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African Christian Communities

Abstract and Keywords

As a global religion, Christianity is also an African religion, and increasingly so. During the twentieth century, the number of Christians in Africa rose from an estimated 10 million to 350 million, a dramatic increase from less than 10 percent to nearly 50 percent of the continent's population. Within the predominantly Muslim region of North Africa, ancient Christian communities survive including the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Church, and the Nubian Church. During the twentieth century, substantial and widespread Christian commitment was generated by new forms of African Christianity that have been variously identified as African independent, indigenous, or initiated churches. Revitalizing traditional African culture, these local innovations in Christianity have also responded to global forces—conquest, colonization, capitalism, and urbanization—while participating actively in the twentieth-century transatlantic expansion of intensely experiential forms of Christianity. This article briefly recalls the history of Christian formations in Africa before focusing on two forces in that history—intercultural translation and economic exchange—that continue to operate in African Christian responses to the challenges of globalization.

Keywords: Christianity, Africa, North Africa, intercultural translation, economic exchange, globalization, Coptic Church, Ethiopian Church, Nubian Church

As a global religion, Christianity is also an African religion, and increasingly so. During the twentieth century, the number of Christians in Africa rose from an estimated 10 million to 350 million, a dramatic increase from less than 10 percent to nearly 50 percent of the continent's population. It is likely that at some point during the twenty-first century, more Christians will be living in Africa than on any other continent. Both ancient and modern, African Christian communities have given global Christianity a distinctively local character in Africa. While ancient churches maintain forms of Christian Orthodoxy in North Africa, a rich, complex variety of Christian communities in sub-Saharan Africa emerged out of the contacts, relations, and exchanges of five hundred years of European colonialism. The majority of African Christians belong to churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, with historical roots in Europe. During the twentieth century, however, substantial and widespread Christian commitment was generated by new forms of African Christianity that have been variously identified as African independent, indigenous, or initiated churches. Revitalizing traditional African culture, these local innovations in Christianity have also responded to global forces—conquest, colonization, capitalism, and urbanization—while participating actively in the twentieth-century transatlantic expansion of intensely experiential forms of Christianity. While briefly recalling the history of Christian formations in Africa, this chapter focuses on two forces in that history—intercultural translation and economic exchange—that continue to operate in African Christian responses to the challenges of globalization.

(p. 350)

Within the predominantly Muslim region of North Africa, ancient Christian communities survive. The Coptic Church, which traces its origin back to the first-century mission of Mark the Evangelist, has preserved an ancient orthodoxy in Egypt. The Ethiopian Church, once the state religion of the ancient African kingdom of Abyssinia, maintains a distinctive form of African Christianity that features certain religious practices, such as circumcision, dietary regulations, and observance of Saturday as Sabbath, that Ethiopian Christians regard as signs of their authentic roots in ancient Israel. In Sudan traces remain of the once powerful Nubian Church, although Sudanese Christians have struggled to maintain their religious identity within an Islamic state. Testifying to the long historical continuity of Christianity in Africa, these North African Christian communities are also situated in the inter-religious relations of the Middle East, especially within the occasional tensions arising between Christians and a Muslim majority. Increasingly, however, North African churches, particularly the Coptic Church, have been looking south to establish new links with African Christianity.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Christian communities emerged out of the more recent history of European interventions in the Atlantic world. The historical formation of African Christianity involved two processes—translation and exchange—that reveal important facets of Christianity as a global religion in the modern world. Although Christian missionaries from Europe insisted that they were bringing light into a region of darkness, their gospel of sin and salvation was experienced by Africans as a local problem of translation. When the Portuguese Catholic missionaries succeeded in converting the ruler of the BaKongo in central Africa in the 1480s, they set out to destroy the power of traditional religious leaders, the diviners and healers known as nganga, and to abolish the use of ritual objects known as nkisi. In the local idiom, however, BaKongo Christians referred to the missionaries as nganga, the crucifix as an nkisi, and the Bible as mukanda nkisi, the most powerful ritual object. From the fifteenth century, therefore, African Christian communities have been engaged in an ongoing process of intercultural translation, moving back and forth between indigenous religious knowledge and the terms of Christian doctrine, practice, and authority.

