Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

The Church of the Red Monastery in Egypt: A Late Ancient Church Comes to Life

Friday, January 18th, 2013

by David Brakke

On a Saturday in December 2012, as Egyptians went to the polls to approve or reject a proposed new constitution, I arrived in Cairo to meet my colleagues Eugene Rogers, who teaches Christian thought at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Caroline Schroeder, a fellow early church historian at the University of the Pacific. The next day we traveled south to Sohag, where we met up with Malcolm Choat, a papyrologist at Macquarie University. The four of us had traveled to this bustling city north of Luxor to visit one of the most significant surviving monuments from late ancient Christianity, the church of the Red Monastery. Thanks to a conservation project led by the art historian Elizabeth Bolman of Temple University as overall director, we were able to admire the most extensive painted church interior to survive from late ancient and early Byzantine Christianity. It is, simply put, a revelation.

© David Brakke

A door to the church on the northern side, with some surviving ornamentation from late antiquity.

In late antiquity the Red Monastery was part of a federation of three monasteries, two for men and one for women, which scholars usually call the White Monastery Federation, after the larger of the two monasteries for men. (“Red” and “White” are modern terms, based on the color of the surviving churches’ bricks.) Established by Pshoi in the middle of the fourth century, the Red Monastery probably became subordinate to the White under the leadership of Pcol, the founder of the White Monastery; the federation of three communities took definitive shape under Shenoute, who led it for some eighty years until his death in 465 CE. Shenoute directed the building of the church at the White Monastery, after which the smaller church at the Red was modeled. Although both churches partially survive, only in the Red’s church can one still see the sanctuary’s painted program almost entirely intact, thanks to mud-brick walls that covered most of it from some time in the Middle Ages until the early twentieth century.

Ten years ago a team of Italian conservators—directed by Adriano Luzi, Luigi De Cesaris, Alberto Sucato and Emiliano Ricchi—began the arduous and delicate task of cleaning paintings that had been obscured by centuries of accumulated smoke, soot, and dust. The U.S. Agency for International Development supported their work, through the American Research Center in Egypt. In the 1990s Bolman and the Italians had successfully completed a similar project on the thirteenth-century wall paintings at the Monastery of St. Antony; the breathtaking results of their work there can be seen in Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea, which Bolman edited and Yale University Press published in 2002.

The paintings in the Red Monastery church are much older than those at St. Antony: their (at least three) successive phases date to the sixth and seventh centuries. In a video made for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier in 2012 and still available on YouTube, Bolman explains the significance of the church’s paintings and the nature of her and her colleagues’ work. Shortly before we arrived, their project came to its end.



The results of a decade of labor are extraordinary. The sanctuary of the Red Monastery church now requires the close attention (either in person or through the book that Bolman and her collaborators will soon publish) of all historians interested in the worship, art, architecture, spirituality, and monastic life of late ancient and early Byzantine Christianity—that is, of just about every church historian of the period. We can now see in vivid color “the jeweled style” that characterized the literature and art of late antiquity across the Mediterranean. These Egyptian monks did not praise God and contemplate his Word enclosed by drab grey or tan walls that reflected the monochromatic desert sand. Rather, they worshiped in a space sparkling with bright greens, pinks, and yellows, and populated with plants, animals, and a crowd of faces, including those of human beings, angels, and Christ himself.

The three semi-domes of the tri-conch apse feature monumental depictions of Christ, as an infant suckling at the breast of the Mother of God, as the incarnate Word, and as the triumphant returning savior, along with angels, the evangelists, and other biblical figures. Lower levels feature ornately decorated columns flanking niches that contain depictions of revered fathers of the monastic community (such as Pshoi, Pcol, and Shenoute) and prominent bishops of the Egyptian church (such as Athanasius, Cyril, and Dioscorus), as well as of prophets and martyrs. Around the niches plants send forth flowers, rams and gazelles run, and peacocks pose. Two columns feature dozens of paired human faces, gazing at one another. On a wall just outside the apse, a praying figure with Persian hair and boots, perhaps the church’s patron, welcomes the visitor to this lush and lively world.

