Dr T. Jack Thompson (1943-2017)

James L. Cox remembers the life and work of Dr T. Jack Thompson

Dr T. Jack Thompson, who served as Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World in the University of Edinburgh from 2005 until 2008 (now the Centre for the Study of World Christianity), and was Senior Lecturer in the History of World Christianity until his retirement in December 2008, died on 10 August 2017.  From the time Jack and I arrived at the University of Edinburgh at virtually the same time in 1993 to take appointments in the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World (he from Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham and I from the University of Zimbabwe), we worked closely together under its then Director, Professor Andrew Walls.  Although Jack was noted as a historian of Christian missions in Africa, primarily Malawi, his contributions to the wider academic study of African religions was notable. 


Jack first went to Malawi in 1970 under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.  But Jack insisted that he preferred to be thought of ‘simply as a Christian teacher’ rather than a missionary.  He taught his pupils there a wide range of subjects, but was always as much interested in their personal development as in their academic performance.  As a keen runner, for a time Jack also coached the Malawi national running team.  Many years later, after his retirement from the University of Edinburgh, and in recognition of his long devotion to education in Malawi, he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Livingstonia and was made an honorary chief of the Ngoni people among whom he had worked. 


During the 1990s, when I co-ordinated the African Christianity Project for the Centre, Jack worked closely with me, participating in regional conferences in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone.  The publication that resulted from the 1994 Zimbabwe Conference was entitled Rites of Passage in Contemporary Africa (1998).  Jack’s contribution to this book focused on the adaptation of Scottish sacramental conventions to the Malawi context. 


One of Jack’s most important academic contributions was his intensive research, conducted over many years, on missionary photography, which resulted in his 2012 publication, Light on Darkness? Missionary Photography of Africa in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.  What makes this work so important is its emphasis on the various perspectives adopted by those taking photographs and those being photographed.  As he began to study such photographic records in detail, he soon discovered that many of the photographs had been stage-managed to convey a point of view. 


The remainder of this fascinating study explores questions about why missionaries did this from different angles and in different historical contexts.  By drawing our attention to the most blatant attempts to manipulate photographic evidence, Jack unveiled the hidden ways that outsiders, including academics, use their research data to drive home pre-conceived conclusions. 


Jack’s commitment to privileging Indigenous perspectives was reflected in his historical analysis of Xhosa missionaries to Malawi during the late nineteenth century in a book which was published in 2000 under the title, Touching the Heart: Xhosa Missionaries to Malawi, 1876-1888.  This carefully documented volume attempts to counter the prejudice of earlier studies of Christian missions.  By highlighting the significant place of African missionaries from South Africa in evangelising Indigenous populations situated in northern Malawi, Jack turned the tables on this Western bias and demonstrated the key role played by Africans in making Christianity truly an African religion. 


In addition to Jack’s outstanding contribution to scholarship, he was also an able administrator, not only serving as Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World, but also working tirelessly in the early 2000s as the Postgraduate Director of the School of Divinity.  He was an excellent academic supervisor, giving his time and detailed attention to his students.  As a teacher, he was engaging, challenging and informative, particularly by providing insights gained from his own experiences in Africa.  He was also a key figure working with community and government leaders in forging the Scotland-Malawi Partnership, a  ‘national civil society network’ whose aim is to coordinate, support and represent people-to-people links between the two countries.


Jack had a great sense of humour, but at the same time was intensely interested in promoting social justice and inter-religious tolerance, especially in those places he knew best: Malawi, Scotland and his native Northern Ireland.  His contribution to the School of Divinity, the University of Edinburgh, the church community of which he was a part and to the wider Scottish and international contexts was immense.  He will be missed by us all, especially by those of us who knew him best and who are deeply indebted to him for his collegiality, guidance and enduring friendship. Our thoughts are with his wife Phyllis, his children Jenny and Mark, his grandchildren and to the many, many people, to paraphrase the title of his book, whose hearts he touched.

James L. Cox, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies