Baptist History Homepage
By Henry C. Vedder, 1927

The Field

p. 253
      The immense size of Africa is comprehended by few. Merely to say that it has an area of 11,599,000 square miles means little. We shall get a better comprehension of the facts if we put it this way: The whole of the United States and Europe could be set down in the African Continent, and there would still be room for Hindustan and China. True, about half of this immense area is arid the great Sahara Desert, mostly uninhabited and uninhabitable, though it might be possible to make a part of this waste space "blossom like the rose" by means of irrigation. It is also possible that the Sahara may be once more made what it was in geologic time; an inland sea. Only the northern coast of Africa was known to Greece and Rome, but that civilization once extended from the Nile to the pillars of Hercules. South Africa became known to the modern world through the voyage in which Vasco da Gama doubled the Cape of Good Hope in discovering a new way to India. The larger part of Africa is tropical. Its soil is exceedingly rich, and its mineral wealth immense; only a beginning has been made in developing its possibilities. The Johannesburg gold-mines and the Kimberley diamond-mines are the richest in the world. The discoveries of Livingstone and Stanley enlightened Europe to the value of this land, and a rush of all nations followed. Africa is no longer the Dark Continent, and little of it now remains to be explored. As a result of the late war, France and England

p. 254
greatly increased their African possessions, at the expense of Germany.

      Africa is drained by a system of great rivers: the Nile on the north, the Senegal and Niger flowing into the Atlantic on the west, the Zambesi on the east, and the Congo, greatest of all, 3,000 miles long and discharging a greater volume of water than the Mississippi. In central Africa is a wonderful chain of lakes, next to those of North America in grandeur: Albert, Albert Edward, Victoria Nyanza with an area of 27,000 square miles, Tanganyika, and Nyassa - the last two 450 and 350 miles in length respectively. Little is yet known of the geology of Africa, but its fauna and flora have been fairly well studied; both are extremely rich, varied, and valuable. It is still the country of "great game."

      The central part of Africa is a great plateau, giving to the land something of the contour of an inverted saucer. At a distance of 50 to 200 miles from the coast a vast table-land rises, reaching 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea-level, slightly hollowed in the center, where the great lakes lie. From these flow the mighty rivers that drain the whole continent and are the dominating feature of African geography. The usual mental picture of Africa is probably a land of dismal swamps and impenetrable jungles, varied with arid deserts. Instead, it is a land of beautiful scenery, mountains, hills, and woodlands, mighty rivers, majestic lakes. Victoria Falls rivals and some think surpasses Niagara. The climate is hot and dry, but not unhealthful, now that it is understood and proper precautions can be taken. The central plateaus are as salubrious as any other country. British South Africa, one-half the area of the United States, is wholly in the temperate zone. Malaria, yellow fever, and sleeping sickness can now be controlled.

      Because of this great extent, Africa is a continent of

p. 255
remarkable variety, and few general statements about it are valid. There are at least four different Africas with which we have to deal; and for these the popular names, though far from scientific, will be sufficient for our purpose: North Africa, South Africa, the East Coast, and the West Coast. North Africa includes those countries that border on the Mediterranean; Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli, Egypt (including the Soudan), and Abyssinia. South Africa is the collective name of the provinces, mainly British and Dutch, now included in the Union of South Africa, Rhodesia, and Natal. East Africa, now called Tanganyika territory, formerly a German colony, was after the late war transferred to the "protection" of England. It is the region of the great interior lakes explored by Livingstone. West Africa is now mainly under French control and includes the districts known as Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Nigeria, and Kamerun, the latter held by the British. This leaves Belgian Congo, midway between West Africa and British South Africa, a region of 909,654 square miles and a population of 8,500,000 of whom only 8,175 are whites. In describing the missions, these general outlines will be followed.

The People

      Here, too, general statements must be made with caution, because the peoples of Africa are so many and so varied. Estimates of population are worth little, varying as they do from 140,000,000 to 200,000,000. The native inhabitants are of four principal stocks: 1. The Hamitic, in the northern and northeastern part; the Berbers are descendants of the ancient Egyptians, Copts, very much mixed. This is perhaps the oldest element. 2. Negroid, filling the central portion. Many tribes and languages are found, and their exact relations are yet to be determined. 3. Hottentot or Bushmen, the natives

p. 256
of South Africa. 4. Malayan, found chiefly in Madagascar and the eastern coast. Besides, there are some 10,000,000 Semites in the northern regions.

