March is the month of the unexpected: basketball upsets destroy your bracket, the weather can be crazy, or your schedule can be thrown into upheaval. I’ve gotten a visa for Ethiopia (for a scheduled ministry trip in April) that I won’t be able to use. And this time last week we had no immediate plans to visit the States but now in less than 48 hours we’ll be boarding a plane to do just that. To learn the details, read our March Madness newsletter.
Andrew Finlay Walls, 12 April 1928 – 12 August 2021, has been within his lifetime the single most important figure in the study of World Christianity. His towering intellect was only matched by his deep humility and depth of faith. But for me, he was also simply … my favorite teacher. (Though there have been several close-seconds.) Hours spent at the feet of Andrew and his wife, Dr Ingrid Reneau Walls, were far too few, but treasured.
I highly recommend his books: The Missionary Movement in Christian History (1996); The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (2002); Crossing Cultural Frontiers (2017); and Culture and Conversion in World Christianity (forthcoming).
During the course of his career, Andrew Walls taught on all six inhabited continents, and held positions
- in the UK at the University of Bristol, the University of Cambridge, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Edinburgh, and Liverpool Hope University;
- in Sierra Leone at Fourah Bay College;
- in Nigeria at the University of Nigeria (in Nsukka);
- in Ghana at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute for Theology, Mission and Culture (in Akropong);
- in Kenya at the Centre of World Christianity, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Africa International University;
- in the USA at Princeton Theological Seminary, Yale University, and Harvard University.
He was the founding editor of The Sierra Leone Bulletin of Religion and the Journal of Religion of Africa and established the journal Studies in World Christianity (though James P. Mackey was the founding editor). His legacy especially lives on at the Andrew F. Walls Centre for the Study of African and Asian Christianity at Liverpool Hope University, the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, the Akrofi-Christaller Institute in Ghana, the Centre for World Christianity at Africa International University in Nairobi, and through the continuation of the Yale-Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission.
I am one of the many former mentees and students (PhD in World Christianity program at Africa International University in Nairobi) of Prof. Andrew Walls. My own master’s thesis advisor, Frederick W. Norris (1941–2016), was already a well-established scholar who had served as president of the American Patristic Society before meeting Prof Andrew; the encounter changed his life and, consequently, mine, when my Prof. Fred introduced me to Walls’s writings. Had I immediately proceeded to doctoral work after completing my MDiv in 2001, no program other than Prof Andrew’s at Edinburgh would have done. Instead, after many years of field work in South Africa and then Kenya, during which I was privileged to meet him two or three times, I became his student at the Centre for World Christianity here in Nairobi. The two-week intensive PhD seminar which I took from him and his wife in March 2018 remains a vocational highlight, as well as the high-water mark of my formal education.
A number of worthwhile tributes of Andrew Walls and the breadth and depth of the impact of his life and work have been published:
- In 2007, Christianity Today published Tim Stafford’s essay, “Andrew Walls: Historian Ahead of His Time” in their February print edition (this was reposted online on 13 August 2021 and was on the free side of the paywall; it may or may not still be open access).
- Jeremy Weber, ed., “Remembering ‘Prof’ Andrew Walls, Founder of the Study of World Christianity,” 17 August 2021, Christianity Today’s online site (on the free side of the paywall). [disclosure: parts of this tribute, including the poem below — albeit without the stanza divisions, were included in this article]
- from the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh;
- from the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh;
- from the Overseas Ministry Study Center (OMSC) at Princeton;
- from Liverpool Hope University;
- and many others … .
This picture of Prof Andrew and Dr Ingrid is from the last face-to-face teaching engagement I had under Prof. Andrew, in September 2020, and the last time I spoke with him and his wife, Dr. Ingrid Reneau Walls — that is, the last encounter with Prof before the resurrections of the Last Day. OMCS (the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary) hosted a three-day seminar, “African Christianity in the Americas and in Africa,” presented by Prof. Andrew that month — all attendees participated via Zoom due to the pandemic. The Celtic-Coptic-Maasai cross hanging on the wall of their home (in the background of the picture) is a gift from Ruth and me, which I had presented to them when I last saw them face-to-face, in Nairobi in March 2018.
Because of Prof Andrew and Dr Ingrid’s deep involvement with the Akrofi-Christaller Insititute of Theology, Mission, and Culture (ACI) in Ghana, the ACI community was among the first to learn of Prof’s passing on August 12th; Dr. Ingrid had of course sent a text message almost immediately to Prof. Gillian Mary Bediako, and so those of us with connections to ACI were among the first to know. (The evening of the 12th was a rough day. Our 21st anniversary, I learned within the same half hour that my favorite aunt had just been buried, 8400 miles away, and that Prof. Andrew had just died.) A colleague of mine, Wakakuholesanga Chisola, a Zambian currently enrolled in the masters program at ACI, and I were up late chatting about this news the night of the 12th. He mentioned Prof’s great strength that always seemed stronger than the frailty of his age these last years, and concluded, “But even Baobabs fall.”
That helped me to articulate, the next day, the depth of my grief; I had been too sorrowful to sleep until well after 2 a.m. that night. So the poem which follows is my tribute to the best of teachers and mentors I have ever had (note that Mosi-oa-Tunya is the local indigenous African name of Victoria Falls). I thank Wakakuholesanga for the image of the baobab, and Ruth for helping me with a few lines when my articulation of my grief was stuck.