"He is a bishop and he talks of peace."

Such was the simple explanation why one African living in a protected village in far northern Rhodesia said he voted for Bishop Abel Tendekai Muzorewa, the diminutive black Rhodesian leader who has just been elected to lead a nation rent by war toward peace and unity.

If there is one single reason for Muzorewa's overwhelming victory, it is his image as a peace-seeking churchman who has stood above the bloody fray of Rhodesia's black nationalist politics.

Churchman turned politician, the 54-year-old bishop of the American United Methodist Church has been called upon largely by an accident of nationalist history and white maneuvering to end a liberation struggle he helped to foster, but which has now turned against him.

Many still doubt he will survive the struggle against nationalist guerrillas determined to see his downfall. Muzorewa has never been regarded as a wily politician or the intellectual match of his opponents, black of white. But he has continually befuddled his critics' predictions about his imminent demise.

Born in April 1925 at the Old Umtali Methodist Center 10 miles northeast of the eastern border town of Umtali, Muzorewa grew up the eldest of nine children in a church milieu. He never left it until becoming involved in politics relatively late in life.

He was ordained a minister in the United Methodist Church in 1953 after studying in Old Umtali. In 1958 he went abroad for five years to obtain a B.A. and M.A. in theology at American Methodist colleges, first in Fayette, Mo., and then in Nashville.

His early career was devoted to church work and he was consecrated the first black bishop of the Rhodesian United Methodist Church in August 1968. By then, politics was consuming Rhodesia and its churches. Three years earlier, the white minority had declared unilateral independence from Britian, plunging the country into international isolation and controversy.

The key year for the bishop in dragging him into nationalist politics was 1971, when most of Rhodesia's black leaders, including Joshua Nkomo, the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole and Robert Mugabe, were locked up in Rhodesian jails.

Britain and Prime Minister Ian Smith had agreed on settlement of the Rhodesian constitutional dispute at the expense of the Africans, and the leaderless nationalists were desperately looking for a respectable, nonpartisan black to oppose it.

In one of the numerous ironies of Rhodesian black national politics, it was Nkomo, now a guerrilla leader, who sent a delegation in November 1971 asking Muzorewa to lead a new group, the African National Council, formed to fight the proposed settlement.

Horrified at the prospect of fighting among rival nationalists, Muzorewa hesitated. After three weeks of prayer and meditation, he wrote in his autobiography, "Rise Up and Walk," he accepted the call.

The council's campaign was total success, the British-Smith proposals were rejected overwhelmingly by Africans and Muzorewa's political star soared. The following five years saw Muzorewa seeking to forge a united movement under his African National Council. with the release of Nkomo, Mugabe and Sithole from prison in December 1974, however, Muzorewa found himself holding the reigns of a powerful nationalist troika pulling in three directions.

Again and again, he would retreatto his countryside farm or go abroad at times of crisis, leaving the Council to the mercies of the power struggle. His behavior earned him the reputation of being indecisive, politically weak and way over his head in politics.

But the little bishop perserved.

As Nkomo, Sithole and Mugabe split and set up their own politicalparties, Muzorewa hung on as a leader of the renamed United African National Council. After watching Nkomo fail in private negotations with Smith in March 1976 and the collapse of talks under British-American auspices in Geneva later that year, Muzorewa in December 1977, began his own talks with Rhodesia's white leaders, together with Sithole and Chief Jeremia Chirau.

By then, Smith had publicly agreed to elections on the basis of one person-one vote in return for gurantees for whites. He was interested in settling with the three black internal leaders, rather than than giving in to the nationalist guerrillas under Nkomo and Mugabe or to a new British-American plan.

The agreement signed in March 1978 as a result of these internal talks is still the subject of enormous controversy. The guerrillas have condemned Muzorewa, Sithole and Chirau as the "greatest sellouts" in African history for agreeing with Smith first on a biracial interim government and then on a constitution that gurantees whites enormous political and military influence for at least 10 more years despite a black majority in the new parliament

critics of Muzorewa say he was outmaneuvered by Smith and yielded on all key issues. They argue he has allowed whites to maintain controlof the real sinews of power-the military, police, civil service and judiciary-while blacks get only the titles of authority.

He has confused office with power, said one white lawyer.

The bishop contends that blacks still have a large majority in the new parliament, 72 seats to the whites' 28, and that the most important thing at this stage is to transfer powerformally to the black majority.

Whether Smith has outwitted the bishop or vice versa, only time and experience will tell.

But Muzorewa is a changed man today in his approaching role as the first black prime minister of "Zimbabwe-Rhodesia."

He has become more assertive and confident, although he still seems evasive or indecisive in answering questions about his future policies.

So far, he has set a mood rather than a policy. He intends, he says, to be "pragmatic" and "realist" rather than "emotional."

He accepts the need to cooperate with South Africa and says he will do it openly rather than in secret like Mozambique if it is for the good of his people.

He advocates good neighborliness reconciliation with the guerilla leaders, racial harmony at home with full acceptance of whites and a free enterprise systemRhodesia's whites could not hope for more if they hope to keep a place in the new country.

But skeptics see his success as highly dependent on factors outside his control. Among them are British and American recognition of the new government, the extent of South Africa's military commitment, ability of the guerillas to sustain their struggle and the amount of outside support they get from the Soviet Union, Cuba and other Communist countries.

Most outside observers give Muzorewa an even chance at best. Nevertheless, he has surprised his critics before, and he may do it again. CAPTION: Picture 1, ABEL MUZOREWA . . . has confounded critics; Picture 2, NDABANINGI SITHOLE . . . electoral rival