctiveness of each great religion (in contrast to others), without committing oneself to the idea that any particular element or component of it, even if widespread or seen as peculiarly central to it, is actually essential to it. This allows for the full ‘fuzziness’ of religious traditions, and the diverse ways in which people recognize themselves as belonging to them. Nevertheless, religions do not develop in just any old direction. No, the tradition provides a heavy ‘steer’ in a religion’s constant interplay with contemporary issues.

In all these works, his love of Nigeria was palpable and recognized by Nigerians; it gave him great satisfaction to be invited in May 2014 to deliver the key lecture at the celebration of the 85th birthday of his friend Professor Ade Ajayi, doyen of Nigerian historians and former Vice Chancellor of Ibadan, an occasion graced by so many Nigerian luminaries.

Besides his own many books, articles and reviews, he edited The Journal of Development Studies (1972-73), Africa: Journal of the International African Institute (1979-86) and from 1986 until his death the IAI’s monograph series, the International African Library. Editorial duties he took very seriously, and manuscripts submitted to the Library received pages of encouraging suggestions to give the series the quality it enjoys.

He received numerous distinctions; election to the British Academy (1991), external assessor for professorial appointments in numerous universities, prizes (not least both the Herskovits and Amaury Talbot awards twice, the other winner being his Ijeshas and Nigerians: the Incorporation of a Yoruba Kingdom 1890s-1970s in 1984), and numerous university lectureships (the Marrett, Frazer and Winchester lectures at Oxford alone). He readily accepted the duties that went with honours, serving as President of the African Studies Association (1996-98), a vice President of the British Academy (1999-2000), on HEFCE and ESRC committees, chairman of the IAI Trustees (2005 till his death) and as a member of the panel of judges of the Herskovits Award (2005-08).


His contribution to SOAS life was wide-ranging, as Richard Rathbone recounts below. But listing his achievements does not capture his human qualities. He will be remembered for his personal warmth. I can personally attest to this. I first came to SOAS as a research fellow in a project of John’s. This meant not only guidance but friendship. During that fellowship, every week that I was in London, we would have lunch at a restaurant near Russell Square, occasions that were not only great fun but an education in themselves. It also meant support. Later in an early round of cuts, my post was actually abolished; John wasn’t having that, and waded in on my behalf (he could play rough when he wanted to) and had the decision reversed.

He will be remembered for his enjoyment of all aspects of academic life. (That remains true although he made no secret that he was never reconciled to the restructuring of SOAS from departments into three faculties, views he was prepared to share with anyone.) In a recent email sending me a draft chapter from his new book, he remarked: ‘I enjoyed writing this chapter the most. Particularly I enjoyed the polemical pedantry of refuting [name suppressed: PG] in the long footnote on page ten. You’re too nice to enjoy this sort of point scoring’. That was typical: facetiously gratuitous compliment (which he well knew was not true), gleeful chuckle at his own mischievousness, and a self-deprecating self-presentation as a kind of academic street-fighter. Needless to say, his disagreement was expressed in totally appropriate language; the scholar in question could only be flattered by the close reading and serious attention he had been given.

Even in his most scholarly writing his sense of humour was evident. For example, in one most important work, he explained that when Yoruba claimed their god was ‘unique’, this did not mean they were monotheists. Such claims had the same logical status as those of ‘some deluded Manchester United fan chanting his club was the one and only’. (John consistently supported Liverpool.)

His friendships were wide. It was not only on weekends that students, colleagues and friends were invited to his home where his cooking rivalled his warm, inclusive, stimulating conversation. He was something of an authority on the natural history of Britain, and till very near the end his preferred weekend activity was to take a train to some rather remote spot, to embark on a long walk, lunching at a pub, often visiting parish churches. He was a regular attender at Evensong at St Michael’s, Highgate, from which he drew considerable strength (in one email he remarked: ‘I think Evensong is the best and most characteristic Anglican service’). His interests were wide: on one visit, I couldn’t help noticing that the reading matter in the bathroom was The Histories of Herodotus. For many years he had been quietly working away on a guide to French cathedrals (alas unfinished), highlighting the artistic, architectural and historical features of most interest to British visitors. He was devoted to his wife Anne, and in his retirement spent lengthy stays in Liberia, even throughout the Ebola crisis, where Anne was working for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). He circulated to friends delightful ‘Letters from Liberia’ in which he recounted their activities, with a sharp eye comparing and contrasting what he had experienced elsewhere in Africa.  

