Missionaries and Revolutionaries: Elements of Transformation in the Emergence of Modern African Christianity

Article excerpt

The emergence of Africa and Latin America as the new heartlands of the Christian faith has profound implications for the study of global Christianity. Already the nature of this epochal development--an inexorable consequence of extensive Christian recession within Western societies, in conjunction with phenomenal growth in the non-Western world--means that much scholarly analysis now focuses on the potential significance of non-Western (or Southern) Christianities. Rightly so. The possibility that as little as one-fifth of the world's Christians will be white Caucasian by 2050 is a matter of no little consequence. But renewed attentiveness to non-Western Christianities should not be allowed to displace ongoing appraisal of the Western missionary movement, which transformed the course of Christian history and acted as a vital catalyst for the transformations in question.

For African Christians, careful investigation of this movement remains a priority not only because it provides critical connection points for self-understanding but also because African perspectives and an African imagination are indispensable for a full understanding of the impact and legacy of the European African encounter. That story is as much African as it is European. Exaggerated claims for the Western missionary movement and European initiatives have long dominated historical construction and analysis, so much so that the African (or non-Western) element has been portrayed simply as passive, dependent, and exploited. While such perspectives are no longer dominant, they remain influential. Non-Western assessments are critical, if only because "without this Third World dimension, mission would languish as the flawed instrument of alien subjugation, and an important part of Christian history would thereby be lost." (1)

Searching for an African Story

From the 1960s, prominent African historians have produced richly detailed (often regional or nationalist) accounts that have uncovered critical historical insights from an African perspective. Many have gone to great lengths to elucidate the role and contribution of indigenous agency and to illuminate both the rich heritage of pre-Christian past and encounters with the Christian Gospel outside the direct influence of European missionary action. Their painstaking historical investigation opened a new chapter in African scholarship and provided rich resources for theological education. (2) Yet, all too often, efforts at telling the African story simply elevated the actions and impact of a few prominent African Christians--Bishop Samuel Crowther or Bishop James Dwane, for instance--at the expense of a more thoroughgoing representation of the full range of African voices, reactions, and experiences.

Discerning and extracting from the vast body of records (mainly archives of missionary societies) the real experiences, responses, and legacy of local individuals and peoples is a Herculean task. It requires scrupulous attentiveness on the part of the researcher, for their voices and cries are often lost beneath the stentorian choruses of the dominant group(s), preserving whose experiences and testimony is often the primary function of those records.

In the remainder of this article I examine briefly the events and profound reactions stimulated by the implementation of Henry Venn's experiment with a native pastorate in the colonial context of Sierra Leone (West Africa) from the nineteenth century. My aim is not to rehash the significance of Venn's ideas but to briefly explore the African interpretation and experience of his vision. As I have argued elsewhere, Venn's experiment unleashed powerful racial conflicts and profound ecclesiastical challenges. (3) The primary objective here is to spotlight the transformative role that ordinary African Christians and little-known influences played in stimulating Venn's thinking and in shaping African appropriation of his strategy. …