Professor Lamin Sanneh, the world’s leading expert on Christianity and Islam in Africa and a friend of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST) passed away at the age of 76 on Sunday, January 6, 2019. He was the guest speaker of the 2009 Frumentius Lecture series at EGST on the theme of Christian Identity and Nationalism and reference member for EGST. According to Dean Greg Sterling of Yale Divinity School, the sudden death of Lamin was attributed to an abrupt stroke.
As recalled by Dr. Desta Heliso, former Director of EGST, ‘his relationship with EGST goes back to 2007, when the late Tom Oden brought African and other scholars to Addis Ababa for the first workshop organised by the Centre for Early African Christianity. EGST’s representatives participated in the workshop and Prof Sanneh was one of the speakers. That prompted the leaders of EGST to invite Prof Sanneh to deliver the 2009 Frumentius Lectures. Since then, he has remained a friend of EGST. He invited EGST to become part of Church and Society workshops, which he established in 2010 and as a result of which the Accra Charter of Religious Freedom and Citizenship was published. He then asked EGST to host one of the workshops in 2012, which EGST happily did. A few years ago, Prof Sanneh had agreed to become a reference person for EGST in its overseas activities and relationships. This showed how much he cared about EGST and its vision.’
Remembering Prof Sanneh’s role, Dr Desta Heliso recollected that ‘it is a huge loss for Africa and the world.’ ‘His sudden death is a huge loss for everyone; primarily, of course, for his family and close friends but also for Africa and the world. African scholars like myself will surely miss his intellectual example about what is possible and his personal encouragement for us to keep going in spite of all the challenges faced in Africa. When I last saw Lamin in November 2018 during my visit to New Haven and Yale Divinity School, as we said goodbye to each other, he said to me ‘keep the flag flying high’. He certainly kept the flag flying high until his death, as a scholar and a human being, whose Christian convictions shaped his thinking and living’.
According to sources from Christianity Today and Yale University, ‘Over his 30-year career at Yale Divinity School as well as stints at the University of London and two Pontifical Commissions, Professor Lamin brought World Christianity to the forefront, drawing a global network of scholars and friends around his scholarship in the fields of African history, abolitionism, and Christian-Muslim relations’ Christianity Today underlined.
In the words of J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, President of Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Ghana, ‘The Sanneh Institute at the University of Ghana in Accra, which was announced last year in recognition of Professor Sanneh’s illustrious academic career, will strive to continue his mission of offering scholarship as a tribute to God with the other within hearing distance.’
Life and Works
The following profile of the late Prof. Sannah is taken from excerpts as posted by Greg Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School
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.
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.’
According to statement by Dean Greg of Yale Divinity School, the funeral Mass for Lamin Sanneh will take place on Saturday January 12, 11 a.m., at Marquand Chapel, New Haven, CT, USA.
In tribute of the late scholar, EGST extends condolences to his family, friends and institutions grieving the loss of Professor Lamin Sanneh, 1942-2019.