Apart from Egypt and the Mediterranean coast (Roman ‘Africa’, on which see the next entry), Christianity had by the 4th cent. penetrated to Nubia (where it died out in the 16th cent.) and Ethiopia, but it did not spread further south until the era of Portuguese expansion in the late 15th cent. In the 16th and 17th cents. it penetrated into the Congo kingdom and took root in the Portuguese colony of Angola, but at the end of the 18th cent. Christianity was restricted to a few coastal areas.
A new era began with the settlements of Black Christians from Nova Scotia in Sierra Leone in 1787 and the missionary advance inland from Cape Town beginning with the arrival there of J. T. van der Kemp in 1799. New missionary societies (the LMS, the CMS, the Holy Ghost Fathers, the White Fathers, etc.) began work in many parts of Africa, though, apart from the extreme south and the Horn, the interior was hardly touched before the last quarter of the 19th cent. The missions founded in 1875 on Lake Malawi and in 1877 in Uganda mark a new beginning. In the next 30 years, with the political ‘Scramble for Africa’, missions were established almost everywhere and Churches grew. In general missionary activity benefited from the conditions of colonial rule, but some missionaries voiced criticism of abuses and in the later colonial period relations were often strained (e.g. in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa). Since political independence they have varied.
From the 1890s African Christians in some countries began to reject missionary control and some aspects of missionary teaching and to form independent Churches. Some of these resulted from secession from a mission Church, remaining broadly similar to the body that had been left. Others were the result of the activity of a ‘prophet’ such as W. W. Harris or S. Kimbangu. Their number increased greatly in the 20th cent. Their character varies, but most are concerned with spiritual healing, including a traditional African interpretation of sickness in terms of spirit possession and witchcraft.
The mainstream Churches mostly moved from White missionary to indigenous Black leadership about the time of the political independence of the countries concerned. Since then (c.1960) the growth of all the Churches has been prodigious.