Christianity's Resurgence: Focus on Africa – Part 1
Updated: Jul 9
If you pay attention to the media, you will stumble on the sad news about Christianity in the US and Western Europe. In the US, the Pew Research Center reports that 90 percent of Americans considered themselves Christians in 1970, but now that statistic is 64 percent. Furthermore, Pew Research says that the Christian majority may disappear by 2070. In the UK, The Guardian summarizes census data taken in 2021 that reports the English and Welsh population are 46.2 percent Christian, a 13.1 percentage decline since the last census in 2011. In 2022, the German press said that the Catholic and Protestant membership had dropped from 61 percent to 49.7 percent in fifteen years. While Western Europe contains more than the UK and Germany, the results are similar in France, Italy, Spain, etc. So, where can Christianity catch a break? The answer seems to be the Continent of Africa.
Since Christianity's decline seems to be replaced by Islam's ascent, especially in Europe, I thought a small review of Africa might be enlightening. Part 1 is a short review of Africa's religious history, but in Part 2, you will discover why Africa is Christianity's salvation. It is a significant finding for the long-term outcome of Christianity vs. Islam in Africa.
Early Christian History in Africa
Most Christians are familiar with the story of Abraham, around 2000 BC traveling from Ur in present-day Iraq to Turkey and then to Canaan and Egypt. Five hundred years later, Moses led the Jewish slaves out of Egypt. Fifteen hundred years later, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to keep King Herod from killing the baby Jesus. Egypt would make sense as the gateway for Christianity to enter Africa. Many historians credit Christianity as being in Egypt by the middle of the 1st century and in Carthage and Ethiopia by the end of the 2nd century. According to Mark 15:21, the Romans forced Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross for Jesus. Cyrene was a little town in Libya close to Egypt. Acts 8:31 gives credit to the evangelist Philip's conversion of an Ethiopian traveler in the 1st century AD. Both cases insinuate that trade and travel were common between Jerusalem and northwest Africa.
In the first few centuries of Christianity, Africa was a strong participant in the religion, producing many missionaries, theologians, and three Roman Catholic Popes. In 330 AD, Christianity grasped a strong foothold when Ethiopia declared it a state religion.
Early Islamic History in Africa
The spread of Islam in North Africa came with the expansion of the Arab empire. Muhammad died in 632 AD, and in 634, Umar, the second Caliph after Abu Bakr, began a period of forcible growth. He captured Egypt in 640 AD. Generally, once an area was conquered, the occupants had one of three choices. They could convert to Islam and live a prosperous life as a citizen of the Islamic Empire. If they were Christians, their religion was recognized as one of identifying the one true God, and they were allowed to live as second-class citizens (dhimmis) if they paid a mandatory religious tax. Third, people who did not convert to Islam and were not Christians could be taken as slaves or killed.
The Islamic Empire grew strongly in the Mediterranean Lake as Arabs were avid traders with the Europeans. North Africa, to this day, is still mostly Islamic. Sub-Saharan Africa, south of the great Sahara Desert, has more of a mixture of Islamic and Christian populations. In this area of Africa, Islamic expansion came more passively through Islamic merchants, traders, and sailors.
The Great Slave Trade
To be fair, slavery existed before Islam, but since it was occurring on captured territory, the Islamic Empire participated in it. The Islamic slave trade occurred mostly in Africa's eastern half, with Egypt being the conduit to central Africa. The early Islamic slave trade included Africans and Turks, eastern Europeans, and even a few Western Europeans. Still, after the Prophet Muhammad made it haram that Muslims should not be taken into slavery by other Muslims, the institution of slavery expanded into non-Islamic locations. People, who did not worship the one true god, were seen primarily as sources of slaves. Since they possessed no religion worth mentioning, they were natural recruits for Islam. Interestingly enough, Muslim missionaries were restricted from proselytizing because of its effect in reducing the potential reservoir of enslaved people.
