Healing and Power in Ghana
Early Indigenous Expressions of Christianity
Series: Studies in World Christianity
- ISBN: 9781481312677
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: October 2020
A few years back, I sat relaxing under a tree at the Centre for National Culture in Kumasi, Ghana, with a research colleague. To our left we could hear a Christian Pentecostal pastor leading a “breaking” session in a newly built auditorium. Attendants were encouraged to shout and break all demonic influences in their lives. To our right a family drama was unfolding. A married couple were arguing over issues of money. Tensions arose when one of them cursed the other. Several people got involved in solving what had become a spiritual problem. These two contemporary examples highlight an important point in Paul Glen Grant’s book Healing and Power in Ghana: Early Indigenous Expressions of Christianity, namely that religion in Ghana is, and has historically been, about solving problems and seeking protection. According to Grant, this is key to understanding the religious and cultural encounters that took place when missionaries from the Basel Mission came to Southern Ghana in the 19th century to spread and translate the gospel.
In this well-written, historically rich, and detailed monograph, Grant sets out to understand the making of Ghanaian Christianity by exploring how indigenous intellectual and cosmological frameworks, as well as pragmatic concerns and experiences, came to shape the reception and domestication of missionary Christianity. In the introductory chapter, Grant explains this approach as an “extended encounter” in which Ghanaian Christianity was formed and in which the Basel missionaries were transformed (10). Besides examining this historical encounter and pointing in particular to the determining role of Ghanaians in spreading Christianity, the book is ambitious in its attempt to link these early encounters to the prominence of Pentecostal Christianity in contemporary Ghana. This long historical perspective is crucial when seeking to understand the role and growth of Christianity in present-day West Africa as more than a cultural import. Grant’s approach (in line with other recent contributions) features the long entanglements, dialectic processes, and structural conditions under which change might happen and new forms emerge, yet always in ways that reflect the spiritual needs of people and the ideological and pragmatic frameworks within which they seek solutions to such needs.
The book is set in Akuapem, in Southern Ghana, where the Basel missionaries established themselves in the early 19th century. Throughout seven chapters, the book skillfully shows how religious change came out of the encounters between the Basel missionaries and the people of Akuapem, with a focus on the creative processes of adaptation of the latter group. Starting with a solid descriptive analysis of the Akuapem context as both culturally and linguistically pluralistic, Grant offers a detailed history of Akuapem’s place in and response to global and regional history involving migration, mobility, and a particular capacity to incorporate foreigners and newcomers into the social fabric. This sets the ground for the ensuing chapters, in which the existing spiritual remedies are explored in relation to the emergence and establishment of Christianity. One of Grant’s key arguments is that conversion, when it eventually happened on a larger scale, was neither a matter of doctrinal conviction, nor did it result from the efforts and hard work of the missionaries. Instead, conversion followed from spiritual experimentation and religious pragmatism and ultimately a translation of missionary Christianity into indigenous Christianity. When the existing spiritual tools did not provide the answers and solutions needed, Christianity was adopted as a way to deliver those solutions. This occurred most often in the fields of health and healing, but Christianity was also enlisted to offer protection against malevolent spirits and other more mundane dangers that marginalized people might face. As in other discussions of religion in contemporary Africa, pragmatism is key: “It did not matter whether that patron was a shrine priest or a missionary. All that mattered was that it worked” (82).
Supplementing this detailed account of religious transformation amidst the changing social and economic circumstances of Akuapem, Grant provides a rich explanation of the background of the missionaries and how peculiar they were in their own context. Grant draws attention to their activism (rather than ascetism), millenarian beliefs, global orientation, and to their view that colonialism is Satanic. Grant presents the missionaries as participants in cross-cultural conversations that ultimately end up changing their own worldviews. One example concerns perceptions of the devil, which the missionaries incorporated as part of their intercultural experiences and conversations, rather than as a transportation of an idea from one place to another. A key element to such extended conversations, and the formation of indigenous Christianity, was the biblical text, which served as medium and shared language. Again Grant eloquently shows how the text was not merely about doctrine but was instead “a manual for how God’s power was to be acquired” (242).
As someone who has worked on Ghanaian Pentecostalism for almost two decades, I hugely appreciate the author’s effort to link early expressions of Ghanaian Christianity to the present-day expressions of Christianity in Ghana. As Grant rightly observes, there has been a tendency to not only see Pentecostal Christianity as an import to Ghana, but also as a reflection and reproduction of indigenous religion. This has put missionary Christianity into a historical parenthesis and has failed to show how the domestication and “hermeneutical control” over missionary Christianity is historically connected to Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity in present-day Ghana alongside other African-initiated Christian movements. This book successfully traces Christianity in Ghana as indigenous intellectual and religious history, always in conversation with Christianity as a transnational phenomenon. This book is an example of how attention to historical depth and detail allows us to go beyond essentialisms (African, Western) and instead focus on how religious ideas and practices are shaped and taken control of in pluri-directional ways when subject to extended religious encounters and conversations.
Karen Lauterbach is an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen.Karen LauterbachDate Of Review:January 30, 2023