Classic DACB Collection

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

Fraser, Donald (A)

Free Church of Scotland

Deep in the bush of Malawi, Central Africa, on the edge of what is still the small village of Embangweni, stands a simple stone cross, inscribed with the words “In memory of Donald Fraser and Jonathan Chirwa.” Here, side by side, in what was the chief’s cattle kraal–the place of burial for those held in particular esteem among the cattle-herding Ngoni people–lie the Scottish missionary and his Malawian colleague. Fraser died in Scotland on August 20, 1933, following an operation for the removal of his gall bladder. He was cremated, and his ashes were brought back to Malawi by his wife for burial at the place of his missionary service. The positioning of the graves bears witness both to the respect with which the Ngoni people regarded Fraser and to the affection that he himself had for those among whom he worked,

Today Donald Fraser is not widely known outside Malawi and Scotland. Yet in his day he was both active missionary and internationally known mission strategist, friend and colleague of men like John R. Mott and Joseph H. Oldham, and many of his insights into both the theory and practice of mission remain valid, and valuable, for us today.

Early Development in Leadership

Donald Fraser was born on June 1, 1870, the fourth of eight children, at Lochgilphead in Argyllshire, Scotland, where his father, William, was the local Free Church of Scotland minister. Donald entered Glasgow University in 1886, at the age of sixteen but left without completing his M.A. to enter the Free Church Hall and study for the ministry.[1] In 1891, while attending the Keswick Convention for the first time, he had a deep religious experience that he later described as “the wonder of forgiveness.”[2]

Three years later he had perhaps an even more important experience during a student conference at Keswick attended by many who were later to become important figures in the missionary movement, including Joseph Oldham, Temple Gairdner, and Douglas Thornton. Following a speech by the young American Robert E. Speer on the “watchword” of the American Student Volunteer Movement–“The Evangelization of the World in This Generation”–Fraser was so affected that he spent the night in prayer and meditation at the nearby Castlerigg Stone Circle. One of his colleagues later remarked, “after that we all felt the prophetic touch of leadership was upon Donald Fraser.”[3] By this time Fraser had already helped to found the Student Volunteer Movement in Britain, having invited Robert P. Wilder to visit Britain in 1892.[4] As a result of a series of meetings in both England and Scotland, the Student Volunteer Missionary Union of Great Britain and Ireland was founded in Edinburgh in April 1892, and in 1893 Fraser became traveling secretary for the British SVM.

In 1894 Fraser visited the conference of the American SVM at Detroit, where he discussed with John R. Mott the desirability of creating a world student body. The discussions were renewed at the Keswick student convention of 1895, when Mott and Luther Wishard were both present.[5] In August of the same year the World Student Christian Federation was formed at a meeting at Vadstena in Sweden, and though Fraser was not present at its inauguration, his part in bringing it about was substantial.

In January 1896 the British SVM held a major conference at Liverpool with the theme “Make Jesus King.” Fraser was chairman of this conference, which was attended by over seven hundred delegates. In the 1890s the sight of a young man of twenty-five chairing a huge conference of this sort with verve and efficiency made a deep impression. Among the decisions of the conference was one to adopt the American SVM watchword.[6]

By this time Fraser had already applied to the Free Church of Scotland to go to Malawi (then British Central Africa) as a missionary. Before leaving for Africa in June 1896, Fraser undertook a tour of six European countries on behalf of the SVM, and on his way out to Malawi he stopped in South Africa, where he undertook a three-month tour of universities and colleges to promote and encourage the movement there. He also visited Lovedale, the great center of Free Church of Scotland educational work in Cape Province, from which several local evangelists had gone to work in Malawi.

In the early 1890s, then, Fraser’s impact on the student world in Britain, Europe, and South Africa was significant. Tissington Tatlow wrote that Donald Fraser “left his mark permanently on the [British] movement.”[7] These early years of involvement in the SVM were also important in quite different ways for Fraser’s future missionary career. First, they meant that he arrived in Malawi, not as a raw recruit, to be molded and shaped by the existing policies of the mission, but as an experienced and respected leader. Second, the ecumenical and international contacts that he had already made before he began his missionary career undoubtedly broadened his theological outlook affecting the way in which he reflected on mission and put it into practice. The two points taken together meant that from the very beginning he was able to develop policies that were often distinct from, and occasionally at odds with, those of his missionary colleagues.

