A Brief History of the Churches of Christ in Africa

November 1991 


The churches of Christ have had extreme success in Africa. Of the 609,000 members of the churches of Christ outside the borders of the United States, nearly two-thirds of them, or 392,965 are on the continent of Africa. This is a base that provides opportunity for tremendous growth in the next two decades. Between 1989 and 2000 more than one hundred million people will become first time followers of the Christian religion. This is the projection of David Barrett, the chief church growth statistician. The churches of Christ are poised to see more growth than ever before.


Missions in Africa is not new to us. The churches of Christ have been involved in Africa for nearly one hundred and fifty years. The first missionary of the churches of Christ to travel to Africa was a freed slave by the name of Alexander Cross. The restoration preacher and strategist, D.S. Burnet, had wanted to begin a work in Africa. In 1853 he received a letter from Kentucky describing the evangelistic abilities of a slave. Burnet asked the Hopkinsville, Kentucky congregation to purchase Cross and his families' freedom. After a few months further training and prayer, on November 5, 1853, Alexander, his wife and son, James, sailed from Baltimore and landed in Monrovia, Liberia in early January 1854. Upon arrival Cross began construction of his home which included poling a canoe fourteen miles up river. The severe climate and malaria devastated him and he died within four months.


The next missionaries to Africa did not leave until after the turn of the century. The task was difficult in the beginning. Decease and primitive living conditions made the work extremely difficult for the pioneer missionaries. They were not the only ones to experience hardships. Many of the first converts were rejected by family and community and were forced to live on mission compounds. This made growth crawl along at a slow rate.


Most of the growth in the church in Africa has taken place in the past forty years. In that period the memberships has grown from less than 20,000 to near 400,000. There is no other continent other than North America which has more members. The Lord has answered many prayers and he continues to work wonders there. Ninety-five percent of this growth has taken place in just seven countries (see pie chart). Many of the other twenty-one countries where the churches of Christ are working are new works. Some have suffered from the lack of personnel. These, along with twenty- three countries we have not entered, present the challenge for the future on this responsive continent. The Lord has already done a great work among us.


Whether you look at the growth of the church in Nigeria or Malawi you are looking at the greatest responses to the gospel in a century. In the past forty years more than 150,000 Nigerians have become members of the churches of Christ. The largest rural and urban congregations of the churches of Christ are found in Nigeria. Rural villages among the Ibibio and Efik are laced with a web of congregations. This movement has grown to more than 1600 congregations. The growth in Nigeria has come through periods of struggle and sacrifice. While thousands were dying during the Biafran war (1967-70), tens of thousands were becoming followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Currently members of churches in the Moslem dominated north are facing fierce persecution. Buildings are being burnt and Christians are beaten, yet evangelists are reporting scores of Muslims coming to the Lord. Satin is being defeated.


Malawi is another success story. It is a small country, numbering only 9 million, but there are more than 75,000 members of the churches of Christ there. Malawian evangelists have been missionaries for more than three decades. They initiated the works in Tanzania and Mozambique. This growth and dedication has come with a very small force of missionaries and little American money. It is a movement to the Lord.


Ethiopia has been noted for its famine and war. The church was used by God to bring famine relief to hundreds of thousands in 1983-85. Few know that there are 417 congregations with nearly forty-four thousand members. Most of this growth took place before the relief efforts began. Ethiopia has never been a colony and the church there is fiercely independent as well. At present there are no missionaries of the churches of Christ in the country.


Ghana is the fastest growing mission work of the churches of Christ in the world. Ghanians are found all over West Africa. Some brethren have learned French and started the first congregations in Burkina Faso and Togo. 


Zambia is one of the oldest mission works of the churches of Christ. The first church was planted in 1909 by Peter Masiya, a convert of stone mason cum evangelist, John Sherriff of Rhodesia. It was not until 1921 that W. N. Short came as the first American missionary. Between 1940 and 1965 more than ninety percent of the missionary force was involved in schools. The church was able to hand nineteen schools over to the government at independence. Church growth was slow in the beginning in Zambia. There were less than 1500 active members as late as 1968. It was not until the mid-1960s and the arrival of trained church planting missionaries that the work began to flourish. At present there are more than 27,000 active members in Zambia.


South Africa has fiercely strong and independent movements among the whites, coloreds and indigenous populations. Some of the leaders have been trained in the United States and many more have been instructed in Bible schools within the country. South African missionaries serve in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, and Namibia. There is still much work to be done in this very populous country.


Kenya has more expatriate missionaries than any country on the continent. The work is also the newest among the seven largest. The Van Tate and Ted Ogle families were the first to enter. Since that time more than one hundred missionaries from the churches of Christ have worked in this receptive country. Some rural teams have witnessed more than seven hundred come to the Lord in one year. Over the past eight years the rural and urban mission teams in Kenya have served as the training ground for mission candidates from many universities.


Zambia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria have older works than most in Africa and are the home for some the most mature leaders:


C.A.O. Essien


C.A.O. Essien, an ex-policeman, learned of Jesus in a correspondence course in 1948. Beginning with a dozen village neighbors, he started preaching and teaching men to preach. By the time resident Americans arrived, there were an estimated twenty- five congregations. As more preachers were trained, Essien continued to travel and preach among his Efik tribesmen and neighboring tribes, including trips into Cameroon on the east and Ghana on the West. In 1960 (only twelve years after his conversion) brother Essien died of malaria at about forty years of age. In that short time, 275 congregations had resulted from his work and his converts. Thirty years later that number has grown to about 1600 congregations in all the states of Nigeria. Like other men of God, "...his works live after him..." Kambole Mpatamatenga.


An early stages of the work in Zambia the Holy Spirit set a marvelous example in the life of Kambole Mpatamatenga. Soon after his conversion Brother Mpatamatenga became an interpreter for W. N. Short. Kambole wanted to plant congregations, but he hesitated to set out and leave his family without a farm that could support them. God blessed Kambole's dreams. within ten years he became a self supporting evangelist among his people. At the time of his death he could look over the country of Zambia and recognize congregations that he had planted. Further, on his wall hung a certificate from the government honoring him for have one of the finest farms in the district. As the Spirit would have it, Brother Mpatamatenga's example is recounted in rural villages of Zambia and numerous occasions at leadership meetings in Kenya.


Washington MaClanga


Washington McClanga is the chief officer for the government of Zimbabwe for the exportation of that country's steel and iron. He has a B.A. from Abilene Christian University and a Doctorate from Wayne State University. Brother McClanga is on the board of trustees of Nowe Mission and the preacher training school at Mutari. He is a major supporter of both institutions. Washington is a member of the Avondalle congregation in Harare.




Africa has more countries with extreme human suffering than any other continent on the planet. The plight of Africans has challenged the church to be the hands and heart of the Lord. There are several church of Christ aid agencies which have served well. Manna International has funded water well drilling projects in both west and southern Africa as well as famine relief wherever the need has arisen. Recently Manna has initiated a program of loans for small scale farms and businesses. John Abraham Memorial Christian Relief Fund has provided funding for orphans homes, medical clinics, and other projects. Africa Christian Hospitals foundation now overseas the management of three hospitals and serves as a resource center for all medical missions on the continent. Bread for a Hungry World has supplied food and seed for the most severely suffering areas of Africa. Whites Ferry Road Church of Christ has feed hundreds of thousands of hungry and made funds available for missionary vehicles and printed materials.


Richard Chowning

Abilene Christian University