Enlightening Africans, Nicholas Reid

A History of Christianity in Africa
Elizabeth Isichei
SPCK Press, London, British price £25.00
ISBN 0 281 04764 2

When I told friends I was reading a history of christianity in Africa, I could immediately hear the stereotypes clicking into place. For most, the very conjunction of the two words “christianity” and “Africa” still conjured up images of pith-helmeted European missionaries imposing the gospel on trusting tribespeople. Knowing comments on colonialism or imperialism rapidly followed. Yet in truth, as Elizabeth Isichei (Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Otago) makes abundantly clear, the history of christianity in Africa is longer, more varied, more complex – indeed, altogether a vaster subject – than, say, the history of capitalism in Europe or the history of socialism anywhere.

Three hundred and fifty large, closely printed pages (followed by 60 pages of references and end-notes) can be at best a general survey and a digest. It has to be selective and so, despite the book’s subtitle, From Antiquity to the Present, this history is essentially the history of African christianity in the last 200 years.

Take the (approximately) five centuries of north African christianity that preceded the Muslim conquest. With brisk efficiency Elizabeth Isichei gallops through them in 30-odd pages. If one reads this as continuous narrative, it becomes a dizzying profusion of illustrious names and momentous movements: Arius, Athanasius, Tertullian, Cyprian, Pelagius; gnostics, monophysites, donatists, nestorians. In a single page Saint Augustine is crunched over, but the amiably limpid style is delightfully unambiguous. I particularly relished the description of Origen as “a teenage genius” and “the tragic star of the early church”. In another 30 pages Isichei sprints through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – the spectacular failure of christian Europe to “convert” Muslims; the survival of Coptic and Ethiopian christianity; the two or three centuries in which a handful of Portuguese priests were the only christian presence in sub-Saharan Africa.

So, less than a quarter of the way through the text we arrive at the eighteenth century. What follows is organised geographically (separate chapters on west Africa, east and east‑central Africa, etc). This is not merely filing-cabinet convenience. Elizabeth Isichei knows Africa well. She spent 16 years teaching in African universities and has published general histories of west Africa, Nigeria and the Igbo people. Her organisation here is a tacit acknowledgment of the variety of African cultures and the very diverse ways in which they have responded to christianity. The Zulu experience, for example, has only some elements in common with the Igbo experience and they simply cannot be discussed in the same terms. Africa is the name of a continent, not the name of a single culture.

Given this book’s focus on colonial and post‑colonial christianity, some familiar historical questions have to be addressed. How valid for example, is the marxist and materialist depiction of nineteenth-century christian missionaries as standard‑bearers for commerce and empire? And of the christianity they planted as a mere catalyst for westernisation?

As Elizabeth Isichei records it, there is much to support this negative critique. Pre-nineteenth century missionary endeavour was compromised by its association with the slave trade (it is sobering to discover that the first-ever Anglican missionary in Africa, the Rev Thomas Thompson, penned a defence of slavery in 1752). By the early nineteenth century missionaries were notable for their humanitarian endeavours, anti-slavery campaigns and protests at the worst European abuses.

But at the height of empires (circa 1880 to 1920) most missionaries identified first with the white settler communities and only second with their African co-religionists. Elizabeth Isichei catches David Livingstone declaring “I go back to Africa to make an open path for commerce and christianity” and she tartly comments: “The unconscious ordering of his words is interesting.” (Later she is equally ironical about the head‑patting paternalism of Albert Schweitzer.)

She notes that fiercely anti-clerical governments in France, Belgium and Portugal battled the Catholic Church at home, but were quite happy to support Catholic missionary enterprise in Africa as an agent of their imperial power. Apparently, in at least one African language the words for “Catholic” and “protestant” are still, respectively, the same as the words for “French” and “English”. Then there is the fact that for generations of those African intellectuals designated “improvers” accepting christianity was part of a package deal in modernising and accepting “progress”. The first large-scale modern-era churches to be run by Africans themselves, the so-called “Ethiopian” churches of South Africa, were theologically indistinguishable from what the missionaries taught. They were simply examples of blacks protesting against a white monopoly in church leadership and coopting themselves to “white” roles.

