One of the difficulties that stands in the way of carrying on evangelistic work in a large way in the native reservations and villages of Africa, is the inability of the people to read. Even in the Union of South Africa and in Bechuanaland, where mission schools—and more recently government schools —have been operating for a period of a hundred years and more, there are still large numbers of people who cannot read. And here in Central and Southeast Africa there are many tribes who cannot boast of even one school where they can learn to read. Therefore, before any effective evangelistic work can be carried on successfully, our schools must pioneer the way.
Philip, the evangelist, could do his work with the eunuch because of the eunuch's ability to read for himself. The Bereans "searched the Scriptures daily," and because of this, Paul could do successful evangelistic work for them. Africans steeped in superstition and degradation find it very much more difficult to appreciate sacred things than do those whose forefathers were Christians, and who have refined minds and a cultural background. I do not mean to say that it is absolutely impossible for the former to grasp the truth, because it is never impossible for the Spirit of God to make minds discern the truth.
Some years ago I met one of our young European school inspectors, an earnest evangelist. Between school inspections he went down to a big reservation and held an effort for those who had not come in contact with schools. A few accepted the message, and in due time a young single woman was baptized, along with others who accepted the truth in our school. After her baptism, she continued to practice the same things that she did before baptism. When she was reproved, she replied with a clear conscience, "I was not aware that all I promised at baptism must be continued indefinitely." However, most of those from the school who were baptized became strong charter members of the church there.
Nearly all our African workers were caught in the net of our schools, having attended a mission school, a village school, or a training school. Most of them entered the school for the sole purpose of learning to read and write, with no thought of learning Christianity. But the basis of our educational work is: "The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding." Job 28:28.
In the atmosphere of these Christian centers, before they are aware of it, the students read themselves deep into the sweet tidings of the gospel. The influence of the chapel, the prayer meetings, and the church services enters their lives. The holy fire is kindled in their hearts, and as small fire brands they go out to start small centers of light. In this way, the gospel is promulgated on a stronger, sounder basis than would be possible by endeavoring to convert raw heathen by purely evangelistic methods.
Some of Europe's big cities were once centers of education, where the barbarian white men were taught how to read and write, hand in hand with the gospel. They in turn went out to establish other centers of light, and to teach their cousins in other countries of Europe. Africa is no exception to this rule. It would seem that the evangelization of Africa is destined to go hand in hand with education, for the great commission says: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you."
In the countries of Paul's day and in the civilized countries of the present, as well as in some centers of Africa where a large proportion of the population are able to read, evangelistic efforts and the selling of books must be the means of giving the gospel message. Large portions of Europe, including Italy, Gaul, and Spain, were enlightened countries because of the Jewish and Greek civilizations. But it is not so in the greater part of Africa. Here the school is the first agency of evangelizing the country. It is marvelous how well this agency is doing its work.
It took a thousand years to cover Europe with the gospel, but in these last days it is going with far greater rapidity. "Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased." "For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth." To overlook the importance of strengthening our training institutions, village schools, and, mission schools scattered over the country, would be to greatly weaken our evangelistic work in Africa. Success lies in strengthening these centers.