The Germans Were Once Heathens: Ghanaian Christians Make Sense of German Pagan Revivals, 1850–75

Saturday, January 9, 2016
Galleria Exhibit Hall (Hilton Atlanta)
Paul G. Grant, University of Wisconsin-Madison
This poster explores the mid-nineteenth century social convulsions in Germany through the eyes of Ghanaian students, as seen in neo-pagan revivals associated with the Carnival festivals in Basel, Switzerland. These Ghanaians used their experiences to split open the colonial-Christian alliance that was in the process of conquering their homeland. This dynamic had no equivalent anywhere else in Africa, and decades later bore fruit in the creation of post-Colonial German consciousness.  

During the last decades prior to colonial conquest, several Ghanaian youths associated with a German missionary society had the opportunity to attend seminary in Basel, on the Swiss-German frontier. These people were first-generation converts to Christianity, and what they discovered astonished them. Life in an impoverished European city, subject to cholera outbreaks, bread riots, and revolutions, gave them a stark impression that Germany was no more Christian a place than Africa’s Gold Coast. Especially as they watched their evangelical hosts endlessly and mercilessly mocked and harassed by their compatriots at Carnival time, these Africans came to two conclusions, both of which would have tremendous political salience decades later, in the post-colonial era. First, they gradually realized that ancient German heathenism was not dead and was, indeed, undergoing a revival. Germany was no Christian nation. And second, the nineteenth century German search for spiritual alternatives suggested to these travelers that the development of an indigenous African Christianity would entail a radically different foundation for community than that on offer from the British, who were in the process of conquering their homeland.

The sensory focus for this discovery of autochthonous heathenism was the special form of Carnival celebrated in Basel as Fasnacht. Uniquely in the German-speaking world, the Basel Fasnacht was decoupled from the religious calendar (this was the only carnival in a non-Catholic city). It may have originated in attempts to drive out evil winter spirits and gods, and was a vehicle for specialized satirical poetry in the local Basel-German dialect. More importantly, the Fasnacht the Ghanaian students witnessed was undergoing active renewal pursuant to glaring contemporary social problems: hunger, disease, industrialization, and urban alienation. The Basel Carnival, in other words, was a heathen revival addressing a spiritual and social need the churches had proven unable to meet.

The dissertation of which this poster forms part explores the fallout of Ghanaian knowledge that the missionaries were misfits at home. During WWI, the British would deport the Germans from the Gold Coast. Upon their arrival in a Germany in chaos, these deportees began espousing a shocking notion: that there was no such thing as a Christian nation. Essentially, these Africans and Germans together were creating the ideological framework for a postcolonial shift in world Christianity to the global south.

This poster combines the unique social space of Basel’s carnival—with its grotesque masks, caustic poetry, and offensive outrages—with representations of that city’s early-industrial social emergencies, to show how German evangelicals were aliens at home. This will point to the ways Ghanaians were able to assert control within the transnational relationship.

See more of: Poster Session # 1
See more of: AHA Sessions