Anglicanism in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart

One of the major themes in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is the clash of cultures of the native Ibos and the English Christian missionaries. This report intends to explore what bearing one part of the English Missionaries' culture had on the story. That is, what effect did the fact the Reverends Brown and Smith were priests of the Church of England as opposed to missionaries of the Methodist or Roman Catholic churches have on the story.

Achebe never tells us openly which denomination the missionaries represent , we are left instead to extrapolate it. The first encounter with he Missionaries tells us quite a bit, actually. The Missionary (Mr. Brown), when asked about how God had a Son without taking a wife, starts talking about the Holy Trinity (Achebe, Ch. 16). This fact alone tells us that the Missionaries come from a denomination which says either the Nicene or Apostolic Creed regularly. "By the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate from the virgin Mary." (Nicene Creed) That eliminates the Baptists and most other American denominations, as the Doctrine of the Trinity isn't explicitly Biblical. This fact is backed up by Ilogu, whose research indicates that only the Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and to a much lesser extent the Presbyterians (Church of Scotland) were in on the first wave of evangelism to the Ibo peoples. All four of these churches honor the creedal tradition and accept and teach the Doctrine of the Trinity prominently.

In fact, we only get one fact out of Achebe that tells us that these missionaries are specifically Anglican:

'No,' protested Mr. Brown. 'The head of my church is God Himself.'

'I know,' said Akunna, 'but must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.'

'The head of my church in that sense is in England.' (Achebe, Ch. 21)

It is unclear whether Rev. Brown is referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury or the reigning monarch (who is technically the religious leader of the Church of England), but it doesn't much matter, as nobody else would give that answer either way.

The fact that Revs. Brown and Smith were Anglicans tells us quite a bit about the theological environment in which the believed. Furthermore, Ilogu, Nwabara, and Taise, in conjunction of Achebe's mention of an Automobile (Ch. 15) fixes the time period roughly between the turn of the century and the First World War. Considering how fast the Church moves on theological issues, this is more than enough information to be able to accurately represent the Anglican Church at the time.

The Anglican Church has long prided itself on trying to take the Via Media, or middle way. What this means has changed several times over the centuries, but in general it comes from the belief that many of the churches that came out of the protestant reformation eliminated many practices that perhaps they shouldn't have. In other words, perhaps many of the practices and doctrines of the Roman Church weren't as corrupt as they first appeared to be to Luther and Calvin.

In the nineteenth century, though, the middle was apparently much more protestant than it had been before or since. Many parts of the liturgy reflected that attitude, for instance prayer for the dead didn't appear in any service at that time, and the prevailing opinion was that the sacraments were for the most part symbols.

"Evangelical," a term literally meaning "of or pertaining to the Gospel," was employed from the eighteenth century on to designate the school of theology adhered to by those Protestants who believed that the essence of the Gospel lay in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the death of Christ, which atoned for man's sins (see Evangelical Doctrine.) Evangelicalism stressed the reality of the "inner life," insisted on the total depravity of humanity (a consequence of the Fall) and on the importance of the individual's personal relationship with God and Savior. They put particular emphasis on faith, denying that either good works or the sacraments (which they perceived as being merely symbolic) possessed any salvational efficacy. (IRIS)
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord's Supper, for that they are not of any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God. (BCP, 872)

There were, though, starting in about 1840 the beginnings of a movement back towards a more catholic view of theology and doctrine. It should be noted, due to massive misconception, the definition of the word "catholic":

The word "catholic" means "universal," in the sense of "according to the totality" or "in keeping with eh whole." The Church is catholic in a double sense: First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. "Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church." In her subsists the fullness of Christ's body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him "the fullness of the means of salvation" which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of Parousia.

Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race... (Catechism, Para. 830)

It is this sense of catholic, more or less in its totality, that was rediscovered in 1840 by John Newman and several other Anglican clergymen. This movement had several names, but is now called the Anglo-catholic party.

