Joel Cabrita’s lecture at Dept. of Church History and CAS

Writing World Christianity: Bengt Sundkler, Titus Mthembu and the Politics of Knowledge Production in Apartheid-era South Africa.


Bantu Prophets in South Africa (1948), written by Swedish Lutheran missionary scholar Bengt Sundkler, is widely acclaimed as a classic of African Studies, and as a foundational text for the study of Christianity in Africa. This talk revisits the history of the writing and circulation of Bantu Prophets and its second edition (1961), revealing for the first time the significance of Sundkler’s main assistant, the Lutheran priest Titus Mthembu, to the making of this famous text. Living amidst the strictures of a racist and repressive state, Mthembu’s proximity to this book became his means to argue for African autonomy from white rule and the integrity of a realm of Bantu ‘religiosity’. The talk thus probes the production of religious knowledge in twentieth-century Africa, the fraught power dynamics between professional scholars and their ‘assistants’, and the reliance of the new scholarly field of ‘World Christianity’ on a realm of hitherto indigenous intellectual labour.


Biographical information:

Joel Cabrita is an associate professor of history at Stanford University and previously held permanent positions at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) and at Cambridge University from where she holds her Ph.D. She is a historian of southern Africa, focusing on Swaziland and South Africa in both a local, regional and trans-Atlantic context. Her latest book, The People’s Zion (Harvard University Press, 2018) focuses on a trans-Atlantic faith-healing movement and studies the convergence of evangelical piety, transnational networks and the rise of industrialized societies in South Africa and the United States while her first book, Text and Authority in the South African Nazaretha Church (Cambridge University Press, 2014) investigates the print culture of a large South African church. Cabrita has also co-edited Religion, Media and Marginality in Africa (Ohio University Press, 2018) focusing on the intersection of media, Islam, Christianity, and political expressions on modern Africa, as well as Relocating World Christianity (Brill, 2017). She is currently completing a biography of the pioneering feminist, Pentecostal and political liberation leader Regina Gelana Twala who played a major role in the liberation movement and Christian history of Swaziland and whose life explores the forgotten role of women in African anti-colonial movements and in evangelical history.