A History of the Church in Africa

By LeMarquand, Grant | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2003 | Go to article overview

A History of the Church in Africa


LeMarquand, Grant, Anglican and Episcopal History


BENGT SUNDKLER AND CHRISTOPHER STEED. A History of the Church in Africa. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xix + 1232, bibliography, indices. $140.00.

Sundkler and Steed's magnificent work, A History of the Church in Africa, opens with a quotation from two Nigerian scholars which has become an oft-quoted line among African church historians in the last few years: "A bitter pill which the majority of writers on Christianity and missionary activities in Africa should swallow is that they have not been writing Africa Church History" (p. 1, quoting from J. F. Ade Ajaya and E. A. Ayandele, "Writing African Church History," in P. Beyerhaus & C. Hallencreutz, eds., The Church Crossing Frontiers [Lund & Uppsala, 1969], 90). The point, of course, is that the majority of popular and scholarly writing about African church history until very recently has been Eurocentric, almost exclusively devoted to the exploits of missionaries and the work which they did in bringing the Gospel to Africa. The classic work of C. P. Groves (The Planting of Christianity in Africa, 4 vols. [London: Lutterworth, 1948-58]), for example, is a marvelous piece of missionary history, but tends to leave one with the impression that Christianity in Africa is simply the result of Western vision and Western effort. In contrast, the thesis of the present volume is clear, "This book deals with the African response to the Christian message and with African initiatives in the conversion of the continent" (100). This does not mean that missionaries from outside of Africa are ignored-far from it-missionaries remain an important part of the story which Sundkler and Steed relate. The work of Westerners is, however, "put in its place" as it were. The work of African evangelists, church planters, prophets, martyrs, scholars, and church leaders is appropriately put in the foreground. The story of the church in Africa cannot be understood as merely an invasion of a foreign religion.

Sundkler and Steed are not the first to attempt a church history of the entire continent. In the last years of the twentieth century several scholars have produced more or less comprehensive reviews of African church history. Each of these volumes is conscious of the criticism that past histories have marginalized the Africanness of African church history and each has succeeded in various ways in redressing this imbalance. Adrian Hastings's impressive 700 page contribution, The Church in Africa 1450-1950 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), deals with the 500 years of Christian history in which the message of the Gospel has spread and become rooted in sub-Saharan Africa. The disadvantage of this kind of approach is that it can sever the modern history of Christianity from its forebears in the ancient churches of Egypt, North Africa, Nubia, and Ethiopia. Hastings is not unaware of this danger and in fact devotes the first two chapters to ancient African church history. One of the important contributions ofHastings's volume is his ability to relate the history of the church in modern Africa to its context in such a way as to underline that African history itself is not intelligible without an understanding of African church history. John Baur's 2000 Years of Christianity in Africa: An African History 62-1992 (Nairobi: Paulines, 1994) is somewhat shorter (over 550 pages) but attempts to do justice to the entirety of the African church history. Most helpful are the country-by-country surveys in the last section of the book. Elizabeth Isichei's A History of Christianity in Africa from Antiquity to the Present (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) at just over 400 pages is probably the best choice if one is looking for a text book for a course, but the author does have a bit of an "edge" at times. Rather than always arguing her case on various matters, she tends to be dismissive of views with which she disagrees (see p. 52, for example, where hundreds of years of debate on the two natures of Christ are simply swept aside). …

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