Last month 68,000 people packed the Stade du 20 mai in Kinshasha, the biggest stadium in Zaire, to celebrate the centenary of the arrival of Protestant missions. The crowd showed the infectious enthusiasm that has helped make the 6.5 million Protestants in Zaire the largest French-speaking Protestant community in the world.

Itofo Bokambanza Bokeleale, president of the Church of Christ in Zaire (CCZ), which sponsored the rally, applauded the early missionary effort. The record is one of the more remarkable growth stories in African church history. When the first missionary, Henry Craven, landed in Zaire in 1878, there were no Christians. He established a mission at Pala Bala, near the modern port city of Matadi and soon was joined by other British missionaries from his own Livingstone Inland Mission and from the Baptist Missionary Society.

The British missionaries, wanting to quickly establish stations across Africa and halt the southward expansion of Islam, penetrated the interior along the course of the Zaire (Congo) River. Two Jamaicans were sent to Zaire by the American Baptist Foreign Missionary Society in 1884—the first American-sponsored missionaries.

Development of the church was constant, though slow and costly. In some outlying areas, buried missionaries outnumbered the living. Protestant work doubled during the two decades between the wars (1919–1939). The next big influx followed World War II and raised the missionary force to more than 1,000. The church grew accordingly in Zaire, until today the Protestant community includes one-fourth of the 25 million population.

Local congregations belong to formerly independent denominations that were merged by government decree to form the CCZ, the only recognized ...

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