Methodism in Swaziland

Methodism in Swaziland

By A.M. Mtshali



The Shiselweni Region was one of the first areas in Swaziland to embrace Christianity when the first missionaries, the Methodist Wesleyan Mission, settled in the area in 1844.  The Reverend J. Allison also built a school at Sankolweni, believed to be the first in Swaziland that was later moved to Mahamba where it remains today. On the way to the Mahamba Gorge between Nhlangano and the Mahamba border is a Gothic style Methodist church that was built in 1912 and is the oldest intact place of worship in the country. EU funding has restored and preserved this wonderful piece of Swaziland’s history and a display board inside the church outlines the establishment of Christianity in Swaziland.


The Reverend James Allison has always been held in high esteem by the Methodists as the founder of the Swaziland Mission and later of the Indaleni and Edendale Mission stations in Natal.


A story is told in Swaziland that King Sobhuza I had a dream in which he saw strange people with white skins and hair such you will find on the tail of a cow. In this dream he saw that these people had, in the one hand, a book and in the other, metal discs. In this dream, King Sobhuza I received the command to accept the book (the Bible) but to reject the metal discs (money). The King commanded his son, would later become King Mswati I, to search for these people whom he had seen in the dream.


Some time afterwards, news was received of a group of people, resembling those whom King Sobhuza I had seen in his dream, telling people in the Wakkerstroom area Mvelinchanti (“He who appeared right at the beginning”). He also heard that their teachings were based upon the same book that the King had seen in his dream. The King therefore sent a delegation to them to come to Swaziland and to teach the people this message. In this way it happened that the Methodist Church, in 1844, sent James Allison and Richard Giddy to Swaziland together with two evangelists, Job and Mparini.


In 1845 the first mission was built at Mahamba, approximately 30km east of Piet Retief, on the border between South Africa and Swaziland. In 1847 one of the Swazi tribes had to flee before King Mswati I who wanted to punish them for something they did wrong. They arrived at the mission to hide from the soldiers, but when the King’s soldiers arrived, the missionaries came under the impression that they were also going to be punished. Together, with about a thousand Swazis, the missionaries fled across the border. This is where Mahamba (“those that flee”) got its name from.


It was only in 1880 that missionaries returned to Swaziland to continue with the spreading of the gospel in this country.


This lovely church building is situated at Mahamba where the Methodist church still proclaims the gospel of salvation to the Swazi people


James and his younger brother Francis both became British Settlers of 1820 in South Africa. Francis, aged 40, sailed with his wife and five children from Liverpool. James, 44, with his wife and six children sailed from Cork. Acting on vague instructions that void dissension, parties from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, should be located separately, the East Indian was dispatched from Simons town to Saldanha Bay.


Eveleigh in his Settlers and Methodism states that James Allison was one of a group converted in 1831 during the remarkable religious revival in Albany District. All became Wesleyan Ministers.


In August 1833 James Alison because of his wife’s illness moved to Thaba-Nchu temporarily and later to Lishuani. On visiting Allison at Mparani, in 1839, Reverend William Shaw heard that on two occasions chiefs of the Baraputse in Swaziland, had sent messengers requesting a missionary. Invitations were repeated by King Mswati I. In 1844, he sent four men from Kunene clan. Reverend Shaw sent Reverend J. Giddy with Allison to visit the territory west of Delagoa Bay. Shaw regarded it an important opening, the language spoken was a dialect of Zulu and related to Xhosa. Thus the vernacular versions of the Bible would be suited to the needs of the Swazi.


He thought that a mission station there might cut off the supply of slaves handled by the Portuguese slave trade at Delagoa Bay. Reverend Allison and Giddy were well received by the King at Sgombeni area – SANKOLWENI which meant ‘school’ in Swazi language. This was in Manzini Region, and an exchange of presents took place. Job and Barnabas, two of the teachers who had accompanied them were left at the station at Kadlovunga at Mbukwane in Shiselweni Region.


The Reverend James Allison and his wife were accompanied by 30 people, including four native teachers together with their wives and many others. There were also many ‘irrational creatures – cattle, horses, sheep, goats, hens, ducks, turkeys and a squad of hungry dogs. Allison went three miles from Kadlovunga to Mount Mahamba to establish a mission station. Job and Barnabas were able to teach many children and adults the alphabet. The Gospel had been widely preached.

Allison’s congregation grew to about six hundred people regardless of the fact that they had no church. On the other hand, a tribal fight continued amongst Baraputse.

In October 1845 a mission station was already in place at Mahamba with a temporal chapel to hold six hundred congregants. However, tribal differences disturbed the steady progress of the mission and Allison as a result was driven from Swaziland. Very shortly outlined the trouble arose in the following way. During the Minority of Mswati Malambule, a half brother, and Somcuba held the reigns. On relinquishing office, Malambule retained portion of the royal herds. King Mswati’s impis forced him to surrender the cattle and seek asylum with Sigweje chief of the Kunene branch. Mswati directed his wrath against them and Malambule fled to Allison’s mission station for protection. But King Mswati was not to be humbugged in his own Kingdom by such foolish childish tactics.


About church time on Sunday 14th September, a large commander approached the station to which men, women and children, flocks and herds, flowed from all parts. From a high wall Allison watched the attack which was assisted by four mounted Boers. Allison collected all armed men and ordered them to take advantage of darkness and extinguished fires to make their way to escape through the scattered lines of the enemy. Next day the leader of the attackers requested an interview and Allison went to meet six of them, two Boers also being present, with their guns at a little distance off.


It was stated that Mswati was cleaning the country of witches and bad people and demanded delivery of eight wounded men who had sought safety at the mission that they might kill them and also of a women convert who had said that Jehova was greater than Mswati, and finally of all women and children refugees. To these demands Allison answered unhesitating “NO”, pointing to the dead bodies lying around. After thirty six hours the enemy left the station polluted with blood, having made the country behind them a desert. The people and Allison who were saved not being able to remain with the least hope of enjoying peace, they were determined to leave Mount Mahamba for a season, leaving mission and personal property behind. Withdrawal from Mahamba took place on the 17th September 1845, with not less than one thousand women, children and old men. In three days a sub-station Bamakohoto was reached. In six weeks the whole party arrived at Pietermaritzburg. Allison was always in touch with the Reverend W. Shaw, Chairman of the District. In 1847 Allison settled with his followers at Indaleni, Natal.

Natal was the springboard from which Methodism entered the Transvaal. Ministers were appointed to Potchefstroom and Pretoria after a tour of inspection by the Rev George Blencowe of Ladysmith in 1871, and a full-scale mission district was constituted in 1880 under the chairmanship of the Rev Owen Watkins of Pietermaritzburg. His first step was to reoccupy Swaziland to which the Rev. Daniel Msimang returned some thirty five years after he had gone into exile with Allison.


The church which was opened in 1912 was declared by King Mswati III as a National Monument in 2007, under the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Affairs.






The Rev. James Allison Missionary

A Biographical Outline By W.J. Gordon Mears.


Compiled by:

A.M. Mtshali

St. Paul’s Methodist Church – Swaziland