In 2006 Jochen Eber published a biography of Ludwig Krapf in German. He has no plans for an English edition. In the introduction to that work, Eber points out, that there has been a renewed interest in the life and ministry of Ludwig Krapf in recent years. Prior to this resurgent interest, the life of Ludwig Krapf was hidden away in archives or between the covers of dusty out of print biographies or in academic essays. The last German biography on Krapf, written by Dr W. Claus, was published in Basel in 1882. The last English biography was a small eighty-five-page book by C. G. Richards. Richards’ work was published in Kenya in 1950 as part of a series on Early Travelers in East Africa. Richard’s work cannot properly be called a biography as it focused on the seven journeys of Krapf and Rebmann into the interior of Kenya, rather than the life of Krapf.
Those of us interested in Evangelical missions are thankful for the renewed interest in this important missionary figure. However, this has not yet reached the English-speaking world, nor to Kenya, where he was so much used by God in the gospel. Interest in the life of Krapf remains limited to German academics.
Johann Ludwig Krapf was the first Protestant missionary to East Africa and a pioneer in the study of East African ethnology, geography and linguistics. He is celebrated today in East Africa with monuments, memorials and museums. About 20km inland from Mombasa, at Rabai Mpya, is St. Paul’s Church, built in 1887, an architectural testimony to the British and European missionary effort. Today, the original church building houses a small museum, and on the same property the “Rabai Missionary Cemetery,” a reminder of the hardship that had to be overcome for the gospel.
Krapf is considered the “Father of the Anglican Church in Kenya” and a pivotal figure in the establishment of the Methodists in Kenya also. In Europe he is remembered as the founder of Swahili studies and, still today, his name frequently appears in scholarly African ethnology and linguistic research. In geographical studies, he is credited, along with his colleague, Johannes Rebmann, as the first Europeans to see the snow-capped Mt’s. Kilimanjaro and Kenya. In Germany, Krapf is still revered. His old school now bears his name and the street also—monuments to the farmer-boy from Derendinger. His legacy still forms strong links between the German and Kenyan governments, and the German Embassy on Riverside Drive in Nairobi is called “Krapf House.”
Yet for all Krapf’s accomplishments, and the monument to his memory, the life of this great missionary pioneer is still very much hidden from the Evangelical Church, and his name is still unknown in the English-speaking world. This is a remarkable and unfortunate blind spot in the history of missions.
In the past year, unable to travel or to access archives, I’ve been digging into the life of Ludwig Krapf from all available sources, both English and German. I’ve been surprised by how much study has actually been done on his life—but it is hidden away from the general public. I’ve had to do a fair amount of digging. In “selling” Krapf’s story to others who have never heard of him, I’ve found myself trying to marry two seemingly contradictory facts; the significance of Krapf’s labours in East Africa (both in terms of personal Christian sacrifice and also in terms of missiological research) and over against this, the obscurity of his story.
In this paper I make a few observations of the times and events, that explain why such a significant missionary figure is so little known in the English-speaking world. No one point can claim full responsibility of course but taken as a whole these observations may provide some explanation.
First, Krapf was German in a British dominated world.
Krapf was a German Pietist working under the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). When the CMS was established in 1799 it struggled to find recruits in England. The German Pietists, however, had the recruits, but they did not have the global missionary reach or accessibility. The Pietist zeal and the British Imperial reach worked well together in the early part of the 1800s. In the 1840s, news coming out of Kenya from Krapf’s labours was having a huge positive impact on the Mission, and especially after Krapf’s visit to London in 1850. After fifty years of struggling, the CMS brought in more recruits in 1850 than any year previous. In 1849 also, the Society had already seen a 25 per cent increase in the finances from the average figure of the previous decade.
However, after Krapf’s initial work, British missionaries became more dominant. Such a British dominance, in what became “British East Africa,” would inevitably generate more interest in the English-speaking world—biographies of Scott, Hannington, Mackey of Uganda and others would take the lead on the East African missionary hall of fame. Krapf and his German colleague dissolved into the background and became a footnote in the missionary textbooks.
Second, Krapf’s missionary emphasis did not encourage the narrative of colonialism current at that time.
Scholars and missiologists still debate whether Livingstone’s famous adage of “Christianity, civilisation and commerce” did not harm Africa when exploitation followed development. That is a debate for another time. Krapf has been criticized for being “impractical.” He was clear, however, on his strategy of missions. He believed that “Christianity and civilization ever go hand in hand,” but when he arrived at Rabai he laid out very clearly his position. “I was neither a soldier nor a merchant,” he said,
nor a physician, exorcist, nor enchanter; but was a teacher, a bookman who wished to show the Mijikenda, the Wakamba, the Oromo, and even the Muslims the right way to salvation in the world to come.”
He believed strongly in the indigenisation of the African Church and looked forward to a day when the Church in Africa had its own “black bishop and black clergy.” He looked forward to a time when
“brother will not sell brother; and when the colour of a man’s skin no longer excludes him from the office of an evangelist, the traffic in slaves will have had its knell. A black bishop and black clergy of the Protestant Church may ere long become a necessity in the civilization of Africa.”