Classic DACB Collection

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

Scott, David Clement

Church of Scotland
Malawi , Kenya

A visionary and ambitious Church of Scotland missionary, David Clement Scott’s labors in Malawi and Kenya has left a record of both great achievement and failure.

Scott was born in 1853 in Edinburgh and educated at the University of Edinburgh, then ordained in the Church of Scotland in 1881.[1] An intellectually accomplished student with a highly speculative mind, Scott was considered by many to be perfectly suited for mission work in India—what was then considered a “higher” civilization. But he committed himself instead to Africa, laboring first at the Blantyre mission in the Shire highlands (1881 to 1898), building up “one of the [Church of Scotland’s] most successful foreign missions of modern times”, and then at the Kikuyu mission in present day Kenya (1898-1907), where he died in service.[2]

Service in Malawi

The Foreign Mission Committee of the Church of Scotland sent him in 1881 to revive the flagging Blantyre mission, which had been wracked by violent scandal and depleted by staff resignations and the dismissal of its leader, Rev. Duff Macdonald.[3] Upon arriving at Blantyre, Scott set to work repairing relationships with local chiefs that had been damaged in preceding years by the deleterious conduct of the mission staff. Under his supervision, the mission strongly promoted the Presbyterian ideal of mission as education, and schools for boys and girls would in time raise many of the future indigenous leaders of colonial and post-colonial Malawi.[4] Evangelism was also a priority, and churches were planted in proximity to Blantyre and further afield: Mulanje, Domasi and Zomba, and Ngoniland.[5] The Blantyre mission also developed as an industrial mission under Scott’s tutelage, where converts could learn the sort of practical skills that Scott and his colleagues believed would incorporate them into the wider economic and social world of the British empire.

Scott produced a dictionary of the Chinyanja language that evidenced not only considerable linguistic abilities, but also a deep and sympathetic grasp of African culture.[6] In contrast to many other British missionaries of the day, Scott’s views on African race and culture were progressive. He opposed certain elements of traditional culture as incompatible with Christianity (e.g. initiation rituals, polygamy) but he did not condemn African customs wholesale. On the contrary, he considered some aspects fully consonant with Christianity, permitted traditional dances for schoolboys and girls on the mission compound, and promoted the mlandu— the traditional meeting of elders for discussion and judgment—as relevant for both church and society. “One could wish for no weightier justice than that of native mlandu-power Christianized into a church court,” he enthused.[7]

The mission historian Andrew Ross has argued that Scott had no interest in turning Africans into “black Scotsmen.”[8] It is true that Scott vehemently maintained, against the waxing racism in the late nineteenth century, that Africans were fully equal to Europeans; accused of being a “negrophile” by hostile settlers and more conservative missionaries, he anticipated great things from the emerging African church and encouraged the training of lay African evangelists and deacons with an eye to their future ordination. At the same time, his views on racial equality did not presume cultural equity. He insisted that the African church required a “cultured ministry,” which naturally necessitated a long education and “civilizing” process for indigenous candidates, and he expected the refinement and elevation of African Christian society to the standards of British civilization.[9] The ambiguity of his perspective is well identified by the historian John McCracken, who suggests that what Scott wanted was the creation of “modern communities” of African Christians, that is to say, African Christians who could take their place as equals in the superior civilization that was inevitably spreading around the world through imperialism.[10]

In the late 1880s Scott undertook a most ambitious venture: the erection of a cathedral at the mission, which was soon given the very un-Presbyterian name of “St. Michael’s and All Angels’ Church.” Built of sun-fired bricks by African labor primarily through donations raised from well-wishers in Britain, Scott’s massive church was solely of his own planning. Today one of central Africa’s iconic church buildings, St. Michael’s was intended to impress people with the glory of the Christian God and civilization.[11] It was also intended to express “what the church should be.”[12] The church’s idiosyncratic design incorporates both medieval Catholic and Byzantine styles and elements, for Scott was convinced that African Christianity would be the soil upon which Christendom would reunite: “One feels here what people in Scotland can never feel, the face of a Christianity which has not been troubled by Greek and Roman schism, which knows nothing of Protestant and Papist and which seems above them all broader than them all. In the breadth of nature here in Africa one looks for the notes of triumphant unity of the faith at no very distant date.”[13] Older tributes to Scott identify St. Michael’s as one of his two great legacies to Malawian Christianity (the other being his dictionary).[14] Yet the fact that there is nothing discernibly African in style or element about the structure makes it difficult to understanding if Scott anticipated that African Christianity would develop as distinctly African in ethos and form or rather just as a repristination ion of European Christendom.

