Clouds of Witnesses: Africans and Empire

Noll & Nystrom, Clouds of WitnessesIn my introduction to this new series blogging through Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (InterVarsity Press), I noted that the authors had made a point of selecting men and women not yet widely known by Christians in the West, and that they faced the challenge of telling stories meant to inspire those who confess Christ without falling into ahistorical (or even semi-historical) hagiography.

Both themes are on display in the stories of two southern African Christians who lived through the height of the European “new” imperialism: Bernard Mizeki and John Chilembwe.

Both men came of age as the British, French, Germans, and other Europeans carved up Africa and imposed structures of formal and informal empire. They entered their years of active ministry when these empires were still in place, but starting to crack: weakened by self-inflicted wounds like World War I and challenged by anti-colonial movements, peaceful and not. A key theme in these two chapters is the relationship of missionaries and their African converts to the imperial project: while some Christian missionaries protested and even obstructed imperialism, others promoted it, or at least let themselves be coopted by it.

We start with Bernard Mizeki, born Mamiyeri Mizeka Gwambe ca. 1861 in a Portuguese colony now known as Mozambique. As an adolescent he sought work in Cape Town, South Africa — the southern anchor of the British Empire in Africa. Then early in his 20s, while attending night school, he encountered the Cowley Fathers, a religious order associated with high-church Anglicanism. Baptized in 1886, he took the name Bernard Mizeki. (Noll and Nystrom note that his baptism took place on the feast day of Perpetua, a Roman African martyred ca. 203, leaving unmentioned the slave Felicitas who shared this martyrdom.)

Mizeki became a lay catechist and translator (by his death, he was proficient in eight African languages, plus three European ones), serving for the last five years of his brief life as a missionary in Mashonaland (now part of Zimbabwe), a place that epitomized the complex relationship between Christianity and empire in the late 19th century:

Elsewhere in southern Africa, missionaries had preceded empire, which led to conflict between the churches and the empire when colonial administrations arrived. In Mashonaland, where empire and church moved into African territory together, the problems were created by how native peoples responded to the incursion of church and empire. (p. 24)

The Anglican bishop who sent Mizeki to the region (G.W.H. Knight-Bruce) had spoken out when the British empire-builder Cecil Rhodes maneuvered to put Mashonaland under his control, but finding that he could not stop the move, the bishop proceeded to go with Mizeki and another African lay catechist into Mashonaland and convinced a Shona chief named Mangwende to let Mizeki build a mission: a hut near the chief’s dwelling that became church, school, and Mizeki’s home.

Shona Healer
A present-day Shona nganga - Creative Commons (Hans Hillewaert)

Mizeki gradually drew villagers to his school, where he taught them that their deity (Mwari) was the God of the Christians, the Father of Jesus Christ. (He also traveled beyond the village and contributed to Seshona translations of the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, the creeds, and biblical excerpts.) Within five years, Mizeki had developed a reputation as a respected teacher and even married into the chief’s clan.

He then moved the mission two miles, intentionally situating it in a grove of trees the Shona believed to be inhabited by spirits: “Locals worried about desecrating this sacred place, but Mizeki forged ahead as part of a systematic plan to reform what he saw as the evil practices of the Shona, including the killing of twin babies, habitual drunkenness, the offering of sacrifices to spirits and the harsh treatment (or murder) of individuals named by the ngangas [traditional healers] as sorcerers” (p. 27).

This move (together with some complicated kinship politics) made Minzeki a target when the Shona joined a revolt against Rhodes’ company in early 1896. When encouraged to take shelter at a fortified mission, Mizeki declined: “Mangwende’s people are suffering. The Bishop has put me here and told me to remain. Until the Bishop returns [he was in Britain, dying of malaria], here I must stay. I cannot leave my people now in a time of such darkness” (quoted on p. 29). The night of June 17, 1896, Mizeki was stabbed by three assassins, but survived long enough to crawl to a nearby spring and tell his pregnant wife, Mutwa, that he wanted to baptize her. According to Mutwa and other witnesses interviewed decades later, the hillside was filled with a noise “like many wings of great birds” and lit up by “a great and brilliant white light” that burned with “a strange red glow” at its center, where Mizeki lay.  When the noise stopped and the light went away, Mizeki was gone.

Writing the account in the 1960s, Jean Farrant concluded, “It is left to the individual Christian mind to accept or reject the supernatural light, but it seems certain that something happened that night which to the Africans was beyond explanation, which frightened them very much, and made a deep impression” (quoted on p. 30). In any event, pilgrims still come to his shrine, about an hour east of Harare.

The commemoration of Mizeki was fraught with political significance that changed over time. In the mid-20th century, he was portrayed by the Cowley Fathers as the model of “the faithful convert, loyal friend and an inspiring Anglican” (and in the 1970s Anglican leaders set up the Bernard Mizeki Guild to try to draw migrant workers being lured by Methodism or AICs), but in the heat of anti-colonialism, he was either rejected as a British collaborator or recast as “a sign of African dignity” whose attempts to equate Mwari with the Christian God seen as “a symbol of his identification with African aspirations” (p. 31). (Last year, the Mizeki shrine became the center of a battle within the Anglican church of Zimbabwe.)

