Christianity in Africa : a brief view out of Asia

John Roxborogh (1989, revised 2003)


            Africa and Asia are continents embracing large numbers of countries, peoples and languages each with their own history. It is not possible to tell the story of the whole and do justice to the part, yet the task cannot be avoided, because the real alternative is knowing less not knowing more.

There is an importance in this as well, in that there are features of the history of both Asia and Africa which can be compared. The differences are in the particularity of culture and of history, yet both have the experience of coping with and recovering from European expansion and colonialism, both incorporate lands of great beauty and riches and peoples frequently of great poverty, in both there are Christian churches who are seeking to be authentic to the faith and to themselves where they are, in both there are decisions to be made about what may be baptised into Christ and what cannot.

The African experience of colonialism was often more drastic and its overthrow more violent; the struggle with apartheid in South Africa is of concern to all, because it is easier to reject the doctrine than it is to eliminate the attitude which is not unique to white South Africans - as the inhumanity of tribalism indicates.

Africans have found ways of taking seriously the spirituality of their ancestors without forgetting that there are choices to be made in things spiritual which have consequences. African theology may have insights which Asian theologies, never mind Liberation theology or European theology, need to hear. Independent Churches have mushroomed as a movement asserting the Africanness of Christian faith, but have only a few parallels in Asia. These raise questions of how we judge what is authentically Christian. There is a whole world of Christian life and expression here which we know far too little about.

Africa is also a continent in which there are ancient and modern encounters with Christianity and Islam. It would be surprising if there were not something to be learnt from the experience of others in inter-religious relationships.

Finally in Europe or America Asia and Africa meet, in places in Africa there have been Indian communities (and some Malay) and China has built railroads, but in Kuala Lumpur such encounters have been rare. 


Vast deserts; incredible mineral wealth, wildlife and poverty. A dividing line is often the Sahara, hence "sub-Saharan" Africa. East and West, as well as North and South are distinctive. The East has had, as would be expected, ancient links with India and Asia, it has long experience with Arab slavery. In the West, the slave trade found a ready market with the British and then America. As a residue of colonial history, French is the international language of some areas ("Franco-phone Africa") and English of others. 


The University of South Africa titles a correspondence course on African Christianity with the phrase “Mission as an African Initiative.”  Africa is both a home of ancient forms of Christianity and the setting of some of its most spectacular growth in the modern world - doubling every 12 years this century in sub-Saharan Africa. There are more Anglicans in Africa than in England. In Africa it is expanding while in its homelands a route to sustained renewal has yet to be found. 

In the early church Christianity spread rapidly to Egypt and along the northern coast of Africa. The church of Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine and the Donatists was not lacking in vitality or controversy. Egypt was the home of monasticism. But weakened by its own conflicts and the invasion of Vandals, except in Egypt and Ethiopia the Christianity of the Roman period was wiped out by Islam.

Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity are important forms of faith stretching back to earliest times. In 1800 Ethiopia remained much as it had been for 15 centuries or more isolated and ossified behind a chain of mountains. In northern Sudan Nubian Christianity had survived the pressures of Islam into the 14th century. Later came missions associated with Portuguese trading posts from the 16th century in places like the Congo and then Protestants and a fresh wave of Catholicism in the 19th. In mid-century the watch-word of "Christianity, Commerce and Civilization" seemed to promise the salvation of Africa in British eyes. In the end neither Catholic nor Protestant could escape the ambiguities of association with European colonialism and the 1890s "scramble for Africa."

            Sierra Leone is in the 1990s a scene of tragic and brutal civil war.  Two centuries ago it was a key in early British philanthropic and missionary endeavours, and in the evangelisation of West Africa. 

            Christianity in the area can be traced to the conversion of King Farama III in 1604 under Portuguese influence. In the 1790s the country was used as a homeland for freed slaves from England and Novia Scotia, many of whom were Christian. It then became a centre for African missionary work elsewhere in West Africa and a place where British missionary societies such as the CMS, the Baptists (1806) and Wesleyan Methodists (1811) began work.

The settlers from Novia Scotia were ex-slaves who had fought for Britain in the American Revolution and who had been Promised Land in return which Britain failed to provide. The setting up of a Sierra Leone Company under Evangelical auspices seemed a marvellous opportunity to return these people to the land of their ancestors. The reality was traumatic. Farming failed, most whites and many others died. Yet they came with a ready-made church and had no missionaries to assist them for 20 years.

