Richard GRAY. Christianity, the Papacy, and Mission in Africa. Edited with an Introduction by Lamin Sanneh. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2012. pp. 197. $50.00. ISBN 978-1-57075-986-4. Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN, Georgetown University, D.C. 20057.
This is a collection of Richard Gray’s eleven essays previously published in rather inaccessible venues. Not a prolific and popular author, Gray (1929-2005) was not a household name in church history circles, unless one’s research interests concern Africa, and more narrowly, the history of Catholic missions in Sudan and Sub-Saharan Africa. But there is no doubt that Gray, a scholar of enormous erudition, remains one of the most influential historians in his field. One is deeply grateful to Lamin Sanneh for his labor of love and to Orbis Books for making Gray’s essays available in a single volume to a wider public.
The son of a captain in the Royal Navy, Gray was educated at Charterhouse and Downing College, Cambridge. In 1951 he began doctoral studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His 1957 doctoral thesis, published as A History of the Southern Sudan, 1839-1889 (1961), became a standard work and earned him an academic post at the University of Khartoum His conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1955 and his marriage in 1957 to Gabriella Cattaneo, whose family had been the personal friends of Pope John XXIII, kindled his interests in the Italian sources for African history and for Catholic missions in Africa. Due to his family connections, Gray had access to the archives located in the Vatican libraries as well as in the mother houses of missionary orders in Rome. In 1965 he co-authored with David Chambers in producing Materials for West African History in Italian Archives. With Philip Mason, the renowned scholar on race relations, Gray worked on a three-volume study of the history of race relations in Rhodesia and Nyasaland, published as The Two Nations (1960).
In 1961 Gray returned to the School of Oriental and African Studies where he taught African History. During this time he worked on the editing of the fourth volume of The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 1600 to c. 1790, published in 1975. In the early 1970s he organized several seminars and conferences on the effects of political independence on the future of the Christian religion in Africa, the leading papers of which were edited by Gray and others and published as Christianity in Independent Africa (1978).
In 1982 Gray was made a member of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences, which facilitated access to the Vatican archives, and took early retirement from SOAS in 1989 with the plan to produce a comprehensive study of the papacy and Africa. Unfortunately, his death in 2005 left the work largely unfinished. His last books were Black Christians and White Missionaries (1990) and, edited with Yusuf Fadi Hasan, Religion and Conflict in Sudan (2002).
Christianity, The Papacy, and Mission in Africa opens with a lengthy and generous introduction by Lamin Sanneh, the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale. Sanneh, whose admiration for Gray shines through the pages of his introduction, highlights Gray’s most salient ideas and contributions to the study of African Christianity. Among these is first of all Gray’s emphasis on the African origins of Catholic missions thanks to the initiatives and appeals of the kings of the two Christian kingdoms, Ethiopia and Kongo (chapter 1) and of an anonymous Kongo princess (chapter 2). These African Christians, Gray notes with delight, exercised an unmistakable, albeit indirect, influence on the papal decision to eliminate the restrictions of the Portuguese padroado system and to establish the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in 1622 (chapter 3). Another contribution is Gray’s narrative of the papal role in the condemnation of slavery and the African slave trade (chapters 3 and 4). A third contribution is Gray’s retrieval of the history of Catholic missions, especially through the Capuchins, in Soyo (Sogno, Sohio) of Kongo in the 17th century (chapter 5) and though the work of the Franciscans in Central Sudan in the 18th century (chapter 6). The remaining chapters discuss the African view of the Catholic Church and Western Europe in the 19th century (chapter 7), the Southern Sudan (chapter 8), Christianity and colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa (chapter 9), popular theologies in Southern Africa (chapter 10), and the Swedish Protestant scholar and missionary Bengt Sundkler’s contributions to the study of Christianity in Africa (chapter 11).
Though Grays’ work focuses on the past history of Catholic missions in Africa, by no means is it of interest only to antiquarians. His insights, derived from lengthy, painstaking, and meticulous research on long-forgotten and dusty archives, shed light on the twenty-first-century resurgence of Christianity in Africa and provides precious directions for effective Christian missions elsewhere.