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Remembering Lamin Sanneh, the World’s Leading Expert on Christianity and Islam in Africa

Scholars explain how a convert “summoned from the margins” of The Gambia became a legend at Yale Divinity School for his curiosity, joy, and deep insights.
Remembering Lamin Sanneh, the World’s Leading Expert on Christianity and Islam in Africa
Image: Courtesy of Yale Divinity School
Lamin Sanneh

Lamin Sanneh, the Gambian scholar who shaped contemporary discourse around World Christianity and missions in Africa, died Sunday at age 76.

As Sanneh wrote in his autobiography, he was “summoned from the margins,” a convert from Islam to Christianity raised in the tiny West African nation.

Over his 30-year career at Yale Divinity School as well as stints at the University of London and two Pontifical Commissions, he brought World Christianity to the forefront, drawing a global network of scholars and friends around his scholarship in the fields of African history, abolitionism, and Christian-Muslim relations.

CT heard from some of these colleagues as they grieved Sanneh’s sudden passing. Their tributes appear below.

Andrew F. Walls, founder of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland:

All members of [the Yale-Edinburgh network of World Christianity scholars] will have learned with deep sorrow of the passing, while still at the height of his considerable powers, of Professor Lamin Sanneh. With the sorrow there is mingled thanksgiving for a scholarly life of immense value and significance, likely to be ongoing in its influence.

For those attending the Yale-Edinburgh conferences he was an ever-present figure, overseeing the Yale end of operations from our very first conference in 1992. In the academic concerns at the heart of the activities of both network and conferences, the historical study of Christian missions and of World Christianity, his influence has been immense; indeed, he is one of the architects of the discourse as we now know it.

As scholar he has added to the sum of our knowledge, transformed understanding with illuminating comparisons, and widened debate by insights from different disciplines. And he has done what few of us achieve: he has changed the way people think on important matters (consider, for instance the widespread effect of his little book Translating the Message).

He has advanced the study of both Christianity and Islam in Africa with major works, always; he has also advanced understanding between Christians and Muslims in active relationships.

He has been an architect in another sense: his promotion of knowledge and understanding has never been a matter simply for the study or library. The issue of Christianity in contemporary African society occupied him constantly, and his vision and energy were displayed in the remarkable series of conferences he organized in various African locations.

It is good that he lived to see the development at the University of Ghana which now bears his name and can give some of his ideas institutional form. The major monograph series, Oxford Studies in World Christianity represents another stream of his creative energies that will no doubt continue to flow.

Visionary, man of faith, scholar, teacher, writer, architect, motivator, networker, dear friend and pillar of our fellowship—let us give thanks for the life and work of Lamin Sanneh, remembering his widow Sandra, his children and grandchildren, and all those who will miss him most.

Lamin Sanneh presents Pope Francis with his last book, on jihad and pacifism in Muslim West Africa.
Image: Courtesy of Yale Divinity School

Lamin Sanneh presents Pope Francis with his last book, on jihad and pacifism in Muslim West Africa.

John Azumah, professor of World Christianity and Islam, Columbia Theological Seminary, and director of the Sanneh Institute at the University of Ghana in Accra:

Professor Lamin Sanneh’s sudden passing away is a huge personal loss to me. He is an academic mentor and role model, and an inspiration as a convert from Islam to Christianity seeking to inform and build bridges through scholarship. The depth and breadth of Professor Sanneh’s knowledge of Christian and Islamic history and missions in Africa is as illuminating to his admirers and as it confounding to his critics.

As the title of his autobiography appropriately states, Professor Sanneh’s felt summoned from the margins in a small island on the Gambia River in West Africa, transformed by his Christian faith and embarked upon a distinguished career in the academy leaving behind an extraordinary scholarly legacy.

In his last but one email to me days before his sudden demise, Professor Sanneh reflected:

When I was thwarted in my wish to study theology and be ordained, I went through a terrible period of confusion and doubt. It was like a sickness in which I wondered whether God really wanted me. I started to emerge out of that hole when I saw that I could offer my training and scholarship as a small tribute to the God of Jesus, with Muslims within hearing distance.

