From Burundi to Zaire: Taking the Gospel to Africa

From earliest times the Lord has called his faithful to “teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Our living prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball, has reiterated that command—and has called us to “lengthen our stride.”

The latter-day Church’s recognition of this responsibility is not new. During the Church’s early days, Joseph Smith sent missionaries to all the states of the United States and into Canada and western Europe, as well as to the Indians of the frontier and to many of the distant lands of the sea.

Brigham Young extended the thrust of the missions to such exotic places as Hawaii, Chile, Australia, India, China, Ceylon, South Africa, the West Indies, and British Guiana. But most of those distant missions were short-lived because of political difficulties, and the Church turned its attentions increasingly towards the United States, Canada, and western Europe, where the field seemed more ripe for their labors.

Thus, for more than one hundred years, the Restoration remained primarily an American movement. Because of the gathering, no ward, stake, seminary, or temple existed outside of the traditional settlement from Mexico to southern Alberta—except for those that served the pioneers of Hawaii.

But in 1951, when David O. McKay became prophet, the Church began to assume an international character. Mission areas became progressively smaller as more missions were created and intensively proselytized. The membership grew rapidly and became more cosmopolitan. In just over a quarter of a century the Church now has more Latin American Saints than the total membership of the Church in 1905, and more non-American members than the total Church population of 1925. Mission branches have grown into wards and stakes under local leadership in Europe, Asia, Latin America, South Africa, and the South Pacific. Today more men bear the priesthood than there were Saints at the end of World War II. We now baptize more converts annually than the total Church population of one century ago. The Church is adding as many stakes yearly as the total number of stakes organized during its first hundred years. Temples are operating or are under construction in the United States, Canada, Mexico, England, Switzerland, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, and Samoa. Even casual observers in many parts of the world now know of the Church, and often regard it with favor.

We gratefully acknowledge that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a world church with a mission for all mankind. Saints are joining in greater numbers in more lands than ever before, and these new Saints are beginning to lead their own people to the gospel. They serve as missionaries, branch presidents, bishops, stake presidents, and as General Authorities with responsibilities that affect the entire church.

The trend is clear. Zion is spreading beyond Utah and beyond America, and beyond the English-speaking people who first responded to the message. As the full impact of President Kimball’s revelation on priesthood is felt, and as we respond to his call to spread the gospel, the Church will increasingly become a world force.

Yet much remains to be done. While we can take pride in the growth of the Church in our lifetime, we must also recognize the magnitude of our challenge. The four million Latter-day Saints of today represent less than two percent of the population of the United States, and less than one in a thousand of the population of the world.

Many countries in eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa have not even been opened to the gospel message, and these include the most populated nations on earth, such as China, India, and Russia. Only now is the Church beginning its work with the black people of Africa, where fifty nations have gained their independence since World War II and where 350 million people live. Subsequent to the revelation on the priesthood, approximately one thousand Africans accepted baptism in the Lord’s Church, but they represent only one convert for every 350,000 people. Most of the nations there and in the Middle East have yet to meet their first missionary. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia have never even heard of the Church, and many know nothing of Christ.

Much must be done to fulfill the Lord’s commission to this dispensation. As we expand our vision beyond the Christian nations of the world, we must be prepared to understand and respond to great cultures that are still unfamiliar to us. If we would teach, we must first learn about these people.

For many Americans, Africa has been and remains the “Dark Continent.” But such a perception is inaccurate. Africa’s contribution to the modern world is significant. The nations which cover that continent now outnumber any other single bloc of power within the United Nations, such as the communist bloc or the Western bloc. Africa is also a rich storehouse of the minerals vital to the industrial nations, producing most of the free world’s gold and diamonds, and large quantities of platinum, copper, iron, and uranium. It also produces much of the cocoa, rubber, and vegetable oils needed in industry. At this writing, Nigeria delivers great quantities of oil to the USA, and several other north African countries produce large quantities as well.

