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on September 24, 2016
Steven Paas, Johannes Rebmann: A Servant of God in Africa before the Rise of Western Colonialism. Nürnberg (Germany): VTR, edition afem, mission academic 32, 2011.
Reviewed by Dr. Warren S. Smith, Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico
Johannes Rebmann, in the words of Paas’ preface, “… was a 19th century German Christian, who was trained in Switzerland to be a missionary, and joined an English Missionary Society, which sent him to Muslim-rules East Africa, present-day Kenya; there he lived and worked for 29 years, before returning home [in 1875], blind and sick, soon to die.” Rebmann was also a scholar and pioneer student of African languages such as Chichewa, which Paas also studied when he did mission work in Malawi.
When first Johannes Krapf and then Rebmann were invited to East Africa by the Sultan of Zanzibar in the 1840’s, the Christian faith first introduced there by the Portuguese centuries earlier had been almost totally forgotten. Krapf and Rebmann, later joined by a wife, Emma, moved about 25 kilometers inland to the town of Rabai where they put up houses and a chapel and attempted to teach the local population of Nika people, sometimes preaching from the flat roof of Krapf’s their house. They endured frequent indifference from local tribes and sometimes even fled from armed attack. They also studied local languages and had time for extensive exploring, Rebmann became the first European to see Mt. Kilimanjaro and Krapf, Mt. Kenya. For a time Rebmann and Krapf, before the latter left in 1855, had another German missionary, Johann Erhardt, as partner. Progress in Christian mission was slow. The first baptism, of a disabled man named Mringe, was not until 1860, and for a long time no women were baptized, effectively preventing creation of Christian family units.
By 1875 Rebmann, now alone and blind, was persuaded to leave his post and return to Germany, and the Church Missionary Society began a new kind of mission in Mombasa and Rabai, starting a community for freed slaves called Freretown, where they were protected from Muslim slaveowners who occasionally invaded Freretown to try to recover their lost property. Rebmann, it should be noted, was against the establishment of Freretown and hoped for continuation of his own type of mission (Paas p. 115) .
Rebmann’s great gifts, his knowledge of languages, and his faith in God were admirable, and above all his persistence and refusal ever to give up. Paas deserves great credit for his book which restores credit to the importance of Rebmann whose reputation is often eclipsed by that of his colleague Krapf. There is no need to choose between these two great missionaries whose work and scholarship, despite occasional disputes, really remained intertwined throughout their lives; Krapf even helped choose a second wife for Rebmann after his return to Germany, and tried to edit Rebmann’s manuscripts after Rebmann’s sight did not allow him to do so. Paas’ book not only gives Rebmann his credit but reaches a deeper understanding of what Rebmann and the German pietist movement were all about.
My only quarrel with Paas’ approach is that, in his attempts to defend Rebmann from criticism, he does not concede that the critics sometimes have a point. For all his genius and Christian humility, Rebmann had an exaggerated idea of his own self-importance, sometimes even resisted the idea of sending more missionaries to help him, particularly if they lacked his linguistic ability. When the church sent some of the “Bombay Africans,” former slaves who had been educated in India, to work with him in Rabai, Rebmann found them not of much use (Paas p. 103) because they did not share his knowledge of African languages and had not experienced enough of the trials of Christian suffering. Rebmann and Emma welcomed European visitors to their community but were always relieved when they departed and left them alone (Paas p. 81). Suspicious of Muslims, regarding the Papacy as “a greater danger than Islam” (Paas p. 133), and doubtful of the ability of the Anglican clergy to take over his mission (Paas p. 134), Rebmann kept hoping that “some German evangelical society” might relieve him. His slow and cautious program of evangelizing may have had its place in its early days but did not fit the new situation of the 1870’s when the church sought a vigorous program to take care of the education and needs of many dozens of freed slaves that were thrust on East Africa.
I list a few instances of awkward English in Paas’ book which escaped proofreading. P. 64 “To what extent the CMS Committee understood the reasoning of their missionaries in East Africa?” p. 64 “Erhardt told that even those who are very poor …” p. 65 “He also suggested the Committee to pay a visit to the mission field.” P. 68 “he said that Rebmann’s argument concerning lacking results of the mission field was not right …” p. 82, “… to overcome the death of their son” (for “to overcome their grief at the death of their son”), p. 87 “The publication of this influential account…was too early for having included a report on the important event” (for “too early to have included a report”), p. 118 “They also friendly encouraged him to visit London” p. 120 “Until that time the congregation had no baptized women” (until what time?) p. 128 “The ministers John Williams … plus a female teacher” (incomplete sentence), “… Krapf’s advices seemed acceptable,” p. 147 “He wanted to prevent that the mission station would be taken over” (for “prevent the mission station from being taken over”).
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on December 17, 2014
Dr. Steven Paas is a retired Dutch missionary and linguist who served in East Africa. His
work on a Chichewa/Chinyanja Dictionary led to his discovery of the work already done
over a hundred years earlier by Johannes Rebmann (1820-1876), a German missionary to
modern-day Kenya and Tanzania who served with the English (and Anglican) Church
Missionary Society. The book is described on its cover as a biography, but it is an academic
treatise rather than a ‘popular’ work. In fact, the scope of the book is far greater than the
biographical information provided, dealing with issues as various as the evangelical decline
in the CMS after Henry Venn’s period as secretary, the challenges of missionary lifestyle in
a cross-cultural situation, Christian engagement with Islam in the early nineteenth century
and particularly its role in the slave trade, ecumenical tensions on the mission field, and the
study of African languages.
If an academic style seems daunting to potential readers, the inclusion of many photographs
and maps taking up no less than twenty-nine pages, helps to bring the places and main
personalities mentioned to life. Rebmann, of course, is pictured at different stages of his life,
as well as his main colleagues. There are photographs also of converts, including some exslaves
who were transferred as helpers to the mission from a base in India where they had
received some theological education (an experiment which failed because these people had
become so westernized that they were reluctant to rejoin their native culture). There are
many fascinating pictures of places as varied as Rebmann’s family home, local church, house
in Africa, and a particularly valuable one of the early CMS headquarters in London. In
addition, a number of maps clarify the location of his mission, the regions surrounding it,
and the extent of his travels.