The Anglo-catholics, due to the relatively protestant mood of the time, weren't received very well. According to both IRIS and Britannica, Newman, who was the spiritual and intellectual leader of the early Anglo-catholics met what amounted to intellectual harassment for taking the view that the founding tenets of the Anglican Church (theThirty-Nine Articles) didn't conflict with catholic doctrine. In fact, the ridicule was bad enough to drive Newman out of the Anglican Church and to the Roman Catholic church, where he eventually was ordained a Cardinal. Despite the fact that this movement met much ridicule, it did catch on and by the turn of the century was a major force by the turn of the century. The hallmarks of the Anglo-catholic movement are a true love for the liturgy and a tendency to celebrate high mass, that is with incense, bells, et cetera, a belief that God is present in all seven sacraments, and the idea of the communion of saints (that in taking communion you are joined spiritually with all of the church throughout time). The Anglo-catholics also tend to take a very conservative view of Holy Scripture, though they, as opposed to the evangelicals, tend to also study how Holy Scripture has been interpreted by earlier Christians.

The second emerging party in the Anglican Church were the broad churchmen. This is a peculiarly Anglican term used to refer to the theologically liberal Christians that are usually identified with the "Social Gospel" here in the U.S. While the broad church party never caught on in England as fully as it did here in the U.S., it was still a significant factor in the Church of England at the time. It isn't, though, likely to be a significant factor in Things Fall Apart, as Social Gospel type Christianity tends to discourage evangelism and concentrate mainly on more social problems.

Again, though, the dominant part of the Anglican Church at this time was the evangelical wing, which had broad popular support due to its relative simplicity of belief and an accesable approach to the liturgy. It also, as mentioned beforehand, viewed the Bible as the sole authority on doctrine, and put a strong emphasis on evangelism. For the latter reason it is very likely that both Rev. Brown and Rev. Smith came from this evangelical or low church background, despite their vast differences.

In the case of Mr. Brown, we can tell that he is a low churchman simply by the fact that he is never referred to as Rev. Brown by Achebe. We know, though, that he is ordained because Holy Communion is being celebrated, which, according to Anglican tradition, can only be done by an ordained priest. (Achebe, Ch. 20)

Rev. Smith is a somewhat more flat character and is therefore easier to classify. He seems to be by all measures what we would call a fundamentalist (minus, of course, the young-earth creationism, which hadn't surfaced yet). He didn't seem to have a conception of how the Church should act when it is a minority population in a pagan society. He readily quoted from the letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles when they advocate not conforming to pagan society, but he seemingly ignores Jesus' command in Mt. 22:21 "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's." (It is common of evangelicals to, as Luther did, exalt Paul and the Gospel of John as the heart of the new testament and place a lesser emphasis on the synoptic Gospels.)

Finally, in relation to the story, it is important that both Mr. Brown and Rev. Smith, as Anglican priests are not only citizens but employees of the Crown of England. In other words, though they have committed their lives to what they believe to be the Eternal Church, they are still very much part of their culture. Ilogu speaks much of the lengths that missionaries went to so as not only to introduce the Ibo people to Christ but also make them part of the English culture.

All of the missionaries were understandably distressed about the Ibo practices of twin killing and human sacrifice, and often resorted to bribery and other measures to put a stop to the practices. Polygamy was also a major issue for the missionaries, as were issues pertaining to honoring other gods. All of these, though, are practices that have been tabu in Judeo-Christian tradition since the Exodus (~1500 BCE). (See Ten Commandments, Ex. 20) In other words, these things have always been condemned by the church, and the Reverends were well within their bounds to preach against them, and in the case of murder, take the issue up with colonial authorities.

On top of this, though, the missionaries set out with the goal of making the next generation of Ibo more English than Ibo. For example, most all of the Church's schools were boarding schools, so as to isolate the children in a "Christian" environment where their parents would not interfere. Ilogu tells of an incident recorded in one J. C. Taylor's (a Sierra Leonian missionary to the Ibo) diary:

An illustration can be taken from an incident at Onitsha in 1863 about which J. C. Taylor had made some comments. The King of Onitsha and his first son--the Prince--and her apparent were sitting by the King's square when a group of the Mission's pupils marched past through the town. As they drew near the square the son of the Prince by name Odita stood up and bowed his head before his father and the grandfather--the King. He was asked why he did not do the customary courtesy to the King, he replied that he had been taught at school that kneeling down was only for prayer and bowing down was only to God. The King and the Prince were greatly surprised by the behaviour of Odita whilst Taylor was filled with satisfaction as shown in the entry of his Journal for December 29, 1863 that the actions of the children (including Odita's failure to salute the grandfather properly) resulted from their acting from higher principles which had been inculcated through the Christian religion. (Ilogu, 68)