Call it a sense of vocation if you like, but I was determined to do the best I could to appeal to Muslims not to dismiss Christians when they give evidence that following Jesus does not mean speaking or thinking ill of others. The resulting proximity should make Christ less a stranger to all of us when his spirit moves in our midst.

The Sanneh Institute at the University of Ghana in Accra, which was announced last year in recognition of Professor Sanneh’s illustrious academic career, will strive to continue his mission of offering scholarship as a tribute to God with the other within hearing distance.

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, president of Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Ghana:

Many of us are still in shock at the sudden home call of Professor Lamin Sanneh. I sure speak for many others when I say I am mourning the eternal loss of a dear personal senior friend, mentor, and colleague in the Christian academy. Lamin Sanneh was a man of solid worth. When I have cited his work publicly, I always took pride in letting others know that I knew him in person.

The study of World Christianity as an academic discipline in the 20th century and its shape for the future can never be fully chronicled without the contribution of Lamin Sanneh. He has been a great blessing to the theological academy, the ecumenical fraternity, and for those of us who knew him personally, he was such a stalwart with deep prophetic insights in our common disciplines.

I will forever cherish Professor Sanneh’s scholarship and friendship. I hold in the highest esteem his contribution to the study of religion in Africa and to World Christianity and for his phenomenal impact on my personal life and work. Hail Lamin, hail, and may you rest peacefully in the arms of your Maker. You will be solely missed.

Edith L. Blumhofer, history professor at Wheaton College and board president of the Overseas Ministries Study Center:

Lamin Sanneh gave himself generously to the work he felt “summoned from the margins” to do. A scholar of extraordinary range and productivity, he was also a humble, gentle giant of a man who changed the way historians study the global church.

He taught us to see and invited us to explore the unprecedented contemporary explosion of Christianity around the world. A scholar’s scholar, his abiding concern for Christian witness made him an activist as well, prompting him most recently to tackle challenges of human flourishing in Africa.

Lamin Sanneh was also the guiding hand behind a multitude of less-known endeavors like the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven where he served on the Board of Trustees, maintained an office, and visited often for tea and conversation … A man of singular accomplishments, Lamin Sanneh will be remembered with admiration, esteem, gratitude, and awe for the magnitude of his legacy to the academy and to Christians everywhere. “Whose faith follow!”

Esther E. Acolatse, associate professor of pastoral theology and intercultural studies at Knox College at the University of Toronto:

I’m overwhelmed with sadness even as I recall fond memories of Professor Lamin Sanneh … This past year has been enriched by his astute mind and generosity to a younger colleague. I was pleasantly surprised by his thoughtful engagement of my work in a foreword to my latest book and an extended conversation with him in April as well as November where it was clear he still had a lot to contribute to the shaping of the field of global Christianity and its tenor.

He shared a couple of devotions he had authored for The Christian Century in 1989 and suggested that we could write and make such devotions available to the African Church and beyond. Those devotions coupled with his vast academic writing brought me face to face with the mind and spiritual life behind it.

When I asked how he found time to write so much. He simply said: because I’m afraid one day I’ll be asked by God to give account of how I have used my time. I want to be able to bear up under the he question. Just less than a month ago, we communicated as he waited to board a plane from Accra, and his hopes for my involvement with the new center just named for him. Now, labor over, he joins the church triumphant. His works and the many lives he has touched will continue to bear testimony to a life faithfully lived.

Joel A. Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan:

Lamin and I were good friends and frequent collaborators. It was a shock to hear from his wife this morning about his passing. I had just seen him in Ghana last month, at a consultation for the new Lamin Sanneh Institute for the study of Christian-Muslim relations now being planned by John Azumah. He seemed hale and hearty then, and, as ever, full of good humor.

Lamin was an original. Here was a Muslim boy from up-river Gambia, whose intellectual curiosity was non-stop, and who was full of questions as a schoolboy about God. What finally made sense to him, he said, was a God who became incarnate, who came to us.

