West Africa

This article covers countries south of the Sahara from Senegal to Congo People's Republic (the former French Congo). Countries are referred to by their current names.

Early Christian activity was mainly Roman Catholic and Portuguese. The kings of Portugal received from the papacy by the ius patronatus powers which included a commission to evangelize. A Wolof (Senegal) chief was baptized in 1489; Sao Tomé became a suffragan bishopric in 1539 and a diocesan bishopric in 1584. A Christian king ruled in Benin from 1550, and in Sierra Leone, King Farama III was converted in 1604.

A German Lutheran named Joachim Dannenfeldt was sent to the Gambia in 1654/55 as chaplain and missionary. W.J. Müller combined the same functions at Fort Frederiksborg (Ghana) from 1661 to 1669. The Anglican Thomas Thompson worked in Cape Coast (Ghana) from 1752 to 1756. His Ghanaian pupil Philip Quaque was ordained in 1765 as the first non-European Anglican priest. Scripture selections were published in Fante (Ghana) in 1764.

In the 1790s Sierra Leone became a home for freed slaves from England and Nova Scotia. Many of these were Christian. Early missionary work from 1795 by Baptists and others was unsuccessful, but more enduring work was begun in 1806 by German Lutheran missionaries of the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society (CMS), who were joined in 1811 by British Wesleyan Methodist missionaries. Sierra Leone long remained an important center for Christian expansion throughout West Africa.

Episcopalian ministers accompanied the first American settlers to Liberia in 1820-21. Baptist missionaries followed in 1822, and Methodists in 1833. In 1821 a British Methodist missionary arrived in the Gambia. In Ghana, the Basel Missionary Society began operations at Christiansborg (Accra) in 1828, and abortively at Kumasi in 1839. In 1834 a British sea captain found groups of Africans meeting for Bible study at Cape Coast, and addressed an appeal to British Methodists which they answered in the same year. Most of the early missionaries soon died or were invalided home, but there were notable exceptions, such as the British Methodist Thomas B. Freeman,* who lived in Ghana almost uninterruptedly from 1838 to 1890.

In the early 1840s, former slaves who had become Christians in Sierra Leone returned to their homes in Nigeria and elsewhere and appealed for missionaries. Anglican and Methodist work began in W Nigeria in 1841. British Baptists set up a mission in Fernando Po in 1841, and in Cameroun in 1844. Scottish Presbyterians began in 1846 to work around Calabar, where Mary Slessor* was to do outstanding work from 1876 to 1915. West Indian missionaries played a significant role in this area. American Presbyterians reached Gabon in 1842 and Rio Muni in 1864, later extending their activities into Cameroun. In 1866, Ga (Ghana) became the first West African language to have a translation of the whole Bible.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Roman Catholic missions were predominantly French. The Holy Ghost Fathers reached Gabon in 1844, followed by Roman Catholic sisters in 1849, by which time J.R. Bessieux of Gabon was responsible as vicar apostolic for Roman Catholic work throughout West Africa. This responsibility was divided in 1863. The Société des Missions Africaines de Lyon opened stations in Dahomey (1861), Nigeria (1868), Ghana (1879), and Liberia (1884).

African church leadership developed to a limited extent during the nineteenth century, and African lay initiative was often prominent. Three Senegalese Roman Catholic priests were ordained in 1840, but their number did not increase rapidly. The Anglican Samuel Ajayi Crowther* was in 1864 consecrated bishop “on the Niger,” and in 1874 the Sierra Leonean Charles Taylor became chairman of the Sierra Leone Methodist district.

The training of African ministers formed part of a wider educational program, of which Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone (founded 1827, affiliated to Durham University 1876) was an outstanding but not an isolated example. Christian education was generally practical as well as academic. The Holy Ghost Fathers developed handicrafts and agriculture, and the Basel Mission formed a Mission Trade Society in 1859.

Opposition to Christianity broke out violently from time to time. Baptists had to withdraw from Fernando Po in 1858, and Jesuits in 1870. All missionaries were expelled from Abeokuta in 1867. Baptist work in Douala (Cameroun) was destroyed in 1885.

