A Resurgent Church in a Troubled Continent: Review Essay of Bengt Sundkler's History of the Church in Africa

By Sanneh, Lamin | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, July 2001 | Go to article overview

A Resurgent Church in a Troubled Continent: Review Essay of Bengt Sundkler's History of the Church in Africa


Sanneh, Lamin, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


Like the temple of Solomon, Bengt Sundkler's History of the Church in Africa (with Christopher Steed [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000], xix + 1,232 pp., maps, bibliography, index) was several decades in the making, and its completion was as eagerly awaited. Sundkler was a Swedish missionary in South Africa and Tanzania and subsequently professor at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. He died in 1995 before the work was completed, but by then he had laid the tram lines and set the direction before being joined by Christopher Steed, who teaches at Uppsala. Steed steered the book through the final stages of writing and presided over its publication.

It is a book on a grand scale, as such a fitting monument to the staggering story of Christianity in Africa. Sundkler, it happens, was one of the first writers to recognize in his Ban to Prophets in South Africa (1948,1961) that African Christianity, even in its birth pangs, showed signs of being significantly different from the version Europeans contrived for it, and that it was destined to outlast the colonial rule that framed its modern introduction in the continent. This 1,200-page volume is Sundkler's long-awaited retrospective assessment of the subject.

The book presents what has become the familiar outline of the story of Christianity from its origins: the political and social forces with which the first Christians contended; the measures of suppression and repression adopted against the new religion; the ferment and upheaval in the north African church; the stories of converts, heretics, apostates, martyrs, bishops, imperial agents, monks, and missionaries; and the flourishing and waning of Christian states and institutions. This catalog is followed by an overview of developments in the nineteenth century, the century of European ascendancy and of epochal geographic discoveries, including advances in modern hygiene and medicine. Christianity's range expanded accordingly, and Protestant and Catholic missions penetrated settlements beyond the coastal fringe.

Appearances can be deceptive, however, for Europe's ascendancy in no way explains Christianity's successful spread and expansion in Africa. It was not European surrogates such as kept kings, paramount chiefs, trading clients, and coastal mulatto populations (p. 47) that carried the Gospel into the heart of Africa, but African preachers, evangelists, catechists (p. 412), schoolteachers, lay readers (as in Uganda, pp. 572ff., or in the Congo, p. 1,021), nurses, petty traders, women of note, their dependents, and, in the Congo, young army recruits who were signed on as catechists. The great promise of Christianity lay in the interior, not on the coast with its compromising European cultural climate.

In African custom, the ancestors were venerated and male elders revered, whereas in Christianity, by contrast, the young were embraced and women enfranchised. So the religion irrupted in Africa as a mass youth movement in significant discontinuity with custom and usage. Similarly, what justified establishing the church in Africa was not late nineteenth-century classic colonialism but rather the drive a century earlier to abolish the slave trade and to create free settlements under the leadership of former slaves and captives. In fact, free settlements were conceived as a weapon in the crusade for abolition. Thus was Freetown, Sierra Leone, established, precariously in 1787 with a haggard batch of London blacks, and then confidently in 1792 with a determined band of American blacks, leading to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Christianity was accordingly stamped with the values of antislavery and promoted as the cause of the oppressed and the stigmatized. The book refers to this factor, but, regretably, only as a subordinate theme of the story of European missionary outreach.

The European theme dominates in several places, even when Africans are being approved of. Take the matter of translating the Bible into African languages (pp. …

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