      Slavery was once a universal institution in Africa. The slave-trade is now practically abolished, which Christianity may claim as one of its great victories, even though gunpowder and rum have been substituted as part of the blessings of a Christian civilization. The liquor traffic conducted by "Christian" nations is indeed the great remaining curse of Africa, involving the whole continent and all its people. No wonder Schweitzer says, "Anything the white peoples may do for Africa is not so much benevolence as atonement."

      Polygamy is the twin evil; general, not to say universal, among all native tribes, often taking the form of a mild domestic slavery, since there is little distinction between wife and slave both are acquired by purchase, and both when acquired become drudges. Yet the system is approved by African women, and in the opinion of many dispassionate students of social conditions, it is so much an integral part of African life as to constitute a problem that defies immediate solution. To put away all his wives but one, a Christian convert must do what his race will regard as an injustice and disgrace to those put away. Wide-spread immorality is the result of insistence on monogamy. In Western Africa promiscuity is said to be more prevalent than either monogamy or polygamy.

      In some parts of Africa considerable progress in civilization has been made. On the western coast, native traders are enterprising and prosperous; they conduct business with typists, cashiers, etc., quite in the modern fashion. Native barristers do well in the courts and often have white clients, but race prejudice hampers native doctors. Great Britain is covering her colonies with trained native artisans carpenters, bricklayers,

p. 257
engineers. Race prejudice still retards progress; it often manifests itself among whites in extreme dominance, sometimes cruelty. In the main, however, beyond social ostracism the native does not now suffer much wrong, especially in the British colonies. The wrongs in Belgian Congo have been largely corrected.


      Africa is a country of immense and varied physical resources, little of which has yet been developed. Every colony has precious metals in forms and quantities profitable for industry and commerce. Exploration has as yet surveyed only the surface of the country and great discoveries doubtless remain to be made. At present South Africa seems to be richest in mineral wealth: copper, iron, gold, diamonds, all in large quantities. It was long thought that no coal exists in Africa, but lately some has been discovered in Cape Colony and near Khartoum. The African forests contain vast quantities of lumber, including cabinet woods and dyewoods; and are among the most valuable timber-lands in the world. The central plateaus possess great agricultural possibilities, and are already producing a wide variety of grains, vegetables, and fruits. Large areas combine the advantages of tropical and temperate climates and soils. Splendid cattle districts are found in the Congo valley and elsewhere. There is immense available water-power for lighting and manufactures, still awaiting development.

      The primitive African is by necessity almost a vegetarian, though he loves both meat and fish. Manioca and maize furnish his chief food, pounded into a coarse meal in wooden mortars. This is supplemented by stews (called "chop") of very miscellaneous composition. The African woman is a fairly good cook, barring an excessive fondness for chili peppers and palm-oil.

p. 258
European food is now brought to Africa, in the form of canned goods; and fresh meat and fish can be had in the port cities at least, thanks to refrigerator ships. The building of better houses, screened against insects, and the use of tabloid medicines have done much to reduce illness and the death-rate.


      The African native has no religion in our sense of the word, nothing but a crude animism and fetishism. Hence the first work of missionaries has been to create a religious sense, to reveal God to these black men. The native rites and customs are so debased that converts must be required to abjure them, and this cuts them off from the life of their tribe. To found new Christian communities thus becomes imperative. Instability of will is the great defect of the African, and Christianity cannot be expected to cure this at once. The missionary problems of Africa are quite different from those in Asiatic missions. Instead of a highly civilized people, with a long history and an ancient literature, Africa presents peoples little removed from savagery, without history or literature, of whom one can say that they are human and not much more.

The Dark Continent Becomes Lighter

      Many of us can remember in our school-day geographies that the map of Africa showed a great yellow blank for its interior, with the words running through this space in large capitals "Unexplored Interior." It was in those days that it acquired the name of the Dark Continent it was dark, not only in that so much of it was then unknown, but because of its spiritual condition. The explorations of Speke and Grant in the Nile region and of Livingstone and Stanley in Central Africa,

p. 259
changed all this. Livingstone traveled 29,000 miles and added 1,000,000 square miles to the known surface of the globe one of the greatest achievements in the history of exploration. His journey in 1849 to Lake Ngami was the beginning of the great modern discoveries. In 1854-5 he determined the course of the Zambesi; in 1857 Burton and Speke made up the Nile valley and discovered lakes Tanganyika and Victoria Nyanza; in 1859 Livingstone was the first European to see Nyassa; Baker in 1864 added Albert Nyanza. This opening of new fields Livingstone believed to be his proper contribution to missionary work. "The end of the geographical feat is but the beginning of the missionary enterprise," he said. Stanley's journey through the Congo valley was hardly less epoch-making. All at once, the African continent was flooded with light; it remained only for the missionary to follow, the explorer wherever he had not preceded. This he was prompt to do.

