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Gospel and Culture from the Perspective of African Churches

Founded by Foreign Missions


Rt Revd Prof. Joseph Akin. Omoyajowo

I have a few limitations in tackling this topic. One of them is the handicap of not having my whole library with me in the new station where I am now. I am, therefore, not able to consult all the documents from which I could extract relevant information.

The second one is the time factor. This period is not a suitable period for a Diocesan Bishop to have the time to prepare a first class paper for a Consultation of this importance.

The third and perhaps the most significant limitation is the fact that Churches founded by foreign missions have very little to contribute to a subject on "Gospel and Culture" as I will clearly demonstrate in the paper.

The Christian Church entered Africa in the Apostolic age. The two popular centres were Alexandria and Carthage. The Church grew fast and was very strong until the Arab invasion of the seventh century which eventually tragically dislocated the Church. Efforts from the middle ages through Portuguese and later French missionaries, on the West Africa coast from Guinea to Angola and up the East Coast from Mozambique to Mombasa, yielded initial, considerable successes. The greatest success was achieved in the Congo.

On the whole, however, it was total missionary failure. It could not but be so, because missionary methods were themselves defective both in the attitude taken towards the people to be evangelised and towards what was being brought to them. The Church's second great opportunity in Africa came and went and there was almost nothing to show for it: a land still unevangelised, a continent dark because effectively it had never been offered the light (1).

Christianity in the modern sense, however, entered Africa in the nineteenth century. Specifically in Nigeria, the foreign missionaries started coming in 1842. The Anglican Church through the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the Methodist Church through the Wesleyan Missionary Society, entered in 1842. The Presbyterian Church, by the United Succession Church of Scotland and the Scottish Missionary Society came in 1846. The Baptist Church through the Southern Baptist Convention of America came in 1850. The Roman Catholic Church through the Vicariate Apostolic of the Coast of Benin entered in 1860. The Qua iboe Church through a Northern Ireland inter-denominational mission, arrived in Eastern Nigeria in 1877. The Sudan Interior Mission under R. Bingham came in 1893 while the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa arrived in Tiv area in 1911. The Seventh Day Adventist Mission from the USA came in 1914 while the Salvation Army Church entered in 1920.

These missions made reasonable and considerable impact on the society and paved the way for the later successes of the Church in this African country.

But the approach by the foreign missions was largely negative. The general tendency by them was to condemn African things in toto and to paint the picture of a dark continent. The missionaries had no respect for the peoples' way of life, their religion or culture. Here is an illustration of such negative attitudes by a Capuchin missionary in the Congo.

"On my way, I found numbers of idols which I threw into the fire. The owner of these idols....seemed very annoyed. To calm him down by humiliating him, I let him know that if he persisted in anger, I should see that he himself is burnt with his idols". (2)

It is this negative attitude which characterised the missionary work of the foreign missionaries. It was evangelism that had no regard for the peoples' culture and religion. They were too simply convinced of the enormous superiority of the European West and came unconsciously, but naturally, as bearers not only of the Christian message, but also of westernization.

We are, therefore, little surprised that the Christianity imbibed by the Africans from these foreign missionaries was veneer and in most cases superficial and hypocritical. It was these weaknesses that the 'African' group of Churches and after them, the African "indigenous" Churches exploited in establishing their Churches.

It did not take the numerous African nationalists time to see Christianity as aiding or being in close alliance with the white power structures that have enslaved them. "They therefore denounce 'Western Christianity' or 'White Christ' because they see this as tied up with the colonialism and neocolonialism that have created ghastly realities of hunger, unemployment, repression, racism and violence in the third world." (3) It is only from this perspective that we can understand Basil Moore's statement that "In South Africa the Christian Church has probably been one of the most powerful instruments in making possible the political oppression of the black people. While the white colonists were busy with the process of robbing the people of their land and their independence, the churches were busy however, unconsciously, undermining the will of the people to resist. This was done in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways". (4)

Basil Moore, editor of a book Black Theology which was banned by the racist government of South Africa when it first appeared under the title Essays on Black Theology in 1972, held that "the black people were made to believe not that salvation is in Christ alone, but that salvation is in accepting the new white ways of living. The effect of this was to internalise in the black people a sense of inferiority of the interchangeability, in religious language, of 'black' and 'evil' which according to him the black man was made to believe, were synonymous words, and it was therefore not difficult to persuade him that a black man was an evil (and inferior) person; and that his blackness is a sign of his inferiority as an outcast from the Grace of God."

