Cameroon is one of the countries located along the West African coast and this exposure made her one of the first countries to be visited by the missionaries in the nineteenth century. The history of the church in Cameroon is closely associated with the political history of the country itself and to well-understand the church history of Cameroon, it is necessary to study it along with its political history. At the time that the Christian missionaries arrived in Cameroon, the more than 140 ethnic groups of Cameroon were worshippers of the African traditional religion. This religion was characterized by sacrifices, belief in the Supreme Being, belief in the ever presence of the ancestors etc. Many Cameroonians abandoned these traditional religions at the advent of Christianity.
The first Christian missionaries in Cameroon were from the London Baptist Missionary society who arrived Cameroon in 1845. Their being the first to come can be understood because the British were among those who lead the war against the slave trade. Their coming to Cameroon was to completely abolish slave trade from its roots in West Africa and to spread the message of the Gospel. They came alongside the explorers and merchants who were looking for markets as well as sources for the raw materials for their industries after their withdrawal from their American plantations as a result of the American war of independence in 1777-78.
These first missionaries came under the leadership of Alfred Saker with some West Indian Baptist preachers mainly from Jamaica. While in Cameroon Alfred Saker ordained Joseph Merrick whose short but outstanding activities in the work of evangelization earned him the title of “founder of Christianity in Cameroon”. Another outstanding missionary of the London Baptist Mission was Joseph Jackson Fuller who worked along with Joseph Merrick and Alfred Saker. In 1866, Alfred Saker ordained the first ever-Cameroonian pastor, George Nkwe, a native Bamelieke. The missionary group that came immediately after the Baptists were the American Presbyterians who together with the Baptist planted the first seeds of Christianity in Cameroon.
At the time of the German colonization of Cameroon, there were “three English Baptist missionary stations in the colony: one at Victoria, and two on the Cameroons river – at Bell Town in Douala and at Hickory across the river”. Alfred Saker, many mission stations were opened in Douala and its surrounding. With their exit at the eve of the colonization of Cameroon by Germany, and the taking over by the German Baptists and the German Basel missionaries, things went on pretty well for the Baptists and the Protestants as a whole. The Basel mission will later be referred to as the Presbyterians. This is because the protestant missionaries were very much involved in the promotion of local African leadership in the churches they founded. By opening schools, they made a lot of progress especially in the Bulu area of the country. “An amazing growth of the church followed with some 70,000 in total baptized in 1925, 85,000 in 1962 and 200,000 in 1968”. Protestantism gained ground in the 1920s through the work of the famous Douala Pastor Modi Din. He preached the Gospel message from the Cameroon coast right to the Ivory Coast and his influence spread. Unfortunately, his movement did not last long because he went too fast and did not give enough time for the catechumenate. Despite this amazing growth, Bengt Sundkler underlines that “the Catholics may have appeared as more conspicuous than the Protestants”.
One of the most outstanding issues among the Baptists was the conflict that erupted among the three Baptist missions in Douala. With the help of some missionaries, a truce was reached and the three missions combined to form the United Baptist Church. Their causes of division were personality differences; views on church discipline and above all some of the churches had special international connection than others. These disagreements continued even after the truce of the 1920s and lead to the formation of the ‘Native Baptist Church’. This body later on became a torn in the flesh of the British and French colonial administrators. In many instances, missionaries sided with the people against the colonial administrators who were oppressing the people through the use of forced labour.
The first attempt of the Catholic Church to come to Cameroon was on 11th November 1883 when Fathers Davezac and Bichet (Holy Ghost Missionaries) from Gabon came to Cameroon in search of new lands to preach the Gospel but this attempt was not successful because of the larger presence of the Germans in the country and Bismarck’s hatred for Jesuits and affiliated societies.
On the 25th October 1890, Mgr Henri Vieter and a group of missionaries reached Cameroon. They were “Fr Georg Walter, Klosternecht (a senior seminarian) and Brothers Hierl, Ulrich, Herman, Mohr and Hofer. They celebrated their first mass at Marienberg on 8th December 1890, the first mission they opened. ‘Ce jour est entré dans les annals de l’histoire comme le jour de la naissance de l’Eglise Catholique au Cameroun’.
