Project Canterbury

The Life of Charles Alan Smythies
Bishop of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa

By Gertrude Ward

Edited by Edward Francis Russell, M.A.

London: Offices of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa, 1899.

Chapter X. In England, 1890

FOR many years it had been recognised by thoughtful residents in Africa that if the Universities' Mission was to succeed in civilising and Christianising the natives in large numbers, the work must depend mainly on the natives themselves. For the climate of those parts of Africa in which the sphere of the Mission lies, while not being so 'deadly' as many people suppose, is yet a climate which diminishes the strength and shortens the life of most Europeans to a degree that renders it unlikely that the Mission will ever be able to maintain a European staff large enough to work the wide area open before it; and for this climatic reason, if for no other, the main energies of the Mission have been devoted to educating the younger generation in order that they may eventually themselves build up the Church of Africa amongst their own people.

But the work is slow. Even in a settled country, with its centuries of Christian tradition, its educated public opinion, and its adequate provision of buildings and teachers, the process of educating a generation is a slow one, and the number of those who show conspicuous ability is small in proportion to the number who pass through school and college; while the number of those who, from being street-waifs or unlettered country lads, rise to be schoolmasters or clergy is of course infinitely less. Yet this task--the task of training raw natives of Africa to be the pioneers of Christianity in that continent--is what the Universities' Mission has set itself to do, and what with patient, laborious toil it continues to do, not expecting rapid results, but content to let one generation sow what another will reap. When it is remembered that in Africa there is no 'School Board,' that no sort of compulsion exists for making children come to school, that often great opposition to their coming is raised by their parents, that in most schools the children do not begin to attend till they are ten or older, and that when they come their untrained minds have to take in and assimilate a whole world of new ideas, it can readily be imagined that even the mere book-work of a school course is slow, and that many boys and girls never advance beyond the elementary stage. And when it is further remembered that the high moral standard demanded by the Christian religion and aimed at by the Universities' Mission is in any country difficult to maintain, and in Africa supremely difficult, it might well be asked whether this task of producing a native ministry, intellectually and morally efficient, is not the dream of enthusiasts, too costly, too impracticable for fulfilment.

The first beginning of an answer to such questions was given at the opening of the year 1890, when Bishop Smythies ordained the first native priest of the Mission.

Kiungani, the 'heart of the Mission,' as the college has been called, had gone on with its slow sifting process, had weeded out the failures, had separated and otherwise provided for those who had no aptitude for books, had pushed forward the higher education of the most promising, had tested the earnestness of the selected, and had at last, out of its miscellaneous material, produced a man who satisfied those who had watched him from childhood that he had a true vocation. On January 25 Cecil Majaliwa was ordained priest. [At the present time (1898) the Universities' Mission numbers thirteen native clergy--four priests and nine deacons.]

The Bishop had hastened back to Zanzibar for this ordination, and noted on arriving:

Quite a large fleet has assembled here--about eighteen English ships--to show, I suppose, that England means something this time in re Portugal.

Four of the naval chaplains of these ships came on shore and were present at the impressive service in the Cathedral, joining with the Bishop in the laying on of hands. The further episcopal work he had contemplated in Zanzibar was almost immediately afterwards cut short by an attack of fever, longer and more severe than any he had yet had, and, although it was but fifteen months since he left England, the doctor ordered him home at once. He therefore sailed for Naples, stayed in Italy for a few weeks, and reached England, already much better, on April 26.

Within a month of the Bishop's arrival, the twenty-ninth anniversary of the Mission was held, and shortly afterwards the Universities of Oxford and Durham conferred on him the honorary degree of D.D. The summer months were occupied in preaching and speaking on behalf of the Mission, and in October he spoke at the Church Congress. This speech, on methods of work in Africa, so exactly expresses the policy he prescribed for the Mission that parts of it are here given:

With your Lordship's permission I will speak instead of reading, and I will confine myself to that part of Africa with which I am most acquainted. Since I have been in Africa, during the last six years, there has been such an advance, in that small part of the great continent into which the influence of the Universities' Mission extends, as to give us great hope for the extension of missionary work far and wide in the future. Owing very much to the exertions of my predecessor, the great Bishop Steere, and those who have been trained by him, already the whole of the Bible has been translated into Swahili, the coast language. Also with the help of those who assist in this work, notably Mr Madan, Senior Student of Christ Church, Oxford, who gives up his whole time to it, there are continually being issued from our press in Zanzibar educational works translated into that language. The initial difficulty is therefore got over. Though we have very many languages, still we are able, with the help of these translations into Swahili, to make translations into other languages much more easily, as the necessity may arise. Our work in Zanzibar, I am sorry to say, is not very greatly amongst those who live in the island, but principally amongst those whom we receive from Her Majesty's Consuls, as slaves freed from the slave ships and put under our care. However, in using these freed slaves for the purpose of extending missionary work in Africa, great advance has certainly been made. When I went to Zanzibar I found, for instance, that all classes of boys were mingled together in one school. Now the industrial boys are separated, and we are able to give more particular attention to those whom we hope to train to be the future teachers and missionaries to their fellow-countrymen on the mainland. We have formed a guild of some twenty-four or twenty-five boys, who have come forward voluntarily to say that they wish to be trained for that work. They are as yet young, and the work is only tentative. Still, from having watched the characters of these young men, we are satisfied that there is great promise for the future. I had this year the great happiness of ordaining our first native priest. He came to us as a little freed slave boy, and we watched his life ever since. When I went last year to the station up country, where I had sent him to open a new station, because the chief alone of his people was a Christian, I found that he had more converts prepared for baptism and confirmation than I should have expected from an English missionary in the same circumstances.

