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A Brief History of How Zambia Has Become a Christian Nation

The nineteenth century was the "Great Century" of Protestant missionary activity, and Africa was one of its primary targets. In southern Africa, the British made the Cape a British colony in 1795. This British conquest and the rise of interest in foreign missions led British missionaries to come to southern Africa around 1820. Work soon began among a number of tribes, but converts to Christianity came very slowly. The London Missionary Society began a work in Madagascar in 1820 with some success, however British missionary work on the East African coast did not begin in earnest until after 1861. From bases in southern and eastern Africa, missionaries began reaching further inland and eventually reached the area that is today Zambia in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

David Livingstone began his missionary career working at a mission station among the Tswanas in modern day Bostwana. He was determined to reach further north, however, and in 1853 Livingstone crossed the Zambezi to explore what today is Zambia. Over the next twenty years Livingstone traveled back and forth across Zambia many times. Although Livingstone had little success in winning Africans to Christ, accounts of his travels excited many in Europe concerning the need to stop the slave trade and bring Christianity to the peoples of Africa. Livingstone died in Zambia in 1873.

The first missionary to settle and live in what is now Zambia was Frederick Stanley Arnot, a young Plymouth Brethren missionary who reached Lealui to work among the Lozis in December 1882. He left the area in 1884, having made no converts. Eventually Arnot settled in the Democratic Republic of Congo, just north of Zambia. From there the Plymouth Brethren spread into Zambia, starting stations at Johnson Falls in 1901, Kalene Hill in 1906, and Kaleba in 1909. The next resident missionary to Zambia was Francois Coillard of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society. He and his wife had previously worked for twenty years among the Sotho peoples in South Africa. After meeting with Lewanika, the king of the Lozis, Coillard returned to set up a mission station among them in early 1887, the first lasting missionary work in Zambia.

Also in 1887, the London Missionary Society started a mission at Fwambo on the southern end of Lake Tanganyika among the Mambwe. From this base they spread out into the northeastern part of what is now Zambia.

The Primitive Methodists sent a group of missionaries to reach the Ila people. The Methodists arrived at Kazungula in September 1890. Lewanka kept them waiting there for three years until he finally permitted them to enter and settle near N'goma. The Methodists set up a second station at Nkala River in 1893.

The White Fathers, a Roman Catholic mission group, were working on the northern shores of Lake Tanganyika. They established a work among the Bemba in 1898. The Jesuits successfully started a work at Chikuni in 1905 after two failed attempts to start missionary work among the Barotse in 1881 and 1883.

The United Free Church of Scotland began their work in Malawi and from that base opened four stations in Zambia. The first was at Mwenzo in 1895, followed by Lubwa, Serenje, and Chitambo.

The Dutch Reformed Church opened a station at Magwero in 1899, at Madzimoyo in 1903, and at Nayanje and Chipata (Fort Jameson) in 1908.

South African Baptists started a mission in Luangwa in 1905 and at Kafulafuta in 1910.

The Anglicans entered Zambia in 1910. Bishop Hine traveled the country and chose four sites for mission stations, in addition to city churches started to reach white settlers.

The Seventh Day Adventists planted their first mission at Rusanga in 1905. This was followed by one at Musofa east of Ndola in 1917.

These early missionary efforts met with very little success. None of the tribes was open to receiving the gospel. The numerous languages of Zambia proved a barrier as missionaries had to spend years studying the local language before they could communicate effectively with the local people. Many missionaries devoted themselves to the work of translating portions of the Bible into the local languages. The cultural differences between the western missionaries and the peoples of Zambia also proved to be a major barrier. Very few missionaries were as open to African ways of doing things as David Livingstone had been. Most sought to introduce Western culture along with the gospel. Rotberg summarizes the situation as follows:

The first few converts were all in some way dependent upon Christian action for security or for advancement outside the normal tribal arrangements. Some had been rescued from slavery and introduced into the missionary household as servants. “Kalulu,” for example, was redeemed from slave-traders, attached to one of the earliest London missionaries, and finally baptised in 1891. Africans who had freely accepted employment on a mission station were also numbered among the few early converts. One missionary employed a builders' assistant: "As we worked together I would take occasion to implant some scripture truths into his mind." And for tribal misfits, cast out of their own environment, the missions provided a useful alternative. Indeed, to receive the full bounty of the missionaries—their calico, their protection and, in time, their educational training—the ceremony of baptism was necessary. On the whole, however, this combination of forces was insufficient to provide the nucleus of a large indigenous church before 1900. Each of the pioneer missions was disheartened by its inability to make numerous and lasting conversions. The Primitive Methodists, for example, waited thirteen years to make their first convert. Moreover, he, and five other students who followed him, soon lapsed into apostasy, and the Primitive Methodists were compelled to wait patiently until a new group of catechumens could be prepared slowly for baptism. For all missions, these were the barren, pioneer years. (Christian Missionaries and the Creation of Northern Rhodesia 1880-1924, by Robert I. Rotberg, p.42)

