Christianity in Africa

Missionary colonial mentality &  expansion of Christianity in Africa, 1800 to 1900


Here we mainly focuse on and draws examples from the London Missionary Society (LMS), whose arrival in the early 1800s started the most notable work of missionaries in Botswana and many other parts of Africa. The LMS missionaries were the best known of all the Christian missionaries in Southern Africa especially in present day Botswana. To a large extent the LMS missionaries can safely be presented as having been at the forefront of pioneering missionary outreach throughout much of the area during the nineteenth century. Missionaries who were the most prominent members of the LMS were Robert Moffat, David Livingstone, John Mackenzie and William Charles Willoughby.

We observe that in introducing Christianity, the LMS missionaries made the mistake of believing that to become a Christian, Africa had to completely abandon their indigenous cultures. They treated African religions as evil and did everything possible to ensure that it was ousted. The western missionaries believed that traditional religious beliefs and practices were inferior, and together with the traditional customs, had to be done away with before the acceptance of Christianity. However, this was vehemently resisted in many parts.

We will also examine the role of the missionaries in the colonisation process of Africa, which was considerable in terms of cultural and political domination of the people. Although the task of missionaries was to evangelize the people, Christianity was unnecessarily turned into an ideology which was used to lay the ground for white domination. Religion was used to legitimize, sustain and even promote political oppression (Bourdillon 1960: 269).

Regardless of the claims that the missionaries considered themselves anti-colonial, and made sacrifices to fight it, it is evident that they were part of the colonial structure. They did not differentiate between Christianity and their own culture. Another important observation to note is that, while Christianity was introduced among Africa in the early 1800s, it was only in the late nineteenth century, when colonialism was advancing, that Christianity seriously increased its presence in many parts. This article testifies to the relationship that existed between Christianity and colonialism among Many African societies.


Lessons on Accounts and Beliefs of the Batswana

The religion of the Batswana was from time immemorial monotheistic. Batswana traditionally believed in a single Supreme Being whom they called Modimo, literally meaning the one who is supreme and above. Modimo was believed to be the Creator, Maker, Originator and Source of all things, including life (Chamberlin 1969:80; Schapera 1961:63). The word Modimo has always denoted a single Supreme Being. Wherever the word is used to denote an ancestor or a spirit of the dead or a living person whom one honours greatly, the word modimo (with a lower case ‘m’, a singular word for badimo) is used. The idea that the badimo stand in an intercessory position between the living and Modimo is therefore, not a modern innovation. For centuries, badimo have been believed to perform this intermediary role. Modimo, a more senior and distant spiritual being is best approached through badimo, who are generally believed to be nearer to human beings (Willoughby 1928:206; Pauw 1960:12; Moffat 1842:260-61).

From time immemorial, Batswana have always had knowledge and belief in Modimo as the Creator and sustainer of all forms of life. Belief in Modimo manifested itself in many Tswana traditional religious practices such as rainmaking, bongaka (traditional medicine) and agricultural rites of seed cleansing, first fruits (go lomangwaga) and harvest. Rainmaking rites, which depended on the expertise of the tribal dingakatsa pula (rain-makers), reveal a strong concept of the Supreme Being. At the beginning of every rain-season the rainmakers worked hard to combat drought, which was frequent in Southern Africa. John Mackenzie, a London Missionary Society (LMS) agent, describes their activities thus:

At this season the lingaka are frequently to be seen on the height of the mountains near to the town, lighting fires, blowing their horns, whistling and shouting. They have also numerous processions and a multitude of observances, which indeed take up their time (Mackenzie 1871:385).

