A Malawi Church History 1860–2020
Review by Emma Wild-Wood
A MALAWI CHURCH HISTORY 1860 - 2020
Klaus Fiedler, Kenneth R. Ross
This one-volume history of the development of Christianity in Malawi is an excellent introduction to the subject. National historical surveys seem to have gone out of fashion. Yet, they fill the gap between reference volumes that provide only a single chapter on a country and thematic monographs that delve deep into a particular period and set of issues. This book shows why a one-volume national church history remains important. It works chronologically, dividing 160 years into four sections and identifying key themes pertinent to those eras. It is able to acknowledge the contribution of different denominations and provide significant detail on their evolution in Malawi. It places the history of the church in the history of the society and the nation. Furthermore, it uses articles written by Malawians that are not easily accessible elsewhere. It provides an excellent teaching tool: it is written in clear, straightforward prose, with maps, images, and text boxes throughout the book to help readers understand the content.
From the arrival of David Livingstone, the history of the nation of Malawi has been particularly shaped by Christianity. This volume emphasizes the initiative of African Christians in the growth of the church, the role of education and health care in the mission of the church, and theological responses to culture and creation of nationhood. Ross and Fiedler take a deliberate decision to focus on the period from 1960 because of the relatively rich literature on mission history and also because of role of the church in contemporary society. Yet, readers who want a good guide to the early years will find ample information and a helpful list of further reading here. The book recognizes the importance of women’s role in the church and presents understudied examples of Book Reviews 285 women’s leadership. It is positive about church contribution to state and society and notes the global connections. The Presbyterian Church has had a particularly strong role in contributing to the development of Malawi as an independent nation-state. Societal infrastructure, like the establishment and maintenance of schools and hospitals, has also been supported by the Catholic and Anglican Churches, and increasingly by Pentecostal ministries. The activities and perspectives of a growing variety of Christian churches are considered in an ecumenical way as distinct charisms, or gifts, to be recognized and valued as providing different contributions to Malawi. The authors acknowledge that the high level of influence in Malawi’s history means that the Christian churches must take responsibility for some of the ills of Malawi’s population, including the poverty in which many people live and the widespread corruption in governance and finance. They raise theological questions about the past and present relationship between church and state and provide the resources for further reflection on these issues.
The book is written by two Europeans who have spent decades in the country supporting historical and theological education and publishing. It was written in and for Malawi, in conversation with Malawian historians and theologians. It is accompanied by a companion volume, a new and revised version of Christianity in Malawi: A Source book (2020), edited by Ken Ross. The sources are listed at the back of the church history volume but are produced in full in the source book so that the words of historical actors can be read and analyzed on their own terms. The book also provides an accessible introduction to those entirely unfamiliar with Malawi and who require a guide to its Christian history. It is available internationally through African Books Collective, Oxford.
The authors use the framework of the principles of self-governance, self-support, self- propagation, and self-theologizing to show that the church in Malawi has reached maturity. For this reviewer, the notion of coming-of-age seems unhelpful, since, theologically, churches are always in a state of becoming. It is particularly the case when commentary on Africa has often infantilized African actors. This is certainly not the intention of Ross and Fielder, yet it seems important to discuss change, process, development, and growth without using a frame that implies that the past is less than the present. Another minor concern is the limited attention to the interaction of Christianity with other faiths. The book has some consideration of how indigenous religion has influenced Christianity and a brief mention of the growing influence of Islam in the country. However, some greater consideration of religious difference might have helped to address the alarmist rhetoric that can sometimes be heard about Islam and provide a more constructive approached based on historical understanding. These small points should not detract, however, from a book that will ably introduce those unfamiliar with Malawi to its fascinating Christian history and provide those more familiar with new insights, sources, and questions for the future of the church in that country.
This review was originally published in the International Bulletin of Mission Research 46(2).