Africa’s Heritage

Africa has an old and venerable heritage. Long before Europe was colonizing, and even before Lehi migrated with his family to their promised land, Africa was spawning great kingdoms on its soil. Egypt evolved a mighty state based on irrigated agriculture from at least 3300 B.C. Nubia, on the Upper Nile, created a kingdom that became powerful enough to conquer and rule Egypt in the eighth century B.C., going on to develop a great iron industry which lasted for one thousand years, until after A.D. 300. Axum, the ancient source of Ethiopia, adopted Judaism in the pre-Christian era, and then accepted Christianity in the fourth century A.D., to become the longest continuously Christianized nation on earth. Nok, far in the west of Africa, evolved a bronze and iron age on the plains of Nigeria before the Christian era.

These ancient kingdoms were followed in the Christian era by many other important trading nations, such as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai in west Africa, and Mwenemutapa in east Africa. The western kingdoms, wealthy from their trade in gold, controlled the caravan routes across the Sahara. As their power increased and they adopted Islam, they became famous centers of learning at a time when Europe was just emerging from the medieval period. The Mwenemutapa kingdom developed around a great capital called Zimbabwe, which was built of granite without the use of mortar.

Some of these African kingdoms adopted Christianity from missionaries who came during the first four centuries after Christ. Others converted to Islam when the Muslim invaders penetrated their lands after A.D. 700. But not all Africans submitted to Christianity or Islam, and not all of Africa was divided into great kingdoms. Most of the people remained under traditional chiefs in small communities, earning their livelihood by their farms and herds, retaining their indigenous cultures and religions. In these small communities each person was linked to everyone else by initiation rites, by which they became brothers or sisters to every other person their age, sons or daughters of their elders, and fathers or mothers of those who followed after. They lived in simple, self-sufficient communities, and they shared their abundance through ritual feasts whenever any member of the community celebrated a birth, a marriage, or other special occasion.

Slavery struck a severe blow at this traditional African culture, however. First introduced by the Egyptians and Arabs and then expanded by the Europeans and Americans, the slave trade took the victims from their own to foreign cultures, denying them not only their homeland but also their identity. Thus, while Europe and her American colonies thrived under the labor of the slaves, Africa suffered and faltered. Eventually the Africans fell to colonial armies in the nineteenth century, were dispossessed of their lands, and were forced to serve foreign, white masters. Not only did they lose political control, but they found their traditional life-styles further altered by technology, materialism, and Christianity.

Independent Africa Today

After two world wars demoralized Europe, and as the Africans gained experience and confidence with their invaders’ technology, resistance grew. Finally, beginning in the Muslim north immediately following World War II and continuing in the black nations (Ghana, 1957), African colonies threw off the yoke of their colonizers. While the transition is still not complete, and many independent nations are not truly free, the decolonization of Africa is one of the greatest revolutions in human history. Just as most Africans became colonial subjects in a single generation last century, most have now freed themselves in a similarly short generation today.

All but three African nations are now ruled by black Africans, but even these nations struggle with the legacy of colonialism. Because they have retained the boundaries established by the colonial masters, fifty nations occupy a land less than three times the size of the United States. There are sometimes disagreements among these countries, stifling the natural cooperation which they need to build upon. But the Organization of African Unity has shown that they can cooperate—though its main goal has been to remove colonialism from the continent. In other matters, the nations generally remain aloof from each other—and therefore politically and economically weak.

The economy of Africa largely developed as a response to the needs of European and American industry. Industries which extracted resources, and their systems of roads and railways, generally tied each nation to its mother country, rather than to other regions of Africa. Because of this, their industries and agriculture are insufficient to feed their rapidly growing population. Until they change this pattern, they seem bound to a cycle of poverty, perpetually dependent upon foreign aid and development and increasingly distrustful of the outside world.

