Were Africans Savages Before the Gospel Came?

Some books on missions and biographies of missionaries from 100-150 years ago referred to people in Papua New Guinea, South America, Africa, and India as “savages.” That kind of talk is so offensive today that some believers do not even want to read books about church history in Africa if it is present.

Arguments from History

The facts of history however are not primed to our modern sensitivities. One of the most striking features of Susan Bauer’s excellent volumes on history (We are still waiting for the final two volumes to be published.), is the recurring barbarism from all cultures worldwide. The Egyptian dynasties compelled slave labor to build enormous tombs. A Chinese king orders scores of people to be murdered at his death and buried with him. In ancient Europe, fans would commonly murder fans of the opposing team. Alvin Schmidt writing in How Christianity Changed the World describes the sorry state that women lived in for thousands of years in nearly all nations of the world. Many cultures from Africa to India murdered one or both babies when twins were born. Julius Caesar’s journals (cited by Bauer), record that the first Romans to arrive in Britain found the warriors replacing their clothes with blue paint in order to enter battle invincible.

Last night I read chapter one of Jean Merle D’Aubigne’s acclaimed The Reformation in England (Banner of Truth, 2015). He begins the tale just 150 years after Jesus ascended. How do the earliest sources describe the great grandfathers of modern England? What was life like on the island that just a few generations ago stretched its power and culture over the whole world? D’Aubigne records the “shores of Britain” were “savage” (page 4). The Scots, described as “savage,” “rushing from their heathen homes, were devestating the country, spreading terror on all sides, and reducing the people to slavery…” (page 6). The Irish fare no better since they are called “pagan” and allowed both pirates and slavery.

As D’Aubigne summarizes the first 500 years of England’s Christian history, he uses the words cruel, wretched, barbarians, savages, heathens, and pagans thirteen times to describe the condition of white people before the gospel came to them. “While [some] gradually laid aside their savage manners, the barbarous customs of the Saxons prevailed unmoderated throughout the kingdoms” (page 8). Not surprisingly then, he writes, “the gospel has exalted the British isles.”

This whole process took many centuries however. By 590 (after 400 years of Christian missionaries), the white Britains are still slaves under the white Saxons who care nothing for the new religion of their slaves (page 13). It is an indisputable fact that slavery was common in the ancient world and that the Christian missionaries spent most of their time evangelizing rather than trying to change the political structure–even though it was savage, cruel, and pagan.

Scripture Speaks to This Question in Two Ways

Does the Bible teach that “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 5:5)? Did the Holy Spirit tell us certainly that there are none righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:10)? Are the minds and consciences of unbelievers generally, as a stereotype “defiled” (Tit. 1:15)? When Jesus speaks to large audiences did he broad-brush them as “evil” people (Matt. 7:11) without explaining Himself or offering disclaimers? Does a promised future judgment in the Lake of Fire tell us what we all are really like? If we believe in Total Depravity, then should we not oppose multiculturalism?

More than that, there are historical examples. Saul was ordered to destroy the Amalekites because they opposed Israel. But why were the women, children, and animals annihilated? The entire society of the Amalekites was so infiltrated with sin, that God hated it all. He wanted nothing to do with them as he told Jeremiah hundreds of years later, “Do not learn the way of the nations.” When the Israelites entered Canaan, they were commanded to “utterly destroy seven nations” showing them no mercy (Deut. 7:1-3). If these nations were fit to be utterly removed from the earth, then could we not deduce that their citizens were savages whose sins had risen to God? Because of the way they acted, Ammonites and Moabites lost any chance to have peace, help, or marriages with Israel (Deut. 23:3-6).

Without divine intervention, all societies are savage. That is the clear teaching of Scripture. We should not be surprised that a society is bad, but rather that there are any good, true, and beautiful traits among the nations of the world–and every nation does have marks of grace. Further, we should expect that unbelievers–since they are naturally so proud–would rebel against this clear evidence from history and Scripture. What is shocking is that Christian ministers balk at this truth while some unconverted, conservative writers see the essence of it.

How should a Christian respond to a sinner in this condition? Love him. Seek his good. Count him as a man made in God’s image but degraded by centuries of demonic filth. Evangelize him. Receive him as a full brother when he is born again.

What is the Answer to the title Question?

If Europe has produced anything honorable in world affairs, it is owing to the power of the Christian religion slowly permeating their culture and bringing about a change over centuries from their useless way of life received from their forefathers. On their own and as testified by the historians, the whites were and are savages. Only a racist would say that the Africans were any better before the gospel arrived.

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