The Gospel in South Africa #1: The Beginning

The following is an excerpt from Dr Kevin Roy’s book “Zion City RSA” with a few alterations, additions and subtractions by me to make it more suitable for the blogging format. For the full bibliography see the bottom of the article

This week I am starting a series on pivotal moments for the gospel in South Africa. So on Thursdays be on the look out for future instalment as we discover how the Kingdom grew in this wonderful country.

George Schmidt

George Schmidt

A ship carried a 28 year old George Schmidt the long journey from Netherlands to Cape Town during the early months of 1737. The ship belonged to the Dutch East Indian Company and was heavy with employees and cargo belonging to the Dutch empire of the day. Schmidt spent his days on the rocky boat, praying and preparing for what lay ahead. Being a missionary however, his heart for the gospel was known by everyone around him. The ship was a hotbed of foul speech, drunkenness, vanity and all kinds of godless behaviour. One day, as the cool sea breeze blew on the deck, Schmidt sat down with a few men. “Friends, I have been with you quite a while now. I know that you all say you are Christians, and that you love the Lord; but I must ask you, don’t you think it is a contradiction to live such godless lives and still call yourself Christians?” There was an awkward pause… he continued with a humble tone, “I mean I noticed that some of you are often drunk, and very often you speak in such perverse and filthy ways – ought not our speech to be always in heaven? Giving grace to those who hears us? Surely you men know that it is not enough to know the truths of Scripture and to call oneself a Christian, one must have the testimony of that truth in your life.” The conversation died away, and he didn’t have much response from the men that day.

He had one fruitful conversation with a Swiss soldier appeared to be truly converted and started hungering after the Lord. On another occasion he spoke to the Dominie (Minister) on the ship, and asked him if his conscience didn’t prick him when he gambled with the other officers. During his evangelistic efforts on the ship, he managed to begin a weekly Bible Study group where four of the ships employees began meeting with him.

On July the 9th 1737 the ship carrying young George Schmidt made its way to Anchor in Cape Town[i]. As the ship sailed to Table Bay, he looked with longing at the coastline, noticing the warehouses and shipyards and behind them townhouses with white lime plaster walls, green shutters and thatched roofs. How many eternal souls were represented by what he saw?

Map of Cape Town in the 18th century

Map of Cape Town in the 18th century

When Schmidt disembarked, walking along van Riebeek’s jetty by the Castle; he was surprised at the impressive double storey townhouses of the wealthy Burghers and VOC officials, intermingled with taverns, lodgings and workshops. The roads were rough, and animals wandered openly. Open sewage sullied spots along the way; but to Schmidt this was a great improvement from being at sea for months. It was an attractive town, but there was an ominous darkness that hung in the air.

This was a historic event! The first Protestant missionary to ever reach the shores of South Africa had arrived. At the time people didn’t think much of it. In fact Schmidt was ridiculed for desiring to evangelize the oppressed Khoi Khoi people. The Reformed Church in Cape town had come to see the Khoi Khoi as less than human and beyond redemption[ii]. Some thought these natives didn’t have souls; resulting in the occasional shooting of Khoi Khoi while Dutch colonists were on hunting trips; they were just sport to them[iii].

Life in Cape Town didn’t appear godlier than on the ship. Schmidt tried to get work, but it was scarce as everything was done by slaves. He was pained at the way the slaves were being treated by nominal Christians (as he called them). He remarked in a letter, “Godlessness is great in the Land”. He was overwhelmed by the widespread drunkenness that prevailed. He visited the three ministers of the only three churches in Cape Town and thus South Africa; but left sad remarking, “Blind leaders whose God is their belly. They believe in the conversion of the Hottentots even less than the devil does. If he didn’t believe in it he would have troubled me so.[iv]” (Note: Hottentots was a term used to describe the Khoi Khoi, it has since been deemed a derogatory term)

Schmidt suffered much mockery and ridicule during these days, but in a letter home he wrote, “… the Lord is with me, and what can the poor spirit do more than what the Lord permits. Many mock me, but I care not. They don’t know what they are doing. If I can only accomplish the purpose of my precious Saviour, I will be satisfied. I love not my life.[v]

san-khoiThe ridicule and negativity didn’t faze him. After a long wait, on September the 4th Schmidt was allowed to go further inland. He travelled for 8 days and eventually came to the Sonderend River where he built a hut and began cultivating vegetables. The very next day he went to make contact with the Khoi Khoi people. As he entered their village, he noticed that only one person had a house, the rest lived in shelters made of reeds or straw. For Schmidt the culture shock was stark. The Khoi wore sheep’s skin to cover themselves if they wore anything at all, most were naked. Schmidt decided to speak first with the man who owned a house, perhaps he would be easier to talk to. The man’s name was Africo; he explained to Schmidt how he built his house and began subsistence farming- a friendship began to form.

