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"In the image of God": Missionaries and the Mapping of Angolan Politics

On August 14, 2007, Kate Burlingham, one of the 2007 Africanist Doctoral Fellows at the Africa Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, presented her doctoral research project entitled "In the image of God": Missionaries and the Mapping of Angolan Politics." Amb. Paul J. Hare, Executive Director of the U.S.-Angola Chamber of Commerce, served as moderator.

Date & Time

Aug. 14, 2007
10:00am – 11:30am ET


On August 14, 2007, Kate Burlingham, one of the 2007 Africanist Doctoral Fellows at the Africa Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, presented her doctoral research project entitled "In the image of God": Missionaries and the Mapping of Angolan Politics." Burlingham, a Ph.D candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers University, discussed the goals of her dissertation which are (1) to attempt to understand the relationship that existed between North American missionaries and Angolans at the Dondi mission in the interior province of Huambo in Angola and (2) to explore how this case can lead to wider discussions on the relationship between religion and power. The event was moderated by Paul J. Hare, former U.S. Ambassador to Angola and currently the Executive Director of the U.S.-Angola Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC.

Burlingham began with the general parameters and background of her thesis. Her dissertation "looks specifically at the relationship that existed between North American protestant missionaries and Angolans from just after World War II until 1975, when Angola officially won its independence from Portugal." She used the Congregationalist Church mission of Dondi as a case study because it served as a space for dialogue for Angolans in opposition to colongial rule, otherwise denied under the Portuguese. She also pointed out that Angolans used Evangelical beliefs about the equality of man to make a similar argument for their own equality within the political context.

Burlingham discussed the background of missionary activity in Angola which dates as far back as the early 16th century when a party of twelve Catholic friars from the Order of St. John the Apostle were sent to the Congo territory in modern Northern Angola. For their part, the first Protestant missionaries arrived in Northern Angola in 1860 as part of the Livingston inland mission attached to the work of explorer David Livingston. Burlingham noted that much of the academic work on missionary activity in Angola and in Africa more generally has focused on these earlier missionary movements and more specifically on European mission activity. Burlingham also noted that while these first missionaries were English, her dissertation would focus on the activities of North American missionaries.

Burlingham then presented the history of North American Protestant missions in Angola which began in 1878 with the arrival of Baptists who took up residence in the northern part of the country bordering the Congo. In 1880 the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM), descending body of the Congregationalist Church, sent three missionaries from Lisbon to Benguela just south of Luanda, to establish the Congregationalist mission. The Congregationalists eventually moved further inland than the Portuguese state and established missions throughout several provinces and established strong connections with the communities they worked in. In 1885, the Methodist Episcopal Church in the U.S. sent its first missionaries and eventually came to dominate the Western Central part of the nation. The missionary societies ended up dividing Angola into separate evangelizing zones that corresponded roughly with the contours of Angola's pre-existing ethno-linguistic groups. They invested in social infrastructures such as schools and hospitals, and literacy became their prime objective. Perhaps most importantly, missionaries worked specifically with the majority of Angolans that the Portuguese State considered beyond civilization and for whom they had provided little access to medical or formal Western education facilities.

This situation, she stressed, had led to a certain amount of tension between the Portuguese state and the missionaries which escalated throughout the twentieth century as the state continued to try to establish further control over protestant mission schools. The Portuguese colonial administration eventually ruled that students could only be taught by Portuguese teachers in the Portuguese language and only using the Portuguese school curriculum. Surveillance of missionary activities and of Angolan Protestants also intensified throughout the 20th century, reaching its height during the anti-colonial war when many protestant pastors, teachers and students were interrogated, arrested and some killed as well.

Burlingham explained that while her research topic seems relatively obscure, the influence of Protestant missionary schools is evident and important when one considers that many of the Angolans who are currently leaders in government and business today were in fact educated in Protestant schools. In fact, the three leaders of the political movements that emerged at the end of colonialism: António Agostinho Neto who was head of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA); Holden Roberto of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA); and Jonas Savimbi who was the head of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), were all Protestant School products.

In regards to her choice of Dondi and Congregationalists, Burlingham explained that it was dictated simply by the sources that she uncovered. Her decision to focus on Dondi became justified after realizing that Dondi was not only the largest mission station in Angola, but also offered the highest level of education available to Angolans who might have otherwise had difficulty enrolling in the Portuguese state or Catholic Church schools. Not only did Dondi provide varied socio-economic amenities but it was also considered to have been self-reliable. Furthermore, Dondi missionaries traveled far into rural areas to provide assistance to local pastors running community wide literacy programs with the notion of "each one, teach one" whereby students in order to pass their exams had to bring someone they had taught to read with them. Finally, Burlingham noted that health and literacy programs provided by the Congregationalist Church in Dondi became so entwined in the local village structures that village members would often elect a representative to take lessons from the missionaries and then report back to the village elders with their findings.

Burlingham concluded her presentation by pointing out the progress she had made during her three months at the Woodrow Wilson Center. First, as she took a step back and reviewed her sources as well as her primary work, she was able to begin grounding her research in the different historiographies it touches upon. Moreover, she began to consider that while the motivation to join the Congregationalist church was undoubtedly different for each individual, the way in which it was interpreted by the state, whether done consciously or not, was political. Indeed, the majority of people who joined the Congregationalist church had negligible access to formal political processes and the decision to join a church to which the colonial state was openly hostile, was nothing less than a vote made with one's feet or soul against the Portuguese.. Indeed, the level of hostility and antagonism heightened as the Protestant membership increased and as the Portuguese state tried desperately to hold onto power throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Secondly, from rereading her sources and from discussions with former Congregationalists and Methodists, Ms. Burlingham discovered that, unlike what many writings suggest, the Protestant Church's decision to divide along ethno-linguistic lines did not contribute to the political differences that were realized during the civil war. Indeed, from the earliest days of the Protestant mission work, missionaries chose not to put the name of the Protestant sect on the front of the church so that communication between churches would remain fluid and so that people would feel free to worship in whichever church they chose. Schools at Dondi were specifically ecumenical. Thus, Burlingham concluded that "deducing later political divisions to church membership oversimplifies a long and rich Angolan political and social history."

Drafted by Aliya Jalloh, Intern and Roseline Tekeu, Program Assistant, Africa Program.


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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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