Although the dingaka’s rainmaking rituals seemed to focus entirely on badimo, they were ultimately addressed to Modimo, the sole giver of rain. Belief in Modimo as the ultimate recipient of all prayers and sacrifices performed during a Tswana traditional rainmaking ceremony comes out clearly from David Livingstone’s early writings, which make frequent references to ‘rain makers’ and rainmaking. In one of the most interesting anthropological passages in Livingstone’s Private Journals (1851-1853) (Schapera 1960:239-43), David Livingstone reports being deeply impressed by the ‘remarkable acute’ reasoning of the rain doctor, who informed him that the medicines he used in rainmaking were a form of prayer to Modimo. In fact, Modimo had given traditional healers the knowledge of the right medicine to use in rainmaking. The traditional healer further asserted that Modimo was the power that controlled rain and could be coerced by the use of medicine to bring it. Although Livingstone disagreed with this idea, he understood the logical reasoning of the rain – maker. Most importantly, he discovered that the traditional healer had a clear concept of Modimo. W.C. Willoughby, another LMS missionary who worked among Bangwato, also made the same observation. He writes:

None but the Supreme Spirit can send rain; but their prayers for rain are addressed to the spirits of the ruling dynasty, who intercede for them at the court of One too great to be approached by mortals (Willoughby 1928:206).

As Willoughby points out, the concept or knowledge of Modimo was clearly distinguished from that of badimo. Batswana knew him as the Supreme Being: ‘One too great to be approached by mortals’. Despite the existence and elevated role of the ancestral cult among the Batswana, Batswana were not polytheistic in their beliefs and practices. Furthermore, the absence of the cult of the High God (Modimo) does not suggest that Batswana do not have the concept of the Supreme Being. Badimo were only seen as intermediaries and functionaries of the Supreme Being, who came into existence to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of Modimo. The early missionaries’ failure to properly grasp this intricate relationship between badimo and Modimo could have misled them into thinking that Batswana had no concept of God.

In the following section, we show how the missionaries responded to the beliefs, customs and practices of the Batswana.


The Accounts of Travellers and Missionaries in Botswana

The accounts of the early European travellers and missionaries, unreliable as they are, are a useful source for the study of Tswana traditional religious beliefs and practices. These sources generally reveal the cultural bias of Europeans. They were sometimes based on inaccurate information and cultural prejudice. They made Tswana religion to appear to be a morass of bizarre beliefs and practices of a people generally believed to be savages and primitive (the opposite of the missionaries who represented European civilization). It is therefore, not surprising that John Campbell, the pioneer of Tswana missions, saw the ‘great end’ of the London Missionary Society to be ‘the conversion of the heathen and the promotion of their civilization’ (John Campbell 1815:viii). As a result, missionaries came to Africa expecting to find pagans and heathens who knew nothing about God. Such expectations greatly influenced their attitude towards African way of life, African mentality and what missionary work was going to entail. Robert Moffat (1842:236), who claimed that the Batswana ‘never had the slightest idea of idols, or of idol service, could have no notion whatever of the object of missionaries, beyond that of secular interests’ interpreted this to mean a total absence of religious structures and a concept of the Supreme Being. Describing what he saw as a ‘hotchpotch of ridiculous and harmful superstitions’, he wrote:

Satan is obviously the author of the polytheism of other nations. He has employed his agency with fatal success, in erasing every vestige of religious impression from the Bechuanas …. Leaving them without a single ray to guide them from the dark and dread futurity, or a single link to unite them with the skies…. Their religious system, like those streams in the wilderness which lose themselves in the sand, had entirely disappeared … (Moffat 1842:224).

Whatever this means, this shows that there was unwillingness on the part of some missionaries to honestly search, and be open to Tswana beliefs and practices. They failed to approach them with open minds.

Another problem was that the missionaries came from a society where religion was reflected by church buildings, and represented religious beliefs and practices. The absence of these structures among the Batswana was an attestation of the Tswana ‘heathen’ life (heathenism), lack of a concept of Modimo and the total absence of religious beliefs and practices. Influenced by this sort of understanding, Moffat further presented the following picture about the Batswana:

For example, just after Livingstone’s  arrival among Batswana in 1842, when he was still unfamiliar with the Tswana beliefs and while still heavily influenced by what he heard from those he found in Africa, Livingstone wrote thus:

I could not ascertain that they had the least idea of a future state. And though they have some notions which seem to us to be connected with a belief in its existence, I have not met one who could put the necessary links together in the chain of reasoning so as to become possessed of the definite idea. Indeed, they all confess that they never think of anything connected with death, and do not wish the introduction of that subject. Their conceptions of Deity are of the most vague and contradictory nature, and his name conveys no more to their understanding than the idea of superiority. Hence they do not hesitate to apply the name of God to their chiefs, and I was every day shocked by being addressed by that title, and although it often furnished me with a text from which to tell them of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, yet it deeply pained me, and I never felt so fully convinced of the lamentable deterioration of my species before. It is indeed a mournful truth that ‘man has become like the beasts that perish’ (Schapera 1961:18).

