The Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa
Presbytery of the Trans-Xhariep
The Logo of the UPCSA
The logo of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa consists of the Cross of Jesus Christ in the foreground, with a stylised depiction of the burning bush seen by Moses at Mount Horeb as described in Exodus chapter 3. This was the occasion on which God appointed Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. As Moses stood before the burning bush, he observed that, though the bush was afire, it was not itself being burnt up. Hence the motto: nec tamen consumebatur — quoted from St Jerome’s Latin translation in the Vulgate: ”and yet it was not being consumed”. Significantly, the Cross is empty of the body of Christ. This is because He is risen from the dead and is alive today in the House of the Father.
The Significance of the Word “Presbyterian”
The word “Presbyterian” is derived from the Greek Presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος), meaning “Elder”. This denotes the fact that the church (indeed, the denomination) is governed by councils constituting Ruling and Teaching Elders. As such, a local congregation is led by its local council called a Session consisting of Ruling Elders (members elected by the congregation) under the chairpersonship of a local Moderator, who is a Teaching Elder (i.e. the Minister). At regional level, a council called a Presbytery or Synod consists of the Teaching Elders (Ministers) within its boundaries, as well as Commissioners (Ruling Elders elected by their Sessions), where members meet on an equal footing under the chairpersonship of the elected Moderator of Presbytery. At central level, the denomination is ruled by a General Assembly consisting of Commissioners (Ruling and Teaching Elders) elected as delegates by their Presbyteries and Synods, under the chairpersonship of the elected Moderator of General Assembly.
Early History of the Presbyterian Church
The Presbyterian family of churches, like all Christian churches, trace their roots back to the early church in Jerusalem, to the Apostle Paul and Church Fathers like St Augustine. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This public challenge to the practices of the church of his time led to the formation of a new family of churches known as the Protestant Churches. The two main streams of Protestant churches grew from this as the Reformed Churches and the Lutheran Churches. The Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa belongs to the Reformed family.
John Calvin has been called the Father of Presbyterianism. He was born in France in 1509. He studied Latin, Logic and Philosophy at the University of Paris. Later he studied law and classical literature. In 1533 he became convinced of the truth of the Reformation ideas. He was forced to flee from Paris after publicly expressing his new ideas. He found refuge in Switzerland. There he wrote the first edition of his theological masterpiece, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This book became the guidebook for many Protestants.
John Calvin visited Geneva in 1536 and became the leader of the Protestants in the city. From 1538 to 1541 he was exiled because of differences of opinion with the city fathers. He was invited back in 1541 and under his leadership the city became the centre of the Reformation in Europe and its church a model of basic Presbyterian organisation.
Calvin's legacy to us is found in his teaching on the sovereignty of God, the priesthood of all believers, and the presbyterian church structure with its focus on Eldership. His ideas of morality, ethics and democracy helped shape Western thought.
From Geneva, presbyterianism spread to Scotland and Ireland, mainly through John Knox who studied under John Calvin, and also to England, the Netherlands and America. In the years 1643 to 1649 a group of presbyterians in England worked out a doctrinal guide known as "The Westminster Confession". The influence of the Westminster Confession is clearly seen in the Articles of Faith adopted by the Presbyterian Church of England in 1890 and by the Presbyterian Church of South Africa at its establishment in 1897.
Throughout the world there are some 50 million men, women and children who belong to the Christian family which goes by the name of "Reformed and Presbyterian". About 30 million call themselves Reformed and some 20 million answer to the name Presbyterian. The name Reformed refers to the fact that this group of Christians trace their heritage within the church universal to and through the 16th century reformers. The name Presbyterian came into use as a distinctive title in England in the 16th – 17th century to distinguish one group within the Church of England from others who held different views on some issues. Reformed therefore is the wider title and Presbyterian that with more particular reference and used generally in the English speaking world.
Presbyterianism in Southern Africa
The history of presbyterianism in Southern Africa is by no means a monolithic one. Although early beginnings started at about the same time, and its origins can be traced to the same (Scottish) influence, the history of the group of churches going under the Presbyterian moniker in Southern Africa became divided – as the general society was – among (mostly) racial lines. It was only upon the end of the apartheid system of government 1994 that the distrust which was a major factor in perpetuating this division was finally laid aside in the birth of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (UPCSA) in 1999, through the unification between the mostly-white Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (PCSA) and the predominantly black Reformed Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (RPCSA). However, this did not unite all presbyterians in this part of the world: Even to this day, some (other) churches go by names which include the Presbyterian element as part of its name.
Early beginnings at the Cape
The reformed church tradition in South Africa harks back to 6 April 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck, himself a member of the reformed church tradition, landed at the Cape of Good Hope (in what is today Cape Town) to establish a halfway station for merchant ships of the Dutch East India Company sailing between Holland and India. On this day, soon after landing on the soil of what was to become Cape Town, Van Riebeeck led his men in prayer in the reformed fashion. As the de facto governor of the small settlement of Dutch employees and settlers, Van Riebeeck’s religious tradition emanating from his leadership immediately took on a reformed character, which opened the way for reformed churches to operate at the Cape with – at least – the nod of approval of the “authorities”. However, that was as far as Van Riebeeck’s (and his Dutch successors’) influence stretched in the history of the Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa.
