Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

A Case of Mutual Misconception

The 'habit of belief' can easily lead to misconception; this is a commonplace eventuality. Misconceived ideas may easily be exploited, as we have seen in the previous account; this too is a fairly frequent occurrence - there are many other examples in this collection. But occasionally it may happen that two distinct sets of misunderstandings dovetail together as it were, creating a sort of combinatory confusion. The following account is a classic example of this sort of misadventure.

In the mid 1930’s the Salvation Army decided to extend its missionary activities to the (then) Belgian Congo. Their arrival was noted with great interest by many native Congolese, since it was clear that the Army were a quite new religious force, one that was easily distinguished from the more familiar and longer established Christian missions. In fact the new missionaries were well received from the very beginning, and the initial wave of curiosity was followed by a more sustained interest. The enthusiastic and quasi-military style of the Salvationists seemed to go down particularly well in this new African setting. There was also a positive response to their paraphernalia of uniforms and flags, and their general air of discipline. The locals were also very interested in the promise of salvation for all. In a very short time the rates of conversion to their cause began to exceed the missionaries’ wildest expectations.

As the news of this new religious order spread people were coming to the mission from ever further afield. Eventually groups were arriving having walked for days, yet far from being fatigued they were clearly overjoyed to make contact, wanting to shake hands with the Salvation Army officers, touch their flags, and to be drafted into the movement at the earliest opportunity. Naturally, the missionaries were delighted at the numbers of converts. Uniforms were issued at a great rate, hymns were sung, the new members were marched up and down and the whole atmosphere was charged with the earnest joyousness for which the Salvationists were renowned.

All went swimmingly for some time. Conversions proceeded apace, and droves of would-be converts continued to pour in. In fact their numbers, and their collective enthusiasm, seemed steadily to increase to an extent that began to alarm the Salvationists. Within weeks the numbers of those making their way to the Salvation Army mission become so great, and were so emotionally charged, that the colonial authorities felt impelled to intervene, closing various roads, including the border between the French and Belgian Congos. At the same time a certain cross-purposeness had began to intrude into the missionaries dealings with their new converts, and there was a dawning realization on both sides that something was seriously amiss.

The realities of the situation were indeed confused. What had happened was that was the enthusiasm that had been generated by the early converts in their first encounters with the Salvationists had overridden a clear understanding of principles. The result was a developing situation that was far more muddled than either the missionaries or their new converts realized. The sad fact of the matter was that both sides were, from the very beginning, under a more or less complete misapprehension of each other’s religious expectations. Despite outward appearances there had not at all been a meeting of minds (or souls). In fact it would be more accurate to say that the two sides in this strange drama had sailed straight past each other. There was no question of deception in this mutual misunderstanding, which was rather due to wishful thinking on both sides. There was certainly an element of cultural unpreparedness on the Salvationists part, but the situation that had arisen was largely created by the actual timing of their arrival.

The Salvation Army had, of course, proceeded in their usual way. Their doctrines were simple - salvation was easily obtainable by anyone, at any time, anywhere. And their methods to obtain this were characteristically direct - they relied on sheer enthusiasm and swift conversions. Their quasi-military style gave them a strong, almost exotic, appeal in this African setting, but the primary reason for the ensuing confusion was the fact that the Salvationists had arrived in the Congo just at a time when there was a great revival of an earlier, indigenous religious movement.

This was the cult of a Congolese prophet by the name of Simon Kimbangu. Kimbangu, who had identified himself with Christ, had gained an enormous reputation as a prophet and healer in the 1920’s, but the movement that sprang up around him had been seen as a threat by the Belgian authorities and was savagely suppressed. Kimbangu himself was arrested and sentenced to death, the sentence later being commuted to life imprisonment. The colonial authorities kept him completely isolated from his followers, who saw him as a martyr. The expectation arose among them that Kimbangu, like Christ, would reappear and lead the faithful to salvation. When the Salvation Army arrived with the letter 'S' clearly embroidered on the lapels of their uniforms they were taken to be fellow devotees of Simon Kimbangu. Their ebullient style, their militancy and their promise of imminent salvation, all appeared to support this view in the eyes of the local Congolese. Language difficulties tended to hinder any exposure of the misunderstanding, and the Salvation Army's eagerness to capitalize on their enthusiastic reception blinded them to the realities of the situation. They simply had no appreciation of the true nature of the religious revival that they had unwittingly unleashed.

For their part the followers of Simon Kimbangu had no real understanding of the Salvationists aims. For them the simple act of shaking hands with an Army officer, or of touching their flag, was in itself an act of purification and of identification with Kimbangu's wonder-working powers. Those who had died on their way to the mission were believed to have been affected by the potency of Kimbangu's imminent resurrection and were declared to have been wizards. Only gradually did the Salvationists realize that the 'conversions' that they had effected were of people whose religious convictions were utterly different from their own.

Eventually the Salvation Army realized the ambiguities of the situation and began to expel the large numbers of Kimbanguists. They also took to questioning potential converts far more closely. As a result, their rate of conversion fell away completely. By this time, however, the native Salvationist movement had acquired a momentum of its own. A new and extremely charismatic figure, one Simon Mpadi, arrived on the scene and managed to establish himself as the new leader of the Kimbanguist movement. He retained most of the Salvationists outward appearances - their uniforms, insignia and hierarchic ranking, but took the organization further along its cultish and messianic path. His was, in essence, a socio-religious movement that managed to combine traditional tribal values with those introduced by Christian missionaries. Messianic salvation came to be increasingly identified with anti-colonial sentiments, understandably in view of the oppressive nature of the ruling administration. Naturally, the Salvation Army completely dissociated themselves from the movement that they had originally inspired, but their own influence in this part of the world gradually dwindled away to nothing.