Malawian independent Church leader and protonationalist hero.
Born near Chiradzulu, Malawi, in the 1890s Chilembwe fell under the influence of Joseph Booth, who baptized him in 1893. Going to the United States with Booth in 1897, he split with his mentor and spent two years studying at Lynchburg (Virginia) Theological Seminary, where he seems to have been ordained by the National Baptist Convention. He returned to Malawi (then a British protectorate) in 1900 and formed the Providence Industrial Mission, near his birthplace. Between 1900 and 1914, he worked quietly, building up a small following and attracting little publicity. As World War I approached, he became increasingly upset by the unjust employment practices of the neighboring European-owned estates. The outbreak of war in 1914 and the conscription of large numbers of Africans as soldiers and carriers led him to instigate a military uprising against colonial rule in 1915. He may have modeled himself on John Brown. Although the uprising was a military fiasco, Chilembwe’s death in its aftermath assured for him a martyr’s place in the subsequent history of African anticolonial struggle.
T. Jack Thompson
George Simeon Mwase, Strike a Blow and Die (1967); Bridglal Pachai, Malawi: The History of the Nation (1973); George Shepperson and Thomas Price, Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Nyasaland Rising of 1915 (1958).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, copyright © 1998, by Gerald H. Anderson, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): John Chilembwe