Mission and Innovation Among the Ngoni

In January 1897, following his South African tour, Fraser arrived in northern Malawi, where he was to work with the Livingstonia Mission. This mission had been set up in 1874 in memory of David Livingstone, and though associated primarily with the Free (from 1900 United Free) Church of Scotland, it was technically an independent organization. It had begun its work in Malawi in 1875 at Cape Maclear, at the southern end of Lake Malawi, but, by the time Fraser arrived the Livingstonia Mission was working predominantly in the north of the country, among the Tumbuka, Tonga, and Ngoni peoples.

Fraser was allocated to work with the Ngoni, a tribe related to both the modern Zulu and Xhosa nations of South Africa. The Ngoni had migrated from South Africa northward during the mfecane (the time of troubles), which had led to the rise of the Zulu leader Shaka.[8] They are normally characterized (if not caricatured) as a warlike people resistant to the Gospel. By the time of Fraser’s arrival various factors had combined to change that, and within a few years thousands were to seek baptism.

The policies followed by Fraser encouraged this trend. They did not initiate it, as Fraser himself was aware; but it would be fair to say that his policies were often closer to the priorities and concerns of the Ngoni themselves than were those of some of his missionary colleagues, and that they struck a cord of responsiveness.

One preeminent example of this was Fraser’s use of large sacramental conventions as a mission strategy. In the Scottish highland tradition in which he was brought up, the tradition of the Communion season was well known. Here people gathered from a wide area for a week of services and teaching that culminated in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Fraser based his African conventions on this tradition but added baptism to Communion as the essential ingredients of the occasion.[9]

When he held his first such convention at Ekwendeni in May 1898, about 4,000 people attended, although at the time there were less than 400 baptized Ngoni Christians. The following year the occasion was even bigger, with well over 6,000 attending, and 309 adults and 148 children were baptized. So big was the gathering that temporary grass huts (misasa) had to be erected to accommodate the visitors, leading some of Fraser’s colleagues to compare the occasion to the Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles.[10] There is little doubt that the real attraction for the Ngoni was that it reminded them of their traditional feast, the incwala, or feast of the firstfruits. This was a national festival that had died out during the long migration from the south, but the memory obviously remained and was meaningful.

Fraser’s use of these large conventions, against the wishes of some of his missionary colleagues who considered them too emotional, was part of his general sympathy for African culture. Many years later he wrote:

I fear the Evangel which de-nationalizes, which refuses to recognize the power of the Gospel to purify what is not essentially wrong, and which preaches first through prohibitions, rather than by the attraction of what is positive… We come not to destroy distinctive nationality, but to fulfil what men have searched after gropingly; and for the enrichment of the world to retain and purify all that is not evil… If our presentation of the Gospel puts its emphasis on the prohibition of social practices which are not essentially evil, we are apt to arouse an antagonism of nationality when we should have made it our greatest ally.[11]

Fraser’s attitude toward African culture may also be seen in his encouragement of indigenous music. The Ngoni were a very musical people, with a rich tradition of praise songs to the chief, as well as wedding, hunting, and war songs. Earlier missionaries had thought these inappropriate for Christian use, though William Koyi, one of the black African evangelists who had come from Lovedale in South Africa to work at Livingstonia, had introduced Zulu hymns to the Ngoni.[12]

The process of Ngoni Christian hymn composition was already under way when Fraser arrived, His contribution lay in the way in which he encouraged and channeled the tradition. He did so primarily in connection with the sacramental conventions, by holding hymn-writing competitions each year. On occasion there were as many as fifty new compositions submitted. Sometimes these were new Christian words set to traditional Ngoni tunes; on other occasions both tune and words were new, but in traditional style. At their best these hymns were not only sung but danced (though in a restrained way very different from Ngoni war dances).[13]

Before long these Ngoni hymns were being translated into the other languages used in the mission area. When, in 1910, a new hymnbook was being compiled by the Livingstonia Mission, Fraser’s membership on the working committee ensured that many Ngoni hymns were included. The best of these also found their way into other hymnbooks in different parts of Malawi and, more recently, into some international and ecumenical collections of hymns.[14]

In general it could be argued that Fraser was much more trusting of and encouraging toward the local Christians in his area than most of his colleagues. This can be seen in several ways–his practice of baptizing Africans relatively soon after their conversion, his encouragement of women in leadership roles, and his devolution of at least some missionary powers to local Christians through a system of subsessions.

