from Africa in Transition and Africa Program

Kenyan Theologian Who Elevated African Religion Passes Away

The Ecumenical Center and Church is pictured on November 21, 2008, in Abuja, Nigeria. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

October 25, 2019

The Ecumenical Center and Church is pictured on November 21, 2008, in Abuja, Nigeria. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Hugh Trevor-Roper—historian, essayist, master of Peterhouse at the University of Cambridge, regius professor of modern history at Oxford, a life-member of the House of Lords—argued in 1965 that Africa had no history prior to European exploration and colonization. In his 1965 book, The Rise of Christian Europe, he wrote that “there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness,” its past the “unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.” In the over fifty years since he wrote those words, modern scholarship has utterly demolished Trevor-Roper’s views. Nevertheless, they persist in dark corners. A corollary to his view was that traditional African religions were demonic and utterly inferior to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. 

The Kenyan John Mbiti, an Anglican priest, theologian, and academic, died on October 5 at the age of eighty-seven. He led the reappraisal of traditional African religions that sees them as equal to other world religions. He argued that traditional African religions were specifically congruent with Christianity, and that Christianity was more than Europe: “The days are over when we will be carbon copies of European Christians. Europe and America westernized Christianity. The Orthodox easternized it. Now it is our turn to Africanize it.” 

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While he had his critics, he opened an ongoing academic and theological conversation that starts with the value of traditional African religion. Upon his death, tributes ranged from Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who characterized him as “key father of African theology.” Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, praised Mbiti for his “sense of justice for indigenous peoples.” Mbiti moved easily among African and European academia. It is perhaps ironic that Mbiti earned his PhD at Trevor-Roper’s University of Cambridge. 

As is well-known, Christianity is growing rapidly in Africa, while it is in relative decline in Europe and North America. The Gordon Theological Seminary estimates that here are 631 million Christians in Africa, 601 million in Latin America, and 571 million in Europe. These totals include a wide range of churches that self-describe as Christian. Many of the African churches incorporate elements of traditional religion. The Vatican estimates that the number of Roman Catholics in Africa has increased from 45 million in 1970 to 176 million in 2012.
 

More on:

Religion

Kenya

Race and Ethnicity

Sub-Saharan Africa

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