There are many aspects of this work to recommend. Firstly, it provides useful
background information about German pietism in the nineteenth century, which
demonstrates that its original link with early evangelicalism continued well into the
nineteenth century. Secondly, Paas provides a detailed account and analysis of the linguistic
work done by Rebmann and his colleagues - work that Paas regards as extremely valuable
still. Furthermore, Paas convincingly draws out the exceptionally difficult cross-cultural
aspects of Rebmann’s life and work. He was a German Lutheran trained in an independent
Swiss Bible college who was appointed by an English Anglican society to work under a
Muslim Sultan among African tribes that followed their traditional religions. There is much
here of value to those who seek to identify principles for cross-cultural mission. A further
matter of interest is the historical information provided about the role of Muslim overlords
in the African slave trade and their early resistance to Christian missions such as the CMS.
Rebmann had no doubt that only the conquest of these overlords would provide freedom for
the proclamation of the gospel. Yet another issue of interest to students of modern crosscultural
mission is the recognition by Rebmann of the need for holistic mission and his
attempts to put it into practice, but not to the exclusion of his supernaturalist approval of
the miraculous as an attestation of the gospel in African tribal culture.
There are a few negatives to note about this book. Firstly, the English is sometimes uneven
and difficult to read. Second, Paas seems too close at times to his subject, so that when he
defends Rebmann in his various conflicts with people his objectivity might be questioned.
Thirdly, he touches upon the portrayal of Rebmann by another scholar, Colin Reed, as a
negative example of paternalism, a view Paas vehemently rejects. However, Paas does not
expand enough on Reed’s argument for the reader to form an independent judgment, an
unfortunate omission in view of the importance Paas attaches to refuting him. These
criticisms are small, however, in comparison with the praise this study deserves, not only
for its generally rigorous standard of scholarship but for its wide scope as well as its
colourful portrayal of Johannes Rebmann.
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on December 17, 2014
JOHANNES REBMANN – A Servant of God in Africa
before the Rise of Western Colonialism by Steven Paas,
VTR Publications, Nürnberg, Germany, 2011; 278
pages, paperback; $29.95 U.S. from Amazon (ISBN
A few months ago a new missionary biography came off the press with the title, Johannes Rebmann – A servant
of God in Africa before the Rise of Western Colonialism.
The author is a member of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Churches in The Netherlands.
Steven Paas was born in 1942, is a member of the Pniel congregation in Veenendaal, earned a Th.M. at the University of Amsterdam and a Doctor of Theology at the Theological University of Apeldoorn.
For many years he was a teacher. From 1997–2007 he was a professor at Zomba Theological Seminary in Malawi. Dr. Paas is a prolific writer, fluent in German, English and Chichewa (language spoken in Malawi).
His ministerial credentials are in Malawi and he has written various academic books in English on church history, missiology and Islam. His last book is intended to be “a scholarly presentation of the known facts and aspects of Rebmann’s life and work” (p.16). One of his greatest accomplishments is the compilation of a Chichewa/English Lexicon (ISBN 978-99908-86-04-7),
which is based on preliminary work done by Rebmann in the 19th century, which now has been significantly expanded.