It is characteristic of the jeweled style that the eye finds nowhere to rest, but roams around the walls and ceilings, delighting in the variety of the images and making connections among the figures and between individual elements and the larger program. Why are there animals in male-female and male-male pairs, sometimes with explicit genitals and sometimes without? Why do St. Stephen, the first martyr, and Theonas, the relatively obscure late third-century bishop of Alexandria, stare at each other across the southern conch? And how do all these relate to Mary and the Christs that look down at them from above? We can anticipate Bolman’s carefully researched answers to these and other questions in her forthcoming publications, but the church does not lend itself to definitive interpretations and final theological statements. Instead, it invites the continual play of the Christian imagination.

Although later phases of the painting look distinctively “Coptic,” Bolman has found that earlier phases find close parallels in places as far away as Milan, and the overall effect must have been characteristic of thousands of painted church interiors around the Mediterranean world. The huge White Monastery Federation, across the Nile from the major city of Panopolis, was no cultural backwater, even if modern-day Sohag does not receive many tourists. The Red Monastery Church provides a unique opportunity to get as close as possible to how a Christian of the seventh century would have experienced the apse of a painted church visually. The closest analogy that I can think of is what one can learn from standing in the reconstructed synagogue of Dura Europus in the National Museum of Damascus. Unlike that painted synagogue interior, however, this amazing church remains where it has always been. It is a special doorway to the past.

© Caroline Schroeder

The northern exterior wall of the Red Monastery church, which was constructed around 500 CE.

But what is the Red Monastery Church’s future? My colleagues and I were lucky enough to visit it just after the conservation team had departed and while Professor Bolman and the art historian William Lyster were still there to provide us access and to spend hours with us explaining their work and discussing the meaning of this rich visual environment. We are deeply grateful to them for what I can describe only as an early church historian’s dream come true. I hope that many of my colleagues will be able to experience this precious monument as I did, but the painted surfaces remain delicate, vulnerable to damage through even a small accident. After centuries of absence, a renewed community of Coptic monks has gathered around this ancient gem. It will be their responsibility, as well as that of the wider Coptic Orthodox Church, to find some balance between the church’s unparalleled status as evidence for the Christian past and its undeniable potential for fostering spiritual renewal in an uncertain present. In late December came word that the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization (ISESCO) will add the Red Monastery to its World Heritage List for the Islamic World, the first monument in Egypt to be so honored.

New Periodical: The Journal of Africana Religions

Friday, January 11th, 2013

by Sylvester Johnson

The first issue of the new Journal of Africana Religions appears this January 2013. This peer-reviewed journal, published quarterly by The Penn State University Press, offers critical analysis of the religious traditions of Africa and the African Diaspora as well as religious traditions influenced by the diverse cultural heritage of Africa. An interdisciplinary journal encompassing history, anthropology, Africana studies, gender studies, ethnic studies, religious studies, and other allied disciplines, the Journal of Africana Religions embraces a variety of humanistic and social scientific methodologies in understanding the social, political, and cultural meanings and functions of Africana religions. We invite authors to submit articles and review essays that examine African traditional religions, Islam, Christianity, new religious movements, and other African and African Diasporic religious expressions and experiences. For more information, go to

Does the East African Revival turn 90 this year?

Monday, May 21st, 2012

by Jason Bruner

Sometimes what seems to be historians’ most basic task – telling when something happened – can prove to be among the more difficult. At the same time, determining when a particular event happened – or when various people think it happened – can uncover rich resources for understanding complex processes, personal rivalries, and hidden assumptions about the people and events being studied.

And such is the case with the East African Revival. (For Kevin Ward’s fine historical outline of the Revival, see here.)

