The Dictionary of African Christian Biography: What it is, How it Began and Where it is Going

Faculty at Makumira University College in Tanzania
use the DACB.

Maverick economist E. F. Schumacher once stood on a street corner in Leningrad, Russia, trying to understand the map his Russian hosts had given him. He was confused. While there was some correspondence between what the map registered and what he could see with his own eyes (the names of parks, intersecting streets, etc.), several enormous churches looming in front of him were nowhere on his map. His guide soon pointed out that while the map did indeed include some churches, they were only on the map because they were museums. Those that were not museums were not shown. “It is only the ‘living churches’ we don't show,” he explained.1

Among the most astonishing religious phenomena of the twentieth century has been the growth of Christianity in Africa. As Lamin Sanneh recently observed,

“Muslims in 1900 outnumbered Christians by a ratio of nearly four to one, with some 34.5 million, or thirty-two percent of the population. In 1962 when Africa had largely slipped out of colonial control, there were about sixty million Christians, with Muslims at about 145 million. Of the Christians, twenty-three million were Protestants and twenty-seven million were Catholics. The remaining ten million were Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox.”2 

Forty years later the number of Christians in Africa had multiplied by six to nearly 380 million, overtaking the Muslim population to comprise an estimated 48.37 percent of the approximately 800 million total population.3 Between 1900 and 2000 the Catholic population in Africa increased a phenomenal 6,708 percent, from 1,909,812 to 130,018,400. Catholic membership has increased 708 percent over the last fifty years.4

Yet, even the most recent attempts by mainline Church historians to help seminarians and church leaders locate themselves and find their way in the terra firma of contemporary world Christianity take scarcely any note of Africa.

Eleven years ago, while I was still a seminary instructor in Canada, the Dictionary of African Christian Biography5 (DACB) was an inchoate idea, little more than the agenda for a modest scholarly consultation convened from 31 August to 2 September 1995. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and hosted by the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC), this invitation-only event explored the need for an International Dictionary of Non-western Christian Biography, with Africa as the particular focus.

In 1999, two years after my arrival at OMSC, I embarked on the first of what would become annual DACB-related trips to Africa. Since 2000 Ms. Michele Sigg has served as the very effective project manager, and I have visited universities, seminaries and research centers in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi and Egypt. Today more than one hundred seminaries, universities and research centers in many African countries are registered as official participating institutions, with designated liaison coordinators, and contribute to a steady flow of biographical materials for the dictionary. Biographers in Ethiopia compete to have their stories read publicly at the annual Frumentius Lectures in Ethiopian Church History. The top three researchers/writers are further honored with a gift of books.

Particularly heartening is the way in which the Dictionary of African Christian Biography is proving to be both the stimulus and model for similar data gathering initiatives elsewhere. The Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (Trinity College, Singapore) is using the DACB as a model to produce an Asian Christian biographical database, as are the Don Bosco Centre in Shillong, India, and the Trinity Methodist Church in Selangor Dural Ehsan, Malaysia. This year, for example, OMSC has served as hosting institution and “incubator” for The Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity. This ambitious project ( is under the administrative oversight of Dr. Wright Doyles’s Global China Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. Senior associates Dr. Yading Li and Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin serve as project manager and project coordinator, respectively.

Leaders from Africa collaborated with
the DACB project.

Awareness of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography continues to grow. We are learning that the dictionary is increasingly utilized by instructors who require their students to get into the habit of using the database for their African Church History assignments. As virtually the only readily accessible source of information on African Christian biography, the DACB website,, is experiencing steady and growing traffic.

Among the several ongoing challenges facing the dictionary, an obvious one is the unevenness of country, language and denominational content. While the number of stories in English are relatively plentiful, with French-language entries lagging far behind, the languages representing the other three lingua franca of Africa are not represented at all. This is due to neither oversight nor neglect, but to the linguistic limitations of the principals involved and to the fact that the dictionary reflects only those stories that have been submitted. DACB facilitators in New Haven, Connecticut, USA do not research, write or commission the stories. Participating institutions and their designated liaison coordinators are the key to dictionary entries.

Added to this is the somewhat patchy quality of the stories. Anyone browsing the DACB will at once be struck by the unevenness of both the quality and consistency of the nearly one thousand biographies that currently make up the database. Some of the stories are only one or two sentences; others have more than two thousand words. While scholarly exactitude mark some of the entries, a large number have been contributed by persons who are neither scholars nor historians. The stories are non-proprietary and belong to the people of Africa as a whole. Since this is a first generation tool, and on the assumption that some memory is better than total amnesia, the checkered quality of the entries has been tolerated and even welcomed. This being a first-generation attempt to ensure that there is some kind of memory to which scholars and leaders of subsequent generations will have access, it will be left for another generation to redress the weaknesses and deficiencies inherent in the present dictionary.

The stone scrapers and blades of our Paleolithic forbears, deemed to be functionally deficient in our age, were nevertheless the survival tools of their era. It is inevitable that any early tool should, by the standards of a later generation, be regarded as primitive and unsatisfactory. But lest this truism stifle the creative process, the reminder that it is often just such inadequacies which spark disgruntled users to develop better tools is reassuring.

Despite the DACB's laughably meager financial resources and minimalist administrative infrastructure, those of us most immediately involved are encouraged and delighted by its growing recognition as a unique and impressively useful source of information on the Church in Africa.

In his essay “Poetry and American Memory” (Atlantic Monthly, October 1999), Robert Pinsky, poet laureate of the United States from 1997-2000, observed that “a people is defined and unified not by blood, but by shared memory” and that “deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are.” As Christianity continues its seemingly inexorable decline in the old heartlands of Christendom, it is vitally important that the emerging world Church be enabled to remember that it is much, much more than simply a religious footnote to the economic, military, and political ascendancy of European tribes!

1. Schumacher, E. F. 1977.  A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, p. 1.

2. Sanneh, Lamin. 2003. Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, p. 16.

2. Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk, with Robyn Johnstone. 2001. Operation World: 21st Century Edition. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Lifestyle, pp. 20-21. According to Operation World figures, Muslims constituted 41.32 percent of Africa’s population in 2001. Annual growth rates for Christians and Muslims in Africa are estimated to be 2.83 percent and 2.53 percent respectively.

3. Froehle, Bryan T. and Mary L. Gautier. 2003. Global Catholicism: Portrait of a World Church. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, p. 5.

4. I have related the story of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography in more detail in an article appearing in the October 2004 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, “Ecclesiastical Cartography and the Invisible Continent,” pp. 153-158. See the Dictionary online at

Dr. Jonathan Bonk is executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. He is editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and a member of the Lausanne Theology Working Group.