The Dutch lost the colony to Britain following the 1795 Battle of Muizenberg, but had it returned following the 1802 Peace of Amiens. It was re-occupied by the British following the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806, and British possession was affirmed with the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814.
In the year 1806 Britain sent the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders Regiment to the Cape as an occupying force. These Scottish soldiers were an unusually devout group of Presbyterians. Although they had no chaplain or minister of their own, they formed themselves into "The Calvinist Society" which met every week for prayer, Bible study and public worship. They continued their religious activities until 1814, always inviting passing missionaries to preach for them.
In 1812 the Rev George Thom arrived at the Cape. He was a Presbyterian minister on his way to India as a missionary with the London Missionary Society (LMS). After meeting with the Calvinist Society he decided to stay at the Cape and the first Presbyterian Church was established there. This was to become the very first seed of the yet-to-be-formed Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (PCSA).
In 1814 the Scottish regiment was withdrawn from the Cape and the Presbyterian congregation was almost totally depleted. In the same year the Rev George Thom resigned to take up a charge at the Caledon Dutch Reformed Church, leaving the depleted congregation without a minister. In 1818 Dr John Philip (also of the LMS) arrived to minister to the congregation. Under his ministry, the congregation ceased to lead its services distinctively presbyterian, and the first presbyterian church virtually came to an end. As things turned out, the setback was only temporary.
In order to increase the number of colonists loyal to the British throne, and to contribute towards the Anglicisation of the newly-acquired Cape Colony, the British government organised a mass resettlement of British subjects in 1820, at a time when unemployment was rife following the Napoleonic wars. About 4 000 unemployed white British subjects were chosen from about 90 000 applications. While many of these settlers were given farm land towards the eastern frontier (to act as a barrier between the Cape settlers and the indigenous Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape), many of these settlers were unsuccessful at farming in such a totally unfamiliar climate and due to a general lack of farming skills that they returned in their droves to their prior trades in towns.
From the first Sunday of the arrival of the 1820 Settlers at Algoa Bay (as a result of which the current city of Port Elizabeth sprang up) and the trek of a Scottish company to the Baviaans River valley, services were held under the leadership of Thomas Pringle. A place of worship was erected at Glen Lynden in 1828, and John Pears was called as the first minister. Later on this church was taken over by the Dutch Reformed Church. The building still stands today and has been proclaimed a historical monument.
At about this time, the ministry to the inhabitants of the Cape began to incline towards segregated structures. The nearly all-white (settlers’) churches, as described in this and the following sections, later led to the establishment of the PCSA, while a parallel Presbyterian Church structure evolved for the indigenous (black) membership (see the relevant section on the RPCSA below).
Development into the PCSA
In 1824 the once-more growing number of Presbyterians in the Cape re-established the congregation. Representations were made to the Governor on the forlorn condition of the Presbyterian community, and as a result funds were raised voluntarily and a grant was secured from the Government. The foundation-stone of the present St Andrew’s Church in Cape Town was laid in 1827, and the church was officially opened in 1829. It stands to this day in Cape Town and is known as "the Mother Church" of the Presbyterians in Southern Africa. The Rev John Adamson arrived from Scotland in 1827 to be the first minister of St Andrew's. He served as their minister until 1841.
From these beginnings the Presbyterian Church expanded as the country developed under the expansion of the white settlers. Isolated Presbyterian communities sprang up wherever towns or settlements were established, e.g. at Grahamstown, King William’s Town, Queenstown, Port Elizabeth (again) and East London. A similar development took place in Natal (now the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa) mainly at Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and in the Orange Free State (now the Free State province of South Africa) at Harrismith, Bloemfontein, Bethlehem and other centres.
The beginnings of Presbyterianism in Natal go back to missionary work. Organised Presbyterianism began on the evening of 28 October 1850 when a gathering of Presbyterians held in the Congregational Chapel resolved to form themselves into a congregation with the name "The Presbyterian Church of Natal". Their first minister, the Rev William Campbell, minister of the Free Church of Alexandria in the Presbytery of Dumbarton, Scotland accepted a call to the young congregation on March 16 1851. The growth of the Presbyterian Church in other parts of South Africa followed in the wake of the Great Trek beginning in 1830, the discovery of diamonds in the Northern Cape in 1870 and gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886.
