An African Giant Has Died: Lamin Sanneh

Lamin and Andrew It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Professor Lamin Sanneh on January 6, 2019.
Sanneh served on the charter Advisory Council of the DACB that began in 1995 and, in recent years, he was a member of the Editorial Committee. When I received the news of his death Monday morning, I was overwhelmed with a terrible feeling of loss. The article I was editing was full of references to his work. His name appears on many pages of the DACB website. The sight of his name on the spines of the books surrounding me suddenly brought a sense of grief that remains with me. I will always remember his guidance, wisdom, and encouragement in my work for the DACB. The community of scholars in Africa and the West will feel the loss of his light for years to come.
Below are a few tributes in his memory from DACB Editors and Advisors.

Michele Sigg, DACB Associate Director and JACB Managing Editor

Photo: Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls, charter Advisory Council members (date of the photo: 2003) Credit: Rev. Dan Nicholas.

Jonathan Bonk, director of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University:

I first met Lamin in 1979 at the University of Aberdeen, where I was studying under Andrew Walls. Lamin, recently graduated from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) at London University with a PhD in Islamic History, had been recruited by Walls to fill a gap in the Department of Religious Studies. To Lamin’s surprise, a year after arriving he was “invited” to teach the required seminar on Christianity as a World Religion. He was too polite to decline … and the rest is history.

He was gripped by the phenomenon of contemporary Christianity as a primarily non-Western religion. He became one of the best informed and most trusted interpreters of world Christianity and Islam of his generation. As comfortable with some of Islam’s most gifted intellectuals as he was with Christians in the upper echelons of ecclesiology and academia, his deeply informed understanding of and appreciate for both faiths combined with his modesty and his eloquence to make him a unique and much sought after voice in an era more characterized by reductionist polarizations than by deep understanding.

A committed Christian, Lamin understood and appreciated his Muslim roots. His last major book—Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam (OUP 2016)—had, he told me over Turkish lunch, left him intellectually and physically exhausted. It was, he thought, his magnum opus, and he doubted that he would attempt another one.

Physically, he was an imposing figure; intellectually, he was even more impressive. These qualities were combined with deep personal modesty and a willingness to listen carefully to what others had to say. One of my favorite experiences for many years was his summation at the end of each annual Yale-Edinburgh Group on the History of Missionary Movement and World Christianity meeting, now anticipating its 29th year.

Lamin was fond of pointing out that those who gathered were simply a group of friends from around the world who shared a common academic interest and who gathered alternative years at the University of Edinburgh and Yale University to read papers, discuss issues, share points-of-view, and encourage each other. At the end of these two and a half day marathons–in which Lamin inevitably sat in the front row deep in thought, with his eyes closed–he would provide an eloquent verbatim summary of the event, respectfully referencing every presentation and its author, knitting the disparate pieces together into a picture that was better than we knew!

And now my good friend is home at last—summoned from the margins to the Center. He is sorely missed.

Source: Christianity Today International, January 8, 2019

Dana L. Robert, director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University School of Theology; Editorial Committee, Dictionary of African Christian Biography:

Professor Lamin Sanneh was a giant in the field of World Christianity. His loss sends a tidal wave across multiple fields, institutions, and continents. He will be sorely missed by those of us who worked with him and called him friend, as well as by people who knew him only from his powerful writings.

As an African, a superb scholar, and a convert from Islam, Lamin Sanneh saw from the outside what those raised on the inside could not. His 1989 book Translating the Message showed how the gospel could become part of every culture, through being translated into the language and worldview of the people. He challenged the assumption that Christianity was merely a tool of western colonizers.

Through his founding of the annual Yale-Edinburgh conferences on mission history, his publications, his editorship of the Oxford University Press World Christianity Series, his leadership of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, and many other important projects, Lamin Sanneh collaborated with others to transform the study of mission history, African religions, and World Christianity.

