Bible & Evangelization

Foundation for African Indigenous Religious Missions (Fair Missions)
Foundation for African Indigenous Religious Missions

The missionaries are also alleged to have used the Bible as a tool to colonise the minds of the Africans (Dube 2000:4). It is argued that the Bible was presented in such a way that it painted everything associated with African practices as pagan in order to promote western ideologies, values and practices. The missionaries particularly disliked such practices as rain-making rites, initiation ceremonies, bride wealth (bogadi  in Botswana), and polygamy, because they viewed them to be contrary to the teaching of the Bible and also a hindrance to the spread of missionary teachings. The missionaries are accused of having used the Bible to colonise Africa politically, culturally and economically.

Musa W. Dube relates a popular story about the Bible and the white man as follows: ‘When the white man came to our country he had the Bible and we had the land. The white man said to us: ‘Let us pray’. After the prayer the white man had the land and we had the Bible’ (Dube 2000:3). Dube explains that this is how Africans connect colonialism to the Bible. By cooperating with scientists and explorers, missionaries are seen to have acted as agents of imperialism. Andrew Walls also suggests that there was very little or no dividing line between missionaries and their colonizing counterparts. He notes that:

‘The missionary pioneer was spoken of in the vocabulary of the imperial pioneer. Sometimes missionary occupations preceded annexation or political penetration and sometimes it followed, as in Uganda, Nyasaland and Bechuanaland. It was intimately associated with the establishment of British rule (Walls 2000:4).

Dube speaks of Livingstone as a good example of a divinely commissioned genius in colonizing Africans, and a shining example of a missionary who openly championed colonial domination in sub-Saharan Africa, especially through his declaration that civilization, Christianity and commerce should always be inseparable (Dube 2003:4-5).

She further accuses Livingstone of having capitalized on the rampant, human trade in the interior of Africa to appeal to his compatriots to colonise Africa. She also points out that Livingstone successfully stimulated the interests of traders, geographic societies and missionary societies, that is, various colonial agents, to open western commerce, civilization and Christianity to occupy and ‘ civilise’ Africans (Dube 2000:4-9). Quoting Mudimbe, she asserts that the missionary is the best symbol of the colonial enterprise. She further supports her argument by quoting Pringle,

Let us enter upon a new and noble, career of conquest. Let us subdue savage Africa by justice, by kindness, by the talisman of Christian truth. Let us thus go forth in the name and under the blessing of God, gradually to extend the moral influence … the territorial boundary also to our colony, until it shall become an empire (Pringle 2009:9).

We can therefore conclude that missionaries appropriated and interpreted the Bible in order to fulfil the aim and objective of colonialism in all spheres to make colonialism a reality in various ways. The Bible became the basic text for the missionary schools. Through the Bible, they psychologically made Africa humble and passive, thus making encroachment of the colonizers easy and acceptable. The missionaries also used the Bible to seriously weaken the traditional culture, by describing it as evil.

The Missionaries versus Traditional Authority

Let us take lessons from Botswana. The situation among the Bangwato during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the first quarter of the twentieth century reveals several of the dynamics that are unleashed when a foreign world-view intersects with the indigenous culture and particularly, where civil and religious authority overlaps. The important point here is that London Missionary Society (LMS) activities inevitably affected many aspects of the social life of the Batswana, such as religion, health, education, economics and political structures. From the indigenous cultural set up, these aspects were under the political authority of the king. But with the establishment of the Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1885, the missionaries began to challenge the legitimacy of kingly power and increasingly allied with the colonial administrators.