Most missionaries adopted the approach of educating the youth in schools with the hope that by so doing the next generation would be influenced to accept Christianity. This was a common approach used by missionaries across Africa during the nineteenth century, but it had its problems as well. Few youths could be induced to attend classes on a regular basis. Rotberg writes:

Initially, however, Africans did not desire a Western education; true utilitarians all, they were reluctant to read or to write without clearly seeing the need or the use of such education. Moreover, the concept of sitting or squatting in the hot sun in order to listen to a foreign tutor was generally thought by Africans to be wasteful of time and essentially frivolous. Frederick Stanley Arnot, Francois Coillard, the London missionaries, the Primitive Methodists, and the White Fathers all found the gathering and instruction of Africans an almost impossible task. To overcome this reluctance, some tried to use coercion and others offered financial and material blandishments along lines later described by a missionary pioneer: "As for the school, for the first year or two the only way we could get pupils was to hire them to work about the place and then give them an hour each day in the schoolroom..." Still Africans resisted the missionaries. But, ultimately, a few began occasionally to attend the early schools. In 1887 Coillard gave lessons "under the scanty shade of a hollow tree" to twenty youths, most of whom were royalty or their slaves." The learning process proved haltingly slow, however; the pupils shared four books ( written in Sesuto) and six slates, and were uninterested in learning how to read. (Rotberg, p. 43)

As a result of all this, few missionary had more than a handful of converts to show after years of labor. In 1924, at a meeting of the Missionary Conference of Northern Rhodesia, it was estimated that only about 18,000 Zambians were baptized church members of the fourteen Protestant missions. In addition the Roman Catholics had 45,000 baptized members. This means that after forty years of effort, about 4% of the estimated 1.5 million Zambians had become fully identified with any Christian group. But in addition, there were another 90,000 who were loosely affiliated with the various mission stations and out-stations, many of whom were attending mission schools. Including all such persons, it is estimated that about 10% of Zambia's population was being touched by a Christian witness of some sort.

That number continued to increase over the years, as Zambia became further developed. At the time of its independence in 1963, probably 25% of Zambians would have identified themselves as being Christians, though no doubt many of these were not truly saved. The 1968 World Christian Handbook lists 23 Protestant Churches and Missions in Zambia and the membership statistics as of the time. These statistics give some insight into how Christianity had progressed in the first eighty years. Below are the statistics for various church groups, showing the date of the first mission and the latest membership figures as of 1968.

Paris Evangelical (1885) 3066 members in 1962

London Miss. Society (1887) 8066 members in 1962

Methodists (1890) 1458 members 1957

Church of Scotland (1895) 2766 members in 1957

(all these churches combined in 1958 to form what is today the United Church of Zambia)

Baptists of South Africa (1905) 1209 members 1962

Seventh Day Adventists (1905) 13,510 members in 1968

Anglicans (1909) 23,000 members in 1968

Roman Catholics (1898) 630,000 in 1967

Jehovah's Witnesses 28,000 active members 1959

During the last forty years, the influence of Christianity in society has continued to expand. It is usually estimated that today somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of Zambian would consider themselves to be Christians. Of course, that includes many groups that would not be classified as Christian by Pentecostals, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses. And many who claim to be Christian still practice their family's traditional religious customs as well. The rest of Zambians still hold to their traditional religious beliefs or follow Islam. One major trend since 1990 has been the explosion in the number of independent churches and ministries throughout the country. Most of these see themselves as Pentecostal or Charismatic.

In 1991 Frederick Chiluba became the second President of Zambia. Soon thereafter he declared the nation to be a Christian nation, which it continues to be to the present day.

Only God knows how many Zambians are truly saved today, but it would seem safe to say that at least half of all Zambians do not know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Unlike many places around the world, Zambians today are open to the gospel and are very likely to respond positively to any call to turn their lives over to Jesus. The harvest today is truly ripe!