The first Cameroonian Catholic Christian was Ludwig Andreas Johannes Maria Mbangue who was baptized in the Benedictine monastery of St Otille in Germany on the solemnity of the epiphany, January 6th 1889. He later on joined the Pallotine missionaries and served as a catechist. The Pallotines opened schools with a curriculum with German language as one of the subjects. This was aimed at preparing Cameroonians for work in the factories as well as government services. Priestly formation was combined with the training of catechists. In 1907, a three-year catechetical course was started and in 1914, fifteen of the best catechists were sent to the theological seminary.
Both the Catholic and Protestant missionaries were opening missions and schools at the same time. Most missions started from the coast towards the hinterland. The missionaries excelled in the field of education. The growth of schools was quickened by the growing competition between the Catholic and Protestant missionaries. “In 1910, there were about 11,000 pupils and three years later, 22,000”. Education became a great tool that was used to plan the seed of Christianity in Cameroon by the Protestants and Catholic missionaries. This became very remarkable in the area that was administered by Britain after the First World War called Southern Cameroons. Bengt Sundkler in his book notes that “Southern Cameroon rapidly grew as Christian country. In 1961, half the population there was registered as Christians, with 650,000 Catholics and 500,000 Protestants while over 70% of the primary school age children attended school”.
The First World War (1914-1918) and its aftermath brought about great changes in the political as well as the history of the Church in Cameroon. Politically, as Germany was defeated, the Versailles Peace Settlement of 1919 ruled that the German colony of Cameroon be given to the victors from the war who were Britain and France. “German missionaries (35 priests, 39 brothers and 33 sisters) were deported.” Cameroon was partitioned between these two European nations with France taking two-thirds to the east and Britain the other one-third to the west. The mission stations became isolated with the withdrawal of the Germans during the period 1916-1922.
During this period, catechists and pastors played an important role in keeping the Christian faith in Cameroon. They taught catechism and lead the congregations in prayers. After the settlement, the part that became French Cameroon was entrusted to the Holy Ghost Fathers and the Sacred Heart Missionaries who continued the missionary works from the Pallotine Fathers in 1920 and 1922 respectively while in the English Protectorate; the Mill Hill Missionaries took over the mission in 1922. The evangelization of the rest of Northern Cameroon territory was entrusted to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Since then, many other missionary groups came in to work in Cameroon and many indigenes joined them and became missionaries to their own people and to other parts of the world. The number of the baptized grew from ‘30,000 (1914) to 64,000 (1921) with 34,000 catechumens under instruction in 1921.
The following factors have been identified to be behind the success of the Christian missions in Cameroon that has been termed ‘the Cameroon miracle’. First, there was lack of proper organization among the Cameroonian traditional religions. This means that the people were not finding meaning in their traditional religions. Secondly, the early missionaries observed that Cameroonians were open-minded on religious matters and many of them readily accepted Christianity. Thirdly, many people welcomed the new educational system and Christianity as a religion of the new age. According to Bengt Sundkler in his book, “Cameroon welcomed the missions not so much because of its religious message but because of their schools. They were all asking for a book”. Fourthly, missionaries laid special emphasis on education and they also trained many catechists who helped in the mission. Fifthly, many neophytes or converts opened schools in remote areas. At one time, it was estimated that about 10,000 volunteer catechists were working with the missionaries.
