Religion is a very complex and wide issue. It can be defined as a set of beliefs in regard to the various aspects associated with the universe for example its cause, nature and purpose. The universe is perceived as the creation of a supernatural being and hence there are devotional practices and ritual performances that are directed towards the relationship between people and the superhuman being and a set of codes that oversee the way people attached to a certain religion behave.
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It can also be said to be a particular set of beliefs and practices established and approved by a group of individuals such as Islamic, Buddhist, and Christian religions. Various parties were involved with the changes that have been experienced in the indigenous African religion. Christian missionary is one major factor that cannot be underemphasized when talking about religion in Africa.
This piece of work looks at the issue of Christian missionary activity on indigenous African religion in the 19th and 20th century. The focus will be on the extent to which Christian missionary activity effectively suppresses the religious traditions which in one way or the other strived to replace it. The focus will be on the Europeans experiences with indigenous African religions especially those in East Africa.
Traditional or indigenous religion has been there as long as human beings have lived. In Africa, it was orally transmitted as opposed to the use of the scripture. There has been not much distinction when it comes to concepts of Islam and Christianity in most parts of Africa. This is because these aspects usually co-exist with components of indigenous spirituality.
Although there have been a controversy on whether Islam should be termed as a traditional religion, a significant number of people argue that it is a traditional African religion based on the fact that it not only co-exist in Africa but it has also been absorbed into the African culture.
Christian religion is also not a new aspect but rather a concept that have existed for approximately 2000 years. It mainly entails following the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Although the initial Christian church faced a lot of challenges and opposition from the Roman officials, Christianity spread rapidly. Right from the beginning, there was the belief that it is the responsibility of Christians to share their religious beliefs in an effort of converting others into Christianity.
Starting from the early 19th century to the end of the 20th century, a significant number of Christian missionaries from different parts such as North America, Europe as well as West Indies was all over Africa. The work of Christian missionaries was enhanced in a way by the European colonialism. The main goal of the missionaries was to spread Christianity as wide as possible through converting as many Africans as possible. This was made possible through teaching and preaching about Christianity1.
Christian missionary is an aspect that is highly associated with the changes that have taken place in the field of religion in different parts of Africa. A Christian missionary can be defined as a member of a Christian-related religious group or association who is sent in specific areas with an aim of perpetrating some evangelism services such as education and promotion of literacy, promoting some economic development, enhancing social justice in some settings and more so teaching religious issues to the communities.
The teachings could either be aimed at converting the people to some beliefs and practices or else to inform them so that they may make an informed decision in regard to religious practices.
Christian missionary activity in African countries between the 19th and 20th centuries was not without some notable impacts but rather, some of its effects are still felt up to the present times. Just like any other aspect Christian missionary activity is linked with both positive as well as negative effects on many aspects more especially indigenous African religion.
Although it is clear that there were positive changes brought about by the Christian missionary activity, it is much easier to spot the negative attributes for instance where the African were forced into some practices instead of being given the freedom to choose on how to live their religious lives.
All in all, from the available literature on this topic of discussion, it is evident that there existed the concept of religious syncretism where there were instances of a variation of beliefs among the individuals involved. This is more so because of the diversity that exist among human beings making uniformity in ideas and perceptions to be somehow a hard concept to achieve. This difference helps in bringing out both positive as well as negative attributes that are associated with Christian missionary activity2.
Although the Whites or rather the non-Africans were involved with most of the missionary related work especially the preaching of the gospel, the process was not effective until the Africans themselves were actively involved in the work, either voluntarily or under some pressures from the missionaries.
This was more so when it came to the issue of preaching the gospel with the name of bringing about some desirable changes among the African communities, or rather changing some of the beliefs that were so much engraved into the indigenous African religious beliefs to fit the beliefs of the missionaries.
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Missionary work through the Africans was deemed to be more effective than that perpetrated by the Whites since they were able to understand the Africans better and interact with them using their local languages. Some of the active African missionary groups include the National Baptist convention and the African Episcopal Methodists among other groups.
In as much as there is usually a strong belief that Christianity brought about by missionaries was a form of suppression of the indigenous African religions, there was more to this as this research will clearly reveal to us. Much evident can also be deduced from the situation that prevails in religion today.
There are still varied religious beliefs shaped by what different religious groups perceive to be right and wrong, based on some doctrinal backgrounds. Form this reason; we can therefore state that the Christian missionaries had both positive and negative effects towards the African religions although the positive impacts seem to surpass the negative ones. This is because the missionary activities were accompanied by a lot of social and economic developments.
In the process of perpetrating their missions in different African countries, the missionaries faced some challenges in the form of rejection and resistance from the African. This can be drawn from the natural attitude exhibited by human beings as they tend to resist change mainly because of some doubt in a new aspect or else because of the fear of the unknown and the need to adapt to the changes.
