In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Christianity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Historical Background
  • Early Christianity in Africa
  • Egypt
  • North Africa
  • Nubia
  • The Kingdom of the Kongo, 15th–19th Centuries
  • Conversion
  • Struggles for Control
  • Prophecy and Healing
  • African Theology
  • Women and Christianity
  • African Christianity and Slavery
  • Christianity and Education
  • Christianity and Medicine
  • Christianity and Islam
  • African Christianity in the World

African Studies African Christianity
Thomas Spear
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0105


Christianity in Africa goes back to the earliest days of the church, when it spread along the Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlands of north and northeast Africa and their hinterlands. Subsequently displaced by Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, the ancient Coptic and Orthodox churches nevertheless remain active in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea today. Further south, Christianity was introduced later by European Christian missions, initially on the heels of Portuguese expansion into the Kingdom of the Kongo and Angola in the 16th century, the slave trade in the ensuing centuries, and the general expansion of European influence and colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries in an explosive combination of “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization.” While conversion to Christianity increased with the extension of formal European colonial rule, Western education, and new economic opportunities, Africans interpreted the new faith in the light of their own religious concerns and concepts and made it their own. In the process, Western missionaries were slowly displaced by African evangelists, who helped translate the Bible, interpret it for themselves, and spread the faith far beyond the mission compounds. In the process, African Christians struggled for control of the church and its messages, often emphasizing charismatic prophecy and healing, founding thousands of new churches and popular movements within mission Protestantism and Catholicism, and playing prominent roles in contemporary African society and politics. In seeking to understand African Christianity, then, we need to understand its origins in the ancient church as well as the processes by which European missionaries and African converts of diverse religious hues have reinterpreted and reformed it to establish a varied and vibrant Christian religious presence today. The literature on African Christianity is huge and often characterized by diverse colonial and religious perspectives and biases, requiring one to read it critically. For more on African religions, see the related Oxford Bibliographies articles on African Traditional Religion and Islam in Africa.

General Overviews

While earlier studies of Christianity in Africa focused on the roles of European missions and missionaries in establishing Christianity in Africa, historians now tend to stress the roles of African converts, catechists, translators, and evangelists in interpreting Christianity, spreading it to their neighbors, and establishing new Christian movements and churches that are as distinctly African as they are Christian. Two recent studies by leading church scholars, Hastings 1994 and Sundkler and Steed 2000, stand out and can be supplemented by briefer studies on Africa generally (Isichei 1995), West Africa (Sanneh 1983), South Africa (Chidester 1992), and contemporary Africa (Hastings 1979).

  • Chidester, David. Religions of South Africa. London: Routledge, 1992.

    A wide-ranging synthesis of the literature on the diverse religions of South Africa that stresses their historical development and social significance in the context of colonial rule and apartheid.

  • Hastings, Adrian. A History of African Christianity, 1950–1975. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511563171

    A study that both predates and updates Hastings 1994, but neglects the recent proliferation of evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal churches. Focuses on the relations of church and state, the Africanization of mission churches, and independent churches during the period of nationalism and independence.

  • Hastings, Adrian. The Church in Africa, 1450–1950. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

    A magisterial historical synthesis of the formative period of African Christianity written by one of its foremost scholars. Focuses on the influences of Africans and African ideas on the mission enterprise, conversion, religious innovation, and church life, but it neglects to cover the earlier history of the northern African church as well as the profusion of Christian movements since 1950. The bibliography provides a series of illuminating bibliographic essays on a wide range of subjects.

  • Isichei, Elizabeth. A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present. London: SPCK, 1995.

    A brief popular account that focuses on both the worlds missionaries came from as well as the African worlds in which they worked, including the critical roles played by African evangelists, catechists, and teachers in developing the new faith.

  • Sanneh, Lamin. West African Christianity: The Religious Impact. London: Hurst, 1983.

    This text by a notable scholar of both Christianity and Islam concentrates on the religious dimensions of West African Christianity and the roles of both missionaries and Africans in its spread and development. Concludes with a rare discussion of the historical relations between Christianity and traditional religion and Islam.

  • Sundkler, Bengt, and Christopher Steed. A History of the Church in Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511497377

    Following a brief survey of early Christianity in northern Africa, this massive work zeroes in on the same period surveyed in Hastings 1994, but it lacks that work’s integrating narrative and conceptual frameworks. More useful as a series of local case studies, the work focuses on the African converts who reinterpreted Christianity, propagated it, and established their own churches amid the turmoil of the slave trade, conquest, and colonial rule.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.