Faithful and Reforming, Featured Stories

Wittenberg meets Addis Ababa

Mark Granquist

There has been a huge and unprecedented shift in the geographical location of Christianity over the last 100 years. In 1900, two-thirds of all Christians lived in the North Atlantic world (Europe and North America). But by 2000, this percentage had shifted; now two-thirds of all Christians live in the Global South (Latin America, Africa, and Asia).

While Christianity in North America is holding steady, and in Europe is declining, the growth of Christianity in the Global South is nothing short of explosive. The magnitude of this change is only beginning to be felt, but will be a major factor in Christianity in the 21st century.

This change is also true for Lutheranism, as four of the ten largest Lutheran populations are now in the Global South, and this is where Lutheranism is growing the fastest. The total number of Lutherans in Africa increased from 5.6 million in 1987 to 18.7 million in 2009.

Three of the largest of these rapidly growing Lutheran populations are in East Africa; Tanzania (5.3 million), Ethiopia (5.3 million), and Madagascar (3.0 million), which, along with Kenya (150,000), make up now one of the largest concentrations of Lutherans in the world. The work that Lutheran missionaries began in East Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries was taken up and dramatically expanded by African Christians, to the point that there are now more Christians in East Africa than in North America.

European missionaries “discover” Africa

The first modern European missionaries tended to avoid Africa, with its difficult climate, in favor of work in Asia, especially India and China, begun in the 18th century. One of the first Lutheran missionaries to Africa was Johan Ludwig Krapf, a German working for the British Church Mission Society, who began a long pioneering mission in East Africa in 1837.

Along with several other later missionaries from Germany, Krapf began to survey East Africa for mission stations, worked on reducing local languages to written form, and began to convert local people to Christianity. This initial work was difficult, for political considerations and the hostility of some groups made their work difficult; diseases also took their toll. When the British and Germans began to colonize East Africa in the late 19th century, more mission work became possible (though identification with the colonizers was not always a positive thing).

Mission work on Madagascar was begun by missionaries from the Norwegian Mission Society in 1866 as an extension of work they had already begun in South Africa; it expanded rapidly after that.

The first Norwegian-American missionary arrived in 1887, and soon there was a flourishing mission in that country. The formal Lutheran presence in Ethiopia also began in 1866 with missionaries from the Swedish Mission Society, and later other European (and eventually American) Lutheran mission societies also came to work there. These groups had to work initially at the margins of the country, as the Ethiopian emperor sought to safeguard the territory of the Orthodox Church in that country.

In Tanzania, formal Lutheran mission work began there in 1887, and as the territory had just been colonized by Germany, the leading Lutheran mission groups in the country were German. Though there was much Lutheran mission traffic through Kenya, formal Lutheran work there was not begun until after World War II.

Now missionaries offer education and support

Mission work is always affected by political changes, and this was especially true in East Africa. Pressure from indigenous leaders affected work in Madagascar and Ethiopia, and the Italian conquest of the latter country disrupted mission work for a time. World Wars I and II meant that European mission societies could not work in East Africa, and American Lutheran groups stepped in to support these “orphaned” missions, especially the Swedish and Swedish-American missionaries in Tanzania. With the formation of the Lutheran World Federation in 1948, this new body took over the job of coordinating much of the Lutheran missionary work in East Africa.

Though Western missionaries played an important role in the beginnings of Lutheranism in Africa, it must be said that the success of this work, and of its phenomenal growth, was due to the response of African Lutherans to the gospel, and to African church leaders, who have accomplished much of this work. Many missionaries realized early on that training African Christian leaders was the only way that Lutheranism would catch hold and flourish in East Africa, so Lutherans developed a number of seminaries and theological schools for the education of African Lutheran pastors and leaders. When many African countries became independent in the 1950s and 1960s, these local Lutheran leaders established, out of the mission congregations, their own independent Lutheran churches.

Western missionaries still work in East Africa today at the invitation of these independent churches, mainly in areas of education and support. The future looks bright for East African Lutheranism, and Lutherans in North America are beginning to learn the faith in new ways from their African friends and colleagues.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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