Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Kamungu, Leonard Mattiya

Anglican Communion

Mattiya Leonard Kamungu was the first Chewa priest in the diocese of Nyasaland between 1899 and 1913. Kamungu was unique in the church in Malawi because he was able to embrace missionary ideals and principles while also maintaining his African identity and pride.

Shifts in how missionaries perceived African ministry in the 19th Century

The turn of the century has been known for a shift in European attitudes towards Africans, from that of “partners” to that of “unequal partners,” characterized by mistrust and suspicion in Africa. Generally, the perceived failure of the episcopate of Crowther became a decisive point of reference in the way missionaries and Africans related, for it symbolized for many the failure of African leadership. For nearly half a century after this great experiment, the West believed that Africans were not mature enough to take a leading role in church affairs. Paradoxically, in East Africa, and particularly in Malawi, these changes affected the training and the ministry of the African clergy both positively and negatively. To an extent, these changes are reflected in the life and ministry of Leonard Kamungu. Typically, his life exemplified the struggles of an African evangelist on two levels. First, in his efforts to win missionary acceptance as a genuinely “converted” African Christian leader, Kamungu had to convince the missionaries that, to a degree, he had broken ties with African society by resisting pressures to which some of his contemporaries had succombed. On the other hand, he also wished to assert his own African identity and pride.

Early Missionary Influence on Kamungu

Following the untimely deaths of a number of missionaries at Magomero in 1862, [1] the UMCA (Universities’ Mission to Central Africa) adopted a decisive policy that henceforth stressed “African agency,” [2] that is, the notion that Africans rather than Europeans should evangelize Africans. The arrival of the Archdeacon William Perceval Johnson in the UMCA in Zanzibar in 1876 brought about enormous changes in the training and ministry of Africans. In 1880, his evangelism strategy included the use of the steamer on Lake Malawi as a parish church and a training ground for the African clergy. [3] To the African evangelists in those days the venture was most daring, due to the menace posed by the Ngoni warriors in the area surrounding the lake. His first African co-workers in Malawi were Yohanah Abdallah and Augustine Ambali who had been trained by the UMCA in Zanzibar.

Leonard Mattiya Kamungu who became the first Malawi priest in 1908, was born at Chia, west of Mozambique. Johnson first started his missionary work at Chia between 1880 and 1885, after the death of his companion and friend, Charles Janson. [4] Even though Johnson started the undertaking, the bulk of the work was undertaken by the African evangelists.

Kamungu went to Likoma to prepare for baptism where he was taught by another former freed slave, Denys Saiti. [5] Kamungu was baptized at Chia by Johnson in December 1890, [6] taking for himself the name Mattiya. [7] He explained the choice of his name saying, “I called myself by that name before my baptism (…) not that I thought much about St. Mattiya, for at that time I did not know very much of the Bible, but I heard the name from my companion, who was already baptized. That is why I chose it. Now I know a good deal about St. Mattiya.” [8]

Growing up at Chia, Kamungu came under influence of the evangelists there as a young boy and, for a while, sat under the teaching of Ambali and then Anchanamila, [9] later known as Canon Yohana Tawe. From Chia, Kamungu went on to a senior school at Likoma island.

The Making of a Missionary

Dissatisfied with the poor quality of the training at Likoma, Father Chauncy Maples, the head of Likoma Mission, sent Kamungu to the well established school at Zanzibar, saying, “We cannot get proper discipline for the boys here; they are so independent that the least restraints send them off to their homes, and we do not get much ‘forrarder’ in the way of having a thoroughly good boarding school.” [10]

Based on the presupposition that Africans didn’t possess discipline-believed to be one of the missionaries’ natural characteristics-missionary training sought to impose strict discipline on their African students who were subject to many restrictions. Under the principal Archdeacon Jones-Bateman at this time, the college had its own court to impose discipline on the pupils. [11] Mills described Jones-Bateman in this manner, “Archdeacon [had] a strict sense of duty, moral strength, and wonderful singleness of purpose and must have had much to do in building his pupils’ character.” [12] According to G. W. Broomfield, the principle objective of the court system “was to induce in the students a spirit of discipline, decency, and organization.” [13]