Their European superiority mentality was inspired by their anti-African cultural institutions. For example, they saw the cultural systems of the Batswana to be a hindrance to the spread of Christianity, and consequently felt that colonialism was justified. The best example on this was Robert Moffat a missionary of the LMS resident among the Batlhaping. Moffat was not only critical of the alliance between the church and politics, but also contributed to the weakening of the Batswana kingship structures. In 1858, he was involved in the Ngwato political events which led to the overthrow of Sekgoma and his replacement by Macheng. He hoped that the latter would facilitate a massive spread of Christianity in the region. He informed the LMS that: ‘Macheng had willingly submitted to my suggestions that he should be instructed in reading and writing; and soon as all his public affairs were settled he would … avail himself of the services of a native teacher’ (Moffat 1858:B3)

The indigenous leaders, however, held the view that Christian moral standards of the white community were incompatible with the values of the Batswana. Referring to his own Christian morality, Khama challenged their deceitfulness and treacherous conduct as follows:

… you call yourselves Christians, and I also am a Christian, a member of a Christian Church. I am doing all that lies in my power to lead my people to give up their old and sinful customs … to serve the living God and His son Jesus Christ, who I believe died for white and black … My missionaries have never taught me, and God’s book does not teach me, that a man may write anything he likes today and do any other thing he likes tomorrow (Holub 36-37).

As part of his response to these developments, Khama adopted a radical position and enforced his authority. Writing about his reforms and capability as a leader, Mrs Knight – Bruce told the Times in 1893 that:

He [Khama] is a radical reformer who yet develops both himself and his people on the natural lines; he has made himself into a character that can be spoken of as a ‘perfect English gentleman’, but without losing for a moment his self-respect as an African; he has kept his position as a disciple, not a mimic, of white civilization and he has shown how such a man can raise a nation. He has done it all as he would tell us, because he is a Christian (The Times 1893:3).

The LMS missionaries were on the other hand happy to have the British Protectorate administration and saw this as a divine appointment. They hoped that this would create a conducive environment for the spread of Christianity in the region.

You think you can despise my laws because I am a black man. Well, I am black, but I am chief of my country. When you white men rule the country, then you may do what you like; at present I rule, and I shall maintain the laws you insult and despise. … I am trying to lead … according to the Word, which we received from you white people and you have shown us an example of wickedness. You know that some of my brothers have learned to like drink, and you tempt them with it, I make an end of it today. Go! take your cattle, leave my town and never come back (The Chronicle of the LMS, 1880:1215-9; The Scottish Temperance 1880:286).

Missionary Education, Western Cultural Values and Colonialism

Education was another very important instrument that was employed to bring Africa under the influence of colonialism. It determined the course and nature of African responses to colonial conquest. Its impact softened the hearts of Africans towards Europeans and consequently brought them under their power and influence. Missionary education was used as a great weapon to confuse the people’s minds. It undermined African culture and the general way of life of the Africans (Nkomazana& Lanner 2007). In preparation for the colonizers, the missionaries taught English to those who were to be colonized by the English, so that they could later provide the needed service as officers.

Tlou and Campbell state that when colonizers arrived, they used educated Africans to gain control of the people. They also point out that missionary education aimed at producing young Africans who would accept the supposed cultural inferiority of the Africans; accept the settler colonialism as a fact of life; and admire the white man for his power, wealth and technology (Tlou& Campbell 1997). It also made communication between the colonial master and the Africans easier and thus created a positive environment for colonialism. Missionaries taught their converts to associate colonialism with Christianity, civilization and the overwhelming superiority of European weapons and warfare (Boahen 1985:198). Missionaries such as W.C. Willoughby, believed in the unquestionable superiority of the white race, culture and religion.

They viewed colonization, commerce and religion as inseparable allies. They also emphasized the need for imperial responsibility (paternal guardianship) over the Africans. They sought to smooth cultural contact between the colonizers and the colonized and to ‘ protect’ and ‘ civilise’ the African in an effort to make him a more useful member of the new colonial community. Returning back to Willoughby, it must also be mentioned that he rejected any idea of social and political equality between the Bantu and the Europeans. His notion of equality, in fact, affected his interpretation of the Africans and their culture. He argued that Africans in general could not be treated as equals, by Europeans, before they were socially and politically upgraded. It is only after that development, which he argued, takes many years to mature, that they could be seen as occupying the same status. He further pointed out that their brotherhood with whites was only on the basis of being ‘ children and adolescents’ or ‘ younger brothers’ of the British and not on equality (Willoughby 1923:159-160, 229). He further wrote:

If we could take ideal into our dealings, it would crown our strength with patience and gentleness, and we should become redeemers of Africa. But that means keeping very close to the Greater Paternal Heart of the World – or maternal if that is a better metaphor (Willoughby 1923:230231).