Finally, according to the renowned Cameroonian church historian Fr Engelbert Mveng S.J, the personality behind the Cameroon success story was the Vicar Apostolic from 1922-43 in the name of Bishop François Xavier Vogt who is called today as ‘father’ by the natives. Bishop Vogt called on all the missionaries to “become African with the Africans”. He advised the missionaries to learn the languages of the people they were ministering to and also appreciate the good in them and work with them. Bishop Vogt from the beginning had a plan to create an African leadership in the church. For this reason, he opened a minor seminary and run it by himself. He combined it with the postulate of Frères de Joseph who made their first profession in 1926. He also worked very hard for the establishment of the novitiate of Filles de Marie in 1933. In 1935, Bishop Vogt realized his dream of creating an African leadership when he “ordained the first eight Cameroonian priests – 4 from Yaounde and the other four from Douala, a number unheard of anywhere else at the time”. This dream reached its full realization in 1955 with the appointment of Paul Etoga as auxiliary Bishop of Yaounde and Thomas Mongo the following year as bishop of Douala. “They were the first black francophone bishops on the continent”
One of Bishop Vogt’s successes laid in the fact that he went on to convert many chiefs to Christianity and the greatest of them was Charles Atangana, paramount chief of the Béti who became one of the great pillars of the church. Many Cameroonians joined Christianity because their chiefs have been converted to it. “In the period 1916-1939, the Catholic Population in Southern Cameroon increased nine fold. By 1939, the Yaounde Diocese had 208,000 Catholics and 91,000 catechumens with 64 priests (all Westerners), 24 brothers, 58 sisters and 2000 catechists. A decade later the Catholic community has risen to over 1.3 millions”. This growth marveled Bishop Vogt who requested his Superiors in Paris to send more personnel.
At the time of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the mission to the north has been entrusted to the German Sacred Heart priests but they did not go very far. They were replaced in 1923 by their French confreres. The proper evangelization of the north took place after 1946. The missionaries realized that the north was less islamized than expected. The success story of the north is attributed to the fact that many ethnic groups in the north like the Kirdis who had taken refuge in the mountains to escape from Fulani raids and Holy Wars saw Christianity as a safer ground and many of them became Christians.
The evangelization of the north was slower because the people have been scattered and lived in isolated villages as a result of the Fulani raids. To this day, about one tenth of the northern population has been reached by the gospel. Most missionaries to the north were indigenes from the south. An example is Abbé Simon after his ordination in 1935, went to evangelize the Kirdis. Another evangelizer there was Bishop Christian Tumi from North West Cameroon. Marc Ela, a renowned Cameroonian theologian got the inspiration of his ‘une théologie sous l’arbre’ there in the north. Alongside the priests were Sisters who also went to work there. Today, this northern mission has produced religious men and women who are able to cater for the needs of the Christians there.
This started in Cameroon as early as the 1960s and depicted the assimilation of the gospel message by the Cameroonian lay and clergy. Their liturgical compositions have developed so much and their “messe Ewando was the prize-winning religious production at the cultural festival of Africa in 1961”. Fr Engelbert Mveng remains the main inspirator of the Christian art in Cameroon. This is why Bengt Sundkler underlines that “however, the Spirit of God was not only with those who cautiously restricted themselves to preserve the inherited faith in its Western form but also with those who courageously endeavoured to continue the logic of the incarnation by letting this faith become flesh and blood in the African cultures ”. The earliest attempts at inculturation was at Ndzon-Melen, a suburb of Yaounde in 1967 where the local parish priest Pie-Claude Ngumu’s effort with his parishioners was highly praised at the 1982 Eucharistic Congress in Lourdes.
The need for a third theological centre in Africa between Abidjan and Kinshasa saw the erection of the Catholic University of Yaounde by the Pope in 1991 for the region Cameroon-Congo. This university was entrusted to the Jesuits. Their conviction was that “the Church in Africa had relied too much on rural piety and needed to construct a bridge to reach the urban society”.
While in Cameroon, all the missionaries both Catholics and Protestants saw that the only way to preach the message of the Gospel for the people to understand was by using the local languages. The local pastors and interpreters that they trained assisted the missionaries. The missionaries also learnt some of the languages and were able to communicate to the people in their local languages. In the schools that they opened, each of the European missionaries from the Germans to the British and French taught in their European languages. Cameroon had about 140 ethnic communities and with different ethnic languages. For the Catholics, they stuck to Latin (before the Second Vatican Council 1962-65) as the language of worship to promote the universality of the church but in the catechism classes and sermons, they interpreted in the local languages and vernaculars. On the other hand, the Protestants were the first to use local languages in their missions. The Presbyterians widely adopted Duala, one of the major coastal languages. With the exit of the Germans in 1916, many young people became interested in the French and English and kept aside German and Douala.