After the discovery of diamonds and gold, congregations were formed at Kimberley (in the Cape of Good Hope province at the time, but now in the Northern Cape province of South Africa) and on the Witwatersrand (now the Gauteng province of South Africa). The Rev Dr James Gray of Harrismith conducted the first Presbyterian service in Johannesburg in 1887, in an unfinished building which was to become the Heights Hotel, Doornfontein. This led to the formation of the congregation of St. George’s in 1888, followed by those of Fordsburg, Jeppe, Germiston, Boksburg, Pretoria and Klerksdorp (in what is now the North-West province of South Africa), in 1890. At Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a congregation was established during the Matabele rebellion. The movement spread in Rhodesia to Salisbury (now Harare), Gwelo (now Gweru) and Umtali (now Mutare), and also Livingstone in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
In view of the growing number of Presbyterian congregations, steps were taken in 1892, through a Federal Council, toward the establishment of a South African Presbyterian Church. Four presbyteries, those of Cape Town, Kaffraria, Natal and Transvaal, together with the congregation at Port Elizabeth (not then attached to any presbytery), declared their willingness to become constituent parts of a united church, on a basis adopted at a meeting of the above-mentioned Federal Council held at King William’s Town in July 1896.
Establishment of one of the earliest Presbyterian Churches in the Free State was approved by the Federal Council at its meeting on 6 September 1896 and St John’s Presbyterian Church was established less than a week later in Bloemfontein at a meeting led by Rev Dr John Smith of Pietermaritzburg, commissioned to do so by the Federal Council. The first Minister appointed to this new congregation was Rev James Guthrie, who arrived from Scotland in December 1896. His induction service took place in July 1897, presided over by Mr Porteous of Harrismith.
Interestingly, the annual financial report of the congregation reflects that, between the time of his appointment (presumably January 1897) and 31 March 1898, Rev Guthrie more than tithed: Of his stipend of £292.18s.4d, he donated an amount of £218.13s. back to the building fund of the church. This amounts to his retention of a mere £74.05.4d for the year. It means that he returned back to his congregation about 75% of his stipend.
Having previously been donated two erven by the city council, these were later exchanged with the Church of the Province of South Africa (CPSA) for a more suitably-located stand on the corner of Zastron and West Burger Streets. The title deed was transferred on 7 June 1898. A church, hall and manse were erected on the site. Sadly, the building methods of the time failed to withstand the test of time, and, in spite of extensive (and expensive) repair work over the years, the sagging walls of the complex had to be demolished in 1964. Today, the congregation is still vibrant in its current location on the corner of Aliwal and Third Streets in the city.
In 1896 the first Presbyterian congregation in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was formed at Bulawayo and in 1903 another at Salisbury (now Harare). Others soon followed. Several educational institutions such as David Livingstone Secondary School, Gloag Ranch and Mondoro Secondary School were also started.
The first Presbyterian congregation in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) was established in 1926 at Livingstone and named "The David Livingstone Memorial Presbyterian Church". The Livingstone congregation remained the only congregation of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa in Zambia, until 1956. Now there are three Presbyteries: Muchinga, Copperbelt and Munali, and a vibrant church community.
Largely through the initiative of the Rev John Smith of Pietermaritzburg the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church met in Durban (17 – 22 September 1897) and he was the first Moderator. The General Assembly brought together the Presbyteries of Cape Town, Natal and the Transvaal, the white congregations of the Synod of Kaffraria (Free Church of Scotland), the white congregations of the Presbytery of Adelaide (United Presbyterian Church of Scotland) and the two independent congregations at Port Elizabeth and Kimberley.
In 1898 the recently established congregation at Bulawayo passed a unanimous resolution attaching their congregation to the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. In 1903 the Moderator, James Gray (afterwards Dr Gray) opened the newly-erected church and then went to Salisbury to found a congregation there. As at Bulawayo, the charge at Salisbury, and later the charges at Gwelo, Livingstone and Umtali, attached themselves to the Presbyterian Church of South Africa.
In the course of time the Presbyterian Church has expanded, keeping pace with economic development in the countries north and south of the Limpopo River (the northernmost border of South Africa), and the vast area from the Cape to the Copperbelt in Zambia is now ministered to.
Finally, in 1959, in order to acknowledge inclusion of churches north of the Limpopo, the name was changed to the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa.
Development into the RPCSA
As mentioned above, the paths of the so-called white and the so-called black Presbyterian churches in South and Southern Africa did not exactly follow the same path, in spite of growing from the same roots. In order to understand the moniker “Bantu”, one needs to know that Bantu is an out-dated, South African word, taken from the Zulu word which means, simply, “people”. In apartheid South Africa, the word was applied by the regime to mean “black people”.
The roots of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (RPCSA, which was formed as the Bantu Presbyterian Church of South Africa in 1923 and adopted its new name in 1979) are to be found in Scottish Presbyterianism. In 1821 the Glasgow Missionary Society sent its first missionaries to work on the Eastern Frontier. The first two were the Rev John Bennie and the Rev William Thomson. They were soon followed by others. Although mission was integral to the life of the Scottish Church (Preface to the Scots Confession of 1560), the ordination of the Rev John Ross in 1823 by the Presbytery of Hamilton, and his setting apart for missionary work, came only on the eve of the Church of Scotland officially recognising the necessity of overseas mission (1824). In 1824, John Bennie and John Ross founded a second station on the Ncerha River about 20 km South East of Tyhume and took up residence there in November of that year. Initially called “Incehra”, the station was renamed “Lovedale” in honour of Dr John Love after his death in 1825. Love had been the first secretary of the London Missionary Society and was later a leading figure in the Glasgow Missionary Society. The site of the old Lovedale was abandoned in 1836 in favour of one on the East bank of the Tyhume River some 7 km distant where the new Lovedale Mission was built and where the Lovedale Institution opened in 1841. In later years, under the leadership of the Rev Dr James Stewart, Lovedale was to become the most famous of Presbyterian institutions in South Africa and the African springboard for the equally famous Presbyterian Mission and Institution in the north, namely Livingstonia, on the shores of Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi).
