Masangano, George

Church of Christ

George Masangano, who became one of the pivotal figures in the early decades of the Church of Christ in Malawi, was born near Lake Chirwa probably between 1880 and 1885. He later moved several kilometers west to the village of George near Jali in T/A Mwambo’s area of Zomba District, where the chief had granted him some land on which to build a home for his family. Masangano took his name George from the village. He was a Nyanja by tribe. [1]

His independent spirit and determination manifested itself from an early age through his agricultural and hunting pursuits. He established a reputation as a serious gardener and supplemented his family’s diet with the wild game that he killed on his hunts. [2] It would have been unusual for an African man to own a gun in the early twentieth century, but Masangano did and often was seen carrying the weapon into the forest on his regular hunts.

The young Masangano showed his resolve by exceling in other areas as well, as he pursued studies in medicine at Domasi. He was only prevented from completing these studies because of an allergy he had to the food served there. [3] But then he landed at job as an interpreter in the District Magistrate’s office in Zomba. [4] All of these achievements would have set Masangano apart from the vast majority of other young men in the Nyasaland of his time.

It was during his medical studies at Domasi that George Masangano developed an intense interest in spiritual things, being taught and baptized by a European missionary of the Church of Scotland called “Dr. Scott Wamng’ono.” [5] This was probably Henry E. Scott who served at Domasi from 1893-1903. [6] Masangano won the confidence of the Presbyterians and quickly began climbing up the ecclesiastical ladder by becoming a deacon in the Church of Scotland after a short period. [7]

But in the midst of his spiritual fervor he began to experience a call from another direction. This followed his contact with Ellerton Kundago, who was publicly preaching a message that differed in important respects from the Presbyterian teaching that Masangano knew. Kundago had spent time in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, and had come into contact with a missionary of the Church of Christ named John Sherriff. Sherriff had converted him and trained him to preach, after which Kundago returned to Malawi and began planting churches. [8] Kundago used the Bible to teach Masangano that baptism is by immersion in water and reserved for believers to come into Christ. This differed from the Presbyterian teaching that baptism is for infants also and by sprinkling. Masangano was astounded by what he was learning, seeing how Kundago took all of his teaching directly from the Bible. [9] At the same time began seeing visions telling him to continue in the direction he was going. [10] Masangano made a trip to Kundago’s base at Chikunda, near Blantyre, where he spent three days learning more about the Church of Christ and what the Bible teaches about salvation. On 28 November 1907, Kundago baptized Masangano. [11]

Masangano, ever an outspoken man, immediately began sharing what he knew and had experienced when he returned home to Zomba. People began responding and word quickly got back to the Church of Scotland leadership. He was asked to speak to a meeting attended by 300 and explain himself. At that meeting his explanation for being immersed by Kundago was so convincing that at least 70 of those in attendance followed his example and were later baptized. After these events the Church of Scotland missionary Rev. Anderson was alarmed and summoned Masangano to discuss the message he was now proclaiming. Seven elders interrogated him. Masangano often used combative language in religious debate and the mood of the meeting became ominous when he told them that their baptism was not valid because it was by sprinkling. The elders quickly responded with a volley of their own, a physical one, as they began beating the young man. [12] Somehow, he managed to escape but he never looked back. George Masangano was through with the Church of Scotland and would continue down the path he had recently discovered as a member of the Church of Christ.

Masangano continued preaching. Word of the zealous young preacher came back to the British Churches of Christ, probably through Kundago, and they began paying him as a fulltime preacher. He left his government job to dedicate himself to this new path, taking a significant pay cut in the process. [13] By the time George and Helen Hollis moved to Zomba District as Church of Christ missionaries in 1909, Masangano was already one of the main leaders of the church, working alongside Kundago and other leaders. But Kundago was going through a faith crisis and began distancing himself from the missionaries and the church as his sins came out into the open. Masangano once again showed his prophetic impulse to speak out against what he saw was wrong, publicly denouncing his old mentor to the church. [14] In the eyes of the missionaries, Masangano had taken Kundago’s place as a man that could be trusted.

In the years that followed George Masangano continued to use his knowledge and skills to advance the gospel through preaching, teaching, and leading churches. He retained his prophetic voice by his outspoken opposition to any practice he thought was wrong, whether done by missionaries or Africans. This led to an early clash with Hollis. Hollis had instituted a lengthy period of training that all would-be converts had to go through before they could receive baptism. Masangano did not agree the policy. While teaching at a Church of Christ-run school called Chikala in Machinga District, he baptized thee men who had not undergone the training that Hollis demanded.[15] Hollis was furious and suspended Masangano for a month, demanding that the men not be allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper until they completed the training. Masangano stood firm, stating that he would do the same thing again in a similar situation. Hollis ultimately backed down, allowing the men full membership in the church. [16]