There are many missionary biographies available in Christian bookstores. So what is special about this one? Allow me to state two reasons why I believe this book is important for us.
A first reason why this book is noteworthy is that it gives us a moving biography of this 19th century German Pietist missionary. In an age when many Western missionaries died or returned to Europe due to sickness, loneliness or violence, this man of God lived
for 29 years on the coast of East Africa in Mombasa (Kenya). During his many missionary activities, he suffered ill health as well as violence as the result of tribal wars. In spite of these hardships he was able to learn several indigenous languages and compile a
dictionary in the Nika (Kenya)/English language, as well as in the Chichewa/English language.
A second reason why this biography is important, is that considering the need for theological instruction in Third World countries, it is good to take note of the pioneer work done by a missionary who laboured in East Africa, and whose linguistic work has greatly benefitted mission work also in other parts of Africa.
The book is well written and reads easily. In a systematic manner the life of Johannes Rebmann is traced fromhis birth in 1820 to his death in 1876. Rebmann’s spiritual roots are in the 16th century Protestant Reformation. The experiential pietistic movement
within the Lutheran churches heavily influenced him.
After receiving theological training in Basel, he went to England to be employed by the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Subsequently, he was sent to Mombasa, where he started a mission post. The work was done with much patience, but under God’s blessing, the indifference and hostility among the natives gave way to interest and real conversions. Small congregations
were established. Rebmann also suffered due to disagreements with fellow missionaries and experienced discouragements
from the CMS in England, who did not really understandhis situation. In addition, mission activity was greatly hampered by the slave trade, which was still very intense in East Africa during the second half of the 19th century. Struggles in his personal life are also related in the book. His journals are quoted as saying that “observing the immoral behavior of his Muslim carriers and women of the villages, Rebmann admitted that ‘without the spirit of Christ even the most moral traveler with a healthy body’ within a week would indulge in sexual immorality. The missionary can feel distressed, discouraged, spiritually dead, miserable, empty, having lost the feeling of love and the consciousness of faith.” Especially painful was the loss of his first wife. Finally, in 1875, he returned to is native Germany, blind and worn out. He died in October 1876.
The book is a stirring account of a faithful man of God who against great odds loved the people of East Africa, ardently laboured
for them and preached the gospel to all who would hear. He spoke to chiefs, soldiers, sailors, beggars, Muslims, guides and slaves. He found that personal meetings on a one to- one basis proved to be the most effective to gain people for the gospel. He sincerely believed “that the love of Christ Himself and the tender inward work of His Spirit breaks the hardest hearts and challenges
His servants to radiate Christian love” (p.201).
Besides great admiration for this servant of God, one will also have respect for the level of profound research that has gone into this book. Many footnotes elucidate facts and undergird the conclusions drawn by the author. Two appendices dealing with
the Chichewa language and the Chichewa/English dictionaries complement the book.
Those who are interested in mission work and desirous to be edified and challenged by the account of the life of a godly missionary
will not be disappointed by this book.
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on July 30, 2012
Johannes Rebmann (1820-1876) has not often been considered worthy of scholarly attention. A German missionary to east Africa during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Rebmann's career was long in years but short in converts. He spent a lifetime studying several African languages, specifically Chichewa, Nika, and Swahili--it was for others, after his death, to polish his lists of words and scraps of lexicography into publishable dictionaries and grammars. He devoted himself to the planting of the church in present day Kenya and Tanzania. Yet his sending organization, the British Church Missionary Society (CMS), considered a few times calling him home because of a lack of fruit in his field of labor. Some colleagues loudly complained that his style of mission was holding back the progress of the church in east Africa. Several British colonial officials pitied him as an eccentric. Where the name of Johannes Rebmann is remembered today, it is not as a missionary but rather an explorer: the first European to set eyes on the magnificence of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1855. All in all, Rebmann's premature death in his German hometown, his fifty-six year old body broken and blind, would seem to have closed out a remarkably unsuccessful missionary life.