“It is a delicate matter, to write up Revival!” So said Dr. Joe Church, and he would know. As an evangelical Anglican missionary doctor who spent decades working in Rwanda and Uganda, he was the Revival’s most dedicated historian. His eye to posterity led him to preserve thousands of letters, newspaper clips, photographs, sermon notes, and other sundries. And through his dozens of published editorials, pamphlets, booklets, and his quintessential revival history Quest for the Highest: An Autobiographical Account of the East African Revival, he has probably done more than any other single person to form the historical perception of the Revival, particularly in the West.

For Joe Church, the Revival was the outgrowth of a microcosmic exchange between himself and an educated Ganda man in Kampala, Uganda, Simeon Nsibambi, in 1929. The two sought a higher Christian life and spent a few days tracing Scofield’s chain references, by the end experiencing a more intimate relationship with God and one another. In the process, an African and European helped one another move towards a more victorious life of personal holiness.

As he tells it, Church soon returned to his mission station in Gahini, Rwanda, where he instituted a similar regimen of plain Bible readings and daily prayer, from which the pattern of the East African Revival emerged in the early 1930s. The message was then carried throughout East Africa by small bands of African preachers, who brought a message of the severity of sin and the need for individuals to confess their sins publicly and have them washed in the powerful blood of Jesus.

But accepting Church’s chronology would make the revival only 83 years old.

Church’s narrative efforts (and his status as the central European responsible for the movement) did not go uncontested. As conflicts between revived and non-revived Ugandan Anglicans approached a breaking point in the early 1940s, they drove the British Bishop of Uganda, C.E. Stuart, to counter Church’s historical ownership of the Revival’s origins.

Attempting to claim the credit for the revival’s spread across southern Uganda and elsewhere, Bishop Stuart argued that the revival didn’t really begin until he invited Joe Church and African Revival “brethren” to conduct missions for the Uganda Jubilee in 1937. Later, he also claimed that the training he provided to a handful of ordinands in Kampala in the early 1930s “softened the soil” for the revival to sprout in the late 1930s. The revival, therefore, was an outgrowth of his vision and efforts, though he never joined the revival personally. And his chronological imagination sought to bolster his contested authority as the bishop of a divided church.

For Stuart, the revival would be 75 or 80.

Then there is a history (unpublished, housed at the Henry Martyn Centre) written by Simeon Nsibambi in the early 1970s. Intriguingly, Nsibambi’s own accounts contest Church’s history by stating off the top: “The Revival in Uganda has been running for 50 years, that is from 1922.” For Nsibambi, the revival began when he received a personal blessing from God that drove him into a deeper spiritual quest and resulted in his greater attentiveness to prayer and Bible study.

But Nsibambi’s history is by no means politically neutral. He wrote during an age in which the revival itself was wrought by factions that formed in the late 1960s – factions which he worked, largely unsuccessfully, to reconcile. His narrative, therefore, asserts his preeminence as the progenitor and patriarch of the movement (sans Joe Church), which should heed his calls toward reconciliation.

Accepting Nsibambi’s story, this year the revival is a nonagenarian.

So, what do all these conflicting chronologies reveal about the Revival?

It is telling that all of these histories (in print or in a verbal testimony) of the Revival are personal. In written form, they trace the revival to the outworking of microcosmic exchanges between individuals or particular decisions: the singular conversion of Nsibambi, the meeting of Church and Nsibambi, a decision to organize a mission. For them, writing the Revival’s was creative act that was inseparable from theological convictions and claims to legitimate authority.

While it was personal, the Revival was also a biographical movement. As Derek Peterson has described, Revival fellowship groups taught ordinary folk how to compose their history for themselves – their story of how God brought them to salvation and maintained them in that salvation. But each revivalist had a story to tell. Microhistories abounded, and these histories might have little to do with the narratives composed by Church, Stuart, or Nsibambi.

