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Death of Professor Lamin Sanneh

- a good friend of INFEMIT, AKMC and OCMS

Dr Lamin SannehWe are very sad to announce the sudden and unexpected death of Professor Lamin Sanneh (1942-2019), on January 6th.  Dr Sanneh was Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, a good friend of INFEMIT, AKMC and OCMS, and many of you will receive this news with shock.  Below is a tribute by Canon Dr Chris Sugden, one of the founders of OCMS.

Professor Lamin Sanneh was a very good friend to the International Fellowship of Mission Theologians who were the founders of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, the Akrofi-Kristaller Memorial Centre in Ghana, the Institute for Asian Church and Culture in the Philippines and the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.  Between 1998 and 2006 he visited and spoke at OCMS a number of times and accepted an invitation to be a fellow of OCMS.

Dr Sanneh was born on MacCarthy Island in the River Gambia. A descendent of an ancient African royal family, he grew up as a Muslim but converted to Christianity. He earned graduate degrees from the University of Birmingham, England (M.A.), and the University of London (Ph.D.). 

His book "Translating the Message- the Missionary Impact on Culture" demonstrates the influence that Christian translations of Scriptures and catechisms into African languages had on cultural self-understanding, social awakening, religious renewal, and reciprocity in mission, process, and shows that mission and translation were and continue to be integral parts of cultural renewal in the face of the relentless onslaught of imperialism in its classic and contemporary forms.

Sanneh’s other major works are Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa (Harvard University Press, 2000), Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans, 2003), Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford, 2008), Beyond Jihad: Pacifist Impetus in Muslim West Africa and Beyond (Oxford, 2016), and The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to World Christianity, (Wiley, 2016). 

Following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, Professor Sanneh contributed two articles to OCMS ‘ Journal “Transformation” that examined the relation between religion, the state and secularism.

In 2002 he wrote:” The modern religious resurgence has revealed the extent of the secular inadequacy, making it imperative that we recognize the role of religion in people's lives for what it is. Religious fanaticism will not disappear with military reprisal but only with religious self-scrutiny, if at all. The military instrument cannot settle the issue, and governments, especially corrupt ones, are already too implicated in their own version of political fundamentalism in the use and means of power, to be religiously credible. These governments have too long promoted secularism as a religious alibi to be trusted. Since the benefits of secularism on the lives of ordinary Muslims are slight, they are inclined to turn to religious fervor when incited. For the flourishing of human life, we need to transcend this cleavage and to rise to the challenge of relating our worldly interests to our spiritual values without prejudice to either.”

In 2003 he wrote on religion and the state in Nigeria and posed the question whether a Shari‘ah-mandated state can do better against the existing failures of mismanagement, public incompetence, judicial corruption, social injustice, the absence of safety and security, falling standards of living, and widespread loss of morale, or whether, instead, Shari‘ah would aggravate the problem by making God a party to the divisions.  

He wrote of two key leaders of INFEMIT: "Vinay Samuel of India and Wayan Mastra of Indonesia are not just voices domesticated by their respective cultures, two forces dissipated in their own vacuum, but a dynamic impetus of the global theological current."  They raised, he said, the whole level of social context and identity from the flatbed of ethnocentric value judgement to the high ground of global critical historical consciousness. 

Vinay Samuel, founder director of OCMS, writes: 

“I worked with Lamin Sanneh on several initiatives that sought to relate the Gospel to our cultures and to contemporary society. He brought much wisdom and great learning to these initiatives. As a faithful disciple of Christ he loved the Church and served her faithfully.

I am shocked at his untimely death as he had so much more to share with a needy and confused world and church. He had a unique gift in finding treasures from God's word and God's actions in the world that enriched our understanding of God's truth and His actions in the Church and the world.

His writing on ‘World Christianity’ as displaying the gifts of different cultures and peoples while maintaining the universal nature of the Christian faith shaped Christian mission thinking significantly.

For me he was a true world Christian leader and incarnated world Christianity as he shared his gifts softly and elegantly. I am blessed to have known him.”


Tribute by Greg Sterling

Note: YDS Dean Sterling sent the following message to the YDS Community on Monday, January 7. Memorial service details will be announced once finalized.

Colleagues and Friends,

I am writing to inform you of the sudden and unexpected death of Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School. Many of us were with Lamin just before the Christmas break when he was anticipating the arrival of his family and the celebration of Christmas. An announcement like this seemed unimaginable; however, Lamin suffered a stroke and died on Sunday, January 6th, surrounded by his family. I know that many of you will receive this news as I did—with shock.

Lamin was born on MacCarthy Island in the River Gambia. A descendent of an ancient African royal family, he grew up as a Muslim but converted to Christianity. He was educated and taught on four different continents. He earned graduate degrees from the University of Birmingham, England (M.A.), and the University of London (Ph.D.). He received honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh and Liverpool Hope University. His major faculty appointments were at the University of Ghana (1975-1978), the University of Aberdeen (1978-1981), Harvard University (1981-1989), and finally Yale (1989-2019). He had a lifetime appointment at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge (1996-2019), and was an Honorary Professional Research Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (1997-2019). He also had temporary appointments at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christianity, Ibadan, Nigeria (1969-1971); Fourah Bay College, the University of Sierra Leone, Freetown (1974-1975); San Francisco Theological Seminary (summer of 1987); and the Library of Congress, where he was the John W. Kluge Chair in the Countries and Cultures of the South (2004-2005). Lamin took a long and circuitous route from The Gambia to Yale University, but he traveled with international distinction.

Lamin was the author or editor or co-editor of twenty books and monograph-length essays and well over 200 articles and chapters in scholarly venues. Some of the most notable books include Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis, 1989; 13th printing 2002; 2nd ed., 2009), Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa(Harvard University Press, 2000; selected for review in The New York Review of Books), Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans, 2003; trans. into German, 2013), Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford, 2008), Beyond Jihad: Pacifist Impetus in Muslim West Africa and Beyond (Oxford, 2016), and The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to World Christianity, co-edited with Michael McClymond (Wiley, 2016). His work was widely recognized for its quality. He was made Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Lion, Senegal’s highest honor, in 2002 and received the Marianist Award from the University of Dayton in 2011.

Lamin and Andrew Walls set up a program of World Christianity conferences that alternated between Yale and Edinburgh each summer and brought distinguished international scholars to each university. He was a member of the board of Overseas Ministry Study Center and the key link between the OMSC and YDS. Lamin also had an appointment as Professor of History and Director of the Project on Religious Freedom and Society in Africa at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

Lamin’s work was recently recognized by the University of Ghana in its establishment of the Lamin Sanneh Institute, which will promote scholarly research into religion and society in Africa, especially emphasizing the roles of Christianity and Islam, the two areas of Lamin’s expertise. You can read more about the new Sanneh Institute here.

Lamin’s story is remarkable by any standard of measurement. It is best understood in his own words in Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (Eerdmans, 2012). I thought enough of Lamin and of his autobiography that I selected Summoned from the Margin as a present to send to all of the major donors of the Divinity School last month. I had no idea when I selected it that it would become a final testament to his life.

Our prayers and thoughts go out to Sandra, the children, and the grandchildren, who will miss their husband, father, and grandfather. We will miss him too. I often asked him to lead faculty processions. He had inherited a regal dignity that lent itself well for such occasions. He was a remarkable individual whom I am grateful to have known.



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