Mwasi, Yesaya Zerenji
Mwasi was born around 1869/70 at Mlombozi in Chikuyu in the Nkhata Bay district. Details about his early life are scanty but it is noted that he entered Overtoun Institute at Livingstonia Mission of the Free Church of Scotland in 1897 and studied in the Arts course until 1899. On finishing this, he began the study of theology at the same college, graduating in 1905 to then become a licensed preacher.
As he advanced, he developed a reputation for his outstanding intellectual abilities, his formidable gifts and, to top it off, his fiery temper which colored his later life and ministry. After serving with some distinction as a teacher and licentiate, Mwasi was ordained in 1914, becoming one of the first three Africans ordained to the ministry at Livingstonia mission. In 1916 he became a full parish pastor. Barely two years later, he was chosen as the first African Moderator of Livingstonia Presbytery while simultaneously serving as clerk of the presbytery until 1921.
Among his tribesmen, Yesaya Zerenji Mwasi was known as a rainmaker and a miracle worker. Wherever he conducted his services people called the place a “holy sanctuary” because of what happened there. During his revivalist sermons people would become hysterical or spirit-possessed and would come to the front confessing their sins and prostrating themselves before Christ. Some even claim that his powerful preaching was the chief factor in counteracting the spread of the Watch Tower movement started by Elliot Kamwana in the early 1900s. Mwasi was also noted for his fearless spirit displayed in his willingness to travel at night and to confront the forces of witchcraft in the name of Christ. His astounding abilities were also obvious in music as he was an exceptional singer. In particular, he would sing the psalms, especially Psalm 139. He was also a writer, producing several works in English, including one entitled A History of the World from the Tower of Babel Onwards and in Chitonga, a history of the Tonga people, his ethnic group.
Although Yesaya Zerenji Mwasi was the product of Livingstonia education and ministry, his relationship with the mission was always sour. This was mainly due to his fiery temper as well as to the missionaries’ attitudes towards native ministers. Disagreements with the missionaries over church policy became pronounced as the years went by. Mwasi’s suspensions were often forestalled by the fear that his temperament might be a source of unrest and possible danger to the mission and its work if he should sever his connection with the mission and begin independent preaching among the natives. One of his early clashes with the mission occurred in 1915 when he baptized catechumens without the consent of the Kirk session, a practice that was common among Scottish missionaries but regarded as serious insurbodination on Mwasi’s part who was consequently suspended for a month and later re-instated.
Problems came to a head in 1932 when Mwasi suspended one of his senior elders for his daughter’s alleged elopement. When a group of elders from his church complained to Mr. A. G. MacAlpine, a Scottish missionary not on good terms with Mwasi, a presbytery meeting found him guilty without dealing with the issue at Kirk level,–a move Mwasi argued was contrary to church procedures. He was suspended forthwith.
On September 26, 1933, Mwasi seceded from Livingstonia mission after publicly reading his masterpiece work entitled “My Essential and Paramount Reasons for Working Independently,” in which he outlined his reasons for leaving. At that point, he had formed his own church which he called Blackman’s Church which is in Tongaland. In his writing he argued for a naturalisation and nationalisation of God, Christ and faith if Christianity is to take root in the life of the natives. He set out to implement this vision, his main burden being the reconciliation of Christianity as preached by the missionaries and African culture. Although Mwasi’s church has not expanded beyond the foundation he laid, his theological vision has been adopted in one form or another by almost all the churches in Malawi.
Louis W. Ndekha
Yesaya Zerenji Mwasi, Essential and Paramount Reasons for Working Independently (Blantyre: CLAIM, 1999).
John MacCracken, Politics and Christianity in Malawi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1977).
S. J. Campbell, “The Blackman’s Theological College in Malawi, An Attempt at Contextualized Theological Education,” * Missiology,* vol. 10 (1982), pp. 107-111.
Howard Matiya Nkhoma, Zerenji Mwasi and The Blackman’s Church, A Study of an Independent Church in Livingstonia Mission Area of Malawi, M. Phil, (University of Dublin, 1987).
J. K. Parratt, “Mwasi And The Origins of the Blackman’s Church,” Journal of Religion in Africa, vol 9 (1928), pp. 193 - 206.
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.