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Tracing the Origins and Consequences of Christian Missionary Activities in Africa

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Authored by Felix Meier zu Selhausen
Published on 5th November, 2019 4 min read

Tracing the Origins and Consequences of Christian Missionary Activities in Africa

One of the most powerful cultural transformations in Africa’s modern history has been the dramatic expansion of Christianity in the 19th and 20th century (Hastings 1994). While in 1910 the share of Christians in Africa was 9%, by 2010 this share increased to 63% (Pew Research Centre 2015). Initially, Christian diffusion in Africa was facilitated by vast missionary efforts. Mission schools met African demand for formal education during colonial rule with wide-ranging implications for present-day African development (Frankema 2012, Gallego & Woodberry 2010, Cogneau & Moradi 2014, Wantchekon et al. 2015).

Globally, the growth of the Church in Africa, together with an increase of the African population, and the simultaneously shrinking congregations in Europe and America resulted into a shift of Christianity’s centre of gravity from the West to the South. For 2050, it has been estimated that 1.1 billion Africans will follow the gospel, that is 38% of Christians worldwide (Pew Research Centre 2015). These developments beg the question: what explains this Christian success story in Africa? What are the historical root causes that determined the spread of the gospel across Africa? And to what extent did African men and women actually benefit from these developments during the colonial era?

Strategies of Christian growth

In ongoing research with Alexander Moradi (University of Sussex) and Remi Jedwab (George Washington University) we aim to shed light on those dynamics. We study the historical diffusion of Christian mission churches and schools in Ghana from the first arrival of European missionaries in 1751 to 1932. Ghana presents a fascinating case-study due to the comparatively early presence of missionaries and presence of various competing mission societies as well as the country's diverse geography and the following of a transport (railroads) and cash crop revolution (cocoa) during the colonial era. We reconstructed the geographical location of all mission churches and schools using the annual ecclesiastical returns contained in the Blue Books of the Gold Coast. Missionary societies were obliged to submit their statistics once a year to the colonial administration. The Gold Coast Blue Books provide information of the name of church location, size of the congregation, church capacity, general church attendance and the name of the resident missionary for each denomination. Comparisons with alternative sources confirmed the superior accuracy of the Blue Book data. Our compiled dataset counts 1,024 missions whereas the commonly used Roome Map of 1924 (e.g. Nunn 2010), only reveals 27 mission stations. The maps below convey the dynamic growth of the gospel, showing the location of different mission denomination in the years 1890 (224 missions) and 1932 (1,775 missions).

Using our geo-referenced mission location, we explore the determinants (and strategies) of missionaries’ choice of locations. We find, contrary to a long-standing literature that the disease ecology did not adversely affect the choice of mission locations. Missionaries targeted more densely populated (urban) areas before spreading to smaller (rural) areas. Missions followed infrastructure, such as roads and railroads. They were also attracted by economically prosperous areas, such as cocoa producing and gold mining areas, indicating the importance of African financial contributions to the foundation of churches.

The Economic History of Christian Africa

Scholars have wrestled with the question whether the historical presence of Christian missionaries influenced long-term African socio-economic and demographic development, but have largely been frustrated by the absence of credible and detailed historical information at the individual-level for cross-national comparisons in Africa. In an ongoing research project, The Economic History of Christian Africa, together with Jacob Weisdorf (University of Southern Denmark), we are aiming to reconstruct and analyse various aspects of male and female African social and economic lives (e.g. marriage ages, occupations, literacy) in a long-term comparative framework based on Anglican marriage registers from British Africa (Meier zu Selhausen 2014, Meier zu Selhausen & Weisdorf 2016). In order to assess the number and location of the earliest churches of the Anglican Church Mission Society (CMS) we consulted the Blue Books of British Africa. Based on the ecclesiastical statistics we were able to contact the particular dioceses and carefully plan our fieldwork, which involved the digitisation of historical marriage registers for the period 1824-2015, at over 50 historically important parishes in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.



  • Cogneau, D. & A. Moradi (2014). Borders that divide: Education and religion in Ghana and Togo since colonial times. Journal of Economic History 74(3): 694-729.
  • Frankema, E.H.P. (2012). The origins of formal education in sub-Saharan Africa: was British rule more benign? European Review of Economic History 16(4): 335–55.
  • Hastings, A. (1994). The Church in Africa, 1450-1950. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Gallego, F.A. & R. Woodberry (2010). Christian Missionaries and Education in Former African Colonies: How Competition Mattered. Journal of African Economies 19(3): 294–329.
  • Meier zu Selhausen, F. (2014). Missionaries and female empowerment in colonial Uganda: New evidence from Protestant marriage registers, 1880-1945. Economic History of Developing Regions 29(1): 74-112.
  • Meier zu Selhausen, F. & J. Weisdorf (2016). A colonial legacy of African gender inequality? Evidence from Christian Kampala, 1895–2011. Economic History Review 69(1): 229-257.
  • Nunn, N. (2010). Religious Conversion in Colonial Africa. American Economic Review 100(2): 147-52
  • Pew Research Centre (2015). The Future of World Religions: Population growth Projections, 2010-2050.
  • Wantchekon, L., N. Novta & M. Klašnja (2015). Education and Human Capital Externalities: Evidence from Colonial Benin. Quarterly Journal of Economics 130(2): 703-57.

Authored by Felix Meier zu Selhausen

Felix Meier zu Selhausen

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