Historian Ahead of His Time
Andrew Walls was mildly incredulous when I phoned him in Aberdeen, Scotland, to ask for an interview. Of course he would gladly help me, he said in a restrained Scotch brogue, but was I sure I had the right person? He couldn't understand why Christianity Today would want to write about him.
The reason is simple: Andrew Walls may be the most important person you don't know. Most Americans and Europeans think of Christianity as a Western religion. Prominent leaders of the last 50 years, like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, and Pope John Paul II, are known primarily for their influence in the West, though in fact each of them has played a significant role in wider, global Christianity. But the most important development for the church in the 20th and 21st centuries has not been in the West at all, but in the astonishing shift of Christianity's center of gravity from the Western industrialized nations to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In a short time, Christianity has been transformed from a European religion to a global one.
Andrew Walls is the person to help us understand what this means. One of the first scholars to notice and study the shift, he combines exhaustive knowledge of the worldwide church with a deep historical and theological vision. Scholars who know his work (almost all published in obscure journals) speak of him with something like reverence.
"Andrew was a pioneer," says Yale University historian Lamin Sanneh. "He is one of the few scholars who saw that African Christianity was not just an exotic, curious phenomenon in an obscure part of the world, but that African Christianity might be the shape of things to come." American church historian Mark Noll says that "no one has written with greater wisdom about what it means for the Western Christian religion to become the global Christian religion than Andrew Walls."
Walls's insights go even deeper than that, probing Christian history to gain a prophetic vision of what "Christian" really means across an extraordinary diversity of times and cultures.
Love Affair with Africa
I met Walls for a daylong conversation at the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC) in New Haven, Connecticut. It is a place he visits frequently, living mostly on oatmeal he cooks in an upstairs kitchen. Walls is nearly 80 now, living on "injury time" as he puts it, borrowing the soccer term. He has had several heart attacks and 20 years ago seemed close to death, but as Sanneh says, "Andrew is hard to stop." Retired from his university posts, he keeps up an impossible schedule of travel, lecturing all over the world.
He is an instinctive activist, but not on behalf of himself. Though a wonderful writer, he has produced no books and nothing like a magisterial summary of his work. Two collections of essays offer the best introduction to his work, but Walls himself had almost no involvement in bringing the books to birthhis friends did it. "He's known by his students," Sanneh says, "and for him that's good enough." Adds Jonathan Bonk, executive director of the OMSC, "His magnum opus is people."
Walls went to Africa in 1957, a 29-year-old veteran of Oxford and Cambridge planning to fulfill his missionary call through teaching church history at Fourah Bay College. In the sleepy tropical warmth of Freetown, Sierra Leone, fellow Britons took him in hand but painted a depressing picture of the local church. The Methodists, Walls was told, had only "two young men, one 48, one 54" entering study for ordination that year. Walls's students wrote down everything he said, but "you could see from their faces that it didn't penetrate." Freetown was a colonial outpost where Europeans could live "between the office and the club," awaiting "the arrival of the fortnightly mail boat."