Christianization of those parts of the world which had hitherto been deprived of
the message of the Gospel. This third phase of the expansion of the missionary
movement in Africa, which continued throughout the nineteenth century up to
the present day, may conveniently be dated from 1792 and the publication of
William Carey’s Enquiry into the Obligations o f Christians to use means for the
Conversion o f the Heathens, which was called a landmark in Christian history,
“the first and still the greatest missionary treatise in the English language”.1
Archbishop of Algiers and Carthage, Primate of Africa and Apostolic Delegat
for the Sahara and the Sudan, Cardinal Lavigerie, to maintain a nonproselytizing
presence among the Muslims. The Society of White Fathers
started in Northern Algeria by the caring for and educating children orphaned
by famine and epidemics in this part of Africa in the years 1867-1868, their
activities then spread to cover the Algerian Sahara (1872) and Tunisia (1875)
and very soon its mission was enlarged to comprise the evangelization of the far
interior of West and East Africa.5
The vast African continent was always present in Lavigerie’s thoughts.
From 1867 until his death in November 1892 the immense African interior
remained the principal object of Cardinal Lavigerie’s zeal and from the very
beginning he planned an apostolate south of the Sahara. Cardinal Lavigerie, as
Professor of Early Church History at the Sorbonne, knew well that Christianity
had had a very long history in Africa due to the existence of the ancient
Churches in Egypt, the Roman Africa, Nubia and Ethiopia. And though the
modern history of the Christian missions in Africa south of the Sahara only
started from the late eighteenth century, the Catholics never forgot that they had
been there before, in the first centuries of the Christian era and in the
Portuguese period, and therefore tended to regard the nineteenth-century
missionary enterprise in Africa as a “reprise”.6 When elaborating the Catholic
episcopal residence in Algiers Lavigerie started to send his first teams of
missionaries to the interiors of the African continent to convert the peoples by
converting their kings. This became his strategy for winning the peoples living
in the East African Interlacustrine area to the Christian faith.7
The expansion of the missionary movement into Africa was part of the
growing conception of Christian responsibility for the regeneration of African
peoples. The anti-slavery issue and the humanitarian conscience also played a
vital role in stimulating European interest in Africa and gave an impetus to
mission work. Cardinal Lavigerie’s mission strategy was particularly concerned
with halting the slave trade in Africa. In 1878 Lavigerie was entrusted with the
evangelization of Equatorial Africa. This new apostolic field soon led him with
he hoped to win to Christianity the whole nations. This became his strategy for winning
the peoples living in the East African Interlacustrine area to the Christian faith.
commencement of missionary work in Africa was attended by many hardships and trials. After a very short time many missionaries fell victim at a youthful age to the unhealthy tropical climate, were killed or had to be invalidated home. The position of these early missionaries was also complicated by the fact that in
many places where religious change was occurring, it manifested itself in the acceptance of a nominal Islam. In West Africa, the push inland from the coast coincided with the simultaneous southerly expansion of Islam which posed a threat to Christian mission work. Islam, which had been present on the East
African Swahili coast for nearly a thousand years, began at this time to penetrate into the interior along the newly opened Arab and Swahili trade routes. In many regions Islam preceded Christianity and, paradoxical as it may sound, in some places it actually prepared the way for Christianity. In their struggle for the spiritual control of African societies, missionaries had to
diminish the prestige of Islam by proving the superiority of their own religion.
In the pursuit of their primary objective, the salvation of souls, early
missionaries often failed. The pre-colonial period was marked by few
significant missionary successes. Despite their fervour and zeal Christian
missionaries in the early period of their presence in Africa achieved only
minimal results in converting Africans. In many parts of Africa Christian
missions had to pass through a period during which their religious instruction
met with complete indifference. The European impact was most evident in the
trading posts along the West African coast. In the coastal enclaves of freed
slaves, European trading communities and local Africans there was also a
numerous mulatto population. It was in these coastal settlements that
Christianity won most significant early successes. The process of the
acculturation which had been going on for a long time in and around the
European trading settlements and forts scattered along the West African coast
got a new impetus and a sense of direction when Christian missionaries began
to arrive to Africa.
