On Dec. 5, the world lost a unique leader who was almost universally admired when we said good bye to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Mandela's story is too familiar to repeat here. A black nationalist leader and campaigner against apartheid (the practice of not only discriminating against but physically separating different races), he was imprisoned for 27 years and was released in 1990. After four years of negotiations with the white leaders of South Africa, Mandela was elected president - the first president elected by a true majority in South Africa's history.
What is almost never noted about Mandela's story is the debt he and other African nationalists owed to the Christian missionary movement. Like other African nationalist leaders (for example Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana), Mandela was educated at a school founded by missionaries. Mandela's early education was at the Healdtown Comprehensive School, founded by Methodist missionaries in 1845. In 1999, Mandela said, "Without the church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today..."
There have been four great periods of missionary activity in the history of the Christian faith: The first was from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus around 34 AD and lasted until the middle of the second century. In this period, the Christian faith spread southward as far as Ethiopia, eastward as far as India (or perhaps even China), and westward to the British Isles. The second occurred in the sixth and seventh centuries when the evangelization of Europe was completed. The third took place in the 15th century during the age of European exploration of the western and southern hemispheres when Roman Catholic missionaries accompanied the European explorers.
The fourth period of Christian missions was inspired by the evangelical movements of the 18th and even more the 19th centuries. The evangelical movement led to the explosive growth of the Methodist and Baptist denominations. Methodist, Baptist, and (to a much smaller degree) Anglican missionaries went throughout China, India, and Africa in the 19th century founding churches, schools, and hospitals. And wherever they went nationalist movements sprang up. They inspired not only Mandela and his fellow African nationalists but also the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen.
Although Mandela was a Methodist throughout his life, he flirted with Marxism in his youth. But when he was a prisoner at Robben Island, he prayed regularly with a group of ministers who visited him there. However, as Mandela himself often said, he was no saint.
Mandela was extremely discreet about his religious beliefs and preferred not to speak about them publicly. He avoided public pronouncements about religion because he wanted to unite all the people of South Africa - Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, and animist. Indeed, our own leaders in the United States would do well to heed Mandela's example and avoid using religion as a tool to advance their own narrow interests. But there is no doubt about his Christian convictions. At a Christian conference in 1994, Mandela said, "The good news was borne by our risen Messiah, who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind."
It is difficult not to see the Christian inspiration of Mandela's principles. Emerging from prison after 27 years, Mandela advocated not revenge toward his oppressors but reconciliation of the oppressed with their oppressors. He also avoided the mistakes of other African nationalists and advocated a parliamentary democracy and free markets.
Mandela is sometimes referred to as the "George Washington of South Africa," and I think the comparison is an apt one. Like Washington, Mandela could have been president for life, but he stepped down from office after only one term.
Britain's The Economist magazine says, "For all the humiliation he suffered at the hands of white racists before he was released in 1990, he was never animated by a desire for revenge. He was himself utterly without prejudice, which is why he became a symbol of tolerance and justice across the globe."
And The Economist concludes, "He was, quite simply, a wonderful man."