A few years later, however, David Livingstone’s views had drastically changed. He found that Batswana were clearly and most positively asserting ‘that of old, before they ever heard of white men, they were in the daily habit of speaking of God and referring certain events to his will. All those who possess intelligence speak in the same strain’ (Schapera 1960:301). He only came to this realization after spending time with the people and after becoming acquainted with their beliefs and practices. In 1856, he came up with a definite conclusion that the people had a clear belief in a Supreme Being. This conclusion was poignantly captured thus:

There is no necessity for beginning to tell even the most degraded of all these people of the existence of a God, or of the future state, the facts being universally admitted. Everything that cannot be accounted for by common causes is ascribed to the Deity, as creation, sudden death etc …. On questioning intelligent men among the Bakwains as to their former knowledge of good and evil, of God, and the future state, they have scouted the idea of any of them ever having been without a tolerably clear conception on all these subjects. Respecting their sense of right and wrong, they profess that nothing we indicate as sin ever appeared to them otherwise, except the statement that it was wrong to take more wives than one, and they declare that they spoke in the same way of the direct influence exercised by God in giving rain in answer to prayers of the rain-makers, and in granting deliverance in times of danger, as they do now, before they ever heard of white men. The want, however, of any form of public worship, or of idols, or of formal prayers or sacrifice, make .Bechuanas appear as among the most godless mortals known anywhere … that some have supposed them entirely ignorant on the subject (Livingstone 1857:158-9).

Moffat himself actually amended or withdrew many of his earlier statements, as he came closer and closer to the people and gained a better and intimate understanding of their cultural beliefs and practices. The image of Modimo that eventually emerged from Livingstone’s writings was later reproduced and confirmed by modern African scholars of Tswana traditional religions such as Setiloane (1976). According to Setiloane, Batswana believe in a Supreme Being called Modimo. Modimo is believed to have created all things, the One who penetrates and permeates all things and the One who is the Creator and the Source of all life (Setiloane 1976:78). When Moffat began to translate the Bible into Setswana in 1828, he had no other indigenous name equivalent to that of the God of the Bible. He therefore had no choice but to adopt and use the same Tswana name, Modimo to designate God or the Supreme Being. Concerning this, Mackenzie says that the idea to use this word came from the Tswana interpreters. He writes:

Morimo (God) has not been mentioned in the preceding description of native worship and superstition. When missionaries first met with Bechuanas they addressed them through the Dutch language. They found Bechuanas who could already speak both languages, and who therefore acted as interpreters. At Griqua Town there were (and are still) regular services in both languages. The invariable equivalent for God in Dutch, given by all the interpreters, was Morimo. It was no suggestion of the missionaries: the Bechuana interpreters, after hearing concerning God in the Dutch language, said that their name for Him was Morimo. …. But the Bechaunas would seem never to have entirely forgotten God. His name was found by the missionaries still floating in their language (Mackenzie 1871:394).

This also was the case in their teaching and preaching. Right from the onset, their Batswana interpreters used the name Modimo for the Supreme Being, because he was the Supreme Being for them (Pauw 1960:12). In this way, missionaries were constantly confronted by the Tswana way of life, which Willoughby, describes as follows:

Bantu life is basically religious … Religion so pervades the life of the people that it regulates their doing and governs their leisure to an extent that it is hard for Europeans to imagine (Willoughby 1928:1).

In the heart of their beliefs and practices, as Willoughby points out, was the concept of badimo and Modimo. Everything for them revolved around Modimo. They did not know how to live without these spiritual entities. Everything for them, be it politics, economics or social, revolved around the religious beliefs and practices.