Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Zahn, Franz Michael

Bremen Mission
Non Africans

I feel we should make use of any means at our disposal to win the privilege of the freedom of mission. Therefore, I suggest we complain again, first to the Reichskanzler… then, to the Kaiser, to the Parliament, and to the press. Hopefully we will get what we are looking for; in any case, the effect will be that from now on they will not be so quick to kick us about, having experienced that we are screaming considerably.”[1]

The theologian and concerned citizen who in 1891 self-confidently defended the freedom of mission against the political apparatus of the Kaiser’s Reich was Franz Michael Zahn (1833-1900; mainly known by his second name). What was the issue? A high-handed Junker and official of Togo, the German colony in West Africa, had prohibited the missionaries from giving English lessons in their own mission schools. This ban was not only due to nationalistic chauvinism; there was more at stake. German colonialists feared that black Africans might catch up with the lead of the whites. They regarded an African command of the English medium as a stepping-stone toward black emancipation, leading to the promotion of Africans to top positions, to equality with the Europeans, and finally to the collapse of German colonial superiority. In their view, the English lessons of the Bremen Mission did harm to the basic idea of German colonialism: the engineering and careful maintenance of a discrepancy in the technological, economic, and sociocultural levels between colonizing and colonized societies. To use a modern term, they wished to preserve a policy of apartheid.

Zahn had not deliberately become an opponent of the German colonial imperialism; the course of events had simply forced him to take this position. The Bremen Mission had worked on the West African coast since 1847 under British tolerance, and sometimes protection; now, the British-German border negotiations of 1890 had brought the eastern part of the mission field under the administration of German Togo. But the Ewe-speaking congregations for decades were economically oriented toward the British Gold Coast and therefore were eager to learn English.[2] Trading centers like Cape Coast or Accra also had black doctors and solicitors and, very important for the emancipation process, a more or less free black press. Nothing of this was to be found in German Togo from 1884 to 1914.[3] For the subjugated nations of Africa, it made a clear difference whether they were under British rule or under German authoritarianism. It was thus in the interest of the social advance of the Christians of Togo that Zahn had to be on his guard in relation to German colonial claims.

But it was also Zahn’s personal political convictions that made him a critic of German colonial thought. He was a liberal and would not accept the idea that a nation that claimed to be a Kulturvolk (civilized people) at home was entitled to apply political and moral standards of a Herrenvolk (master race) to Africa. What Zahn resisted during the last decade of his directorate of the Bremen Mission was the totalitarian dimension imperialism had acquired. The imperialism of the era perceived all non-Western peoples, with their cultures, achievements, and resources, as objects of a cold utilitarian interest. This interest would be directed to other places once the resources of a given area were exhausted. The colony, with all its substance, including missionary work, was regarded as a structure specially designed to serve the imperialist interest. It was not colonialism as such that threatened the freedom of mission. In fact, Zahn could look back favorably on decades of cooperation between mission, trade, and British colonial administration. The problem was colonialism’s development into totalitarian imperialism, especially in its German version.

Against this threat to the interests of African peoples, Zahn waged a journalistic war. He rejected the advice of the alleged friends of mission not to tell the Africans “that they are our brothers.” He challenged the assumption that European colonial governments, the German government in particular, were the legal authority over non-European people. And Africans who resisted European domination–people whom the papers of Berlin, London, or Paris called rebels and who could justifiably be shot–Zahn portrayed as “brave men who defend their country and freedom.”

In 1888 he wrote to one of his missionaries,

I am against colonies anyway, and naturally, that is enough today for one to be branded a traitor to the Fatherland. But if a missionary enters into politics, and through his influence supports the German colonial acquisitions and motives–then, whatever he may think otherwise, I regard this as a grave mistake, not to say a crime.[4]

A Product of Prussian Pietism

Who was this theologian and controversial missionary thinker? For nearly four decades (1862-1900) Zahn led the small Bremen Mission, which had its one and only mission field on the “Slave Coast” of what is now Ghana and Togo.[5] He had never been to Africa. But he was to remain longer in charge of a mission society than any of his colleagues, and mission was part of his life. In fact, he made the Bremen Mission what it was; in a way, he was the Bremen Mission.

