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The Evangelization of Slaves and Catholic Origins in Eastern Africa

by Paul V. Kollman

Buying Africans by the thousands at slave markets, evangelizing but not fully freeing them and forming them into faith communities and then resettling them in new sites as missionaries is a mission strategy that would startle even those who have never heard of contextualization.

Orbis Books, P.O. Box 308, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0308, 2005, 356 pages, $19.00.

Reviewed by Evvy Hay Campbell, associate professor of intercultural studies, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Buying Africans by the thousands at slave markets, evangelizing but not fully freeing them and forming them into faith communities and then resettling them in new sites as missionaries is a mission strategy that would startle even those who have never heard of contextualization. Yet it is these practices of nineteenth century French Catholic missionaries, known as Congregation of the Holy Ghost or Spiritans, which Holy Cross priest Paul Kollman explores with sensitivity, sympathy and perceptive insight.

Kollman opens with a haunting description of the twin steeples of St. Joseph Cathedral in Zanzibar’s Stone Town and the imposing structural grandeur of Notre Dame de Bagamoyo on the mainland of Tanzania, contrasting their former central prominence with the diminished role they have today where there is only a small Christian presence in a larger Muslim population.

During their first forty years in Zanzibar and Tanzania, Catholic missionaries sought to build the Church through the purchase and evangelization of slaves until the market was closed in 1873. They endeavored to form good Catholics, meaning those who were pious, obedient and loyal to the institutional Church. From a contemporary perspective the problematic elements of their strategy are multiple. They did not unequivocally declare the slaves to be free. Violent means were used to control them when the former slaves sought freedom from missionary paternalism. Rather than addressing the inhumanity of slavery they tried to deal with it pragmatically and in doing so created artificial enclaves that removed the former slaves from their own cultures.

While both secular and Catholic criticism of the Spiritans has been significant, Kollman provides a more nuanced understanding of the issues, employing the varied lenses of history, anthropology, sociology and theology to give insight into the complex circumstances of evangelization in that era. He neither indicts nor defends the Spiritan’s missionary practices; rather, he seeks to understand them and does so admirably, avoiding oversimplification.

This book is for those who want to explore the historical context of religious change in Africa more deeply as well as those with a concern for the cultural and theological currents surrounding conversions. It offers insights for Protestants engaged in missions in eastern Africa who often neglect to reflectively consider the narratives of other traditions. By exploring an earlier mission initiative insightfully, Kollman ultimately nudges us toward greater humility in our own current and future endeavors. For this we owe him our thanks.

Check these titles:
Mills, Kenneth and Anthony Grafton, eds. 2003. Conversion: Old Worlds and New. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press.

Porter, Andrew, ed. 2003. The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880-1914. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Sanneh, Lamin. 2003. Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

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