Hymns in full swing before West arrived

A History of the Church in Africa

May 18, 2001

"Why should someone save his soul at the expense of emasculating my humanity?" This question, asked by Burgess Carr, general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches in 1974, encodes the paradoxes in the history of Christianity on the African continent. The Christianisation of Africa has been undoubtedly the most successful, possibly the most welcome, and yet probably the most controversial outcome of the encounter with both Europe and its American cultural offshoots for the past five centuries.

The authors of this impressive volume cover an enormous time span and a forbidding variety of situations. The late Bengt Sundkler was professor of church history, a respected scholar of African independent churches and a missionary in South Africa and Tanzania, where he was a Lutheran bishop between 1961 and 1964. This long-awaited volume, completed and edited by his research assistant, Christopher Steed, constitutes a rare example of histoire engagee: robust, purposeful, enjoyable and problematic.

One main argument runs like a backbone through the volume and it gives coherence to a heterogeneous topic. Christianity in Africa is not a hybrid byproduct of the European encroachment, but an organic aspect of African religiosity that African women and men consciously, deliberately and often heroically chose, moulded to their own needs and implemented towards their own ends.

From the beginning, Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity are treated as "indigenous religions", rooted on the African continent well before many of the peoples who were to become the suppliers of its Euro-American versions had any hint of it. Not to mention, of course, the fact that North Africa was the soil on which some of the most remarkable intellectual achievements of the early church found nurture and sustenance. Periodically to remind the West that Saint Augustine was probably of Berber stock is salutary.

But it does not end with Vandals and Arabs. The widely held notion that the Christianisation of the continent south of the Sahara is largely due to the efforts of European and American missionaries, backed by the colonial powers engaged in their "civilising mission", is also inaccurate. Capuchin missions to the Congo started in 1491 and were successful well before Portugal's colonising appetite had grown teeth. Here, as early as the late 17th century, Africans could not only assimilate Christianity, but could do something with it in their own way.

After a critical illness, Donna Beatrice, a member of the Congo aristocracy at variance with royal policies, led a millenarian movement inspired by St Anthony, the Franciscan saint most revered by the Capuchins. She identified herself with the saint, a common and enduring pattern in the relationship between priests and deities in native religions, while entrusting her husband with the identity of St John.On July 2 1706, both were burnt at the stake.

Minus the stake, this event was to set the charter pattern for the so-called African independent churches in the centuries to come. Today these are legion - 10,000 according to conservative estimates in the late 1970s. In between, however, there is the story of the growth of mainstream ecclesiastical organisations. In this case, too, the bottom line remains the same: missionaries arriving from overseas to deepest and untouched Africa found that Africans had got there first and the bush was already resounding with hymns and prayers.

The first phase of this process, which lasted well into the colonial era, saw the Gospel brought ever further inland by a variety of agents. "Creolised returnees" from Brazil and the United States brought Christianity to West Africa as both a mark of their passage to America, as it were, and of their leadership vis-a-vis the indigenous natives. All along the Bight of Benin scores of slaves, freed (and stranded wherever they happened to be) after the abolition of the trade, found in Christianity values around which to reconstruct individual and social identities.

This pattern was to repeat itself on the east coast of Africa, be it through the policies of ransoming slaves pursued by European missionary orders or by offering working opportunities on the mission farms dotted all over South Africa.

Likewise, refugees from inter-ethnic, anti-Boer and anti-British wars scattered ever deeper inland bringing news of the changing times. At a later stage, with the consolidation of the mining industry in Southern Africa and the Copper Belt, groups of restless youths began migrating to wherever they could find wages. They eventually came back bringing guns and the Gospel.

Africans were also the protagonists of the next two phases of the development of Christianity on the continent. With the consolidation and capillary spread of missions, many African rulers saw in the establishment of mission stations within their territory (and hopefully under their own control) a means both to avert too close an encroachment by whites and to promote their peoples' chances to play on a level field.

In all cases, the frontline carriers of the message were the native catechists, the unsung crack troops to whom Sundkler and Steed pay due tribute. Catechists were eventually to become teachers, and thus form the nucleus of the incipient pan-African movement, eventually to develop into the movement for African independence after the second world war. Most historical leaders of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid - from Nkrumah to Nyerere, from Kaunda to Tutu - had been either catechists, or sons of catechists, or Christian teachers or all of these.

The Fascist outrage of the invasion of Christian Ethiopia, and the two world wars, did their best to destroy the myth of a holy and Christian Europe, and with it the idea that the leadership of Christianity was best left to whites. The movement for the Africanisation of the clergy grew side by side with the liberation struggle, and often much more quickly. At independence, all the major denominations could rely on a hierarchy ready to represent and give voice to "civil society", often against a political class unable to deliver the expectations of long-awaited freedom.

On the whole, this book is not an apology for Christianity - or, rather, it is no more so than detailed and extremely well-documented evidence can sustain. There is in this story, however, an inherent problem with the otherwise dutiful, overdue (and gallant) recognition of agency to the "African factor". Insistence on agency is of course a reference to recent trends in historiography and social science. As a reaction to earlier tendencies that privileged objective structural explanations over man-made history - so to speak - this may be a welcome departure.

However, the trajectory of Christianity in Africa represents more than the appropriation of a universalist message by a variety of agencies ready to field their newly gained allegiance against the very circumstances that made it available. As Jean and John Comaroff have pioneered in their studies of Christianity in southern Africa - heralding a number of like-minded scholars - the appropriation of Christianity and the subsequent empowerment made it possible not only to represent the dialectical moment of the colonial (and other) encounters. It was not simply yet another "ruse of Reason", but of inculturation.

The setting of "the terms of engagement" between different civilisations hitherto communicating at cross-purposes is formally established. In this respect, it can be legitimately argued that Christianity comprised an important facet - perhaps ( pace anthropologists) the facet - of the coming of modernity to the African continent. As such, it was thus inextricably entangled with all that went with it.

Therefore, what Sundkler and Steed peremptorily conclude in the epilogue constitutes a revealing slip of the tongue in an otherwise worthy study. Their statement: "The proclamation of the Gospel was sabotaged by the powers of colonialism and race" cannot be subscribed to, if only because the evidence produced throughout the book would make the reverse rather more convincing.

Few historians would be prepared to say that the proclamation of the Gospel was sabotaged in the West by the persistence of wars and hatred among Christians. Or at least few would be prepared to say this with any hope of being taken seriously historically. Besides, "race" was not invented solely by the social Darwinists. Four centuries earlier, others - from among the Christians - were asking whether or not the Amerindians had souls, and the deicides have been on the bad books from day one. Likewise, it is hard to think that, structurally speaking, imperialism is independent of the Book(s) and the associated notion of una veritas .

The tangle between Christianity - or, perhaps, what the West has made of it - and the strictures (if not the structures) of modernity exists, however uncomfortably and problematically, affecting notions of agency. Rwanda docet . Africans may well have taken over Christianity and propagated it with willingness, but whether they, like everybody else, had any choice or did so consciously, fully aware of the nooses that were attached to it, is another story.

Cesare Poppi is deputy director, Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia.

A History of the Church in Africa

Author - Bengt Sundkler and Christopher Steed
ISBN - 0 521 58342 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £85.00
Pages - 1,232

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