The North German Mission (the Bremen Mission’s official’ name) was a private society, constituted under civil charity law.[6] Comprising Reformed and Lutheran Christians, it experienced no competition from other societies in the Togo area for decades. Bremen businessmen provided the economic backbone of the mission. Preeminent among these was Friedrich Martin Vietor, whose firm was involved in the tobacco trade and in the transport of European emigrants to the United States. His company had additionally opened up trade with Africa in 1856, “simply and solely in the interests of mission,”[7] and it is a historical fact that throughout the entire nineteenth century Vietor family members remained the vital financiers of the mission. The Calvinistic piety and aristocratic self-awareness of such overseas entrepreneurs gave the Bremen Mission administration a special character in the nineteenth century and helps to explain the later resistance of the Bremen Mission and its businessmen supporters to German colonial enthusiasm.

No less distinctive was the approach with which Michael Zahn directed the mission’s activities. He was a product of Lower Rhine pietism and, as will be seen, from a strong pedagogic tradition. The Zahn family residence was a place where influential people from points as distant as Berlin and Switzerland got together, including Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Zahn himself was married to an Irish woman, Anna Crooks (1837-1923) from Sligo.[8] The spirit of the Zahns was well known for its blend of aristocratic convictions, civil self-confidence, cultural and social awareness, and a feeling of humane biblicism. One of Michael’s brothers was Theodor Zahn, a famous New Testament scholar and author of several standard works. Michael Zahn never denied that his background was the open-minded pietism of a Prussian upper-class upbringing. Many of his contemporaries admired and feared Zahn because of his inexhaustible humanistic deeds, on one hand, and, on the other hand, his scholarly defense of what was understood as the “old faith.” Zahn, himself a man of letters and a close friend of Gustav Warneck, was a supporter, and later coeditor, of the Allgemeine Missionszeitschrift (1874-1923), the leading missiological journal in Europe. His contributions to the journal included several highly profiled articles that presented his special position in the European missiological discourse.[9] He rejected the increasing “ethno pathos” of his German colleagues (including Warneck), arguing that the aim of mission work was Christian congregations, not Christian nations; and he rejected too the three-self formula of the Venn-Anderson tradition, because for him mission aimed at the kingdom of God, not the church (one of several examples of his ambivalence). Zahn was the cofounder of the Continental Mission Conference (from 1866), which brought to Bremen the leading Continental missiologists and mission directors at regular intervals. In 1885 he became secretary of the Ausschuss (council) of the German Protestant Mission Societies; however, in 1890, he stepped down because he was not willing to support the procolonial line of his colleagues.

Theologically Zahn was influenced by the biblical orientation of the Erlangen school of theology (J. C. K. Holmann: “Scripture’s evidence,” “Heilsgeschichte”). Pedagogically, however, the ideas of his father were dominating. In 1832 his father, Ludwig, had become director of Moers teachers’ seminary.[10] There, and later on at nearby Gut Fild, he was able to realize his dream of an original “pedagogic province.” Prompted by the ideas of the educational reformer Pestalozzi, Ludwig Zahn and his colleagues were concerned with the question of how Christian truth could again become the “mother” of all education.[11] The key educational concept in their program of “national education” was “educational limitation.” Instead of releasing a flood of social expectations by “overeducation” in the lower classes, the basic material should be concentrated and integrated and aimed at sharpening up the mental, spiritual, and patriotic awareness of the student, always reinforced through and through with the Bible. One consistent framework of interpretation–namely a biblical-Christian one–should be presented to the lower classes through church, school, and regularly published printed materials. Through “concentration” so defined, and in particular through the biblicizing of the whole material, the lower classes would be educated for independence, self-sufficiency, and “character formation” according to the norms of the Gospel.