In spite of these hurdles, great progress is being made. We hear most about the coups and wars, but many African nations are increasing their level of literacy; building roads, railways, hospitals, schools, and other facilities; and developing industries geared to their needs. They are aggressively seeking a better life. For them the Church can offer new hope, but we Latter-day Saints must prepare well to understand and lead the many cultures of Africa to a knowledge of the restored gospel.

Religion in Africa

As we contemplate our new opportunities to teach our African brothers and sisters, we must recognize that they have a long tradition of religion. Four great traditions compete for the loyalties of the Africans: indigenous folk religions; Islam, which came from the Middle East; Christianity, largely the legacy of the colonial era; and the new African Christian faiths of recent times. Each facet of the African religious experience presents a different challenge to our missionaries.

Folk religions. Traditional religion in Africa is as diverse as the ethnic divisions of the people. Each clan or tribe originally worshipped its own gods, and at least one-third of the Africans still remain loyal to their clan religion, especially in central and southern Africa. Although the folk religions almost universally teach of a Creator-God, they tie their adherents most tightly to their clan ancestors. Initiates are also often connected with a totem animal, the symbol of their identity, by markings on their face or body. Most of these folk religions lack written scriptures, or great shrines, but the powerful force of ritual ties their day-by-day affairs to their beliefs and their clan past. Because these folk religions are tied to their specific culture groups, no single approach will serve the missionary who attempts to teach them. He must learn the customs, rituals, and taboos of each community he wishes to teach if he is to avoid offending its inhabitants. Perhaps nowhere is the spiritual life tied so completely to the social, political, and economic life of a people as amidst the folk religions of Africa. A questioning of any part affects the whole society.

Islam. Islam is equally entrenched in Africa, with more African followers than are claimed by Christian sects. Today nearly one-third of all Africans are counted among the 800 million followers of Muhammed. In Africa Muslims dominate the north and the east coast.

Islam is difficult for Christian missionaries to counter. Some of its doctrines are similar to Christian doctrines, including the belief in one Creator-God who has taught people how to live and has provided a day of judgment with its rewards or punishments, depending on one’s obedience. Islam means “to submit,” and Muslim means “the submitter.” Indeed, these are apt titles for the faithful. Their commitment to God is sincere, personal, and constantly demonstrated.

The basic tenets include a very explicit code of rules called “The Five Pillars of Islam,” by which believers demonstrate their faith. They include the frequent recital of a creed confessing belief in the “one true God,” prayers five times daily to that God, fasting, almsgiving to the poor, and a pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime to the holy shrines of the faith at Mecca in Arabia. Muslims believe that the performance of these acts assures God’s approval. The hour of public prayer in a Muslim city is a moving sight: thousands crowd the streets to prostrate themselves before Allah.

Though Islam is rich in doctrine and scholarly scripture, its basic tenets bind simple and learned in a bond of brotherhood. All who submit to Allah are equals before the law. While practice may fall short of that ideal, the doctrine is as respected by its followers as Christianity is by its followers.

Christianity in Africa. Africa was once a major world center of Christianity. Immediately following the death of the apostles, Christian churches rose everywhere along its north coast, from Alexandria in Egypt to Hippo in the west. Church councils which deliberated Christian teachings were largely inspired by Africans, such as Arias and Athenasius, who argued the character of the Godhead at the Council of Nicea. But when Islam spread across North Africa in the eighth century, Christianity nearly disappeared except for pockets of Coptic Christians in the east.

With colonial explorations, however, the Portuguese reopened the door to Christianity in Africa. They searched for the Christian king of Ethiopia and assisted him in repelling the Muslim army. They planted the cross wherever they went. They were particularly successful in converting the king of BaKongo and making over his kingdom into a Christian state. But as Portuguese power waned, Christianity in Africa began to fail.

