The earliest contact between Africa and European Christian Missionaries was in the late 15thcentury when Roman Catholic missionaries accompanied the earliest Portuguese traders to Africa and Asia. The was little progress until a succession of protestant missionary societies in the 18th and 19th centuries [1700s & 1800s]. Both state denominations like Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed and Independent ones like Moravians, Methodists, Baptists as chaplains for the imperialists while most genuinely to evangelise locals.
For example in South Africa, Boers settled in the Cape with own Dutch Reformed church who never reached out to the locals, believing they are “beyond redemption” [like animals] until a Moravian preacher arrived.
This era was followed by (or ran parallel to) colonisation of Africa by Britain, France, Portugal and Germany who believed they had ‘a divine right to rule lesser races’. This lead to the belief that Christianity is a white man’s [European] religion even though it started in Middle East i.e. Israel where ‘Jesus was born in the flesh’ though He existed before Adam. Christianity first came to Africa in the first century through Philip’s witness to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8) during the times of the Apostles, 1500 years earlier than Europeans. But it didn’t take continental root until modern times.
The missionaries’ chief fault was failure to differentiate their European culture largely influenced by Enlightment era (jumpstarted by the Reformation). Enlightenment was a transition to modern scientific thinking ditching the Church dominated medieval age in Europe civil life. It’s side effect was anti-supernatural, skeptical rationalism and deism in church. Just like mainstream Catholics (except mystics), protestant fathers like Luther, Calvin hardly believed in evil spirits, miracles, divine healing evil etc.
When missionaries came to Africa and encountering people who believe spirits exist they rejected everything as imaginary even though it was in their Bibles.
Eventually European Christianity prevailed and became the foundation for development. In west African countries like Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria where Europeans focused on trade of gold and humans and Christianity took off in the 1800s as some locals became preachers to their own people.
In Southern Africa it was the likes of David Livingstone [1813 – 1873] who doubled as an missionary and explorer,’. With the help of locals Livingstone went deep inland as far as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Namibia, D.R.Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Burundi and Tanzania before they were roads or cars braving the treacherous and dangerous Zambezi basin.
He became the first European to see, not ‘discover’ the mighty Victoria falls – they were local Tonga people living there.
It is said he struggled to convert chief Sechele because Livingstone could not demand rain from his God like Sechele’s rainmakers.
Overall in Africa in the 19th century, as a result of then dominant cessationist-like view [supernatural/miracles ceased with death of 12 Apostles] the few local converts became nominal Christians. When confronted with existential issues of life, they found their new religion powerless, and would visit the witch doctors and later anti-witch ‘prophets’. It’s taken many years to unbundle Culture and Christianity, to see the pure Gospel.
It also led to new cults who fell to the opposite extreme in trying to counter correct – chiefly Pan-African theology and white garment Zionist Aladura ‘apostolic’ churches abbreviated AICs (African Instituted/Independent Churches). Their chief accusation is Syncretism – combining Christianity with traditional religion.
The missionaries’ great success came through establishing education schools, translation and publishing of Bible in local languages which later allowed the African to read the Bible and become preachers in the 1800s and 1900s, alongside decolonisation movements & Pentecostalism. As Europe is backslid in the later years the former pagans re taking the Gospel back to former missionaries – reverse missionary. Most repeat the same mistakes of exporting the Gospel with the entrenched own/African worldview and culture without contextualisation.
After the 1950s (20th century) the Church in Africa had distinctly American characteristics, how did it come about?
Turning to America.
The First and Second [Charles Finney & others] Great Awakenings of 1700s and 1800s also affected traditional denominations like Anglicans and Catholics towards an evangelical leaning, while the evangelical movement leaned backwards to meet with the other denominations at place of compromise. They had lost their spark as with most denominations around 100 years old or 3rd generation.
Remember information wars?
Top evangelical preachers Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield [the least prejudiced of the day] owned slaves and believed that blacks would acquire absolute equality with whites in the Millennial church. Many writers either miss or deliberately ignore this because they take western-angle.
By the mid 1800s the fire, spiritual manifestations like shaking, convulsions, laughing, falling, trembling – that critics called them Methodist fits – common at John Wesley’s meetings as recorded in his diary, had almost disappeared. A new generation had risen that found those things ‘offensive’ i.e. inconsistent with their theological expertise and attempted to even delete them from their history. Same with Presbyterians and Baptist who had such manifestations in their early revivals – Cambuslang, Scotland) and Cane ridge, US with trances, ‘faintings’ etc. In the 60s the Baptists republished a book about their one of their greatest revival – but they cut out all the manifestations maybe because such had come to be associated with ‘uncultured’ Pentecostals. Randy Clark found the original from their library (Shantung Revival) and published it.
By the late 1800s century there was such a moving away from original Wesleyan beliefs/experiences of a second definite work of grace, experience moving into more sophisticated clergy scientism. This prompted a new renewal to restore original Methodism and they sought for Spirit baptism and divine healing. Healing became the most controversial subject in Christianity from 1875 to 1900. Two people who controlled media defeated it. B.B. Warfield a Presbyterian and James who controlled the Methodist paper which was the largest Christian newspaper.
They wrote in such a way that if you believed in healing you should not even be considered a Christian, you were a lost fanatic, an enthusiast – a very bad word at the time – since religion ‘should be very rational and reasonable, away of feeling and emotion’. The average Christiaan was cowed and didn’t want to be associated with the ‘bad guys’. Warfield & James won. No wonder the average American Christian today is anti-supernatural.
The core Wesleyans within Methodism felt they were being ostracized and shut out of leadership structures.
Resultantly 25 new denominations (eg Nazarene) were formed in the USA within that short period – almost all were splintering out of Methodist, birthing the holiness movement with figures like Dwight Moody who started/popularised the modern Sinner’s Prayer. Out of this came the Pentecostal movement literally on the first day of the 20th century [1 Jan 1901] and became a Global Revival led by William Seymour a former slave. They sent preachers to every continent emphasising the book of Acts claiming it shows ‘purer’ Christianity in action as it was in the beginning.
Forget about the famous American TV evangelists ‘anointed’ preachers, most of them are not that famous/celebrated in their country, often viewed and labelled as deceivers, false prophets etc. Just do a Google search on some of the ‘big names’ and read the articles and comments. Its only recently that the mainstream American church is warming up to Pentecostals/charismatics – a growing minority in the USA and Europe but a majority elsewhere. Some classical Pentecostals are already leaning backwards.
Furthermore top websites that display first when you search the Internet propagate western-cultured Christianity most of which is Cessationist e.g. Gotquestions website shows up top although with good articles they deny that miracles, gifts of the Spirit etc are for today. Spiritual warfare as Paul expressed extends to societal control through information/knowledge (2 Cor 10v4,5).
In conclusion there is a clear pattern of renewal, growth, establishment and another renewal rises starting on the peripheries is either attacked or ignored but is hailed two or three generations later when its influence (fruit) has grown and it eventually becomes the new establishment and the new cycle begins. This is true of the Reformers themselves (who challenged Catholic church) from whom the Pietism like Moravians arose to reform Reformers leading to Methodists/Evangelicals later who brought energy to reaching Africa and other parts of the world. From evangelicals came the Holiness crop which gave birth to Pentecostals who gave birth to Charismatics and supercharging Christianity so much that the recipients were empowered to take the Gospel back to missionaries. And the now mainstream (Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia) Pentecostal/Charismatics today are in desperate need of reform… and the cycle continues.
This is part 10 of #ThisGospel a Church history series by Talent Mbedzi (Whatsapp +27624740015)