Black Baptist heroes John Chilembwe and Martin Luther King, Jr. both celebrated their national holidays today
As Americans observe the legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., many Africans will observe the legacy of their own Baptist crusader for racial justice, Reverend John Chilembwe.
Both King and Chilembwe headed institutions influenced by the National Baptist Convention, a 19th-century network of African-American churches with a missionary zeal.
The harrowing story of MLK’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta has often been told: In 1886, John A. Parker, a former slave, persuaded a small group of friends to come together to fellowship on a rock known as the name “Ebenezer”. In 1894 he was succeeded by Pastor Adam Daniel “AD” Williams, a child of slaves who espoused a program of self-determination inspired by the social gospels and the bootstrap ideals of Booker T. Washington. He urged members to “get a piece of turf.”
Williams was followed by the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. in 1931. He married Williams’ daughter, Alberta Christine, and led Ebenezer until 1975, eventually sharing pastoral duties with his son, MLK Jr., until to the latter’s assassination in 1968. ( Last January, Ebenezer Baptist made history by helping catapult his pastor, the Reverend Raphael Warnock, to the U.S. Senate in a special election. Warnock became the first black GA senator and is running for re-election to a full term in November.)
John Chilembwe’s story began around the same time as the founding of the Ebenezer. He was born around 1871 in a place in southern Africa known for the slave trade by African Muslim tribal groups, Arabs and captains of the Portuguese navy. His father was part of the Muslim group; his mother was related to the indigenous peoples of the Interior Mountains and Lakes region.
The slave trade attracted British missionaries in the mid-19th century. They urged the military campaigns to stop the activity and introduce the “civilizing” effect of Christianity, but the British used the campaigns to take control of natural resources and black labor in an area dubbed the “British Central African Protectorate”.
Britain expropriated common African lands, established a system of labor that reduced inhabitants to peonage, and relied on missionaries to teach a Christianity based on acceptance of white dominance. Southeast Africa was occupied by settlers from Britain, Portugal and Germany during the “Scramble for Africa” of the 1890s. African Muslim leaders collaborated with British authorities as plantation supervisors, police and soldiers.
As a young man, Chilembwe worked as a servant to Joseph Booth, a missionary who had doubts about European colonialism. Booth promoted egalitarian ideals while criticizing the settlers for their lavish lifestyle and brutal treatment of Africans. In 1897, during a trip to the United States, he published his objections in a manifesto whose title “Africa for Africans” would become the rallying cry of Pan-African militants of the 20th century.
Chilembwe accompanied Booth on this trip to the United States and parted ways after befriending African American Christians like Lewis Jordan, leader of the National Baptist Convention. Chilembwe enrolled in Virginia Seminary, a historically Black Christian private school in Lynchburg.
The Baptists supported his upbringing in their desire to win emissaries to Africa. In the 1890s, for example, black church leaders helped establish “African independent churches” to counter European influence. In South Africa, Independents looked to the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church for Christian inspiration rather than centers like Rome, Constantinople, Germany or Britain. Needless to say, white missionaries were alarmed by the rise of “Ethiopia”.
At Virginia Seminary, Chilembwe learned about Christianity’s role in the abolition of slavery, including the uprisings of Nat Turner, John Brown, and the Haitian Revolution. The school also provided exposure to Booker T. Washington’s “industrial” educational program. The president of the Tuskegee Institute (now a university) near Montgomery, Alabama, was a popular speaker at Baptist Convention functions.
In 1900, Chilembwe returned to the Protectorate with a new purpose, as detailed in Let’s die for Africa by Desmond Phiri. Now an ordained minister, Chilembwe held outdoor baptisms and preached the social gospels of racial equality. He founded the “Providence Industrial Mission” on 93 acres with funds and advice from the Baptist Convention. The PIM included the independent ‘New Jerusalem Church’ which drew Church of Scotland worshipers to nearby Blantyre.
The PIM had a school with a curriculum modeled after the Washington curriculum: Christian instruction, mechanical trades, general education, hygiene, ideals of self-reliance, agricultural methods, and Western fashions. The school attracted hundreds of recruits from a sprawl of African farms and towns that Britain renamed “Nyasaland” in 1907.
In 1912, Chilembwe expanded to seven schools across Nyasaland and Portuguese East Africa with 900 students and model farms growing cotton, pepper, coffee, rubber, and tea for consumers. Influenced by Washington’s National Negro Business League, Chilembwe created the Native’s Industrial Union, a chamber of commerce for African planters and small business owners.
Chilembwe’s work sparked the rise of educated, socialite activists known as “New Africans”. They founded churches, farms and businesses to compete with white settlers. Chilembwe also became a prominent critic of peonage working conditions on British plantations. His work drew the ire of the controlling structure of African Muslim administrators, missionaries, settlers and leaders, according to Independent African by George Shepperson and Thomas Price.
In 1914, colonial opponents engaged in campaigns to undermine the movement. They destroyed some churches and schools in Chilembwe and the businesses of black competitors. Land was denied to African planters, settlers assaulted black people dressed in Western clothing, and administrators forced laborers hired by African farmers to work on white plantations. Finally, the settlers hatched a plan to deport Reverend Chilembwe.
As injustices mounted, Chilembwe recognized that the British would never accept African equality. With his understanding of American abolitionist history, he began to consider the possibility of leading an armed revolt like Nat Turner. Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back was the misuse of Nyasaland men in assaults on the German colony in East Africa during World War I; many thousands perished from disease, starvation and overwork – or fighting on behalf of the colonial rulers.
On January 23, 1915, Chilembwe and hundreds of followers staged an uprising against British rule. Nyasaland erupted in a convulsion that lasted days as Africans armed with spears, knives, machetes, clubs and guns invaded settler properties, causing deaths and atrocities. This caused the British, German, and Portuguese colonists to stop warring with each other long enough to mount a counterattack with genocidal effectiveness.
For weeks, British soldiers, vigilante settler groups and African Muslim riflemen interrogated, arrested, tortured and executed hundreds, if not thousands, of African Christians. Their churches, schools, farms and businesses were demolished and the suspects deported. Chilembwe was captured while fleeing to the mountains, shot and buried in an unmarked grave.
But while the colonial forces stopped the uprising, they were unable to crush the spirit of the new African Christians; in 1926, the Mission Chilembwe was restored and the uprising stands as a prelude to modern African liberation movements. In 1964, the year MLK received the Nobel Peace Prize for its non-violent campaigns, Nyasaland became independent Malawi.
Malawians will commemorate John Chilembwe Day on Sunday, January 15, with a public holiday on Monday, January 17, the same day Americans honor the legacy of MLK Jr. In conclusion, African Americans can be proud of the role played by the black baptist church. played for freedom and equality at home and abroad.