CHRISTIANISM AND ACCULTURATION PHENOMENA :
THE AMERICAN PRESBYTERIAN MISSION AND ITS
RELIGIOUS AND SOCIAL EFFECTS ON THE PEOPLE
OF SOUTH CAMEROON
(1890 – 1957)
The subject I am submitting for consideration by the participants at this
Seminar is the summary of an academic work I carried out in 1981 as a “Doctorat 3e cycle” thesis in History at the Faculty of Letters and Civilisations of the Jean-Moulin University, Lyon III (France).
Inspiration for this work came to me following a seminar marking the end of our doctoral studies conducted by Professor Jacques Gadille of the same University on the theme: “Religion and acculturation phenomena from the xvth to the xxth centurey"(1).
Throughout the seminar, Professor Gadille tried to analyse and evaluate acculturation phenomena in certain missionary countries (China, India, Japan, Africa). However, as an honest intellectual, he acknowledged the fact that his knowledge of the said phenomena might be inadequate considering the fact that he himself was a “foreign observer” of such phenomena. That is why, at the end of the seminar, Professor Gadille left the discussion open to enable students, like me, who came from missionary countries and who desired to carry out further research on the subject to do so. He felt that, for a better approach of the subject, it would be more appropriate for theologians and Christian historians from missionary countries to talk on the phenomena under study. The ball was therefore on our side, we the “acculturated”.
Conscious of the relevance of the subject, I decided to make a modest contribution by undertaking research on the work of the American Presbyterian Mission in South Cameroon and by highlighting the resulting elements of acculturation. I therefore chose, as title for my thesis: “The American Presbyterian Mission and its Religious and Social Impact on the People of South Cameroon”. I was granted a research subvention by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the French Republic. I defended the thesis on July 3, 1981 in Lyon, France and the Jury graded it as “Very Good” and recommended it for publication.
One may wonder why I have chosen the American Presbyterian Mission considering the fact that various Christian missions came to Cameroon (Protestant, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist etc.).
Having been baptized as a child by catholic missionaries and having received all my secondary school education in a catholic seminary, it would have been easier for me to study the acculturation phenomena in the catholic mission, being a catholic myself. I rather chose to undertake research on the Presbyterian mission not only to diversify my knowledge on Protestantism, in general, and on Presbyterianism, in particular, but also and above all, because of the great impact of Presbyterian Protestantism on the Bulu people of whom I am one.
In his book “History of Cameroon”, my illustrious Master, the late Professor Engelbert Mveng, talking about the American Presbyterian Mission in Cameroon writes:
“Its success was such that Protestantism was considered,
for a long time, as the natural religion of the Bulu”…(2)
As a young boy, I always wondered why, in my village, there were two distinct churches, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian in which preaching was about one and the same God. Later on, during my study of History at the University, a course on Christian reformation enabled me to understand the dualism.
Having acquired sufficient knowledge on the catholic missions at the Seminary, I therefore chose to study the Presbyterian Mission which I knew very vaguely hitherto. I was all the more motivated in my choice because, when I was still very young, I would alternately attend catholic and protestant church services and saw that there was a clear difference in the religious ritual practised by each of the churches.
I found the Catholics dogmatic whereas the Protestants were pragmatic. I have always admired my paternal uncle, whose name I bear, who is an Elder of the Presbyterian Church and who, whenever he was asked to say a prayer, during church service, would spontaneously start praying from daily experience with his eyes closed without reading from a prayer book as we, Catholics, did during Sunday mass.
I have always wondered why there is such a difference between the preaching of a Presbyterian Pastor and that of a Catholic Priest. The former, undergone long theological studies as the latter, would explain the message from the Bible using examples from daily life whereas the latter would continuously talk of a hypothetical heavenly kingdom where angels sat near God.
I often asked myself why protestant Christians seemed to know the Bible better that their catholic counterparts. Why the Presbyterian Mission did not see any evil in the accumulation of material and financial wealth by its believers whereas Catholics only preached how easier it was for a camel to pass through the eye of a niddle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
These are some of the questions I asked myself while a youth and for which I sought to obtain answers when I became an adult. Today, I can say that I have found the answers thanks to the research work carried out on the history of Protestantism in general and American Presbyterianism in particular.
STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, a great religious conversion drive converted the peoples of South (Bulu, Bassa, afia, Bene Fang, Ntumu, Yebekolo, Ngumba, etc…) into followers of the Christian religion. The American Presbyterian Missionaries, who carried out this conversion, more or less succeeded. Their success resulted from a conversion strategy which, until then, at least, they had not yet completely mastered. Their missionary work in South Cameroon was therefore going to enable them to understand a lot of things and to encourage their vast protestant missionary enterprise.