Revival biographical histories reveal that the Revival is a movement that has a plurality of narrative beginnings, which attest to the internal diversity of the revival message’s appropriation. In fact, some Ugandans were keen to maintain that their “revival conversions” in the early 1930s preceded any preaching by a Revival preaching team sent from Gahini – they were “revived” before or apart from the Revival, so to speak. For them, the Revival started when they were awoken with a divine voice, or received a particular vision, and confessed, rid themselves of charms and fetishes, and began living a more devout Christian life. For one of these converts, the Revival might be 79 or 78 this year.

Most testimonies, however, were not written down for a variety of reasons. Some viewed this as a calcification of a story of God’s dealings with their heart that must, by definition, remain au currant. Many revivalists were simply illiterate. Others feared that writing and publicizing the movement might lead Satan to attack that person, thereby discrediting the movement. (Ironically, Joe Church held this view, despite his efforts to tell their stories.)

What, then, can we say about how old the East African Revival is?

Like many things, it depends on whom you ask, but the pursuit of an answer to this basic question has illuminated the historical ambiguities of this dynamic movement. The tensions and debates that wrote and re-wrote the Revival’s history point to the theological discrepancies among Ugandan Anglicans and personal rivalries within the Anglican Church of Uganda.

It is safe to say, however, that for the majority of those who found the revival’s message to be personally revolutionary, the chronological squabbling of prominent men is of little concern. Their own histories are far more important. This points to the need for the inclusion in historical scholarship on the Revival of the dedicated ordinary “historians” who have not had the privilege of print or status, but have nevertheless through their testimonies been composing the Revival’s history for decades. They know without a doubt when their story begins, often down to the hour they received salvation.

Joe Church certainly had one thing right: writing up revival is a delicate matter. So happy 75th, 79th, 80th, 83rd, or 90th (or other) birthday.

Jason Bruner is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Giving the Devil His Due

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

by Tom Simpson

© Copyright Jon Styer/Eastern Mennonite University (CC BY 3.0)

Just in time for Mother’s Day, a bit of commentary on a very recent moment in church history, and something for your syllabi:

Like many of you, I teach a range of upper- and lower-level courses on religion. In all of them, I use an assortment of strategies to bring the students to “breakthrough” moments, moments when they realize that the academic study of religion, irrespective of our different backgrounds, leads us to questions, and insights, of ultimate importance.

In this regard, the arresting documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell has been a godsend. It tells the story of ordinary Liberian women, Christian and Muslim, who banded together, praying, fasting, and protesting until they “did the unimaginable” – they brought an end to Liberia’s recent, raging civil war. In the film we see Leymah Gbowee, one of the movement’s heroines, launching the campaign in Monrovia’s St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. At film’s end, we find her there again, on Mother’s Day, with her sisters in the struggle, the “mothers of Liberia,” rejoicing and basking in the choir’s praise: “And I thank God, thank God, for Momma.

I show Pray the Devil Back to Hell so frequently and so enthusiastically because it offers a portrait of religion at its best, and religion at its worst. Here is love in its fullest measure, nonviolence in its fullest expression. For my students, born in the 1990s, who want to understand the resistance campaigns of Gandhi and King, but find those histories increasingly remote, this film makes it plain. And yet in the same film we find religion’s dark side: Liberian President Charles Taylor, standing in church, testifying that he enjoys the blessing and protection of “Jehovah God Almighty.” “No one can bring war against me,” he adds; “I am war itself.” Taylor’s warring opponents, moreover, attend the mosque as religiously as his supporters go to church.

Maybe you already know all this. Pray the Devil Back to Hell isn’t on the margins of our consciousness anymore, the way it was when I got my first copy of the film back in 2009. Now PBS has made it a centerpiece of its “Women, War, and Peace” documentary series, and Leymah Gbowee has a Nobel Prize, as does Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president whose victory was the culmination of the women’s campaign. Charles Taylor too has been in the news, finally receiving his verdict at The Hague.

If you decide to use the film in class, let your students know that they’re in for an intense, but rewarding, experience. I pause during the film, no more than 30 minutes in, to see how they’re doing, and I make sure to leave time for them to reflect and talk afterward. Inevitably, they respond with gratitude. They witness the power of love and the deep wisdom beyond university walls. My abiding hope is that they will never be the same.


