Review of Paul Grant, Healing and Power in Ghana: Early Indigenous Expressions of Christianity

Author: Ebenezer Ayesu
Published: Summer–Fall 2021

MD 12.2

Article Type: Book Review

Paul Grant. Healing and Power in Ghana: Early Indigenous Expressions of Christianity. Baylor University Press, 2020. Hardcover. 341 pp. $60.00.

The title of the book, though broad, matches with the extensive content in this well-researched and important addition to the history of Christianity in Ghana. Paul Grant, a lecturer in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides an in-depth understanding of pioneering Ghanaian expressions in the face of a new religion brought by European missionaries. He presents the reception of Christianity by inhabitants of the kingdom of Akuapem as a veritable case study of the reformulation of Christianity into useful tools of social and physical healing as it competed and compromised with long-existing sociocultural practices and belief systems. Thus he argues for a pervasive indigenous form of Christianity establishing itself in the nineteenth century that was “epistemologically and ontologically continuous with Pentecostalism” that has come to dominate Christianity’s African ascendence in the twentieth century (3).

Grant scores high points in his discussion of a number of issues. First, he insightfully introduces the context of the Akwamu kingdom that ruled in Ghana (c. 1600–1730). Incidentally, the beginnings of the Basel mission in Akuapem coincided with attempts by the Akuapem state to sustain itself by preserving the Akan-type chieftaincy. The chieftaincy had been established in the 1730s following the defeat of the Akwamu Kingdom. Thus the success of the missionary work in Akuapem in particular and in southern Gold Coast in general was, in part, a result of the people recognizing the benefits derived from the mission agents toward the ongoing political and social evolution of Akuapem. This is best understood from Grant’s insightful discussion of hitherto obscure aspects of Akwamu’s high-handedness in the treatment of its subjects, the Guan communities on the Akuapem hills. In addition, Grant’s penetrating explanation regarding the relocation of the Akwamu capital from its former place at Nyanawase nearer to the hills (Aburi) proves more illuminating than arguments made by earlier writers (e.g., Ivor Wilks and Kwamena-Poh) who postulated a political reason as a result of a battle for succession between Basua and Addo. While the capital’s original location at Nyanawase was conducive to the Akwamu trade in gold, the shift to the hills provided a good opportunity for the state to make more profit from the slave trade; hence, the relocation in spite of Addo and his forces’ victory over Basua.

Second, Grant sheds new light on historical figures and customs. For example, he illuminates the life and contributions of Okuapehene Addo Dankwa I (1816–1836), the Akuapem ruler who welcomed the consequential Basel missionaries. Other scholars have portrayed him as a weakling and continually challenged by his own subjects, but Grant shows that some aspects of his activities prove otherwise. For instance, his performance of rituals to invoke rains in his state certainly demonstrated that he fulfilled his duties as the paramount ruler of the Akuapem state. Grant is able to explain various Akuapem rituals, most of which were performed secretly. These included human sacrifice before, during, and after the reign of King Kwadade I (1846–1866). His accounts of certain chiefly titles and their functions are also well explained. Above all, he establishes firmly the fact that African Christians expected deeper, more practical engagement between orthodox forms of practices and everyday realities, and this accounted for the initial setbacks the early missionaries encountered in their efforts to convert Africans to Christianity.

Third, Grant’s painstaking attempt to distinguish between the Akan and Guan cosmology at the formation of the Akuapem state brings to the fore some basic differences between the Akan members of Akuapem society vis-à-vis their Guan counterparts. Such important nuances are most often not seen or are ignored by most scholars. Understandably, the Akuapem people in general make reference to “one another” as menua (kinsman), a form of address which would seemingly indicate the state was made up of two distinct groups (i.e. Akan and Guan) when it actually included many other, lesser-known people of different regions.

Additionally, Grant provides the beginnings of Akuapem’s transition from a traditional African kingdom into a society syncretizing with Christianity and colonialism. He wisely traces the root cause of the development to the emergence of—for want of a better expression—the “post-Riis era,” that is, the period of young missionaries and colonial institutions and their officials. Thus, Akuapem society became the host of foreign agents (i.e., Christians/Colonialists) who were convinced of “their right and responsibility to impose on indigenous social life” (113). The success of their work was made possible–in my view, but somewhat contrary to Grant’s appraisal–by the flexibility of the Akuapem (and to a large extent, the broader Ghanaian) sociocultural practices and belief systems. Such flexibility made it possible for the people to embrace, adopt, and adapt new things, including religious beliefs and practices.

I noticed a factual error in the dating of Akuapem Odwira (see last paragraph on p. 11). It should read Akuapem Odwita was only nine years (and not seven years). Historically, Akuapem Odwira was introduced after the Akatamanso War of 1826 while Riss arrived on the Gold Coast in 1832 and established the Basel mission in Akuapem in 1835.

Grant’s excellent exposition is highly recommended as a source for scholars and students of the history of Christianity, cross-cultural studies, comparative religion, sociocultural and general studies on Africa.

Ebenezer Ayesu

Head of Department, General Studies

Heritage Christian College

Accra, Ghana