The Gospel in South Africa #2: The Morning Star of the Xhosa Church

Statue of Van der Kemp

Statue of Van der Kemp

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 is the second in a series of posts I am doing on pivotal moments for the Gospel in South African history. If you would like to read the first in this series click here

The Two London Society Missionaries, Van der Kemp and his friend Edmond arrived to a very different Cape Town in 1799. A British flag now waved over the Dutch Port; British forces having arrived to secure Cape Town in the wake of the waning Dutch Empire during the Napoleonic wars.

On the 13th of June, Van der Kemp and Edmond crossed the Gamka river, which though it was very broad was also fortunately very dry. They sought refuge from the cold winter air at Samuel de Beer’s house, who had just buried his child that same day, yet rejoiced that God was answering his prayers to bring the gospel to indigenous people in South Africa. Van der Kemp and Samuel spoke for hours. Van der Kemp enthusiastically sharing with him the copy of Carey’s “the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens”, the very document that helped inspire the start of the London Missionary Society. Van der Kemp shared his desire to bring the gospel to the Xhosa people dwelling on the eastern border of the Cape colony, a people totally unreached by the gospel. Sadly not everyone was as enthusiastic as de Beer. Many discouraged Van der Kemp and Edmond from continuing on their mission. There was great hostility between the Xhosa and the colonial authorities and trekboers (Dutch/Afrikaans Farmers), and the unpredictable condition of the border area made it a dangerous place to be. Eventually Edmond returned to Cape Town from where he set out to India. But Van der Kemp was determined to preach the gospel to the Xhosa. Towards the end of 1799 he made contact with a Xhosa chief by the name of Ngqika, who allowed him to tentatively work among his people.

Van der Kemp lived among the Xhosa for a year, pouring out his life to them, but had no real opportunities to preach the gospel. As the year 1800 grew to a close renewed outbreaks of hostility broke out. Van der Kemp was discouraged, he had sailed half-way around the world and given so much of himself but wasn’t able to make meaningful contact with the Xhosa; he made his plans to withdraw to Graaff-Reinet.

xhosa boysBefore he would leave Van der Kemp had an opportunity to preach to a small group of boys between the ages of 15-19. These young boys sat wrapped in their karosses (a cloak made of animal hide with the hair left on) listening at a distance to Van der Kemp, as he explained the gospel, “There was God in heaven; He created all things, The sun, the moon, the stars. There was one, Sifuba-sibenzi, (The Broad-breasted one), He is the leader of men; Was heralded by a Star; His feet were wounded for us, His hands were pierced for us, His blood was shed for us.[i]” announced Van der Kemp. One of the boys seemed especially to drink in the words of this strange white man, but neither he nor any of those around would hear the gospel from a missionary for another 15 years.

The name of the boy was Ntsikana. As he grew he became a renowned singer, dancer and orator as well as a hereditary councillor to the chief Ngqika[ii]. Ntsikana married two young women, Nontsonta and Nomanto and settled between the Kat River district and the Peddie district in 1811[iii], later he and his family moved to Gqore in the Kate River district. Every now and then the words from that strange white man would come to his mind, work on his heart, and take shape in his thoughts.

In 1815, some 15 years since Van der Kemp preached, Ntsikana sat early in the misty morning preparing to inspect his cattle. As he got up and stood in the kraal, a ray of light seemed to fall on the side of Hulushe, his most prized ox, in a peculiar way; his stood there, his gaze transfixed. A boy who was nearby was watching this take place, but didn’t know what held Ntsikana’s attention[iv] What did he see? Did the light shine in a way that took the shape of a cross? Or perhaps form something else that reminded him of what he had heard 15 years ago?

For all appearances everything continued as normal that day. In the afternoon Ntsikana went to a homestead where there was going to be a dance. He was going to give one if his usual virtuoso performances. As he got up and started to move to the beat of the drum a violent gale arose, he tried to dance though it, thinking it would only last for a few seconds, but it persisted. Eventually it was so bad that the dancers had to stop. Ntsikana returned to his seat. The gale died down, and for a second time he got up to dance, but as he began, the gale arose again it all its fury. This happened a third time as well. The onlookers whispered among themselves that perhaps Ntiskana was bewitched; why did the wind become so strong every time he tried to dance[v]?

What was happening in Ntiskana’s heart, we don’t know. He needed some time to think, so he sent his wives home ahead of him and began a slow walk behind them. As he neared home, he came to a small river. People saw him throw aside his blanket and jump into the water, where he began to wash off the red orchre paint from his body[vi]. This was the beginning of his disassociation from his past religious identity and traditions as a Xhosa

From the very next day, Ntsikana started singing of his new found faith, in keeping with his status as a poet and praise singer, and following also the African custom of celebrating special events in song and dancing. He went on a walk through his village, the following words falling beautifully upon the ears of his countrymen:

He is the Great God of the heaven.ntsikana-168x3001

Thou art the only True shield.