In 1808 Britain took over the running of the colony which was a financial failure, the year after it had abolished the slave trade with the result that the British Navy started to intercept slave ships off the African Coast. The problem was what to do with slaves who could not be sent back - and literally dumping them in Sierra Leone became the obvious solution. These people came from the whole of the West African coast and their resettlement was a shambles.

An unexpected effect of this situation was the conversion of many of these recaptives and their return, years later, to their homes as missionaries. The most famous of these was Samuel Adjai Crowther (c.1806-1891), who in 1864 became the first African Anglican Bishop. It was from Sierra Leone through African missionaries such as Crowther that the Gospel was taken to present day Nigeria. 

The particular history of Southern Africa arises first out of Dutch settlements on the Cape in the 17th century as a staging post for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) en route to Melaka and Batavia. This resulted in a Reformed church (for years lead by Scottish Presbyterians) and missions, but also to a theology of apartheid. The English also settled on the Cape and conflict between these European groups led to the Boer War.

In 1791 Freetown in Sierra Leone and in 1822 Monrovia (Liberia) were established as homelands for freed slaves sent back to Africa. Through the explorations of people like David Livingstone European knowledge of the country was extended and missionary activity taken further and further inland.

Up to 1890 the greater part of Africa was still ruled by Africans, but by the end of the century apart from Ethiopia, Liberia and Egypt the whole was divided up among the European powers. Movements for political independence gathered momentum in the 1950s and 60s. 

Agents of Mission

The comparison with Islam is interesting. Islam may have spread by conquest across the northern coast, but it was then by trade and steady infiltration as it moved south. Islam is strong today not only in the north, but also in the Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

    Andrew Walls once entitled a lecture on Christianity and Islam in Africa as "The tribe, the bible and the bottle: Holy book and filthy lucre in Africa." The tribe represents the basic social reality of Africa society - perhaps comparable to caste, stronger and more exclusive than clan. Both Christianity and Islam became identified with particular tribes - in the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s for instance, the Biafrans were very largely Christian going back to the Calabar mission. Both Christianity and Islam had an association with literacy - there are stories of surprised missionaries discovering free education being given in Arabic; in West Africa Christian missionaries eventually provided better education for many Africans than was generally available in England.

    The "bottle" in the title stood for the trader. Both Christianity and Islam were related to the expansion of trade. In Islam the trader and the missionary could easily be the same person and there was no tension between these two functions; in Christianity the relationship was there, but was more ambiguous. Trader and missionary were there together and to a degree depended on one another, yet there was a measure of mutual disdain. The traders were frequently less than Christian in their behaviour and the trade was often literally the bottle. By the end of the 19th century it became the rule that no gin dealer could hold office in a Methodist church.  While lay enthusiasm could raise capital and commitment for mission, as Presbyterians did in Kenya, Christian businessmen could be as inept as as anybody else in riding roughshod over local custom in matters that had little to do with the Gospel. The heritage of Livingstone's vision of "Christianity, Civilisation, and Commerce" was broadly based, and well-motivated, but there were no simple, and sometimes even no right, answers to the complex of political, economic, and religious problems in which Christian mission was trying to find its way. The mistakes were many. The growth of Christianity in Africa today nevertheless suggests some people must have done something right.

Church and State

Calvinism has a high view of the Lordship of Christ over society and the responsibility of Christians to take responsibility for the state of society. Despite a good theological pedigree, the results of this have been mixed.

    South African Apartheid found its justification in a form of Calvinism while the strongest voices of Christian leaders against the regime came from other traditions, notably Anglo-Catholic.

    In Malawi, the Presbyterian Synod has long played an engaged role in national life, and the familiarity of Scottish Presbyterians with what was going in Malawi proved useful in the 1950s culminating in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland condemning British colonial policy and precipitating significant changes.

    It is not easy to get it right. Church schools bred revolutionaries as well as training civil servants and church leaders. In West Africa evangelical timidity about the appropriateness of Christians being in politics left a vacuum Muslims had no theological hesitation about filling. In East Africa, Anglican leaders in Kenya have at times taken a courageous route in challenging their government.

    Reformed Christianity has a tradition of the value of the whole of life in the sight of God and of the spiritual importance of education. If this supports political engagement it does not meant that Christians should think that if they say their prayers they will always have all the answers.

John Roxborogh