Scott’s greatest legacy in Malawi is his trenchant and incisive criticism of British foreign and colonial policy. Scott and his Blantyre colleagues were instrumental in rousing public opinion in Britain to move the government to make the territory around Lake Malawi and the Shire highlands into the protectorate of British Central Africa in 1891, rather than let it come under the rule of the slave-trading and Catholic Portuguese.[15] Through letters, reports and often biting commentary in Life and Work, Scott then raised alarm regarding the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes’ offer to administer and/or finance the protectorate under the auspices of his British South African Company. With an eye to the treatment of Africans in BSAC territories to the south, Scott reminded the government and public that Rhodes was not a philanthropist. “We fear that Mr. Johnson’s hands will be so tied by this chain of gold that he cannot if he would be a British representative.”[16] Scott and his right hand man in Blantyre, Rev. Alexander Hetherwick, earned the wrath of the Foreign Office and the protectorate’s governor Sir Harry Johnson, who wished to see both “meddling and muddling” missionaries removed.[17] “We cannot treat this land as a conquered country,” Scott argued, which led him further to sharp critique of Johnson’s violent treatment of local chiefs, as well as his preferential treatment of European settlers and oppressive taxation policies.[18] Historians have noted that Scott and the Blantyre mission’s agitation against colonial policy on behalf of African interests was not only a major contributor to the creation of the colony which would become the future nation of Malawi, it also laid the seeds among Malawians themselves of a critical posture towards colonialism, which would come to fruition in the 1950s and 60s in the opposition to the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and concurrent independence movement.[19]

Scott’s admirable pro-African stance proved in part his downfall. British settlers, upset with the mission’s defense of African land and labor rights, mounted a campaign to convince the FMC to remove him from Blantyre on charges of unorthodoxy. The Foreign Mission Committee had often been irritated by Scott’s spendthrift ways and imperious manner, and took earnestly the complaints by the European community around Blantyre against Scott’s autocratic leadership style (he saw himself as a sort of bishop figure) and his Scoto-Catholic liturgical tastes at St. Michaels, which included surpliced choirs, candles, and turning to the east for prayers.[20] When Scott returned to Scotland on furlough in 1898, reeling from the recent deaths of his wife, brother and child on the mission field, he was relieved of duties.

Tenure in Kenya

In 1901 the FMC appointed Scott as superintendent of their industrial mission in Kikuyuland, which they taken over from the Imperial British East Africa Company several years earlier.[21 ] Scott’s vision remained as ambitious as ever, while his focus shifted from evangelistic and educational mission work to large-scale agriculture. Imagining a large Christianized labor force working the estate, who would themselves leaven the surrounding area with the gospel, even as the mission itself would be a link in a chain of self-sufficient mission stations stretching up to Abyssinia, Scott obsessively pursued the purchase of a vast estate of upwards of three thousand acres. He eventually achieved this goal, earning along the way the nickname “Watenga” which means “clearer” (i.e., clearer of the land), but he was exhausted by the effort it took to secure and manage the estate, and neglected other aspects of mission work to the consternation of the Foreign Mission Committee.[22] Furthermore, price variability, transport problems, and competition from other settlers created serious financial problems for the mission, and Scott lost both his own personal fortune and funds donated by high-placed friends. The FMC insisted on a change of course to more conventional Scottish Presbyterian mission priorities; Scott, disillusioned and lonely, his second wife having already died in Kenya, succumbed to thrombosis of the legs in 1907.

Scott defies easy evaluation. A visionary and idealistic missionary, yes, but one well aware of how realpolitik of an imperial age practically affected missionary work. A broad churchman (in the Victorian sense), with a wide and generous vision of the church and Christian society, Scott was single-minded in his mission pursuits and, it must be admitted, sometimes eccentric in his interests. A vocal and eloquent advocate of African leadership in the church, he still expected them to model British ideals. A promoter of European Christian civilization, Scott passionately defended African interests against the encroaching empire and wholeheartedly believed that Africans would come to take their place in the global church as full equals.

Todd Statham


  1. For details of his life see Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Vol. 7, edited by Hew Scott, (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1929), 705-706.

  2. *Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, *705.

  3. Http:// See further Peter Hinchliff, "The Blantyre Scandal, Scottish Missionaries and Colonialism," Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 46 (1984): 29-38.

  4. Andrew C. Ross, "Wokendedwa Wathu: The Mzungu who Mattered," Religion in Malawi 8 (1998): 4.

  5. For Scott’s role in expanding the Blantyre mission into southern Malawi see P. Jenkins, "Mission Accomplished," The Society of Malawi Journal (36) 1986: 17-25.

  6. Scott, Cyclopaedic Dictionary of the Mang’anja Language spoken in British Central Africa (Edinburgh: The Foreign Mission Committee of the Church of Scotland, 1892).

  7. Life and Work in British Central Africa, November 1891. This small newspaper was the organ of the Blantyre mission and often served as Scott’s mouthpiece.