And yet if christianity in Africa were a mere appendage to colonial power, we could scarcely explain the explosion in African christianity over the last 30 years. True, some local churches closely identified with white colonials have collapsed since national independence (thus in Algeria, thus in Angola and Mozambique). But there are now many times more Catholics in Zaire than there were when it was a Belgian colony – a fact recognised by the Vatican in 1983 when a separate Zairois Catholic rite was approved for liturgical celebrations. Christianity, mainly preached by Africans, is spreading faster since it was detached from what marxists used to see as its trump-card ‑ its association with the prestige and authority of European powers. As epigraph to her introduction, Elizabeth Isichei prints a quotation from J O Mills: “While every day in the west roughly 7500 people in effect stop being christian, every day in Africa roughly double that number become Christians.”

No doubt some Africans are still attracted by the promise of material betterment and westernisation. The “gospel of prosperity” promoted by fundamentalist American tele-evangelists appeals to those Africans who may be the equivalent of the old “improvers”. But motives for becoming christian cannot be so neatly stereotyped. They are the outcome of millions of individual decisions made by millions of adults in thousands of separate social and cultural situations.

This in fact is one of the great implicit themes of Elizabeth Isichei’s history. When western anthropologists and sociologists (even sympathetic and enlightened ones) set about producing papers on African christianity they often assume that they are dealing with naive or gullible people, incapable of sophisticated theological thought. The reality is quite different. From the times of their first contacts with European Christians, many Africans have been perfectly capable of distinguishing the essence of the christian message from its European cultural packaging. This made them particularly acute critics of the shortcomings of European Christians and their failure to live up to the precepts they taught.

There are few nobler indictments of European cultural imperialism than that penned by Charles Domingo, an African Baptist pastor, in 1911. After telling European missionaries that they confounded “Europeandom” with “Christendom”, Domingo characterised their condescension towards African Christians as “too cheaty, too thefty, too mockery”. In an odd sort of way, much of this indictment (especially the ‘too mockery” part) could still apply to post-christian academic commentators on Africa.

This general history contains many incidental ironies and paradoxes. How right Elizabeth Isichei is when she notes that contextual theology, the culturally sensitive movement that seeks to “inculturate” christianity in an African setting, is often “yesterday’s battle”. It assumes a tribal and traditional world that has long been abandoned by millions of urban Africans. How ironical that liberation theology (essentially a Latin American phenomenon) has made so little headway, even among politically aware African Christians. And how irritating that western scholars “have tended to focus on new religious movements, to the neglect of the older churches”. Many times more academic papers have been written about African sycretism, messianism, “cargo cults”, gnosticism and occultism than have been written about the mainstream christian churches. It is a good example of westerners unwittingly creating an image of Africans as the exotic “other” – for the fact is that the overwhelming majority of African Christians still belong to the mainstream churches.

Such insights are, however, the incidental pleasures of this history. Its chief strengths are its broad scope and the space it gives to African voices. One cannot read of the career of a Simon Kimbangu or a William Wade Harris without being aware that one is encountering strong, original theologians with a profound faith and a nuanced awareness of the limits of culture.

Some minor quibbles – Elizabeth Isichei sometimes assumes that all her readers will be scripturally literate (when she reports that F W de Klerk chose Romans 13 as his text for a sermon to an African church, she does not bother to explain that this is the classic locus for Saint Paul’s doctrine of submission to civil authorities). Perhaps by the very perspective she has chosen, she has underplayed the equally spectacular resurgence of Islam in Africa. And she may be a shade too tactful about the bitter rivalries between Catholic and protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century.

But these are strictly quibbles. Any page of this history yields something enlightening or informative – whether a tale of heroism or of heroic failure; of saintliness or of exploitation; of humbling empathy with another culture or of monstrous misunderstanding. Given the vastness of the subject, it is as much as could reasonably be expected between two covers.

Nicholas Reid is a critic and reviewer of long standing, who has recently completed a postgraduate degree in theology.

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