Murder at Morija: Faith, Mystery, and Tragedy on an African Mission

By Wylie, Diana | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Murder at Morija: Faith, Mystery, and Tragedy on an African Mission


Wylie, Diana, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Murder at Morija: Faith, Mystery, and Tragedy on an African Mission, By Tim Couzens. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2005. Pp. 496. $25.00 paper.

God is in the details, we are told. There is no doubt that He is in Tim Couzens's Murder at Morija, a narrative history of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society [P.E.M.S.] that brought Christianity to Lesotho. Will you also find the devil in the details? Only if you are likely to be overwhelmed by Couzens's passion for everything pertaining to the mission at Morija. Nothing is missing: neither Alpine topography, nor poisoning scandals in ancient Rome, nor the experience of trench warfare at Verdun, nor sectarian strife in Madagascar.

These details constitute a historian's version of "thick description." Couzens has a lively propensity to be fascinated by everything bearing on his case, though his focal point is the inner and outer lives of the P.E.M.S. missionaries. His curiosity about the whole man and woman, as well as his drive to write a compelling narrative, put him in the same school of mission history as Elizabeth Elbourne, whose Blood Ground focuses on personal relationships among missionaries and Africans in the early Cape Colony.1 Dwelling on the vagaries of human behavior sets her and Couzens apart from recent theory-driven work on Christian mission by John and Jean ComarofF and Paul Landau.2 While the Comaroffs and Landau speculate on the cultural significance of round as opposed to square houses or dental surgery, respectively, Couzens tells us exactly what went on in those houses and what those mouths said.

The characters display enough peccadilloes to destroy any prejudice that missionaries are a staid bunch. Here they commit adultery. A young missionary daughter probably has an abortion. These moral failures lead to the tragedy that frames the book: the poisoning of Edouard Jacottet in 1920.

Jacottet was a giant among southern African missionaries. A liberal patriarch, he strongly advocated a black pastorate and self-governing churches, and he anticipated the phasing out of white missionaries. The aftermath of the South African War alarmed him because he saw "high governmental spheres" becoming "more openly hostile to the interests of the blacks" and more friendly to "the capitalists" (p. 271). With empathy born of being a citizen of Switzerland, another small landlocked nation bordered by giants, he feared the destruction of the small Sotho nation if whites took Sotho land and used its state revenues for themselves. Couzens argues that Lesotho's legacy of independence is due in no small measure to Jacottet's stand. So is its literary heritage. …

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