A History of the Church in Africa

By Thornton, John K. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

A History of the Church in Africa


Thornton, John K., The Catholic Historical Review


African

A History of the Church in Africa. By Bengt Sundkler and Christopher Steed. [Studia Missionalia Upsaliensis LXXIV] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2000. Pp. xix, 1232; 8 maps. $140.00.)

Bengt Sundkler made a splendid reputation as a missionary, teacher, and scholar during his lifetime, in which he is best known for his painstaking and groundbreaking studies of African Independent Churches. His first major work, Bantu Prophets in South Africa, published in 1948, is widely recognized as a path-breaking study of African religiosity and the syncretic merger of African and Western Christianity. He was also widely regarded as being more sympathetic to the Africans than many churchmen had been, even though as a leader of the Lutheran church he had necessarily to regard the Independent Churches he studied as rivals, and as possessing a less than perfect form of Christianity. Still his reputation was such that Sundkler was challenged in the 1970's to write a comprehensive history of the Church in Africa. He died in 1995, before the work was completed, and Christopher Steed, his close associate, finally brought the work to press five years later.

The Church in Africa is necessarily an ambitious book, over 1,200 pages long, for the Christian church has deep roots in the African continent, and Sundkler was prepared in theory at least to take all of it on-the ancient church in Egypt and Nubia, St. Augustine's church in North Africa, the long and tangled, if not fascinating, history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the Catholic missionary churches in Kongo or Angola after European expansion. And of course, Sundkler had to deal with the tremendous spread of Christianity in Africa with the evangelical movement in Western Europe and America from the mid-nineteenth century, culminating in the colonial church.

A quick look at the composition of the work quickly reveals Sundkler's own priorities. The ancient Church receives a scant thirty-five pages, and another section of less than forty pages covers all the pre-nineteenth century missionary churches as well as the history of the whole Ethiopian Church up to 1800. While this shortchanging of early history certainly deprives the book of its ostensible claim to be a history of the church in Africa as a comprehensive book, it does make the work a very serious and careful survey of the modern church in Africa.

For his chosen topic, Sundkler approaches his topic systematically and comprehensively. He covers all the various denominations, Protestant, Catholic, and Ethiopian Orthodox, and covers all regions of Africa. The book is organized regionally and chronologically, and one has the impression that every region and denomination received careful, equal weight. Sundkler's learning and research, not always represented by his footnotes, which are largely to secondary literature, is impressive. One gets the feeling of solidity, comprehensiveness, judgment, and care throughout the later chapters of the book.

Yet, for all this scholarship and knowledge founded on half a century of personal experience in the church in Africa, one feels that Sundkler did not always engage his topic fully. …

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