The great value of Steven Paas's Johannes Rebmann: A Servant of God in Africa before the Rise of Western Colonialism is to recover Rebmann as a significant figure in the history of mission in east Africa--and a figure whose significance is by no means merely historical. Paas, a Dutch church historian and former missionary to Malawi, does this in two ways.

First, Paas convincingly demonstrates that the parallel career of Rebmann's far flashier friend and co-worker Johann Ludwig Krapf (1810-81) has obscured his rightful place in the history of east African Christianity. Krapf, who like Rebmann was trained at the Basel Mission in Switzerland, worked as a missionary in Ethiopia before joining his fellow Württemberg German in 1846 in the sultanate of Zanzibar under the auspices of the CMS. Shortly after their joint work came to an end in 1855, Krapf published self-aggrandizing accounts of their travels and missionary work that largely ignored Rebmann's contributions. Moreover, as Krapf's vision for the future of mission in Africa diverged considerably from Rebmann's own, he disparaged his former colleague for retarding the growth of the kingdom in Africa. The widespread dissemination of these publications, as well as Krapf's influence on contemporary missionary circles, argues Paas, blackened Rebmann's name among the official CMS leadership, and has ensured that his significance in the history of mission in east Africa remained in the dark. Most egregiously, Krapf robbed Rebmann of his due as a path-breaking student of several African languages. When both men were in retirement in Germany, Krapf (by all accounts an inferior lexicographer) took possession of the dying man's manuscripts in the Swahili language and published them under his name. Then Krapf published Rebmann's landmark Kiniassa (Chichewa) dictionary with a preface lamenting that Rebmann had contributed "nothing of any great value in regard to Philology." It is surprising, then, that Rebmann has not often been considered worthy of scholarly attention?

Paas is able to bring Rebmann's work out of the shadows through careful research in the archives of the CMS, the Basel Mission, and the Johannes Rebmann Foundation in Gerlingen, Germany. From the primary sources, an engaging--and far more accurate--portrait of Rebmann comes to light. Against the dramatic backdrop of shifting British colonial policy toward the slave-trading sultanate of Zanzibar, Paas shows us a devout and humble missionary, who with his wife Emma and several dedicated African assistants, made slow but sure progress for the gospel among on the tribes of coastal east Africa through steady pastoral work and evangelism, and whose lexicographical labor would be invaluable for future mission work from the coast to Lake Malawi.

If historians of mission and African Christianity will appreciate Johannes Rebmann: A Servant of God in Africa before the Rise of Western Colonialism, so too will missiologists. The second way in which the author recovers Rebmann from neglect is, interestingly, to value Rebmann's missionary labors precisely because he was "unsuccessful", i.e., he forsook the quick convert of a superficial evangelism for the tedium of learning African culture in order to plant the church deeply in a new soil, and patiently wait for its growth. Here, the contrast with Krapf could not be greater. Both were raised in the spiritual ethos of Württemberg pietism, and absorbed its emphasis on cross, conversion, Bible, and the coming kingdom of God. (As a point of criticism, Paas spends far too much time trying to connect Krapf to an odd variant of south German pietism that espoused universal salvation, even though it affected neither his fervor for mission nor the particulars of his missionary career). Yet Krapf held an essentially "itinerant" understanding of mission, advocating for the rapid establishment of a chain of mission stations stretching across the equatorial latitude. He publically condemned as complacent Rebmann's essentially "settled" understanding of mission that held that the missionary's immersion in local culture was necessary to contextualize the Christian message. This contrast was directly reflected in their respective approach to the study of African languages. Whereas Krapf started with English and sought to fit Swahili words to the sense of the foreign language, Rebmann took an opposite course:
"We must learn from them and ascertain the true and exact meaning of every word they mention, and especially learn their way of expressing themselves with their interesting proverbs and proverbial sayings, in one word the genius of a language, and not try to teach them what they might possibly call this and that of things they never heard of and are not likely to get acquintated with" (160).
Their difference in translation method is symptomatic of their major difference in missionary method: namely, is the Christian message to be imposed or inculturated in an alien setting?

