The African Factor in Christian Mission to Africa: A Study of Moravian and Basel Mission Activities in Ghana

Article excerpt

One of the most stimulating developments in Christian mission studies during the last decade or so is the gradual shift of emphasis from Western, Eurocentric interpretation and initiative to an emphasis which takes African participation seriously. Missiologists and students of mission history are becoming increasingly aware of this. Lamin Sanneh has pointed out quite clearly that Christianity cannot be explained simply as "subject to the history of Western imperialism."(1) The fact is that the only effective way to analyze the historical transmission of Christianity under Western agency is to subordinate it to its "local assimilation and adaptation under African agency."(2) The benefit of such methodology is to study local Christian history on its own terms, to free the agents to tell their own story from their own perspective. Too often the story is told only from the perspective of mission records in North Atlantic archives.(3)

Unfortunately, a failure to view historical Christian missions as the consequence of the Missio Dei has resulted in Western mission being presented as no more than propagation of a European ethnocentric commodity.(4) It should therefore come as no surprise that the contributions of the indigenous people of Africa in Christian mission to their own continent have been treated on the periphery of mission history. However, a study of missionary activity in West Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shows that Africans and the African diaspora made their mark in the effort. Side by side with missionaries from the United States, Great Britain and the West Indies were the Africans in the "back to Africa" movement. No doubt some may have embarked on romantic expeditions for recreating the lost glory of Africa, but most of them were simply obeying the call to "go into all the world and make disciples". Liberated slaves of African origin were often anxious and willing to carry their new religion to their native home.(5) This is amply underlined by the leading role played by those who were brought as settlers to West Africa from Nova Scotia, Britain and the United State of America. That some of these "returning Josephs" were not willing to stay in the comfort of Pharaoh's Egypt but were prepared to return to live in Africa and to spread the Christian faith, must be seen as a substantial factor in the success of Christian mission to Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

How did this factor in mission come about? What course did it take? Was it seen at the time as an exercise of mission in intra-cultural perspective? This essay seeks to answer some of these questions and to do so by describing the efforts of the Basel Missionary Society to recruit black West Indian Moravians in the 1840s to engage in mission work in Ghana (then the Gold Coast). The intention is to offer some suggestions about the foundation of horizontal mission which is proving so effective in the mission efforts of the younger churches in Africa today.


Both the Moravians and the Basel Mission - two missionary bodies of German pietistic tradition - suffered considerable disappointments in their initial endeavours to evangelize West Africa during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Moravians, who operated from Herrnhut, in Saxony, Germany, under the leadership of Count Zinzendorf, tried to take Christianity to the indigenous people of Ghana by using Africans - but they were unsuccessful. As early as 1735, Frederick Pedersen Svane, a Ga young man from Christiansborg in Ghana, who had graduated in the arts and philosophy from the University of Copenhagen, found a friend in the Moravian Carl Adolph von Plessen.(6) Svane had felt a strong desire to return as an independent missionary to his native land and people. With the support of his friend von Plessen, and no doubt backed by the blessing and goodwill of the Moravian Brethren, Svane sailed to Christiansborg with his Danish wife. …


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