Showalter: Stover Kulp, Anabaptist
I love watching God surprise me. Recently I was asked to respond to a scholarly paper in an Asian conference. Written and presented by a Nigerian, the paper explored the history of the Kanuri people of West Africa.
The researcher described a tradition that the Kanuri people migrated from the Sudan (Nubia) in eastern Africa in millennia past. Then he fast-forwarded to a mere 300 years ago.
“Members of the ancient Nubian church were scattered from their homeland, and some found their way to Rome,” he said. “They talked about the unevangelized Kanuri of Nigeria, and much later a Roman Catholic missioner traveled across the Sahara and visited them. But no church was planted.”
He went on. “Still later (1884) an expatriate Kanuri Christian tried to get back to his people with the good news, but he died on the way.”
Then came my head-spinner. “Finally, in 1923 Stover Kulp, an Anabaptist from Pennsylvania, came to Nigeria and planted the first Christian church among the Kanuri.”
Kanuri, Nubia. Nigeria. 1923. Stover Kulp. Anabaptist.
I knew the Nubian church was an ancient apostolic church, standing alongside the Egyptians, North Africans and Ethiopians as a member of the African Christian community that grew up quickly in the first 300 years after Pentecost. I knew the Nubian church had lasted until the 1700s, when it was finally scattered and disappeared.
I knew, too, there was evidence the Bible had early on been translated into the Nubian tongue. I was amazed there was such a long-lasting Christian community between Egypt and Ethiopia — one most Westerners had never heard of.
I also knew the Church of the Brethren, a member of the global Anabaptist family, was strong in northern Nigeria. I knew they are a suffering church. Here, too, I wanted to learn more.
Now suddenly the circuit lights were blinking. I saw that the ancient Nubian church did not die in the 1700s. Remnants were traveling to Rome from the Sudan. There were connections between Kanuri in Sudan and Nigeria.
And in a flash of joy I learned an Anabaptist missionary had planted the first known church among the Kanuri.
Each time I hear a story of the mission dynamic in the nonstate churches of Europe before 1800, and in their spiritual descendants, I rejoice. It’s a bit of a family thing, I guess.
Yet it’s more than family interest. Mission has always been accompanied by suffering. The nonstate churches of Europe, including the Anabaptists, laid foundations for the global missionary movement of the past 300 years. As a result, they suffered, immensely.
Today, the suffering continues. The Boko Haram terrorist group was born among the Kanuri. The Church of the Brethren in northern Nigeria, birthed in the witness of “Stover Kulp, Anabaptist,” carries a witness of suffering love. Churches and homes lie in ashes, along with thousands of martyrs. Yet their love in mission is unbroken.
A few weeks after the Asian conference, I sat reflecting with a Sudanese friend. “No, the ancient Nubian church never died,” he said. “They still gather for worship. Some are very traditional; some have been renewed. They are there. I know them.”
“But Western historians who mention it at all say it died in the 1700s.”
“I guess they don’t know.”
It made me wonder what else we don’t know.
Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.
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