orders had long attempted, though unsuccessfully, to establish Christianity in The missionary movement which was far from successful during this early period as far as Christian conversion was concerned, met with huge success in another field. In most regions of sub-Saharan Africa outside the reach of Islam,
Africans were introduced to written literature through Christian propaganda, the very first books in their own African language were produced to advance the Christian cause. Missions of all denominations disseminated education in their
attempt to win converts and to train African catechists. ‘Transforming Africa by the Africans”, was the formula advocated by Cardinal Lavigerie in his instructions to the White Fathers. “The missionaries must therefore be mainly initiators, but the lasting work must be accomplished by the Africans
themselves, once they have become Christians and apostles. And it must be clearly noted here that we say: become Christians and not become French or Europeans.”11 Missionaries were therefore asked to adapt themselves to the
Africans, to strip themselves, as much as possible, of the cultural elements
peculiar to them, of their language in the first place. It was believed that
without effective and active communication it was impossible to pursue the
conversion of the Africans. Missionaries were requested to overcome language
difficulties by devoting their spare time to the study of local African languages
and by approaching Africans in their own language to minimize cultural
misunderstandings and distinctions between themselves and their potential
converts. To master the local African language, the White Fathers were actually
forbidden to speak to each other in anything else after living six months in the
country.12 The linguistic work and an intimate knowledge of the language were
crucial, since through language it is possible to get to know and appreciate its
cultural context and experience the relevant culture. The nineteenth-century
missionary theory as formulated in the foundation documents of many new
missionary societies reiterated Lavigerie’s idea and by suggesting that the Christian Church in Africa would develop its own particular forms of expression, it tended towards an adaptive missiology and a pluralistic understanding of Christianity advocated by the present day African theology. In the nineteenth century, civilization meant different things to different people.Lavigerie almost never spoke of civilization and instead insisted in his
Instructions on the acceptance of cultural diversity and non-European ways as
crucial to a missionary’s central purpose. However, the praxis of the missionary
enterprise in general turned out to be different and the ideal and vision of the
missionary founders were not effectively implemented.13
Scientifically very important was Christian missionaries’ pioneer work in
African languages. Unwritten local languages had to be learned and written
before the difficult but vital task of religious instruction and the preparation of
religious texts could be undertaken. The first generation of Catholic
missionaries in different parts of the African continent met the expectations of
their founder. Some White Fathers became great scholars and outstanding
linguists and their linguistic work laid a solid foundation for all missionaries
who came after.14 The teaching of literacy was also a concern of the White
Fathers mission. By producing alphabet sheets, word lists and grammars, later
full-scale dictionaries, textbooks and manuals, translations of portions of the
Gospels and later of the whole New Testament, Catholic missionaries helped to
create the pre-conditions for the building up of the literary tradition and the
written literary language. Christian missionaries of all denominations spent
many years exploring local African languages and translating portions of the
Bible, Prayers and Hymns into African languages. It is impossible to
overestimate the importance of the Bible in African society. Missionaries
supplied the vernacular African languages with a written form and provided the
beginnings of a translated literature. The missionary translators naturally began
with biblical literature, the Gospel of Mark being often the first choice. The
publication of the Bible in full or in part, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim ‘s Progress from
This World to that which is to come in British Africa, were usually the first
major publications in most African languages and in many cases the Bible
remained for a long time the only publication that people could read in their
mother tongue. Vast literacy campaigns were based on the translated portions of
the Bible. Ability to read a gospel used to be a requirement for baptism in many,
mostly Protestant, churches and also in the Roman Catholic order of the White As early as the nineteenth century some missions started to publish newspapers in African languages. Soon in addition to publishing educational and religious books, they
started to produce also history and geography books, ethnographical accountsand collections of oral literature. Producing the books which were the first documents of the written form of the language, the missionaries thus created the
pre-conditions for the building up of the literary tradition and the written literary language. Apart from Swahili and Hausa, nearly all African languages had first to be reduced to writing before translation and publication of the Scriptures
could be made. This aspect of the missionary work, the reduction of a numberof African languages into a written form, the translation of the Bible, hymnbooks and prayer-books into Swahili and other East, West and South African languages and the instruction in reading and writing which went with the work
of conversion, has in the long run proved to be just as important as the conversion itself. This concern for African languages developed by both Catholic and Protestant missionaries laid the foundations for literature in African languages reduced into written form. Christianization went with reading
and writing, with the rise of African literatures. In this aspect the missionary work proved to be a truly creative force within the history of the African peoples and societies, transforming their lives materially and mentally perhaps more radically than any other impact before or after and perhaps more deeply
than Africans themselves had imagined and realized at that time.16
The consequences of missionary activities were manifold. Missionary
education has generated a great deal of debate. Early missions schools grew out
of the desire to spread the gospel. Conversion and education or training went
hand in hand. The primary goal of all mission societies in Africa was the winning of converts and therefore a heavy religious emphasis was common to
all mission schools. They established schools because education was deemed
indispensable to their aim, but always placed religion at the forefront of the
school curriculum. Most missions provided only basic education to ensure the
inculcation of proper Christian principles and enable Africans attending the
mission schools to become good Christians. Denominational rivalry was closely
connected with school expansion, each denomination founded its own school
system. Africans were thus provided with several educational options.