But there was also a negative aspect to the discipline at Kiungani. In 1899, while Kamungu and nine others were preparing for the diaconate at Kiungani, an incident happened there which must have left an indelible impression on Kamungu. Weller describes the hostile reaction of students to missionary paternalistic attitudes, saying, “I have lost my temper with the students for their beastly bitter spirit to the white clergy. This only last night, but it depresses me, for it was weak. But I always treat them as my equals…” [14] Even though we do not know exactly what transpired in this incident, we know from Henry Masauko Chipembere, writing in 1972 about his training at St. Andrew’s Theological College, heir to Kiungani college, that the Africans’ fear of a bad report to the missionary teacher tainted the atmosphere in the seminaries. [15] Submission and loyalty to the tutor were the bedrock of this training.

Father Frank Weston, bishop of Zanzibar, was not entirely free from paternalistic tendencies. During his episcopacy in 1916, his experience of the “failure” of the vocation of an African priest gave him doubts as to the “readiness” of Africans in general for the ministry. Subsequently, he suggested to his brother bishops that the UMCA consider halting the ordinations of African clergy.

Kamungu’s ability to retain his independence as an African while also being a subtle admirer of white missionary ideals was a key factor in the success of his ministry. Mills described the mutual influence between the principal and his student, Kamungu, between 1891 and 1897, as the latter prepared to become a reader:

He [Jones-Bateman] had a very high opinion of Leonard, whose gentleness, humility, and habits of devotion had greatly impressed him, while the archdeacon’s strict sense of duty, moral strength, and wonderful singleness of purpose must have had much to do in building up his character. [16]

In 1895, when he was eighteen years old, like Yohanah Abdallah, Kamungu made the decision to remain single, following the UMCA tradition of celibacy. But as he was already engaged to a girl from Chia named Victoria, Kamungu encouraged his friend Hilary Likwambe to take her as his wife. Later, Kamungu made a formal vow of celibacy in the presence of the bishop. [17] Such a position at the end of the nineteenth century was a radical decision for an African. It showed his admiration for the missionary lifestyle and for the high ideals of the UMCA spirituality and vision which he desired to emulate. He was thus not an ordinary African priest, but, in many ways, resembled a white missionary priest.

A sense of shyness and unworthiness characterized Kamungu’s response to his calling. Writing to a benefactor in England in 1897, he stated, “In December or January the bishop proposed to make me a reader, but I told Padre Glossop I was quite young, and to be a reader is a great work; I am not fitted for it; perhaps after a year I would. Therefore I am going to Kiungani for a year.” [18] With the help of Archdeacon Glossop, Kamungu overcame this doubt [19] and was made a reader on November 29, 1898. [20]

Training for the ministry in the UMCA followed a rigorous hierarchical pattern, progressing from teacher to reader, sub-deacon (deacon), and ultimately to the priesthood. In 1897, Kamungu became Glossop’s assistant at Likoma [21] and was responsible for teaching the hearers and catechumens. [22] Having come this far, Kamungu had achieved a certain high social standing in both missionary and African circles. Archdeacon Glossop spells out the dangers in the power that accompanied Kamungu’s position and status, “It is a difficult thing for an African, trained away from home in a somewhat artificial atmosphere, to keep true to his ideal when lodged as a teacher, with all its dangerous position and power, in the midst of the heathen or even his old comrades.” [23] The training gave African readers power and status, often associated more with European missionaries rather than with the traditional authority of the chiefs, and this could be used for ill or for good. In Glossop’s eyes, Kamungu handled this power wisely and thus stood out among his African colleagues. This suggests that Kamungu had assimilated the missionary ideal of an African minister more thoroughly than his colleagues.

