Classic DACB Collection

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

Moalosi, Robert

Primitive Methodist
Zambia , Lesotho

Robert Moalosi worked for the Primitive Methodists (PMs), a British denomination, which had a mission station at Aliwal North in South Africa from 1870. Several Sotho missionaries joined the PM mission to Central Africa and adapted to life in Ilaland and among the nearby Tonga. Like women they are shadowy figures in the records of those days but details can be teased from these accounts. Robert Moalosi was in Zambia from 1897 to 1922, longer than many European missionaries, and there are enough traces of his work for his story to be told briefly. [1.]

Robert Moalosi came from the mountainous little country of Lesotho and from Thaba Bosiu, the headquarters of Moshoeshoe, the great Sotho chief. Robert had Christian parents so his family went back to the early days of Christianity in Lesotho pioneered by the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS) from 1833. There had been a PEMS Mission Station at Thaba Bosiu from 1835 and Robert attended its school but at the age of 12 joined a relative on a farm near Aliwal North. The Primitive Methodists had been active there since 1870 and the Rev. John Smith was in his second term of service. For seven years Robert went to a school begun by Mr. Smith then returned to Lesotho as an assistant teacher at Quthing before two and a half years at the Training Institute at Morija. [2.] Morija turned out competent evangelists, teachers and skilled workers in the building and printing trades and Robert, with skill as a carpenter, was one of its products. This practical skill would certainly have been enhanced when he returned to Aliwal North as a teacher for the then Superintendent, the Rev. George Butt, was a skilled craftsman. By then it was the early 1890s and the PM mission to the Ila of Zambia was just beginning. It had been inspired by the Rev. John Smith who wanted his church to pioneer a hitherto unevangelized area. Missionaries from the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS) in nearby Lesotho advised the Primitive Methodists to go to the Ila, near neighbors of the Paris mission to the Lozi in western Zambia. It was believed that the Ila were vassals of the Lozi and so knew Sotho which was closely related to the language used by the Lozi. In the event the Ila, a proud people, resented Sotho and this added to the missionaries’ problems. Nevertheless, Robert responded to the call for workers in this new mission field and in 1897 with his wife, Annie, and their children made the long journey to Central Africa. They traveled with the Rev. Frederick Pickering and James Tozzo and Robert was stationed at Nkala. [3.] This was reckoned to be a difficult area because the Nkala people were more exclusively Baila and more resistant to people they considered under Lozi control whereas the folk not far away at Nanzhila had stronger Lozi connections and were more responsive. [4.] Robert was teacher, evangelist, carpenter and bricklayer and when the European missionaries were on furlough he was in charge of the station.

In 1904 the Rev. William Chapman went north of the Kafue River to investigate the possibilities for extending the work in that region. Nambala, one hundred miles from Nanzhila, was chosen and Chapman’s and Robert’s preparations included making a cart [5] for use on the new station. When they arrived at Nambala, Robert helped with the carpentry for constructing the new mission house [6] and was in charge of the school. [7]

An Ila hymn book, edited by the Rev. William Chapman, was published by the PM Bookroom in 1908 [8]. Seventy-two of the one hundred numbered items were hymns, the rest being Psalms and prayers. The tunes were drawn from Methodist hymn books and other sources including the Sesuto hymn book. Most of the hymns were the work of E. W. Smith (50) and William Chapman (15). Julia Smith and P. Kaiyobe (Smith’s language assistant) did one each. Another Sotho teacher, J. K. Liphuko, contributed two hymns and Robert Moalosi wrote three. [9] That the work of Sotho assistants was included presumes that they were proficient in Ila and that their contributions were valued by the European missionaries.

The Rev. George Butt visited the Central Africa Mission in 1908 and published his report as My Travels in North West Rhodesia. On the way to Nambala a service was held at Kabwe when the new Ila hymn book was used and they sang one of Robert’s hymns. Butt described the rather splendid mission house at Nambala and the huts occupied by the teachers. The church was completed earlier that year and had been built by Robert. [10] At the Sunday service Robert translated Butt’s message into Ila. [11] Butt noted that the new missionary at Nambala (John Kerswell) spoke “in the highest terms of the work and devotion of these men (Moalosi and Liphuko); and says he would be helpless without them.” [12] Mrs. Kerswell wrote, “We were fortunate in having such a useful teacher as Robert, who has been trained at our own institute at Aliwal North.” [13]

In July 1910 there was no missionary at Nambala and the Primitive Methodist’s General Missionary Committee “noted with pleasure that the Rev. E. W. Smith has visited this Station and expresses his judgment that the work of the Mission will be sustained by Robert Moalosi till the arrival of Rev. W. Chapman.” [14] The following year there was a suggestion that Robert be moved back to Nanzhila but Smith resisted this and the missionary secretary, Arthur Guttery, suggested that Smith was prejudiced against Robert and other Sotho teachers. This enabled Smith to reply “he is a man I respect. When he comes to visit Kasenga we treat him in every way as we should a white visitor.” [15] It should be noted that this respect was not well reflected in mission policy because the African teachers lived in inferior houses and were paid less than a third of the European stipend. In 1910 Robert was paid £17 10s in the December quarter as opposed to Chapman’s £62 10s. [16]