Tom Simpson, Ph.D., teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. You can find more of his reflections on religion, culture, and the teacher’s craft at

Review: The African Memory of Mark

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

by Natalie Barrett

Downer's Grove: IVP Academic, 2011. 279 pp. $22.00In his persuasive work, The African Memory of Mark, author Thomas C. Oden compels the reader to reconsider Mark’s African origin and influence, going against the grain of traditional Western perspective; a mindset that prematurely rules out the traditional sources of early African Christianity before it has had a chance to be told (53). Though the West has been comfortable negating any semblance of apostolic succession outside their own, African Christians have held fast to their ancient Christian identity, “constrained by the weight of time-honored ancient social memories that arise distinctly out of Africa (33).”

The author states that the purpose of the book is to “reassess the value of tradition with respect to Mark as Gospel writer, interpreter of Peter and evangelist to Africa (14).” By first exploring Mark’s family tree, a plausible stance for Mark’s African origin is set, followed by examination of ancient documents that verify Mark’s ministerial presence in Africa.

The author references four classic texts that attest to the narrative of Mark. These are the Coptic liturgy, Martyrium Marci, Sawirus bin al-Muqaffa of al-Ashmunein, and Anba Shenouda III (current patriarch of Alexandria), (61). The Synaxaries, accounts of Saints and/or martyrs, of the Coptic liturgy particularly maintain the distinction that Mark was the first in Africa; “as with Peter in Rome, it gives Mark the foremost place among apostolic figures for Africa (61).” Further, Synaxaries from various locations and varying dialects agree, affirming the ecumenical nature of the texts (62).

The next phase of argument reconstructs Marks identity supported in the Gospel accounts and from the perspective of African memory. Suggesting plausible friend and familial relationships, the author exposes the African viewpoint which sees Mark in a more prominent role than is traditionally perceived (82ff), culminating in the African mosaic of the Lord’s Supper and Pentecost according to Mark (90ff).

Similarly, the African memory of Mark “has not hesitated to speculate that Mark was deeply involved, along with Peter, at some undefined points in this immense transition of paleo-Christianity from Jerusalem to Antioch and beyond (123),” and sharing the Gospel with the Greeks (125). According to the prescribed standards of Euro-American historicity, of course, “these nuances should be ignored for lack of hard evidence. But from an African perspective they are viewed as providential and confirming (93).”

In establishing the role of Mark as a pivotal in the establishment of Christianity, the author utilizes the language of the Coptic Synaxarion to demonstrate that Mark’s house was: the first Christian church, where the Passover meal was served, where the disciples hid after the death of Christ, and where the birth of the Church occurred at Pentecost (94). Affirmed by the author are the significant implications for African Christianity if such formational Christian events truly have a direct African heritage provided in the family of Mark.

Such implications, however, are more readily accepted as implied in African memory than by the more suspicious Western counterpart. However, the author strives to combine the African memory with traditional Western approaches to Mark’s Gospel sequence ultimately by not disregarding either perspective (123).

The African memory of Mark relies heavily on the relationship between Peter and Mark, and therefore establishing the connection between the church established in Rome with the church established in Alexandria (134). With the churches in Rome and Alexandria being founded nearly simultaneously (174), African memory holds to a general acceptance of the Gospel message being proclaimed worldwide; “the same good news was proclaimed in Africa on the premise that it was not ‘another gospel’ but the identical gospel that had been preached by the apostles in Roman Asia and Europe … The unity of European and African Christianity is embodied in the close relation of Peter and Mark (134).” Considering the size and prominence of North Africa in the first century AD, the Gospel message could not avoid being carried to such a prominent continent in the known world (137).

Regarding the early presence of Christianity in Africa, the author clarifies further that, “the previous narratives of the flight of the Holy Family, Simon of Cyrene, the Ethiopian eunuch and Apollos show early signs of Christianity on the African continent. Mark’s arrival, however, signaled the beginning of the apostolic mission in Africa (143).”

