The History of Christian Missions to Africa
- Norman EtheringtonNorman EtheringtonFaculty of Arts, Business, Law and Education, School of Humanities, University of Western Australia
Christianity came very early to Africa, as attested by the Gospels. The agencies by which it spread across North Africa and into the Kingdom of Aksum remain largely unknown. Even after the rise of Islam cut communications between sub-Saharan Africa and the churches of Rome and Constantinople, it survived in the eastern Sudan kingdom of Nubia until the 15th century and never died in Ethiopia. The documentary history of organized missions begins with the Roman Catholic monastic orders founded in the 13th century. Their evangelical work in Africa was closely bound up with Portuguese colonialism, which both helped and hindered their operations. Organized European Protestant missions date from the 18th-century evangelical awakening and were much less creatures of states. Africa was a particular object of attention for Evangelicals opposed to slavery and the slave trade. Paradoxically this gave an impetus to colonizing ventures aimed at undercutting the moral and economic foundations of slavery in Africa. Disease proved to be a deadly obstacle to European- and American-born missionaries in tropical Africa, thus spurring projects for enrolling local agents who had acquired childhood immunity. Southern Africa below the Zambezi River attracted missionaries from many parts of Europe and North America because of the absence of the most fearsome diseases. However the turbulent politics of the region complicated their work by restricting their access to organized African kingdoms and chieftaincies. The prevalent mission model until the late 19th century was a station under the direction of a single European family whose religious and educational endeavors were directed at a small number of African residents.
Catholic missions acquired new energy following the French Revolution, the old Portuguese system of partnership with the state was displaced by enthusiasm for independent operations under the authority of the Pope in Rome. Several new missionary orders were founded with a particular focus on Africa.
Mission publications of the 19th and 20th centuries can convey a misleading impression that the key agents in the spread of African Christianity were foreign-born white males. Not only does this neglect the work of women as wives and teachers, but it diverts attention from the Africans who were everywhere the dominant force in the spread of modern Christianity. By the turn of the 20th century, evangelism had escaped the bounds of mission stations driven by African initiative and the appearance of so-called “faith missions” based on a model of itinerant preaching. African prophets and independent evangelists developed new forms of Christianity. Once dismissed as heretical or syncretic, they gradually came to be recognized as legitimate variants of the sort that have always accompanied the acculturation of religion in new environments.
Decolonization caught most foreign mission operations unawares and required major changes, most notably in the recruitment of African clergy to the upper echelons of church hierarchies. By the late 20th century Africans emerged as an independent force in Christian missions, sending agents to other continents.