In 1918 it was noted that Robert was re-engaged in 1915 at £80 a year with six months furlough every six years. He was described as very capable and in entire charge of the station and supplies. [17] As noted already Robert used the Ila language, he also observed the Ila customs. At least one item in The Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia is attributed, albeit indirectly, to him. [18]

Among the problems that came his way Robert was at one time afflicted by blackwater fever, a very serious complication of malaria, and returned south to recuperate. [19] Later, when the Spanish influenza took its toll in the area Robert and his wife lost their eldest daughter at the age of twenty-four. [20] Further, like many of his Sotho colleagues he suffered disciplinary procedures connected with allegations of sexual misconduct [21] but was soon reinstated. John Kerswell wrote “I count myself and the mission fortunate in being able to bring Robert Moalosi back to the work he is so well fitted for. Both in school and carpenter’s shop he is a tower of strength… I only wish I could secure others like him.” [22]

Robert returned to Lesotho in 1922 [23] and died in late 1926 or early 1927. [24]. A few years later the Primitive Methodist Missionary Society noted the excellent service of Robert and his wife in Zambia and reported that his son, William, had entered the Wesleyan ministry, “‘It is a great joy to us to know that Robert Moalosi’s spirit still lives in his son,’ writes Miss Queenie Kidwell, and we share their feeling.” [25].

Robert Moalosi left his home country to minister the gospel of Jesus Christ in a different culture. This involved considerable and difficult travel, the acquisition of another language, becoming familiar with a different culture, facing local hostility and the hazards of tropical diseases. He deserves to be recognized as a missionary as much as William Chapman, Edwin Smith and the other European missionaries.

W. John Young


  1. This article uses and expands material in my paper “African Missionaries in Zambia” given at the Methodist Missionary Society History Project held at Salisbury, England, in November 2006.

  2. Above information from Smith Papers, MMS Archives, SOAS, Fiche 568 - fragment of an article on Robert Moalosi.

  3. William Chapman, A Pathfinder in Central Africa, (London: Hammond, c.1910), 121.

  4. Chapman, 179. Also, Fielder, R.J., “Social Change among the Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia with particular reference to their relations with the Primitive Methodist Mission,” unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Manchester, 1965.

  5. Chapman, 272.

  6. Chapman, 352.

  7. Chapman, 367.

  8. Inyimbo sha Bakristi, Ila Hymns edited for the Baila-Batonga Mission by Rev. W. Chapman, (London, Primitive Methodist Bookroom), 1908.

  9. Robert Moalosi’s hymns were number 13, “Sunu twa abilwa bumi,” 39, “Inzho uswe bashibi, a tu lumbe!,” and 43, “Leza Tata, zhinzhilika.” From Inyimbo sha Bakristi, Ila Hymns edited for the Baila-Batonga Mission.

  10. George E. Butt, My Travels in North West Rhodesia, (London, E. Dalton), n.d., 91.

  11. Butt, 95.

  12. Butt, 109.

  13. Kate Kerswell, Romance and Reality of Missionary Life in Northern Rhodesia, (London, Hammond), n.d, 17.

  14. Smith Papers, MMS Archives, SOAS, Fiche 595.

  15. Smith Papers, MMS Archives, SOAS, Fiche 597.

  16. UCZ Archives, Kitwe, File 837.

  17. UCZ Archives, Kitwe, File 494, December 1918 report.

  18. The report on Ngoma’s daughter UCZ File 837, Nambala reports, and Edwin W. Smith and Andrew M. Dale, The Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, (London: Macmillan), 1920, ii, 39, appear to be the same example.

  19. Chapman, 227f.

  20. UCZ Archives, Kitwe, File 837, Nambala reports, report for December 1918.

  21. MMS Archives, SOAS.

  22. UCZ Archives, Kitwe, File 837, Nambala reports, Rev. J. A. Kerswell to the Primitive Methodist Missionary Committee, 5/10/1916.
  23. Deduced from Nambala reports in UCZ Archives, Kitwe, File 837.

  24. Deduced from Moalosi file in MMS Archives, SOAS.

  25. The Weavers, Report of the Primitive Methodist Missionary Society, (London: George Ayre) 1930, p. 118.


Methodist Missionary Society Archives, School of Oriental and African Studies, London. (MMS Archives, SOAS) United Church of Zambia Archives, Kitwe, Zambia. (UCZ Archives, Kitwe).

The Weavers, Report of the Primitive Methodist Missionary Society, 1930. (London: George Ayre, 1930).

G. E. Butt, My Travels in North West Rhodesia (London: E. Dalton, n.d.), 91

William Chapman, A Pathfinder in Central Africa (London: Hammond, n.d.), 227ff.

Kate Kerswell, Romance and Reality of Missionary Life in Northern Rhodesia (London: Hammond, n.d), 17.

This article, received in 2008, was researched and written by Reverend W. John Young, retired Methodist minister of Wellington, Somerset, England who served in Zambia, 1977-1982. He has written about Edwin Smith (e.g., The Quiet Wise Spirit: Edwin W. Smith [1876-1957] and Africa, Peterborough, Epworth Press, 2002), is interested in Primitive Methodist Missions and is involved in the Methodist Missionary Society History Project.