The life and ministry of Johannes Rebmann has been so defined by Johannes Krapf that historians of mission and missiologists have not recognized the true significance of this pioneer of Christianity in east Africa. Yet even in Paas' highly revisionist biography, Rebmann remains entwined with Krapf in presenting the reader with two very different approaches to trans-cultural mission. It is clear which one Paas favors--and his stimulating study of Rebmann makes it hard to disagree.

Todd Statham
Zomba, Malawi

(part of this review has appeared in the Africa Journal for Evangelical Theology, vol. 29, 2010)
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on February 13, 2012
Johannes Rebmann represents much of the best of early missionaries to Africa. A devout German Pietist, he faithfully served for 29 years near Mombasa, Kenya. Focused on the spiritual aspect of bringing his Christian faith to the peoples of this Muslim dominated area of Africa, his was not a career dedicated to promoting European domination or other earthly pursuits like that of some other missionaries of the period. That he was credited and remembered as being the first European to see Mount Kilimanjaro could mislead some about his real purpose or significance in Africa. Rebmann himself took little notice of the credit given him for this achievement but concentrated instead on working closely with the African people to reach them with his faith.

Perhaps Rebmann's greatest contribution was his lexicographical work that would help equip future missionaries to communicate the gospel in some of the African languages. In addition to making translations, he produced dictionaries in the Kinika and Chichewa/ Chinyanja languages and played a major role, perhaps the main role, in a lexicography of Swahili for which he was not adequately recognized. The compilation of the Chichewa/ Chinyanja dictionary is a particularly interesting development because it was a language spoken some 2000 km to the south in present day Malawi and sections of Zambia and Mozambique. Rebmann acquired the necessary information to compile this dictionary from Salimini, a slave who had been captured and brought from that region. Years later the dictionary found its way to Malawi in the hands of the early missionaries to that country.

But this book contains much more than the biography of one man. It also serves as an excellent source for the efforts of another more famous German missionary, Johann Ludwig Krapf. Krapf served alongside Rebmann in the latter's early years on the mission field. The two men differed over theological and missiological matters and although Krapf left the mission field much earlier than Rebmann he has received much more recognition for his achievements than the lesser known Rebmann did. This book suggests that Krapf took credit for much of the linguistic work that had actually been carried out by Rebmann and seeks to set the story straight regarding the two missionaries' actual accomplishments, particularly in their lexicographical efforts.

In addition, this work will be a valuable source for anyone interested in learning more about German Pietism, European mission fervor during the period, and aspects of life and history in east Africa in the mid to late nineteenth century, especially in the cultural, religious, and political arenas.

Photographs, maps, and drawings are located at the end of each chapter. Two appendices are packed with additional information about the Chichewa/ Chinyanja dictionary compiled by Rebmann and a history of lexicography in that language. Because of the similarities among the Bantu languages, this information will be of interest to scholars who have an interest in any of languages of this part of Africa.

I found this book to be thoroughly researched and loaded with references for anyone who wants to study further. Dr. Paas has done a great service of recovering long forgotten information and making it available so that Rebmann's contributions can finally be recognized. And while the author has produced a worthy academic work, it is not choked with jargon, making it easy to follow for the general reader. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in any of the areas mentioned above or even to those who simply enjoy learning the stories of people like Rebmann who are willing to dedicate their lives to worthy causes even if it costs them great personal hardship.
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