Lamin Sanneh (1942-2019)

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Yale Divinity School has announced the death of Lamin Sanneh, one of the most influential African theologians and historians of the past half-century. He is best known for books such as Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture and (my favorite book by him) Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa.

The following is an excerpt from Akintunde Akinade’s review of Sanneh’s memoir, Summoned From the Margin: Homecoming of an AfricanHe describes Sanneh’s conversion from Islam to Christianity:

There is perhaps no other scholar who can dissect and describe the inner dynamics of world Christianity, Islam and African spirituality in the manner of Lamin Sanneh. The work of this African scholar of religion represents a treasure of insights on religious transmission and transformation in Africa.

Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and professor of history at Yale Divinity School. Originally from Gambia, he grew up in a Muslim household, but later converted to Christianity.

In Summoned From the Margin: Homecoming of an African, Sanneh writes, “The consternation that met me on my way to joining the church was a measure of the symbolic distance I had to travel from the Axis Mundi of my Muslim culture and history to the Christian faith.”

Naturally, his conversion evoked vitriolic criticisms from his family and friends. They publicly rebuked him, but he was determined to follow a new spiritual path. He was eventually baptized in the Methodist church in Gambia.

Sanneh’s accidental encounter with Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, was the radical, transformative event that enabled him to see the possibility of hope in the world. This driving force propelled him from the periphery to the center; the boy from an impoverished milieu became the academic.

For Sanneh, his conversion to Christianity was a double pilgrimage: First, it provided him a wonderful opportunity to experience a God of love and forgiveness, and secondly, it enabled him to develop a deeper sense of love for relating to his Muslim friends and family. He concludes, “The cross is God’s power, but it does not compel or threaten.” . . .

The genius of the Christian faith is in its capacity to be baptized into different culture-specific conditions. From the early church to our contemporary times, the themes of cross-cultural transmission and transformation have been enduring for the Christian faith. Sanneh testifies to the growth of Christianity in Africa after colonial rule. According to him, “the end of colonial rule removed obstacles in the path of Christian conversion, allowing the religion to commence the indigenous resurgence that was to distinguish it in its post-Western phase.”

Summoned From the Margin is a wonderful read about the processes of cross-cultural engagement. It is not simply a cerebral undertaking; it deals with personal matters that tug at the heart of anyone who is interested in cross-cultural conversations. Constant relocation is filled with wonder, awe and excitement.

This is a memoir that offers a trove of insights on the process of religious conversation, interreligious relations, African Christianity, and the abiding power of religion.

See also:

Christianity Today, “Remembering Lamin Sanneh

Justin Taylor, “The Bible and Languages

Yale Divinity’s announcement of Sanneh’s passing.

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