We are more and more convinced, as years go on, that if Africans are to be converted in any large numbers it must be by the ministry of Africans themselves. It is unfortunately at a very great sacrifice of life that we English missionaries work in that country. It has yet to be proved whether Englishmen or Germans can live in many parts. Large spaces have been marked off on the map of Africa, indicating the sphere of influence of this or that Power, but as yet there is a mere handful of Europeans in the country. With all the difficulties that surround the life of Europeans in these regions, the great point, therefore, to which we must turn our attention is the training of an African ministry. Many things have been said as to the capacity and the stability of the Africans, as if it were a matter of the most remote possibility that we could accomplish with success this work of training up African missionaries; but from what I have seen I cannot at all agree with the apprehensions I have heard expressed. Certainly as interpreters Africans are exceedingly able. I have been accustomed to use one man as an interpreter--formerly a freed slave--who will listen to me preaching a sermon in English for twenty or twenty-five minutes, and then preach that sermon himself to his fellow-countrymen, in any one of three African languages, with earnestness and eloquence. From what I have seen of these young men who have been trained in our schools, I should say that they will certainly preach with more vigour and more power than the ordinary English clergyman when he begins the work of his ministry. But if we are to train an African clergy we must appeal to the Church of this country to give us the right kind of men to place at the head of our theological schools in Africa. We do not want men of any less efficiency than those who are chosen to be at the head of theological colleges and to train our clergy at home. Men of less efficiency will not do. We rather want men who have more efficiency even than those at home, because the material they have to work on is more in the raw. Fortunately, so far as the little sphere of our work goes, God has granted us hitherto such men. It depends solely upon the supply being continued whether there will be a firmly established and efficient ministry or not.

As an illustration of the way in which already we are using freed slaves brought up in our schools for this work, I may point to what has been done on Lake Nyasa. When I first went up there, there was no missionary, there was no missionary organisation, and not a single convert on the east side of the lake (on the other side Scotch missionaries have been working for many years). Last year I visited our work there, and this is what I found on the little island of Likoma, which we have chosen for our head-quarters. There is a boys' school under native teachers and English missionaries, a girls' school under two English ladies, with all the necessary buildings--church, schools, &c.--primitive, but sufficient. There is also a Mission steamer, which carries the English missionaries round to visit the different places on the shores of the lake. You must understand that these towns are built in most unhealthy situations, generally on a sand-bank with a marsh behind, and it would be almost certainly fatal to the life of any European to try to live in them. But by means of the Mission steamer, given to us in answer to the appeal of one very self-denying missionary, Mr. Johnson, who had lived a long time alone amongst the natives and given up his life to them we are able to work efficiently in those places where no English missionary could hope to live for any length of time. Every year we send up from Zanzibar a band of trained teachers, who open schools in these towns wherever the chiefs and people ask for them, while the English missionary periodically visits them in the steamer, superintends the work, and gathers together converts and inquirers for instruction. Such is the work which we have already seen begun and going on during the last few years. By-and-by, if we find that these teachers stand the test of the terrible temptations which surround them in the midst of a heathen population, those who are most capable will be sent back to the island of Zanzibar to be prepared for ordination--some as deacons only, others, we hope, eventually as priests.

In considering what is the best way of approaching the Africans, I think that we ought to dismiss altogether from our minds that rather fascinating idea of a Christian village in a healthy situation, drawing people from all parts to live under the presiding genius of the missionary. I am convinced myself that such a system is an utterly false one. It presents a very fair outside picture, but what does it mean? It means that all the 'ne'er-do-weels,' all the people who are discontented with their own chiefs and with their own political conditions, would assemble together under the presidency of the missionary, who is at once elevated into the position of a chief himself, and becomes responsible for the well-being of the people under his care. In these circumstances he will inevitably come into collision with the natural rulers in his neighbourhood. Such a system must strike at one of the first principles of missionary work--viz. that the missionary should not assume civil power more than is necessary, or in any way acquire the position of a chief in the country. We have already tried having a freed-slave village in the middle of Africa, and everybody thought at first that it was a very promising experiment; but we have had to give it up because of this very thing. The missionary found himself looked upon as a chief, and held responsible for the good con duct of the people, without any police or army at his back to support his position and uphold his jurisdiction. Nothing could be a greater hindrance to his proper spiritual work. I am quite sure the true way is to go to the tribes where we find them, to uphold the authority of the chief, to try to instil into his mind Christian principles, and to remind him continually that he holds his power from God, and is bound to give an account to Him for the way in which he uses it.