Although European missionaries tried to control this process, a small group of foreigners could not possibly have managed the work of translation. During the nineteenth century, as southern Africa became the most missionized region in the world, missionaries intervened in local languages, producing grammars, dictionaries, catechisms, and biblical translations. In the process, they appropriated terms from local religious vocabularies. The Scottish missionary Robert Moffat, for example, took a local Tswana term for extraordinary power, Modimo, and redefined it as the God of Christianity. At the same time, Moffat took the Tswana term for ancestors, badimo, the ancestral spirits who were venerated in traditional ritual, and redefined that term as “demons” within a Christian symbolism of evil. Such translations profoundly altered the religious terms of both indigenous reli (p. 351) gion and Christianity in Africa. According to the missionaries, Christianity was in fundamental opposition to the indigenous religious heritage. Intercultural translation, however, often produced an Africanization of Christianity. In the consolidation of the late nineteenth-century Ngwato Christian kingdom in southern Africa, for example, foreign missionaries might have introduced the ritual of baptism as a fundamental mark of opposition between two ways of life, Christian and heathen. The Tswana term for that sacramental “mark of God,” however, was the same word that was used for the ear-brand or cutting that identified the ownership of cattle. Accordingly, the sign of baptism was understood as a mark of inclusion, not merely within the Christian church but also within the polity of the Ngwato king, the titular owner of all cattle. In this respect, Christian symbols registered less as signs of personal salvation than as focal points for gathering a community. This ongoing work of translating Christianity into local African idioms remains crucial to the formation of Christian communities in Africa.

While developing new ways of translating the “spirit” of the Word into indigenous African terms, Christian communities in Africa also formed around new material relations of exchange. With the emergence of the west coast of Africa during the seventeenth century as a mercantile trading zone, intercultural translation was entangled with the problem of determining value in relations of economic exchange. According to European travelers and traders, Africans lacked any religion that might provide a framework for assessing the value of material objects. While undervaluing trade goods, Africans allegedly overvalued trifling objects—a bone, a rock, a bunch of feathers, a bundle of sticks—that they apparently regarded as containing extraordinary power. Adapting the Portuguese term for a magical object used in witchcraft, feitiço, European traders reported that Africans had no religion but instead persisted in the superstitious worship of fetish objects. As a result, Africans supposedly had no stable system of values that would allow them to assess the relative worth of trade goods. According to this mercantile theory of religion, Christianity was necessary to provide a system of value, both spiritual and material that would facilitate trade.

During the nineteenth century, as European Christian interests in Africa were advanced under the slogan, “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization,” the link between religion and economic exchange became firmly established. Christianity was promoted as the religion of economic prosperity. Ironically, during the early nineteenth century, European missionaries in southern Africa periodically complained that they were having no success because Africans were too prosperous. Nevertheless, Christianity increasingly registered as a religion that was based not only on the ancient authority of the Bible but also on new disciplines of work, wage labor, and production for markets. According to the nineteenth-century missionary Robert Moffat, two objects, the Bible and the plow, both of which inevitably appeared in their African context as Christian sacred objects, promised to redeem Africa. Christian converts to mission churches, both Protestant and (p. 352) Catholic, occasionally became successful entrepreneurs. More often, however, by entering into new systems of wage labor, Christian converts became converted into exploitable labor. In this process, Christianity in Africa was intimately entangled with relations of exchange within a capitalist economy. Promising prosperity, the advance of “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization” had resulted by the end of the twentieth century in the massive exploitation, underdevelopment, and impoverishment of Africa.

During the twentieth century, the formation of new African Christian movements was particularly revealing about the ways in which Christianity has operated as a global religion with local effects in Africa. Through local African initiatives in dealing with the problems of intercultural translation and economic exchange raised by Christianity, African initiated churches developed different strategies for engaging indigenous African structures of religious, cultural, and social authority. On the one hand, some African initiated churches have adopted the stance of opposition to traditional religion and culture. For example, the Harrist churches of West Africa, inspired by the early twentieth-century work of the prophet William Wade Harris, embraced and extended the missionary rejection of the entire indigenous religious heritage. As the prophet Harris insisted, all traces of indigenous religion, the ancestral shrines, sacrificial altars, ritual masks, and ceremonial objects, had to be destroyed to make way for Christianity. At the same time, Harris rejected the authority of the European Christian missionaries who had failed to protect Africans from military conquest, political oppression, and economic exploitation. Although independent of foreign missionary control, Harrist churches nevertheless continued the missionary strategy of forming African Christian communities in strict opposition to traditional African religion.