By the time Fraser arrived in Malawi, a fairly rigid system of hearers and catechumens’ classes had already been established, which meant, in practice, that the period between confession of faith and baptism might (and usually did) last several years. While accepting the system in principle, Fraser administered it much more flexibly than many of his colleagues.[15]

As the Ngoni church grew, ways needed to be found for ministering to the large numbers of women converts. As early as 1901 Fraser proposed in the presbytery the organization and training of an order of deaconesses.[16] At this period the presbytery was largely dominated by white male missionaries. No action was taken on Fraser’s proposal, so in the same year he instituted an order of women known locally as balalakazi (women elders). Since the presbytery did not recognize the right of women to be elders for a further thirty-five years, the balalakazi remained an unofficial grouping; in practice, however, these women fulfilled the functions of elders in the local church and mirrored similar female groupings in traditional Ngoni society.[17] Here, as elsewhere, Fraser succeeded because he worked with rather than against the traditional values of the Ngoni people.

Moving Toward Indigenous Control

By the early years of the twentieth century, missionaries like Fraser were responsible for thousands of Christians spread over vast areas. The presbyterian system operated by the Scottish missionaries meant that groups of elders could meet officially only when presided over by an ordained minister. Since at this period there were no African ordained ministers in the mission, this tradition effectively centralized power in the hands of the European missionaries. Once again, Fraser bypassed the system by creating a completely new structure, known locally as masessioni ghachoko (subsessions). These were, effectively, groups of local Christians, presided over by an evangelist, who oversaw the work of the church in their own areas. Major decisions still had to be referred to the main session, presided over by Fraser, but the system did give local Christians at least some effective control of their own communities.[18]

Fraser’s missionary career lasted from 1896 until 1925 (though he had several long periods in Scotland between these dates, organizing missionary campaigns in 1906 and 1921-22, and serving as moderator of the United Free Church in 1922-23). Throughout his missionary service Fraser wrote regularly on a wide range of subjects. He authored six books and wrote innumerable articles for church and mission publications. Running through all of these works is an unusual combination of evangelical fervor, on the one hand, and sympathy for African culture and political advance, on the other. This combination can be seen most clearly in Fraser’s views on mission education, where he championed the idea of the vernacular village school, which he saw primarily as an evangelical agency but also as a means of self-sufficiency for the African masses. He was particularly concerned that Africans should not be educated simply to meet the needs of European colonists and traders. In a hard-hitting letter written to R. F. Gaunt, the newly appointed colonial director of education for Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1927, Fraser wrote:

Education must necessarily arouse discontent with poor conditions and the restlessness of the awakening natural consciousness. Some might think you desire to create an African who will be content with the position given to him and never be a trouble to Government.

He went on to outline his own ideas of the kind of social effects education should produce:

The small trades and industries will be in the hands of the natives and not of Greeks, Indians or Chinese… A man should not finish his apprenticeship in an industry without knowing how to conduct his trade in his community, not as a servant of the European but as his own master.[19]

Contributions of a Veteran Evangelist

Throughout his missionary career Fraser had been in regular correspondence with men such as Mott

and Oldham. With Oldham in particular he had a long-standing and close relationship, dating back to their early days together in the SVMU and continuing, for example, in 1906, when Fraser asked Oldham to become secretary of the Mission Study Movement that he was launching in Scotland.[20] Undoubtedly, however, it was in the 1920s that Fraser’s influence as a mission strategist (both in Scotland and on the international scene) was greatest.

During the 1920s he was successively director of the Scottish Churches’ Missionary campaign of 1921-22 and moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland in 1922-23. He also, through speaking engagements at student conferences, had a considerable influence on a younger generation of missionaries and missiologists such as Stephen Neill and J. W. C. Dougall.[21]

Throughout his time in Africa Fraser was supported and upheld by his wife, Agnes, a medical doctor whom he had married in 1901 and who, among many distinctions in her own right, wrote Fraser’s biography soon after he died. She then returned as a medical missionary to the newly formed Copperbelt Mission in Zambia. They had four children–Violet, George, Catherine, and Donald, Jr.