For this reason, we can find some instances where there existed different levels of conflict between the Christian missionaries and the Africans. Despite the conflicts, there still exist some instances of friendly coexistence between Christianity and the indigenous African religious traditions.
The conflicts arose when the Christian missionaries decided to revoke traditional practices in an unruly manner rather than impacting sense into the Africans or incorporating the changes in the existing practices. Friendly coexistence on the other hand was experienced whenever there was mutual benefit to be achieved by parties, the missionaries and the Africans3.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of this issue it is good to ask ourselves about the various issues and circumstances that surrounded the issue of conversion from traditional religious beliefs into the so called modernized Christian missionary beliefs. A brief analysis of the conversion process is also crucial.
Conversion entails changing the traditional Africans and the Muslims into Christianity and their practices. Although the conversion process out to be a smooth one, without force, it was not the case but rather the missionaries opted to achieve their target and goals irrespective of the means they used without caring about the consequences involved.
This left some people to suffer as a result of opposing what the missionaries wanted. From research, it is evident that the conversion processes was in most cases associated with a lot of evil, deception, persecution as well as exploitation. Despite this, we still cannot underemphasize the fact that the conversion also had some benefits.
In as much this paper focuses on Christianity as the main religion of discussion, there is need to cover the concept of Islam especially in the in the context of being a product of slave trade in different parts of East Africa. Christianity has been associated with slave trade. For instance the Roman Catholic Church and other protestant religious groups in Europe did not contest slave trade.
Some even used the bible to base their arguments about slavery and slave trade. Muslims were however the majority of people who were on the receiving end. This does not however imply that Christians and members of other religions were not involved in the slavery trade.
There has been great struggle between Christianity and Islam where the Christians usually perceive themselves to be more superior to the Muslims. For this reason, the Christians have been on the fight towards outdoing the Muslims in different ways especially through converting them into Christianity.
However, it has not been a smooth move but rather one full of conflicts especially due to the fact that there are very parallel beliefs between the Islamic and Christianity religions. Each religion tries to defend itself based on the doctrinal beliefs and so the only solution left is to respect each other and look for ways through which they can both co-exist in harmony and peace. This is part of exercising freedom of religion or rather worship.
Nevertheless, with the passage of time some Christians were able to stand against slave trade. They strategically used the bible to oppose slavery as they could not really point out the scriptures that advocated for slavery. African Christians are also credited for their fight to abolish slavery. Through their anti-slavery movements, most slaves converted into Christianity and hence helping greatly to the achievement of the Christian missionaries’ main agenda.
Following the existence of numerous changes that have taken place in the indigenous African religion as a result of Christian missionary activity, there has been a notable increase in the attempts to come up with a global church history that in one way or the other reflects the changed realities and at the same time, exposes all aspects that are associated with everything that surrounded the changes.
Various writers have tried to bring out the issue in different perspectives all in an effort of enhancing understanding of the issue among people. For further understanding of the concept of Christianity, I would suggest that there be comprehensive comparative studies in the history of Christianity and its role in transforming the indigenous African religion4.
Apart from discussing the topic in general I will take some African countries as examples to enhance our understanding in regard to the changes experienced in indigenous African religion as a result of the Christian missionary activity. Some of the countries that I will cover include Botswana, Zimbabwe as well as South Africa.
Zimbabwe and Religion
Just like any other, Traditional Zimbabwe religion is unique. What is clear is that the religion has a strong monotheistic profession of faith which is rooted in the belief of a Supreme creator or God. However, there has been a change that was brought out by the Christian missionary activity in the country.
The faith that prevails among the communities in Zimbabwe is now melded into a part traditional and part Christian. The joint faith has gathered a lot of support from the local community. The traditional concept of this two-sided faith in Zimbabwe is entrenched in the custom of presenting all prayer needs to the supreme God mainly through the family ancestors.
There was some form of opposition in the course of adapting the new beliefs that were brought about by the missionaries. A notable example was when the Ndebele took up arms against the European missionaries in the year 1986.
This was after a consultation and agreement was made between priests and the so called oracles of ‘the place of the benevolent spirits’. The early Christian missionaries in this country realized the holiness of the Shona and Ndebele and more so the strong belief they had upon their God.
For this reason, they opted to adopt the local concept into their scriptural teachings and practices making it one and the same with the Christian faith. This made things better since the missionary Christianity did not seem to be a completely new concept and thus did not face a lot of opposition as a result of the change.
There is a coexistence of the traditional religion and the modern Christianity concepts. A significant percentage of the country’s population has however believed in Christianity outright mainly the Roman Catholic. Nonetheless there are great followers of denominations such as the Anglican, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventists, Apostolic, Presbyterian, Salvation Army as well as Baptist. The first missionary stations were established in the year 1859 at Inyati and at hope fountain in 1870.