As early as 1823 a Presbytery was formed and churches spread rapidly throughout the whole Eastern Frontier. In due course the work was divided into three Presbyteries: Kaffraria (previously known as Caffreland), Mankazana and Transkei.
The first church was built at Glen Lynden in 1828. In the early 1830s followed the foundation of Burnshill, Pirie and Balfour Missions. By the time the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland united in 1900, there were twenty-eight congregations of the Scottish mission in South Africa with 14 402 members. Educational work was fundamental to this mission work. The foremost educational institution was Lovedale, opened in 1841. Other institutions were opened at Mgwali (1857) and Blythswood (1877), while other missions were established in the Transkei, East Griqualand (both in the current Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Natal and the Transvaal.
While a wonderful event took place in the ordination of Rev John Bennie on 29 May 1831, the paternalistic attitude of some of those active within the missionary system is evident in the following quote from a letter written at Lovedale by the Reverend James Laing of the Glasgow Missionary Society on 6 June 1831:
“At Lovedale, on the 29th May, 1831, an occurrence took place, the like of which has been rarely witnessed in heathen countries, and never by the Caffres before. We refer to the ordination of the Rev. John Bennie, one of the Missionaries of the Glasgow Missionary Society, who has, for about ten years, with praiseworthy diligence, been actively engaged in pointing out the way of salvation to the ignorant and degraded Caffres. In addition to the Missionaries in connection with Mr Bennie, there were present, the Rev. W.R. Thomson of the Kat River, the Rev. A. Murray, A.M., of Graaf Reinet [Graaff-Reinet], the Rev. G. Morgan of Somerset, and the Rev. A. Smith of Uitenhage, all of whom ably afforded their assistance in conducting the solemn business of the day.”
Although the word “Caffre” (or however it was spelt in other texts) as it was used in those days had little more meaning than merely referring to the black, indigenous people of any part of Africa (it originates from the Arabic word meaning “non-believer” in the Islamic context, and was brought to other parts of Africa by the British who first encountered the word in Egypt, where it was in common use to refer to any person who is not white, under the assumption that the indigenous people were not Moslems), the word today is emotionally loaded and extremely offensive to use. It is quoted here for the sole purpose of providing an accurate rendering of the original text as well as to correctly reflect the original regional names.
The history of the Scottish mission was largely influenced by the formation of Mission Councils for “the maintenance, administration or independence of our Mission in South Africa” (Cory MS 14859, Our Missions in South Africa). This meant that general policy would be determined solely by whites in the Mission Councils while presbyteries were relegated to the role of exercising discipline predominantly over blacks as if mission was not part of their remit and concern. Had presbyteries been organised differently and given appropriate powers and jurisdiction, there would have been no need for Mission Councils and blacks would have been eligible contributors to the development of mission policy and probably its most able interlocutors. Further, the fact that Mission Councils fell into disuse for a period preceding the end of the nineteenth century demonstrates that they were not vital for the furtherance of the mission of the Church. Hence, it was the missionaries’ perceptions of the context in which they lived and worked which influenced and determined policy formation in Scotland. In theory, Mission Councils were a temporary expedient during the period in which the indigenous church was being established, this being the avowed and alleged aim of the Scottish sending church. However, Mission Councils became self-perpetuating and a source of future resentment and conflict, especially in their control of finance and property.
The first indigenous African minister to be ordained into the ministry was Rev Tiyo Soga. He was born in Gwali in 1829, at the time that Chief Makoma was expelled from the Kat River. He was the son of Jotello, one of the chief councillors of Chief Ngqika, and Nosuthu, Soga's 'great wife'. Nosuthu became a Christian and, after much thought and prayer, asked Jotello, who had eight wives, to release her from the marriage. She wanted her son Tiyo to grow up a Christian.
She also refused to allow Tiyo to be circumcised in the Xhosa tradition, which is still being practised today at traditional initiation schools. The cultural significance of circumcision of the boys is that the event signifies their transition from boyhood into manhood. An uncircumcised adult male lacks, in the eyes of his society, the status of adulthood, and is therefore regarded as unfit for participation in leadership. This would later prove to be a stumbling block where cultural matters were concerned as he was not considered by traditionalists to have passed the test of manhood.
Nosuthu took Tiyo to Chumie Mission which had been founded in 1818 by the Rev. John Brownlee. Chief Ngqika was not a Christian but was willing to allow the missionaries to work in his area. Here, at Chumie, Tiyo grew up and attended the school of the Rev. Chalmers. In 1844 Tiyo Soga was given a free scholarship to Lovedale, about thirteen kilometers from Chumie. Two years later, during the 'War of the Axe', Lovedale was closed and the military took over the buildings. Tiyo and his mother were among the refugees at Fort Armstrong. He kept his schoolbooks with him and continued to study, often at night, by the light of the sneezewood fire lit by his mother.
