Professor Philippe Denis was recently honoured at a UKZN Graduation ceremony when he was made a Fellow of the University.
‘I am very glad to join Prof Gerald West and Prof Jonathan Draper, my colleagues at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, and many others in what seems to be a rather select academic club. I take very seriously the role of universities in our society and the need to develop a spirit of critical enquiry among staff and students. If the University recognises my contribution to this task, I am very happy.’
Denis’s main interest is religious history. Since the start of his academic career in Liège, Belgium, in the mid-1970s he has authored or co-authored eight books. He has edited or co-edited 18 books and published more than 120 peer-reviewed articles or chapters of books in his discipline.
He has taught the History of Christianity at UKZN since 1993. During the past 25 years he has been a Visiting Professor in Paris, Louvain, Brussels, Montpellier and Milan.
In the 1970s and 1980s, his main area of expertise was the history of the Reformation in Germany, France and The Netherlands in the 16th and 17th century. He worked on issues of confessional development, church government, biblical exegesis and cultural representations. During the last two decades, while continuing to work in the field of early modern history, he moved to a different area of investigation and adopted a new methodology.
His primary area of research has become the history of indigenous Christianity in southern Africa, mostly but not exclusively in the 19th and 20th centuries. Indigenous Christianity is the manner in which African people have transformed Christian theology and practice over time, sometimes in opposition to the missionaries, and in reference to their indigenous cultural heritage.
Indigenous Christianity is present within and without the boundaries of mission churches. Because the point of view of the indigenous people is insufficiently represented in the written sources – the missionary reports and the colonial archives for example – Denis has developed an interest in oral history. This in turn encouraged him to reflect on issues of memory and resilience. Part of his work belongs to the emerging field of memory studies.
This work led to the creation in the mid-1990s of the Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa, which Denis has developed with the assistance of doctoral and/or post-doctoral students, colleagues and staff members active in the disciplines of Religion and Theology, Historical Studies, Social Work and of Psychology.
Denis is currently the Chairperson of the Church History Society of Southern Africa and is also a member of the SA Historical Society.
He has been an Associate Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium since 2006 and attends their meetings on regular occasions. Since 2009 he has been a member of the Editorial Board of the Louvain Journal of Church History and of the Scientific Committee of the Foundation of Religious Sciences of Bologna.