Ludwig Zahn’s intention came into direct collision with the firmly state-oriented aims of the Prussian educational bureaucracy.[12] His understanding of Christianity as “education for freedom”[13] corresponded to lines of emancipation contained in pietism, which was perhaps underestimated in Berlin. In 1857 Ludwig Zahn resigned from the Prussian service as he criticized the government’s educational program as well as the Prussian expenditure for the arms industries, and devoted himself entirely to his private institution in Gut Fild.[14] His son Michael not only grew up in Gut Fild but also worked there as a teacher from 1856 until 1858; later, with only minor changes, he applied his father’s concept of “national education” in his African missionary work.

In 1863 Michael Zahn drew up a teaching plan for the education of African mission workers, a document that governed the educational practice of the Bremen Mission until 1914.[15] The key concept of this design was self-sufficiency. Although one could definitely not speak of a congregation yet, for Zahn it was a matter of leading the emerging African Christianity out of missionary tutelage and into “manhood in Christ.” This would happen through an educational process directed by Europeans, which should lead to the attainment of that self-sufficiency. Completely in line with classical-romantic philological science, in the sense of its progenitor, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Ewe language, the national spirit, and the “soul of the people” should have the central place.

Zahn was the first to energetically defend the right of the Ewe to their own language, doing so against the views of the colonial authorities. He got his way. But the missionary appropriation of the Ewe language was accompanied by an attempt to control the direction of cultural change. The missionaries set a close watch over the influence of education in the Ewe language and the contents of the language. They made sure that European forms were not transplanted to Africa, or if so, only in very specific cases.[16] Mission Christians who were taught only in the Ewe language and almost exclusively on biblical texts, in Zahn’s perspective, were “unspoiled by bad education.”[17]

Zahn also advocated a program–unique in the Kaiserreich–of sending Africans to Germany, where they could be educated as church leaders. This was triggered by a severe lack of European missionaries for the work in West Africa. A stay in Europe with the prospects of enhanced status was attractive to many Africans and made mission service itself more attractive. Set up as a three-year program, the “Ewe School” enrolled twenty-one Ewe students from 1884 to 1900.[18]

A Record of Unintended Results

Both Zahn’s “national education” approach in Togo and the Ewe School program in Germany demonstrate the unpredictability of historical developments and the danger of unintended consequences. The “national education” program carried with it the seeds of African resentment, for nineteenth-century African leaders charged the missionaries with withholding some of what they knew. They had tried to conceal the great crisis into which Christianity in Europe had been thrown since the eighteenth century. Alternatives to the single, monopolistic interpretation were never explored. Africans came to see that the withholding of information undercut their demand for equality. In the end, the African church became capable–when it had freedom and knowledge of possible options–of deciding its own path.

In the case of the Ewe School experiment, Zahn attempted to transfer missionary methods to Africa that in Europe were aimed primarily at reclaiming secularized and unchurched groups that had been lost to the church during the German restoration and revolutionary periods. His goal of an African nation rooted culturally and religiously in the Bible can be understood as an attempt to achieve a prepluralist Christian monoculture.[19] Such an effort amounts to projecting onto Africa a European utopianism, a universal eschatology rooted in pre-Enlightenment idealism. Many of the German-educated Africans, who theoretically should have been protected from the “disaster” of secular education by the strict discipline of the Ewe School, were involved sooner or later in anticolonial resistance.[20]

There is another consideration, namely, the fact that the first congregations did not arise through the missionaries and their pedagogical skills but through the initiative of African laity and mission workers. The reality that the formation of congregations took place through African initiative and “outside the [mission] centers”[21] was registered as such by Zahn, but it failed to produce a redirection of his missionary methods and theology.

Tragically, the Bremen Mission felt compelled to understand the Gospel from the perspective of the reestablishment of a monopoly.[22] The simple belief that the “old Bible faith” was the foundation of the mission’s method was naive.[23] Right at the center, there was also the demand of modern consciousness for autonomy and hegemony. Religious and cultural pluralism were part of the reality of life in West Africa no less than in Germany–and not only on the coast, where the Sierra Leonians, Brazilians, and other returned black exiles were pained by a noticeable mixing of traditions.

