Colenso, John William

1814–1883
British missionary

John Colenso was an outspoken critic of conventional missionary work who condemned the way colonial authorities treated Africans. Born in England, Colenso became the first bishop of the Diocese of NATAL in 1853 and established a mission station in the town of Bishopstowe. He was well-read in both Christian teaching and modern scientific thinking and discoveries. He was also familiar with the way Africans understood Christian teaching and supported many of their views about religious belief and experience.

Colenso, John William

This knowledge and his early experiences in Africa led Colenso to write a book called The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined (1870). In it he argued that the Bible was not the literal word of God. The book greatly upset religious authorities, and Colenso was excommunicated, or expelled, from the church.

In the early 1870s, Colenso exposed Britain’s unjust treatment of the Hlubi people of Natal and their chief, Langalibalele. Later when the British invaded the ZULU kingdom and deposed its ruler, CETSHWAYO kaMpande, he championed the cause of the Zulu people. Unfortunately, Colenso did not succeed during his lifetime in his efforts to reform religious thought and colonial political activity. His protests, however, highlighted the violence and injustice that were basic elements of European imperialism in Africa. Colenso had three daughters who carried on the struggle for African rights in SOUTH AFRICA after his death. (See also Christianity in Africa, Missions and Missionaries.)