Like Peter and Paul, African memory remembers Mark’s evangelical efforts as intertwined with the placement of successive leaders, thereby preserving apostolic leadership of the community of faith under threat (150). As conditions for Christians became increasingly unstable and violent in North Africa, Mark began to be viewed as a threat, provoking rage from within the Alexandrian populace. Though martyrdom was a persistent reality for early Christians, the apostles, including Mark, considered the appointment of apostolic leadership of foremost priority. The idea of martyrdom was not pursued out of intentionality, but with the view that “life is not undervalued in martyrdom if the witness of martyrdom is the only way open to preserve the continuing life of the worshipping community (151).” This idea is reinforced by Tertullian when he said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Mark’s violent death was preceded by torture, all the while Mark “gave thanks to the Lord and glorified him (157),” in order to encourage the continued growth of the Church.

The narrative account of Mark’s death in the ancient source Sawirus, describes a scene in which Mark’s tattered body is to be burned as a saint; but the body was rescued by angels of God and believers moved his body to a secret burial site. These two locations are now designated with churches built upon them, growing up from the blood of their martyr, Mark. The author affirms that several burial sites in Alexandria align with the time of Mark’s ministry and martyrdom, suggesting at least potential accuracy purported by Sawirus. “The locations of the remains of the earliest known Christian sites in Alexandria correspond closely with literary recollections found in the accounts of Mark’s martyrdom.

It seems plausible to infer that the location of the events created the location of the churches (161).” Reasonable evidence that affirms the presence of such churches in early Alexandria is directly proportional to the presence of Mark in Africa, according to the author; an interpretation that is not unreasonable based on corroborating evidence (162ff).

In attempting to navigate between Western historical criteria and the African narrative, the author asks: “What would explain that there would be so many martyrial locations dedicated to Mark in Alexandria if Mark had never been to Alexandria (167)?” Though a reasonable question to ask, the Western tradition may continue to doubt the historicity on lack of proof. If thoroughly authenticated, however, the traditional dating of the Gospel of Mark would likely need to be reconsidered for the placement of Mark in Egypt at a much earlier date which would corroborate with the Coptic chronology.

The author is persuaded that the ecumenical consensus up until the nineteenth century affirmed the African memory of Mark to the extent that “it was remembered in virtually the same way by both great Sees of Rome and Alexandria (173).” The nineteenth century reductionist philosophers are blamed for the disappearance of the saints within the universities, though the author supplies no explanation for what would motivate such digression from supposed traditional ecumenism (173). Further, what would motivate a ploy to negate the physical evidence of Mark in Alexandria, which is equally as compelling as Peter in Rome? The author argues that “both arguments are based on large accumulations of circumstantial evidence (174).”

After the bulk of the work which supplies reasons for the plausibility of the accuracy of the African memory of Mark, the author finally closes in on the more interesting, in my opinion, implications surrounding the issue, though not in substantial detail. Why would the African memory be suppressed and what are the repercussions for the largely Western tradition which has infiltrated the whole of Christianity?

The author first qualifies the prevailing authenticity of Peter’s story over Mark’s as his hunch that it is a “Eurocentric predisposition that wishes to be regarded as valid scientific evidence (174).” However, earlier in the work, the author makes a more convincing argument stemming from a racial prejudice, though more complex. According to the author, the numerous causes “have to do with silent cultural conceits and prejudicial assumptions in which racial prejudice may play a part but hardly the whole. They arise out of cultural egocentricism and nativism that are so common as to be almost endemic to the human condition of every race and latitude (137).” Explanations such as these may be argued, though sociological, circumstantial, and inferential evidence may be surprisingly supportive of the African perspective. If these arguments can be validated to any extent, it would seem that the Church’s ecumenical integrity has been compromised.