To the north of Zimbabwe, in the small country of Malawi, John Chilembwe proved easier for a post-independence people to accept than his contemporary Mizeki; at the same time, he may be harder for some Christians to treat as a martyr.

John Chilembwe
John Chilembwe and family - chilembwe.com

Chilembwe was born ca. 1870, a member of the Yao people living in the region called Nyasaland by the British (who formally made it their protectorate not long into the 20th century). He initially learned English and encountered Christianity through a local school run by Church of Scotland missionaries, but the formative event in his life came in 1892, when Chilembwe offered to help an iconoclastic Baptist missionary from New Zealand, Joseph Booth.

Chilembwe became a partner in the mission, which was distrusted by Anglican and Presbyterian clergy because Booth’s “Baptist faith was so single-mindedly biblical and so independent” and by British officials “because he promoted African self-sufficiency so vigorously” (p. 37). Booth and Chilembwe taught skills in agriculture and small-scale manufacturing, and in 1897 co-signed the charter of the “African Christian Union,” which sought to unite all African peoples in one nation, give Africans and Europeans equality under the law, promote education and economic development, and secure restitution for the seizure of African land and the infliction of slavery.

Not long after this, Chilembwe joined Booth on a two-year fundraising tour of the United States, where he studied at a Baptist seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia, eventually earning two degrees. At this point, Chilembwe broke with Booth (who had become a Seventh Day Baptist) and secured sponsorship from the National Baptist Convention. Inspired by the strength of independent black churches in the United States (and perhaps by the burgeoning movement of “Ethiopian” churches in southern Africa — i.e., African-controlled congregations that split off from European missionary control and charted their own course), Chilembwe established the Providence Industrial Mission, which expanded to seven sites and hundreds of youth and adult pupils within ten years. Though no longer guided by Booth, it continued to reflect his unusual blend of impulses:

…[the Mission] provided the means for many Africans to move toward economic independence. It also remained consistently marked by conservative Christian ethics, dedicated study of the Bible and strong Baptist principles of congregational independence…. Chilembwe himself regularly preached orthodox Baptist sermons, helped Africans read the Scriptures in English as well as their own languages and maintained high standards of personal morality. He stressed abstinence from alcohol as a negative ethic; positively, he encouraged values of hard work, personal hygiene and self-help. (p. 43)

Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington - Library of Congress

Particularly in the last respect, Chilembwe seems to have been influenced by Booker T. Washington, as he “urged Africans to develop stable habits as a way of securing their place in a world ruled by whites” (p. 44). But however non-radical a mission that focused on literacy and other basic skills may have seemed, Noll and Nystrom believe that Chilembwe also drew from Washington’s great civil rights rival: W.E.B. DuBois, since “From the start, his mission was a thorn in the flesh to colonial administrators. In particular, he complained steadily about thangata, the oppressive practice by which European landowners extracted work from African dependents in lieu of rent.”

In 1909 this dimension of Chilembwe’s ministry was formalized with the founding of what became known as the African Industrial Society, which lobbied for African economic, legal, and educational interests, encouraged professional training, provided a platform from which “Chilembwe constantly berated colonial officials for keeping Africans dependent and poor,” and eventually developed its own militia and war council (headed by Chilembwe).

The outbreak of World War I — which pitted African against African in the service of the British and Germans — combined with poor harvests, famine conditions, and increasing use of the thangata prompted Chilembwe to write an open letter in a local newspaper in November 1914. It opened:

We understand that we have been invited to shed our innocent blood in this world’s war which is now in progress throughout the wide world…. Will there be any good prospects for the natives after the end of the war? Shall we be recognized as anybody in the best interests of civilization and Christianity after the great struggle is ended? (quoted on p. 45)

Like many others during 1914-1918, Chilembwe cast the conflict as a rich man’s war and poor man’s fight: “…the poor Africans who have nothing to own in this world, who in death, leave only a long line of widows and orphans in utter want and dire distress are invited to die for a cause which is not theirs” (p. 45).

While circumstances are not well understood, Chilembwe took leadership of a violent uprising in January 1915. Inspired by John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, Chilembwe’s militia advanced on several estates. In one case, they killed a distant relative of the famous missionary David Livingstone (a distant relative known less for his piety than for whipping his workers and burning down African churches) and displayed his severed head on the altar of the Providence Industrial Mission church. As the rising collapsed, Chilembwe fled for Mozambique, but was shot by African colonial troops. (Many of his followers suffered similar fates, or — like his long-since-ex-partner Booth — they were exiled.)

While his turn to violence is something that church historians continue to struggle to understand (Noll and Nystrom subtitle this chapter, “Holistic Christian and Accidental Rebel”), Chilembwe fit well into the post-colonial narrative: Malawi issued a stamp honoring him not long after independence in 1964; he has been featured on the country’s currency; and January 15 is recognized as John Chilembwe Day.

Next week: the variety of religious revivals led by African Christians.

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