Should Africans Hate Missionaries? Consider Colonialism

Should Africans Hate Missionaries? Consider Colonialism

“Thos Baines00” by Thomas Baines – scan from modern copy of colour print. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Did Missionaries Bring Colonialism?

The role of missionaries in colonization of many African nations, in most cases, is considered by many modern missionary archeologists unquestionable. Armed with a Bible and a personal journal, it is widely believed missionaries ingeniously disarmed local people with their tainted peacemaking and anti-vengeance gospel. Missionaries tracked the African continent preaching the life of Jesus Christ. Proselyting activities involved demonization of local culture, usurping it with Western ideologies. The artful pathfinder of European imperial regime, missionaries tamed the formerly aggressive local people.

Although the missionaries’ task was to make people accept the Bible and its teachings, Christianity was turned into an ideology which could be used to convince people not to resist white domination.

Hilde Arntsen, Missionaries and Colonization

A fitting illustration that highlights Christianity and colonialism follows. Consider you have never heard about bathing, and you have never taken a shower your whole life. Occasionally, you swim by the river and the lake, which is the closest to bathing you ever got. A couple from country A, visit your country B. The wife, from country A, shows you how to properly take a bath. She emphasizes the need for running water and recommends the river. Ecstatic, you take off to the river to explore your knew found source of refreshment. After bathing, you come back to find the husband has sold all your kids into slavery.


How will you view bathing after this incident?

Undoubtedly, you will loathe and distrust anyone from country A. However, besides the hatred and lack of trust, the action of the husband might cause you to do one of these two things regarding bathing. Firstly, you might hate bathing because losing your family might cause you to associate bathing with deceit. Secondly, develop a new bathing technique that could be an improvement to bathing in a river or a complete distortion to bathing. Invariably, your attitude toward the foreign couple will shape your view of bathing. In 1968, Emory Ross clearly summed this thought in an article entitled Impact of Christianity in Africa.

Christianity, handicapped by its Western human distortions from the original teachings Christ… may so discourage and embitter the African that he will in the end fanatically combat the West on all fronts. It may lead him to develop his own distortions of Christianity on the ground that if the West can warp that powerful religion to its own selfish national and cultural ends, so can Africa. Finally, it may leave him as defenseless prey to other outside philosophies and ideologies which at this stage are not yet established among Africans and thus are not required to produce anything at all in African society.

Emory Ross

The absence of sound African theological scholarship in Christian libraries across Africa does little to alleviate the dangers highlighted by Emory Ross (Read Why Writing a Christian Book if You are an African is Worthless). However, this ‘absence’ should not be interpreted as meaning there are no worthy African theologians who have expounded on Christianity palatable to lay people and academia. The works of Joe Kapolyo, AC Chukwuocha, Prof Samuel Ngewa, and many others testify of the abundance of sound theological that highlight how Africans purified the ‘Western human distortions’ propagated by missionaries.

Regrettably, colonialism and the repressions associated with gave rise to a grave distortion of Christianity as early as 1920s. The rapid rise of African human distortions despising anything deemed European testify of the danger ‘Western human distortions’. For example, in Zimbabwe two Zionist sects began that where influential in despising the repressive laws that governed Africans during colonial rule (For my encounter with this sect, read Encountering God in Africa: A Memoir). These Zionists sects consider the Bible munya (left-over meal from the previous night). Such churches were in rebellion to missionaries who emphasized the importance of reading and writing in personal development.

Unfortunately, the African human distortions did not end with the end of colonialism, with deifying of Western materialistic practices. A wave of African modern churches has swept the continent that emphasizes material gain over spiritual transformation. It seems Emory Ross’ fears nearly five decades ago became (and are quickly becoming) real.