There was conflict in the Bulu area where the missionaries adopted Bulu as the language of catechism instruction and worship for the Bulus and the neighbouring ethnic groups. The Ngumbas, one of the small ethnic groups saw this as an encouragement of Bulu superiority over them and they demanded the Bible in their own language. In grass-field region of the country, the Protestants adopted Bali as the language of instruction and in the coast, Duala language was widely used.
The early Catholic missionaries in Cameroon came during the reign of Pope Leo XIII. Since the foundation of this mission till today, 10 popes have succeeded the seat of St Peter namely: Leo XIII (1878-1903), Pius X (1903-1914), Benedict XV (1914-1922), Pius XI (1922-1939), Pius XII (1939-1958), John XXIII (1958-1963), Paul VI (1963-1978), John Paul I (26/8-28/9 1978), John Paul II (October 1978-April 2005) and Benedict XVI (2005+++)
The creation of the Catholic hierarchy in Cameroon came after the Second World War with the establishment of the Apostolic Delegation to act as an intermediary between ‘propaganda fide’ in Rome and the local church. Four Apostolic Delegates ruled from 1958 till 1966 when the Apostolic Nuntius took over.
Pope Leo XIII opened the Apostolic Prefecture of Cameroon on 18th March 1890 and appointed Bishop Henri Vieter as the first Apostolic Prefect. His successor, Pius X raised the Apostolic Prefecture of Cameroon to an Apostolic Vicariate. Pope Benedict XV, ‘Pope of the First World War I’negotiated the transfer of the Cameroon mission from the German Pallotine missionaries to the French Holy Spirit missionaries. Pius XI reorganized the administrative set-up of the church in Cameroon by creating vicariates in Buea, Douala, Yaounde and Nkongsamba. Pius XII set up new vicariates in Garoua and Doumé. In 1950, he created the first Catholic Diocese in Buea. On the 5th of November 1955, he changed all the Apostolic Vicariates into dioceses and appointed the following as bishops in Cameroon: Pierre Bonneau, Jacques Teerrenstra, and Yves Plumey. The same year he appointed the first indigenous Cameroonian bishop Paul Etoga and the following year he also appointed another indegene of Cameroon, Thomas Mongo as bishop. Lastly, Pius XII received the first Cameroonian pilgrims in Rome on Pentecost Day of 1950.
During his reign, John XXIII, ‘Father of Vatican II council’ appointed the following as Bishops in Cameroon: Jean-Baptiste Zoa, Julius Peeters, Pierre Celestin Nkou, and he also transferred Paul Etoga to Mbalmayo. Paul VI came with the Roman synod of Bishops in order to foster collegiality and implement the decisions of the Second Vatican Council. He appointed the following bishops to Cameroon: Albert Ndongmo, Simon Tonye, Paul Verdzekov, Denis Ngande, Pius Awa, Thomas Nkuissi, Jacques de Bernon, Louis Charpenet, Jean-Baptiste Ama and Athanase Bala. His successor, John Paul I ‘s 33 days pontificate had no major significance in the church of Cameroon. John Paul II set up four ecclesiastical provinces for Cameroon in Yaounde, Douala, Bamenda and Garoua, each headed by an archbishop. He created new dioceses in Kumbo, Ngaoundere, Bertoua, Doume-Abongmbang, Obala, Yagoua and Mamfe. He also appointed the following bishops: André Wouking, Christian Tumi, Antoine Ntalou, Cornelius Esua, Adalbert Ndzana, Victor Tonye, Gabriel Simo, Jerome Owono, Emmanuel Bushu and Francis Teke Lysinge.