On the other hand, some African initiated churches have actively sought to weave together the resources of Christianity and African heritage in a new synthesis. Also in West Africa, for example, the Aladura movement, a constellation of new Yoruba Christian churches that began to emerge during the 1920s, consciously sought to draw elements of local indigenous religion, such as Yoruba proverbial wisdom, an indigenous understanding of the soul's destiny, respect for ancestors, divination, healing, and protection from the evil forces of witchcraft, into a dynamic Christian context. Meaning “owners of the prayer,” Aladura represented a strategy for building religious communities by affirming the sacred power of both African ritual speech and Christian prayer. Rejecting both foreign missions and traditional structures of religious authority, such independent Christian communities have forged new forms of African Christianity by appropriating the religious resources of both. Although Christian theologians have accused them of the heresy of syncreticism, the illicit mixing of “pure” Christianity with African indigenous religion, the Aladura Christians have used the term “struggle” for the spiritual and practical work of prayer through which they have made Christianity an indigenous African religion.

(p. 353)

In over 8,000 denominations, with perhaps as many as 50 million members, these independent churches have often been regarded from the outside as if they were distinctively, perhaps even strangely, African in character. More recently, however, African initiated churches have been recognized as part of the most significant demographic development in twentieth-century Christianity, the global expansion of pentecostalism. In southern Africa, for example, the largest African initiated church is the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), founded in 1910 by the prophet Ignatius Lekganyane, with its headquarters at Moria, the mountain of God, that represents the sacred center of the Christian world for over three million members who meet weekly in local house churches throughout southern Africa. For the annual Easter pilgrimage, thousands of Zionists gather at Moria to affirm their religious commitment to ethical discipline, ritual purity, and spiritual healing. Although often depicted as a distinctively African Christianity, the history of the ZCC can be traced back to the arrival in southern Africa during the 1890s of American missionaries from Zion City, Illinois, the faith-healing community established near Chicago in 1893 by the evangelist John Alexander Dowie. Like Dowie's Zion City, the ZCC stressed moral discipline, including the avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, and pork, in support of a Christian practice based on the power of prayer, faith healing, and dramatic spiritual experience.

Throughout Africa, independent Christian communities emerged by translating and deploying the transatlantic spirituality of pentecostal, holiness, Adventist, and other recently formed American churches into local African situations. In addition to adapting practices of faith healing, they translated other elements of this global religious mix, such as speaking in tongues or anticipating the millennial end of the world, as religious strategies for creating separate social enclaves in a world dominated by the colonial state. During the waning years of colonialism in twentieth-century central and southern Africa, colonial officials regarded speaking in tongues as a challenge to their control over the language of rule; prophetic predictions of the end of the world represented dangerous threats to their rule over the territory they controlled. Surviving the often-violent colonial repression of new religious movements, African initiated churches had to adapt to new challenges after the 1960s in the shifting context of post-independence African states. While some independent churches mobilized political support for new African leaders and parties, others were perceived as subversive or divisive forces by African nationalists. Suspicion of creating divided loyalties between a separatist church and a tenuously unified nation has led in some recent cases to the repression of independent churches. During the 1990s, the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena was repressed in Uganda for allegedly organizing legions of troops protected by spiritual medicine, and the leadership of the Tent of the Living God was arrested in Kenya on the charge of illegally fomenting “tribal” divisions within the unified nation. In these and other cases, tensions between independent (p. 354) churches and the modern state have carried over from the colonial to the postcolonial era.

