Missions and Missionaries

Christian missionaries have played an important, yet inconsistent, role in African history. While the goal of missions has remained the same—to convert indigenous peoples to CHRISTIANITY, methods and attitudes have changed dramatically over time. During the last 1,500 years, the focus of missionary activity in Africa has shifted from the people in power to the average African. As a result, African Christianity has gone from a religion strongly supported by the state and serving its needs to one that addresses the concerns of the African people and finds its leaders from among them.

Africa: Missions and Missionaries


In the past the nature of missionary activity in Africa has reflected the social and political conditions in which Christianity developed. As the secular influences on Christianity changed, so did the way in which missionaries approached their task in Africa.

Initial Successes

Africa's connection to Christianity began soon after the founding of the church. According to the Bible, Christian missionaries visited Africa before going to Italy. The apostle Philip is said to have converted a member of the royal court in ETHIOPIA. Although early Christian missionaries in Africa sought converts among ordinary folk, they worked mainly through traditional power structures. They hoped to convert rulers, who would then force their subjects to adopt the new religion.

By the A.D. 500s, Christian missionaries had succeeded in bringing their faith to EGYPT, MEROE, AKSUM, and Ethiopia. The monastic movement, based on the founding of isolated monasteries that served as centers of Christian faith and learning, developed in Egypt. However, the monastic movement had its earliest successes in Europe, where monasteries became the main means of missionary activity. By the time monastic Christianity finally reached sub-Saharan Africa, it had become entangled in European politics and served the interests of commercial expansion as well as of faith. With the age of European exploration, missionary activity became closely linked with conquest.

The Age of Exploration

Beginning in the early 1400s, European explorers carried European culture, including Christianity, to the farthest points on the globe. The primary motives for these voyages of discovery were financial profit and the creation of large empires. The church saw the voyages as an opportunity to bring Christianity to new converts in distant lands. Thus, priests and monks often accompanied explorers and conquerors as they sailed to America, Africa, and Asia. The goals of conquest and accumulating riches clashed with the ideals of Christianity. However, by this time the success of the church was tied directly to the success of the kingdoms and rulers that embraced and supported the faith. To bring the faith to people in other lands, missionaries had to cooperate in the conquest of those lands. A church decree called the Padroado, issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1455, was typical of the type of arrangement the church made with the state. The Padroado authorized Portugal to seize land and enslave indigenous peoples wherever Portuguese authority extended.

Conquest was not always necessary to spread Christianity. In Ethiopia and other early centers of African Christianity, the rulers willingly embraced the new faith. Notable among them was King Afonso I of the kingdom of KONGO in central Africa. Afonso made his subjects adopt Christianity, and by 1491 his kingdom had been converted. European nations recognized Kongo as a Christian kingdom, and Kongo officials who visited Lisbon and Rome received warm welcomes. Despite the acceptance of Christianity in Kongo and a few other African kingdoms, the popularity of the faith eventually declined in many of those states. Local peoples went back to their traditional beliefs and abandoned Christianity, which survived only among foreigners and their agents and slaves. By the 1800s, Christianity had vanished almost without a trace in many places.

The Influence of Slavery

The decline of Christianity in much of Africa was a sign of the weakness of missionary policies. By the late 1700s, most local Africans saw missions as centers of unwanted foreign influence. Missionaries became associated with the merchants and soldiers who killed and enslaved Africans. As it turned out, however, the SLAVE TRADE provided the motivation for a new, more successful missionary effort in Africa.

In 1807 Great Britain outlawed the slave trade and soon afterward began a campaign to end the trade among other nations. To influence public opinion, antislavery forces recruited former slaves to tell their stories. Besides generating antislavery sentiment among Europeans, such activities also marked the beginning of African participation in the missionary enterprise. It became clear that this participation would play a vital role in missionary success in Africa. Christianity would come to Africa only through indigenous involvement.


Shortly after 1800 various new missionary orders were founded that would lead the effort in Africa. Both Catholics and Protestants adjusted their policies with the aim of producing an indigenous clergy. In this way, members of local populations, rather than Europeans, would be responsible for spreading Christianity in Africa.

Toward an Indigenous Clergy

In 1845 Pope Gregory XVI issued a decree that called for establishing overseas seminaries, or religious schools, to train indigenous clergy in lands conquered by European Catholic powers. At the same time, Protestant missionaries began following a similar path, with missionary organizations such as the Church Missionary Society seeking to enlist African clergy to lead Africans.

In 1861 Henry Venn, a leader of the Church Missionary Society, transferred nine parishes in SIERRA LEONE to indigenous clergy. Many more would come under African control over the next several years. These events occurred at the same time as the formation of the Niger Mission in Nigeria, headed by Samuel Ajayi CROWTHER, the first African bishop. Such changes marked a turning point for African Christianity, and Crowther played a crucial role in the African missionary enterprise. Crowther translated the Bible into his native YORUBA language, the first time the Scriptures appeared in an African tongue. He also produced works in the IGBO, HAUSA, and Nupe languages. These efforts stimulated Christian missionaries to compile the first written versions of many African languages.

The Bibles, prayer books, dictionaries, and other works that appeared in African languages transformed the spread of Christianity and secular knowledge in Africa. With access to written languages, Africans began to master their own history, and materials written in African languages gave European readers a chance to understand the African point of view. As missionaries and church authorities came to see the importance of an indigenous clergy and African-language scriptures, Africans took a larger role in planning and carrying out missionary policy.

During the late 1800s, a number of independent African churches and movements emerged, many led by charismatic figures such as William Wade Harris of IVORY COAST. These churches reinterpreted European Christianity in an African environment and redirected growing social unrest into religious channels. Harris and other African prophets also interpreted political events in religious terms, such as seeing the outbreak of World War I as a sign that the end of the world was near.

Most of the new churches and prophetic movements split off from Protestant missions; few developed in areas dominated by Catholic missions. Because Protestant missionaries preached that only those who could read the Bible themselves could be converted, a steady stream of Africans left the church to begin their own sects. The approach of Catholic missionaries was different. They baptized all who entered the church. African Catholics thus had less compelling reasons to leave the church than African Protestants.

Missions in Modern Africa

World War II disrupted missionary work in Africa, as the attention of Europeans was focused on the battle at hand. When the war ended, European leaders assumed that missionary ties in Africa would be renewed and strengthened. However, the struggle to restore freedom and liberty to nations conquered by Germany and Japan inspired Africans to seek the same freedom for themselves. Africans were no longer willing to accept European authority without question.

Independent churches flourished in the new environment in which Africans not only called for, but fought for, political freedom. Although these churches took a number of different forms, they shared a reforming zeal and continuity with traditional African religious belief and practice. The coming of independence for African nations in the 1960s removed other barriers to the development of indigenous churches. It also contributed to a process that resulted in the development of a “world” Christianity partly defined by the values of non-Western cultures and languages.

Established Christianity indicated its acceptance of these trends in 1995 when the first African Synod, a meeting of Catholic bishops, was held in CAMEROON. Pope John Paul II attended the meeting, which confirmed the church in Africa as a new, indigenous movement committed to addressing the political, economic, and social needs of African peoples. The acceptance of an “Africanized” Christianity was the logical result of the long period of missionary activity in Africa. Once a distant continent with only a few isolated Christian outposts, Africa now boasts some 300 million Christians. With its large Christian population and vibrant local traditions, the continent has produced an important new form of Christianity. (See also Braide, Garrick Sokari; Colonialism in Africa; Equiano, Olaudah; Ethiopian Orthodox Church; Kingsley, Mary Henrietta; Livingstone, David; Prophetic Movements; Tutu, Desmond Mpilo.)