I recently read Martin Marty’s The Christian World: A Global History (2007). The subtitle is slightly misleading, as Marty recounts Christian history on a continent-by-continent basis. The last two chapters, covering the modern return of Christianity to Africa and Asia, raise issues of particular interest to the LDS experience: correlation and assimilation.
The book starts off with the first Asian and African episodes, as young Christianity spread through Damascus and Antioch, then to the east, and west to Egypt and beyond. Eventually it spread to Europe, which only became the “center” of Christianity after Islam swept away the well-rooted Christian presence in African and western Asia during the seventh century. Isolated, Christianity did not break out of its European citadel for several centuries, first to South America, then North America. Finally, Christianity in the 18th and 19th century returned to Africa and Asia (in the Far East), where it now displays surprising strength and vitality. That’s the book in a nutshell. But what exactly is going on in Africa and Asia?
Africa and Correlation
Initial Christian activity in Africa in the modern era was largely colonial, with European leaders controlling African branches of European denominations. There was little interest in preexisting African religious systems or culture. Then, as the 19th century drew to a close, “indigenous Christianity” began to emerge: “[T]here emerged a new model sometimes called Zionist, since it drew its name from the claim that Africa was the Zion for Africans.” Pentecostalism was big, as were claims of various Africans to prophetic activity. One, William Wade Harris (1865-1929), claimed a visit from the angel Gabriel, which he followed by conducting a tremendously successful evangelizing career. Another was Simon Kimbangu (1889-1951), who “developed and gave his name to The Church of Jesus Christ on the Earth by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu.” [The name's got a nice ring to it, don't you think?] African polygamy also cause differences between the locals and senior European leaders.
Post-WWII anticolonialism, plus this history of indigenous Christian movements, sets a precedent of African churches exercising their own religious prerogatives at the periphery. This poses potential problems for any denomination that, like the LDS Church, ties all congregations into tight hierarchical system of supervision and direction. Consider the experience of the Anglicans. When the Episcopal Church
began to be torn over the issue of ordaining homosexuals, it met rejection by many of its kin African Anglicans, especially in Nigeria. While the churches in America muted their criticism of Anglican adaptation to African ways–polygamy remained a widespread practice–African Anglicans were vocal in their criticisms and interventions in American church life. (p. 205)
Without belaboring the point, this summary suggests first why LDS proselyting may have struck a resonant chord among many African Christians who were estranged from mainline European denominations and who had developed their own indigenous prophetic activity. But it also suggests how quickly the strongly conservative theological preferences may turn on modernist accommodators, even Mormon ones, and how difficult it may be to “correlate” African churches that have a recent heritage of allowing their own indigenous variations and modifications to sprout and flourish.
Asia and Assimilation
There is one dramatic difference in Asia: the existing cultures were perceived by the European traders and exploreres, and by missionaries who arrived shortly thereafter, to be well advanced. The Asians were already “civilized,” they just had to be Christianized. The question facing missionaries was how much to adopt the forms of Asian civilization to present the Christian message. Conservatives back home would object to accommodating the Christian message to the local culture and beliefs, but local missionaries would often do so anyway. The Phillipines (under Catholic beliefs) and Korea (under Protestant, then indigenous beliefs) are the Christian superstars of the Far East in this telling. Korea, for example, is now “the strongest Christian presence in Asia and second now only to the United States among sponsors of missionaries” (p. 214).
With more sophisticated and vibrant cultures in Asia, the danger to a religion like Mormonism of a morphing embrace remains acute. Yet some accommodation is necessary–effectively teaching people in their own language requires adopting some of their terms and categories. Here is the dilemma for proselyting Mormons as well as other denominations, reflected by this earlier Christian experience:
If they simply mouthed the name of their God in an alien context, people of Asia would scowl and shrug and depart the scene. If they went too far in naming and identifying God in terms that various Asian cultures used, there was danger that Christianity would simply be absorbed or shelved. (p. 218.)
Mormonism is already dealing with more familiar forms of Continental Christianity: European religious apathy, South American inactivity, and North American religious pluralism. It is reasonable to think that correlation and assimilation/accommodation will become serious challenges as the LDS presence in Africa and Asia grows in coming years.