Remembering Lamin Sanneh
Lamin Sanneh was the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School. He died on Epiphany, January 6, 2019 after suffering a stroke. Professor Sanneh had just accepted an invitation to speak at Concordia Seminary this April at our 2019 Multi-ethnic symposium. We were working out the details when we found out about his untimely death. To say it was a shock is an understatement. We had just been exchanging emails the week before. In my last email exchange with him he was getting ready for Christmas dinner with family and, as he put it, was in the “throes of creation culinary-wise.” Lamin knew how to enjoy a good meal and a fine glass of Sancerre. Those meals together are some of my best memories with him.
There will no doubt be any number of tributes to a man who had such a significant influence and impact on World Christianity. The Yale website details all the different academic positions he held in Africa, England, and here in America at Harvard and Yale. He authored and edited at least a dozen books on relations between Christianity and Islam, along with over 200 articles that were stand-alone monographs or parts of collected works on history, Christianity, or Islam. He received numerous awards, among which was the Commandeur de l’Ordre National Du Lion of Senegal which helped explain all the attention we received in Dakar where we held our second conference on early African Christianity there. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
He was a professor, prolific author, colleague, church-statesman, mentor, husband, father—and friend. For the last ten years I was privileged to know him in many different capacities, but the most important for me was as a friend. We met in 2007 when I was the executive director for the Center for Early African Christianity (then at Drew University, now at Yale). I was also serving at the time as research director for the Ancient Christian Commentary series. My colleague Mike Glerup had invited Lamin to participate in an exploratory conference we had scheduled in Addis Ababa that spring to see how African leaders, pastors, scholars would react to the idea of how Africa had shaped the Christian mind—a thesis that had been put forward by our friend and colleague Thomas Oden. Lamin was reluctant to accept the invitation. He told us his interests were more in the realm of the study of Islam and that he had not been back to Africa since he left almost thirty years prior when he had taught at the University of Ghana (1975-78). Nonetheless, we persisted and were blessed with his presence at that conference and many other venues throughout our travels in Africa for the next ten years, including the Lausanne Conference in Cape Town where Lamin delivered a lecture on religious freedom that we sponsored.
Everywhere we went in Africa Lamin was treated like a famous rock star—only more so. This story may be only partially apocryphal, but I think I remember one time when we were talking with some Africans who had met U2’s lead singer, Bono, but they didn’t quite know who he was. Lamin Sanneh, on the other hand, was another matter. Him they knew. Lamin was so well known that when he would arrive at the airport in Senegal or the Gambia they would play the Sanneh anthem: Lamin had come from royal blood in the Gambia. We heard his family’s anthem on more than one occasion.
He was born into a Muslim family and so always had a special place in his heart for Islam. He was convinced the future of Islam lay in the pacifist tradition, but was not naïve enough to believe that all Muslims would agree on that point. His book Beyond Jihad: Pacifist Impetus in Muslim West Africa and Beyond (Oxford, 2016), which I reviewed in the Winter 2018 issue of the Concordia Journal, details his thesis more fully than can be treated in these pages. Suffice it to say he championed support for those Muslim clerics who were trying to take on the more radical forms of Islam, often at risk of their own lives. He had grown up as a Muslim and never forgot his roots in that tradition, even as he knew those roots were not sufficient to nurture something deeper inside him that had emerged from the Spirit.
Lamin told me once how he had been converted to Christianity. It was through the kindness of strangers—Christians who had helped and supported him in his youth. Through them he had experienced the love of God. Islam had taught him to honor God, but he wanted to love God, a love which he only found in Jesus. This love made him a committed Roman Catholic convert, trusted by at least two popes to serve on various theological commissions such as the appointment by John Paul II to the Pontifical Commission of the Historical Sciences at the Vatican and by Pope Benedict XVI to the Pontifical Commission on Religious Relations with Muslims.
In the lectures I was privileged to hear him deliver he would often make the point that Christianity is the most translated religion in the world. Other religions, such as Islam, relied on a specific language such as Arabic for the authority of their sacred texts. Christianity was willing to take the risk in “translating the message”—the title of one of his most well-known books—into the heart language of all the nations of the world as the authoritative Word of God. This was a consistent theme in his lectures, his scholarship, expressed in his zeal for the mission of the church. The Christian message of God’s love in Jesus Christ was for everyone.
For those who would like to know more, I would recommend reading his autobiography, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (Eerdmans, 2012). While it was at first a reluctant homecoming, it was also one long overdue. Lamin Sanneh was an African who acknowledged his own debt to the great tradition of the African church and writers like Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine. And in the spirit of that great tradition, his influence went far beyond his continent to the larger world,
Lamin died on Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany. While I would much rather have him around, I think he would agree that Epiphany in many ways sums up his work: the Gospel revealed to the Gentiles and to the world. Requiescat in pace.
Photo credit: Yale Divinity School