Source: Christianity Today International, January 8, 2019

Philomena Njeri Mwaura, Director, Centre for Gender Equity and Empowerment; Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Kenyatta University; DACB Advisory Council member

What a tragedy! I have received the news of the passing of Prof Sanneh with great shock and sadness! I have no words to say to his family, colleagues and friends. His passing is a great loss to the African academic fraternity and globally. I had the privilege to meet him severally in New Haven and at the conference on African Christian Biography sometimes back in Boston. He will always be remembered because of his ground breaking work on African Christianity. May the Lord comfort his family and give them the strength to bear this great loss. Fare thee well Prof. Sanneh.

(Source: email dated January 8, 2019)

Jesse Mugambi, Ecumenist; World Council of Churches; Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Nairobi, Kenya; DACB Advisory Council member

Lamin Sanneh [was] one of the most admirable role-models for African Academia—-both within our continent and among the African diaspora in Europe and North America. His death has come only a few months after that of Professor James H. Cone on 28th April 2018. As we mourn these great scholars, the greatest and most worthwhile tributes with which to honor them, will be our own endeavor to emulate them— each of us in our respective specializations and vocations, especially the published works of Lamin Sanneh and James H. Cone.

(Source: email dated January 7, 2019)

Esther E. Acolatse, associate professor of pastoral theology and intercultural studies at Knox College at the University of Toronto; DACB Advisory Council member:

I’m overwhelmed with sadness even as I recall fond memories of Professor Lamin Sanneh … This past year has been enriched by his astute mind and generosity to a younger colleague. I was pleasantly surprised by his thoughtful engagement of my work in a foreword to my latest book and an extended conversation with him in April as well as November where it was clear he still had a lot to contribute to the shaping of the field of global Christianity and its tenor.

He shared a couple of devotions he had authored for The Christian Century in 1989 and suggested that we could write and make such devotions available to the African Church and beyond. Those devotions coupled with his vast academic writing brought me face to face with the mind and spiritual life behind it.

When I asked how he found time to write so much. He simply said: “Because I’m afraid one day I’ll be asked by God to give account of how I have used my time. I want to be able to bear up under that question.”” Just less than a month ago, we communicated as he waited to board a plane from Accra, and his hopes for my involvement with the new center just named for him. Now, labor over, he joins the church triumphant. His works and the many lives he has touched will continue to bear testimony to a life faithfully lived.

Source: Christianity Today International, January 8, 2019

Other tributes by John Azumah, J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Joel Carpenter, and Edith Blumhofer can be found at Christianity Today International, January 8, 2019

Tributes collected from DACB readers and associates.

A recognized pioneer in the exploding interdisciplinary field of World Christianity, Lamin was a rare scholar who combined rhetorical eloquence with scholarly erudition, and religious conviction with child-like curiosity. Arguing, for example, that the missionary movement’s greatest gift to the peoples of the world was Bible translation, he sought to free us from our presuppositions and hubris, saying, “It is not so much that the West transmitted the gospel to world but that the cultures of the world discovered the gospel when they heard the Bible in their mother tongues.” This profound insight from a convert from Islam into the intrinsic and infinite translatability of the gospel still has not been understood or heeded by much of the Western theological academy. (…) In the past thirty years, there is hardly a dissertation in the fields of Missiology, World Christianity, Missional Theology, or Intercultural Theology that fails to reference Sanneh’s work.
-From the Overseas Ministries Study Center website

Oh no! What a loss to the global church and the global church community. Three years ago, I spent the most beautiful time with Prof Sanneh at a workshop organised by Calvin College’s the Nagel Institute in Kenya.

Once every 50 years a theologian comes along whose contribution is so profound that the course of a discipline is changed. Sanneh was one such a scholar. Few scholars have highlighted African agency and Africa’s contribution to world Christianity as incisively and insightfully as Lamin Sanneh.

Tinyiko Maluleke

(Source: email dated 1/8/2019)

May his soul rest in peace and rise in glory.

