Charles Chidongo Chinula was born in 1885 at Mthimba village in Mzimba district. His father was a brave Ngoni warrior to whom was born a frail male child whom they called “Chidongo” meaning “brittle” or “so easy to break.” He claimed to have been born on the 25th of December. His father’s name was Gonthako Chinula and his mother’s Mpizwa Yaraweni Nyanjiko.
He was born into a polygamous family that included seven wives, his mother being the senior wife, though third in the line. His mother’s marriage had been full of sorrow as child after child died until finally a girl survived. Then came Chidongo who was so frail that his mother refused to suckle him thinking he was already a corpse. Other women had to plead with her, saying, “You never know, he may grow into a big lad who will give you protection in the days you are old and helpless.” Slowly the frail child grew in stature and wisdom.
As he grew up Chidongo, like any Ngoni child of his time, spent part of the day in the bush herding cattle and the rest going to school. He enrolled at Hora mission at the age of eleven and was an amazingly brilliant lad. From Hora he went to Ekwendeni where he was in close contact with Donald Frazer, a Scottish missionary who became his mentor and whom he remembered affectionately all his life.
In 1901 Chidongo begun to teach. Later Dr. Frazer took him to Livingstonia for advanced studies though he had no money for fees. There a scholarship was arranged for him because the missionaries were convinced he could go as high as he wanted on the educational ladder if given a chance. At Livingstonia he won the admiration of a clever African teacher called Charles Domingo who said, “From now on, instead of your name being simply Chidongo you will be called Charles.” Then and there he acquired another name.
After finishing his advanced studies with distinction, Chidongo began teaching at Loudon. Dr. Frazer was a brilliant linguist who did much research on the vernacular, even writing a grammar book on the Ngoni language. But Charles Chidongo Chinula was the first one to introduce the teaching of English at Loudon. His contemporaries and pupils considered him the best teacher they had ever known.
Besides teaching in the mission school, Chidongo also did some evangelistic work. He went to Zambia and Kasungu and won a good number to Christ. As soon as the first World War ended he felt an irresistible call to full time ministry. The church sent him to Tanzania for theological training and he was ordained as a pastor by Dr. Robert Laws on 11 October 1925.
His time as a pastor was rife with burning church issues. He led the discussion on issues of divorce, whether a minister could solemnize the marriage of a leper, whether women could be elders in the church and on the question of whether marrying a deceased brother’s wife was compatible with church membership. In his church he also made proposals to improve church finances by encouraging tithing and recommending that it be emphasized that “the stronger must give more than the weaker and that a man must, before he spends his income, lay it before God and give Him the first part of it.”
In 1926, as part of the Livingstonia delegation to Blantyre synod to hammer out difficult issues in the proposed union of the synods under one name, Chidongo actively participated in the deliberations. That same year, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) was formed.
As time passed Chidongo developed a questioning mind, partly in reaction to European prejudices over Africans in schools. The church’s refusal to allow the children of drunkards and polygamists to attend mission schools was the cause of much conflict. His long and hard battle on this issue bore fruit. He had argued that the church could not keep the sons of polygamists and drunkards out of the mission schools when at the same time they admitted half-caste children, born in improper unions. In those days there were many coloreds born of African women and European or Indian men to whom they were not married.
Chidongo’s combative spirit earned him several enemies who considered him proud and opinionated and eagerly looked forward to the day when he would be cut down to size. That day came in 1930 when Chidongo was suspended as pastor on allegations of church indiscipline at a certain village,–allegations he publicly recognized as being true.
During his suspension he remembered having read a book called The Pilgrims Progress which now took on real meaning for him as he identified his downfall with the trials of the protagonist Christian. He decided he wanted to make the book widely available to others in the common language of the area and he dutifully directed his efforts to this task. Using three versions,-in English, in Zulu and in Chinyanja,–he carefully translated the book into the Tumbuka language during his free time. To make it easier to follow, he abridged it and annotated it with subheadings. The translation was accepted at once for publication and every minister, evangelist and teacher was encouraged to read the finished work. Since 1932 the translation has been widely used in schools and in churches as a supplement to the Bible. At that time the book was considered the greatest contribution an African church member had made in the field of translation. While working on The Pilgrim’s Progress he also gave vent to his inner spiritual turmoils by writing twenty-one hymns. In one of them his identification with the tribulations of John Bunyan’s protagonist is obvious.
On July 11, 1934, Charles Chidongo Chinula announced the formation of his own church which he named Eklesia Lananga (“Free Church”). Many were surprised by his decision and asked him who his Mzungu (whiteman/missionary) would be. Dramatically, he fished out a small Bible from his pocket and dangled it before their eyes: this was to be his only guide and the source of his teachings. Asked why he had decided to leave the CCAP, Chidongo said it had shocked him that even when a man confessed his sins before a kirk session he could remain suspended. He believed suspension should be meted out only to the obdurate and the unrelenting and he gave the example of Peter the apostle who, though he denied Christ, was never condemned.
In order to be on a par with the mainstream church, Chidongo set out to establish his own schools which acted as the nuclei of his churches. Paying his school staff was always a struggle as parents of students and the believers in his churches often pleaded poverty and failed to pay fees. After a long battle to obtain a government subsidy he finally began receiving an annual grant beginning in 1947. Three years later his schools were receiving an annual grant of £3 from the late Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, then practicing medicine in London.
In 1967 Chidongo made a surprising U-turn when he went to Loudon mission centre and announced that he had decided to rejoin the CCAP and offered to serve the church in any manner they saw fit. He said he had decided to disband his church because he wanted to put an end to the group called “the Charlie Church.” “I wanted the institution to die before I die. I believe in church unity. My hope is that in due course the CCAP will merge with others into one body called the Church of Christ. Only such a church would be a true church.”
As the wind of change began to blow over Africa, Chidongo was not spared the feeling of it early in his life. He had been general secretary of Mombera Native Association in his home area and at one time rose to the vice presidency of the Nyasaland African Congress formed in 1944 to press for political independence. Even after his retirement from active politics he remained influential in political circles.
In 1958, as people gathered at Chileka Airport to welcome Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda with various gifts, Chidongo came all the way from Mzimba with an axe and a hoe to show that his people believed in agriculture.
As pastor emeritus and one who had gone through the wilderness, he often offered to preach about his experiences. In 1970 at Ekwendeni his sermon on Jesus’ crucifixion brought tears to many eyes. When he addressed a gathering he would sing his pilgrim hymn “Lord Jesus, I have heard thy call, hence I come.”
As he grew older his health deteriorated, and he began to faint constantly. He died on November 3, 1970 at the advanced age of eighty-five. He was widely mourned both in the church and in state circles as a man who had used his talents for the spiritual and political welfare of his country to the end of his long life.
Louis W. Ndekha
John McCracken, Politics and Christianity in Malawi 1875 - 1940: The Impact of the Livingstonia Mission in the Northern Province (Blantyre: CLAIM, 2000).
Brigdal Pachai, The History of Malawi (London: Longman Group Ltd, 1972).
——–, Malawi: The History of the Nation (London: Longman Group Ltd, 1973).
D. D. Phiri, Chidongo Chinula (London: Longman, 1975).
Kenneth R. Ross, Christianity in Malawi: A Source Book (Gweru: Mambo Press, 1996).
John Weller and Jane Linden, Mainstream Christianity to 1980 in Malawi (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Gweru: Mambo Press, 1984).
This article, submitted in 2003, was written and researched by Louis W. Ndekha, DACB Liaison Coordinator, under the supervision of R. G. Munyenyembe, lecturer at the Evangelical Bible College of Malawi, a DACB Participating Institution.