Dekar P. Richard writes in his thesis(3) that, in 1913, a certain Johannes Duplessis visited the Cameroon Mission while collecting data for a study he was preparing on Christianity in Africa(4). Duplessis is reported to have been “very impressed” by the multidimensional organization of the American Presbyterian Mission in Cameroon. He recorded that the Mission’s strategy to make of the African a self-confident and self-reliant individual in matters of evangelization gave birth to a number of undertakings over which the missionaries exercised very little control.
The American Missionaries actually baptized their first six Christians in 1900. But the years that followed “witnessed great activity and success. There was disorder in the development”(5). From 1901 to 1925, Cameroonian tribe (Bulu) went out to conquer neighbouring tribes and to evangelize them in turn(6), the mission grew from 1,546 to 32,492 communicant members and 47,164 catechumens; from 31 missionaries working in 6 stations to 86 covering 9 stations and from 40 evangelists to 1308(7).
The Elat station alone, opened in 1901 at the heart of Bulu territory had 2000 members in 1914, a “waiting list of 15,000” and an average participation at the quarterly Holy Sacrament of 7000(8). Duplessis was particularly perplexed the number of Bulus, for example, who were in charge of church services. He wrote:
“Elat, with its huge crowds which assembled in its big
church house, became very popular in the last
Furthermore, and according to the missionaries themselves, the high-level Christian model of life and the evangelistic zeal of the Bulu Christians scattered in all corners of the Cameroonian territory carrying the word of God to their brothers seen as a “Cameroonian miracle”. Russel and Wheeler have this to say:
“We were deeply impressed by the rapid expansion of the
work of the mission and of the church of Cameroon, by the
noble and devoted spirit of the missionaries… and the true
christian zeal of many indigenous leaders and members of
the church. We feel that… it (the mission in Cameroon)
occupies and important position among the missions of
the church (American Presbyterian) by virtue of its
evangelistic spirit which runs through all its work and it
was a great privilege and a joy to visit and to bear witness
of the work of the mission and of the church” (10).
Confronted with such claims, the historian would like to find out whether it is true that the work and success of the American Presbyterian mission in South Cameroon resulted logically from a religious conversion process. Also, the historian would like to know whether such a process gave birth to something authentic and, if so, what were the sequence and dynamics of th events. In short, the historian would like to know how and why a new social situation came into being. Such is the question in the subject I intend to submit for consideration by the participants at seminar.
For Duplessis, Dager, Halsey, Russel, Wheeler and many others, the answer to these questions is to be found in the high number of people converted in South Cameroon. As a matter of fact, although many other Africans were introduced to Christianity at that period, very few of them however, embraced it with the eagerness and seriousness of the people of South Cameroon. In general, the type of enthusiasm observed by these authors always required half a century’s work, if not more.
Not so with the Bulus and their neighbours. They had just come into contact with Christianity.
Until 1892, the Bulus had not had any direct contact with the white traders, colonial administrators and missionaries whose presence had been signalled on the Cameroonian coast fifty years previously. In the 19th Century, the Bulu tribes settled in their present location coming from the northern Savannah and from East Cameroon. Althought Bulu land is near the Cameroonian coast, no one before the American Presbyterian Missionary, Adolphus Clemens Good had explored it. (11)
Although the statistics given above can be accepted as indicative of a new social and religious situation in South Cameroon, the fact remains that those statistics do not explain how this situation came about.
In order to understand the new religious life of the peoples of south Cameroon, it is necessary to study the old one.
Many of these people based their religious life on belief in a supreme Being whose existence was proven, expressed and interpreted in complex cults and cosmologies. This kind of religious life was dominated by rites and symbols. Everything in the life of these people was an embodiment of religion. Rites tied in perfectly with the social systems and were therefore very important in the African religious experience.
Religious conversion for Africans, therefore, would be the process by which these people change their religious membership or the means by which they generally attribute religious meaning to social order.
The study theme I am proposing to the participants at the seminary meeting consists in describing the process of conversion into christianity of the peoples of South Cameroon and to evaluate the social and religious impact thereof.
The little we can say here, by way of conclusion is that, by the time the American Presbyterian Mission withdrew from Cameroon in 1957, the religious world of the people of South Cameroon was already in the process of undergoing a radical change for two fundamental reasons.
The first reason derives from the very nature of the traditional religions of the people of South Cameroon.
These religions constitute “local wisdom” an art of living closely dependent on land. God himself intervened in their world. They acknowledged him as the Supreme Being and creator of the world. But that God became so far removed because he had stopped taking care of their human affairs. So, by becoming Christians, the peoples of South Cameroon were not only conscious of changing religions, but they were also aware that they were changing worlds. Basic solidarity was no longer born out of communion in faith.
The change was therefore radical, in the true sense of the word because it touched the very root of man’s situation in the world. It was therefore normal for the change to be accepted with difficulty and for the new Christian convert to require some time to really enter in to the new life he had accepted.
