(Investigator 37, 1994 July)


Joseph Booth was born in Derby, England, on February 26, 1851 of Unitarian father and Church of England mother.

Religious differences at home led Booth into lifelong habits of questioning. Both parents for example accepted the Ten Commandments and yet his grandfather boasted of killing Frenchmen and his uncles Russians. To Booth this conflicted with "Thou shalt not kill." He concluded that no one truly obeyed God's commandments.

Employment as a booking clerk in Derbyshire at 15 gave Booth independence. He became agnostic and read writings of atheists and radicals. This on top of family conflicts, produced a volatile self determination which would later serve him in struggles against the forces shaping Africa.

Booth married a Yorkshire girl in 1872 and had a son, John Edward, in 1876 and a daughter, Emily, in 1883. The family moved to New Zealand in 1880 where Booth became a sheep farmer.  He started doing a lot of Bible reading and gradually his faith returned. By 1886 Booth lived in Auckland and became a close friend of Reverend Thomas Spurgeon, son of London's famous Charles Spurgeon.

Booth's gradual conversion culminated in a sudden dedication to do whatever God called him for. It happened when little Edward gave him a birthday card with a Bible text:   "The text was: 'Acknowledge Him in all thy ways and He will direct thy path.' The words pierced me as though I had  been  swiftly stabbed." (Shepperson & Price 1958 p. 22)

The text reminded Booth of his conclusion of 20 years earlier that no one obeyed God: "I was seized with such trembling and weeping that I was compelled to go back to my room overwhelmed and speechless, unable to pray, but only to sob in paroxysm of shame at the appalling self-centred, superficial life I led up to that day." (Ibid)

Booth's wife reported a dream about a foreign woman saying: "Won't you come over and help us?"  But the catalyst that would make Booth a missionary awaited in Australia. In 1887 Booth moved with his family to Melbourne where he became partner in a restaurant chain. He was now an orthodox Baptist and a deacon in the North Brighton Baptist Church.

In Melbourne's Science Hall militant workers met on Sunday nights for lectures and debates. Their champion, an ex-Wesleyan minister turned atheist Joseph Symes, challenged Melbourne's ministers to debate. Only Booth accepted and, with growing confidence, debated on alternate Sundays for two years. The "catalyst" came early in 1891 when Symes before an audience of 1,000 turned to Booth and said:  "…you are laying up your 'little pile' like the rest of us. Of course, you never heard or read Christ's final orders ‘Go ye out to the uttermost parts of the earth…?'  Are there no savages in Central Africa, and if so, why do you not go to them instead of casting these doubtful pearls where no man wants them?" (Ibid p. 24)

In May Booth sold up. Twice he sailed to Britain to offer himself to the China Inland Mission and other societies.  His age against him – he was 40 – he was refused. Then John Paton, famous New Hebrides Missionary, turned Booth's thoughts to Africa. On October 19 1891 Booth's wife died. On October 31 he departed with his children for England.


Around 1800 William Carey and the Baptists built self-help missions in India. These now inspired Booth's ideal of self-maintaining, self-propagating mission stations largely independent of foreign patronage. Wealth lay in work, felt Booth, and Africa could be rich if its resources were rightly used.

Booth planned that an initial missionary band, self supporting by cultivating cash crops, would inspire hundreds of groups of 6 to 10 people to move to Africa and open  "industrial missions" everywhere. The missions would be "industrial" in that Africans would be taught agriculture and industry. All capital would be held by trustees.  Missionaries would neither trade nor invest. Each mission would preach and plant new missions thereby spreading European/African cooperation continent-wide. Ultimately there would be Africa-wide racial equality in political rights, wages and employment/education opportunities, and finally independence.

Booth's goals could best be started where conditions were not totally primitive near established missions. This would lead to charges of "reaping without sowing". His procedures for enriching Africa would produce accusations of stirring native rebellion.