He held the view that the Bangwato people of Botswana, the people he served as a missionary, were backward and slow in learning. He pointed out that localization or transfer of political or religious power and leadership or government, to Africans was a farfetched possibility. Because of their slowness in learning and development, the process of handing over government was expected to take a very long time.

While missionaries were responsible for introducing young people to reading and writing skills, as well as teaching women sewing, baking, hygiene and the nursing of the sick missionary education contained within it many negative aspects (Tlou& Campbell 1997),. Those educated in missionary schools received a western styled education which did not aim at preparing them to be political leaders of their country, but at taking up subordinate positions in a colonial system. Tlou and Campbell (1997) for instance, note that the objective of missionary education was not to develop the socioeconomic needs of Africans, but was for purposes of Bible reading and evangelization. However, Mgadla notes that: ‘By the middle of 1880 western education was no longer a chiefs’ privilege (Mgadla 1989:44). It was being made available to many Africans as possible to maximize that impact and influence.

Missionary education was presented as a tool to weaken the influence of the indigenous religion and replace it with Christian values. The purpose of missionary education was to merely open the minds of Africans to Western influence.

Access to missionary education was controlled by the missionary bodies themselves. To receive education one had to become a Christian and adopt western values of dress etc. Western education opposed the traditional schools of bogwera (for boys) and bojale (for girls) in Botswana. It was also against bogadi (bridewealth), rain-making rites and traditional medicine and its related practices (Tlou&Campbell 1984:135). Missionary education, therefore, was firstly used as an agent of change. It was to reconstruct African culture.

Secondly it was used as a vehicle to import and impose western values on Africans. To missionaries, western education represented modernity and civilisation. It was used to spread western social, cultural and economic value systems. It favoured western values and completely rejected the African cultural environment and cultural values. It failed to appreciate any culture other than its own western culture, which was considered superior and of a higher level of civilisation. Thirdly, in many different ways, it facilitated European control over Africans and consequently reinforced colonisation. To achieve that goal missionaries opened mission schools among the Africans and demanded that candidates had first to convert to Christianity. Gray Seidman captures this influence as follows: ‘ Africans learned about European culture. They read European books and learned about European ways of doing things’ (Seidman 1985:95). Moshoeshoe I of the Basotho Kingdom told the French missionaries that: ‘ It is enough for me to see your clothing your arms, and the rolling houses in which you travel, to understand how much strength and intelligence you have’ (Ibid). Moshoeshoe, like many other African leaders, understood the influence of European missionaries to be closely related to the factors that promoted colonialism.

Missionary education, therefore, did not only reinforce colonialism, but also became an instrument which was used by Europeans to destroy the people’s cultural values. Its main aim was to convert ‘heathen’ to Christianity and introduce them to the skills of reading the Bible. Its focus was not on practical subjects such as carpentry, building, etc, but stressed reading, writing and scripture. This was important for the colonial process because Africa had to learn to speak and read English (Mgadla 2003:38). Gradually this form of education replaced indigenous education.

The young became more interested in western education rather than the initiation schools. The African practice of rain making, initiation rites and medicine (bongaka) and other beliefs were discouraged and said to be contrary to Christian moral codes (Amanze 1998:52). Through education, missionaries worked hard to replace African culture with western culture, which they expected Africans to adopt. All these created an atmosphere that presented little resistance to colonisation. They were taught to believe that almost everything about western cultures was superior and good, while African culture was barbaric (Tlou& Campbell 1984:187).

