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A Triangular Conflict: The Nyasaland Protectorate and Two Missions, 1915–33

  • David M. Thompson (a1)


The idea that the churches became agents of empire through their missionary activity is very popular, but it is too simple. Established Churches, such as those of England and Scotland, could certainly be used by government, usually willingly; so could the Roman Catholic Church in the empires of other countries. But the position of the smaller churches, usually with no settler community behind them, was different. This study examines the effects of the Chilembwe Rising of 1915 on the British Churches of Christ mission in Nyasaland (modern Malawi). What is empire? The Colonial Office and the local administration might view a situation in different ways. Their decisions could thus divide native Christians from the UK, and even cause division in the UK church itself, as well as strengthening divisions on the mission field between different churches. Thus, even in the churches, imperial actions could foster the African desire for independence of empire.


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*Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, CB3 0DG. E-mail:


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1 See Stanley, Brian, The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Leicester, 1990), especially 133–90; Porter, Andrew, Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914 (Manchester, 2004), especially 255–330; Cox, Jeffrey, The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700 (Abingdon and New York, 2010), especially 171–212.

2 See the important article by Louise Pirouet, M., ‘East African Christians and World War I’, JAH 19 (1978), 117–30.

3 The post-independence names will be used except in cases such as this one, where a specific institution of government is denoted.

4 Shepperson, George and Price, Thomas, Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915 (Edinburgh, 1958), 7123; see also McCracken, John, A History of Malawi, 1859–1966 (Woodbridge, 2012), 127–46; together with relevant background in idem, Politics and Christianity in Malawi, 1875–1940 (Cambridge, 1977), 207–20; Langworthy, Harry, Africa for the African’; The Life of Joseph Booth (Blantyre, 1996), 190–3.

5 The FMC stated: ‘We do not find the Apostles organized the churches to secure that the Roman Government should restore its territories to former occupiers or interfere with such subjects’: Bible Advocate, 30 March 1906, 203, cf. ibid., 17 August 1906, 517, 523; Langworthy, Africa for the African, 192–3. Although Booth claimed to be a member of a Church of Christ in Birmingham, no record of this has been found.

6 McCracken, Politics and Christianity, 204. Kamwana predicted that Christ would take control of the world in October 1914: see McCracken, John, ed., Voices from the Chilembwe Rising (Oxford, 2015), 27, 207–8. Discrimination against Jehovah's Witnesses continued even after independence in the 1960s: Fiedler, Klaus, ‘Power at the Receiving End: The Jehovah's Witnesses’ Experience in One-Party Malawi’, in Ross, Kenneth R., ed., God, People and Power in Malawi: Democratization in Theological Perspective (Blantyre, 1996), 149–76.

7 For the importance of native evangelists elsewhere in East Africa, see the classic study by Louise Pirouet, M., Black Evangelists: The Spread of Christianity in Uganda 1891–1914 (London, 1978).

8 Philpott, H., ‘Namiwawa Looking Back’, Our Missions Overseas, no. 68 (October 1959), 56.

9 McCracken, History, 130–2.

10 Ibid. 140–1; McCracken regards the rising as a revolt against tangible injustice, rather than a proto-nationalist revolt.

11 The way in which the British Churches of Christ mission became one of the scapegoats for that rising was first described in 1958 by Shepperson and Price, Independent African, 341–55.

12 The Livingstonia missionaries who had been absent in the war also had difficulties in re-establishing their authority afterwards: McCracken, History, 156.

13 Malawi had been settled by Scots, and in 1914 a significant number of members of the Executive Council were associated with the Church of Scotland mission. Institutional links are described by John McCracken, ‘Church and State in Malawi: The Role of the Scottish Presbyterian Missions 1875–1965’, in Bernt Hansen, Holger and Twaddle, Michael, eds, Christian Missionaries & the State in the Third World (Oxford and Athens, OH, 2002), 176–93, especially 181–2. Alexander Hetherwick, who served the Blantyre Mission (1886–1928), was a friend of the governor in 1915, Sir Charles Bowring, and both were Freemasons, the latter having been grand master of the Nyasaland lodge. The influential Livingstonia Mission was associated with, but independent of, the (United) Free Church of Scotland before 1914, but by the 1920s was preparing for union with the Church of Scotland, to form the Church of Central Africa (Presbyterian) in 1924: Stanley, Bible and Flag, 126; Ian and Linden, Jane, Catholics, Peasants and Chewa Resistance in Nyasaland 1889–1939 (London, 1974), 90, 152.