Thou art the only True fortress.

Thou art the only True bush (hiding place).

Thou art the only One who dwells in the highest.

He is the Creator of life.

He is the Creator of the heaven.

He is the Creator of the stars.

A star fell from heaven and brought us the message.

He is also the Creator of the blind[vii].

The trumpet was sounded to call us.

He is the great hunter of souls.

He gathers together the warring flocks[viii].

He is the great Leader who leads us.

He is the great Kaross that covers us.

Why art Thy hands covered in wounds?

Why art Thy feet covered in wounds?

Why dost thou blood flow so?

Thy blood was shed for us.

Is that what it cost thee to save us?

The people of Khanwana (Soga), did we call them?

When asked about his strange behaviour he replied, “The thing that has entered within me directs that all should pray; no one understands it in this country as yet, except perhaps Ngcongolo.[ix]

Ntsikana began preaching earnestly, and crowds came to hear him. The seed of God’s word began taking root and eyes were being opened to the simple truth of the gospel, a truth which Ntsikana heard some 15 years ago, but flowed off his tongue as if he had been well acquainted with it daily. The Gaika people began to regularly attend meeting where he would preach, families began praying together in the private stillness of their homes. Ntsikana went around preaching about the greatness of God and the coming of Jesus to bring forgiveness of sins through his blood.

In 1816, a London Missionary Society missionary named Williams, arrived in the land of the Xhosa’s and gained the trust of the chief Ngqika. He built a mission station and soon more than a hundred Xhosa and KhoiKhoi were living at the station that he established. Ntsikana was overjoyed to hear that there was someone who could tell him more about his precious Saviour and Great God. Ntsikana would come and visit Williams for days at a time and ask many questions as he began to be discipled in the faith. Sadly in 1818, just two years after arriving Williams died. It took two years before the LMS was able to replace Williams, but during this period Ntsikana became the leader of the group of Christians at the station. He held services at his kraal every morning and evening, as well as on Sundays. Often large numbers came to hear him, including the chief, Ngqika; who seems to have been deeply impressed by the Gospel of God’s grace, but was prevented from converting by his senior counsellors. Another leading official who attended these meetings was old Soga, whose son Tiyo Soga would later become the first ordained black minister in Southern Africa[x].

In 1820 Ntsikana’s health took a turn for the worse. On his last day on this earth, Ntsikana mustered as much strength as possible. He got up and began to lead the morning service. Those watching him said that he looked like somebody who was about to pass over into eternity. Ntsikana began to speak “I trust that God’s will is always the best and I am content to be in that will. All I can say and leave you with is this: have faith in the grace and the mercy of God. Oh how I long for the rest of my Xhosa people to know this Jesus Christ my Saviour. And you who trust Him; I beg you, rather prefer the most horrible death than deny the One and only God.[xi]

Dr Roy writes, “Ntsikana remarkably indigenised the gospel in the context of Xhosa culture and society. It took a long time before the importance of the contextualisation of the gospel in a given culture was fully appreciated in missionary circles, and Ntsikana’s ministry remains an early example of how the gospel can be efficiently communicated within the language, idioms, thought forms, cultural traditions and social practices of a particular people.[xii]

To go to the next post in this series click here

[i] These are the words of Mina, the grandmother of Isaac Williams Wauchope
[ii] page 5. Accessed 2014-01-07
[iii] IBID
[iv] Bokwe, J. K., 1914 Ntiskana: The Story of an African Convert Lovedale Press: South Africa. Pg 7-13
[v] IBID pg 11
[vii] This was to teach the blindness was not the result of sorcery, but of God’s design.
[viii] A reference to the Sovereignty of God over the hostilities that plagued the Xhosa
[ix] Bokwe, J. K., 1914 Ntiskana: The Story of an African Convert Lovedale Press: South Africa. Pg 12-13
[xi] 13Crafford, D. Trail-Blazers of the Gospel: Black Pioneers in the Missionary
History of South Africa (Pretoria, Institute for Missiological Research, 1991), page 23

  6 comments for “The Gospel in South Africa #2: The Morning Star of the Xhosa Church

  1. September 1, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Outstanding a blessing for me to find and read.. woowww..
    How can I chat to you?

    • tyrellh
      September 1, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      Hi there. Glad you enjoyed it. Feel free to use the “contact me” tab on the top of this page to send me a message.

  2. Wiseman
    October 17, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    Thank you so much child of God by the work you are doing.I even leston you at Radio pulpit teaching the word. Regards wiseman

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