From the missionary perspective, the ideal African priest embraced the missionary concept of discipline, sympathized with missionary principles and ideals, and identified with a European rather than an African outlook. Most likely, in his orientation, Kamungu had crossed the thin social line separating an African from a European missionary. Kamungu was regarded as trustworthy precisely because he could inform the missionaries about what was going on among his African colleagues and family without fear of reprisal. This is how Glossop described his character, “An African has reached the high water mark of reliability when he will report to you, without fear of his comrades, what is going wrong, or about to go wrong, among his own relatives.” [24] Similarly, Kamungu’s ministry took precedence over family relations and, when circumstances compelled him to choose between family and work, he preferred the latter. For instance, to his patron in England he wrote, “ A great many of my relatives grieve when they see me because I must think of my work.” In another instance, Kamungu stated, “I had wanted to go to see my sister, but the bishop told me to go to Zanzibar, and I said I would go. Ah, my poor sister, she thinks I do not love her; she sent her child to fetch me but I said, ‘It is the work of Christ; I cannot give up the journey, and if God wills, we shall meet again.’” [25] In these respects, Kamungu was solely devoted to his work despite pressure from his family.

Between 1889 and 1890, Kamungu was back in Zanzibar to prepare for the Holy Order of deacon. This time the college was at a new place called Mazizini and under the direction of Father Frank Weston who wrote the following:

You will be thankful to know that Leonard is doing exceedingly good work in Nyasa again; on all sides he is earning golden opinions. When he is a little older he ought to make a splendid deacon and priest. I always quote him as the best example of a really pious African; a man more devoted to our Lord, and less fearful of public opinion, is not to be found in our mission so far as I have seen. [26]

Kamungu’s independent thinking and willingness to go against public opinion indicates that he had reached a critical stage of development in his vocation. However, typical of paternalistic tendencies prevailing in the missionary churches in Malawi, Father Weston cautioned about the progress that Kamungu was making in his vocation and ministry saying, “But we must help him more by recalling possible danger and temptations than mere praise. Satan’s desire to sift apostolic men is very really seen among those who are called to be teachers of their own folk in Africa, and the higher the level of holiness reaches, the more real is the malice of Satan against the man.” [27] Presuming that such degree of development was exceptional for an African, Weston assumed the right to caution Kamungu regarding what he considered were the dangers of high spiritual development.

A Local Missionary

Kamungu was ordained a deacon in his home village of Chia in 1902. [28] In his pastoral ministry, he sought to prove that he could work independently while a deacon at Lungwena, renowned for its Islamic opposition to Christianity. Despite trying circumstances, Kamungu made an impression on the predominantly Islamic community to such an extent that he won their admiration. [29] One Muslim reacted thus, “That man is a deacon of God in truth because he is not tired of praying; he just remains thus in the dark of the night without leaving off in the church; and also he is not tired of preaching in the villages.” [30] Kamungu worked hard for three years and five years later visible fruits began to appear. The congregation grew and he managed to build a new church. [31]

Kamungu was ordained a priest on April 18, 1909. [32] After his ordination, he served as a curate mostly in Nkhotakota and the surrounding region of central Malawi. Kamungu’s ministry became very effective in diffusing the conflict between the traditional religious cult, Nyau societies and the mission. Weller notes that, “The Rev. Kamungu was given the task of gaining local support at the two worst centres of trouble, Sani and Chia, and he soon achieved this; the Nyau societies were dissolved for lack of support.” [33] As Kamungu’s ministry expanded rapidly, he won the local people’s admiration. [34] While the missionary account attributed Kamungu’s departure for eastern Zambia to the invitation from the Anglican bishop, John Edward Hine, one archival source attributes the immediate cause of his departure to his own disillusionment from working with Father H. A. M. Cox. [35] According to this source, Kamungu had achieved such success in his ministry that the missionaries, particularly his immediate superior, Father Cox, were envious of him. [36] Apparently, Cox continued to treat Kamungu condescendingly and this gave Kamungu much turmoil. [37] At this juncture, Kamungu asked to work in Bishop Hine’s diocese.