14 Sir Hector Duff, chief secretary (i.e. head of the colonial administration) at the time of the Chilembwe Rising, had been forced to retire from Africa because of ill-health.

15 The Federated Protestant Missions of Nyasaland, formed in 1924, followed an earlier body established in 1904. One aim was to secure ‘comity agreements’ between missions in the same territory to ensure cooperation rather than competition. Their effectiveness in Malawi was weakened by the non-participation of the Roman Catholics and the (Anglican) Universities Mission to Central Africa. Marginal groups such as Seventh-Day Baptists, Churches of Christ and Jehovah's Witnesses were initially excluded.

16 London, SOAS, Churches of Christ Missionary Records [hereafter: C/C Records], Publications, MCM Box 1, FMC Minutes, 21, 20 October 1928 (§§18–20).

17 Resolutions 22 and 23, Churches of Christ Year Book (Birmingham, 1929), 176.

18 SOAS, C/C records, MCM Box 2, FMC Minutes, 26, 15 June 1929.

19 Shepperson and Price, Independent African, 333.

20 Ibid. 374.

21 Ibid. 363; McCracken, History, 112, 143–4, 159–60. McCracken wrongly describes Churches of Christ as ‘predominantly American-based’. There were no American Churches of Christ missionaries before 1939.

22 Several of them had been imprisoned in 1915. The two key Africans were Frederick Nkhonde and Ronald Kaundo. Their prison sentences were eventually commuted, and they were released in 1918 and 1920 respectively, when they immediately resumed their positions of leadership. Significantly, Frederick's account of this meeting was sent via Hollis in Cape Town to William Kempster, who had been collecting funds for Malawi mission work since the early 1920s: see correspondence published in Christian Advocate, 22 August 1930, 530–1. Gray's letter of 9 July 1930 is at ibid. 531; the original is in SOAS, C/C records, Gray papers, PP1, Box A1, ‘Papers relating to dispute with Frederick’.

23 The Bible Advocate began publication as the Apostolic Interpreter. After 1920, the official name for the Churches’ magazine changed from Bible Advocate to the Christian Advocate, and the Apostolic Interpreter took the name Bible Advocate; then it became the Scripture Standard in 1935.

24 Among Churches of Christ ‘open communion’ meant the admission of those baptized as infants, as well as those baptized on confession of faith, whereas ‘closed communion’ meant the admission of those baptized on confession of faith only.

25 SOAS, C/C records, MCM Box 2, FMC Minutes, 6 August 1930, 42; Resolution 35, Churches of Christ Year Book (Birmingham, 1930), 170.

26 Gray, Ernest, The Early History of the Churches of Christ Missionary Work in Nyasaland, Central Africa, 1907–1930 (Cambridge, 1981), 21. Nkhonde is mentioned among Africans from the Churches of Christ mission in the 1915 commission of inquiry, but as Frederick Singani: McCracken, ed., Chilembwe Voices, 432, 441, 496, 613.

27 Two years had been agreed as a minimum at the first Nyasaland Missionary Conference in 1900, before Churches of Christ arrived: McCracken, Politics and Christianity, 187. Hollis's change of policy was acknowledged by Henry Philpott, the third original Churches of Christ missionary, at the inquiry: McCracken, ed., Chilembwe Voices, 434–6.

28 Evidence of Dr Hetherwick and Henry Philpott: McCracken, ed., Chilembwe Voices, 363–4, 428–31, 434–6. For Chisiano, see Open Door, May 1931, 9; he was a catechumen in a Church of Scotland school, but was baptized by Nkhonde in the Zomba district.

29 James Alexander (educated at Dulwich College and the University of Edinburgh) was ordained as a missionary at Blantyre in 1908, became ‘head’ of the mission in 1934, retired in 1938 and died on 6 June 1941: McCracken, ed., Chilembwe Voices, 494; Church of Scotland, Reports to Assembly (Edinburgh, 1934), 654; ibid. 1938, 655; ibid. 1942, 342.

30 What constituted marriage was also a contested area in the East African missions: McCracken, Politics and Christianity, 194–7; more generally, Hastings, Adrian, Christian Marriage in Africa (London, 1973).

31 SOAS, C/C Records: PP 1, Box A1, ‘Memorandum of Facts leading up to the Withdrawal of Ce F. Nkhonde and others from the Churches of Christ Mission, Namiwawa’, E. Gray to L. Grinstead, 17 November 1931; E. Gray to Provincial Commissioner, Blantyre, 6 January 1932.