His missionary career ended, as it had begun, with the chairmanship of a major mission conference. Before leaving for Africa in 1896 he had chaired the Liverpool Conference of the Student Volunteer Missionary Union; in 1926, shortly after his final return from Africa, he was chairman of the Le Zoute conference on “The Christian Mission in Africa.”[22] That he was asked to fill the chair at such a prestigious conference is, in itself, an indication of the esteem in which he was held by the international mission community.

Le Zoute was a difficult conference, caught between two worlds in several senses of the term. Some delegates thought it too biased toward the educational fashion of adaptation, popularized in the 1920s by the Phelps-Stokes commissions, and the ideas of Jesse Jones.[23] Others felt it was too biased toward education, with not enough emphasis on evangelization. Like Edinburgh 1910 (and in spite of all that had happened in between), it was predominantly a Caucasian conference, with only about four black Africans present. Writers such as Edwin Smith and Roland Allen were quite critical of several of the viewpoints expressed at Le Zoute, Allen, for example, arguing that the conference largely ignored the concerns of the local church.[24]

Fraser’s particular contributions to Le Zoute came in the area of evangelism. in addition to his overall chairmanship, he also chaired the sectional meeting on “Evangelism and the Church.” In preparation for this he had begun writing a major article, “The Evangelistic Approach to the African,” before he left Malawi in 1925.[25] Fraser was always an evangelist at heart, and this article, which was one of the conference papers, represents his mature thinking on the nature of the missionary task after thirty years of practical missionary work.

Among the points made by Fraser in the article were the following: the danger of presenting Christianity in a Europeanized or denominational form, the importance of the missionary’s character as a force for change, the need to relate Christian doctrines such as the atonement to historical African concepts of humanity and God and to accept African customs that were not essentially anti-Christian, the desirability of using African music in worship, and the missionary need to recognize the importance of dreams and visions in the religious life of Africa.[26] Such a list does not seem out of date even now, nearly seventy years later.

Yet, in spite of his contributions to international missionary thinking on such issues as evangelism and education, Fraser was, first and foremost, a practical missionary. Let us end where we began, with the stone cross linking Jonathan Chirwa and Donald Fraser. In 1916 Chirwa, one of the first Malawians to be ordained to the Presbyterian ministry, was posted to a remote station in what is now Zambia. There he committed adultery, which he returned to confess to Fraser.[27] The presbytery suspended him from his ministry and church membership, and there was a strong body of missionary opinion that was opposed in principle to reinstatement. Fraser, however, was convinced of the sincerity of Chirwa’s repentance and, together with strong elements in the Ngoni church, fought for seven years to have him reinstated.[28] Finally in 1924, and against the wishes of the senior missionaries Laws and MacAlpine, the presbytery voted to reinstate Chirwa,and he became one of the most beloved and respected of early Malawian clergy.[29]

For Fraser, mission was essentially about the love and forgiveness of God, which he amply demonstrated in his own life and service.

Jack Thompson


  1. Agnes R. Fraser, Donald Fraser of Livingstonia (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1934), pp. 12-13.

  2. Article by Fraser in The Student Movement 15 (1912): 150, quoted in Tissington Tatlow, The Story of the Student Christian Movement of Great Britain and Ireland (London: SCM Press, 1933), p. 24.

  3. Ruth Rouse, The World’s Student Christian Federation (London: SCM Press, 1948), pp. 95-97.

  4. Tatlow, Story of SCM, p. 24.

  5. Rouse, World’s SCF, pp. 52, 56, 57 and 62.

  6. Make Jesus King: The Report of the International Students’ Missionary Conference, Liverpool, January 1-5, 1896 (London: Student Volunteer Missionary Union, [1896]).

  7. Tatlow, Story of SCM, p. 63.

  8. Earlier generations of historians had, on the whole, seen the rise of Shaka as a cause of the mfecane. It is now generally accepted that the causes were much more widespread–including overpopulation and famine–and that the rise of Shaka was a result of this process.

  9. A full discussion of Fraser’s sacramental conventions and their significance can be found in T. J. Thompson, “Fraser and the Ngoni: A Study of the Growth of Christianity Among the Ngoni of Northern Malawi, 1878-1933, with Special Reference to the Work of Donald Fraser” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Edinburgh, 1980), pp. 124-34.

