Born Again Again

Article excerpt

In the 19th century, European and North American missionaries spanned the world, bringing the light of the gospel into what they thought were the dark corners of heathendom. In many regions, though, the natives did not react as the newcomers expected. Their response was not "Thank you for bringing us this startling new message" but rather "Welcome back." What the missionaries had not realized was that Christianization need not be a definitive, once-and-for-all act, a one-way process. Religions come and go. White Christians were treading where African and Asian believers had been before and where they had left deep marks in local cultures. Their ghosts still walked.

Ghosts swarmed along the coasts of west and southwest Africa, in lands that Portuguese traders and empirebuilders encountered during the 15th century. Of course, the Portuguese were primarily there for profit, to trade in whatever commodities they could find--and often that meant slaves. Unable to defeat or conquer all the local regimes, the Portuguese made treaties with them, and as part of these ugly commercial deals, African rulers accepted Catholic Christianity and welcomed (or tolerated) missionaries.

In these circumstances, we would have slender hopes for the effects of such a conversion. Surely native kings would tolerate churches, if only to keep the Europeans happy, while pursuing the familiar traditional faiths as publicly as they dared. But in some instances--particularly on the coasts of what we today call the Congo and Angola-something strange happened. In the lands of Kongo and Ndongo, native peoples not only adopted Christianity but poured their hearts into the new religion and made it an integral part of their culture. However the faith was introduced, it soon became wholly African.

By far the most important Christian state was the powerful realm of Kongo, which formally converted in 1491. The Kongolese royal family became faithful sons and daughters of the Catholic Church, and one 16th-century king, Mvemba Nzinga ("King Afonso"), has been described as "one of the greatest lay Christians in African church history." In 1516 a Portuguese priest wrote of Nzinga: "Better than we, he knows the prophets and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and all the lives of the saints, and all things regarding our Mother the Holy Church." In 1596, the capital city Sao Salvador became a diocese in its own right. …