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Historia vol.60 no.1 Durban Mai. 2015 



Southern African Christianities and Mission Effort under Review



Natasha Erlank

Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Johannesburg. Her research interests include the history of missions and mainstream Christianity in Southern Africa, as well as work on the politics of gender and tradition. She also works in the field of South African public history. Thank you to Gerald Groenewald for some very insightful and generous comments




In this article I review three books which cover, from different directions, aspects of the history of missions and Christianity in southern Africa. These include debates about the indigenisation of evangelical effort, the role of gender in shaping missions, and the political force represented by Christianity. African Teachers on the Colonial Frontier: Tswana Evangelists and their Communities during the Nineteenth Century, by Stephen Volz, is a detailed study of the spread of Christianity in Tswana communities, and the role played by Tswana evangelists, in a broad swathe from what is now the Free State province of South Africa, across North-West Province and into northern Botswana. The Farmerfield Mission: A Christian Community in South Africa, 1838-2008, by Fiona Vernal, examines the operation of a residential mission for Africans and Khoe in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Vernal's work covers the period from the establishment of the mission, through the difficulties experienced during the early twentieth century and subsequent forced removals, as well as the resettlement of the descendants of former tenants through land restitution efforts in the early twenty-first century. Richard Elphick's The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa, discusses the role played by protestant Christian forces in the making and challenging of racial ascription and discrimination in South Africa from the late nineteenth century through to roughly the 1960s.

Key words: London Missionary Society; Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society; missions; Christianity; Botswana; South Africa.


In hierdie artikel bespreek ek drie boeke wat elk vanuit verskillende perspektiewe aspekte van die geskiedenis van die sending en Christendom in suidelike Afrika dek. Dit sluit in debatte oor die verinheemsing van die evangeliepoging, die rol van gender in die vorming van sendings, en die politieke mag wat Christenskap verteenwoordig het. Stephen Volz se African Teachers on the Colonial Frontier: Tswana Evangelists and their Communities during the Nineteenth Century is 'n gedetailleerde studie van die verspreiding van Christendom in Tswana-gemeenskappe, en die rol van Tswana evangeliste daarin, oor 'n breë area wat strek van die huidige Vrystaat-provinsie, deur die Noordwes-provinsie tot noordelike Botswana. Fiona Vernal se The Farmerfield : A Christian Community in South Africa, 1838-2008 bestudeer die werking van 'n residensiële sendingstasie vir swartes en Khoe in die Oos-Kaap van Suid-Afrika. Vernal se studie dek die periode vanaf die stigting van stasie, deur die moeilike tye van die vroeë twintigste eeu en die daaropvolgende gedwonge verskuiwings, tot die hervestiging van die nasate van voormalige inwoners danksy pogings tot grondherstel vroeg in die een-en-twintigste eeu. Richard Elphick se The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa bespreek die rol wat verskillende protestantse Christelike groepe gespeel het in die skepping en bestryding van rassetoeskrywing en -diskriminasie in Suid-Afrika, van die laat negentiende eeu tot ongeveer die 1960's.

Sleutelwoorde: LMS, WMMS, sending, Christenskap, Botswana, Suid-Afrika, geskiedenis



Stephen C. Volz, African Teachers on the Colonial Frontier: Tswana Evangelists and their Communities during the Nineteenth Century
Peter Lang, New York, 2011 293 pp
ISBN 978-1-4331-0949-2 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-4539-0156-4 (eBook)
US$76.95 (both)

Fiona Vernal, The Farmerfield Mission: A Christian Community in South Africa, 1838-2008
Oxford University Press, New York, 2012 358 pp
ISBN 978-0-19-984340-4

Richard Elphick, The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa
University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Durban, 2012
437 pp
ISBN 978-1-86914-239-1



The three books under review exemplify key trends in the writing on missionaries in southern Africa in recent years. I will discuss each book separately, then go on to discuss how each of them speaks to the other and also to the broader field of Christianity as it manifests at present. While all three of the authors are based in the United States, they differ in that two of them are relatively younger scholars, while Elphick has had an illustrious and diverse career. All three books are well written, and it is pleasing to see a range of publishers turning their attention to both Christianity and mission in the history of southern Africa. Both Vernal's and Volz's books are available electronically, although it is a pity to see that the e-books are the same price as the hardcover editions. All books are available in hard cover in their print edition, and none of them is particularly affordable. This is a concern because it limits the ability of African libraries to purchase copies of either the hardcover version or the e-books.