John Paul II made a mark in the history of the Catholic Church in Cameroon by being the first successor of St Peter to visit Cameroon in 1985 and 1995. He also honoured the local church in Cameroon by appointing archbishop Christian Tumi as the first ever-Cameroonian cardinal on 28th June 1988. Finally and recently, the new Pope Benedict XVI elevated Bishop Cornelius of Kumbo to be the Archbishop of Bamenda.
Among the Protestants, the main religious groups in Cameroon are the Baptist Convention, the Presbyterians, Lutherans and the Evangelic Church. The largest is the L’église Evangelique du Cameroun, which developed from the Paris mission and had absorbed former German missions in French Cameroon. By 1957, most of these churches became autonomous. The Protestants were well known for their special attention to leadership training of the locals. In 1962, they started a United School of Theology in Yaounde, which later became the Faculté de Théologie de Yaounde for all francophone Africa, north of the Congo.
At the time of independence, the Catholic Church has got many learned clergy. In 1961, Bishop Jean Zoa was appointed Archbishop of Yaounde. He later on became the secretary of the Francophone African Bishops at the Second Vatican Council. By 1970, most of the Cameroonian episcopate were indigenes but the missionaries still made about 75% of the clergy. Right from the 1970s, the Cameroonian clergy started having the feeling that they were ‘a church under tutelage’. For this reason, they started forming associations that would promote the rights of a diocesan priests and the process of inculturation. Their efforts yielded good fruits and at the celebration of the centenary in 1990, there were as many indigenous clergy as missionaries and African clergy were in charge of most of the parishes.
By 1982, there were four Church Provinces in Cameroon: Yaounde, Douala, Bamenda and Garoua with 17 dioceses, all with African bishops except three. In 1988, Archbishop Christian Tumi was elevated to become Cameroon’s first ever Cardinal. Each church province built and run its own major seminary and vocations increased among the clergy and religious.
Among the religious, the most significant development was the foundation of ten monasteries between 1951 and 1975: 3 for monks (Benedictines and Cistercians) and 7 of nuns (Carmelites, Clarises, Dominicans and Benedictines). They all lead a contemplative lifestyle. The most successful ones were in Bamenda (Cistercian Trappists) and the Poor Clares in Sangmelima. They shared a lot with the surrounding poor. The Poor Clares developed “a wonderful inculturated liturgy with African symbols and gestures inspired by the Jesuit artist Fr Engelbert Mveng”
Among the scholars who contributed greatly to the reconstruction of the history of the Catholic Church in Cameroon was one renowned Cameroonian historian Father Engelbert Mveng SJ. In 1963, he published his Histoire de Cameroun, a 500-page work. He has also excelled in the study and interpretation of African arts and symbols. He is also a co-founder of the Sisters of the Beatitudes, a local congregation in Cameroon. Another important contributor was another priest Father Jean-Marc Ela. Among the Protestants was the Presbyterian co-denominationalist of Douala, Jean Kotto. He challenged the flow of what he called the ‘one way traffic’ system of conventional missionary societies from the West to the Third World. He called for a ‘two way traffic’ of evangelistic participation.
The Catholic Church in Cameroon appeared on the political scene in the early 1960s after Rueben um Nyobe had founded his political party union des populations du Cameroun (UPC). The UPC was founded in 1948 and its aim was to lobby for the acquisition of independence and the unity of the two Cameroons. The attempts by the French colonial authorities to suppress the activities of this party lead its members to go underground. They used the forests between Douala and Yaounde to terrorize the towns. In 1955, the Cameroonian bishops in their pastoral letter supported the goal of the UPCs for ‘independence now’ but rejected their violence means. The bishops were also disturbed by the alliance between the UPCs and Russia where Russia wanted to establish a communist and atheistic state in Cameroon. Very few Catholics were members of this movement and majority of its members were Protestants who have lost guidance as well as the traditionalists.
