Clouds of Witnesses: Revivals in Africa

Noll & Nystrom, Clouds of WitnessesAs we continue in this series blogging through Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (InterVarsity Press), we’ll start to consider just how Christianity grew so dramatically in 20th century Africa. Today the stories of three Africans who led different sorts of revivals: William Wadé Harris, Simeon Nsibambi, and Byang Kato. Each born roughly a generation after the last (1865?, 1897, and 1936, respectively), they span the explosion of African Christianity from the time of the First World War through the post-colonial period.

We’ll kick things off with William Wadé Harris, who might be the most famous person included in this entire collection. His is certainly one of the most confusing, inspiring, problematic, and/or stunning ministries (all depending on your point of view) in Christian history; few have made as great an impact in as short a period of time.

Noll and Nystrom work with what little we know about Harris’ background: born ca. 1865 in Liberia, to a spiritist father and Christian mother in the Grebo tribe; converted to Methodism, then to Anglicanism (after marrying the daughter of an Episcopalian teacher and catechist); worked as a sailor, carpenter, mason, interpreter, and teacher; took part in an abortive British-backed coup against the Liberian government (dominated by African-Americans who returned to Africa) and spent time in prison.

While in his cell, sometime in 1910, he claimed to have received a visit from the angel Gabriel:

The commission Harris received from the angel was, if disjointed to Western ears, dramatically decisive: “burn the fetishes beginning with your own,” “preach Christ everywhere,” “Christian baptism,” “abandon western clothes,” “wife will die,” “power upon you,” “take a long cane,” “give up money and drunkenness,” “no adultery,” “you are a prophet like Elijah, Daniel, Ezekiel, John,” “Sabbath.” (p. 73)

After fashioning him a long white gown that Harris donned in place of his Western clothes, his wife died. Harris next shows up in the historical record in the neighboring French colony of Côte d’Ivoire in the fall of 1913, carrying a cross-topped staff, a calabash, a Bible, and a bowl with water for baptisms and accompanied by two women in white (“they are his singers, and possibly his wives” — eventually there were five).

William Wadé Harris
The iconic image of William Wadé Harris

For eighteen months Harris and the two women walked the coastline of West Africa, preaching a straightforward message: “repent of your sins and burn your fetishes” (charms or amulets meant to protect the bearer from witchcraft and evil spirits). Unlike white missionaries, he baptized new converts immediately, then offered rudimentary catechesis (the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, and perhaps the Apostles’ Creed) and emphasized a simple but strict moral code (burn fetishes, don’t commit adultery, keep the Sabbath, educate your children, attend church). Before leaving, he appointed others to continue his work, leaving them a similar staff and water bowl.

This most famous phase of Harris’ revival stopped in early 1915, when French authorities arrested and beat him, then deported him back to Liberia. Eight years later, missionaries found him at his former home in Cape Palmas, Liberia, sleeping on a dirty cot and barely finding enough to eat; he had suffered a stroke, though he continued to baptize large numbers.

Several themes emerge from Noll and Nystrom’s summary of Harris’ story. First, while this is still very much the colonial era in African history, Harris’ interaction with the British and French (and Liberian-Americans, whom several local tribes disliked enough to prefer European rule) is much more complex than what we observed last week in southern Africa. In many respects, he operated much like Bernard Mizeki, as a willing participant in the colonial apparatus, even scheming with the British to launch a coup that would have expanded their empire. But while the beginning of WWI did not inspire him to seek to throw off European shackles (as it did for John Milembwe), Harris’ work was profoundly troubling to colonial authorities, who didn’t know what to make of him but instinctively distrusted Harris: “With war in Europe, anyone who assembled hundreds of uncontrolled people in a high-pitched emotional state appeared threatening to colonial officials. Their simple solution was to get rid of the source of the excitement” (p. 76). (In addition to arresting Harris, the French burned down new churches built by Harris’ followers and confiscated their English-language Bibles.) Even in the last years of his life (d. 1929), Harris’ relationship with Western churches was unpredictable: in 1927 he advised a group of Ivoirian followers to accept Methodist control rather than that of an indigenous prophet, but then a year later he changed his mind and told a similar group to “begin again.”

