Churches of Christ: A History of the Restoration Movement in Malawi 1906-2011
CHURCHES OF CHRIST: HISTORY OF THE RESTORATION MOVEMENT IN MALAWI 1906 - 1981
Mzuni Press, Malawi
Literature about different branches of the Churches of Christ is rare in Malawi and historical writing about these churches is very limited in scope. Yet, branches of the Churches of Christ are spread throughout Malawi and the membership of these churches contribute greatly to the spiritual, educational and healthcare landscapes of Malawi.
This book is important because it covers the history, existence, and growth of several branches of the Churches of Christ found in Malawi. The book also highlights three different pillars of the Churches of Christ Restoration Movement, namely, truth, unity, and evangelism, the pursuit of which has resulted in splits in the restoration movement. It also considers the contributions of different missionaries in various mission stations across Malawi and different views taken by members of the Churches of Christ in regard to other denominations in the country.
Mark Thiesen, the author, is well placed to write this book not only because of his long experience in Malawi but also because he has a keen interest in bridging the gap that exists in so far as the fundamentals and history of the Restoration Movement are concerned. His non-judgemental approach in expressing the views of different church leaders on the three pillars makes him exceptional.
The book consists of six chapters. Chapter One, “The History of the Churches of Christ in America and Britain” covers the following topics: Historical and Theological Background, The Revivals, Churches of Christ in the United States of America and Churches of Christ in Britain. This chapter addresses the origins of the American Restoration Movement and its leaders, including Alexander Campbell, Thomas Campbell, Bartone Stone and others from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean whose aim was “to restore the original Christianity of the New Testament in faith, practice and structure” (18). The founders of the movement felt that the faith that was instituted in the first century church was corrupted first by the Roman Catholic Church then by the Protestant churches (19). The movement had three original aims, namely, “1) restoring primitive New Testament Christianity, 2) achieving Christian unity, and 3) bringing the world to Christ through evangelism” (46). Simply put, the three pillars are: truth, unity and evangelism. Notably, the pillars which were intended to be unifying factors in the West became divisive and this resulted in the formation of branches of the restoration movement in Malawi.
Chapter Two, “Beginnings (1906-1930),” is divided into these subheadings: The Birth of Malawian Churches of Christ, Emergence of more Malawian Leaders, Years of Repression 1915-1923, Churches of Christ Suspected, The Church continues under Persecution and Years of Recovery. In this chapter, the birth of Malawian branches of the Churches of Christ is explained while following the missionaries who established Namiwawa Mission with other local leaders such as Ellerton Kundago and several others. Another important aspect of this chapter is the suspension of missionary work at Namiwawa due to the Chilembwe Rising of 1915. The colonial government suspected that some missionaries and local leaders of the church were involved in or sympathized with the Chilembwe Rising. This resulted in the closure of missionary work at Namiwawa mission.
Chapter Three, “Baptist History of Gowa Mission,” includes the following subheadings: Origins and Establishment, Spiritual Work at Gowa 1895-1914, Leaders, Leadership Training, and Decline of the Baptist Industrial Mission. This chapter explains how the Baptist Industrial Mission (BIM) fared at Gowa Mission and its decline which resulted in it being purchased by the Foreign Mission Committee of Britain Churches of Christ. The transition was done smoothly without any problems.
Chapter Four, “Expansion and Diversification (1930-1960),” covers: The Return of White Missionaries, New Direction of Churches of Christ, Diversification, The African Church of Christ, The Church of God, The Sons of God, Gowa and Namiwawa Missions and other branches. In this chapter, Thiesen explains the division of churches due to a clash of personalities among the leadership as some opted to embrace the “truth pole” in opposition to the elite clergy hierarchy (297). Branches of the Churches of Christ who embraced the “truth pole” viewed other denominations such as the Dutch Reformed Church members as heathens (300) since they were involved in growing, smoking and sniffing tobacco. In addition, this part also affirms the work of other missionaries from the Churches of Christ in Malawi who promoted the “unity pillar” like Ernest Gray who cultivated friendly ties with members of Providence Industrial Church (PIM) to the extent that in 1933 he was asked to deliver a sermon at the dedication of a new PIM church building (368). The chapter concludes by stating that, on one hand, the Churches of Christ in Malawi, the African Churches of Christ, the Church of God inherited centralized forms of church governance established by British missionaries. On the other hand, One Cup Church of Christ and Mpingo wa Khristu vehemently rejected centralized forms of church governance mirroring their American founders (375).
Chapter Five, “Spread across the Nation (1961-1981),” describes several branches, as indicated by the subheadings: Wendewende Mission, One Cup Churches, Mpingo wa Khristu in the Northern Region, Central Region Mpingo wa Khristu, Mpingo wa Khristu in the Southern Region, Churches of Christ in Malawi, African Churches of Christ. The chapter affirms that the above branches of Churches of Christ which had their roots in the work of American missionaries, embraced the “truth pillar” to the core. This led them to view other branches of the same family as heathens and to reject any forms of church “unity.” There were also differences in church administration. For example, Churches of Christ in Malawi, the African Church of Christ and Church of Christ Wendewende Mission had church sessions for planning and decision making while in Mpingo wa Khristu there weren’t any (385). The role of women was visible in the Churches of Christ in Malawi where they took leadership positions while in Mpingo wa Khristu, One Cup Church of Christ, and the African Church of God, the role of women is invisible up to now (573).
Chapter Six, “Assessment and Recent Developments,” summarises elements of the branches of Churches of Christ representing all three pillars of the Restoration Movement – truth, unity and evangelism – that were well established in the country (581). Different opinions on topics such as tobacco, thobwa (local beer), choirs, the use of musical instruments, the role of women in the church, and the use of flowers at funerals caused separation between churches (584).
The author fails to mention that the branch known as Churches of Christ in Malawi also spread to the Central Region especially to the city of Lilongwe during the 1980s. Today it has seven congregations in the city with an average membership of 150. It also has three branches in the northern region, in the city of Mzuzu. Another point that has been overlooked is that, although Mpingo wa Khristu does not pursue the “unity pillar,” nevertheless, due to its work with the community, it is a member of the Christian Hospitals Association of Malawi and Christian Literature Action in Malawi.
Despite these omissions, the book is comprehensive in its coverage and can be highly recommended to readers who are interested in the origins of the different branches of the Churches of Christ found in all corners of Malawi.
Goodwin Zainga, Zomba Theological University, Malawi.
This review was first published in The Journal of African Christian Biography - Dictionary of African Christian Biography 8.2 April 2023 (dacb.org).