      There had of course been missions in Africa long before this. The Roman part of it was Christianized in the early centuries; Alexandria and Carthage became chief Christian centers, until the incursion of the Vandals and afterwards that of the Mohammedans swept away this Christian civilization. Since then Africa has been mainly Mohammedan, wherever it was not pagan. Nevertheless, Christianity has never died out of the old Roman Africa - there are 10,000,000 Christians of sorts, to 42,000,000 Mohammedans. These are mainly survivals of the ancient Coptic churches, and of certain early heretical sects, such as the Monophysites, to the number of 3,000,000 or more. Some are Roman Catholics, claimed to number 2,450,000. Many of these are Christian only in the sense that they are not Mohammedan or pagan. But this nominal, inherited Christianity is little better than no religion at all.

p. 260
Obstacles to Christian Progress

      Mohammedanism is the greatest obstacle to Christian missions in Africa. It has certain advantages that make its progress relatively easy. It is free from race prejudice; Mohammedans freely intermarry with all the races they meet and convert, while Christians will not do this. No conversion is required, in the Christian conception of that term; profession of faith in God and Mohammed as his prophet and the performance of certain rites is all. This makes the transition from paganism to Mohammedanism easy, but raises the question whether the last state of the "convert" is not worse than the first, as he carries over all his pagan vices and acquires new ones. As the influence of England extends in Africa it will tend to remove or lessen this obstacle. The slave trade persists to some extent, and what is left of it is carried on by the Mohammedan Arabs; its suppression is only a question of time, and a short time at that. A railroad from the Cape to Cairo is no longer a dream, for the greater part of the route is completed, and English capital will soon do the rest. This will mean a vast change in the condition of Africa. This line when fully constructed will be some 5,000 miles long. Means of transportation from the interior to the coast will not be slow in following.

      The other great obstacle to the progress of missions is the effect of Africa itself on Europeans. Crawford says:

The fearful fact must be faced that all things European degenerate in central Africa European provisions go bad, European fruits, European dogs, degenerate. So too European men and women.
      The habits and customs of the people constitute another perhaps minor obstacle. To quote Crawford again:
No delirium of speed here. No catching of train or boat by the fraction of a second. . . Fifteen miles per day from camp to camp. Speed? Now it is you indorse the old definition that speed is only a

p. 261
mad method " whereby you miss as much as possible between starting-point and destination."
      White people are surprised to find among the natives prejudice against whites and everything white. They think God is an Englishman.
Ay, you white men were a bad lot to kill the Best One like that; we blacks kill only criminals. And then, far from being ashamed of what you have done, you come across the seas to tell us you did it.
      So said a chief to a missionary. Europeans find themselves a thousand miles from a bank they have to rely on God and the blacks.

Missions in South Africa

      From the seventeenth century, various attempts were made to colonize and evangelize the eastern and western coasts by Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. Early in the nineteenth century French and English settlements gained foothold, the latter mainly in the south. These mostly had a commercial and economic significance, rather than religious, though attempts to reach the natives with the gospel were not wholly lacking. The first definitely missionary work seems to have been begun by George Schmidt, the Moravian, from 1736 to 1743. He tried to elevate the Hottentots, but the Dutch settlers of South Africa derided and opposed his efforts and after some years succeeded in driving the missionaries out. In 1792 a second attempt with a stronger missionary force proved more successful, though the Dutch opposition remained constant. The chief colony was established at Gnadendal, and thence the work spread over a considerable area of Cape Colony. Later the Moravian missionaries pushed forward among the Kaffirs, where they won 6,000 converts, and advanced as far as Lake Nyassa. Theirs is still a flourishing mission, with close to 100,000 adherents, in 190 stations. Lay missionaries have been sent in

p. 262
considerable numbers, and community methods prevail. Valuable educational and medical work has supplemented evangelism, and here, as everywhere, the Moravians have proved themselves wonderful missionaries.

      The LMS was the first British society to enter South Africa, beginning its work there in 1799. It has pushed as far north as Lake Tanganyika and Madagascar, but has never occupied the West Coast. Robert Moffat was sent out in 1816 and began a mission in Cape Colony. He converted a Hottentot chief named Afrikaner and established a permanent station among the Bechuanas at Kuruman. For some time progress was slow, but after 1829 he began to make more numerous converts. A large part of his. work was translation of the Scriptures and the beginning of Christian education. David Livingstone was at first a missionary of this society, and his explorations did much to extend its work.