[email protected]

(Source: email dated 1/9/2019)

What a sad news! The death of an exceptional person leaves a terrible void but also a considerable moral legacy. We are carriers of this flame that Prof. Lamin Sanneh lit in our hearts … We are custodians of his memory. We will never forget him and he will live forever. May the Lord comfort his family, institutions, and friends. May his soul rest in peace. Best Regards, Priscille

Rev. Prof. Priscille Djomhoué

Professeur de Nouveau Testament Faculté Universitaire de Théologie Protestante Rue des Bollandistes 40, B-1040 Bruxelles

(Source: email dated 1/9/2019)

Oh Lord have mercy. I just made reference to him this afternoon. Very shocked at the news. May his soul rest in peace. My deepest condolences to his family.

Korku Laryea

(Source: email dated 1/9/2019)

It is with deep sadness that Prof. Lamin Sanneh has transited prematurelly. His Sterling contribution in the development and growth of the Dictionary of African Biography will remain as a monument in the llife and work of DACB. My sincere condolences to DACB and to his family. Silas

Very Rev. Prof. Silas Ncozana Chuluchosema Pastor P.O. Box 5115 Limbe Tel. No. 0888377732 Malawi

(Source: email dated 1/9/2019)

To: The Family and Friends of Late Prof. Lamin Sanneh


The news of the demise of Prof. Lamin Sanneh came to me as a rude shock. We are missing a member of the intelligesia, Prof. Lamin Sanneh was a legend and a humble researcher full of love, strength and encouragement. We shall never forget your contributions to the theological community. May your gentle soul rest in perfect peace, and may God grant us all the fortitude to bear this great loss.

His Holiness, The Most Revd. Dr. Rufus Okikiola OSITELU (PhD Computer Science; PhD Religious Studies); Aladura Patriarch & Primate of The Church of the Lord (Prayer Fellowship) Worldwide [TCLPFW] a.k.a TCLAW; P. O. Box 71, Shagamu;10/12 Primate Ositelu Street; Ogere-Remo; Ogun State, Nigeria, West Africa; Tel.: +234-803-7263902; +234-803-0850226; +234-816-588-5990; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; / / /

(Source: email dated 1/9/2019)

The Demise of Prof. Lamin Sanneh:

What a sad news to begin the new year with! With the demise of Prof. Sanneh, Africa has lost one of his most committed scholars and theologians of interreligious and intercultural dialogue. In all his writings, lectures and inter-personal and communal encounters, Prof. Sanneh always brought with him his magnanimous spirit. This is most apparent in all his works and writings from an African perspective on the North-South dialogue. You just need to take up and read his ,”Whose Religion is Christianity”, or his magnus opus, “Translating the Message”, and above all his master-piece author-biography, “Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of An African.”

Prof. Sanneh has been a great source of inspiration and model to many young African theologians. My consolation here is that through my suggestion, some of my students had written their dissertations, even up to doctorate on the thoughts of Lamin Sanneh, especially on the subjects of intercultural encounters and translating the message. Furthermore, the life experience, his religious and conversion journey of Prof. Sanneh, from Islam to Christianity, and from one Christian denomination to another singled him out as a unique figure and man of faith.

My condolences to his wife and children, and also to his academic family at the Yale University, and numerous students, friends and acquaintances.

With the demise of Lamin Sanneh, Africa has lost one of his greatest scholars and theologians of the 20th and 21st centuries. May God receive his good soul and strengthen his family he has left.

Text of tribute by Fr. Oborji, “Lamin Sanneh: A Foremost African Theologian from the Gambia”–PDF file

Fr. Francis Anekwe Oborji (Professor Ordinarius of contextual theology, Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome)

(Source: email dated 1/9/2019)

This is indeed sad news to hear. We have indeed lost an academic giant. I was fortunate to get one of his famous books “Translating the Message,” through your inspiration. I will keep him in my prayers as well as his family and well-wishers he left behind. Thank you for this information as usual. May God continue to bless you with more wisdom and good health. Have a wonderful new year! Fr. Fred.