In 1915 following the Chilembwe Rising against European rule in Malawi, Churches of Christ were banned in Malawi because the government suspected that they were supportive of the rebellion. The Hollises and other missionaries were interned for some weeks and then deported. [17] Some former Church of Christ members who were found to be conspirators in the plot were executed. [18] Key leaders of the Church of Christ were imprisoned. Masangano received a seven year sentence because he had been friends with John Chilembwe, who had confided his plans to Masangano before the Rising. Masangano had pleaded with Chilembwe on the eve of the Rising not to carry out his violent plan but failed to convince him. Masangano could have reported Chilembwe to the authorities but did not want his friend’s blood on his hands so he kept quiet. [19] When the government learned of this knowledge, they assumed that Masangano and other Church of Christ leaders must have been involved.

After serving four of these seven years, Masangano was released and with other church leaders continued to lead the few surviving congregations under intense government scrutiny. [20] Masangano, alongside Ronald Kaundo and Frederick Nkhonde, was one of the three most influential leaders of the fledgling churches.

After several years of a government ban on Church of Christ missionaries, new missionaries were finally allowed back into the country in 1930. Almost immediately Masangano and his fellow Malawian preachers discovered that they could not work with the new missionaries, especially Ernest Gray who was to settle in Zomba District and work with them. They were most opposed to his more open stance to other churches, especially the plan to take the Churches of Christ into the Federated Missions, an arrangement among the major Christian denominations in Malawi to recognize each others’ members and cooperate in their work. [21] When Masangano and his colleagues told Gray that they objected to the Federation, Gray told them that the Churches of Christ must join because this had been a condition from the government for the missionaries to return. If the missionaries had to leave they would not be able to provide financial help to the churches. To this the Malawian leaders retorted, “We don’t want the money, but to obey the Lord.” [22] Masangano also felt that the new missionaries did not give him adequate respect and was alarmed that they did not share his strong views against alcohol and tobacco. He further was chagrined to see that they planned to institute a period of catechetical instruction before baptism as Hollis had done. [23]

At the same time personal tensions had developed between Masangano on the one hand and Kaundo and Nkhonde on the other. Eventually Masangano decided he could no longer work with either the missionaries or his Malawian colleagues, withdrawing from them to form the Church of God in 1931. A few months later Kaundo and Nkhonde separated from the missionaries to lead the bulk of the remaining churches now known as the African Church of Christ. [24]

Masangano continued to be the most important leader in the Church of God in the coming decades. While he continued to have poor personal relations with the main leaders of the African Church of Christ, many other Church of God leaders continued to have fellowship with their counterparts in the African Church of Christ. Their theology was essentially the same. [25] Masangano continued to speak against ecumenism with other Christian groups, the use of beer including unfermented “sweet beer” (thobwa), and both the use and cultivation of tobacco. [26]

In 1940, however, a scandal in Masangano’s life revealed that he was as vulnerable as any other person to the snares of the devil. It emerged that he was involved in an affair. This began when he routinely left his wife at home to go on preaching trips to the distant Mulanje District. There he developed a romantic relationship with another woman and began to travel with her on his journeys. [27] When news of this came back to his home area, a group in the Church of God under John Malembo stringently opposed Masangano’s remaining a leader. Although Masangano publicly repented of his sin, Malembo and his followers left the Church of God to form the Sons of God. [28] In the coming years members of this church continued to have fellowship with both the African Church of Christ and Church of God, though Masangano and Malembo never reconciled. [29]

The majority of the Church of God congregations continued to recognize Masangano’s leadership, though, and the original cluster of Churches of Christ in southern Malawi continued to be separated into the African Church of Christ, Church of God, Sons of God, and some smaller splinter groups. The situation began to change after the arrival of American missionaries at Namikango Mission in Thondwe in 1961, however. B. Shelburne and Roland Hayes made it a priority to reach out to all of the groups who were willing to consider working together with them. Masangano by this point was now advanced in years and had been worrying about who would shepherd the flock of the Church of God after he passed away. Hearing about the new missionaries, he came to visit Namikango in 1962 to see what the missionaries believed and what their plans were just as he had traveled to Chikunda all those years before to learn what Ellerton Kundago was teaching. After the discussions he was convinced that these missionaries were people he could work with and took this message back to the 30 congregations of the Church of God. Twenty-five of these decided to follow his counsel to begin working with Namikango Mission and established unity with the other Churches of Christ. They also began referring to themselves as Churches of Christ rather than the Church of God because they felt the name more accurately reflected their Christocentric theology. On a practical level the ministry program at Namikango began providing the leaders of these congregations the training that would be needed to build up their churches. [30]

George Masangano lived for only two more years, dying in 1964, but he dedicated this final period to promoting unity among a much larger family of churches than in his earlier years. [31] There was no longer any sign of the bitter conflicts he had earlier had with missionaries like Hollis or Gray or with African workers like Nkhonde, Kaundo, and Malembo. Now enjoying the respect as of an elder statesman in the churches, he lived his last years knowing that the churches he had shepherded for so many years were on a surer footing as part of a larger body that had the support of theologically compatible missionaries. He now had reached a level of maturity to peaceably work with peers from a variety of backgrounds for the good of the flock, leaving a legacy that other leaders would build on for decades to come.

