Theological Research on a Smartphone: A Tale of an African Theology Student

Joseph Bosco Bangura | August 2021

There was once a final-year student at a theological college in the West African sub-region. The student needed to take and pass one last course in the Spiritual Formation disciplines at the college’s undergraduate program. The task specified in the course description required the student to write a personal reflection paper that accounted for the life and ministry of “Holy” James Johnson’ (c. 1836–1917).

The paper was to account for how Johnson’s resilience and faith not only motivated him to use his new-found freedom from slavery and access to Western education he had received in Sierra Leone to engage in missionary expeditions with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in West Africa, but also laid the early foundations of the grassroots contributions to Christian theologizing that would later become part of the concerns addressed by the study of African Theology. Given that the local library at the college where the student was enrolled was rather ill-equipped, the student used WhatsApp to contact a cousin who was studying history and political science at the main university in the capital, asking for resources to help with the assignment.

The reply the student received was disappointing, to say the least. It was not only made clear that there were no physical resources such as printed books or journals about “Holy” James Johnson, but that the university library also had no subscriptions to online portals of theology journals where appropriate research materials on the topic could have been sourced. The student was advised that the next best option was to either use a smart phone and access the internet or contact a well-equipped theological library elsewhere, preferably outside the country. By doing so, the student was advised, the relevant materials might be found to help complete the assignment in time for graduation. Being a wise and discerning learner, and having access to a smartphone, the student used keywords such as “Holy” James Johnson,” “liberated African slaves,” and “CMS in West Africa” to search the internet. This simple search led the student to relevant and credible online research materials that dealt specifically with “Holy” James Johnson and the CMS missionary engagements in West Africa. For instance, the student found sources such as:

Hanciles, Jehu J. “The Legacy of James Johnson.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21 no. 4 (October 1997): 162–167. http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/1997-04/1997-04-contents.html.

Lipschutz, Mark R. and R. Kent Rasmussen. “Johnson, James ‘Holy’ (B).” Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Accessed 31 July, 2021. https://dacb.org/stories/sierra-leone/johnson1-james/.

Nmah, P. E. and L. K. Nwadialor. “Holy Johnson’s Patriotism: An Ethical Challenge to Nigerians.” African Research Review 40, no. 4 (October 2010): 123–135. https://doi.org/10.4314/afrrev.v4i4.69214.

So, with the help of publicly available online resources – which appeared to be unknown to the personnel at the university’s faculty of arts library in the main city – the student was able to write a whole research paper using freely available online resources, which were accessed using a smartphone. Although the initial response the student received from the city librarian was disappointing, the student wisely heeded the advice to access the internet to find good resources. Imagine for a moment if this was a sloppy student. That student would have simply used the few outdated textbooks available at the local library or materials harvested from less credible online sources to write the paper. Indeed, one could affirm that nowadays, theological research can begin from a smartphone in the hands of a student in rural Africa and lead to the discovery of many freely available peer-reviewed and academic resources online.

Picture: Photograph of Lagos Mission in 1885. Holy James Johnson is the second from the right in the middle row.

Dr Bosco Bangura serves as Assistant Anglophone Editor of African Theology Worldwide and Senior Researcher in Missiology and African Pentecostalism at the Protestant Theological University (Groningen, Netherlands) and the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit (Leuven, Belgium).

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