Book Review: The Kongolese Saint Anthony

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Christianity has had a long history of being spread throughout the globe, be it through changing doctrinal practices or individual experiences that led a group of people or person to teach its principles to new populations. In this paper, I will analyze a central inner inner-battle, of the Christian faith by reviewing Josh Thornton’s historical book, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706, highlighting the validity of the author’s interpretation of the spread of Christianity in the Kingdom of Kongo. Although Thornton thoroughly dissects the historical events which took place throughout the region in the early eighteenth century, he has difficulty doing so from a Kongolese point of view, utilizing mainly European secondary sources and commentary to depict Kimpa Vita’s rise to power.

In the introduction and opening chapters, Thornton vividly describes the social and cultural settings of the Kingdom of Kongo in the late 1600s, as well as the spectacular rise of Kimpa Vita and her prowess as a religious icon in the region. Somewhat of an African Joan of Arc, Dona Beatriz acquired her religious prowess by leading the movement against the heretical Catholic leaders in the region. Thornton craftily describes her motivation for combating the travesties of the Orthodox Church, highlighting that it was not the threat of slavery that drove Vita and her followers but rather the oppression from religious powers in the region (Thornton 16). This important distinction is well-noted in the author’s account and serves to demonstrate the complexity of the movement. Before Thornton paints the picture of Kimpa Vita as solely being driven by religious intentions, he also offers an illustrious description of everyday life in the Kingdom of Kongo during the time period. 

While the Kingdom of Kongo was a primarily agrarian society, wealth was somewhat more aptly distributed than other countries of similar economic status, and elongated wars were beginning to hamper residents’ enthusiasm of ruling leadership, who undertook such causes. Thornton suggests that “Dona Beatriz might have absorbed the general feeling that wars had gone on too long and that the motives of the participants had gradually crossed the line from upholding their rights to greed and spitefulness,” leading her to seriously consider the motive of her cause (Thornton 25). As such, Kimpa Vita’s retaliation against the Orthodox Church was not something her fellow citizens took lightly, even though many of them joined her cry for help as they were fighting against the very people who had driven them to war in the past. His interpretation of this movement allows the reader to clearly see that the prophet’s intentions were none other than to acquire greater Christian spirit, an important facet of the story.

Later, Thornton goes into great detail about Kimpa Vita’s rise to power herself. He states that the heroine clamored that Saint Anthony of Padua had possessed her and manifested the idea that she was to lead the force against the Orthodoxy that had disenfranchised the Kongolese for years (Thornton 51). In the concluding chapters, similar to the documentation of the story of Joan of Arc, the author then illustrates the young twenty-two-year-old Dona Beatriz’ death at the stake, and the impetus it had on the movement she started. While there was no great longevity of her attack against the Orthodox Church and the secular leaders of the Kongolese region, the Antonian movement (as it was later termed by historians) has been a central part of Christianity in the area, and Dona Beatriz has become a modern-day prophet.

While Thornton’s excellent depiction of Dona Beatriz and her followers yields greater insight into the result of the Antonian movement, his largest flaw stems from his inability to convey their actions through the usage in an Afro-centric manner. By no means should this undermine his work; he articulately demonstrates the impact the prophet had in transforming the Christian religion in the area and even generates a great deal of his book’s factual information from Kongolese documents written by the literate elite who wrote during the time period. However, Thornton struggles to describe how the movement helped shaped others of its kind as well as its impact on the people of Kongo themselves. In essence, while the book succeeds in its presentation of telling the story of Kimpa Vita, it finds its greatest difficulty in illustrating the transformative effects the heroine’s actions had on Kongolese culture after the early eighteenth century, something which would have been benefited by greater primary source documentation.

Work Cited

John Thornton.  The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.  Print.