  10. Free Church of Scotland Monthly, September 1899; and Aurora 3 (June 1899).

  11. Donald Fraser, “The Evangelistic Approach to the African,” International Review of Missions 15 (1926): 438-49.

  12. Letter from William Koyi, dated February 1883, in Free Church of Scotland Monthly, August 1883, p. 241.

  13. United Free Church of Scotland Missionary Record, March 1902, p. 166.

  14. See, for example, Free to Serve: Hymns from Africa, collected by Tom Colvin (Glasgow: Iona Community, 1970).

  15. Thompson, “Fraser and the Ngoni,” pp. 189-93.

  16. North Livingstonia Presbytery Minutes, May 27, 1901, National Archives of Malawi.

  17. Margaret Read, “The Ngoni and Adjustments to Social Change” (unpublished typescript in Read Papers, London School of Economics).

  18. Middle Rukuru (Mariba) Session Minute Book, National Archives of Malawi.

  19. Fraser to R. F. Gaunt, May 25, 1927, “Nyasaland Education,” Box 1209, International Missionary Council Archives, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

  20. J. W. C. Dougall, “J. H. Oldham,” *International Review of Missions *59 (January 1970): 8-22.

  21. Stephen Neill, personal communication, July 21, 1972; and J. W. C. Dougall, personal interview, November 30, 1977.

  22. Edwin W. Smith, The Christian Mission in Africa: A Study Based on the Work of the International Conference at Le Zoute (London: International Missionary Council, 1926).

  23. Two Phelps-Stokes commissions visited West and Central Africa in the mid-1920s. Considerable controversy surrounds the question of whether their interest in the concept of educational adaptation was inherently racist, aimed at limiting rather than expanding African educational opportunities. For a detailed discussion of these points, see K. J. King, Pan-Africanism and Education (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

  24. Smith, Christian Mission; and Roland Allen, Le Zoute: A Critical Review of the Christian Mission in Africa (London: World Dominion Press, 1927).

  25. Donald Fraser, 1925 notebook, vol. 5, ms. 8981, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

  26. Fraser, “Evangelistic Approach.”

  27. Agnes Fraser, Donald Fraser, p. 231.

  28. Jack Thompson, “An Independent Church Which Never Was: The Case of Jonathan Chirwa,” in Exploring New Religious Movements: Essays in Honour of Harold W. Turner, ed. A. F. Walls and Wilbert R. Shenk (Elkhart, Ind.: Mission Focus, 1990), pp. 107-18.

  29. W. H. Watson, personal communication, October 8,1974; and Helen Taylor, personal interview, January 16, 1974.


Works by Donald Fraser

1901 “The Zulu of Nyasaland: Their Manners and Customs,” Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow 32.

1911 The Future of Africa. London: Student Volunteer Misionary Union.

1913 “The Growth of the Church in the Mission Field.” International Review of Missions 2.

1914 Winning a Primitive People. London: Seeley Service.

1915 Livingstonia: The Story of Our Mission. Edinburgh: United Free Church of Scotland.

1921 “The Church and Games in Africa,” International Review of Missions 10.

1922 “The Scottish Churches’ Missionary Campaign.” International Review of Missions 11.

1923 African Idylls. London: Seeley Service.

1925 The Autobiography of an African. London: Seeley Service.

1926 “The Evangelistic Approach to the African.” International Review of Missions 15.

1927 The New Africa. London: Church Missionary Society.

Works About Donald Fraser

Fraser, Agnes R. Donald Fraser of Livingstonia. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1934.

McCracken, John. Politics and Christianity in Malawi, 1875-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. 1977.

Thompson, T. Jack. Fraser and the Ngoni. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.

—–. “Fraser and the Ngoni: A Study of the Growth of Christianity Among the Ngoni of Northern Malawi, 1878-1933, with Special Reference to the Work of Donald Fraser.” Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Edinburgh, 1980.

—–. “An Independent Church Which Never Was: The Case of Jonathan Chirwa.” In Exploring New Religious Movements: Essays in Honour of Harold W. Turner, ed. A. F. Walls and Wilbert R. Shenk. Elkhart, Ind.: Mission Focus, 1990, pp. 107-18.

This article, from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Jan. 94, Vol. 18 Issue 1, p. 32-36 is reproduced, with permission, from Mission Legacies : Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, copyright© 1994, edited by G. H. Anderson, R. T. Coote, N. A. Horner, J. M. Phillips. All rights reserved.