On the 27th of October he began teaching 4 men, 2 women and 4 children to read: They would come daily, sometimes out of enthusiasm twice a day to be taught. On the Lord’s Day Schmidt used the opportunity to teach them about the Saviour. This itself began to be a point of conflict for the Dutch Colonists; many of whom where illiterate, and now the despised Khoi Khoi were able to read and write. Schmidt didn’t care; he kept teaching them and pointing them to Jesus Christ[vi]. In addition to teaching them twice a day on how to read, he would go to their village every evening and spend time with them. The first time he did this it was very difficult. He was an outsider, but emboldened by the Holy Spirit he went. He sat down with a group sitting near a fire and began to speak, “My friends, I want you to know that I have a real love for you in my heart. The only reason I have come to be with you is to tell you about your Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ. I am also happy to help you learn other things, like how to work in various ways, but Jesus is the main reason I am here.” Upon this Africo replied, “That is good, Baas.” And with that his work of evangelization began.

He soon settled with a group of Khoi Khoi in an area known as the Dale of the Baboons. He built his house in the same way as them, baked his own bread, made his own candles, washed and mended his own clothes.

Genadendal

Genadendal

On the evening of the first of November, Africo came to speak to Schmidt. He had a serious look on his face. After a casual exchange, while they sat in Schmidt’s hut, Africo asked, “If someone wants to learn from you, do they have to abandon their religious beliefs and traditions?” Schmidt was stunned! How had Africo picked this up? He praised the Lord silently in his heart. Slowly Schmidt began to reply, “Yes, one cannot believe the truth and deceptions, one must turn from all such superstitions”. After that Schmidt explained all about the first man Adam and his fall into sin, and the about the wonderful promise of a Saviour and the coming of Christ. Africo didn’t respond much immediately.  A month passed and Schmidt didn’t know where Africo was in his faith. Then on the 15th of December, Africo came walking up to Schmidt’s hut. He had tears in his eyes and was holding a small bag in his arms. His baby had died. Through the tears he looked at Schmidt and asked, “How must I bury my child?” The concern in Africo’s heart was to honour the God of the Bible that Schmidt had been teaching; he was abandoning the false religion he grew up in, because he was now part of a new people, the children of Abraham, the People of God! Africo began to ask Schmidt for his advice on virtually everything.

After this initial success, Schmidt was encouraged and inspired, he continued teaching about the Saviour on Sundays, teaching literacy in the week and praying with the Khoi people. After a few years, toward the end of 1741 he was ready to baptise a group of Khoi Khoi who he felt sure were converted, one of whom was renamed Magdalena.   He baptised 5 of them in the Baboon Ravine (today’s Genadendal). This did not sit well in Cape Town. The Dutch Reformed clergy in were not impressed that these sub-human people, were now part of the church. The filed their complaints to the Cape government on the grounds that Schmidt was not an ordained minister and therefore his baptisms were irregular. They further asked that Schmidt be sent back, and two sick-comforters be sent to replace him. Sadly the Cape Authorities agreed and Schmidt being very disappointed decided to go back to the Netherlands to pursue wider powers to continue his work in the Cape. He was however never able to return. The work among the Khoi Khoi people was set back by nearly 50 years.

The decision of the DR was most regrettable, but in fairness to them it must be remembered that in the 18th century the concept of one church in one territory was still very strong all over Europe and their territories. The DR clergy were worried that Schmidt’s actions would be starting another church (denomination) in the Cape which for them was unacceptable. That is why they requested that Schmidt be replaced by Sick Comforters (Siekertroosters) who were officially part of the DR church structure. The idea of some races being ‘sub-human’ is a Darwinian concept that had not yet been established in Europe, though it is true that the European settlers in the Cape probably did regard the Koi Koi as savages incapable of civilization. But soon after this incident, attitudes were changed by the arrival of DR minister Helperus Rietzemer van Lier, a fine and spiritual man.

To go to the next article in this series click here


[i] http://www.gfamissions.org/missionary-biographies/schmidt-george-1709-1785.html.  Accessed 2013-12-19
[ii] ibid
[iii] ibid
[iv] 6Hofmeyr, J.W., Millard, J.A. & Froneman, C.J.J. History of the Church in
South Africa: a Document and Source Book (Pretoria, UNISA, 1991), pg. 29-34
[v] ibid
[vi] http://www.gfamissions.org/missionary-biographies/schmidt-george-1709-1785.html.  Accessed 2013-12-19

Additional Sources:

Roy, Kevin . Zion City RSA. The Story of the Church in South Africa. (Cape Town, South African Baptist Historical Society 2000) pg14-34. (this forms the structure of the article, as well as large tracts of text)
http://www.capetown.at/heritage/history/voc_1700s.htm.  Accessed 2013-12-19

  21 comments for “The Gospel in South Africa #1: The Beginning

  1. January 2, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Hi Tyrell, very interesting and informative. I am looking forward to the rest of this.

  2. January 2, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    A fascinating and interesting read. I look forward to the next installment

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