      Wesleyan missions began in Cape Colony in 1814 and have been very fruitful. More than any others, these missions have employed native evangelists and pastors, with the best results. Their work is well organized, and they have produced a Kaffir Bible and other Christian literature. The Scotch Presbyterians entered this field in 1821, and American Presbyterians occupy parts of this region, which is large and affords plenty of opportunities without duplication. They have established a group of schools, including a seminary at Lovedale, 700 miles north of Capetown. Very successful industrial training is given here to Kaffirs. A similar educational and social center has been founded at Blythewood, about 120 miles from Lovedale. These two plants are the best of their kind in Africa, and perhaps have no superiors in any foreign field.

      The SPG (oldest of English missionary organizations, begun in 1701) was for a long time strictly colonial and

p. 263
British in its operations, and relied on the printed page rather than the oral gospel for evangelization. In the publication and spread of Christian literature it has always been a valuable adjunct of the more direct forms of missionary endeavor. In later years it has somewhat broadened its sphere and modified its methods, but it is still one of the few societies that ignores "comity," is exclusive and intensive in method, and declines cooperation with other agencies, especially if they do not belong to the Church of England. This has much limited its usefulness.

East and Central Africa

      Missions were begun in Central Africa as soon as the significance of Livingstone's discoveries dawned on Europeans. Much money has been expended on these fields, with relatively small results that can be expressed in statistics. The educational work has been most valuable and already justifies itself in the estimation of all observers. The greatest missionary in this region was "Mackay of Uganda." Stanley's famous letter of November 15, 1875, in the Daily Telegraph of London was a challenge to which English youth responded promptly, and the L M S soon sent out eight missionaries, of whom Alexander Mackay was the ablest, though the youngest. He had thorough literary and scientific training, the latter including both engineering and medicine. Establishing himself in Uganda, at the south end of Lake Victoria Nyanza, he built up a remarkable native Christian community. He astonished Africans by what he could do at his forge and lathe, and then taught his arts to them. He also did considerable work as a translator. Stanley declared that he was "the best missionary since Livingstone."

      The L M S also has a mission in East-Central Africa, the first being at Ujiji. It proved difficult of access, the

p. 264
climate was bad, and it was finally abandoned in favor of a better location. The mortality in this field was terrible during the years 1877-1893; of 36 missionaries 11 died, 14 were invalided and retired, at a cost of $40,000, with results almost invisible. This experience did much to give the African climate its bad reputation in Europe and America. Later the work has been attended with fewer deaths and greater results.

      What was formerly German East Africa was largely occupied by missionaries of German societies, who have been moderately successful. The CMS also had some workers there. The Livingstonia mission of the Free Church of Scotland is also located in East Africa. Its stations have proved great civilizing centers, as well as successful in evangelization. It has done much to stop the slave-trade in this region, put an end to the desolating wars among the native tribes, and given security to life and property through a wide range of country something that had never previously been known.

The West Coast

      The CMS chose this as its field and began a mission in Sierra Leone in 1804, three years before it became a colony of the British crown. Though it is a small colony, about 4,000 square miles in all, it has a coast-line of 1,600 miles. Some of the earliest books to be printed in an African language were produced in this mission. English is now almost a native tongue, and a very good system of schools is maintained by the Government. A native church was organized in 1862 and now supports its own pastors, churches, and schools. In 1901 it had over 12,000 communicants, out of a population of 85,000. The CMS also carries on mission work in Nigeria.

      West Africa was long known as "the white man's grave." In the first twenty-five years of the CMS work

p. 265
in Sierra Leone, for example, 109 missionaries died. Better hygiene, sanitation, and medical treatment have reduced this mortality to small proportions in these later years. The United Brethren have also had a mission in Sierra Leone since 1855, with better fortune and considerable success.

      The English Wesleyans began missions in West Africa in 1811, in Gambia, the Gold Coast, and Lagos. They also found the climate deadly - in fifty years 63 of their missionaries died. In spite of such disasters, the work has steadily progressed, and they now have 18,000 members and 60,000 additional adherents. They formed a mission Conference in 1880 and in 1885 a missionary bishop was appointed. Many schools have been established and buildings constructed for them. The A M E Church began work in Liberia in 1833, and a Conference has been organized there; they also have a mission and a Conference in the Congo region.

      A mere outline of the various missions in Africa would fill many pages of this book. The attempt has been to give enough sample cases to indicate how extensive this work has already become.


[From Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of Baptist Missions, chapter X, Judson Press, 1927, pp. 253-265. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

Early Baptist Missions in Africa
Baptist History Homepage