The spiritual state of these people would not seem to oppose many obstacles to Christianity No doubt wherever Mahom-medanism exists there is a great additional obstacle. We do not find that it has generally a strong hold on the people coming from the coast. These people are not idolaters. They may, perhaps, be described as in this position--they believe in the devil, and know nothing about God. That is hardly their fault. They will say, 'How can we know anything about God? Nobody has ever been to tell us.' Not knowing anything of a greater power for good, they believe that this great power of evil is always working against them, and always has to be propitiated. Hence all the terrible crimes of heathenism. If anybody dies, his relations go at once to the 'medicine man,' and ask who has bewitched their friend and caused his death, and terrible crimes are the result. The progress of Christianity must be slow, because we must begin at the beginning, and be very careful to see that they do not profess Christianity merely owing to the influence of that superior civilisation with which we go to them, and which must naturally have a very great influence over them. Therefore, some long time must elapse before people are baptized. They must be tested in many ways to show that they know what they are going to profess, that the faith has really entered into their hearts, and that they are likely to live really Christian lives. I would say also that I think a merely emotional religion, or a religion a large part of which is emotional, would be very injurious to them. In the infancy of their Christianity they need a strong discipline on the part of the Church. They need to have the laws of morality instilled effectually into their minds, or else we shall be sure to produce a sort of Antinomianism with a varnish of Christianity. It is not difficult to secure an outward compliance with Christianity. Very likely, for instance, an Englishman would be struck by the reverence of our boys at church; but it must be remembered that it is very easy for an African boy to sit still and be quiet compared with an English boy. What we have to do is to take care of their morality, to take care that they understand that when they give in their allegiance to Christ it is that He may help them to live a better, purer, holier life. I would say, then, that the utmost care has to be taken that all impurity of every kind, such as polygamy, is excluded from the Christian Church. The atmosphere is laden with impurity, and if once polygamy were admitted true Christianity would become impossible.

Missionary work in our part of Africa is now passing through a crisis. We have to ask ourselves the question, Is it possible for missionaries to work outside of the sphere of British influence? Because by recent changes we find a good deal of our work under the spheres of German and Portuguese influence. I am obliged to say to all suggestions that we must contemplate the possibility of retiring from those spheres, that it is utterly impossible for us to think of doing so. To adopt such a course ought to cover us with disgrace before our countrymen. It could never have the approval of our own consciences, and it would rightly make us appear to our children in Africa as traitors. And, as for the suggestion that we might ask for compensation, I have felt obliged to say plainly that it seems to me something like an insult for anyone to imagine that we would sell the souls of our people for money. But I am thankful to say that in the late agreements with respect to Africa the principle has been insisted on that in these spheres of influence there shall be the same toleration for missionaries as there is everywhere in British territory, and I look to our fellow-countrymen to support us in seeing that the principle Lord Salisbury has been so careful to insist on shall be really confirmed and ratified on all hands so that it shall become a living fact in the history of the world for the future,

After six months in England the Bishop proposed to return to Africa. But first he was anxious to come to a perfectly clear understanding with the German Government about the position of the English missionaries in German territory, so, with the sanction of the Foreign Office, he went to Berlin, had an interview with the Chancellor, Count Caprivi, and was presented to the Emperor. On returning to London he preached at the farewell service held at St. John's, Red Lion Square, on November 3, and in the course of his sermon dwelt on some of the difficulties that might arise from recent political events, and referred to his late visit to Berlin:

.... There are some special difficulties which arise from the fact of our finding ourselves, from the turn which events have taken, outside the sphere of English influence in Africa, and working in the sphere of influence of a foreign Power. . . . We know very well that there will be adventurers, no matter what their nationality may be, whether English or foreigners, who will enter the country under European influence; we may be quite certain that there will be adventurers who, for the purpose of freeing themselves of all moral restraints, will settle in the country and corrupt the natives. If they are our own fellow-countrymen it will be comparatively easy to deal with them. We shall have no difficulty in warning the natives against them, and we shall have no fear of misrepresentation at home. But with a foreign Power the case is very different, because it is very easy to represent--say, in Germany--that we have been actuated in our conduct by political motives, or by the desire to push British interests, and we are helpless, because we have not the ear of the people of Germany, as we have the ear of the people of England.

