Paul Glen Grant. Healing and Power in Ghana: Early Indigenous Expressions of Christianity. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2020. 341 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4813-1267-7.
Reviewed by Adam H. Mohr (University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-Africa (January, 2021)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)
Scholars of global Christianity like Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2011) argue that a distinguishing feature of African Christianity comparative to other regional Christianities is its focus on healing. It is also an idea I have been trying to develop in my own writing about African Christianity, particularly my first book, Enchanted Calvinism: Labor Migration, Afflicting Spirits, and Christian Therapy in the Presbyterian Church of Ghana (2013) as well as my research and writing on Faith Tabernacle in West Africa. Here, for the first time, Paul Grant has examined the precolonial mission from Basel in Ghana to detail this argument in the earliest days of mission in West Africa. A strong link is made to the recent research on Pentecostalism in Ghana, where Grant argues that there are ontological and epistemological continuities between the type of Christianity established in the Akuapem hills in the nineteenth century and late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Pentecostalism, even without institutional continuity. The point here echoes Jenkins’s observation about popular Christianity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: Ghanaian Christianity from its earliest times was primarily about healing, protection, and power in its broad, expansive, African qualities. In Healing and Power in Ghana, Grant critically examines the German sources of the Basel Mission to argue more specifically that: one, a form of healing-centered Christianity emerged in the nineteenth century in Ghana that is contiguous with Pentecostalism in many ways; two, this form of Christianity was a product of West African intellectual history; and three, this indigenous project of reformulating Christianity attempted to assimilate foreign missionaries into traditional healers, particularly shrine priests (p. 3).
In chapter 1, Grant argues that local frustrations with the indigenous healer’s tool kit to repair damaged social and family relationships led to a search for new sources of spiritual power. Chapter 2 further develops the sociopolitical setting by investigating the ritual and religious tool kit in Akuapem—primarily the Odwira harvest festival, spirit sacrifices, and sanctuary shrines, which addressed social problems such as rebellions, divorces, and unwanted spirits. Chapter 3 examines why Ghanaians did not covert to Atlantic Christianity before the arrival of the Basel missionaries, even though the foreign religion had been present in European slave forts for several centuries. Grant concludes that most natives found this religion to be irrelevant, one that did not follow pragmatic indigenous patterns. Chapter 4 introduces the Pietist Basel missionaries in their homeland context and establishes their basis for cross-cultural learning, focusing specifically on the 1840s revival of exorcism and faith healings in the German-speaking world. These missionaries, argues Grant, were more accommodating to indigenous ideas than other missionary societies.
Chapters 5 through 7 constitute the core argument of the monograph and cover the years 1842 to 1874. Chapter 5 investigates local non-Christians’ efforts to find an indigenous category to classify and make use of these foreigners. The Basel missionaries became a new class of sanctuary shrine priests, and locals demanded similar services from them. Chapter 6 focuses on indigenous engagement with Bible translation, which was fully complete by 1872. Indigenous preachers and teachers advanced a hermeneutical agenda—with a focus on power and healing—at odds with the German-speaking missionaries. Chapter 7 demonstrates that indigenous preachers went out amongst the people and engaged in hostile confrontations with shrine priests, while many missionaries were not present for this display due to illness. Finally, in the conclusion, Grant argues that the formal colonial period in Akuapem—ushered in by indirect rule in the mid-1870s—led to a sharp decline in hermeneutical innovations by local Christians, who eventually moved their innovative healing practices beyond the scope of missions to African Initiated Churches in the 1920s. This is followed by the analysis of the contemporary Christian participation in Akuapem’s annual harvest festival, posing questions about the limits of indigenization of Christianity in Ghana and around the world.
Grant’s monograph is exceptional in several ways. He is one of the first scholars of the Basel Mission in Ghana to fully engage German primary sources (while many, like myself, rely primarily on English translations of the German reports and magazine articles). His ability to deal with and incorporate very difficult-to-read handwritten nineteenth-century sources is extraordinary. Also, his engagement with the secondary literature is excellent, in particular Birgit Meyer on the short-lived wave of exorcisms and faith healings in southern Germany during the 1840s in chapter 4, J. D. Y. Peel in that missionaries and indigenous Christians looked at the same Bible but saw very different messages in chapter 6, and more holistically throughout Grant’s monograph, ideas developed by J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, that Ghanaian Christianity from its sustained onset in the precolonial nineteenth century was based in indigenous initiative and exhibited practices consistent with contemporary Pentecostalism. In fact, Grant’s book supports Asamaoh-Gyadu’s thesis better than almost anything else written. Furthermore, Grant pays close attention to local Akan religion, micro and macro politics of the Akuapem kingdom, and the very particular and peculiar culture surrounding Pietists from southwest Germany and Switzerland.
Healing and Power in Ghana, ultimately, is about local appropriation of Christianity in a precolonial African kingdom, where pastors were understood to be sanctuary shrine priests, where biblical forms of divination were common, and where indigenous pastor’s confrontations with traditional healers/religious practitioners over spiritual power were also common. I consider Healing and Power in Ghana to be a great book that should be read widely by scholars of global Christianity, African Christianity, mission studies, West African history, and religion more broadly.
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Adam H. Mohr. Review of Grant, Paul Glen, Healing and Power in Ghana: Early Indigenous Expressions of Christianity.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
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