Final Thoughts

Although missionaries have been either justifiably or incorrectly considered “ideological shock troops for colonial invasion whose zealotry blinded them”, recent studies tend to disagree with that notion. For example, one of the most revered missionaries in Africa, David Livingston, only had one African convert in the entire time he spent in Africa. Many other missionaries were not successful at all. However, missionaries left a developmental footprint in most African nations. In Zimbabwe, the most reliable schools and hospitals were built by missionaries. Hence the conclusion by Robert D Woodberry in a paper entitled The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy published by American Political Science Review in 2010;

In particular, conversionary Protestants were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, most major colonial reforms, and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Robert D Woodberry

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20 Comments

  1. Many of the colonial powers were interested in exploitation of natural resources, including the population. Obviously those that came with official writ to develop those resources would have been selected by the ruling class as individuals disposed to maximize yields. I wonder whether evangelists that came with official writ had a different impact than those that came voluntarily, and whether in some cases (as in America) the volunteers were motivated in part by repression in Europe.

    And I am relieved that the example of the avatars – whether Moses or Christ himself – is recognized by at least some on the African continent. Obviously, both of them opposed political injustice. In a world in which, as you observe, temporal power is all too often a justification in of itself, religion is one of the few places that upholds the power of mercy and compassion. Were there such traditions in Africa prior to the arrival of Christianity? (I am aware of the Luba traditions.) In other words: did Christianity weaken existing traditions that served as a check on arbitrary power, thus undermining constraints on the native ruling class?

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    1. Thank you Brian for your constant and insightful contributions. They always send me back to what I wrote and do more research. In a way, Christianity can be commended for societal advances, as espoused in David Livingstone’s motto enshrined on his monument at Mosi oa Tunya, Zimbabwe/Zambia, “Christianity, Civilization and Commerce.” Unfortunately, civilization, in most cases, meant demonization of local cultures, including the Zunde raMambo (consider my comment to Heather). However, in some cases Christianity helped local people understand the evils of polygamy and child marriage. So, you will find protest churches, Zionist/African Apostolism, support polygamy, child marriage, and despise institutionalized health systems. I guess this was more on response to the practices of those who brought the gospel and not the content of the gospel.

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  2. Reblogged this on Kiki Jones and commented:
    “Christianity, handicapped by its Western human distortions from the original teachings Christ… may so discourage and embitter the African that he will in the end fanatically combat the West on all fronts. It may lead him to develop his own distortions of Christianity on the ground that if the West can warp that powerful religion to its own selfish national and cultural ends, so can Africa. Finally, it may leave him as defenseless prey to other outside philosophies and ideologies which at this stage are not yet established among Africans and thus are not required to produce anything at all in African society.” – Emory Ross

    Excellent article. Makes me think about Christianity and blacks in America. I know several black people who reject Christianity because of the Western human distortion of it globally…and specifically in America where it was used to justify slavery.

    Of course if you stop there you’ll be turned off to the religion but that’s not the truth of it.

    And one rant….not against the article but against some white missionaries in Africa. First of all…white people who go to Africa on missionary trips always want to tell you they went when they first, second, third, eleventh time they meet you. Like why are you telling me this? You only tell black people you meet this! I’ve been listening to you! I’m of African descent but it’s not recent. I can’t say I know anything about Africa beyond the basics. Can you try to relate to me on the same level as any other American born citizen. You asked everyone else what they do for a living but me. I wish I were from Africa but I’m not.

    And it’s these self same people who’ll travel across the globe to help an African, but they can’t even help,support, or be friends with someone black in their own country. Fix yourself and your own country before you try to aid someone else.

    I’m not saying don’t help out but fix your community for the price of a tank of gas to the “ghetto” before you spend thousands to fly somewhere else to help just because it’s a good photo op and anecdote to share with your friends.

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  3. Your perspective is intriguing. We have a similar problem in the US, with the historical abuse of the “Native” peoples and a generalized rejection of all aspects of their culture as “anti-Christ”.

    Sadly, the tendency of all people to be ethnocentric in our thinking leads us to assume that differences in culture are always evil and should be adjusted to that which is familiar to the sensibilities of the offended individual/group.