Missionary domination of the education system was characteristic of all
colonized areas, except in Francophone Africa.
Cultural contacts with the West were no doubt led by the missions and were
defined above all by their intention to transform African societies. Missionaries,
who were themselves products of the Western Christian civilization, carried
with them their cultural values and had little doubt about the superiority of their
culture. They took from it its conventional features, building churches and
schools in the European style and imposing the habits and ethos of the Western
Christian civilization on their converts. In Christian mission stations, which
served sometimes as a refuge for freed slaves, with their own schools, churches,
hospitals, stores, and plantations, missionaries exercised a strong
superintendence over the moral lives of their converts, banning polygamy,
dancing, singing, ancestor-worship and many other customs. Settlements
established in different regions of Africa by White Fathers and other Roman
Catholic or Protestant missions were actively developed as self-supporting
economic communities, where the virtues of hard work might be learnt
alongside protection from the temptations, such as polygamy and many customs
associated with traditional life and religion. The forms of religious service
missionaries used, though translated into African languages, were reproductions
of the liturgy of their home church, replete with hymns. A Christian,became
“one who abandoned the customs”. Missionaries carried with themselves their
cultural values which determined the form of education provided. Both White
Fathers and Protestant missionaries hoped that in providing education they
would also be able to form Christian character. The schools they established
were often boarding schools because missionaries believed that in an
atmosphere of the boarding school far removed from the traditional cultural
influences of their homes, new converts would more easily give up all or most
of their traditions. The school system promoted Western values and desires.
Missionary schoolmasters provided a total culture pattern, including church
attendance, Christian morality, table manners, etc. All this led to the segregation
and alienation of converts from their families and their societies. The education
provided by the missionaries had the effect of detribalizing their African
converts, some missionaries believed that their converts could become genuine
Christians only if they became Europeanized and they were producing black
Europeans. Africans who attended the early mission schools became a new élite
no longer able to identify completely with the traditional society. Sometimes the
first converts came from among the lowest strata of traditional society or from
among liberated slaves, however, their conversion secured them a new status
often defined in terms of clothes, school attendance and associations. At other
times the ruler himself and the upper strata of the society embraced the
Christian message. The missions here supported their work of conversion by
establishing schools for the sons of chiefs.
For Africa the missionary movement represented the first and most
important facet of Western contact. Christianity provided access to a civilization
and culture pattern which was bound to conquer African societies. The adoption
of Christianity also meant acculturation into the world of Western civilization,
ideas and technology, with Christianity went also Westernization. Despite the
instructions of the nineteenth-century missionary thinkers and theorists,
Christian missionary enterprise was of prime importance in the Westernization
of Africa. The impingement of Western cultural norms, lifestyles and beliefs
rudely shattered African societies. However, Africans were not passive
recipients. The process of Westernization and cultural exchange was shaped by
their choices and needs. By deflecting or selectively absorbing Western
influences, Africans themselves were instrumental in the formation of a new
cultural synthesis. A new African élite educated in the mission schools and
churches eventually started to challenge the missionary dominance of the
mission churches and continued European dominance.
Carried by the missionaries, in the twentieth century Christianity invaded
the whole of Africa. The dramatic expansion of Christianity in twentiethcentury
Africa which has been called “the fourth great age of Christian
expansion”, has shifted the core of Christianity from Europe and North America
to Africa, Latin America and certain parts of Asia. A struggle continues on the