Smith, Dr Edwin William
1876-1957; e.m. 1897

Missionary and scholar, born on 7 September 1876 at Aliwal, South Africa, the son of a PM missionary *John Smith. He was educated at Elmfield College and spent 1898-99 as a 'missionary apprentice' among workers from the Paris Missionary Society in Lesotho. There he was greatly influenced by the French missionary Jacottet, who impressed on him the need to study the traditions of the African people, especially their myths, proverbs and folk tales. He served at Aliwal from 1899 to 1902 and in Central Africa from 1902 to 1915. In Zambia he researched Ila linguistics and culture and made translations into Ila. Diabetes prevented him from returning to Africa after World War I, in which he served as an army chaplain. Serving with the Bible Society 1916-1939, he encouraged accessible Bible translations in The Shrine of a People's Soul (1929). From 1939 to 1944 he taught missionaries and African Americans in the USA.

He had considerable ability as a linguist - speaking German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. with some knowledge of Latin, Arabic, Greek & Hebrew. In Africa he knew Sotho, some Xhosa and learned Ila. His influential publications promoted respect for Africans. His Hartley Lecture, The Golden Stool (1926) showed his comprehensive understanding of African issues and Aggrey of Africa (1929) expressed enthusiasm for multiracial co-operation. The Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia (1920), with A.M. Dale, was an anthropological classic. He was a member of the Royal Anthropological Institute from 1909 and its President 1933-1935 (the only missionary to hold that office). He advocated adaptation to African culture in The Christian Mission in Africa (1926) and pioneered African Christian theology in African Beliefs and Christian Faith (1936). His writing on African religion culminated in African Ideas of God (1950). He also wrote a biography of the missionary Robert Moffat (1925). He received an honorary DD from Wesley College, Winnipeg and died at Deal on 23 December 1957 during an influenza epidemic.

  • Methodist Recorder, 2 Jan. 1958
  • Malcolm J. McVeigh, God in Africa: conceptions of God in Traditional Religion and Christianity (Cape Cod, Mass, & Hartford, Vt, 1974)
  • John Young, The Quiet Wise Spirit: Edwin W. Smith 1876-1957 and Africa (Peterborough, 2002)
  • Oxford DNB