French Cameroon gained her independence on 1st January 1960 while British or Southern Cameroon gained theirs on 1st October 1960. Christians in Cameroon at the time of the first presidential elections in 1960 were divided and this enabled a young Muslim leader Ahmadou Ahidjo to win the polls after independence. The UPCs did not cease their attacks and this almost led to a civil war. Most UPC members were from the Bamelieke ethnic group of Western Cameroon. Catholic clergy who came from this ethnic group decided to support their people. One of these was bishop Albert Ndongmo who was appointed bishop in 1964. The Ahidjo government’s effort to crackdown on the UPCs in the 1970s saw the arrest of its leaders among them, Bishop Ndongmo. He was condemned to death but with the intervention of the Vatican, he was deported. When the rebellion was over, the Bameliekes were reintegrated into the society and thousands of them became Christians. Ahidjo’s rule was generally fair towards Christians. In 1982, Ahidjo resigned and was replaced by his Prime Minister Paul Biya, a Catholic Christians who fulfilled the promise of more democracy. Nowadays, the church leaders have become very vocal in calls for genuine democracy in Cameroon. This has brought about hostilities between the Catholic Church and the state.
Since the mid-seventies, the majority of the Cameroon people are Christians. In one of the three regions, one religious group dominates: in the north, the Muslims are dominant, in the west, the Protestants dominate and in the east, the Catholics are the majority. It is important to recall that by 1900, 95% of the Cameroonians were adherents of their traditional religions but by 1990, only 10% were adherents of the traditional religions. Summarily, by 1990, 23% of the population were adherents of Islam while 65% practiced Christianity. Nowadays, it is possible that the percentage of adherents to traditional religions has reduced drastically and many of them have joined either Islam or Christianity. The Protestant-Catholic relations have not been bad as is the case in some parts of the continent. In 1964, an ecumenical study group, le Cercle d’Études Œcouméniques was began. The Federation of Protestant Churches and the Catholic Episcopal conference supported this effort. In 1990, the Catholic Church celebrated its centenary of presence in Cameroon.
On his welcome speech at the Yaounde airport on his first visit to Cameroon on Saturday 10th August 1985, John Paul II paid tribute to the work of the missionaries and the success of the missionary works and the Church in Cameroon in the following words: ‘the Christian faith was presented to the people of this country at the end of the last century by Protestant and Catholic missionaries. They came without knowing you with the sole desire of sharing with you what they themselves have received as “Good News” and what was the cause of their joy and their salvation: the acceptance of our Saviour Jesus Christ. And the Cameroonians welcomed them. The beginning of Catholic evangelization at Marienberg, Mary’s mountain was very humble, like the little mustard seed of which the Gospel speaks. But this seed was divinely planted and it has brought forth marvelous fruits, the fruits of a Christianity that reflects the character of Africa”.
 Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA pp 261
 Eyongetah & Brain, A HISTORY OF THE CAMEROON pp 76
 Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA pp 754
 id pp 754
 Engelbert Mveng et co, L’EGLISE CATHOLIQUE AU CAMEROUN: 100 ANS D’EVANGELISATION: Album du Centenaire, pp 35
 id pp 11
 Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA pp 266
 id pp 750
 John Baur, 2000 YEARS OF CHRISTIANITY IN AFRICA: An African Church History pp 223
 id pp 223
 Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA pp 266
 John Baur, 2000 YEARS OF CHRISTIANITY IN AFRICA: An African Church History pp 367
 id pp 367
 id pp 367
 Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA pp 756
 Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA pp 369
 id pp 449
 Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA pp 369
 Engelbert Mveng et co, L’EGLISE CATHOLIQUE AU CAMEROUN: 100 ANS D’EVANGELISATION: Album du Centenaire 1890-1990
 id pp 395
 id pp 397
 id pp 398
 Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA pp 368
 Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA pp 368
 John Baur, 2000 YEARS OF CHRISTIANITY IN AFRICA: An African Church History pp 366
 John Paul II, WELCOME SPEECH IN CAMEROON, 10th August 1985 pp 11