The author’s final remarks again become persuasive, imploring the reader to consider the plausibility of his thesis. Avoiding explanations of personal views on hagiography and historicity, the author’s view is limited to the plausibility of Mark’s presence in Africa as the initiator of African apostolic succession. Though perhaps at some point some consideration of historical criticism regarding comparative African and Western methods should be broached, the author does provide evidence enough for a plausible scenario for truth in the African memory, eliciting a challenge to the dominating Western perspective. “The evidence is stronger than is generally accredited by the older school of Euro-American historical interpreters and is ripe for a careful review (232).” The African memory must be considered in light of its own methods for historical criticism, rather than forcing it to bend to the Western approach. For African historicity, “the metaphor of ancestors points to the apostolic witnesses as continued by the ancient Christian writers (237).” The Western demand for empirical evidence threatens to destroy the vitality of the African memory which depends on the stories of the saints.

In Africa, the story of Mark perpetuates the remembering of the entirety of African Christian identity. Digressing from the discussion of historical methodology, the author wisely states that in a hypothetical situation which was able to prove the African memory of Mark entirely wrong, that nevertheless has the African memory shaped their Christian belief in its entirety. There is undeniable truth in this reasoning which begs not to be disregarded “in the fog of academic ideological warfare (238).” However, the authenticity of the African memory should not quickly be dismissed as a verifiable historical account.

The African Church remains steadfast in its belief in its apostolic heritage. Not only because Mark is regarded as their founding apostle, but because he: ordained bishops, priests and deacons to maintain the continuity of apostolic ministry, because he was martyred and buried on African soil, and because his successors have been viewed as an unbroken chain of witnesses since the apostolic age. “In this direct way the African church preserves the apostolic teaching throughout her life, spirituality, liturgy, and dogmas (245).”

In his concluding remarks, the author acknowledges the easy objections that may be aroused based on the abundance of hypotheticals (253). He maintains, though, that there exists enough plausible evidence in favor of the truth demonstrated in the African memory of Mark. Reminding the readers of his objective, the author says, “my purpose in this book has been to show the greater plausibility of the African memory of Mark than of its modern mythic alternatives (256).” Indeed, I would agree the author has successfully achieved his objective.

What is missing, in my inquisitive opinion, is more attention to the “why” and “what now.” There must be more explanation behind the generic Western egocentrism that would lead to a two-thousand year deviation from an ecumenical identity and elicit an assessment of “bad historical method” (256) for the West. More so, the potentiality of truth held in these allegations of the West suppressing an equally sound apostolic see suggests there must be repercussions for ecumenism since the birth of Christianity.

As a Church history nerd through and through, who would enjoy reading more on the implications derived from the author’s arguments, I must ask: A sequel, Dr. Oden?

A Forgotten Legacy

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

Lott Carey (1780-1829)

by Eric Michael Washington

Just recently, an editorial assistant at Christianity Today sent me some stories asking for my assessment regarding their “newsworthiness.” I love it when historians get asked to comment on contemporary issues. One of the stories appeared in the October 6, 2010 edition of The article, “Black Christians Largely Absent from U. S. Missionary Force,” focused on the lack of African-Americans in world missions.

This particular issue “lives on my street.” As a historian, my focus is on the history of African-American Baptist missions in Africa during the 19th century and early 20th century. When I embarked upon this study as a doctoral student in the early 2000s I realized that there was an alarming lack of attention on world missions in my home church and in my national convention, the National Baptist Convention USA. The article on affirmed my observations. In stark terms the article states: “According to the 2007 African American Missions Mobilization Manifesto by Columbia International University, blacks make up less than one percent of the total number (118,600) of U. S. missionaries.”

The contemporary lack of attention fails to correspond with a historical lack of attention. As I read general histories of African-American Baptists I found that there had been African-American Baptist missionaries in Liberia, Nigeria, the Congo, and southern Africa during the 19th century and early 20th century. With my concentration fixed on African-American Baptist work in southern Africa, I became familiar with the stories of men and women such as R. A. Jackson, Emma Delaney, and James East. One residual effect of my work, hopefully, will be to spark some sort of revival among African-Americans regarding sending missionaries overseas, especially to Africa.

