FORMERLY belgian congo. H.M. Stanley's explorations in the basin of the Congo brought the first Protestant missionaries in 1878. The first two societies were the Livingstone Inland Mission and the British Baptists. The former was a branch of the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, and when the parent body found itself overextended, the Congo mission was handed over to the American Baptists.
Other missions followed until they totaled some forty-six societies, a high percentage of them American. Two thirds of these societies entered after World War I. Yet in this vast region of more than 900,000 square miles there was little overlapping. Partly this was because of the Congo Protestant Council. The council began as a general conference of missionaries in 1902, when there were only eight missions and about 200 missionaries in the country. It developed into the authoritative voice for Protestantism in the Congo and a most effective channel of comity and cooperation. Today this intermission organization has been succeeded by an interchurch organization under Congolese leadership.
It was the missionaries who revealed the atrocities committed during the time of King Leopold's personal rule. This obliged the Belgian government to step in and take control in 1908. The Roman Catholic government showed a distinct favoritism toward Roman Catholic missions, which had followed the Protestants into the field, until after World War II, when a more liberal party came into power. For the next fifteen years all missions were officially on the same basis, enjoying considerable support from the government. This included subsidies for educational programs that met government standards. The government preferred to leave primary education in the hands of the missions, Roman Catholic or Protestant, with freedom to teach religion.
Medical work also has played an important role in the Congo, with most missions involved to some degree. A recent example of inter-mission cooperation is the medical center at Nyankunde, with doctors of four missions trying to meet the needs of the NE region.
By the time of independence in 1960, roughly half of the population were professed Christians, Roman Catholics outnumbering Protestants about two to one. Congo has been the scene of various native “prophet” movements, especially since 1960. The largest in all Africa is one that began with the late Simon Kimbangu in 1921 and now counts about half a million adherents.
Independence brought chaos to much of the country. In the next few years many missionaries had to be evacuated, some two or three times. A number were killed, both Catholics and Protestants, along with uncounted numbers of Congolese Christians. The church in Congo came out of these trials more self-reliant than before. The missionaries have returned, but now in a new relationship to the church, as assistants in the work.
A.R. Stonelake, Congo, Past and Present (1937); G.W. Carpenter, Highways for God in Congo (1952); C.P. Groves, The Planting of Christianity in Africa, vols. III and IV (1955, 1958); R.M. Slade, English-speaking Missions in the Congo Independent States (1959); J.T. Bayly, Congo Crisis (1961).