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In a ‘dark continent’

08 September 2009

reviewed by Andrew Rudd


White Men’s God: The extraordinary story of missionaries in Africa
Martin Ballard
Greenwood World Publishing £19.95
Church Times Bookshop £17.95

“MISSIONARIES should be riding the world’s backbone and snuffling like zebras the pure delightful air of the great western desert.” So David Livingstone, the most famous mis­sionary of all, chided his colleagues in South Africa for hiding behind their compound walls rather than converting the local populace to Christianity.

Martin Ballard’s burgeoning history of missionary activity in Africa from the 18th century to the present day contains many such disagreements about how evangelisation was to be conducted in what, for 19th-century Euro­peans, was still the “dark continent”.

Anglicans as represented by the Church Missionary Society and the London Missionary Society favoured a marriage of Christianity and commerce as the surest means of ridding Africa of the scourge of slavery (although, post-abolition, Africans were bemused that white men had suddenly decided the slave trade was evil). Others, including the Roman Catholic Sisters of Cluny and the Lyons Fathers, advocated education as the means of enlight­en­ment.

The native-church policy, under which the first black Anglican bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, was enthroned, was increasingly ne­glected as racial tensions sharpened before the 1884 Berlin Conference, which divided most of Africa be­tween the main colonial powers.

Ballard’s book proceeds broadly chronologically and switches, some­times with confusing haphazard­ness, from region to region. He focuses on the principal theatres of missionary activity, the Niger and Congo deltas, South and East Africa, and the Sudan, and describes the different approaches employed in each. One missionary to the Zulus, having preached on monotheism, was taken aback when the king replied: “I and my people believe there is only one god. I am that god.” Others clashed with the Islamic jihad of Uthman dan Fanto, whose influence was (and continues to be) felt in North and West Africa.

In the final chapter, Ballard weighs up the achievements of missionaries in the light of ongoing civil wars, poverty, and HIV/AIDS. On one hand is the vibrancy of African Christianity today; on the other, the regions in which missionaries were active remain the world’s poorest, which Ballard blames in part on the failure to establish a comprehensive system of education.

His message, which does credit to individual missionaries past and present, is that “fundamentalist faith which has been shorn of the social message that was delivered by a small number of memorable pioneers can offer little of substance to the people of a continent who currently face a daunting range of challenges”.

Dr Rudd teaches English at Florida State University London Study Centre

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