Harrist Christians
Harrist Christians in Côte d'Ivoire, dressed in their traditional white Sunday garb - Goshen College

Likewise, Harris’ relationship to Western churches and missionaries was difficult to pin down. Before his conversion experience, he had served Anglican institutions, and even during his revival, he only encouraged converts to start new churches if there wasn’t an missionary-founded church already available. (“Wait for a white man with a Bible,” he told his “apostles” before walking on to the next town.) All of which caused enormous challenges for the Methodist, Catholic, and other churches that suddenly found themselves with thousands of new congregants in dire need—they thought—of religious education. For the kind of Christianity that Harris spread (indirectly through existing churches or, in areas not yet touched by missionary work, directly through independent African churches — there is a Harrist Church in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Liberia to this day that stems from the “begin again” advice of 1928) was quite unlike that of the Europeans: strongly influenced by the legalism and prophetic tradition of the Old Testament; accepting of polygamy; unafraid to draw images and influences from various Christian sects, Islam, or indigenous religions, whose belief in the reality of an active spirit world was retained by Harris, even as he urged his followers to burn their fetishes.

Noll and Nystrom do a nice job of putting Harris’ legacy in context, noting that the size of the actual Harrisist church (200,000 members) doesn’t begin to convey his enduring significance:

Africanist practices and ideals still color much of Christianity in contemporary West Africa. The emphasis on material objects of power, legalistic moral standards, the ruling name of Jesus and a gospel of prosperity—along with a lack of concern about polygamy and strict attention to the Bible—add up to a form of Christianity that Western Christians can find both attractive and disturbing. This situation repeats a regular feature in the long history of Christianity, as when in earlier centuries missionaries from the Mediterranean found practices of Gallic and Anglo-Saxon converts both attractive and disturbing. Time, and the gathered wisdom of local Christian movements, will doubtless sort out these matters as they did long before with the British, French and Americans (descendents of the Gauls and the Anglo-Saxons) who eventually brought a missionary gospel to the coasts of West Africa. (p. 78)

By contrast to a revival in which one mysterious man single-handedly baptized over 100,000 people and sparked enormous church growth in the space of a few years, our remaining two stories may seem somewhat less intriguing. (In part, this is the curse of living in a time of more complete historical documentation, of course.) So while they are also important for the story of African Christianity in the 20th century, I’ll try to cover them more quickly and simply encourage you to learn more by picking up the Noll/Nystrom book.

Eva and Simeon Nsibambi
Simeon Nsibambi with his wife Eva - Dictionary of African Christian Biography

First, Simeon Nsibambi (1897-1978) was born to Christian converts from a privileged Ugandan family, baptized in Kampala’s Anglican cathedral and able to study at the British-style King’s College. (During WWI he was decorated for his service as a medic serving with the British during their campaign against the Germans in East Africa.) After finishing his schooling at King’s in 1920, he married the Christian daughter of one of its first African professors five years later.

Nsibambi believed that he was not “saved” until 1919-20, but then around the time of his marriage, he experienced an acceleration of Christian commitment that led him to deeper devotional study, intense prayer, and a commitment “to God the Father. As from today I desire to be genuinely holy and never unintentionally do anything unguided by Jesus.” Reporting himself to be “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit of an unusual kind,” he retreated to the mountains, where he experienced God’s presence so strongly that he felt compelled (like Moses) to take off his shoes “because the place where he was standing was holy ground” (and rarely put them back on the rest of his life, “which would become an embarrassment to his children,” our authors note on p. 103).

In several respects, Nsibambi’s experience echoed that of a missionary named George Pilkington, who had experienced his own conversion during a retreat at Lake Victoria in 1893 and returned to Kampala with an infectious joy and zeal that sparked similar transformations among other missionaries and African converts: this marked the beginning of the “East African Revival,” which continued into the 1920s and 1930s, when Simeon Nsibambi became one of its most important lay leaders. In the judgment of Orthodox scholar Michael Harper (quoted in the Christianity Today article linked above), the effects of that revival “have been more lasting than almost any other revival in history… so that today there is hardly a single Protestant leader in East Africa who has not been touched by it in some way.”

In partnership with an English medical missionary named Joe Church, Nsibambi helped not only to spread the revival (not so much through his preaching, “At best… careful and edifying,” but through pastoral leadership and spiritual care), but to keep it linked to the Anglican Church. He also helped restrain what others regarded as the excesses of the revival (e.g., prompting other balokole — “saved” — leaders to reject the Keswick doctrine of striving for sinlessness, which threatened to “obscure the work of Christ on the cross and also obscure the believer’s constant need to be washed clean by the blood of Christ,” p. 106).