  8. See especially Andrew C. Ross, "The African—‘A Child or a Man"’: the Quarrel between the Blantyre Mission of the Church of Scotland and the British Central Africa Administration, 1890-1905," in The Zambesian Past: Studies in Central African History, edited by Eric Stokes and Richard Brown (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1966), 332-51.

  9. Life and Work in British Central Africa, January 1894, April 1894.

  10. John McCracken, A History of Malawi 1859-1966 (London: James Currey, 2012), 109-10. Perhaps the best validation of Scott’s progressive views on race comes from an unlikely source: Joseph Booth, whose incendiary classic Africa for the African (1897; reprint, Blantyre: CLAIM: 1996), singles out the Blantyre mission for praise.

  11. Alexander Hetherwick, The Building of the Blantyre Church, Nyasaland 1888-1891 (Blantyre: Hetherwick Press, 1926), 7.

    • Life and Work in British Central Africa*, September-October 1907.
  12. Life and Work in British Central Africa, December 1893; see also Life and Work, June 1894.

  13. E.g. Hetherwick, The Building of the Blantyre Church; Stephen Green, "The Blantyre Mission," The Nyasaland Journal (10) 1957: 6-17.

  14. See Andrew Porter, Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 268-274.

  15. Life and Work, July 1894.

  16. Harry Johnson to Lord Salisbury, cited in Ross, "Wokendedwa Wathu," 4.

  17. Life and Work, December 1894. See further David Stuart-Mogg, "The Rev. David Clement Scott and the Issue of Land Title in British Central Africa. A Transcription, with Commentary, of an Unpublished Letter Written by Scott from Portobello, Edinburgh on 5th December 1891," The Society of Malawi Journal 57 (2004): 21-34.

  18. Argued at length in Andrew C. Ross, Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi (Blantyre: CLAIM, 1996).

  19. Life and Work, January 1894. Life and Work is full of Scott’s often-bizarre musings on liturgy, apostolic succession, ancient church practices, etc…

  20. Roland Oliver, The Missionary Factor in East Africa, 2nd ed. (London: Longmans, 1965), 170-171. My sources in this section are Brian J. McIntosh, "The Scottish Mission in Kenya, 1891-1923," (Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1969), and R. Macpherson, The Presbyterian Church in Kenya (Nairobi: Presbyterian Church in East Africa, 1970), 32-42.

  21. A report made by one of Scott’s old Blantyre colleagues who visited him at the Kikuyu mission expressed surprise that there was "very little progress, either in things material or spiritual" (Life and Work, April 1907).


Booth, Joseph. Africa for the African. Edited by Laura Perry. 1897; reprinted, Blantyre: CLAIM, 1998).

Green, Stephen. “The Blantyre Mission.” The Nyasaland Journal (10) 1957: 6-17.

Hetherwick, Alexander. The Building of the Blantyre Church, Nyasaland 1888-1891. Blantyre: Hetherwick Press, 1926.

Hinchliff, Peter. “The Blantyre Scandal, Scottish Missionaries and Colonialism.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 46 (1984): 29-38.

Jenkins, P. “Mission Accomplished.” The Society of Malawi Journal (36) 1986: 17-25.

Life and Work in British Central Africa/ Nyasaland, 1891-1907.

Macpherson, R. The Presbyterian Church in Kenya. Nairobi: The Presbyterian Church in East Africa, 1970.

McCracken, John.* A History of Malawi 1859-1966*. London: James Currey, 2012.

McIntosh, Brian J. “The Scottish Mission in Kenya, 1891-1923.” Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1969.

Oliver, Roland. The Missionary Factor in East Africa, 2nd ed. London: Longmans, 1965.

Porter, Andrew. Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Ross, Andrew C. Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi. Blantyre: CLAIM, 1996.

Ross, Andrew C. “The African- ‘A Child or a Man?’: The Quarrel between the Blantyre Mission of the Church of Scotland and the British Central Administration, 1890-1905.” In The Zambezian Past: Studies in Central African History, 332-351. Eric Stokes and Richard Brown, eds. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1966.

Ross, Andrew C. “Wokendedwa Wathu: The Mzungu who Mattered.” Religion in Malawi (8) 1998: 2-7.

Scott, David Clement. Cyclopaedic Dictionary of the Mang’anja Language spoken in British Central Africa. Edinburgh: The Foreign Mission Committee of the Church of Scotland, 1892.

Scott, Hew, Ed., Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Volume 7. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1929.

Stuart-Mogg, David. “The Rev. David Clement Scott and the Issue of Land Title in British Central Africa. A Transcription, with Commentary, of an Unpublished Letter Written by Scott from Portobello, Edinburgh on 5th December 1891.” The Society of Malawi Journal 57 (2004): 21-34.

This article, received in 2014, was written by Todd Statham, a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, seconded to the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Blantyre Synod as lecturer at Zomba Theological College in Malawi. (address: PO Box 130, Zomba, Malawi; email: [email protected])