FR. CHIMA FREDRICK MBIERE, BA, PH.D. Resurrection Parish 410 Anne Street PO Box 47 Illiopolis, IL 62539-0047, USA

(Source: email dated 1/9/2019)

It is sad to learn of the death of Prof.Sanneh. His contributions to this monumental task of DACB will live to pay him greater tribute. May the good Lord reward him with eternal life.

Paul Nchoji Nkwi, DACB Advisory Council

(Source: email dated 1/9/2019)

I am sorry for the loss of Lamim Sanneh. May God receive him in His glory and support his family.

Bishop Pierre-Claver Ngezahayo Eglise Wesleyenne du Burundi

(Source: email dated 1/10/2019)

We pray for you all to be comforted of the Lord in this loss. May his soul rest in peace.

With Regards, From Africa Brotherhood Church

(Source: email dated 1/10/2019)

Thank you for sending me this sad news. I remember several presentations made of the significance of Christ to Muslims. His death is a great loss to us. I hope I will be back from church in time to hear part of his funeral service.

Yours sincerely, Russell Staples

(Source: email dated 1/10/2019)

Dear Prof. O., I just finished reading your mail announcing to me the demise of an African academic giant, Prof. Lamin Sanneh. Thanks for the information. It’s really sad that we (Africa) and indeed the world has lost such a special gift to humanity. I thank you immensely for directing me to the world of the thoughts of Prof. Lamin Sanneh for both my Licentiate and Doctorate. His works are naturally revolutionary and compelling in character. His boldness and clarity of thought are disarming and endearing. May God grant him eternal rest and console his immediate family in particular and his academic family in general.

Ferdinand Ndubuisi Okoli Christ the King Parish Amata Mgbowo, Enugu, Nigeria.

(Source: email dated 1/11/2019)

Tribute to Professor Lamin Sanneh

My first introduction to Professor Lamin Sanneh was at New College, Edinburgh in 1991. Professor Andrew Walls had invited Lamin Sanneh for a series of lectures geared towards a small group of us involved in the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World. Lamin skillfully opened blinders that limited my vision of God’s Great Kingdom in the world. And then in 2006, during Lila’s and my six month stint at OMSC, we had occasion to fraternise with Lamin a number of times. What impressed me about this “giant of a scholar” was his humility, his probing questions, his boisterous laughter, and his disarming manner of pricking the balloons of western missionaries who had a penchant for taking ourselves too seriously. Lamin Sanneh, together with Andrew Walls, played a significant role in steering my doctoral research towards the history and rich narratives of hundreds of indigenous evangelists who valiantly proclaimed the Jesus story in southern Ethiopia.

E. Paul Balisky (PhD)

(Source: email dated 1/12/2019)

Allow me to give my heart felt condolences. Human days are like a burning candle, at one moment in time the candle will burn out. It was with great sadness that news of the demise of the son of Africa reached us. Surely like writing in the sand our lives are just as brief memory which fades with time. From my understanding, death is not the end. I thank God for the many writings Lamin has inspired many, we give tribute for the work and life despite the challenges of life , with all its turns and twist I thank God that This great Son of Africa has influenced and touched us. The demise indeed is a great loss especially to his family and wiring fraternity. For those who knew Lamin personally, forever in your hearts fond memories with great love will never be erased. RIP Yours, Kabīrū Fredrick

(Source: email dated 1/14/2019

I was saddened to hear about the sudden death of Professor Lamin Sanneh a very distinguished son of Africa. We shall all miss him but we thank God for the phenomenal contribution he made to the history of Christianity in Africa and beyond and we pray that his should should rest in peace and that God should grant him a crown of glory. Our prayers go to his family and relatives.

James Amanze, DACB Advisory Council

(Source: email dated 1/14/2019)

The late Prof Sanneh, will be dearly missed. He has however left an important legacy for us all. My wish is that his family and all his loved ones will find God’s grace sufficient to carry them/us during this taxing moment.

Madipoane Masenya, DACB Advisory Council

(Source: email dated 1/15/2019)

We thank God for the life and service of Laminah Sanneh. May God encourage and comfort his family.

Edison Kalengyo, DACB Advisory Council

(Source: email dated 1/15/2019)