Then the Industrial Revolution revived interest in Africa, particularly among the Protestant nations of northern Europe, and Protestant and Catholic missionary societies established themselves throughout the continent. In less than two centuries they had converted nearly one-third of all the people. Their schools became the basis for the education systems of most of the new nations, and they also established hospitals and clinics. Their translations of scriptures became the basis of literacy for the entire continent, except the Muslim areas. Though they are divided into many different sects, the descendants of those early Christian converts remain a devoted and powerful force in the modernization of Africa. The leaders of today’s independence movements and governments are mainly mission educated, as are most of the business leaders and urban workers.

New African Christianity. Mission Christianity has spawned a unique derivative in Africa. At first African converts were overawed by their mission teachers, but literacy and familiarity with European society caused many to reject the inferior status they were given. They resigned from the church and sought an alternative. Eventually some evolved their own “separatist” churches, which taught that one could love the Lord without hating his own traditions. Hundreds of these sects have arisen since the beginning of this century, particularly where white settlers dominated every aspect of African culture.

Perhaps the most successful separatist church is “The Church of Jesus Christ on Earth through the Prophet Simon Kimmangu,” which thrives in Zaire. This church began with the conversion of Simon Kimbangu as a Baptist in 1915. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, Kimbangu believed that he received a call from Christ to minister to those who suffered from lack of medical care. At first he tried to flee, but the voice persisted until finally, in 1921, Kimbangu responded to the call and helped many people. After a ministry of only five months, he was arrested when colonial officials and some Catholic missionaries claimed he was seditious. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to 120 strokes of the whip, which was to be followed by execution. By heroic efforts of friendly missionaries his sentence was commuted to the strokes and life imprisonment. He died in prison in 1951.

His immediate family and friends continued to spread his teachings. Despite efforts of his enemies to suppress the movement, it has survived and today has more than 4 million adherents in Zaire and the surrounding countries.

Though no single description fits all separatist churches—the array of names, rituals, beliefs, and organizations is astounding—they are all attempts to give an African character to Christianity, free from any foreign trappings that may have distracted them from communion with God. Missionaries who would preach the message that God still speaks to people will find a receptive audience in these separatists, but they may also find discordant doctrine.

The Challenge

The problem of reaching a people so varied in their religious background is complicated by distrust between groups. Muslim countries sometimes suppress Christianity in any form. The conventional churches often oppose the separatists. Some nations reject any alien missionary society, and others nationalize their churches in order to control what is taught.

In addition to the religious divisions, the split of Africa into so many distinct nations isolates people further. Often their boundaries reflect the hostility of their leaders, making cooperation difficult. Most are jealous of their new-found independence and are suspicious of all foreigners who represent a tie to their colonial past.

One further divisive legacy of colonialism is the language of their former rulers. Most nations today use English, French, or Portuguese as their national language, though most of the people, particularly in the country, still use their traditional language. Rural Africa tends to remain traditional, poor, and isolated from outside influences. Urban Africa is generally cosmopolitan and educated and more likely acquainted with Christianity, but its people are mobile, moving constantly to take advantage of the changes that are occurring everywhere. Urban Africans also tend to be more interested in bettering their temporal life than in spiritual pursuits.

Despite the highly volatile climate of change that has swept Africa, general Christianity and its missionaries have created a respected role for themselves. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints follows in that tradition. Our work has been opened cautiously among selected people who are ready to receive the gospel. Our missionaries, who enter upon the work with no ulterior motive and who can offer full partnership in the gospel, will find a dynamic and exciting challenge as we begin to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to Africa.

[photo] Members of the Cape Coast branch of the western district of Ghana.

[photo] Woman in a native African costume. (Photography by Glen Brown—Photounique.)

[map] Map by Jim McLaughlin

[photos] Above: Edong Esit Ekpa Robert Ekpa, a young member of the Church from Etinan, Cross River State, Nigeria. Left: Mfon William Eka, a nineteen-year-old member from Akamkpa, Cross River State, Nigeria. (Photography by Spencer Palmer.)

[photo] Moroccan girl. (Photography by Morton Beebe—Imagebank West.)

William F. Lye, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Utah State University, Logan, is a Sunday School teacher.