Stephen Volz's contribution to this essay, based on his PhD thesis, is an examination of the work and lives of Tswana evangelists in the nineteenth century. African Teachers on the Colonial Frontier is a detailed study of the spread of Christianity in Tswana communities in a broad swathe from what is now the Free State province of South Africa, across North-West Province and into northern Botswana. Volz's unifying thread is work in Tswana-speaking communities where the London Missionary Society (LMS) and also the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS) began an evangelisation effort that was almost immediately surpassed in its success by the work of "African teachers". The book begins in the early nineteenth century, working with roughly a century's worth of material. It consists of six chapters, the first of which serves as an introduction. The following three chapters, which constitute the bulk of the text, concern themselves with the work of Tswana evangelists, firstly in the south-eastern parts of South Africa and later in northern Botswana. Each chapter has substantial endnotes, evidence of Volz's detailed archival work.

Volz' first chapter examines the origins of mission work amongst Tswana-speakers in what is today the Northern Cape, South Africa, beginning with mission work among the Barolong and Bathlaping. This chapter covers material that will be familiar to readers of the early history of the London Missionary Society, and its interior missions, but from the point of view of the African evangelists, which leads to a focus inward on the mission and not, for instance, outward towards LMS politics centred on control of the Cape. In this way, it forms a welcome contrapuntal narrative to other work on evangelical effort in the region, but focusing on that from the point of view of the European missionaries.1 In 1801, two evangelists - the British missionary, William Edwards and the Dutch-Khoe Christian, Jan Kok - settled separately amongst the Bathlaping. Kok, who was working amongst groups of Khoe across the border from the Cape Colony, was typical of what Volz describes of the first African evangelists in the areas; sustaining himself and his party through trade and links with local communities, and taking advantage of his ability to communicate with the local Tswana in order to evangelise further amongst them. By contrast, Edwards appears to have been less committed to evangelisation, and his mission lasted only a few years.

While Kok and Edwards' efforts lasted only a few years, their example was taken up in the following decade, the 1810s, by other European and indigenous missionaries. In 1816, a party under the leadership of James Read senior, but including several established Khoe evangelists, attempted to establish a more permanent mission at Dithakong. After meeting with resistance from the Bathlaping, the mission party retreated to Griquatown. Volz observes that the European and African missionaries explained their lack of success differently; Jan Hendrick, one of the Khoe evangelists, explaining that the effort was impolite and premature, while the European members blamed the Bathlaping, whom they saw as steeped in sin and hostile to the Gospel. So, as Volz points out, the different backgrounds of evangelists affected, right from the beginning of sustained mission effort in this region, not only the success of missions, but also reasons that the missionaries adduced for the success or failure of their efforts. Caught up in this scenario, African evangelists who often themselves occupied interstitial positions in society, neither European nor Tswana, struggled valiantly to make the small gains they did. These figures, just like translators and interpreters (which many of them also were) were mediators - not just of language, but also of cultural worlds and mentalities.

In the next chapter, Volz examines the spread of Christianity and the methods through which it spread amongst the southern Tswana in the period following the exploratory missions of the early nineteenth century. Examining the role of young men in particular, he looks at the interplay of literacy and orality in the spread of faith. Much labour was spent in the middle part of the century attempting to reduce the various Tswana dialects into written form which could encompass translations of the Bible. In this process, as Volz points out, mission squabbles over translation protocols often obscured the work of Tswana labour, both to assist in translation and to provide help in type-setting and printing. Once hymnals and the New Testament became available to converts, the books and the printed word were treasured, not just for their content but also for their form. As Tswana evangelists worked with these written texts, they also helped to translate ideas better shaped to the page into oral dialogue that could be shaped according to local practice. As Volz notes, "An early Tswana term for "read" was buisa (cause to speak), linking reading and speaking as single activity" (p 81).

Volz outlines some interesting differences in evangelisation between an early period, roughly 1800-1860, when Tswana evangelism centred on working in local communities in the south, with a later period after 1840, when the word of God was spread along trade routes to the north-west through evangelists allied to and operating as traders in the more northern parts of Botswana. These different contexts had an impact on how evangelists found themselves located in their communities, and how Christianity interfaced with local power structures.

In the chapter on evangelism among the Northern Tswana, Volz pushes our knowledge of mission activity in this region into new territory. This is an area of mission endeavour not studied much, and his treatment of the methods of evangelisation brings to mind some of Roger Beck's early work on missionary-traders.2 Southern Tswana Christians carried the word of God north with them on trade routes, and as these were taken over by Tswana leaders in the north-west, the message the traders carried was incorporated into local practice, so that trade and faith became assimilated together. Volz examines here the critical role of Tswana chiefs in the spread of Christianity. Expansion to the north-east was more difficult because of the presence of Boer commandos in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, who had claimed roles of authority amongst the local Tswana communities.

