Thompson, T. Jack

Alternate Names: Thomas Thompson
Church of Central Africa Presbyterian , Presbyterian Church of Ireland

T. Jack Thompson Dr T. Jack Thompson was a Church historian from The Presbyterian Church in Ireland who did much to turn the focus of Malawian church history to the contribution of Africans to its development, and who himself contributed hugely to the current vitality of the relations between Scotland and Malawi.

Thomas Jack Thompson, always known as Jack, was born in Belfast on the 16th of February, 1943 and brought up in working class area of that city. He gained a place at Methodist College, a leading Grammar School, and went from there to Queen’s University, Belfast where he obtained a degree in Modern History and studied for a Diploma in Theology. In 1965, once qualified, he taught History at a school in Newtownards and was ordained to the eldership in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, at that time the youngest elder in the denomination.

He applied to his Church for missionary service overseas, but never wanted to be missionary in the narrow sense of the word. He regarded himself as first and foremost a Christian teacher who used all his God-given talents, wherever he was, to serve his students, the church and wider society. He saw his calling not just as something that was carried out through church or missionary society, but something that happened through every aspect of his life.

He and his wife Phyillis were posted to the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Livingstonia Secondary School in Northern Malawi in 1970. Teaching History there, he was held in high esteem by his pupils and fellow teachers for his contributions to the life of the school both inside and outside of the classroom. One of his former charges, who went on to be one of Malawi’s foremost academics, remembered the way in which his teacher had a way of engaging pupils thoughts and attention in his lessons by saying things like, ‘I don’t think you will agree with me here, so what is your opinion?’[1] During this time he developed a life-long interest in studying, teaching and telling the History of Christianity in Malawi. His research from the outset and throughout his career had a strong focus on the role of African Christians in the development of Churches and communities. Initially his main interest was the work of the Xhosa missionary, William Koyi (1870-1933) known as Mtusane, the bridge-builder{2}, among the Ngoni in Northern Malawi and the missionary methods of the Scottish Missionary Donald Fraser (1870-1933) who worked in the same area. An early result of his historical research was the setting up of a museum now housed in the Stone House built by Dr Laws in Livingstonia. His time in Malawi was interrupted when, on the basis of research carried out there, he studied for a Ph. D. at Edinburgh University and in 1980 was awarded a doctorate for his thesis, ‘Donald Fraser and the Northern Ngoni’.

Back in Malawi In 1980 Dr Thompson was appointed Director of Theological Education by Extension, TEEM, which had been launched two years earlier by an ecumenical committee and offered non-residential education at three academic levels for Christians of all denominations in Malawi. He was given three main tasks: to recruit writers and develop local lesson material, to gain wider acceptance for TEEM among church leaders and to locate and train a cohort of volunteer tutors throughout the country. While continuing his academic interest in Malawian history and culture, he travelled widely and expanded the work of TEEM. In particular he saw that the organisation could be a means of helping smaller Christian denominations and African Independent Churches that had limited trained leadership and no training facilities. He had a particular interest in preserving and promoting hymns and hymn tunes composed by the early generations of Malawian Christians. During this period he used another of his talents and interests, long distance running, to organise road running at local and regional level. Such was his success that he was eventually appointed national coach to Malawi’s Marathon Squad.

His interest in indigenous Christian groups led to him being offered and accepting a position at Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham in 1983, working with Harold W. Turner at the Centre for the Study of New Religious Movements in Primal Societies. In 1993 he moved to the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh, where, in 2004 became its Director until his retiral in 2008. As a scholar he gained international recognition for his research and publications in particular his work on historical photography. He was also very highly regarded as an inspirational speaker, supervisor and Director of Postgraduate Studies.[3]

Based in Scotland his interest in Malawi and the church there was unabated and he was a frequent visitor back to that country. He was a founder member of the Scotland Malawi Network in 1992 and played an important role in the establishment of the Scotland-Malawi Partnership (S-MP) from 2002 till its inception in 2005. He served as one of its Vice-Chairman until his death. According to Professor Kenneth Ross, formerly Chairman of the S-MP, ‘The scale and the vitality of Scotland-Malawi relationships owes an incalculable debt to Dr Jack Thompson.’ He was particularly interested in Higher Education links between Scotland and Malawi, and re-established direct contact with Livingstonia when he served a session as Vice-Chancellor of the University there between January 2011 and January 2012.

The range of his thinking was never narrow but catholic in the best sense. For instance, in one of his very last articles he compared the Easter Rising in Ireland with the Chilembwe Rising in Malawi the previous year, an insightful connection that not many would have made.[4] Throughout his career Dr. Thompson brought an intensity and infectious enthusiasm to all that he did. For him history was not just an intellectual discipline but rather something living that had to be communicated, enjoyed and learned from. To this end he was untiringly active in networking, organising conferences, unselfishly sharing resources and encouraging others. At his approaching death he made arrangements for his sizable archival material to be conserved in the Archives of Edinburgh University.

His significant contribution to the culture of the Northern Region of Malawi was recognised when the Paramount Chief of the Ngoni gave him the rare honour of the chiefly family name of Jere and the regalia that went with it, in which Dr Thompson was cremated. Following his untimely death from cancer on the 10th of August 2017, the esteem in which he was held in Malawi was expressed at his memorial service by a message from Malawi’s High Commissioner to the UK, H.E Kena Mphonda, when he said, ‘Jack Thompson was not technically a Malawian but we came to regard him as one of our own.’ His contribution to the church was recognised when the Synod of Livingstonia requested that his ashes be taken back to Malawi to be buried in Njuyu beside his fellow bridge builder, William Koyi. Though he was not aware of this last honour, those who know Jack Thompson best believe that he would have thought this a most suitable resting place.

David S. Bone and S. James Campbell


  1. Personal communication, Dr Mpalive Msiska, 30th April 2023.
  2. See Thompson, Ngoni, Khosa and Scot, p.24
  3. Brian Stanley, the University of Edinburgh School of Divinity Newsletter, 3rd May 2018
  4. Kenneth Ross, personal communication 22nd April 2023.


Bone, David S., “Dr T. Jack Thompson, 16th February – 10th August 2017.” The Society of Malawi Journal Vol. 70 No. 2, 2017, pp 50-51.

Thompson T. Jack, “Speaking for ourselves: the African writers of Livingstonia.” Bulletin of the Scottish Institute of Missionary Studies, (Special edition), Livingstonia, Malawi: a centenary appraisal, Edinburgh, n.d. (1995). pp 24-35.

Thompson, T. Jack, Christianity in Northern Malawi: Donald Fraser’s Missionary Methods and Ngoni Culture. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

Thompson, T. Jack, Touching the Heart: Xhosa Missionaries to Malawi, 1876-1888. Pretoria, University of South Africa, 2000.

Thompson, T. Jack, Ngoni, Xhosa and Scot: Religious and Cultural interaction in Malawi. Zomba, Kachere Series, 2007.

Thompson, T. Jack, Light on Darkness? Missionary Photography in Africa in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012.

Thompson T. Jack, “Prester John, John Chilembwe and the European Fear of Ethiopianism.” The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 68 No. 2, 2015, pp. 18-30.

Emma Wild-Wood, “Obituary Thomas Jack Thompson (1943-2017).” Mission Studies, Brill, Online Publication, 15 Mar 2018.

This biography was researched and written by David S. Bone, formerly Department of Religious Studies University of Malawi and Rev Dr S. James Campbell formerly Principal of Kapeni Theological College Blantyre.