There is another difficulty which we must contemplate. No doubt settlers and traders will be attracted to those parts of the country where the missionaries have been at work. Hitherto we are the only white people who have lived on the mainland. Naturally, when the Germans come into the sphere of German influence, they will say that the country about Newala and Magila is sure to be safe because there have been English missionaries living there for years past. Thus it is very likely that our living there will have prepared the way for an inrush of European settlers and an invasion of native rights and interests. Thus our missionaries will be in the unhappy position of having attracted Europeans to the country, to the great injury of the rights and interests of our friendly natives and their chiefs. Now there is every reason to believe that the rulers in Germany wish to act with fairness towards the Africans, just as, I believe, our own rulers do. The difficulty will not arise there, but amongst those who settle in the country, and who, if they are unscrupulous, can only too easily misrepresent the facts when once they have invaded the rights of the natives.

It was for that reason that I thought it wise to go lately to Berlin, because I thought it would put us in a better position in the future for acting as mediators should the native rights be invaded. I thought it well to make clear, what I am sure it is very difficult for many people to understand, that we could live in a country in perfect loyalty to any Power that we found established there, that we had no political aims whatever, and that our only object was to gather the people into the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. I know that there are a great many people who foresee great difficulties in our position, and they support their suggestion of difficulties by pointing to what has happened in other cases. They say that there are Missions which have been, almost with contumely, driven out of countries that have been occupied by foreign Powers. That may be so, but we have to ask whether those missionaries had not become planters, owners of land, and had not aimed at obtaining political power in the country? No doubt such missionaries are likely to come in conflict with any foreign Power within whose sphere they are working; but I would ask, Has the Catholic Church, when she has been true to her principles, been defeated? She may be exterminated, but has she been defeated? That is the great strength of our position, and that is what, at any rate, gives me confidence. The Chancellor of the German Empire was very anxious to ascertain what was our position, whether we were some independent body, and what force we had at our back. I could see when he had satisfied himself that we belonged to the English Church that it made all the difference in his consideration of our position. That seems to be our great strength. We belong to a true branch of the great Catholic Church. Those who work on her lines, those who hold to her doctrine and worship, those who are in union with the great body of the Church which has passed to its rest, need not fear what man can do. They may be exterminated, but extermination will still further disseminate the principles which they love; they can never be defeated.

Then there is another difficulty, and a sad difficulty it is--the feuds between the differing missionaries who belong to the various denominations. Well, it requires two to make a quarrel, and I may safely say of those who are associated with me in this work that they are most deeply impressed with the folly of Christians flying at one another's throats in the face of heathenism. Nearly 1,900 years have passed since Christ ascended into heaven, and here we are still a small minority in the world. And what are we doing? Spiting and devouring one another; separated and divided in every direction. What infinite folly before this vast mass of heathen darkness! Of course, if we go to a country like Africa and consider the Roman Catholics whom we come across there as very much the same as the heathen, it is impossible to avoid deadly feuds. It must be so. But if we remember that the vast amount of truth which we hold in common is infinitely greater and deeper than that fringe of differences which separates us, then I see no difficulty in our work, It was a great happiness to me to read in a letter from Mr. Johnson how he had met and received the first two French missionaries who had arrived at Lake Nyasa. If we act in that way I think that our difficulties will vanish. We may well ponder the words which the Emperor of Germany said to me the other day; they were very simple words, but important as coming from one of such commanding influence. He said: 'Mohammedanism is a very simple religion, but it has an immense hold upon Africa, and it would be well if Christian missionaries united their forces as much as possible in the face of it.'

The Bishop left England on November 10, and in the course of the voyage had the opportunity of getting to know Major von Wissmann, who joined the ship at Aden. They had met before, but the Bishop now for the first time was able to judge this distinguished officer's attitude towards the natives. He writes:

Wissmann was very pleasant. I got to know him very well, and believe he is really humane and cares for the people, and has the good of the country at heart.

After staying about a fortnight in Zanzibar, the Bishop proceeded to Magila, there to spend Christmas, as he had done the three previous years. The steady work of the Sisters amongst the girls and women during the past year now made a great impression on him, and he writes of them:

.... I am sure their work is different from other ladies'. They have a greater idea of systematic visiting, and they go to the villages not to talk but to teach; , . . . with them it is a part of their system, the time for which they have to account, and not their recreation time, and I think from what I have seen they have more power of keeping the girls.

The value of community life for Mission work was a favourite ideal of the Bishop's, and three years later he expressed, in a letter to Father Kelly, of the Society of the Sacred Mission, a hope that it might be practicable to establish something of the kind for men too at Magila:

I believe the work there can be best done by a Brotherhood whose duty it would be to go out into the villages and preach and teach while living a community life. This could only gradually be formed. ... I am sure that persistent visiting in the many villages for miles round is the only way to do anything with the adults.

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