Missionary in Zambia and His Death

In eastern Zambia, Bishop Hine gave Kamungu permission to open his station at Chief Msoro’s village. White farmers lived in the neighbouring areas. [38] One of Kamungu’s neighbour was Father De la Pryme, a fellow UMCA priest with whom he had worked in Malawi. Soon Kamungu engaged the services of teachers from Malawi, like Dunstan Mandala and Reader Davis Mafani. He built a network of schools and utilized the teachers’ services extensively. Kamungu’s work met with great success, and his fame grew to such an extent that it provoked jealousy and hostility from European farmers, including De la Pryme. Under Kamungu, the Msoro mission gained a reputation that rivaled other European-initiated missionary stations.

Kamungu died in 1913, possibly poisoned by his cook. In August 1969, Kamungu was elevated to the dignity of martyr by the synod of the diocese of Malawi. [39] He is venerated in the Anglican Church in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It is telling that, writing Kamungu’s memoir in August that year, Archdeacon Glossop criticized the “unsympathetic” attitudes of some Europeans but nevertheless, underlined the “justice” of the British system in which the Africans were being brought up in Central Africa. [40] Glossop’s remark suggests that, to some degree, Kamungu was a victim of European prejudice.

Henry Mbaya


  1. Anderson-Morsehead, The History of the UMCA, vol. 1. chap. 1.: Five out of fourteen missionaries died within two years.

  2. Ward, Letters of Bishop Tozer and his Sister, p. 86.

  3. Anderson-Morsehead, p. 105.

  4. Ibid., p. 104.

  5. Mills, An African Priest and Missionary, p. 11.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., p. 11-12.

  8. Ibid., p. 12.

  9. Weller, A Priest from the Lakeshore Side, p. 6-7.

  10. Mills, p. 12.

  11. Broomfield, The Fortunate Few, p. ?.

  12. Mills, p. 15.

  13. Broomfield, p. 44.

  14. Weller, p. 17.

  15. Rotberg, Hero of the Nation, p. 54-55.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid., p. 10.

  18. Mills, p. 24.

  19. Ibid, p. 24-25.

  20. Ibid., p. 24.

  21. Ibid., p. 12.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Mills, p. 26-27.

  24. Ibid., p. 27.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Ibid., p. 28-29.

  27. Ibid., p. 29.

  28. Weller, p. 20.

  29. Ibid., p. 24.

  30. Ibid., p. 28.

  31. Ibid., p. 24.

  32. Mills, p. 65.

  33. Weller, p. 131.

  34. Weller and Linden, Mainstream Christianity, p. 131.

  35. R/G 1. (2/1913), archives of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi, Malosa, Zomba.

  36. Ibid.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Weller, p. 132.

  39. Pachai, Malawi: The History of the Nation.

  40. Central Africa; archives of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi, Malosa, Zomba.

Select Bibliography:

A. E. M. Anderson-Morsehead, The History of the UMCA, vol. 1. (London: UMCA, 1949).

A. G. Blood, The Chosen Few (London: UMCA, 1898).

G. W. Broomfield, The Fortunate Few (London: UMCA, 1898).

D. Y. Mills, An African Priest and Missionary (London: UMCA, 1914).

B. Pachai, Malawi: The History of the Nation (London: Longman, 1973).

I. Rotberg, (ed.), Hero of the Nation, An Autobiography of Henry Chipembere (Blantyre: CLAIM and Kachere, 2001).

J. Weller, A Priest from the Lakeshore Side (London: SPCK, 1972).

——– and J. Linden, Mainstream Christianity to 1980 in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe (Gweru: Mambo Press, 1984).

Archival sources R/G I, 2/1913, archives of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi Malosa, Zomba, Malawi.

Central Africa (magazine), September 1913, vol. 45, no. 61.

This article, received in 2004, was researched and written by Henry Mbaya, a doctoral student at the University of Natal School of Theology under the supervision of Dr. Philippe Denis, professor of the History of Christianity and DACB liaison coordinator.