With the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, the colonial “scramble for Africa” began in earnest, with mixed effects on the life of the churches. In 1886 the Basel Mission took over British Baptist work in Cameroun, and German Pallotines and Baptists entered the country four years later. French missions in British territories, and British missions in French, suffered certain disadvantages, and tended to co-opt, especially for educational work, missionaries of the same nationality as the colonial power. A painful reorganization, under missionary control, of Crowther's Niger Mission took place in 1890. Divisions within the church had occurred in Sierra Leone from the 1790s, but it was not until much later that the first important independent churches came into being (Native Baptist Church, 1888; United Native African Church, 1891-both in Nigeria).

During the period 1890-1945, the expansion of Christianity generally gained momentum, despite two world wars and the economic depression of 1929-31. Missions already active extended their work. In 1896 the Basel Mission finally established a center at Kumasi. Two years before, a Roman Catholic mission had entered the Central African Republic. In 1900 the CMS entered the largely Muslim area of N Nigeria; American Presbyterian activity increased in S Cameroun; N Ghana was entered by British Methodists in 1911.

New missions arrived, such as the Qua Iboe Mission from Northern Ireland (E Nigeria, 1897), the Sudan Interior Mission (N Nigeria, 1893), the Sudan United Mission (N Nigeria, 1904), the Africa Inland Mission (Chad, 1909), the Christian and Missionary Alliance (French-speaking Guinea, 1918), the Brethren Church of the United States (Brazzaville, 1918), the Assemblies of God (Upper Volta, 1921), and the World Evangelization Crusade (Ivory Coast, 1935). Many of these missions were conservative in theology and American in origin. New Roman Catholic orders entered the area (e.g., Sittard missionaries of the Heart of Jesus, Cameroun, 1911; Capuchins, Chad, 1929; St. Patrick's Society for Foreign Missions, Calabar, 1932).

Outstanding missionaries (the best-known being Albert Schweitzer,* Gabon, 1913-63) continued to take the lead in most churches, but Africans assumed increasing responsibility. The growth of Christianity was stimulated by a number of African prophets, such as Garrick Braid (Nigeria, from 1909), W.W. Harris (Ivory Coast, 1913-15), Sampson Opong (Ghana, c.1920), and Joseph Babalola, who in 1928 began in Nigeria a ministry which led to the founding of the Christ Apostolic Church and the Church of the Lord (Aladura) in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Most of these movements led both to the extension of mission work and were one source independent churches now a major factor in West African Christainity.

The encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae (1926) crystallized Roman Catholic thinking on the indigenous priesthood. The first African Roman Catholic assistant bishop was consecrated in Sierra Leone in 1937.

World War I caused the repatriation or internment of German missionaries, particularly in Togo and Cameroun. The International Missionary Council* under its secretary J.H. Oldham* was largely responsible for organizing help for such “orphaned missions” when peace returned. Cooperation among missions, and between missions and government, increased, especially in education and medicine. An Eastern Nigerian Missionary Conference was held in 1911. Fourah Bay became an interdenominational college in 1919. Similar cooperative institutions were established at Kumasi, Lagos, Bunumbu (Sierra Leone), and elsewhere. The formulation of educational policy was advanced by a survey undertaken in 1920-21 by the Phelps-Stokes Commission, on the initiative of American missionary societies.

After 1945, churches developed (often before political independence) toward full autonomy under African leadership. An African was appointed chairman of the Ghana Methodist district in 1948. The first African Anglican diocesan bishops since Crowther were consecrated in 1951, within an autonomous province. African Roman Catholic diocesan bishops were consecrated in Cameroun (1955), Dahomey (1957), and elsewhere; an African archbishop in Dahomey (1960) and the first West African cardinal (Paul Zougrana of Upper Volta) in 1965.

Interchurch cooperation became the norm in such areas of the churches' life as theological education, Christian literature, agriculture, and medical work. The All Africa Conference of Churches was inaugurated at Ibadan in 1958; the more conservative Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar was founded in 1966. No major church union, however, had taken place by 1971.

K.S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vols. 3-5 (1939-45); C.P. Groves, The Planting of Christianity in Africa (4 vols., 1948-58); A.F. Walls (ed.), Bibliography of the Society for African Church History (1967- ); E. Dammann, Das Christentum in Afrika (1968).