32 Those belonging to the Federated Missions called Churches of Christ members anthu akunja, meaning ‘the people outside Christianity’: Gray to Grinstead, 17 November 1931.

33 After Nkhonde's death, Masangano formed the ‘African Church of God’: ‘The Stone-Campbell Movement in Africa since the 1920s’, in Newell Williams, D., Allen Foster, Douglas and Blowers, Paul M., eds, The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (St Louis, MO, 2013), 311–43, at 324.

34 Churches of Christ Year Book (Birmingham, 1933), 67.

35 Kempster was appointed goods agent at Bedford in 1931, and became a member of the town and county councils and a magistrate: Scripture Standard 9 (1943), 73–4, 85. It is unclear whether he believed that the FMC was either necessary or desirable for missions overseas; he may well have adopted the anti-institutionalism typical of conservatives in the USA.

36 Fern Avenue was an offshoot of Bathurst Street, the principal conservative Church of Christ in Toronto; such churches opposed missionary societies as unscriptural. After Brown's return to England in 1920, the Canadians offered to take over the Nyasaland mission, which the FMC rejected. Brown played a crucial role in the meeting with Rankin that secured the return of UK missionaries: Butchart, Reuben, The Disciples of Christ in Canada since 1830 (Toronto, ON, 1949), 531–3; Christian Advocate 11 (1931), 99, 115–16.

37 For the change of name, see n. 23 above.

38 Support came through the Foreign Christian Missions Society in Indianapolis, Indiana. For more on the union and the college, see Thompson, David M., Let Sects and Parties Fall: A Short History of the Association of Churches of Christ in Great Britain and Ireland (Birmingham, 1980), 83–5; 109–12, 129–34.

39 Smith's early career was in the shipyards of the North-East; but from 1892, he had advocated treating higher criticism as a friend rather than an enemy: see a series of seven articles on ‘The Higher Criticism’, Young Christian 2 (1892), 104–6, 135–6, 158–60, 175–7, 224–6, 248–50, 270–1.

40 SOAS, C/C Records, MCM Box 2, FMC Minutes, 11 October 1930, 43–4; Christian Advocate, 31 October 1930, 694; ibid., 20 February 1931, 119.

41 Although Nkhonde died in 1935, the issue of admission to communion resurfaced after the Second World War, when the Scripture Standard published a letter from Ronald Kaundo, provoked by an exchange with Wilfred Georgeson at the Blackridge Church of Christ, while he was home on furlough. This restated the partial truths published in the new Bible Advocate in January 1931: Scripture Standard, Supplement, November 1945 (unpaginated), repeating the 1931 material.

42 Mary Bannister's diaries, referred to by Shepperson, remained unlocated in the Edinburgh University Archives until they were catalogued in 2002 as MS 3211 and added to the online listing in 2011 without explanation of their context.

43 Her report to the FMC is in Open Door, no. 64 (August/September 1928), 9–10.

44 Edinburgh, UL, MS 3211, Mary Bannister, Diary, 17 October 1928.

45 Ibid., 15–16 November 1929.

46 Ibid., 15 February 1930.

47 Ibid., 9 May 1930.

48 Ibid., 9 August 1930.

49 SOAS, C/C Records, PP 2 (xiv), 3, Mary Bannister to Clifford Slater, 12 January 1931 (underlining in original).

50 Ibid., PP 1, Box A1, ‘Papers relating to Frederick’, Mary Bannister to Mr and Mrs Gray, January 1932.

51 The Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society was founded in the Church of England in 1922 to resist biblical criticism; Baptists experienced financial difficulties in the late 1920s; even Presbyterian missions steadfastly resisted cuts in expenditure of the kind that meant that Gray could not increase native teachers’ salaries.

52 McCracken, History, 159; Linden and Linden, Catholics, Peasants and Chewa Resistance, 149–60.

53 Hetherwick had scathingly pointed out to the commission of inquiry in 1915 that whereas the government grant in aid for schools per pupil in Cape Colony was 15s 9d, in Nyasaland it was 2d: McCracken, ed., Chilembwe Voices, 374.

54 Ross, Andrew C., Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi (Blantyre, 1996), 183–96; McCracken, Politics and Christianity, 221–36.


A Triangular Conflict: The Nyasaland Protectorate and Two Missions, 1915–33

  • David M. Thompson (a1)


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