Lamin was a joyful Christian, bold to witness to the faith, and unafraid to puncture stereotypes. He stood up for missionaries when they were the lowest of the low in modern academe. Yet he showed that great stretches of West Africa was first evangelized not by westerners so much as by Africans themselves, many of them missionaries sent from the colony of rescued slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Lamin was also one of the first to try out a definition of “World Christianity.” He promoted the growth and development of this field for a quarter century. Lamin’s masterwork, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (1989), showed that the genius of Christianity was its translatability, its ability to make its home in hundreds of different cultures. The most powerful aspect of this trait was Christianity’s repeated honoring of local languages as media fit to convey the Word of God.

Lamin was as celebrated a scholar of Islam as of Christianity. His masterwork in this field is his most recent book, Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam (2016). Lamin came up with these and other major insights because he had the unique ability to ask fresh questions, to look across the grain, and to be a genial contrarian. He was a brilliantly original scholar.

I have known many scholars, but none who could match Lamin in the joy he expressed in following his vocation. He was so curious, so full of wonder and surprise at what he was learning, and he was delighted to share these things with audiences large and small. It was one of the great blessings of my life to know him, become his friend, and work on projects with him.

Jonathan Bonk, director of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University:

I first met Lamin in 1979 at the University of Aberdeen, where I was studying under Andrew Walls. Lamin, recently graduated from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) at London University with a PhD in Islamic History, had been recruited by Walls to fill a gap in the Department of Religious Studies. To Lamin’s surprise, a year after arriving he was “invited” to teach the required seminar on Christianity as a World Religion. He was too polite to decline … and the rest is history.

He was gripped by the phenomenon of contemporary Christianity as a primarily non-Western religion. He became one of the best informed and most trusted interpreters of world Christianity and Islam of his generation. As comfortable with some of Islam’s most gifted intellectuals as he was with Christians in the upper echelons of ecclesiology and academia, his deeply informed understanding of and appreciate for both faiths combined with his modesty and his eloquence to make him a unique and much sought after voice in an era more characterized by reductionist polarizations than by deep understanding.

A committed Christian, Lamin understood and appreciated his Muslim roots. His last major book—Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam (OUP 2016)—had, he told me over Turkish lunch, left him intellectually and physically exhausted. It was, he thought, his magnum opus, and he doubted that he would attempt another one.

Physically, he was an imposing figure; intellectually, he was even more impressive. These qualities were combined with deep personal modesty and a willingness to listen carefully to what others had to say. One of my favorite experiences for many years was his summation at the end of each annual Yale-Edinburgh Group on the History of Missionary Movement and World Christianity meeting, now anticipating its 29th year.

Lamin was fond of pointing out that those who gathered were simply a group of friends from around the world who shared a common academic interest and who gathered alternative years at the University of Edinburgh and Yale University to read papers, discuss issues, share points-of-view, and encourage each other. At the end of these two and a half day marathon--in which Lamin inevitably sat in the front row deep in thought, with his eyes closed--he would provide an eloquent verbatim summary of the event, respectfully referencing every presentation and its author, knitting the disparate pieces together into a picture that was better than we knew!

And now my good friend is home at last—summoned from the margins to the Center. He is sorely missed.

Dana L. Robert, director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission, Boston University School of Theology:

Professor Lamin Sanneh was a giant in the field of World Christianity. His loss sends a tidal wave across multiple fields, institutions, and continents. He will be sorely missed by those of us who worked with him and called him friend, as well as by people who knew him only from his powerful writings.

As an African, a superb scholar, and a convert from Islam, Lamin Sanneh saw from the outside what those raised on the inside could not. His 1989 book Translating the Message showed how the gospel could become part of every culture, through being translated into the language and worldview of the people. He challenged the assumption that Christianity was merely a tool of western colonizers.

Through his founding of the annual Yale-Edinburgh conferences on mission history, his publications, his editorship of the Oxford University Press World Christianity Series, his leadership of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, and many other important projects, Lamin Sanneh collaborated with others to transform the study of mission history, African religions, and World Christianity.

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