Mark Thiesen


  1. L. Peaches Jana, interview by author, February 2, 2010, Namiwawa Village, tape recording.
  2. Jana.
  3. Samuel Tambala, interview by author, May 3, 2010, George Village, tape recording.
  4. “Foreign Missions,” Bible Advocate, January 10, 1909, p. 649.
  5. George Masangano, Memoir, nd, np.
  6. Gilbert Phiri, interview by author, June 23, 2010, Domasi.
  7. G.B. Shelburne III, “History of the Church in Africa,” nd, np.
  8. Henry Langworthy, “Africa for the African”: The Life of Joseph Booth, Blantyre: CLAIM-Kachere, 1996, p. 200.
  9. Shelburne.
  10. Masangano.
  11. Shelburne.
  12. Shelburne.
  13. “Foreign Missions.”
  14. George H. Hollis, Diary, July 7, 1910.
  15. George H. Hollis, Diary, May 22, 1911.
  16. George H. Hollis, Diary, May 21, 1911.
  17. George Shepperson and Thomas Price, Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915, Blantyre: CLAIM-Kachere, 2000, p. 346.
  18. Phiri, D.D., Let Us Die for Africa, Blantyre: Central African, 1999, p. 51. These included Simon Kadewere and Barton Makwangwala.
  19. Shelburne.
  20. Ernest Gray, The Early History of the Churches of Christ Missionary Work in Nyasaland, Central Africa, 1907-1930, Cambridge: Churches of Christ Historical Society Occasional Paper No. 1, 1981.
  21. “Nyasaland and Bro. Ernest Gray: An Astounding Situation,” Bible Advocate, Clippings, 1930.
  22. Shelburne.
  23. Ernest Gray—John Sherriff, December 31, 1930.
  24. Ernest Gray—Laurie Grindstead, October 26, 1932.
  25. Samuel Tambala, interview by author, March 5, 2010, Namikango Mission, tape recording.
  26. Masangano.
  27. John Parratt, “Religious Independency in Nyasaland—A Typology of Origins,” African Studies, V. 38, No. 2, 1979, pp. 188-189.
  28. Shelburne.
  29. L.P. Jahna, interview by author, January 30, 2011, Namiwawa Village, tape recording.
  30. Shelburne.
  31. Shelburne.


“Foreign Missions.” Bible Advocate, January 10, 1909, 649.
Gray, Ernest—John Sherriff. December 31, 1930.
Gray, Ernest—Laurie Grindstead. October 26, 1932.
Gray, Ernest. The Early History of the Churches of Christ Missionary Work in Nyasaland, Central Africa, 1907-1930. Cambridge: Churches of Christ Historical Society Occasional Paper No. 1, 1981. Hollis, George H. Diary. July 7, 1910, May 21, 1911, May 22, 1911.
Jahna, L.P. Interview by author, January 30, 2011, Namiwawa Village, Tape recording.
Jana, L. Peaches. Interview by author, February 2, 2010, Namiwawa Village. Tape recording.
Langworthy, Henry. “Africa for the African”: The Life of Joseph Booth. Blantyre: CLAIM-Kachere, 1996.
Masangano, George. Memoir, nd, np. “Nyasaland and Bro. Ernest Gray: An Astounding Situation.” Bible Advocate, Clippings, 1930. Parratt, John. “Religious Independency in Nyasaland—A Typology of Origins.” African Studies, 38, no. 2, (1979): 183-200. Phiri, D.D. Let Us Die for Africa. Blantyre: Central African, 1999.
Phiri, Gilbert. Interview by author, June 23, 2010, Domasi. Tape recording.
Shelburne, G.B., III. “History of the Church in Africa.” nd, np.
Shepperson, George and Thomas Price. Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of tne Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915. Blantyre: CLAIM-Kachere, 2000.
Tambala, Samuel. Interview by author, March 5, 2010. Tape recording.
Tambala, Samuel. Interview by author, May 3, 2010, George Village. Tape recording.
Thiesen, Mark. Churches of Christ: A History of the Restoration Movement in Malawi 1906-1981. Mzuzu, Mzuni, 2021.

This article, submitted in 2021, was written by Mark Thiesen, a missionary to Malawi who, as part of his PhD studies at Mzuzu University, researched the history of the Church of Christ in Malawi.