Zahn’s mission work was conducted in the framework of an extraordinary high-profile concept that was at the same time very specific to the cultural context of Western Europe. Seen in theological terms, the structures of the Zahn missionary undertaking could be understood as a reflection of distrust in the effectiveness and trustworthiness of the Holy Spirit, as if the coming of the kingdom of God was in danger without the supportive corset of European pedagogical leadership.

The aim of Zahn’s missionary labors in bringing about a truly African church was not in the establishing of the church, not even of an African church, but in the “formation of the heart,” and finally the “future, complete reign of God.” For Zahn, churches–European or African–in comparison to God’s kingdom were nothing more than preliminary and immanent structures, prone to perish one day. His emphasis underestimated the importance of ecclesiology, and he was not aware of the danger that a rigorous focus on God’s absolute sovereignty would carry with it the risk of elevating the missionary teacher to a god-like position. Nevertheless, like no one else before, Zahn insisted that mission work must disavow governmental influence by “gifts, aiding and abetting.” Time and again he warned his friend Warneck not to accept financial aid to mission from the government, as this would lead to the “bondage of the church.” Zahn was afraid that his friends would “sell out freedom for some peanuts.”[24] Zahn’s successor, and some others, did just that.

Werner Ustorf


  1. Zahn to the Board of the North German Mission Society, Bremen, October 19, 1891, Staatsarchiv Bremen, Depositum 7, 1025.

  2. A comprehensive non-Western, African history of Christianity among the Ewe has not yet been written. There are, however, some general standard works written from an African perspective like O. U. Kalu, ed., The History of Christianity in West Africa (Harlow/Essex: Longmann, 1980); L. Sanneh, West African Christianity: The Religious Impact (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983) and Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989); J. Kofi Agbeti, West African Church History, vol. 1, Christian Missions and Church Foundation, 1482-1919; vol. 2, Christian Missions and Theological Training, 1842-1970 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986; 1991); both volumes contain chapters on the Bremen Mission.

  3. The thirty-year period of German colonial history in Togo (18841914) is well covered in Peter Sebald, Eine Geschichte der deutschen “Musterkolonie” auf der Grundlage amtlicher Quellen (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1988).

  4. Zahn to A. J. Spieth, February 15, 1888; first quoted by E. J. Hahn, “Die Geschichte der Norddeutschen Missionsgesellschaft” (Th.D. diss., Tübingen, 1943), p. 153.

  5. The missionary aspect has been dealt with recently. See Martin Pabst, Mission und Kolonialpolitik: Die Norddeutsche Missonsgesellschaft an der Goldküste und in Togo bis zum Ausbruch des Ersten Weltkrieges (Munich: Verlagsgemeinschaft Anarche, 1988); W. Ustorf, Die Missionsmethode Franz Michael Zahns und der Aufbau kirchlicher Strukturen in Westafrika: Eine missionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Erlangen: Verlag der Ev.-Luth. Mission, 1989).

  6. See J. Aagaard, Mission–Konfession–Kirche, 2 vols. (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1967).

  7. Articles of Association or Declaration of the Firma Fried. M. Vietor Söhne, July 8, 1856, Basel Mission archives, Schr.11/4, 21.B.I.

  8. Their only child, Anna Margarete, born in 1870, was disabled due to hydrocephalus.

  9. See the bibliography, where some of them are mentioned. Zahn chose not to finish his own book on missiology when he learned that his friend Warneck was ready to publish the first part of his Evangelische Missionslehre.

  10. On Zahn’s father, F. L. Zahn, see H. G. Bloth, “Der Pädagoge F. L. Zahn und seine Amtsenthebung durch F. Stiehl,” Monatshefte fur Evangelische Kirchengeschichte des Rheinlandes 24 (1975): 163-202.

  11. F. L. Zahn’s educational principles can be found in the issues of the journal he founded, Schulchronik. See D. Horn, Gesammelte Schriften yon F. L. Zahn (Gütersloh, 1905); here pp. 16, 274, 318.