Just recently I presented a paper at Calvin College, my home institution, on the pioneering Baptist missionary to Africa, Lott Carey. Born into slavery in Virginia around 1780, Carey became a Christian, an ordained minister at First Baptist Church in Richmond, and in 1821 a missionary and colonist representing the Baptist General Convention and the American Colonization Society, respectively.

In the paper, I began by showing how Carey’s influence still rested upon African-American Baptists one hundred years after he began his work in West Africa, Liberia particularly. In the summer of 1920, the monthly organ of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention, the Mission Herald, announced that the third Sunday of January 1921 would be the observance of Lott Carey’s sailing to Africa. From this, it is clear that Lott Carey’s legacy was alive and well. This fails to be the case today.

One can point to a plethora of reasons why African-American churches, in general, and the National Baptist Convention, USA (NBC-USA) in particular has lost a zeal regarding missions to Africa. To be just, the NBC-USA still maintains presence in Liberia and parts of southern Africa;”>With that stated, African-Americans in the 19th century and early 20th century were comparably worse off economically and educationally than in the last 25 years. This is something that is assumed and rightly so. Is there a legitimate excuse for the lack of money that flows to the Foreign Mission Board of the NBC-USA? According to the aforementioned article, the NBC-USA reported that the average church member gives 40 cent to foreign missions work as of 1993. This is simply a neglect on the part of local churches, district associations, and state conventions all of which can funnel monies to the Foreign Mission Board.

Though Lott Carey and his family left for Africa in January 1821, he helped to organize a missionary society in 1815, the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society. By this time, Carey had purchased his freedom by saving his money earned by being “hired out” to work in tobacco warehouse in Richmond. Other members of the Richmond Society were slaves, who offered their “mites” for the hope of sending a missionary to Africa.

This group was concerned that American Baptists overlooked Africa as a potential mission field; their attention was on India and the Far East. A fledgling missionary society composed of primarily poor African-Americans endeavored to send the gospel to their “homeland” even though these Africans were born in America. For such a purpose, the society gave $700 to Carey and his party as the left for Africa. This was no mean accomplishment.

What made the difference then compared to now? Judging from my research, African-Americans both slave and free had a strong belief that the same God that allowed their suffering under the lash of slavery would fulfill his word in Psalm 68:31, “Princes shall come out of Egypt;”>This was evident in Absalom Jones’ famous sermon preached in January 1, 1808. The day and year marked the United States’ termination of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and caused celebration among African-Americans, especially Christians. Jones, an Episcopalian minister who had been part of the group of African-American worshipers that left St. George’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1791 after receiving prejudicial treatment, wrestled with the providential meanings of African slavery and the abolition of the Atlantic Trade. From his Philadelphia pulpit in St. Thomas’ Church, Jones asserted with a hint of caution:

It has always been a mystery, why the impartial Father of the human race should have permitted the transportation of so many millions of our fellow creatures to this country, to endure all the miseries of slavery. Perhaps his design was that a knowledge of the gospel might be acquired by some of their descendants, in order that they might become qualified to be the messengers of it, to the land of their fathers.

These slaves and free African-Americans had a vision of hope that lay beyond freedom for freedom’s sake. They envisioned their freedom in order to engage in Christian service. Carey exemplified this sentiment when he responded to a person who asked him why he desired to become a missionary in Africa. He said, “I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct, and respectable my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, and not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race.” This sentiment seems to be largely missing among African-American Baptists, this connection between themselves and Africa and Africans, alike.

This is an academic problem as well as a church problem. One large question that looms for me is: is there still a type of grassroots Pan-African spirit among African-Americans in general, but among African-American Christians?

A sense of historical and cultural connectedness with Africa and all persons of African descent was key motivating factor that led to African-American missions in Africa. Is there a connection with the seemingly lack of such spirit now and the lack of African-American missionary presence worldwide but also in Africa? These are questions worth exploring.