Similar attitudes prevailed amongst the Anglicans and other Christians about the Ozo titles, Ibo burials, and many other tenets of the Ibo culture. Ilogu also makes the case that if Christianity hadn't come with colonialism the Church in Iboland would be quite different. The missionaries, especially the Anglicans, enjoyed the ear of the various colonial authorities, which made them very influential in the colonies. That is why many men of importance sent their younger sons to be educated by the Christians. The various missionary societies also established colleges in the area. These colleges put out what became the intellectual elite of Nigeria. In many ways, the missionaries (Anglican, Roman, and Methodist alike) are, because of their schools, more responsible for the current class system in Nigeria than the colonialists.

In light of this, Achebe's treatment of the missionaries takes on more meaning. Obviously, Achebe has a great deal of respect for the likes of Mr. Brown, referring to his stalwart faith and his clarity of judgement. People like Mr. Brown thrive in all parts of Christianity, so classifying him as an Evangelical Anglican doesn't help much in understanding his character and reactions. He is simply a well intentioned man trying to help this people out and give him what he has. Mr. Brown's, though, was far from harmless. It is obvious from the educational system he and those like him set up that indeed it was through subversion that many of them intended to convert (for their own good, of course) not just the Ibo people for Christ but also the Ibo culture for England.

In Mr. Brown's defense, he knew the benefits that English culture had over the all too obvious detractors of Ibo culture (twin killing, human sacrifice, polygamy, et cetera), so a great deal of change of culture could have been justified as being in the benefit of the Ibo people in the long run. Also, his primary mission was still to bring the Ibo to a knowledge and love of Christ, which from a Christian perspective, is the greatest gift one has to give. It is clear, though that to some extent Mr. Brown was in the most subtle and powerful way, responsible for helping turn Nigeria into a third-world equivalent of the English class system.

Rev. Smith, though, was a different animal. He was interested not in giving the knowledge and love of Christ, but in securing the salvation of the Ibo people, as if he could do it single handedly. Apparently he was so ethno-centric that he failed to see the Ibo people as people at all. He was not working with so much an intent to help the Ibo people, but to "bring glory to God." It was not helping the needy that so much drew him to missionary work. It was instead his knowledge that helping the needy pleased God. Rev. Smith is, though, a relatively flat archetype in Achebe's rendition of him, but in many ways that in and of itself is accurate. One of the worst pitfalls of fundamentalism is the tendency to oversimplify things (hence lots of false dichotomies, like creation and evolution). What Rev. Smith and Mr. Taylor both saw was a culture that needed not to be changed but replaced.

It is this shortsightedness and oversimplification that in many ways led to the final confrontation in Things Fall Apart. Rev. Smith preached the legitimate Christian doctrine of not condoning sacrifices and honors to idols, but he widened the scope of that condemnation to places it didn't belong. He went so far that his congregation got the impression that it was ethical to engage in criminal acts to help convert the "unbelievers" to Christianity. This attitude seemed to be prevalent, as the English Colonial Army planned the destruction of and in fact destroyed all of the major shrines of the Ibo religion (Ilogu, 70).

This attitude of "whatever means necessary" is what made Enoch think he was justified in violating the Ibo religion and unmasking an egwugwu, which, of course began the cascade of events in which things fell apart.

In the end, it probably didn't matter much that the missionaries were Anglicans, as some other european nation with its own flavor of Christianity would have certainly taken their place. On the other hand, there are some unique benefits from the fact that the Anglican church did evangelize the Ibo people. That Anglo-catholic movement has since matured into a new respect for the question of what is universal and what is particular in Christianity. In other words, the Anglican communion is in a unique position to bring the full richness of the early church into a culture and adapt it to that culture. The Anglican churches in Africa, Malaysia, and India (where they are the most prominent denominations because, again, of English colonialism) are vibrant and alive. In fact, the Anglican communion is the spiritual home of more people of color than of whites, which is odd when you consider that the Anglican church in America (Episcopalian) is the richest, whitest, smallest, and sleepiest major protestant denomination. Perhaps, then, it is not that the fact that Anglicans evangelized the Ibo people that is important in the long run, but that the Ibo and other peoples like and unlike them contribute to the Anglican Church (e.g. Bishop TuTu of S. Africa).


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by Stephen Froehlich