Nsibambi’s public ministry effectively ended in 1941, due to chronic illness, but in his remaining 37 years, his home became a kind of retreat center for revival leaders, and Nsibambi continued to offer care, prayer, and counsel for Ugandan religious and political leaders. (One of his sons was Uganda’s prime minister from 1999 until this past May.) Summing up Nsibambi’s role as an “anchor” or “patriarch” of the East African Revival, Noll and Nystrom acknowledge the importance of attaching his wealth and respectability to the revival, but claim that his influence was more profound:

He also cultivated a generosity of thought and motive that allowed him to bridge the gap between formal Anglican churches and activist revivalists. On the one side he could challenge Anglican churchmen to practice holy lives, study their Bibles, confess and forsake their sins, and accept Christ’s redeeming grace. At the same time, he was at home among a raucous crowd of revivalists who sang and prayed through the night, fell into trembling trances and thought that all prescribed liturgy was a sign of spiritual death. Somehow he became an anchor to both groups, tempering the excesses of the revivalists and revitalizing the churchmen. (p. 109)

Yet even Nsibambi could not stop conflict between more evangelical balokole and the Anglican establishment. Noll and Nystrom note a 1941 incident in which Nsibambi’s brother-in-law and twenty-five other students were dismissed from seminary “because of their constant denunciation of ‘liberal’ teachers and students.”

Byang Kato
Byang Kato

The increasingly powerful evangelical strand of African Christianity found one of its most important leaders in Byang Kato (1936-1975), the son of a Jaba tribal priest in central Nigeria who was baptized as a Christian at age twelve. Though his displeased father responded by keeping him from school for a year (the father eventually converted as well, in the 1960s), Kato continued his education, receiving his bachelor’s degree from London University and master’s and doctoral degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary. During his time in America, Kato spent a summer doing missions work in Alaska (“Ministry in Alaska represented a vast cultural leap for a black man from Nigeria, but Byang enjoyed the challenge…,” p. 89) and addressed the 1970 InterVarsity student mission conference in Urbana, Illinois.

But Kato’s most significant work was done in Africa, where (in the dissertation that made him the first African evangelical to earn a Th.D. and was later published as Theological Pitfalls in Africa) he lamented the continent’s “theological anemia” and articulated four responses: cultivating African scholars who would write and publish African theology; founding graduate schools of theology; publishing a journal for African evangelicals; and launching an accrediting agency. Kato did not live to see most of these goals realized, but his leadership led directly to the founding of two evangelical graduate schools (in Bangui, Central African Republic and Nairobi, Kenya), and he personally convened the first meeting of the Accrediting Council for Theological Education in Africa in 1975, the same year he drowned at the age of thirty-nine. (Noll and Nystrom also note the launch of the African Journal of Evangelical Theology in 1978, and the publication of the Africa Bible Commentary in 2006.)

In all these efforts, Kato tried to steer evangelicals between two extremes. First, the theological liberalism that dominated theological education in Africa had, on that continent,

…turned toward syncretism and universalism, with some Western missionaries even encouraging Africans to return to their traditional religions in order to preserve what was valuable in their own culture. The underlying theological assumption was that all religions led toward one god and that all religious believers belonged to Christ—whether or not they knew him. Kato’s goal shared some features with the purposes of liberal theologians, but he also sought a more distinctly Christian theology for Africa that was freed from European and merely humanitarian constraints. (p. 91)

Second, he had to overcome the influence of fundamentalist anti-intellectualism: namely, the teachings “that higher education was inherently dangerous, that crude notions of biblical literalism were sufficient for understanding the will of God, that ignorance was as pleasing to God as disciplined study or that moral codes developed to serve Europe and America could be applied without adjustment to Africa” (p. 91).

Seeking to ‘let African Christians be Christian Africans,’ Kato argued that “It is God’s will that Africans, on accepting Christ as their Savior, become Christian Africans. Africans who become Christians should therefore remain Africans wherever their culture does not conflict with the Bible. It is the Bible that must judge the culture. Where a conflict results, the cultural element must give way” (p. 92).

Intriguingly, he rooted this argument in a recognition of the Early Church’s history in pre-Islamic North Africa: a period that both shaped Western Christianity and predated most African indigenous religious practices. To Kato, early Christianity offered a more authentically African religion than anything else.

Note: an abridged version of the Kato chapter is available online from Christian History.

Next week: Christians responding to political injustice in southern and eastern Africa.

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