Moore's conclusion that the Church helped to colonise the minds of the black people cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Perhaps Buthelezi has made the point in a more passionately succinct way. Said he: "The naked truth is that the African lives at the fringe of life. He has been a victim of selective giving and withholding. He has not been allowed to realise the potential of his humanity. In other words, he became alienated from that wholeness of life which in his religious tradition helped him not to live as a split personality." (5)

In the political arena the general feeling has been the same. Most of Africa's early nationalists were not only products of the churches, but in fact received their national consciousness from their education in mission schools. Yet it is they who in their struggle for political independence saw the Church as a stumbling block. It is they who were loudest in accusing the Church of paving the way for colonial rule. It is they who first called for the removal of all vestiges of imperialism from the Church and indeed from the soil of Africa.

The pious Nigerian nationalist Anglican Church leader, the late Rt Revd James Johnson, reportedly wrote in 1873: "In the work of elevating Africans, foreign teachers have always proceeded with their work on the assumption that the negro or the African is in everyone of his normal susceptibilities an inferior race and that it is useful in everything to give him a foreign model to copy; no account has been made of our peculiarities; our languages enriched with traditions of centuries, our parables, many of them the quintessence of family and national histories, our modes of thought, influenced more or less by local circumstances." (6)

Johnson actually became an Apostle of Ethiopianism, pitched his camp against the racial superiority of the British and favoured the setting up of an African Independent Church contending that an Independent Church would lead to an independent Africa State. James Johnson criticised the CMS liturgy and hymns and wanted prayers to be said for Nigerian rulers and not for the British royal family. Johnson was a great nationalist. His reaction to colonial rule was on the positive and objective side. It was such a reaction that has produced many of the indigenous Churches especially, the African Churches in South and East Africa, where the political and economic deprivations experienced by Africans had led to their finding refuge and compensation in the spiritual arena. They felt woefully let down by the Church's failure to say much against the privileged economic position enjoyed by the foreign citizens of the colonial power.

When the missionaries arrived in Africa, they preached the Gospel and in addition taught their converts to read and write. In doing these things, they employed the only method known to them: that of Western education and culture. Is this not why the African today is more vast in the use of English (or French) than his own language or even dialect? Is this not why he chose at baptism a foreign name or a Biblical name? Is this not why he feels more at home in foreign dresses than in his national dresses? There was no need therefore for Africans to over-react to those cultural interchanges.

We must admit that Christianity could not have been brought to Africa in a cultural vacuum. There can never be a culturally naked Christianity. Christianity would have been meaningless if it did not have some sort of dress on when it was first introduced into Africa. One therefore agrees with Hastings that in spite of the hue and cry by nationalist-orientated Africans, "African culture has not been annihilated, either inside the Christian Churches or outside. The impact of those brief years of colonialism and missionary work, was simply not sufficient".

We must not lose sight of the truth in the statement of Aylward Shorter that "the Christianity that was brought to Africa in the nineteenth century was a Christianity that was retreating before the advance of science, a "God-of-the-gaps" Christianity. It appears superior to traditional religion because it was preached by white men; was based on a book and was expressed in a culture which was technically superior". But Shorter was honest enough to admit that "in the way it was presented, however, it often appeared less socially relevant than the religion it has displaced. The result in some areas has been to encourage secularism". (7) This indeed is the crux of the matter. In terms of social relevance, many Africans have seen the traditional religion as more dynamic than both Christianity and Islam.

There is in fact some truth in the widespread assumption that Christianity contributed to the undermining of African culture. When the early Western Christian missionaries arrived on the soil of Africa, they did not find it possible to plant Christianity without first disparaging the people's culture and traditional religion.

The first assumption of these early missionaries was that everything African was heathen and superstitious barbarism. They came with an almost impregnable confidence in the overwhelming superiority of the European West and in all the ways of society and culture which they had taken for granted in their own homes whether Evangelical or Catholic.

