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Arthur Cripps: ‘Maverick missionary and activist for African rights’

I recently finished reading The Dust Diaries, which combines history, hagiography and the reconstructed life story of Arthur Cripps (1869-1952), an Anglican missionary in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Arthur Cripps: ‘Maverick missionary and activist for African rights’

Cripps's shrine has become a place of pilgrimage.

I recently finished reading The Dust Diaries, which combines history, hagiography and the reconstructed life story of Arthur Cripps (1869-1952), an Anglican missionary in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

What Owen Sheers, the author, discovered about his great, great-uncle’s life startled and awed him. Sheers, by his own admission, had “intellectualized God out of existence” and “spoke against organized religion.”

When Cripps took up his calling as missionary in 1901, he soon found himself “absorbing the country and absorbing into it.” He both influenced the Shona culture and was influenced by it. Cripps was not a colonialist, bringing light to the heathen and civilization to savages. He was a person whose mission was simply to live among a people. He maintained his own idiosyncrasies while appreciating those of his new adoptive culture.

Language study took a long time, as it does for many missionaries – especially the nuances of tonal pronunciation.  “It was only when the young mission boys began running around the church hut with their knuckles on the ground in the manner of chimpanzees every time he spoke of Shoko Kristu that he learnt he had been preaching for months not, as he had thought, on Christ’s message, but Christ’s monkey. There was only a breath and an upward inflexion between the two words, but it was enough.”

While maintaining the practices of Anglican Christianity, Cripps was not one to put tradition above human need. When observing the graveside ceremony of a child in his parish, he noticed that there was no blanket beneath the dead boy’s head: “Dropping his prayer book, he slipped his cassock over his head and began folding it into a neat bundle.”

He was frequently in dispute with the colonial authorities and sometimes with the Anglican hierarchy. Authorities began to tax the Shona per dwelling, which had to be paid in cash. Not living in a cash economy, this forced adults to leave home in search of jobs that paid cash, which destroyed the harmony of local cultures based upon local contributions from children, parents and clan members all located in a “home area.” Cripps argued not against taxation but in favour of payment “in kind,” which would have preserved the social structure that had been developed over centuries.

Cripps was not afraid to stare the authorities in the eyes. He often walked – a hundred miles was nothing to Cripps – in rather threadbare shoes and clothing to speak prophetically against any authority that he felt was acting in a harmful and unjust manner.

Cripps “was strongly opposed to many of the traditional practices of Shona witchcraft [. . .] and yet in the same breath he appeared greatly in awe of the Shona capability for faith, of their highly developed spiritual intelligence.” He found many examples of “redemptive analogies” congruent with the Christian gospel, somewhat in the same manner as Don Richardson described the tradition of the peace child among the Sawi. These included the Shona practice of chisi (day of rest) and “each tribe’s Mhondoro as an example of worshipping one deity.”

‘Suitable’ churches
I do not know which of the stories is embellished, imagined or simply a record of stark fact. All I can say, without reproducing the author’s research, is that it is close enough to what I can easily discover to ring true. In another way, it rings true psychologically and spiritually. It is the record of a man for whom the gospel was not the proclamation of dogma, but a matter of living the gospel.

When an interim priest named Smith began burning Cripps’ mission stations (rondavels and huts), visiting Bishop Paget watched “as Cripps preached from the blackened altar stones. [. . .] The African congregations gathered around the old priest, intent on his sermons and singing out the Shona hymns with an energy that Paget had never witnessed in his own services in Salisbury. He watched Cripps preach and could not help but feel that these shattered mission stations, open to the veld, were perhaps the most suitable churches of all for this maverick priest. Here, there was no partition between the church and the land, no entrances, no windows, the birds flew above them and the wind moved through them. And, Paget noticed more than once, the crucified Christ’s behind the altars, having passed through Smith’s flames, were coloured a deep, charred black.”

There are times when I (raised with a “mission consciousness” and married to an M.K.) think of the history of missions and the western church much like T.S. Eliot did in his satiric “The Hippopotamus.”

I saw the ‘potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow
By all the martyr’d virgins kist
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

But Owen Sheers has given me new hope for missions by telling Arthur Cripps’ story. We need to hear more stories like this, and to produce more missionaries like Cripps.  


“People talk about the need for medical missionaries in South Africa but in a country like this, you know what the Africans really need? [. . .] Legal missionaries, that’s what we need here. Not Christian, not medical, but legal. That’d put the cat among the pigeons, wouldn’t it?”

“The only way to pray before battle, Mrs. Cole . . . [is] for its failure, I mean. To pray any other way isn’t a prayer at all, but a petition for murder.”

Of Cripps, an Afrikaner remarked, “He’s a bloody, fool of a rooinek predikant, but man, he’s a real Christian. I’ve seen him walking along the Umvuma road carrying a black baby on his back. Any white man who can do that, man he must be like Jesus Christ.”

Cripps's shrine illegally seized in 2011

In 2004 I published The Dust Diaries, an account of my journey tracing the life and legacy of my great, great uncle, the maverick missionary and activist for African rights Arthur Shearly Cripps. My journey in Cripps’ footsteps finished at his graveside in the knave of a ruined church deep in the Zimbabwean veldt. The church was built by Cripps in the style of Great Zimbabwe. It was midnight and hundreds of people were packed between its walls, dancing and singing around my uncle’s grave. Fires picked out the shape of the kopje that rose above us, testament to the 700 Zimbabweans who had, despite fuel shortages and other difficulties, made the journey to this isolated place to celebrate Arthur’s life and remember his 50 years living and working with the Shona people around Chivhu. The celebrations lasted for three days. Remarkably ecumenical in nature, both Anglican service and traditional Shona pungwe, they constituted the annual “Shearly Cripps Festival,” an event attended by Zimbabwean Anglicans for over 50 years.

This year [2011], the Shearly Cripps festival has not been allowed to happen. On August 2nd it was reported that excommunicated Anglican Bishop Nolbert Kunonga, an outspoken supporter of President Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF, claimed to have “taken over” the Shearly Cripps Shrine, along with all other church properties in the Masvingo Province. Sadly the local police have enforced Kunonga’s claims, despite repeated court orders ruling that access to Anglican properties should be open to all.

Cripps strived all his life for equality and justice. When he died he left all his land to the local people who had lived and farmed on that land for many years. In the light of his work and his legacy it is particularly saddening that the kind of actions Cripps fought against during his time in colonial Southern Rhodesia should be echoed now by Kunonga in a post-colonial Zimbabwe.

Owen Sheers
–Adapted from
The Shrine has since opened to parishioners again.

About the Author
Arthur Cripps: ‘Maverick missionary and activist for African rights’

Curt Gesch, Columnist

Curt Gesch is a farmer and writer living in Quick, B.C. He is a writer on environmental and agricultural topics. He and his wife Betsey attend the Anglican Church in Quick, which has a wood stove, no electricity, no bathroom, and which seats 33 people.