In Britain a visiting missionary urged Booth to stock up with guns.  However: "My decision was never to use a weapon and if God could or would not protect me from any and every danger I had nothing to live for and preferred to die. Thus, unwittingly, I became what is now called a pacifist." (Shepperson & Price 1958 p. 28)


In August 1892 Booth established the main station of his Baptist "Zambesi Industrial Mission" near Blantyre in Nyasaland  (now Malawi). The long-established Scottish Free Church missionaries in Blantyre opposed Booth's purchase of land and thus started a long, bad relationship.

Booth wrote sarcastically:   "…is  it  not  a  marvellous  picture  to  see elegantly  robed men, at some  hundreds  of pounds yearly cost,  preaching a gospel of self denial to men and women slaves, with only a scrap of goat skin around their loins, compelled to work seven days a week…" (Shepperson & Price 1958 p. 33)

Booth paid Africans 18 shillings monthly – six times the amount that government or missions paid.  Boys from other missions joined up and were rebaptized. Planters, traders and Administration feared economic disruption. Africans praised Booth excitedly; the Whites abused him.

Booth next attempted to expand his Industrial Missions toward Livingstonia which brought complaints from the Church of Scotland in Britain. Nevertheless by March 1893 eight missions were established.  In the wilds of Africa Booth travelled weaponless with ten-year-old Emily.


British trustees of the Zambesi Mission disowned Booth in 1895 because of the furore over him. He spent four months in Britain and America, found new allies, then established the "Baptist Industrial Mission".  On March 4 1896 Booth married Isle-of-Wight nurse, Annie Watkins.

In Central Africa and Zululand rumors of European cannibalism of Africans circulated. Booth therefore travelled about with a Yao tribesman to ease fears. Meanwhile he kept explaining his plans for African betterment. White critics viewed this as setting off currents of discontent  which could lead to native rebellions.  Booth's text "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God" (Psalm 68:31) aroused White fears when Ethiopia defeated Italy in March 1896.

In 1897 Booth's book "Africa for the Africans" criticised the European nations' "Scramble for Africa". In 1898 Booth visited America and accepted belief in the Sabbath. Then, representing the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Plainfield, New Jersey (USA), the Booths established "Plainfield Industrial Mission" 30 miles south of Blantyre.  Next, via the Central African Times, Booth advocated redress of indigenous grievances. In 1899 Booth circulated a petition for African independence within 21 years and free higher education for 5% of Africans.

All this was too much. Commissioner A. Sharpe sought Booth's arrest. Assisted by Africans the Booths hid in Mozambique. Upon returning to Nyasaland they lost control of Plainfield.  In 1903 Booth – by now a Seventh Day Adventist – was deported to South Africa.


An early convert was John Chilembwe (born c. 1860).

He was baptized in July1893, became Booth's trusted servant, interpreter and travel companion, nursed Emily when she had malaria, and tended the dying Edward while Booth was in Britain (early 1894) raising funds. Influenced  by  Booth  Chilembwe believed that the servitude of "Ham" to "Japheth" would shortly cease.

Booth and Chilembwe formed an organization "Christian Union of Nyasaland" which sought: "equal rights, political, social, and economic, for Africans as well as Europeans independent African activity in all economic fields…" (Quoted in Rotberg 1935 p. 62)

In l897 Booth took Chilembwe to America. Chilembwe studied for three years at a Negro Baptist Seminary. Then, back in Africa, Chilembwe established the "Providential Industrial Mission" run by Africans. He built independent African schools and planted cotton tea and coffee. The mission was outwardly Western and the people clean, hard-working, anti alcohol and anti European.


In  1905 Booth tried to establish  missions  in East Africa and Uganda but was thrown out by the British. He wandered around South Africa and Britain seeking new support.

A native rebellion in Natal in 1906 brought the Seventh Day Adventists under suspicion. To allay suspicion they excommunicated Booth. Then in Britain he sought sponsorship from the Churches of Christ. They turned him down. Their Cape Town branch however gave him temporary work of opening a mission for them.

Booth was depressed and discouraged. Everyone opposed industrial missions. Yet without such missions he felt that few Africans would find Christ. In Scotland in 1906, Booth discovered Russellism.

Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) was the founder of the Jehovah's Witness sect. His gospel included the elements:

1 Jesus returned in 1874 and the Kingdom of God began in 1878.
2 The Biblical Time of the End was 1799-1914 and the Biblical "time of trouble" 1874-1914.
3 European war c.1907 would merge into Armageddon around 1912-1914.
4 Worldwide  peace under resurrected Jewish patriarchs ruling from Jerusalem to occur by 1915.
5 Russell himself was God's  "faithful and wise servant" dispensing "meat in due season".

Booth, fired with new enthusiasm, visited America to confer with Russell.


Returning to Africa and based in Cape Town, Booth now introduced Russellism into Central Africa via mail and travelling workers. Elliot Kamwana, a Tonga tribesman from Livingstonia first met Booth in 1900, was baptized in 1902, and was indoctrinated at Booth's house for six months in 1907.

Kamwana took Russellism to Livingstonia. At huge emotional gatherings 10,000 were baptized between September 1908 and June 1909.  Natives found such quick conversions more appealing than the arduous Scottish way involving apprenticeships. However, polygamy and immorality became rife.

Kamwana predicted colonialism's end amidst cosmic cataclysms for 1915. The authorities deported him. Russel wrote in his magazine The Watch Tower: "Brother  Elliot  Kamwana  was  arrested  and deported by the government at the instigation of the Calvinistic Scotch missionaries of Bandwe, Lake Nyasa, who were greatly surprised that their work of years could be so quickly lifted to the higher plane of our teaching." (Russell 1909)

In 1912 the enthusiasm was spent. Kamwana's "Watch Tower movement" split apart and spread to Rhodesia, Tanganyika and the Congo. Meanwhile, in 1910, Booth's allegiance switched to the Seventh Day Baptists.

Charles Domingo, also of Livingstonia, passed theology exams in 1900, established an independent church, studied Russellism in 1909, then was persuaded by Booth to believe in the Sabbath.  With this success as lever Booth went to America and obtained Seventh Day Baptist support.

By 1912 Domingo had 2,000 followers. But again outward symbols of baptism and Sabbath observance substituted for inward spirituality. The Seventh Day Baptists withdrew support and numerical growth ceased. Booth had failed again!


In l912 Booth was adrift once more. His income now came from boarders in his Cape Town house. Here too trouble occurred when he took in Africans.

In February 1913 Booth issued leaflets advocating a "British Christian Union" with goals of racial equality and harnessing the latent productive capacity of 50,000,000 Africans. The scheme got nowhere. Another petition, in May 1914, expressed African grievances, especially loss of land, and urged establishment of  "Native Advisory Councils."  Failure again.

Booth, now old and dispirited, moved to Basutoland to do independent missionary work.


Russellite prophecies filtered through to Booth's finest success story, Chilembwe. Despite leading a much-praised successful mission Chilembwe determined to "strike a blow and die."

The causes of the uprising were general:  Taxation, low wages and land confiscation had been sore points in Nyasaland for decades. 12% of the Nyasaland miners working in South Africa died annually. Famine in 1912 caused much misery. American Negro visitors spread stories of Negro triumphs in America. Emotional revivals by Scottish Free Church missionaries since 1895 had produced tendencies of expressing nationalism through religion. Further religious waves (including Kamwana's and Domingo's) were  therefore partly nationalistic. Russell's "time of trouble", by this stage revised to "immediately after 1914", provided apocalyptic elements.

On January 23, 1915 Chilembwe with 200 followers killed three Whites. To prevent the uprising spreading and inviting German invasion the British acted fast. Several companies of troops converged and Chilembwe died in battle.

AFTER 1915

The uprising made Joseph Booth the talk of Africa. Cape Town police fetched the Booths from Basutoland and bundled them, penniless, aboard a boat for Britain. The official conclusion was that Booth had been unaware of the uprising but had sowed the seeds.