According to Adrian Hastings, the missionaries admitted little, if any, culture of value in Africa, just as many had denied that it really had any religion other than fearful superstitions. (8) It was this feeling of superiority which crystallized in the social situation of masters and servants, which was very much pronounced in the churches established by the early foreign missionaries.

In consequence of this cultural imperialism, it became possible for Christianity, though now in an alien land, to continue to thrive in its Western culture. You were not a Christian if you did not wear coat and tie and trousers; you were not considered a son of God if your name was not Jack or Robinson, Jones, Stone or Drinkwater.

Even today you find a Church minister in a tropical climate in the very warm weather of January of February dressed in heavy, black, woollen jacket with his dog collar on, perspiring profusely, as he walks along the street. He still regards it as sacrilegious to be found in a Nigerian national dress.

There was the family solidarity that had been impaired by the fact of conversion which was an individual affair. The result was that the conversion of individuals disrupted the solidarity of the cherished African extended family system. Nothing could be more catastrophic to the African community life than this kind of invasion. Everything is normally done in any African community to prevent individuality from clashing with the demands of collective humanity that is crystallised in the family unit. This is why everybody tries to keep the norms of his community in order to avoid the shame of being ostracised. J.V. Taylor has rightly observed that in Africa, "an individual who is cut off from the community organisation is a nothing....." (9)

We see this communal organism in the veneration of ancestors which foreign investigators have in their ignorance labelled as ancestor worship. Apart from the fact that the veneration is done in a more meaningful and perhaps more dignifying way than the veneration of saints in the Church, both mean more or less the same thing. But today the African Christian has regarded it as paganism or heathenism to venerate his ancestors. In short, conversion to Christianity meant rejecting traditional forms of dress, authority, social organisation, culture, marriage, medicine etc. (10)

The cultural conquest has also pervaded the intellectual arena. It is generally conceived that the brain of the black man is inferior to that of his white counterpart. The CMS after humiliating Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther towards the end of his episcopate, did not consider it advisable to appoint any African as a Diocesan Bishop until 1952 - sixty years after Crowther's death.

Such derogatory terms as 'native' when referring to anything indigenous; 'dialects' when referring to African languages; 'heathenism' or 'paganism' or even 'superstition' when reference was being made to the people's religion, were well known.

In accepting this cultural conquest, explicitly inspired by the early foreign missionaries, Africans began to assume a complex of inferiority. Even their traditional divinities could not be superior, but only equal to the white man - thus in Yorubaland of Nigeria, new names came into existence: Oguntoyinbo - literally: "the god-of-iron is equal to a white man". In essence it means: "the god of iron is as powerful as a white man". Sangotoyinbo - "the god of thunder is as powerful as a white man". Even the Yoruba oracle divinity - 'Ifa' - is only as wise as the white man - "Fatoyinbo". The Yoruba farmer was also infected. His big yams were 'Isu Cyinbo' - the white man's yams; his sweet oranges were 'osan oyinbo' white man's oranges, and his fat fowls were 'Adie Cyinbo' - white man's fowls. Examples of such cultural proselytization abound throughout Africa. In the words of Hastings, "the early European missionaries thought that it was better for Christianity to have a new social order, a new economy and a new culture to replace the traditional one". (11)

One fact that they forgot was that Christianity and culture, (any culture at all) are not necessarily antithetical. We agree with Shorter that "There is no Christian value which is not first of all a human value expressed in a specific cultural form. Christianity cannot exist except as incarnate in a culture." In other words, it is not possible to divorce Christianity from culture. (12) Shorter has truthfully declared that it was within the Jewish culture that "the mystery of Christ was revealed to mankind and the very first essay in adaptation was made by the New Testament writers who tried to express concepts and values first described in terms of the Jewish culture in terms of the newly dominant Greek culture". (13)

Later still, we know of how Roman traditions influenced the Christian Church and how certain Roman festivals found their ways into the Christian Church with the result that even today, there are controversies over the date of the birth of Christ - whether December 25 taken over by Christians for the commemoration of Christ's birth, was not the day of a Roman pagan festival.

The cultural influence is to be seen also in the use of vestments in the Church. The purple which the Anglican Bishop uses today is reminiscent of part of the paraphenalia of the Roman Emperor; so is the mitre which Bishops wear, which was originally used in Greek and Latin for the turban which was used by women. It had no religious rites connected with it. If there was any at all, it could only have come from the Jewish tradition in which the priests wore turbans. However, it was not universally popular in the Church within the first 1000 years of Christianity.

What we are saying here is that Christianity cannot exist and it has never existed in a vacuum. Christ, in all his teachings, used concepts, symbols and imageries that were familiar to his hearer. "In order to redeem mankind, God came among men as man, became human, a man in culture, took a cultural name, spoke a local language, received cultural education, conformed to the cultural mores of his people. He did not become a Roman, an Egyptian, an Asian or an African, but a very identifiable Jew. He became the universal 'Man' but he also became a member of a Jewish home, a part of a small town-community, a Galilean sub-culture and in the eyes of many, especially the Roman official, he was identified with the radical insurrections." (14)

A Nigerian Church leader and scholar, Prof. Bolaji Idowu, has reported that when he watched an American film which featured Jesus Christ, he was startled to hear Jesus Christ speaking American. He was startled because he suddenly realised that all along, he had thought of Jesus Christ as an English person speaking in correct English idiom and accent. It did not occur to him that Jesus Christ was capable of speaking American. He had always seen Jesus through the eyes of his English educator. (15) What the learned Professor is saying is that when Christ arrived in Africa, he spoke English, and before him everything African was silenced. The vigorous African dances were silenced in favour of the quiet 'dignity' of Church organs and pianos which accompanied the songs of foreign beat and rhythms as the message of Christ was introduced on African soil. (16)

That last point Professor Idowu has described as 'cultic atrocity'. He regards as 'appalling nonsense' the practice of translating hymns, psalms and canticles from English into Nigerian music. He wanted to know what was wrong with Nigerian music that it cannot be used in regular worship in the Church in Nigeria? And what is the matter with Nigerian musical instruments? Are they so contaminated by 'heathenism' - whatever that may mean - that they cannot be used to the praise and glory of God?" (17)

We would like to go further and ask, what is wrong with African culture that it cannot be used to transmit Christianity to the praise and glory of God?

We cannot over-emphasise the fact that one of the shortcomings of the early foreign missionaries was their failure to appreciate that "Christianity must become incarnate in African cultures; that Christ is present in every human situation, in every community and every human tradition... that Africans must experience Christ in their own cultural tradition." (18) The word must become flesh and dwell in Africa, among Africans, in African context. In other words, Christianity must speak African language and come in the context of African culture in order to take root in the soil of Africa. We should take seriously Professor Mbiti's warning that if we do not change, change will change us and that the Church should make itself flexible enough to change, otherwise it will be left behind the time like an anachronism fit only for our historical museums. (19) The mistake of the early missionaries was, therefore, not that they preached the Gospel through a culture that they were familiar with, but that they first discredited the African culture before preaching the Gospel. They should have undertaken the double operation recommended by Shorter: "The undressing of Christianity from the foreign culture and the dressing of it in indigenous culture with both processes taking place simultaneously since christianity cannot exist without a dress on." (20)

It is a pity that the various mission churches which the missionaries established did not realise the significance of this point. It was left to the indigenous churches in Africa to understand and implement it. Elsewhere we have enumerated how they constitute an African expression of Christianity. (21) This is re-echoed in Kofi Appiah-Kubi's statement: "The indigenous African churches through careful and concrete adaption of certain cultural elements into their worship, have made Christianity real and meaningful to their African adherents". (22) The main objective of these indigenous churches, which are found in large numbers in most countries of black Africa, is to try to make the Christian faith speak to Africans in a language comprehensible to them. They are aware that by nature, the African wants to be actively involved in worship of the deity rather than sitting in worship as a passive spectator; they know that Africans love rhythm and music, that they love to dance and sing in a way meaningful to them. They have therefore, employed all these means in order to bring Christianity home to fellow Africans within their cultural setting. (23) In this way the indigenous churches are meeting a need grossly ignored by what Appiah-Kubi has called "the intellectualised Christianity of the missionary kind". (24)

We are not advocating that African culture must be revived in the sense of bringing back all the traditional religious rites, practices and rituals such as we see at formally organized cultural and traditional displays at local, national and international levels. We have also not said that African Christianity must have no contact with other cultures. What we have been saying is that the absolute foreignness of the African Christian Church as it was brought by the foreign missionaries must be removed, and that the Church must be transformed into a dynamic and saving way of life whose seeds germinate in African soil and whose roots can hold firmly, anchoring the Church as it seeks to play its part in making God's will done on earth as it is done in heaven. (25)

In other words, the urge is that Christianity should be expressed in relevant and appropriate indigenous African terms and channelled through meaningful cultural setting. We recognise the eclectic nature of culture and, therefore, see the need for cross-fertilization with other cultures. We are concerned to see how christianity can bring about cultural good health in Africa.

This must also include the discovery of what the authentic human values of our culture are and how far these values are already Christian values and be developed as seeds of the Gospel into Christian values. Which means that we must be able to see elements within our culture which are not opposed to Christianity but which are capable of positive Christian interpretation and development.

To conclude, we submit that without the efforts, courage and sacrifices of the early foreign missionaries, Christianity would not have been successfully planted on the soil of Africa. It will be a great disservice not only to the Church, but to God, to fail to acknowledge this fact and express our deep appreciation to those evangelising missionaries and their missions. But we must also be honest enough to note the failure of the missionaries to take cognizance of the peoples' culture in transmitting the Gospel message.

It is this unfortunate flaw which made the Church an object of attack by African nationalists, and constituted the excuse for the establishment of first, the African group of churches and later, the indigenous churches which constitute today the largest Christian bodies in Africa. They are the most dynamic, the most relevant and the most acceptable church movement in Africa. In them, the African feels at ease, at home and spiritually edified.


1. 1. Adrian Hasting: Church and Mission in Modern Africa, Fordham University Press - l966, p. 59

2. 2. Ibid, p. 58. Quoted by R. Slade, King Leopold's Congo, O.U.P. Press, p. 7

3. 3. C.B. Okolo: "Diminished Man and Theology: A Third World Culture and Religion" in AFER, vol. 18, N. 2, 1976. Paraphrased as "Christ is Black" by Aylward Shorter in African Christian Spirituality, London: G. Chapman, 1975 p. 71

4. 4. Basil Moore ed. Black Theology, London, 1973. Editor's preface p. viii

5. 5. Manas Buthelezi "The Theological meaning of True Humanity" in Black Theology, 1973, p. 102

6. 6. Hastings, Op. Cit., p. 39

7. 7. Ibid

8. 8. Ibid, p. 37

9. 9. J.V. Taylor,, The Primal Vision: Christian Presence and African Religion, SCM, 1963, p. 100

10. 10. Moore, op. Cit., p. viii

11. 11. Hastings, op. cit., p. 37

12. 12. Shorter, op. cit., p. 66

13. 13. Ibid., p. 70

14. 14. Makunike, op. cit., p. 24

15. 15. Idowu, Towards an Indigenous Church, Methodist, Nigeria, 1973, p. 2

16. 16. Makunike, op. cit., p. 23

17. 17. Idowu, op. cit., p. 34

18. 18. Shorter, African Christian Spirituality, London, Geoffray 1978, p. 22

19. 19. John Mbiti, The Crisis of Mission in Africa, Uganda Church Press, 1971, p. 3

20. 20. Shorter, op. cit., p. 69

21. 21. J. Akin Omoyajowo, "An African Expression of Christianity" in Black Theology, ed. B. Moore, London, 1973, pp. 81-92

22. 22. "Indigenous African Christian Churches - Signs of Authenticity" in African Theology En-route, ed. Kofi Appiah-Kubi and Sergio Torres, New York, Orbis Books, 1979, 9. 122.

23. 23. Omoyajowo, op. cit., p. 88

24. 24.Appiah-Kubi, op. cit., p. 118

25. 25. Makunike, op. cit. p. 27


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