Joseph Booth was born in 1851 in Derby, England. A unique figure in the missionary history of central and southern Africa, Booth was one of the earliest proponents of the principle of "Africa for the Africans." He was a fanner in New Zealand, then a small businessman in Australia until experiencing a missionary call at the age of 41 in 1892. He established a mission station in the Shire highlands of Nyasaland, but his unorthodox approach to mission work and his schemes for African self-help and advancement eventually created friction with colonial authorities and he was barred from central Africa around 1903 as an alleged supporter of Ethiopianism or African religious separatism. Booth had in the meantime made at least one attempt to promote his radical notions of African self-determination in South Africa. On a three-month visit to Natal in 1896 he presented plans for an African Christian Union, which would establish industrial missions; these in turn would be nuclei for a vast and utopian scheme of African development, directed by Africans themselves. A conference of educated Zulu to whom Booth put this plan rejected it, either out of mistrust or timidity, and Imvo Zabantsundu denounced Booth as a dangerous radical, but Booth was undeterred.
Again in South Africa in 1912-1913, living off rent from boarders in his Cape Town home, one of whom was D. D. T. Jabavu, Booth drew up ambitious plans for a system of "British Christian Union Native Training Institutes," which would train Africans in modem skills and give them a base for greater self-assertion. One of Booth's supporters in 1896 had been Saul Msane. In 1913 he enlisted support from Sol Plaatje and from John L. Dube, whom he had met in America in 1897. Nothing came of these schemes, however, and in 1914 Booth moved to Basutoland where he worked as an independent missionary.
After the Nyasaland rising of 1915, led by John Chilembwe, one of Booth's early protégés, Booth came under suspicion and was deported from Basutoland to Britain. He was later permitted to return to South Africa, but when his health failed he went back to Britain and died there in 1932. His short book, Africa for the African, published in America in 1897, sets forth many of his ideas.