French West Africa

French West Africa
   Most of the countries that make up the former French West Africa are predominantly Muslim, with a large presence of Roman Catholicism and indigenous religions. The small Protestant communities that were planted by missionaries have maintained a sometimes precarious existence in the region.
   France entered the European competition to colonize Africa with the conquest of Algeria in 1830. Between 1851 and 1895, the country took over a vast stretch of territory it called French West Africa, which today comprises eight independent countries: Benin (formerly Dahomey), Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Mali (French Sudan), and Burkina Faso (Upper Volta). For Europeans, this vast region included some of the most inhospitable lands on earth, from arid desert to humid rainforest. France also added Tunisia (1881) and Morocco (1912) to its North African territories.
   With the French came Roman Catholicism, which in the early 20th century became the second-largest religious community in most of the French territories.
   Protestantism was introduced into Dahomey by Methodist missionary Thomas Birch Freeman (1809-90) in 1843 and has maintained its existence to the present. The Reformed Church of France came to Algeria in 1873 with the first wave of French settlers, but its growth was primarily limited to the expatriate community. Its missionary arm, the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society, launched work in Senegal, but its missionaries were little able to deal with the equatorial climate. Then in 1881, the newly formed North Africa Mission (NAM), led by Edward H. Glenny, launched missionary activity in Algeria among the Berber and Arab populations. NAM pushed on into Tunisia the next year, where it encountered the small Anglican mission established in 1829 to evangelize the Jewish population. In 1888, NAM's work was supplemented by the arrival of missionaries from a small British sending agency, the Algiers Mission Band.
   In the 20th century, the opening of new missions in the region was a spotty affair. The Paris Mission sent as many people as it was able, but its resources were limited. Significant work was launched by the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Guinea (1918), Mali (1923), Burkina Faso (1923), and the Ivory Coast (1930); the Gospel Missionary Union in Mali (1919); the World Evangelization Crusade in the Ivory Coast (1934); and the Sudan Interior Mission in Niger (1934).
   Pentecostalism first entered the region in 1912 in the person of Josephine Planter, who settled in Tunisia. She was not allowed to hold public gatherings, but she did establish a Bible distribution center and carried on a personal ministry for more than four decades. She was supported by the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), though the first official Church of God missionary, Margaret Gaines, did not arrive until some years later. The first Pentecostal church was opened in Tunisia in 1957. The Assemblies of God spread the Pentecostal message to Burkina Faso (1921), Benin (1945) and Senegal (1956), though its success has been limited.
   One of the African Initiated Churches did play an important role in French West Africa. In 1913-15, William Wade Harris, a Christian prophet from Liberia, preached in the region and founded a number of prayer groups. He baptized more than 100,000 people. Many later became Catholics, and some 25,000 joined the Methodists, who entered the area in 1924. However, the majority formed an independent church. Today, the Harrist Church is the largest non-Catholic church in the region, with some 350,000 members. It is a member of the World Council of Churches.
   The effect of independence on the Protestant community was disastrous, especially in those countries dominated by Islam. With the French expatriates returning to their homeland in the 1960s and 1970s, only a token Protestant presence was left. The churches survived somewhat better in the more southerly lands. However, in Guinea in 1961, the secular Marxist government nationalized all church schools and began deporting all foreign missionary personnel, both Catholic and Protestant. Following the overthrow of the government in 1984, some stability returned. Today, the largest Protestant body is the Evangelical Protestant Church, an outgrowth of the Christian and Missionary Alliance work.
   Much of the region falls within what modern Evangelicals call the 10/40 Window, which includes the most unevangelized nations of the world. The 10/40 Window, lands between 10° and 40° north of the equator in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, are among the most resistant to Christian missionary endeavors. What Protestant presence remains in Muslim North and West Africa consists mostly of support for schools and hospitals and maintenance of expatriate congregations. Ecumenical activity is limited to an Association of Evangelical Churches and Missions in Guinea and the Evangelical Federation of the Ivory Coast, both related to the World Evangelical Alliance. Apart from the Harrist Church, only the Methodist Church in Benin and the Ivory Coast are members of the World Council of Churches.
   See also Equatorial Guinea; French Guinea; Gabon; Guinea-Bissau.
   Further reading:
   ■ David Barrett, The Encyclopedia of World Christianity, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
   ■ Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk, Operation World, 21st Century Edition (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster, 2001)
   ■ J. Herbert Kane, A Global View of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1971)
   ■ Sheila Suzanne Walker, The Religious Revolution in the Ivory Coast: The Prophet Harris and His Church (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983)
   ■ World Methodist Council, Handbook of Information (Lake Junaluska, N.C.: World Methodist Council, 2003).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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