The African apostles: How Christianity exploded in 20th-century Africa


Issue 79 of Christian History & Biography, titled The African Apostles: Black Evangelists in Africa, was one of the most challenging and rewarding for me to work on. As always, it immersed me in the literature of this topic. Here Collin Hansen and I share some of the best culled from the pile. If you get nothing else from this list, you owe it to yourself to click through to the first resource mentioned–the Dictionary of African Christian Biography. What an amazing set of accounts this is, of the little-known (in the West) pioneers of African Christianity, some of whom are still alive today:

Resources: Go Tell It!
Many are telling the continuing story of the African church. Here are some of the best renditions.
Collin Hansen & Chris Armstrong

When we study the history of the church in twentieth-century Africa, we come face to face with that most exciting, fluid, and sometimes confusing thing: history in the making. Many of the stories of African Christianity in this period are just now being told—or have yet to be told. That is why the first resource we are recommending in this issue is not a book but a website; the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, at http://www.dacb.org/. There you will find the stories of many Christian leaders from throughout African history, browsable by country or alphabetically. These are written by scholars, missionaries, and eyewitnesses. An occasionally uneven writing style does not diminish the importance of this record of the lives of Africa’s apostles, nor the fascination of the stories themselves.

Another enjoyable, popular entrée into the stories of these apostles is Frederick Quinn, African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002). Quinn provides a quick portrait for many of the most influential figures in African church history, stretching back to such early North African leaders as Anthony of Egypt and Augustine of Hippo.

Global church histories

Most Western readers have received a significantly “westocentric” view of church history. In recent years, church historians have been working to change this, beginning to produce what will doubtless prove a bountiful crop of global church histories.

This is a new animal—among its few precedents are Kenneth Scott Latourette’s multi-volume History of the Expansion of Christianity, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age, and History of Christianity. For a profile of Latourette, see our issue 72, How We Got Our History.

Here are three of the best recent attempts to bring between two covers the spread of Christianity outside as well as inside the traditional Christian strongholds of the West:

Adrian Hastings, A World History of Christianity (Eerdmans, 2000). Particularly strong on how the church and the many cultures of the world have interacted and conditioned each other, this volume is both scholarly and very readable. This is not surprising, given its editor (see our mention below of Hastings’s The Church in Africa: 1450-1950).

Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, eds., History of the World Christian Movement (Vol. 1): Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Orbis, 2001). This history was written, as most future efforts at global Christian history will have to be written, through a collaborative process. A series of consultations were held that involved scholars from Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America, and Europe; from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and Orthodox communions; and experts in the disciplines of history, missiology, theology, and sociology.

Paul R. Spickard and Kevin M. Cragg, A Global History of Christians: How Everyday Believers Experienced Their World (Baker, 1994). More popular in flavor than the previous two volumes mentioned, and well illustrated, this book tackles the daunting task of describing how billions of ordinary Christians through the centuries experienced faith. The authors also pay particular attention to people and movements on Christian orthodoxy’s outskirts.

African church histories

A scholar of great erudition who can write sparkflng narrative when the story turns dramatic—as it so often does in African Christianity—Adrian Hastings has written perhaps the definitive African history in The Church in Africa 1450-1950 (Oxford University Press, 1994). That 500-year period saw African Christianity move from the fringes to the forefront of the continent’s religious scene. Hastings also points out the parallels between the development of Islam and that of Christianity in Africa.

Another serious claimant to the title of “standard reference text on African Christian Churches,” Bengt Sundkler and Christopher Steed’s A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2000) focuses on African initiatives when telling the centuries- long story of Christianity’s development and spread on the continent.

John Baur’s years of lecturing to African theology students have served him, and the readers of his 2000 Years of Christianity in Africa: An African History 62-1992 (Paulines Publications Africa, 1994), well, despite an occasionally turgid writing style. This is a study of the Catholic Church and its missions to the African peoples. The book also addresses some Protestant history, but its greatest usefulness is in filling a void left by other works that covered Catholic issues from an outside perspective.

Elizabeth Isichei, in her A History of Christianity in Africa (Eerdmans, 1995), has provided a fast-paced yet detailed narrative that stands as the most readable comprehensive history of the African church. Isichei places today’s developments in the context necessary for understanding the continent’s needs and projecting its future trajectory.

An earlier paperback contribution that still has merit (and pictures) is Jonathan Hildebrandt, History of the Church in Africa (Africa Christian Press, 1981, 1987, 1990). Hildebrandt emphasizes the continuity of Christian faith in Africa from biblical times until the present and highlights the tremendous contributions of a few special leaders, including some described in this issue of Christian History.

Finally, if the colonial period has captured your imagination and you want to know more, see Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 (Random House, 1991). History has probably never seen such a remarkable land-grab as the scramble for Africa conducted by the European imperial powers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Political intrigue and indigenous reaction boil through the period, the characters are unforgettable, and Pakenham captures it all in compelling prose.

Interpretations

Important “orienteering tools” for the newcomer to African Christian history are several recently published books that offer theological and sociological interpretations of the explosion of faith in the historically “developing” nations.

Two of the best of these are by historian Andrew F. Walls. In his award-winning The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Orbis Books and T&T Clark, 1996), Walls argues that Christianity’s most important question is how the faith will be identified at each stage of its missionary development. Throughout African history this question has been hotly debated among foreign missionaries and indigenous church leaders who held sometimes disparate views about Christian identity in the midst of Africa’s diverse spiritual climate.

In The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Orbis Books and T & T Clark, 2002), Walls draws on his long experience as a missions historian who has researched and taught in Africa, to provide readers with a fascinating look at the unintended consequences introduced into that continent by Western missionaries.

Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2002) lays out a startling diagnosis of Christianity’s present and a prognosis for its global future. This broad overview of Christianity in the developing world has alerted many to the major “axis shift” that has already begun.

Along the way, Jenkins introduces the secularizing West to Africa’s brand of Christianity, which tends to be theologically orthodox, mystical, and evangelical. This relatively small book provides an insightful introduction to contemporary issues while offering a number of projections regarding future Christian expansion and increased violent conflict with Islam.

Kwame Bediako, from Ghana, is one of Africa’s leading Christian interpreters of Africa and African Christianity. A theologian, Bediako presents, in Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Orbis Books and Edinburgh University Press, 1995), a view of African Christianity from the inside out rather than from the outside in. This perspective helps readers understand Africa’s current and potential global impact on Christian theology and social issues.

For a theological assessment of African church history that celebrates the tremendous work of God on that continent, see Mark Shaw, The Kingdom of God in Africa: A Short History of African Christianity (Baker, 1996). Based on a conceptual framework borrowed from H. Richard Niebuhr’s justly famed Kingdom of God in America, Shaw’s book portrays the African church as uniquely blending God’s sovereignty, Christ’s redemption, and a Spirit-led involvement in social justice.

Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History magazine.

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