The Rev William Govan, principal of Lovedale, decided to return to Scotland. Two of the other missionaries asked him to take their sons with him for higher education. Govan decided to ask whether Tiyo could accompany them and paid all his expenses out of his own pocket. His mother did not know whether she would see her son again, but she let him go with the words: 'My son belongs to God; wherever he goes God is with him ... he is as much in God's care in Scotland as he is here with me'.
Soga attended the Normal School in Glasgow. During this time he was 'adopted' by the John Street United Presbyterian Church. While he was in Scotland he made a profession of faith and was baptized in May 1848. Little is known of his school years, but his time in Scotland gave him a sympathy for both the white and the black races which was to last him throughout his life.
He returned to the Eastern Cape, and from 1849 worked as a catechist and evangelist in Chumie. He found that the people in the area were enthralled by the power of a sorcerer called Mlanjeni. At this time Soga was asked by the Rev. Robert Niven to help open a new mission station in the Amathole mountains – the Uniondale Mission in Keiskammahoek. Here, for the first time, he experienced problems when scholars of the school were withdrawn because of his lack of circumcision, and the school was closed as a result.
During this time Soga began to compose sacred songs. When Soga preached it was to a congregation that identified religion with the colonial authorities with whom they were at war. On Christmas day 1850 Uniondale Mission was burnt to the ground (according to some sources, by those at war with the colonial rulers, targeting Soga’s mission for his sympathetic approach towards the whites – no doubt, Soga’s shunning of the traditional circumcision ritual must have further contributed to the animosity against him) and Soga narrowly escaped with his life. He refused to take the side of the chief in the war. He then declined a government offer of employment as an interpreter. Instead, he accompanied the Rev. Niven back to Scotland to embark on theological studies so that he might 'learn better how to preach Christ as my known Saviour to my countrymen who know Him not'.
He studied at the Theological Hall, Glasgow, and on 10 December 1856 was licensed in the John Street United Presbyterian Church as a minister of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, at the time the third-largest Presbyterian denomination in Scotland. When he left the college his fellow-students presented him with a gift of books. Two months later he married a Scot, Janet Burnside, and they returned to South Africa. She was to prove herself 'a most honourable, thrifty, frugal and devoted woman who marched heroically and faithfully by her husband's side through all the chequered scenes of his short life'. She soon learned what it meant to be married to an African in colonial South Africa. Soga recorded that when they landed in Port Elizabeth 'you should have seen the wonder and amazement with which a black man with a white lady leaning on his arm seemed to be viewed by all classes'. Poor Janet Burnside was viewed with suspicion by both black and white! Soga had to put up with accusations of trying to become a 'black Englishman'.
1857 was the year of the 'Cattle-Killing Movement'. Soga’s return to his home country occurred barely four months following this tragic event and, as the Sogas travelled through the Eastern Cape, their eyes were met with signs of the starvation that the people were facing.
The Cattle-Killing Movement was the result of the vision of a young Xhosa prophetess, Nongqawuse, in which a ‘new people’ from overseas announced to her that the ancestors were preparing themselves to return to life with new cattle. When Nongqawuse informed her uncle Mhlakaza, who was already a known prophet, he verified the truth of the prophecy and claimed that the “new people” were ancestral spirits who would rise from the dead along with hordes of cattle and drive out the European settlers if the Xhosa people obeyed their command: cease all forms of witchcraft, kill all their cattle, and burn all their corn crops. Word of the prophecy spread across Xhosaland until it reached Sarhili, the Xhosa king and chief of the Gcaleka tribe, who made a personal journey to confirm the prophecy and returned a firm believer. He began killing his cattle immediately and ordered all Xhosa to comply with the prophetic order.
The Nongqawuse prophecy failed and the Xhosa people were left in ruins. According to J. B. Peires, author of the most well-known modern historical account of this event, at least 40 000 Xhosa lives were lost along with roughly 400 000 cattle and more than 600 000 acres of land. Nearly 150 000 Xhosa were displaced and thousands found themselves trapped in a legally enforced system of indentured servitude as they sought relief from the British in the Cape Colony. Under the combined weight of the extreme loss of life and property and the subsequent loss of freedom and dignity, the “national, cultural and economic integrity” of the Xhosa people “finally collapsed” and significant number of those who survived had little prospect other than being assimilated into a European-dominated society as the economic underclass.
It was under these circumstances that Soga started a ministry in Peelton near King William's Town, a mission of the London Missionary Society, but soon after moved to Emgwali. In March 1857 Soga received a letter from the Glasgow Missionary Society saying that according to the rules of the Society he was now an 'ordained Caffre missionary', even though his training had been the same as the white missionaries. His salary would be 100 pounds a year, with 30 pounds for incidental expenses, and his life was insured for 300 pounds. He was also given a grant to buy a horse, saddle and bridle.