The second reason derived from the fact that, at the same time as they were discovering a new religious world, the peoples of South Cameroon saw themselves as being pushed from outside, and against their wish, into a new socio-economic universe which was by far different from anything they had known hitherto. The change was all the more sudden as no one, apparently, seemed to bother about what could happen to them. Decisions were taken elsewhere. They were not consulted on what had to be done.
As a result, within the space of a generation, these people found themselves uprooted from their centuries-old tradition and forced to learn to live in a world imposed on them, together with laws that always seemed to be applied to their disadvantage.
Reactions to this situation varied but the most natural one, understandably, was to accept everything at the same time: Christianity, traditional religions as well as elementary scientific teachings. In the words of Mr. SINDA:
“Many African animists today belong to two or three religions,
not only out of concern for balance, but rather to receive the
blessings from all such religions so as to protect themselves
against all evil…” (12)
Just as ancient Rome accepted foreign gods into its pantheon, so too do some Africans continue to believe that even with a diversity of religions expression, the reality of life is the same, that there is no need excluding any of the religions and that, in the final analysis, no ammunition is too much for a battle. Marabous, diviners, witch-doctors, priests, pastors: that many actors for the same role, a well defined function which each religious system replicates in its own way without modifying its structural position and significance within the totality of elements involved.
Does such an attitude have a future? One is inclined to believe that it will last for as long as hunger, disease, fratricidal wars, exploitation of man by man, in short, for as long as misery will continue to threaten the daily lives of the most humble folk. Faced with great danger, all the means are acceptable for survival: “We opt for what is immediately available”. The critical attitude and reasoning become easier to summon when the threat of danger is less.
Such as about the situation in which the peoples of South Cameroon found themselves at the time when the American Presbyterian Mission was handing over to the Cameroon Presbyterian church in 1957.
It is not certain that the same situation no longer prevails today. Burdened with cares and threats, all means are good and usable in order to survive: the marabous and his talismans, the missionary and his medallions and icons; the witch-doctor and his herbs. When better times come, the choice may finally be made.
(1) Acculturation phenomenon is the act of a people adopting, willingly or unwillingly, the cultural values of another people and almost totally abandoning its own values. Since religion is, in essence, a social and cultural phenomenon, religious acculturation will therefore be the result of the process of social and cultural disintegration by which a people renounces all that had hitherto constituted the main tenets of their cosmological and religious beliefs and adopts foreign values and beliefs.
(2) Mveng, E., 1963 Histoire du Cameroun, Paris, Preserie Africaine, p. 455
(3) DEKAR, (P. Richard), Crossing religious Frontiers, Christianity and the transformation of the Bulu Society (1893 – 1926), Ph.D. Thesis, Chicago, Faculty of the Divinity School of the University, 1978.
(4) The study was finally published in 1929 under the title: The Evangelisation of Pagan Africa, a History of Christian mission of the Tribes of Central Africa, Cape Town, Juta XII, 408p.
(5) Mackenzie, (J.K.), Black Sheep: Adventures in West Africa, 1916 Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., p.5.
(6) Dekar, (P. Richard) Crossing Religious Frontiers, Christianity and the transformation of Bulu Society. Op. cit.
(7) Annual Reports of Board of foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA 64th to the 88th: 1901 – 1925.
(8) Dager (M) “A Great Frontier Church” in Assembly Herald, 20th September 1914 Editorial comment. P. 513 see also Halsey, (A.W.), 1915 A Presbyterian church with a waiting list of 15.000, New york, Women’s board of the foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church 1915.
(9) Duplessis, (Johannes). – Thrice through the dark continent: a record of journeying across Africa during the years 1913 – 1916, London, Longmans, Green and Co, 1917, pp. 40
(10) Minutes of the West Africa Mission, Sept 1 – 10, 1928. Russel and Wheeler: “Report of Committee”, p. A1
(11) Since 1842, the missionaries sent out by the American Board of Commissioners from Liberia had opened the Baraka station near the French post of Libreville (Gabon). In 1874, Mr and Mrs Nassau went up the River Ogoué and opened a station at Kangwe (1876), future Lambaréné. With Gabon becoming a French Protectorate (1850) and because of disagreement between the missionaries and the French who imposed the use of the French Language in all schools in Gabon, the American mission transferred all their commitments in Gabon to the Paris Society of Evangelical Missions (1887). This is how it came about that A.C. Good was entrusted with the exploration of South Cameroon. He made three tours to Cameroon, with two in 1892, during which he selected the location for the future Efoulan Station, the first ever station to be opened on Cameroonian soil – 1893.
(12) Sinda, (M.), Le Messianisme congolais et ses incidences politiques, Paris, Payot, 1972, p. 344.
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