Like in the Americas, slaves were widely employed in irrigation, mining, agriculture, animal husbandry, and domestic workers and servants. Many Islamic caliphs and sultans had plantation farms and industries, just like the Christian nations. There were two occupations commonly staffed in the East by slaves you would not find in the West. Female slaves would be used for concubines, and male slaves for soldiers. Islamic law allows sexual intercourse with female slaves, and men were permitted to have as many concubines as they could afford. As for soldiers, the early Islamic army formation was primarily cavalry. However, the two empires that Muhammad and the caliphs that followed him kept bumping up against were the Byzantine and the Sassasian (Persian) armies that had both infantry and cavalry. Up until the Crusades, African slaves were used widely as Islamic infantry. For example, in 870, one governor in Egypt working for the Abbasid caliphate had 45,000-foot soldiers, all African slaves.
The Portuguese were the first to kidnap people from the west coast of Africa and take them back to Europe. Soon after, the Spanish and the British took the slaves to their colonies in the new world. The Spanish brought their first African captives to the Americas from Europe as early as 1503. By 1518, the first captives arrived in the Caribbean from Africa. While 1619 is considered the beginning of the slave trade in the North American British colonies, the British, by that date, already had numerous settlements in the West Indies where their sugar plantations needed lots of labor to harvest the sugar cane. The tobacco plantations in the Chesapeake region initially drove the need for enslaved people in North America. Later, the demand for slaves was exacerbated by the cotton plantations in the southern colonies. While the Portuguese originated the practice, the Spanish, Dutch, English, and French participated in that illicit trade. Slaves were "sourced" primarily from West Africa,
Historians still debate the number of Africans forcibly transported across the Atlantic between 1500 and 1866. An extensive research effort started in the 1960s places the total at more than 12 million people. While there was a vibrant slave trade from Africa's west coast to the Americas, there was also a lively slave trade from Africa's east coast. After the Ottoman Dynasty came on board during the 14th century, the Turks preferred East Europeans as slaves and the African slave trade eased up. The total number of Africans taken from the continent's east coast and transported to the Arab community was between 9.4 million and 14 million. These figures are estimates due to the absence of documented records.
Slavery in the West was officially over in the 1860s. In the Islamic East, the slave trade was officially over in 2007. However, there are rumors it is still happening in the Islamic countries of the Sahel (south of the Sahara across Africa). The high estimate for the Christian slave trade is 12 million people forcibly taken. The high estimate for the Islamic slave trade is 14 million. The forced deportation of up to 26 million people from Africa impacted population growth there. It was in that period from 1500 to 1900 that Africa's population stayed stagnant or even declined.
The Effects of Colonial Rule
Direct colonial rule started in Africa in the 1880s. The colonial rulers viewed Islamic civilization as having a higher standard than indigenous traditions, and consequently, Muslims were given preferential treatment. Christian missionaries were barred from operating in Muslim areas. During this period, Islam made dramatic gains in Africa. In 1900, Muslims comprised about 32 percent of the African population, while Christians constituted about 9 percent. In 1962, colonial rule was gone, and the Muslims still outnumbered the Christians 3 to 1. However, by 2010, Christians slightly outnumbered Muslims, 48 percent to 45 percent. What happened?
The Impacts of Christianity and Islam
More than anything else, religion shapes people's values and perceptions of their worldview and participation in social life. Christianity has led to fundamental shifts in African societies. Before Christianity, the family system practiced in Africa was polygamy, and large extended families were the norm. Christian doctrines focused on monogamy and the nuclear family. Christianity introduced literary education, math, and science through the works of missionaries. Christian missionaries also taught the values of liberal democracy. They developed public schools open to Muslims and Christians, printed books and newspapers, encouraged voluntary organizations, and petitioned local governments for colonial reforms.
Islam also impacted the family unit. It cut across family and ethnic institutions and emphasized unity. While Islam was a more efficient administration, it focused on conformity, the good of the tribe or the group. Individual rights were restricted due to Sharia law. Islam promoted literacy, and Muslim education was primarily the teaching and memorizing of the Qur'an. Individual incentives were minimized through mandatory community financial obligations called zakat, resulting in Muslim nations being subject to widespread poverty. Muslims are taught to avoid risk, a major component of free market capitalism.
When given a free choice, Africans have voted with their feet. Christianity seems to be their choice. In Part 2, we'll finish this discussion.
Credit to Wikimedia Commons for the 2019 orthographic image of Africa. Also, credit to Wikimedia Commons for the illustration entitled "Slave Market 1907." No author provided.