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Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social, and Cultural History.

Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Edited by Richard Elphick and Rodney Davenport (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xiv plus 480pp.).

A decade ago the study of religion was at the backwater of historical writing on South Africa. An emphasis on political economy and materialist approaches to the past together rendered religion epiphenomenal to the seemingly more concrete questions of class and the state. Today many materialist histories seem decidedly crude and unaware of the constitutive force of culture. Christianity in South Africa, a sprawling work of some twenty-five chapters involving the work of some thirty scholars, represents part of the contemporary turn toward acknowledging the importance of ideas and beliefs in the shaping of South Africa's past and present. An earlier generation of social historians argued that at the center of South Africa's modern history lay the development of capitalism, the emergence of an African working-class, and the rise of a modern and racially oppressive bureaucratic state. True enough. But, as this volume makes very clear, one of the most important historical processes unfolding in South Africa has b een the dramatic growth of Christianity. Fully grasping the many complexities of South African history requires an understanding of what has been, in effect, a religious revolution. Christianity has been of signal importance in the early relationship between Africans and Europeans. And it has been of great importance in shaping many political ideologies, from liberalism to the creation of apartheid. This edited volume covers all these themes, and many more. In so doing it provides the most comprehensive treatment available on the history of Christianity in South Africa.

The volume begins with the Reformed Church in the era of Dutch imperialism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, concentrated as it was in the Western Cape near Cape Town. Christianity in South Africa then moves into the interior, exploring in five useful chapters Christianity among various African societies. Here the authors emphasize the ways Africans made Christianity their own. What is especially helpful is the analysis of the interaction between European missionaries and African chiefs and commoners. The chapters offer some explanation as to why some peoples adopted Christianity very quickly while others kept the new religion at arm's length. Elbourne and Ross's chapter on early missions among the Khoikhoi is a model of lucidity. The adoption of Christianity rarely conformed to the expectations of the missionaries who ventured into the African bush looking for lost souls to convert to a new God. Equally important, Elbourne and Ross show the ways in which early converts formed an important bridge between Europeans and other African groups. Conversion thus becomes a central issue in cross-cultural interactions and, importantly, the expansion of European domination across the subcontinent. These early chapters are a vivid reminder that from the beginning Christianity became an important part of African resistance to European colonial domination. Later chapters return to the relationship among religion, politics and power. In his exploration of millennial Christianity, for example, Mills usefully connects religious changes unfolding in the early twentieth century to the rise of African nationalism. And, in a wonderfully perceptive chapter, Elphick discusses the location of Christianity in the politics and ideologies of white liberals and the African National Congress.

Rising secularization distinguished western European history in the twentieth century. Africa, however, experienced nothing short of a religious revolution. That revolution is ongoing. Christianity in South Africa brings together a rich history of religion and social change. Taken together the essays will make it difficult for future historians to easily relegate religion, to the realm of ideology and ritual. The authors bring to the center of South African history the importance of religion and, more generally, of ideas, in the daily lives of people. Several chapters are not always successful, and at times the writing deadens many fascinating subjects. This unevenness is probably inevitable in a work that attempts such comprehensiveness. More seriously, Christianity in South Africa tends to be under-theorized. There is surprisingly little conceptual discussion of a central historical process: conversion. And the very category of religion is seldom scrutinized. That said, this is an indispensable resource fo r scholars interested in all aspects of Christianity in South Africa.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Crais, Clifton
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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