Christianity in Africa

African Christianity goes back to very early times, and the Christianity that developed in Africa influenced the religion’s later growth in Europe. However, African Christianity ultimately developed its own special character in which local traditions played a role. This religion has had a profound effect on the social and political development of modern Africa. Today, membership in Christian churches is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world.

EARLY AFRICAN CHRISTIANITY

According to tradition, shortly after the founding of Christianity the apostle Philip baptized a member of the royal court of ETHIOPIA. The early church historian Eusebius wrote that the apostle Matthew also spread the new faith in Ethiopia. In this way, Christianity arrived in Africa before it reached Europe.

Christianity in Africa

Roots of African Christianity

Christianity took root in North Africa at a very early date. Many important figures in the early church came from this region, including the church fathers Clement and Origen of ALEXANDRIA in EGYPT, and St. Augustine of Hippo, a city in present-day ALGERIA. From the A.D. 100s to 400s, Christianity spread throughout much of North Africa. Perhaps the most important force in this development was the monastic movement, which began in Egypt and only later made its way to Europe.

By the 300s, Christianity had spread to Ethiopia and ERITREA, centered on the city of AKSUM. Most of the region is still Christian today. Beginning in the 500s, Christian kingdoms also flourished on the upper Nile River in NUBIA (in what is now SUDAN). In the 1300s, the Nubians were conquered by Muslims from Egypt.

Spreading Christianity

Despite the early introduction of Christianity in Ethiopia and North Africa, the religion did not penetrate sub-Saharan Africa for several hundred years. Christianity reached those regions by way of Europe during the great age of exploration. The Portuguese arrived in the kingdom of KONGO in 1483. Eight years later the king of Kongo was baptized under the name of João I, in honor of the Portuguese king João II.

As Europeans established outposts on the coast of Africa in the 1400s and 1500s, they brought along missionaries, who settled among indigenous populations. At first, the introduction of Christianity was limited to Africans in coastal areas. With a few exceptions, missionaries did not carry Christianity into the interior of the continent until the 1800s.

Europeans considered converting Africans to Christianity to be part of the process of colonization. As a result, their exploitation of Africa’s wealth was accompanied by missionary activity. However, the primary interest of most of the conquerors and traders who journeyed to Africa was to enrich themselves. This goal often involved enslaving and even killing local populations. Although Christian missionaries had come to Africa to save souls, they were often associated with the greed of their fellow Europeans. For this reason, many Africans resisted the missionaries and their message.

After a while, instead of trying to impose Christianity on the Africans, Europeans began to look for ways to use local institutions to gain converts. Missionaries attempted to win over rulers and then use their authority to spread Christianity among the people.

The long-term success of efforts to convert Africans to Christianity often depended on local political developments. The Christian nature of African kingdoms could prove short-lived if the ruling group was overthrown or challenged by a group opposed to Christianity. Attempts to spread the faith by reaching out to ordinary Africans did not occur for many years.

NEW DIRECTIONS IN AFRICAN CHRISTIANITY

For hundreds of years the Roman Catholic Church was the only church active in Africa. The Protestant outcry against the SLAVE TRADE in the late 1700s and early 1800s marked a turning point for African Christianity. Significantly, the first Protestant missionaries to arrive in West Africa were former slaves who had supported the British in the American Revolutionary War. These black preachers and their successors transformed the face of African Christianity.

Black Evangelism

In 1792 more than a thousand former slaves accepted a British offer of free passage to Africa. Most of them were had fought on the British side in the American War of Independence and had later been resettled in Nova Scotia, Canada. There in what is now SIERRA LEONE they founded the city of FREETOWN. Although not formally authorized as Protestant ministers, some of these former slaves became enthusiastic leaders of the effort to convert indigenous Africans to Christianity. In preaching to Africans, they saw much common ground between the lessons found in the Bible and traditional African beliefs and values. This link between the Christian message and African culture was an important factor in the spread of Christianity across the continent in the 1800s and 1900s.

The Protestant evangelists who founded missionary movements in Africa around 1800 adopted a different course from the Catholics who came before them. They stressed the important contributions that indigenous Africans could make to missionary activity. In 1861 a missionary named Henry Venn took the bold step of transferring nine churches in Sierra Leone to local control. He later named Samuel Ajayi CROWTHER, a former slave who had come to Freetown in 1822, as the first African bishop.

From this point on, black preachers played a leading role in spreading Christianity throughout the continent. They used their familiarity with the people and their culture to relate the Christian message in a uniquely African context, one that combined elements of European Christianity with African traditions.

African Scriptures

One of the tasks Crowther set himself as bishop was to translate the Bible into an African language. His first Bible, written in the Yoruba language, was followed by versions in other African languages. These vernacular Bibles were a major factor in spreading Christianity among indigenous populations.

Few African languages had been written down before. The impact of the grammars, dictionaries, and other works needed for the translation of vernacular Bibles was immense. Reading the scriptures in native languages gave white missionaries and scholars a chance to grasp the African point of view. At the same time, giving Africans access to written forms of their language allowed them to connect with their own history and cultural heritage. The work of Crowther and others like him ensured that Africans, not Europeans, would now lead the missionary efforts in Africa.

White Missionary Activity

Opposition to the slave trade fueled the great missionary efforts of the 1800s and led to the creation of many new orders. Protestant missionaries, such as Scottish explorer David LIVINGSTONE, not only spread Christianity but also played a major role in mapping the land, documenting African social systems, and recording African languages. In addition, they identified the rich natural resources that would be the targets of later colonial exploitation.

Catholic mission activity was re-energized and reorganized at this time as well. The Catholic Church set out to train indigenous clergy to establish an African Catholic Church led by Africans themselves. Until that happened, white missionaries were urged to adopt African dress, language, and customs. The Catholic Church also moved to decentralized control of its missions, giving each one more independence and responsibility for its activities.

Twentieth Century Christianity

The early 1900s produced a number of charismatic African religious leaders, including Yohana Kitigana and William Wadé Harris. A former Buganda chief, Kitigana converted to Christianity, gave up his title, wives, and possessions, and traveled through central Africa preaching. Harris was a Protestant teacher in LIBERIA who abandoned his Western style of life and traveled through western Africa baptizing tens of thousands of people. Both men continued and reinforced a particularly African form of Christianity that blended indigenous and European religious traditions.

Beginning in the early 1900s, education became a major focus of Christian activity in Africa. Schools set up by both Protestants and Catholics during this period educated many of the people who became leaders of postcolonial Africa. Another concern was health. Christian missions established hospitals and clinics, and many religious leaders and independent churches focused even more attention on healing than on education.

In the 1960s the Catholic Church officially adopted the position that local African churches should lead Catholic missionary efforts in Africa. Later, in the 1990s, it stated that African churches would not be forced to accept pre-existing religious structures and ideas but could develop their own based on local traditions and needs.

The result of Protestant and Catholic activity over the centuries has been the spread of Christianity throughout Africa. Today the continent has more than 300 million Christians. While remaining true to its basic beliefs, Christianity in Africa has become a distinctly Africanized faith with elements of traditional belief and culture. The impressive growth, energy, and vitality of indigenous churches have transformed the continent into a new Christian heartland. (See also Copts; Education; Equiano, Olaudah; Ethiopian Orthodox Church; Islam in AfricaKingsley, Mary; Missions and Missionaries; Prophetic MovementsReligion and Ritual; Tutu, Desmond Mpilo.)