In the case of the ZCC and many other independent churches, the process of creating a separate enclave of religious authority, spiritual power, and faith healing has resulted in unexpected social consequences by providing new means for adapting to the challenges and opportunities of the capitalist economy. While the leadership of the ZCC in Moria stands as a model of capital accumulation, with its centralized bureaucracy drawing vast resources from a dispersed network of local “franchises,” the local membership, often representing the “poorest of the poor” in urban townships, has internalized a this worldly asceticism of self-discipline and self-denial that seems to follow Max Weber's classic formula for the Protestant work ethic. Accordingly, Zionist Christians have generally been valued by employers as disciplined, sober workers. As the new Puritans of a twentieth-century African Reformation, Zionist Christians have effectively demonstrated that translating Christianity into African contexts can also have implications for Africans struggling to survive the harsh realities of the labor market. At the same time, Zionist and other African Christian churches have developed mutual aid schemes, from burial societies to pension funds, for pooling and redistributing resources. Not only adapting to the demands of wage labor, African Christian communities have found ways to accumulate capital under difficult conditions.

During the last decade of the twentieth century, the link between Christianity and economic activity was explicitly advanced by conservative evangelical or fundamentalist missions, usually from the United States, that proclaimed a “gospel of prosperity” for Africa. Rather than stressing the self-discipline and self-denial of the Protestant work ethic, many of these missions promised miraculous wealth by the grace of God. In this promise, many African Christians have been drawn into what anthropologists Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff have called the global “occult economy” of late capitalism in which material wealth is expected from spiritual modes of production. In 1999, for example, one of the biggest events in global Christianity, especially within the transatlantic network of pentecostalism, was the miracle of the gold teeth. Reportedly, during a worship service in February 1999 led by John Arnott of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship at the Hatfield Christian Church in Pretoria, South Africa, people suddenly found their mouths miraculously filled with golden fillings, crowns, and inlays. Although a local South African dentist who examined the mouths of people involved in this event found that God was using outmoded techniques of dentistry, this “miracle” was widely interpreted in America and Africa not only as the “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” but also as a sign of the untold wealth that could be achieved through a specific kind of Christian faith.

Whether historically rooted in Protestant or Catholic missions or locally initiated by new religious movements, African Christian communities have operated (p. 355) in different political contexts. In general terms, after independence, Christian communities in Africa found themselves in three different types of states, Muslim in North Africa; Marxist in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Angola; or pluralist, with principled separation between religion and the state, within most other independent nations. However, relations between religion and independent African states cannot be understood merely by referring to constitutional principles. In the case of African Christianity, the role of religion in political culture has been complicated by the broad diffusion of Christian education in Africa. For the generation of national leaders who drove the struggle for African independence into the 1960s, even an explicitly Marxist struggle could carry a Christian aura. In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda drew upon his Presbyterian background in shaping an African Humanism. In Tanzania, Julius Nyerere found in Catholicism support for developing an African Socialism. Even Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana presumed a wide diffusion of Christianity in African political culture when he adapted a New Testament injunction to declare, “Seek ye first the political kingdom.”

By the end of the twentieth century, African leaders continued to assume that Christianity was an integral part of sub-Saharan African political culture. In the last African nation to achieve liberation with its first democratic elections of 1994, South Africa instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), under the leadership of the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to forge national unity out of the conflicts and divisions of the past. At the opening of the commission, Archbishop Tutu explicitly drew upon the resources of the Christian tradition by proclaiming the TRC as a process of national contrition, confession, and forgiveness. As a pervasive system of symbols, myths, and rituals, therefore, Christianity has been integrated into African political culture. However, as a separate institution in relation to a broader social environment, Christianity has not always exercised a measurable impact on events in Africa. For example, during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 in which nearly 1 million people were killed, Christians were both perpetrators and victims in a country that was 90 percent Christian. In this instance, membership within a Christian community did not represent an independent social variable in relation to the carnage.

Looking to the future, South African President Thabo Mbeki has drawn upon religious imagery that is broadly Christian in character to call for an African Renaissance. In this initiative, Mbeki has been actively participating in the long tradition of intercultural translation and economic exchange that have characterized the historical formation of African Christian communities. In prophetic terms, Mbeki has rejected the “god of the market” and the “deification of arms” in order to base his political project on the emergence of what might be regarded as a new spiritual identity, the rebirth of the spirit of Africa. As Africa becomes the largest Christian continent during the twenty-first century, African Christianity, whether institutionalized in specific communities or diffused in political culture, will play a significant role in the future of Africa.


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