Booth's struggles for native causes continued with declining vigour. He returned to South Africa after 1925. There his wife died and he married for the third time.  Failing in health the Booths returned to Britain in 1932 where Joseph Booth died on November 4.

Booth had struggled mightily against intercontinental social/political currents to achieve an independent Christian Africa with racial equality. In the process he established numerous mission stations and joined sect after sect in his search for sponsorship. Though ultimately failing in his goals for Africa he was great in persistence, great in endurance and great in his ideals. Joseph Booth has become an African legend. Independent rule has now come to most of Africa, not Booth's way in peace but largely in violence.


The African Watchtower movement, called "Chitawala" in Rhodesia and "Kitawala" in the Congo persisted as an independent, multifarious movement. It was eschatological, anti-European and violent. There were numerous murders, riots, drowning of  "witches" and small native rebellions.

Around 1930 the Jehovah's Witnesses, the main offshoot from Russellism, arrived and tried to recapture the movement. They failed but did make many converts from it. This has given the Witnesses a "grass roots" aspect not enjoyed by other Western religions in Africa.

(Active Preaching Members)
Year JWs Annual % Increase
1930 100
1940 6,600     52%
1950 53,800     23%
1960 131,000      9%
1970 251,000      7%
1980 301,000      2%
1990 455,000?      4%
1993 580,000      8%
Year Active JWs Annual % 
Ratio to 
1940 800
1950 8,000     25.9 1/1,570
1960 18,100       8.5 1/884
1970 21,700       1.8 1/988
1975 28,600       5.7 1/895
1980 27,700      -1.0 1/1,068
1985 37,000        6.0 1/  873 96,300
1990 48,600        5.6 1/  751 130,300
1993 57,200        5.6 1/  694 147,300
In 1993 there were almost 600,000 active JWs in Africa and about 2 million attended meetings. The African indigenous Watch Tower movements also still exist.

The prophecy failures of the JWs for 1975 (Wilson 1978) are reflected in the two tables of growth statistics. However, burgeoning growth has recommenced – probably spurred on by belief in Armageddon "within our twentieth century".

The Catholics in Africa, by way of comparison, have increased from 52 million in 1980 to about 92 million. (Time Australia April 25) This represents growth at the rate of 4.5% per year.

In 1994 Apartheid ended in South Africa, an event Joseph Booth would have rejoiced in. The previous wife of the new president, Nelson Mandela, is a JW!

The JWs are not yet a real threat to the continued growth of conventional Christianity in Africa.  But they could be if they find means of maintaining their current trends another 50 years. Joseph Booth's four-year flirtation with Russellism, (1906-1910), certainly helped to prepare the way for a major challenge!


Beeching J 1979  An Open Path: Christian Missionaries 1515-1914,  Hutchinson, Britain

Fashole L E et al. (Editors) 1978  Christianity in Independent Africa,  Indiana University Press,  USA, pp 304-311

Jubber, K l977  The Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in  Southern Africa,  Social Compass 24, pp121-134

McCracken, J  1977  Politics and Christianity in Malawi, Cambridge University Press, Britain,  Chapter 8

Pachai, B  (Editor) 1972 The Early History of Malawi,  Longman,  Britain,  Chapter 23

Roberts, A  1976  A History of Zambia,  Heineman,  Britain

Rotberg, S I  1965  The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa,  Harvard,  USA

Russell, C T  1909  The Watch Tower (Reprints) July 1  p. 4422

Russell, C T  l886-1904  Studies in the Scriptures  Six volumes

Shepperson, G 1962  Joseph Booth and the African Diaspora,  Evanston,  USA

Shepperson, G and  Price, T  1958  Independent African, The Edinburgh University Press,  Britain
Thrupp, S L (Editor) 1962  Millennial Dreams in Action,  Mouton, The Hague, pp 144-159

Wilson, B 1973 Jehovah's Witnesses in Africa,  New Society, July 12, pp 73-75

Wilson, B 1978 When Prophecy Failed,  New Society, January 26.  pp 183-184


Dictionary of Jehovah's Witnesses at: