Madagascar is known to many as the Great Red Island, the home to lemurs and chameleons, one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth but also one of the most threatened. It is less known as the home of a large, vibrant, and growing Lutheran church of at least three million members. At the end of October this year, Prof. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson of the Institute spent two weeks at SALT, the 25-year-old graduate seminary of the Malagasy Lutheran Church, teaching a course for master’s level students.
Together with her husband Dr. Andrew Wilson, Prof. Wilson offered an in-depth study of Martin Luther’s writings on the ordained ministry, the priesthood of all believers, and Christian worship, with special attention to Luther’s liturgical reforms. The course began with a review of “what is the gospel?”, drawing on Luther’s explanation of the Creed in the Large Catechism. All of Luther’s theology of the ministry and worship derive from his primary understanding of the gospel, and this allowed students to see how the foundation of church life is in the salvation given to them through Jesus Christ. The method of starting with the gospel and then moving on to topical issues emerges directly out of the Institute staff’s experience teaching Luther’s theology in Wittenberg every November.
However, the Wilsons did not go to Madagascar only to teach, but also to learn. The Malagasy Lutheran Church has developed church offices to suit its particular setting and ministry needs, including catechists, evangelists, and shepherds. This last category is a ministry of healing and exorcism that arose from indigenous Lutheran revival movements with the church. Unlike the fate of most revivals in northern countries, the Malagasy have managed to keep their revivals integrated into the church, to the benefit of both. The success and growth of the church in Madagascar is directly attributed to the revivals and the shepherding ministry, which speaks potently to the needs of the Malagasy people today. It is inspiring to see how Luther’s doctrine of ministry continues to take new forms, even five hundred years later.
Any talk of revival in the Malagasy Lutheran Church also requires a mention of Nenilava (1920–1998), a prophetess and evangelist whose remarkable ministry touched countless people and accounts for perhaps 2/3 of all members in the Lutheran church today. Everywhere you go in Madagascar, people are talking about her, remembering her fondly, testifying to the difference she made in their lives. It is not an exaggeration to say that she is probably the most influential Lutheran woman who has ever lived—even if her reputation is little known outside her own country. We can hope that as we continue to build international and cross-cultural relations, that will begin to change.