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Lamin Sanneh, pioneering historian who studied Christianity’s spread, dies at 76

An undated photo of Lamin Sanneh, a Yale Divinity School professor who studied the spread of Islam and Christianity. (Yale Divinity School)

Lamin Sanneh, a Yale Divinity School professor who was raised a Muslim, converted to Christianity and became a leading scholar of both religions, most notably as a pioneer in the study of Christianity’s transformation from a Western institution into a world-spanning faith, died Jan. 6 at a hospital in New Haven, Conn. He was 76.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said his son Kelefa Sanneh, a staff writer at the New Yorker.

Raised in the tiny West African nation of Gambia, Dr. Sanneh had a dignified, even regal bearing that betrayed his royal lineage. He traced his ancestry to the rulers of Kaabu, a successor state of the Mali Empire, although by the time he was born that empire had given way to years of British colonial rule.

While his father made a modest living working for the British government, Dr. Sanneh was “summoned from the margin,” as he put it in the title of his 2012 autobiography, pulled by God or fate or sheer force of will from a Gambian backwater to college in the United States, and later to graduate school in Britain and teaching posts at Harvard and Yale.

The author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 scholarly articles, he focused primarily on Christian missions and missionaries, and on the church’s development into a diverse, international religion with a majority of members scattered throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia.

He also offered a convincing explanation for its explosive growth, arguing in “Translating the Message” (1989) that Christianity was defined in large part by its inherent translatability. While Arabic and Hebrew play central roles in Islam and Judaism, no single language holds theological significance within the Christian church.

Dr. Sanneh pointed toward a view of Christianity that “reflected the demographic changes going on,” said Dana L. Robert, director of Boston University’s Center for Global Christianity and Mission. “It was not obvious then. The colonial guilt was so huge that Westerners were completely bogged down in self-flagellation about co­lo­ni­al­ism, rather than seeing the growth of the church in other ways and other places.”

“The fact that he was a distinguished African scholar saying this blew the lid off mission studies,” she added, “and opened the way to what we now call world Christianity, which is looking at local cultures in dialogue with a world tradition.”

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For Dr. Sanneh, the idea that Christianity in Africa was a result of Western imperialism was nothing short of caricature.

Local missionaries, he said, played as great a role in spreading the faith across West Africa as did white missionaries from the West. He also argued that the translation of the Bible into indigenous languages was an act of affirmation, a sign that local cultures had no less dignity than those of Europe.

A Catholic who served on two pontifical commissions, Dr. Sanneh also worked to explore connections between Christianity and Islam, tracing their spread across West Africa. But he initially faced opposition from peers who dismissed his focus on African religion.

“The pews of Christianity had relocated to the global south, but the pulpits were still located in the global north,” said John A. Azumah, a world Christianity and Islam professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.

“A few scholars, like Andrew Walls, paid attention to his calls, but there were quite a number who dismissed him, saying African Christianity is one mile wide and one inch deep — that it’s superficial, with a lot of corruption, and mixed with traditional African religions,” Azumah added.

Dr. Sanneh’s work was all the more remarkable given his difficult path to academia. He had been “thwarted” in his original plan to “study theology and be ordained,” he wrote in an email to Azumah shortly before his death, and instead “went through a terrible period of confusion and doubt. It was like a sickness in which I wondered whether God really wanted me. I started to emerge out of that hole when I saw that I could offer my training and scholarship as a small tribute to the God of Jesus, with Muslims within hearing distance.”

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Lamin Ousman Sanneh was born in Georgetown (now known as Janjanbureh), 150 miles upriver from the mouth of the Gambia River, on May 24, 1942. He attended a government-run Islamic boarding school before moving to the capital city of Banjul, where he eventually returned to high school and, in 1963, received a scholarship to attend college in the United States.

While in Banjul, he also turned from Islam to Christianity — an unlikely change, he noted in his autobiography, given his singularly Muslim background. “There was no church in town when I was growing up; I had never seen a Bible in my life; I had never heard anyone teach or preach about Christianity; there was no mention of Christianity in the book we read at school.”

Nonetheless, he said he became “transfixed” with Jesus, considered a prophet in Islam, and embarked on a religious journey that included pivotal encounters with a “self-avowed atheist” in the English colonial service, a “charismatic evangelical” nurse and a supermarket book rack, where he found a selection of cheap paperbacks by novelist and theologian C.S. Lewis.

Dr. Sanneh received a bachelor’s degree from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1967, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Birmingham in England in 1968 and a doctorate in history from the University of London in 1974.

He taught at the University of Ghana, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and Harvard University before joining Yale in 1989, holding dual appointments in the Divinity School and history department.

With Walls, a historian long based at the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Sanneh created a yearly conference on missions and world Christianity; since its inception in 1992, the gathering has grown from around a dozen participants to about 700 scholars.

Dr. Sanneh also was an editor at large of the magazine Christian Century and edited the Oxford Studies in World Christianity series. In September, the University of Ghana announced the creation of a new research institute named in his honor, to be led by Azumah with a focus on religion and society in Africa.

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Sandra Sanneh of Hamden, Conn., a senior lector of Zulu language and literature at Yale; two children, Sia Sanneh, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, and Kelefa Sanneh, both of Manhattan; five brothers; two sisters; and two grandsons.

Dr. Sanneh sometimes spoke on current events, lamenting a trend toward secularization and an understanding of “freedom of religion” that, in his view, too often meant “freedom from religion.” In one of his last major works, “Beyond Jihad” (2016), he highlighted a pacifist tradition within West African Islam — one that ran counter to rhetoric in which Islam was portrayed as a radical, militant faith.

“It would be damaging to Western interests to adopt this view and reduce Islam to nothing more than a security threat and pursue actions that are counter to the principles and values we cherish in the West,” he told a Yale Divinity School interviewer after the book’s release.

“The only thing worse than being the target of religious extremism and violence,” he continued, “is the forsaking of the very values and ideals that violent extremists find so abhorrent. The enemy doesn’t deserve that outcome because the West is worthy of more noble ends. It would be ironic if we became in the hands of our tormentors the rod of our own chastisement.”

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