The two were controlled by the London Missionary Society. Other mission centres followed as years passed by. The Zimbabweans took a relatively long time before they took charge of the missionary related activities such as teaching and preaching. Although Zimbabwe religion is dominated by Christianity, it also has some Hindus, Muslims and Jews5.
Botswana and Religion
This is a republic in central southern Africa. The first missionaries to perpetrate Christianity activity in Botswana were Elder Bruce Midgley and his wife by the name of Sister Patricia Midgley under the direction of Pres. R.J. Snow, the then South Africa Johannesburg Mission leader.
Approximately 50 percent of the total population in Botswana is Christian. The missionaries considered Botswana to be a very promising country where the gospel would be easily spread and in future, many stations ought to be set up to reinforce Christianity missions.
In a nutshell, despite the fact that Botswana cannot be claimed to be an absolute Christian country, it is evident that the Christian faith in the country has played a critical role in nation building through bringing about a lot of development projects as well as promoting high levels of education and literacy among the communities.
The most notable Christian church in the country is the London Missionary Society/ the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. This church among other religious groups greatly changed the beliefs that were engraved in the indigenous African religion. Christianity effects can also be felt in other sectors for instance the economy, politics as well as education. It also changed the way of life of the people in Botswana as they had changed perceptions towards various life issues.
The London Missionary Society aimed at converting the Batswana to Christianity and thus they persuaded the people to do away with the traditional practices they were used to for instance polygamy, rain making, alcohol, witchcraft, initiation schools as well as dowry issues that in one way or the other contradicted with Christianity practices. Even currently, the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) leads in various developmental projects in Botswana for instance in politics, education, health as well as politics6.
South Africa and Religion
South Africa was also not exempted from Christian missionary activity. Right towards the end of the 18th century, European missionaries played a pivotal role in the transformation of the African community in South Africa. Christianity in this region came along with other aspects of civilization and development.
European missionary’s activity in South Africa is a concept that is very interesting in that it had a lot of contribution in the region. The missionaries for instance aimed at serving humanity and more so bringing about social and other changes aimed at improving their quality of life.
They however had a negative side where they were so much into moral righteousness that they saw the Africans to be very wrong and judged their practices wrongly due to lack of understanding. It is important to note that missionaries and Christianity were accepted in South Africa as a result of the positive changes they were able to bring along for instance on the side of technological advancement like irrigation practices.
It is also worth noting that it was not an easy aspect for the missionaries to covert the Africans in South Africa since most of them had other personal agendas such as the attainment of psychological security and to gain other material advantage other then spiritual reasons.
Converts were also not appreciated by the rest of the society and for this reasons it took a relatively long time for the missionaries to reach their target in South Africa7.
From the above discussion, it is evident there exist a lot of discussion elements in relation to the topic of study; Christian Missionary Activity on Indigenous African Religion in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Christian missionaries are associated with bringing a lot of changes among the African communities not only in regard to religious issues but also when it comes to other general life aspects for instance literacy and education as well as economic developments among other aspects.
All in all, Religion is a very complex and wide issue. Various parties were involved with the changes that have been experienced in the indigenous African religion, the Christian missionaries being a major element. The main goal of the missionaries was to spread Christianity as wide as possible through converting as many Africans as possible.
This was made possible through teaching and preaching about Christianity among the local African communities. Although the Whites or rather the non-Africans were involved with most of the missionary related work especially the preaching of the gospel, the process was not effective until the Africans themselves were actively involved in the work, either voluntarily or under some pressures from the missionaries.
The Africans are therefore deemed to have played a great role in effecting the changes that were experienced in the indigenous African religion.
Chidester, D. (2001). Christianity: A Global History. New York, Penguin.
Chidester, D. (1996). Savage systems: colonialism and comparative religion in southern Africa. Cape Town, University Press of Virginia.
Cool, E.D and Cool, M.S. (1990). “Missionary work begins in Botswana” Web.
Zvobgo, J.M.C (1996). A History of Christian Missions in Zimbabwe, 1890-1939. Gweru, Mambo Press, Zambezia XXIV (ii) 412pp.
1 D. Chidester (2001). Christianity: A Global History. New York, Penguin
2 D. Chidester (1996). Savage systems: colonialism and comparative religion in southern Africa. Cape Town, University Press of Virginia
3 D. Chidester (2001). Christianity: A Global History. New York, Penguin
4 D. Chidester (1996). Savage systems: colonialism and comparative religion in southern Africa. Cape Town, University Press of Virginia
5 J.M.C Zvobgo (1996). A History of Christian Missions in Zimbabwe, 1890-1939. Gweru, Mambo Press, Zambezia XXIV (ii) 412pp
6 E.D Cool and M.S. Cool (1990). “Missionary work begins in Botswana”
7 D. Chidester (1996). Savage systems: colonialism and comparative religion in southern Africa. Cape Town, University Press of Virginia