The site for Emgwali Mission was given to the society by the Xhosa chief Sandile and Soga was to work among his own people, the Ngqikas. Permission to start the mission had also been given by Sir George Grey, the colonial governor. Soga had to negotiate with the chiefs and then supervise the erection of the mission buildings. After ten years of grueling mission work at Emgwali with unimpressive results in terms of the number of converts, Soga was called farther east away from his home territory into Xhosa land that was still just beyond the reach of official British control.
He settled in Tutura and founded another mission station where he served for the remaining years of his life. It was here that Soga tried to use the church as a place to foster unity between the two factions within the Xhosa tribes created by the Cattle-Killing Movement. In addition, Soga served as an adviser to the Xhosa chief Sarhili which afforded him the opportunity to play a more active role in advocating on behalf of the Xhosa people as British colonists continued to advance into Xhosa territory in the wake of the Cattle-Killing.
Soga continued to write a number of church hymns in the Xhosa language, some of which are immensely popular in church worship to this day. He also began working on an updated translation of the Xhosa Bible. In April 1871, he completed construction on his church at Tutura, but, sadly, succumbed to his protracted battle with tuberculosis and passed away only four months later.
Soga struggled to be accepted among the Xhosa people as a modern missionary in the world of the 19th century British Empire, but he remained faithful to his people. In a letter of advice written while close to death to his sons who were away in Scotland for their education, he made himself clear: “take your place in the world as coloured, not as white men; as [Xhosas], not as Englishmen.” Soga was Xhosa, but Xhosa in a distinctly new way.
Two events in the closing years of the nineteenth century paved the way for the formation of an independent black church. The first was the formation of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa (see the relevant section above) in 1897 as a result of the coming together of a number of independent colonial congregations and presbyteries with the same of the Free Church and United Presbyterian Church in Scotland. The Mission Synod of Kaffraria along with the Natal Free Church Mission retained their separate existence. The Free Church of Scotland favoured a single presbyterian church containing all races and constituent parts of the mission. While this view was sincerely held, it displayed a certain naivety with regard to the developing political situation of the time with regard to racism. A separate black church would clearly provide greater scope for blacks to demonstrate and exercise their gifts. D.V. Sikutshwa attributes the situation which arose: “to the fact that at a time when the two sections of the population were at different stages of development – religiously, educationally and socially – it would have been quite inopportune to run European and African congregations exactly on the same lines; and the attempt to do so would have been disadvantageous to both sections of the population”.
While the Christian ideal is clearly a non-racial church, the fear of domination was a real issue. The Synod of Kaffraria agreed to the formation of a black church in 1907, but perhaps this was more the result of the second significant event which happened in 1898: The Mzimba Secession (the “Disruption”) occurred in the context of growing resistance to colonisation, segregation and oppression in the secular sphere which resulted in black people becoming “involved in a wide range of inventive political responses and innovative forms of action”. However, resistance also flowed into ecclesiastical life giving expression to “feelings of resentment which could not be easily expressed otherwise”.
Secession: The Mzimba Incident (“The Disruption”)
Rev Mpambani Jeremiah Mzimba, an ex-Lovedale graduate, was born at Ngqakayi in the Eastern Cape halfway through the nineteenth century. His father, Ntibane, was an old Lovedale student and he and his wife were baptised by the Rev. James Laing of the Free Church of Scotland in 1852. Ntibane later became a deacon in the Lovedale Native Church where his son, Mpambani, would one day serve as a minister. So it may be seen that Mzimba's roots were firmly grounded in the Lovedale Presbyterian Church.
Mzimba entered Lovedale as a student in 1860. He remained there until 1875 when he was ordained, the first South African-trained black Presbyterian minister to achieve this status. During his time as a student he worked in the telegraph office to help pay his fees. Like Makiwane, he was a teacher of biblical studies.
Mzimba was ordained on 2 December 1875. The year that Mzimba was ordained he and Makiwane volunteered to go to the Livingstonia Mission in Malawi, but neither of them was chosen. Instead, Mzimba served the Lovedale congregation and taught at Lovedale Institution.
Elijah Makiwane was the second black minister trained in South Africa to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, the first being Mpambani Mzimba, and in 1875 was licensed as a minister by the Free Church of Scotland. For two years he taught first-year theological students at Lovedale and in 1877 he received a call to be the minister of MacFarlan Mission, not far from Lovedale. Unlike Mzimba, Makiwane remained in the Presbyterian Church for all of his working life, finding ways within the system to express his independence. He was never subservient and became one of the most valued Presbyterian ministers in the Kaffrarian Presbytery.
The year 1891 was Lovedale's Jubilee Celebration. Mzimba was chosen to deliver one of the sermons. In the Jubilee Report he was recognised as a modest and capable minister, a satisfactory pastor and a successful evangelist.