The end came suddenly. At the news of the failure of treatment, he was (as he remarked in his last note to me), ‘not over-unhappy or even distressed, more with a sense of divine acceptance’. He died at peace, surrounded by wife and sons Tim, David and Franko, who meant so much to him, along with his six grandchildren. A wonderful human being, and an academic of the first rank, whose studies of religious change in Africa are unlikely to be surpassed.

Paul Gifford*

J.D.Y (John) Peel; a personal memoir.

John Peel was already widely known and an admired figure in the world-wide African Studies community well before he left Liverpool in 1989. Thus his arrival in Bloomsbury was widely welcomed not only in SOAS but also by the extensive membership of the University of London’s inter-collegiate Centre for African Studies. Many of us already knew him well not least because of his lively involvement in the ASAUK, IAI and other ‘learned societies’; even more of us knew his scholarly work. While that London community was already stuffed to the rafters with big names, pioneers in the field, John was an internationally respected rising star, a big-hitter of a new generation. Accordingly his acceptance of a chair in social anthropology at SOAS felt a bit like a coup. It was a brilliant appointment.

Although John always had a very clear notion of where his ideas were leading him and a lifelong commitment to the regular publication of highly original, imaginatively researched and beautifully written work, he had an equally clear notion of what collegiality and scholarly leadership involved. He never used research and writing as an excuse for avoiding the other necessary elements of academic life. He took teaching extremely seriously, preparing every class with time-consuming care and ensuring that what he shared in class was always up-to-date and exciting. He regarded his teaching timetable as sacrosanct, always resisting any temptation to postpone classes or re-schedule supervisions. His respect as well as affection for those he taught was always apparent to his colleagues as well as his students. His outstanding scholarship attracted outstanding students and he gave them time and understanding as well as the benefit of his considerable learning.

John was driven by a powerful, somewhat old-fashioned sense of duty derived in part from his faith, in part from his upbringing. Lesser people might have ducked administrative burdens in the first couple of years of a new appointment but John felt strongly that academic leadership, the protection of good scholars and their scholarship and the nurturing of new talent, required something more than the occasional bouts of unavoidable grudging effort. John accepted the role of Dean of undergraduate studies very early in his SOAS career. It was for SOAS a financially terrifying time and he, and I as Dean of postgraduate studies, took on the urgent task of rationalising a higgledy-piggledy degree system and its hydra-headed administrative structure which had both evolved in gentler times but which were uneconomic and vulnerable to criticism in a new age of external scrutiny.

As we worked long hours together on all of this, even surviving the potentially divisive situation of sharing a (unusually tolerant) secretary, we got to know one another very well. This experience taught me that John’s sense of duty arose out of a perceived need to serve others; for him SOAS was not just an institution but, rather, a collection of creative human beings who he chose to serve. This and his enviable capacity to allot time so accurately as to be able to pursue, in parallel, most of his research and teaching agendas, made him a remarkably effective administrator. But I also learnt that little of this could be managed without toughness. John did not suffer fools gladly, did not smile at irrational opposition and often followed the dictum of Jowett, the 19thC master of his old Oxford college “get it done and let them howl.” While humour and a delight in absurdity leavened so much of John’s conversation, beneath it all was not just a fine mind but also a rather stern sense of rectitude which he shared with some of those pioneers of Christianity in Africa his work brought to life. He was a lovely man and that very rare thing, a thoroughly decent man.

Richard Rathbone**

*Paul Gifford came to SOAS in 1992 as Leverhulme Research Fellow in the ‘Civil Society in Africa’ project directed by John Peel and Adrian Hastings (University of Leeds). He remained in the Department of the Study of Religions, becoming Professor of African Christianity in 2004, and Emeritus Professor in 2009.

**From 1969 to 2003 Richard Rathbone taught in the SOAS History Department in which he remains Emeritus Professor and Professorial Research Associate. He was Chairman of the Centre for African Studies from 1985-1990 and SOAS's Dean of Postgraduate Studies 1991-1995. 

The funeral is held on Friday 20 November 2015 at 1:45pm at St Michael's in Highgate Village. There will be a buffet and drinks afterwards in the adjoining church hall. Rather than flowers, the family would prefer John to be remembered by a donation in his name to the Barts & Royal Free Hospitals who greatly impressed him with the level of care they provided during his illness.  For those attending the funeral on Friday, the funeral directors are arranging for there to be a collection at the service.