  12. H. Titze, Die Politisierung der Erziehung (Frankfurt, 1973), pp. 129-30.

  13. Horn, Gesammelte Schriften, p. 117.

  14. See Bloth, “Der Pädagoge F. L. Zahn.”

  15. Zahn, “Der Seminarplan von 1863,” in Zahn, Überschau über unsere Schulen, July 15, 1886, pp. 20-38; Staatsarchiv Bremen, 7, 1025.

  16. Zahn addressed this point at the Sixth Continental Mission Conference, Bremen 1884, saying that “Renan’s writings and things even worse than this” must be kept far from the mission (Evangelisches Missions-Magazin [Basel], 1884, p. 312).

  17. Zahn to Colonial Office via Secretary of State A. D. V. Jacobi, July 25, 1894, Central State archives, Potsdam, RKo1A Nt. 4078, B1. 156-57f.

  18. The Ewe School, located in the Württemberg pietist villages of Ochsenbach and then Westheim, was discontinued after Zahn’s death. See Ustorf Die Missionsmethode Franz Michael Zahns, pp. 257ff.

  19. For Zahn’s discussion of the concept, see Protokoll über die Verhandlungen der Kontinentalen Missionskonferenz zu Bremen (, Gütersloh (n.d.), p. 17.

  20. Especially Andreas Aku and Robert Kwami. See Sebald, Eine Geschichte der deutschen “Musterkolonie.”

  21. Zahn, “Missionsrundschau,” Allgemeine Missions-Zeitschrift, 1898, p. 89.

  22. See W. Ustorf, “Anti-Americanism in German Missiology,” Mission Studies 2 (1989): 23-34.

  23. The memoirs of a prominent committee member of the North German Mission are illuminating. See C. R. Vietor, Erinnerungen aus meinem Leben, published privately by his widow, H. Vietor (Bremen, 1897).

  24. Zahn to Warneck, January 13, 1894; Staatsarchiv Bremen, 7, 1025.


Material written by Zahn in the Allgemeine Missions-Zeitschrift

1877 “Die Aufgaben der Missionsgeschichtsschreibung.” Pp. 494-500, 531-43.

1883 “Eine staatssocialistische Mission deutscher Zunge.” Pp. 34-44, 49-88, 125-28.

1886 “Die Verweltlichung, eine neue Missionsgefahr.” Pp. 193-211.

1886 “Handel und Mission.” Pp. 481-502.

1890 “Selbständige Kirchen, das Ziel evangelischer Missionsarbeit.” Pp. 289-318.

1892 “Die Bibel in der Mission.” Pp. 393-411.

1893 “Zeichen und Wunder in der Mission.” Pp. 241-61.

1895 “Die evangelische Heidenpredigt.” Pp. 26-37, 58-74.

1895 “Die Muttersprache in der Mission.” Pp. 337-60.

1898 “Giebt das Neue Testament für alle Zeiten bindende Vorschriften fiber die Methode der christlichen Mission?” Pp. 385-403.

Works About Zahn

Schafer, R. “Der theologische Beitrag yon F. M. Zahn.” In 150 Jahre Norddeutsche Mission, 1836-1986, ed. E. Schöck-Quinteros and D. Lenz, pp. 39-58. Bremen: Verlag der NMG, 1986.

Schindelin, F. “F. M. Zahns Beitrag zur Missionstheorie.” In Bausteine zur Geschichte der Norddeutschen Missions-Gesellschaft, ed. A. W. Schreiber, pp. 157-80. Bremen: Verlag der NMG, 1936.

Ustorf, W. Die Missionsmethode Franz Michael Zahns und der Aufbau kirchlicher Strukturen in Westafrika. Eine missionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung. Erlangen: Verlag der Ev.-Luth. Mission, 1989.

This article, is reproduced from the *International Bulletin of Missionary Research, *Jul. 97, Vol. 21 Issue 3, p. 124-127, copyright© 1977, edited by G. H. Anderson, and N. A. Horner. All rights reserved.