Missionaries and Colonization

Hilde Arntsen, Lecturer, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo

Jesus has been hijacked by Western culture so as to make him "white", he was not. -- Father Wolf Schmidt, SJ, St. Ignatius College, Zimbabwe (1991).

Christianity was introduced in North Africa as early as the first century AD., but it was only in the late nineteenth century, when colonialism was advancing, that Christianity seriously increased its presence on the continent (Ray, 1976: 193). In what later became Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, the first mission station was opened in Inyati close to Bulawayo in 1859 by the London Missionary Society through Reverend Robert Moffat. It is pertinent to keep the following critical questions in mind:

Who brought "education" but Christian missionaries? Who fought against tradition religions but Christian and Muslim missionaries? Who saw traditional religions as deadly adversaries but Christian missionaries? Who therefore detached the African from his [sic] religion but the church people? (Taban Lo Liyong, 1988:81-91)

There may have been many reasons for missionaries to travel to Africa, but not only as remarked by Father Wermter: "The community culture of Africa fascinated the European missionaries who came from individualistic cultures." Moyo remarks that the introduction of Christianity made the mistake of believing that to become a Christian, people had to be "removed from their indigenous cultures" (Moyo, 1983, in Haar, 1990: 139). African religions were treated as an evil which had to be encountered. This can be seen in the following quotation: "Once their children have gone to school, they begin to show interest in the strange religion of the white missionaries, religion which denies the truth of Tonga religious beliefs." It was frequently believed by Western missionaries that traditional religious beliefs and practices were inferior, and traditional customs had to be done away with before the acceptance of Christianity. This did not happen without resistance or problems, and gave for instance rise to the process which can be seen as religious syncretism in religious beliefs today. What Bishop Desmond Tutu described as a "form of schizophrenia" was thus the result of having to disclaim the indigenous culture before converting to Christianity (quoted in Moyo, 103). There is no reason to dismiss such attitudes as a thing of the past, however. Many of the same sentiments can be found in contemporary religious expressions and among the leaders of various religious groups.

The role of the missionaries in the colonisation of the region was also considerable in terms of cultural and political domination of the people. Although the missionaries' task was to make people accept the Bible and its teachings, Christianity was turned into an ideology which could be used to convince people not to resist white domination. Religion was used to legitimate, sustain and even promote political tyranny and oppression, as well as in other instances for reasons of political liberation of the people. In the words of Charles Villa-Vicencio, religion has functioned both as the "opiate of the people" and a "source of the social renewal" (1989: 25). Bourdillon, on the other hand, maintains that "missionary Christianity cannot simply be identified with colonialism" (Bourdillon, 1990: 269). Regardless of claims that the missionaries regarded themselves as opposed to the colonial ideology, they were part of the colonial structure and brought with them religions, beliefs and practices which were alien to the area. In the words of Father Wolf Schmidt, "the early missionaries did not differentiate between their faith and their own culture".

Missionaries and the Fight Against Colonialism


Bourdillon, M. Religion and Society: A Text for Africa, Gweru: Mambo Press, 1990.

Lo Liyong, Taban. "Reverend Dr. John Mbiti is a Thief of Gods." In Criticism and Ideology: Second African Writers Conference . Conference Proceedings, Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988. 81-91.

Ray, B. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual and Community. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Villa-Vicencio, Charles. "Have the Chickens Come Home to Roost?" in Religion and Oppression: The Misuses of Religion for Social, Polical, and Economic Subjugation in Eastern and Southern Africa. ed. Edicessa. Symposium Proceedings, 1989.

[From Hilde Antsen, The Battle of the Mind: International New Media Elements of the New Religious Political Right in Zimbabwe. Oslo:University of Oslo, 1997, pages 49-50. Available from Department of Media and Communications [[email protected]].

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