- Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel
Research on African Pentecostalism is thriving, adding to the corpus of literature on Christian European missions in Africa; however, evangelical fundamentalism itself, which has been exported from the United States for the last hundred years, remains an important lacuna in the study of Christianity in Africa. This book provides a much-needed inquiry into that phenomenon.
Cooper tells the history of the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), an American Protestant evangelical mission in the Maradi region of Niger. She describes its roots, its initial work in Niger in colonial contexts, the gradual development of an indigenous evangelical church, and the changes in ideas about mission work and evangelization within it. Far more than a monograph of a mission, this book is a study of the mission's relationship with the society in which it came to work, with the developing indigenous church, and with the colonial authorities, other churches, and practitioners of traditional religion. These interrelationships have shaped its room for maneuver, its strategies, and its practical interventions.
Cooper's study couples in-depth historical analysis with rich ethnographic detail. It draws on participant observation, personal interviews, and archival work, including private archival material in the form of letters, personal notebooks, and sermons. Cooper's style of writing adds much to the pleasure of reading. In the introduction, she introduces us to the scene by describing how, on a market day in Maradi, she sits in a bar and watches the world go by. The scene is undoubtedly Islamic, but Cooper, by progressively disclosing the meaning of seemingly trivial details, shows how, in this landscape, there is a barely visible, yet ever-present, Christian subculture, which is closely related to SIM's work.
This mission was founded in 1893 as part of an evangelical movement that, as a reaction to the adage "Christianity, commerce, and civilization" (which had characterized most missionary work in the 19th century), wanted to return to pure preaching. The aim was to convert, not to educate. As Cooper puts it, "this would be a movement driven by faith alone" (p. 6); hence the reluctance to engage in social, medical, or other kinds of development. SIM was further characterized by a fundamentalist understanding of Christianity—meaning that the Bible is seen as the inerrant word of God, and that the world and its affairs are interpreted as a struggle between God and Satan, leading to strong binary thinking. [End Page 122]
As the coastal areas of West Africa were already saturated with missions, SIM chose to work in the then mainly untested Sudanic interior. In response, the British colonial rulers, who relied on local Muslim rulers for their system of indirect rule, feared that missionary work would lead to social unrest and strongly restricted missionary intervention in Northern Nigeria. The French administration in Niger was less hostile toward missionary work but certainly not in favor of it either. At the time, colonial administrators saw Islam as a useful alternative to Christianity, and perhaps better suited to the African spirit and mind. When the authorities allowed the mission to start working in Niger, it was the Muslim elite in the religious center of Zinder that prevented the missionaries from working as they had planned. They found a less inimical environment in Maradi, which was not an important Islamic center and where a strong pre-Islamic subculture existed side by side with Islam.
Cooper shows that the first converts in this area belonged to Muslim Hausa aristocratic families. When SIM started to enlarge its zone of intervention and engage in medical work after the British administration had entrusted it with the supervision of lepers in the region, people of lower descent, "pagans," and other ethnic groups were reached. This change made the local church quite diversified as a group, led to struggles for power, and enhanced debates within the community as to what constituted good and bad practices.
SIM's strong scripturalist orientation meant that a translation of the Bible into the local language was a high priority. Cooper describes how this project was...