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”).