Two years later he was sent to Scotland as a delegate to the anniversary of the Free Church severing its ties with the Scottish government. Mzimba wrote to Dr Smith of the Missionary Society: 'God in his goodness has at last given me my long desire to see Scotland and be in the General Assembly'. He wanted to know what aspect of the mission they wished him to speak about. The delegates were interested in what he had to say, but there is a note of paternalism in the way they received him. One of the delegates wrote: 'The Rev. Mpambani Mzimba ... is a splendid specimen of what the grace of God can produce in the African race'. Mzimba collected a large amount of money in Scotland, some of which he hoped would be used to rebuild the Lovedale Church.
The first National United Presbyterian Assembly was held in 1897, where the PCSA was established. Mzimba was a delegate at this too. The Kaffrarian Presbytery felt that they could not accept union with the other presbyteries if their African ministers did not receive equal recognition.
A year later Mzimba, after twenty-two years in the Presbyterian ministry, felt he could no longer remain a member of the Free Church of Scotland and formed his own independent church, the Presbyterian Church of Africa. The congregation at Lovedale Church was mainly of Mfengu origin and they decided to leave the church and remain with Mzimba. They called themselves the true 'Free Church' and 'joined Mzimba wholesale'. There were disputes over property and Lennox wrote from Lovedale that: 'Mzimba's people were very active in asserting that all South African property would pass, or rather had already passed into the hands of the Free Church [Mzimba's Presbyterian Church of Africa] and that they, the Mzimbatites were to have the use and possession of it'. Many were even convinced that after the death of Stewart Lovedale would belong to them. These disputes resulted in ill feeling between the Presbyterians of the Kaffrarian Presbytery and those of Mzimba's Presbyterian Church of Africa.
Makiwane suffered during the schism by his old friend Mzimba from the Presbyterian Church. Charges were made against him by Gaba, one of Mzimba's followers, and Makiwane had to write to the Mission Committee in Scotland warning them that the charges were false. They tried to draw away members of the United Free Church to join the new church. When Mzimba died in 1911 Makiwane was invited to speak at his funeral. Makiwane pointed out that the formation of Mzimba's church had 'increased if not introduced a distrust between European and Native and Native and Native... which will be a real difficulty for some time to come’.
Unification into the UPCSA
One of the most influential events which obstructed the possibility of unification was the so-called “Mzimba Disruption”. However, there were more universal issues at stake including distrust and suspicion concerning contemporary events especially following the formation of the PCSA, reluctance to ordain black ministers, imported denominationalism, political unrest coupled with a growing black nationalism, missionary attitudes and racism cf. Dr James Stewart of Lovedale’s clarion call “Whites must rule” (Christian Express, xxvii, Nov. 1897, 1:329). In this particular instance “money and property were the precipitating factors in the quarrel between the Free Church mission and Mzimba” along with the presence of “a strong personality to initiate it and carry it through”.
While the Foreign Mission Committee (FMC) of the now United Free Church of Scotland (The Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland united to form the United Free Church of Scotland in 1900) at first favoured the option of a united church within which black and white would subsist on an equal basis, there was a perception that it may be unattainable. “[T]his was an unrealistic view as the result of the racist attitude towards blacks, the colonialist ethos of the [PCSA] church, the desire to maintain white power and authority and the early desire to unite with the Dutch Reformed Church”. However, in 1902, the FMC paper “Our Missions in South Africa” had seemed to favour the option of a native church claiming that: “The Mission begins in order to create a native Church; the mission naturally ends when the native church has become self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating (Cory MS 14849, Henderson Correspondence).
The United Free Church of Scotland sent a deputation to South Africa in 1920 where they met at Blythswood Institution with representatives of the PCSA, the Mission Synod of Kaffraria, the Presbyteries of Kaffraria, Mankazana and Natal and the Mission Council of Natal. The relationship with the PCSA was not considered to be the most urgent issue at that point. In their report, they concluded that the Mission Council which they had hoped would be the unifying bond of their South African missions “proved unequal to the task, torn as it was, by controversies over the question of our union” (Cory PR 3983, Report of Deputies 21/12/1920:8).
Prefigured in the formation of the PCSA, was the adoption of a federal structure which would enable each body to be represented by six members at the General Assembly of the other. It was hoped that this would facilitate the eventual merger of the two churches. Considerable tension arose and lasted for many years arising out of the work of the denominations in the urban areas. The PCSA was first to establish work there, but circumstances relating to migratory labour led the BPC to become involved in towns and cities too despite an agreement made in 1934 that “the Bantu Presbyterian Church should not develop into the cities but leave all work to the PCSA”. The major problem encountered by BPC members was the financial implication of being a member of two denominations which placed the PCSA at a considerable advantage as urban BPC workers would eventually return to their rural homes (in the former apartheid homelands – mostly impoverished communities kept at a political and social distance from the white-dominated economic and political power centres) at the end of their economically productive lives. Sadly, this decision also resulted in the duplication of resources in urban areas while their rural counterparts were deprived of much-needed resources in terms of finance and personnel. In addition, retaliatory measures were often taken in rural areas. Friction resulted, leading to a situation where the PCSA and BPC were working in irritating rivalry to the detriment of both and this became an impediment in successive attempts at union until the matter was finally resolved in the early 1990s despite a BPC Assembly decision taken in 1955 that “both churches were free to extend their work where and as they found opportunity to do so”.
