The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Context

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The Congo

Colony and Crisis

The Poisonwood Bible is set in the Congo, and the characters' life stories become intertwined with the country's history.

The Congo takes its name from the Kingdom of the Kongo, an African kingdom that existed long before Europeans visited the continent. The slave trade took away large numbers of young Africans, a practice that gradually decimated the kingdom. King Leopold II of Belgium claimed the "Congo Free State" in 1885 during the colonial period so he could profit from its natural resources. In his eagerness to maximize profits, however, he encouraged outrageous abuses against the Congolese people, including cutting off the hands of workers—even children—who failed to comply with orders. The Belgian Parliament eventually purchased the huge area, many times larger than Belgium itself, from the king and renamed it the Belgian Congo in 1908.

Some of the worst abuses were controlled, but the Belgians continued to benefit from the Congo's vast natural resources, particularly during the two world wars. The Belgians took a paternalistic approach to the Congolese people, believing them to be incompetent and unfit for self-rule. After World War I (1914–18), many European and American companies began to invest in the Congo. Even after World War II (1939–45), the Belgians insisted the Congolese people would not want freedom.

But not surprisingly, the Congolese people had been fighting for self-rule since the beginning of the Congo Free State. In 1958 they created their first nationwide party, led by Patrice Lumumba. After a series of riots in the capital of Leopoldville (later called Kinshasa), the Belgians abruptly announced the Congo would become a liberated nation on June 30, 1960. Only a few days after independence was declared, the Congolese army mutinied, largely because of outside influence and bribes to military officers. Belgium sent soldiers in, ostensibly to protect Belgian citizens who still lived there. Lumumba, the new prime minister, fought with the new president, Joseph Kasavubu, each man claiming he was the rightful leader of the new nation. One of the new country's provinces seceded. The president asked the United Nations (UN) to help keep the peace, but the UN did not follow Lumumba's orders. Angry, he invited the Soviet Union to assist him in controlling the country. During this early Cold War era in American and Soviet relations (1947–91), Lumumba's willingness to speak to the communist state made him seem dangerous to the American government.

U.S. Interference in the Congo

Along with others, American businesses had been in the Congo for many years. American involvement increased in the mid-20th century, when the Congo became a source of uranium needed to build atomic bombs. Because of the Cold War politics, American leaders believed they could not allow the Congo's resources to fall into the control of the Soviet Union. Therefore the Congolese could not be permitted to control their own resources even if they were said to be independent.

The new Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba tried to develop a unified nation from the various tribes of the Congo. To him, self-determination included the ability to choose how to distribute resources. Officials in the American-led West disagreed, and they intervened to change the situation.

Lumumba was facing a difficult task in the enormous country, but the Western countries gave him no chance to tackle it. Outside forces began undermining Lumumba before independence had even been declared. The American government feared Lumumba would permit the Soviets to take over the country. They offered support to his rivals, including Colonel Joseph Mobutu of the Congolese National Army. When the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) warned Mobutu of an assassination plot against him, Mobutu blamed Lumumba. Lumumba was imprisoned and ultimately executed by Mobutu's allies in 1961. Years later, in 1975, a U.S. Senate committee, headed by Senator Frank Church and formed to investigate intelligence abuses, revealed that President Eisenhower had personally expressed an interest in having Lumumba assassinated. These events play an important role in The Poisonwood Bible, as Anatole is a Lumumba supporter, and the Price girls accidentally learn about President Eisenhower's desire for Lumumba's death.

The Congo and Zaire

Colonel Mobutu eventually took control of the entire Congo. To "reclaim" the country, he changed its name, eliminating its westernized history. The country became Zaire, and the capital city of Leopoldville became Kinshasa. Today the country is the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mobutu maintained despotic control of the country until the mid-1990s. His long rule was notorious for runaway personal and political corruption into the billions of dollars. His death (1997) is briefly referenced near the end of the novel. However, his tumultuous legacy for the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues, especially as other nearby African countries suffer famine, civil war, and genocide.

Missionary Theology

The novel follows the Price family, missionaries working in the Congo. In the Christian gospels, Jesus instructs his followers to talk about their faith to nonbelievers, making missionizing a very important part of spreading the religion. Many churches provide financial support for people to preach and work in communities around the world. Missionaries educate people about their religion and help in other ways, such as providing clothes, food, or medical supplies. In return for these efforts, missionaries generally receive support from their faith community, such as housing, financial assistance, or other donations.

For most Christian denominations, baptism is an important ritual that represents personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Baptizing new believers would be the first step to creating a new congregation and saving their souls, which is one reason Nathan Price is so insistent on it.

Nathan repeatedly bases sermons on the Apocrypha (meaning "hidden"), certain books of the Bible that not everyone agrees are religiously valid. Martin Luther, the 16th-century founder of the Protestant Reformation that broke with the Catholic Church over disagreements in doctrine, argued that the Apocrypha, while not God-inspired, still offered valuable religious ideas and should be studied. A minister who chooses to preach from the Apocrypha, as Nathan does, feels strongly about his beliefs and doesn't take advice from outside authorities.

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