The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible An Historical Overview of the Effect of Christian Missions in the Congo

Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible is the story of a missionary family and their trials and ordeals in the Belgian Congo. The larger story that this family, the Prices, finds themselves is a microcosm of the tumultuous history of the Congo as it transitions from colonial rule, to socialist-democracy, to dictatorship, and finally back to the bare essentials of a Republic. These dramatic political events have often been played out within the even larger story of the struggle between American and Soviet interests in the region during the Cold War. Throughout all of this political struggle, Christian missionaries, just like the Prices, have played influential roles in the historical trajectory of the Congo and its people.

Though Christian missions to Africa date back to the very earliest Christian movements around 100 C.E., the story of Christianity in the modern Congo began in the late nineteenth century with the first Protestant mission to the region in 1878. These first missions played out within the larger context of struggles between competing religious factions in the region. Protestant missions competed with Catholic missions, each distrusting the other. Both of these, however, were also in competition with Islamic movements that had tremendous impact in the Northeastern parts of the continent. The Congo, with its geographically centered position in the continent, became central to these struggles as each religious group competed for the hearts and souls of the people of the Congo.

The Baptist Missionary Society, the same group that Nathan Price worked for, was the first group to begin missions to the Congo. They founded their first station at Underhill and then moved to Leopoldville establishing more missionary movements as they moved through the country. By the early twentieth century, however, the Protestant missions had fallen out of favor with the ruling Belgians, and Catholicism was granted more access to the resources and people of the country. Worried that French missionaries would cause political unrest, however, King Leopold of Belgium called on the Vatican for help, who in 1888 created the Apostolic Vicariate of the Congo. The entire country, then, was now technically converted to Catholicism, though few of the actual inhabitants of the country ever actually came to experience this conversion.

One of the side-effects of this increase in mission activity was the large multi-national presence that became associated with increasing Christian activity in the region. Soon, the nations of Belgium, Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal were all represented during the twentieth century. The large number of white Europeans and Americans in the country also brought business interests, especially that of oil, which by the late twentieth century was one of the world's most valuable commodities. A booming service industry also grew through the country, which Kingsolver's novel documents in the story of Rachel and her ownership of a resort hotel just outside of the border of the Congo.

Historians fully agree that the work of Christian missions was essential in colonizing the country. The schools that the missionaries set up helped to give the Congolese people enough literacy to be useful as servants and employees of the white missionaries and businessmen that flooded into the country in the later part of the twentieth century. The Congo continued to experience severe food shortages and rampant disease, problems that neither business nor Christianity sought to alleviate in any sustained effort. Mission action also stressed certain kinds of familial norms for the native people of the Congo. While polygamy had been common among the native tribes, Christian missionaries attempted to assert monogamy as the standard form of marriage. Of great import was the loss of particular forms of kinship structure within these tribes - structures that Christian monogamy could not replace.

The history of Christian mission in Africa has a checkered past. Though early missionaries did attempt to bring schools and modern medicine to the native people, things that altruistically might be viewed as positive advancements, the legacy of their impact remains one of colonization and subjection. Christian missions often meant the loss of particular ways of life for certain tribes and ethnic groups, and the competition amongst competing religions continues to have a haunting legacy to this day, manifested in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as programs of genocide amongst competing factions in countries like Sudan and Rwanda. In this way, the political future of Africa and the religious past of the continent collide. Christian missions did little to help stabilize the fractured political situation of the country, and the Republic of Congo remains, up to current times, a place that only barely resembles a functioning country.