Joseph Booth

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Joseph Booth

Joseph Booth (1851-1932) was an English independent missionary in Malawi, Lesotho, and South Africa. Because of his radical religious views and egalitarian political outlook, his name became linked to a 1915 African rising in Malawi.

Joseph Booth was born in Derby on Feb. 26, 1851, into a very religious home. He was of an independent, inquiring mind and very early questioned his parents' religious faith. He was strongly pacifist with a critical attitude toward all authority. He became a restless, self-educated man and in the course of his life was an agnostic, a Baptist, a Seventh-Day Adventist, and a member of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Strangely enough, it was the reading of Thomas Paine which led him to the Christian faith.

In the 1880s Booth was a sheep farmer in New Zealand and a Baptist lay preacher in Australia. In 1891 he developed a scheme for self-supporting industrial missions in Africa to be run by lay people with practical educations, the aim being to foster independent African leadership. He traveled via England to the newly declared British Nyasaland Protectorate, where, in 1891, he started the Zambesi Industrial Mission near Blantyre. His first convert and friend was John Chilembwe, whom he baptized in a river. His ways of working aroused the suspicion of settlers, other missionaries, and the colonial government. He could not work with others sent to help him, and in 1896 the supporters of the Zambesi Industrial Mission broke with him.

With John Chilembwe, Booth visited the United States in 1897-1899, during which time they parted ways. In 1897 Booth published his book Africa for the Africans (he was the first known to have used this phrase). He then joined the Seventh-Day Baptists and returned to Malawi. In 1899 Booth and a group of Africans petitioned Queen Victoria on behalf of all Africans for education, political participation, and justice. Their actions caused the colonial government to pressure him to leave the protectorate about 1902.

Thereafter Booth worked with various organizations for the purpose of fostering African leadership and independence, mostly using South Africa as a base. He introduced the Watch Tower movement into Central Africa and used the mail and migrant workers to spread its literature and beliefs, thereby causing the colonial governments serious concern.

In 1915 John Chilembwe lost his life in an African uprising in Malawi. Although Booth was far away and had had nothing to do with Chilembwe for 15 years, his name was linked to the uprising and his ideas were considered the seed which led to it. He was therefore deported from South Africa in December 1915. In England he took part in independent religious activities until his death at Weston super Mare in 1932.

Further Reading

Booth's Africa for the Africans is almost unobtainable. The best source for information on Booth is George Shepperson and Thomas Price, Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915 (1958). □

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Joseph Booth

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