According to Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, Christianity reached the northeast African continent by the mid 1st century, with St. Mark the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles, being the original bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. Although Alexandria is more historically Mediterranean than African, Christian boots have been on the African continent for nearly two millennia. Many Christian figures present during the Church’s evangelization of the North African area would have included dark-skinned individuals, forging a classical gateway for the voice of black Christianity.
South Africa, however, is another story. When the Dutch began to establish trade routes in South Africa during the 17th century, Reformed Christianity began to take roots in South Africa, beginning in Cape Town. Missions to South Africa began to take place in the 18th century, with Protestant figures such as the Moravian brethren which sought to evangelise local African tribes. When a missionary began to baptise his slaves from the Khoikhoi tribe, the Dutch Reformed Church began to protest due to their belief that baptism must be administered to freemen and not slaves. Because of this, all missionary activity ceased until the close of the 18th century, when missionaries began to arrive from England, Scotland, France, the Netherlands, and the United States, translating the Bible into native African tongue. By the 19th century, several Protestant denominations had been established in South Africa, as well as several independently established African churches such as the Zion Christian Church and the Nazareth Baptist Church, both established in 1910.
What many evangelists witnessed during the process of evangelising the South African continent, however, was the retaining of certain tribal traditions that many would have considered at odds with classical Christianity. These “tribal traditions” are difficult to define unanimously because they had historically been indigenous to very small localities carried on via oral and familial transmission. These religions include the Akan religion of Ghana, the Serer of Senegal, and various voodoo traditions that would eventually give birth to Louisiana Voodoo.
What the United States and South Africa is witnessing today is the result of the syncretization of evangelicalism and tribal African spirituality. Many tribal African religions revolved around the protective power of juju, the healing power of spiritual activity, and the value in performing superstitious acts or owning special objects (see a particular case study here). Today, the synthetic equivalent of these African practices can be seen to have transferred into the evangelical world in various ways.
Mainstream black Christianity, defined namely as that which is within Baptist and Pentecostal denominations in the United States, is characterised by loud demeanours, heavy emotionalism, and a popular adherence to prosperity and faith healing. President Emeritus Barack Obama once attended an African American congregation in Chicago, defining the faithful as “full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humour. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America” (see here).
Afro-Pentecostalism and the aesthetic presented by black congregations in the deep south are recognisable enough by many Americans, and some Christian voices have expressed concern regarding the syncretic nature of South African Christianity. In the 1950s, Malcolm X famously declared Christianity to be a white religion, provoking a response from black Christian leaders during that time who insisted that the person of Jesus was a suffering and oppressed individual and intended to rally the poor and downtrodden around Him. Through this contextual lens of Jesus Christ as being an oppressed (associated with blackness) individual at odds with those in power (associated with whiteness), black Christianity in the United States began its theologizing with the black experience, including the question of identity, purpose, and destiny. This form of black Christianity began to popularise in South Africa in the 1970s through Methodist influence, generating momentum to conceive the Black Consciousness Movement. African-American Christianity began to become more unified both in its older state in South Africa and its newer counterpart in the U.S. during the 1980s, and the existence of African female theologians in the Christian world has risen exponentially since then.
The primary concern that Christendom should have in regards to black Christianity does not possess racial tension; rather, it should be alarming to see prominent adherence to the counterpart of tribal African religions in modern black Christian movements. Black evangelical figures such as Creflo A. Dollar and Frederick K.C. Price assist negative sociological structures by encouraging the type of superstitions that had been prevalent in African religious roots. Prosperity theology, that is, the idea that if one possesses much faith, he or she will become financially prosperous, has taken the black community by storm. By promising to a people with an unmistakeably oppressed past a future filled with prosperity, wealth, and glory, this popular tenant American black theology is taking advantage of the social state of African Americans. The same can be said of the Word of Faith movement.
Faith healing, undisciplined song and dance, and an emphasis on crushing oppressors all stem from South Africa’s cultural context. But these do not need to be intrinsically negative aspects of African Christianity. One of the most influential African saints in the 4th century, St. Moses the Black, left his mundane life as a common thief and joined a monastery, where he struggled with demons for years before his martyrdom. The solution to the inception of syncretic African Christianity is to encourage both black Americans and South Africans to embrace a more historical faith – a communion whose central focus is not on oppression or dominance but in absolute submission to the Divine. Black theology breaks away from classical Christianity, which has not ever been a “white man’s religion,” in echoing ancient tribal African practices such as faith healing. The solution? Maintain a distinctly African culture, but do so without divorcing classical theology from its Christian tradition.