    Ironically, the unique cultural distinctions of the tribal peoples of Europe would have experienced the same type of homogenization attempt at the hands of the Catholic empire. And before that, the early Jewish believers tried to insist that all Gentiles must first fully identify with Jewish culture before we can legitimately claim faith in the promised Messiah.

    People are quick to forget that we should not treat others in the same way we have been mistreated.

    Surely, we all hold beliefs that are wrong on some level, and should be willing to let those things go in light of biblical truth. But we also need to accept that God is the author of cultural diversity and is perfectly capable of redeeming much of our differing perspectives to reflect the brilliance of His glory in a beautiful way.

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    1. Amen, I could never say it any better than this. I have found in some cases the cultural diversity is a neglected peeping window to the nature of God. For example, in my country there used to be what was called Zunde raMambo (the king’s Zunde, unfortunately there is no English equivalent for Zunde). This was were people worked in the king’s specific field designated for feeding widows, orphans and strangers. Such practices were demeaned and demonized by labeling them animalistic communal primitive traditions. It’s sad but a lesson to all of us.

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      1. That is sad. The practice is biblically valid. It would have been better to simply educate the people as to the spiritual significance of Christ’s sacrificial provision for us “widows, orphans and strangers” of Adam’s doomed race.

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      2. Zunde raMambo recalls to my memory the gleaning fields of Boaz in the Book of Ruth. It is actually commanded in the Word of God, Leviticus 19.9-10…far from demonic…sad that missionaries don’t know their Bible and cannot recognize the compassion of God’s common grace evident in humanity…BUT God is able to work in spite of the ignorance and selfish ambitions of men…thank you for the expose of these things. makes my prayer life more effective…

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  4. Even though i did not like the way missionaries approached our ancestors, i am happy that they managed to bring light into our continent. Even today, if you go in some remote areas in Zimbabwe you will be shocked by the local practices. Not sure if they missed the light or they were asked to go for a bath in the river to find their children sold into slavery.

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  5. VaSanganyado, I think you’re right on. To me, it reminds me of being a teacher. Most people look at the teacher has being the one imparting knowledge. And while that’s true, it’s often the teacher who is the greatest learner. This has certainly been true in my case. I went on a mission trip to Ghana a few years back, and one of the guys I went with was struggling with separating his culture from the Christian culture. I think it’s very difficult thing. But ultimately, I think it’s necessary.

    – Joe
    joefontenot.info

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    1. Thank you for the comment. I have learned that I learned most when I was teaching. Some missionaries miss out on the mission because they think the mission is where they are going (physical place) and not where they are going (spiritual growth).

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  6. Having just read a biography of Mary Slessor, we forget how missionaries have changed whole countries for the good; often on the heels or even arriving just before the missionaries were the white traders who were only interested in making a buck or two, exploiting the local population and often using the name of Christ as that is the name the missionary used and won over the population. The fault is not the missionary who almost always genuinely loved the people and only wanted the best for the people, it was the unscrupulous trader who used anything to gain maximum, giving Christianity and the missionaries a bad name. (Your example of bathing and the kids being sold into slavery very aptly illustrates this).

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    1. Thank you for the contribution. I think the believers might want to know how the church in Africa (at least the majority) managed to differentiate the traders from the preachers. The difference, in my view was not that clear. The more obscure the difference the greater the indication that the good news remains good no matter the intentions of the messenger. Even when people use the gospel for selfish gain, it remains good.

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  7. YES MISSIONARIES ENCOURAGED THE THEN AFRICAN COLONIZATION. THEY WENT TO ENCOURAGED CHRISTIANITY, “SO THEY SAY,” BUT INSTEAD FORCE WESTERN CULTURE ON THE AFRICAN . MANY WHO DID NOT ACCEPT WAS TURTURED.

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    1. Yes these are some of the hidden stories of Christianity. In one nation, everyone was given a Christian name. But how did African believers day aside the manipulation and embrace the truth?

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