Another important observation to be made was that missionaries saw their major role as agents whose fundamental duties are to spread Christian values and western civilization; these were seen as sides of the same coin. To effectively do this, missionaries introduced Christianity to the Africans within the western cultural context, which specifically supported the establishment of a colonial order. According to C. Kein missionaries also reinforced the idea of the primitiveness of Africans. Shillington brings in another aspect to this (Kein 1999:22). He points out that the response of Africans to this was resolute. He says that: ‘They did not want new ideas that threatened to undermine the traditional religious basis of their authority’ (Shillington 1995:289)


By all standards, the western missionaries undermined cultural and religious traditions of Africa. It is also noted that despite this tendency; the indigenous form of Christianity was based, conceived and understood within the cultural tradition of the people. The missionary approach was to impose western education and other western values which missionaries regarded as superior. They adopted a western cultural superiority thus undermining the cultural, religious, social and political independency of Africa. They insisted that to become Christians, Africa had to completely abandon their culture and religion, which without any consideration were believed to be evil. In the process these missionaries become part of the colonisation process of Africa and contributed towards the political domination of the people. Christianity was turned into an ideology used to legitimise colonial oppression by the west.


Amadiune, I. 1997. Africa Reinventing: Matriarchy, Religion and Culture. London: Zed Books.         [ Links ]

Amanze, J.N. 1998. African Christianity in Botswana. Gweru: Mambo Press.         [ Links ]

Blaikie, W.G. 1910. The life of David Livingstone, London: John Murray.         [ Links ]

Campbell, J. 1815. Travels in South Africa Undertaken at the Request of Missionary Society. London: Black & Parry.         [ Links ]

Comarroff., J & T.J. Comarroff, 1986. Christianity and Colonization in South Africa. American Ethnologist 13,1:1-22.         [ Links ]

Donovan, V.J. 1982. Christianity Rediscovered. London: SCM.         [ Links ]

Holub, E. 1881. Seven Years in South Africa: Travels, Researches, and Hunting Adventures, Between the Diamond Fields and Zambezi, 1872 – 79, 2 Volumes. Trans by EE. Frewer. London.         [ Links ]

Lichenstein, H. 1928. Travels in Southern Africa in the Years 1803 – 1806. Trans. by Anne Plumtree. Cape Town: Van Riebeck Society.         [ Links ]

Livingstone, D. 1857. Missionary Travels & Researches in South Africa. London: John Murray.         [ Links ]

Lovett, R. 1945. The History of the London Missionary Society, 1795 – 1895, Vol. 1. London: Henry Fowler.         [ Links ]

Mackenzie, J. 1871. Ten Years North of the Orange River. Edinburgh: Hodder & Stoughton.         [ Links ]

Mackenzie, J. 1884. Austral Africa: Losing it or Ruling it, Vol. 1. London: Sampson Low, Marton, Searle &Rivington.         [ Links ]

Mackenzie, W.D. 1902. John Mackenzie: South African Missionary & Statesman. London: Hodder & Stoughton.         [ Links ]

Mbiti, J. 1990. Introduction to African Traditional Religions. London: Heinemann.         [ Links ]

Moffat, R. 1842. Missionary Labours in Southern Africa. London: John Shaw.         [ Links ]

Pauw, B.A. 1960. Religion in a Tswana Chiefdom. London: OUP.         [ Links ]

Parsons, Q.N. 1972. Khama’s Word. Lusaka : NECZAM.         [ Links ]

Schapera, I. (ed.) 1960. Livingstone’s Private Journals, 1851 – 1853. London: Chatto&Windus.         [ Links ]

Schapera, I. (ed.) 1961. Livingstone’s Missionary Correspondence, 1841 – 1856. Los Angeles: University of California Press.         [ Links ]

Setiloane, G.M. 1976. The Image of God among the Sotho – Tswana. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema.         [ Links ]

Sillery, A., 1954. Sechele, London: The Trinity Press.         [ Links ]

Willoughby, W.C. 1969. The Soul of the Bantu. London: London: SCM.         [ Links ]