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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