In his fifth chapter Volz examines the conflicts in thought and practice that arose as Tswana evangelists attempted to negotiate the differences between Christian belief and theology, and Tswana thought. This chapter turns on experiences of conversion, modelling the different ways and processes through which Africans converted to Christianity. In his final chapter, Volz turns to what is commonly understood as a shift in mission attitude in southern African in the later-nineteenth century: the European mission attempt to reassert control over what were viewed as unruly African Christian communities. The section from page 253 onwards acts as a conclusion for the volume.

The book is clearly written and meticulously researched, based principally on a reading of primary mission sources including the archives of the LMS and WMMS. Volz's principal concern in the book is to show African agency at work. Each chapter begins with a personalisation of this theme through a reconstruction of how Tswana evangelists might have imagined key moments in that history. Unlike previous studies of Tswana Christianity, which were often limited to single chiefdoms or kingdoms, Volz's examination takes in the breadth of Tswana-speaking territory. Initial work was often conducted by Khoe and Griqua evangelists around the European-established mission stations, where many of the early African teachers were young men from relatively elite clans. While European missionaries may have established stations that constituted a core around which the first evangelists laboured, the first evangelists worked independently of them and were tied more into local political systems than into the world of the missionaries. Volz makes the point that evangelists and Christianity operated within a net of Tswana beliefs, practices and chiefly power much more - at least before the later-nineteenth century - than they did within a European context. However, while Volz's examples of African agency at work are both evidence of careful research, filling in detail not previously covered in other studies of evangelisation in the region, and convincing proof of the role of indigenous agency, his rhetorical commitment to foregrounding that agency feels overdone.

Both Volz's book and Fiona Vernal's study of Farmerfield Mission, which is also based on doctoral work, are relatively close studies of mission communities (this is something that distinguishes their work from The Equality of Believers discussed next). Farmerfield, like African Teachers on the Colonial Frontier, extends our understanding of the Wesleyan Mission effort in the nineteenth century. While Volz's research concentrates on experiences of Christianity within a common language group, Vernal's work looks to those who experienced one particular Christian denomination. Farmerfield differs from that of other studies of the Wesleyan effort in the Eastern Cape through her focus of a residential mission community situated within the Cape Colony from its founding. More recent mission studies have tended to focus on more widely-spread mission communities. Vernal's research returns to a theme in much earlier mission studies in South Africa: mission initiatives centred on residential mission communities, especially those of the Moravians and the LMS in the Cape Colony.3

In The Farmerfield Mission, Vernal traces the rise of a WMMS community in the Cape Colony. The study examines the lives and practices of a community of African Methodists on a mission station to the near south-east of Grahamstown, South Africa, from the station's inception until the restitution programme of the 1990s which saw the land returned to former residents and their descendants. Generational shifts and changes are a prominent thread in the book, a welcome reminder that stations are neither static nor even unified communities. Vernal's study is one of the few to cover such a wide range of time, an indication not only of the longevity of the mission community, but also of a direction which might fruitfully be followed in other mission studies.4 Indeed, her study shows the way in which issues of faith can be tied to other critical historical currents, like the sociology of displaced communities and the politics of land.

Vernal begins her study with a very useful summary of the literature on missions, situating the later-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century evangelical effort in the context of British colonial effort, not only in South Africa but in other British colonial centres. Since the publication of two articles charting the progress of mission history in southern African in the mid-1990s (those by Norman Etherington and Elizabeth Elbourne), as Vernal herself notes, the situation in respect of writing on missions has changed dramatically. This review article charts some of those shifts through the books it is reviewing.5

The book is divided into three sections. The first constitutes a background to British mission efforts in the later-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries in general and in the Cape in particular; the second section is a more detailed focus on Farmerfield in the nineteenth century; and the last section charting the trajectories of Farmerfield residents in the twentieth century, including two chapters which detail how residents were removed from the station when it was declared a black spot to the incongruously named Mimosa Station outside King Williams Town. The final section also examines the effects of land restitution at the end of the 1990s for residents, constituting one of the most trenchant examinations of the effects of restitution that I have seen.

Part one of the book begins in Britain with the evangelical movement, before shifting its emphasis to the Cape and the Eastern Cape in particular. It looks in broad detail at the establishment of Wesleyan mission stations amongst the Xhosa, drawing on the work of scholars like Hildegard Fast to set the scene for what is to follow.6 In part two, Vernal moves into a more detailed discussion of Farmerfield itself. In the chapter, "A Selected Class of Natives", Vernal examines the way in which white missionaries attempted to harness both the ideological power of the notion of a more well-to-do class of residents, as well as their productive power as labour, into the service of firstly the mission, but secondly the white community surrounding it. William Shaw, the Wesleyan superintendent who selected the first occupants of Farmerfield was quite clear that he wanted Af