A further development occurred in 1962 with the formation of the Church of Scotland South Africa Joint Council to succeed the earlier Mission Councils. Now the Bantu Presbyterian Church would have equal representation with missionaries and later Scottish Church appointees, who were ministers of the BPC, when the number of missionaries declined. It was only in 1981 that the Joint Council was eventually dissolved, there being only two missionaries serving with the now RPCSA (and only one being a member of the Council, albeit in the role of Secretary/Treasurer). Sadly, it was only at this stage, fifty-eight years after its inception, that the RPCSA became fully autonomous.
All in all it might be concluded that the RPCSA expressed strong resistance to domination following its far-from-autonomous foundation.
At various periods during the twentieth century, the RPCSA engaged in union negotiations with all its sister Presbyterian churches. During the worst years in the struggle against apartheid, in the 1980s, it had adopted the policy of uniting with its black sister churches as a priority. Despite negotiations having been completed with the PCSA and the Tsonga Presbyterian Church (TPC) union did not take place though it was agreed that “the Basis of Union negotiations between the Presbyterian Churches be kept as an open possibility before the three churches …. [and] that the three churches be urged to maintain and extend existing areas at local, Presbytery and Assembly level” (BPC BB 1973 Min 4572.1&2).
Later union negotiations took place between the RPCSA and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (EPCSA, formerly known as the Tsonga Presbyterian Church) in the early 1980s (The Evangelical Presbyterian Church in South Africa is the result of the work of the Swiss Mission in South Africa which began in 1875 in Northern Transvaal, now the Limpopo province of South Africa). Unfortunately these discussions failed when union was in sight, having been agreed by the RPCSA, and the EPCSA withdrew. Sporadic attempts, beginning in 1959 agreed to consider a basis of union with the PCA in the 1960 General Assembly, and in 1974 attempts were again made to unite with the PCA, to the extent of agreeing to prepare a draft basis of union in 1990. However, these were hampered by the growing disunity within that denomination. The RPCSA also entered union negotiations with the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) though these came to nothing as negotiations between UCCSA and the PCSA failed.
It was at the third attempt that negotiations between the RPCSA and the PCSA bore fruit in the latter part of the 1990’s. Earlier union negotiations had always faltered on the grounds of racism and the fear of domination on the part of the RPCSA. However, following the democratic elections of 1994, the RPCSA made a renewed approach to the PCSA feeling that this was the right time to approach a sister denomination now as an equal partner despite long-held fears concerning loss of independence and white domination.
The Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (UPCSA) was formed through the union of The Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (PCSA) and The Reformed Presbyterian Church in South Africa (RPCSA). After their ways had diverged over the previous century – despite the fact that both former denominations owe their origin to the Church of Scotland – union was finally achieved in 1999. Although the union is not without its challenges, the principle of the unity of all God’s people is enjoying ever-growing support among its members. Generally, members from both former churches today meet and debate with one another in the current councils with a great deal of understanding and respect. The initial reservations and distrust (mainly remnants of the South African nation’s sad past of racial segregation) are rapidly being displaced with the love of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ in a spirit of reconciliation and repentance for past social injustices.
The Presbytery of the Trans-Xhariep
The geographical area of the Presbytery, situated in the centre of the Republic of South Africa, is the major gateway to all four corners of the Republic. As such, we receive the bulk of the traffic between the northern and southern provinces, as well as the traffic between the western and eastern provinces. The view is precious, being savannah (grass field) situated mostly on a relatively even altitude on the Highveld, with hardly any indigenous trees, save for a few trees and shrubs of low height, interspersed with (mostly) bluegum, pine, and oak trees imported by the early farming settlers of European descent. This allows the local inhabitants (and, of course, visitors) to enjoy a beautiful vista stretching far in all directions. Due to the fact that most of the major highways run through the central part of the province, some casual observers may perceive the landscape as perfectly flat without any memorable features. But the truth is that the province has some hidden delights which are only evident if one deviates from the most-travelled routes: The territory sports some of the most inspiring mountains towards the east, and some of the most tranquil savannah vistas towards the west, extending to semi-desert towards the extreme western side. These potential delights are enhanced by the Karoo-like vegetation in parts of the territory.
The area, especially towards the north and north-east, is imminently suited to crop farming, whereas the southern and western parts accommodate mostly livestock due to the soil composition and the low annual rainfall in these regions. The concentration of congregations within the bounds of the Trans-Xhariep Presbytery seem to coincide with the crop-farming regions towards the northern and eastern parts — with Bloemfontein and Kimberley proving the exception to the rule, sporting two and three congregations, respectively.
The cultural diversity and demographics of the nation are clearly represented in this Presbytery, which serves to enrich the spiritual experience of all participants. The Presbytery of the Trans-Xhariep enjoys a wonderful degree of camaraderie in full accordance with the Biblical Communion of the Saints as defined in the Apostles’ Creed.
The Presbytery of the Trans-Xhariep proudly embraces and cares for no fewer than 22 constituted congregations, 4 transitional congregations, and a large number of outstations.