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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


The impact of Christianity

What sort of Christianity came to Africa? There are so many different kinds that a full study of Christianity alone is almost a study in comparative religion. In Egypt and the Roman provinces of North Africa it was established almost from the beginning. Both produced notable martyrs, scholars and saints. Alexandria was a great centre of Christian philosophy; and latin Christian literature was born in Carthage rather than in Rome. In the fourth century Christianity reached Ethiopia, which is still officially a Christian country. As far south as the modern Khartoum, a Christian Nubian kingdom was conquered by the Muslim arabs only in 1504. But the Arab advance effectively cut off African Christianity from its contacts with Europe.

In the fifteenth century the Portuguese began to adventure round the world. To be Portuguese was to be a (Roman) Catholic Christian; and part of the Portuguese hope was to convert Africans to Christianity and therefore to a political alliance against Islam. In 1490 Portuguese missionaries reached the kingdom of the Kongo in West Africa. The heir to the throne was baptised and ruled as an ardent and enlightened Christian till his death in 1543. But, as Portuguese interest in the slave trade began to dominate their concern for Christianity, any effective Christian influence disappeared from West Africa.

In East Africa, in 1630, the Portuguese installed, as the first Christian king of Mombasa, a native who had been educated in their Indian colony of Goa. In the following year he expelled his Portuguese masters; and all Christian converts were either reconverted to Islam or killed. It was not till the end of the eighteenth century, with the discovery of the horrors of the slave trade and the development, in northern Europe, of an interest in legimate trade with Africa, that Christian missionaries began to arrive in earnest. They, too, tended to identify Christianity with white civilisation. They took up 'the white man's burden' of responsibility towards 'lesser breeds without law' (of which Rudyard Kipling was the prophet); and, although they utterly condemned the slave trade - whether it was conducted by Europeans in the west or Arabs in the east - they found it difficult to see anything good in African traditional life.

Their conscious motive was the conversion of Africans, for the eternal welfare of Africans and the glory of God. For their faith they were ready to face hardship, sickness and death. (Between 1829 and 1900 the Basel Mission alone lost one hundred and nineteen missionaries and wives of Ghana). As they began to understand the material needs of Africa, they pioneered medicine; agriculture for the growth of better crops; western methods of building; school. They reduced African languages to written form, wrote dictionaries and grammars; and because, for them, a Christian must be able to read his Bible or Catechism, they conducted a vast experiment in adult education. A very high proportion of contemporary political leaders in Africa were educated in mission schools; and, whatever their attitude to Christianity, they publicly recognise their deep debt to their missionary educators.

Missionaries also found themselves, often to their surprise, involved in politics. This was partly because some of them felt that only be setting up Christian communities could africans be rescued from the temptations of traditional society. They could be protected from social pressure to take part in the ancestor cult; they could be taught the virtue of hard work; they could marry according to European Christian fashion and bring up their children in the right way. Some of them, it was hoped, would learn to go out as evangelists among their own people. Within these communities the missionaries found that, inevitably, they had to act as secular organisers and magistrates as well as spiritual advisers. Sometimes, when fugitives from tribal authority sought sanctuary, they came into conflict with traditional chiefs. Sometimes they had to organise the military defence of the community against attack from outside. In yet other cases, their reputation for wisdom came to be so respected that they were called on to help in tribal administration and justice.

Partly, also, missionaries came to think that only political intervention by European 'Christian' governments could put down the slave trade, discourage what they saw as the barbarous aspects of African society, and protect the growing Christian communities against pagan attack. Thus the Church Missionary Society played a leading part in persuading an unwilling British government to declare a protectorate over Buganda. A German missionary played a similar part in establishing the British Colony of the Gold Coast and Lagos. A French missionary persuaded the Balozi, in what is now Zambia, to request the protection of Queen Victoria and to sign a treaty with the British South African Company.

With very few exceptions, missionaries were committed to David Livingstone's belief that Christianity, Civilisation and Legitimate Commerce must go hand in hand for the salvation of Africa. Missions, colonial governments and traders had different conscious motives for going to Africa. Nor did they always work in harmony. But they all believed, in the sarcastic words of a great French West African administrator, that 'Man must put the world in order. This determination has the compelling power of a religion, and the European is its prophet'. Missionaries were divided theologically between Roman Catholics and many brands of Protestant. Government officials were not all Christian; and, even of those who were, some thought that, at that particular stage in the development of Africans, Islam might be, for them, a better religion. Some of the pioneer traders had a deeply Christian motive in trying to undermine the slave trade and improve the lot of Africans. But, as trade became more profitable, it was followed by increasing numbers who had no Christian motive. Among Europeans in Africa there were these deep divisions of conscious motive and theological belief. But, at a deeper level, they were united by the new 'religion' of putting the world in order according to white men's ideas of what that order should be.

Moreover, from the point of view of Africans, they all had the same white faces, the same mysterious magic of reading and writing, access to the same power given by guns. Africans trained in mission schools found employment, as clerks and interpreters to government officials and traders, which gave them a hitherto unknown cash wage, social status and, to some of them, far greater social influence than they could have expected as a birthright. To become a Christian was not merely to adopt a new 'religion'. It was to enter a whole new world of education, medicine and technology, of which the white man's God was the psychic dimension, precisely as the ancestors had been the psychic dimension of the old (Chapter Four). If you became a Christian, you naturally adopted white men's ways. If, for any reason, you wished to enter into the new way of living, you become a Christian. Training for the new ways could, in any case, be had only in the mission schools. To have a Christian name was a sign of status; and the only way of getting such a name was to be baptised.

Thus it came about that the tribes in which missionaries met a ready response were those which were already ripe for change at all points. As agents of change in one dimension, government and trade - whether they wished it or not - produced a vacuum in the psychic dimension which the missionaries offered to fill with the Christian God. As living embodiments of the new ways, in intimate touch with their people - as purveyors of education and western medicine - the missionaries encouraged Africans to seek what government and trade had to offer. Parents, who were themselves determined to stick to the old ways, nevertheless encouraged their children to reap the obvious advantages offered by mission schools. At the other end of the scale, the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, the Karimojong of Uganda, resisted change at all points. They bowed unwillingly to the superior force of government. But they wanted neither Christianity nor education nor very much in the way of trade. Those who responded were, to some extent, rebels against the tribe. A Maasai who went to school was 'taken by the Europeans'. He might escape the piercing of his ear-lobes, the removal of his incisors. He might be circumcised in hospital instead of by the traditional rite. In any recognisable sense he had ceased to be a Maasai.

This is not to say that, for Africans, to become a Christian was simply to be associated with Europeans. The African martyrs are sufficient proof that, in many cases, conversion went far deeper: the Baganda martyrs of 1885-7; in 1896 Bernard Mizeki in Mashonaland; victims of Mau Mau in the 1950's; in 1963 Yona Kanamuzeyi in Rwanda. The East African Revival movement (which is in close sympathy with Billy Graham whom it preceded by many years) has produced many examples of deeply Christian lives.

But it was not till much later that the majority of Africans began to make the distinction between being European and being Chrisitan. Some Europeans made no pretence of being Christian. Of those who did, some failed to live up to its standards. As governments began to run schools and hospitals without missionary aid, it became possible to have the advantages of European skill without a Christian label. The many different missions - often as hostile to one another as Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland - came to be seen as a divisive influence in the tribe. Had Christianity been just a trick of the imperialists to persuade Africans to submit to foreign rule? Would a politically independent Africa want a European religion? Or, on the other hand, if Christianity is good in itself, is it not possible to have it without its European appendages?

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