It is the 20th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1869.
Today we find ourselves not far from Uganda. Just southeast off the coast, we find the former Malagasy Republic known today as the republic (and island) of Madagascar. Our remembrance for today will highlight the role of a particular queen, Madagascar's Christianization, and the possible limits of missionary work.
Consider the following: Constantine, Clovis, Charlemagne, Harold I of Denmark, Miesko I of Poland, Princess Olga of Kievan Rus, Olaf of Sweden, and the list can go on. What do all of these figures have in common? Upon their conversion, usually by baptism, their respective kingdoms became officially Christian. The leaders listed above, from the 300s to the 1000's all linked their authority, the church, and the state together. The thorough Christianization of Europe is undoubtedly an example of the efficiency of this method.
The command to teach and baptize all nations can be tiring and burdensome. And so, if you can convert a monarch, who then decrees that all must be baptized, you can save some time. It is also worth noting that the smaller the missionary's footprint, the less their culture might intermingle with the Gospel, thus possibly causing needless offense.
But consider the possible outcome of a monarch who "Christianizes" their country. The Faustian bargain might limit external cultural footprints, but it might also solidify the monarch's authority and culture representing the state. The threat isn't external theological colonization but rather an internal syncretism of older practices and the new.
With this in mind, let us turn our attention to Madagascar. It is the 4th largest island that does not qualify as its own continent. On account of the island nation's distinctiveness, it has been called "the 8th continent." Part of the island's distinctiveness is that despite being off the coast of Africa, her inhabitants were originally Austronesian. Here's the quick rundown: Around 300 AD, Austronesian settlers made their way to the island. The African Bantu people followed them. The southeast Asian and African peoples intermarried to create the Malagasy people.
It was a known trading post for Arabs in the Middle Ages. The island was almost entirely unknown to the West until Marco Polo's writings. Except that he mistook the island of the Malagasy for the Somalian city of Mogadishu. He mistakenly called it Madagascar, and we all have since then. Seriously, on the Western naming of unknown parts in the rest of the world, our folly knows no end.
Fast forward to the Portuguese who "discovered" the island on their route to India. Like the African mainland, it was the 19th century when Colonial and Christian interests took a shining to the exotic island. By 1818 the first missionaries had been sent by the London Mission Society. Despite some local opposition, their relative success led to the publication of the Malagasy translation of the Bible, the first African translation.
The island had only recently been unified, and the Merina Dynasty would rule almost the entire 19th century. In 1829 the queen Ranavalona I banned churches, and in 1835 banned Christianity altogether. The charge was that it was an insult to their Malagasy ancestors. The church was small enough to go underground, but its small size also reveals the lack of success from the London Missionary Society.
In 1868 Ranavalona II was crowned queen. The niece of Ranavalona I, the 2nd had been raised with connections in the underground churches. Educated in the schools created by the London Missionary Society, she would become open to Christianity, especially after the conversion of her brother. But when word reached foreign missionaries that a new Ranavalona was on the throne, the fear was legitimate with that name. However, the new queen would play a Clovis or Princess Olga's role when she embraced the faith and was baptized on this, the 21st of February in 1869. Christianity became the state religion, although there are charges that the church is culturally Malagasy, with elements of the old animistic religions still hanging on. The riddle of our various distinct cultures and common Christian faith is not one easily untangled. While we might question the validity of coerced adult baptisms, the baptism of the queen was sincere. We remember it on the anniversary of its occasion in 1869.
The reading for today comes from Christopher Smart, a reflection on Abraham, "Faith."
The Father of the Faithful said,
At God's first calling, 'Here am I';
Let us by his example swayed,
Like him submit, like him reply,
'Go take thy son, thine only son,
And offer him to God thy King.'
The word was given: the work begun,
'The altar pile, the victim bring.'
But lo! Th' angelic voice above
Bade the great patriarch stop his hands;
'Know God is everlasting love,
And must revoke such harsh commands.'
Then let us imitate the Seer,
And tender with compliant grace
Ourselves, our souls, and children here,
Hereafter in a better place.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 21st of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose favorite swimming pool pastime is Marka Pillow (because if he can mess up names, we can mess up his!) The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.