The Gospel in South Africa #3: William Shaw and the Methodist Mission


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 third 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

It was the year 1820 when ships from Britain came bearing a squashed group of 4000 hopeful English to the shores of Cape Town. A land of hope lay ahead of  these families, who had been selected out of a group of some 90 000- all of whom fleeing the rising unemployment facing Britain after the Napoleonic wars.

On one of the ships was a young Methodist minister who longed not to escape England, but to preach the gospel. Little did he know how powerful an impact he would have in history. The Cape was very different from the place of his birth in Glasgow, but William Shaw didn’t mind that. Ever since his conversion when he was 17 he knew he wanted to proclaim the gospel and minister to people’s spiritual needs. The group of people he travelled with to Africa would need his ministry.

The first few months on the eastern border of the Cape Colony, which had been allocated for these settlers

Eastern Frontier of the Cape of Good Hope

Eastern Frontier of the Cape of Good Hope

brought bitter disillusionment, that stood in stark contrast to their high hopes of coming to South Africa. The land given them by the British government of the Cape was unsuitable for agriculture, and their living conditions were appalling. The unnamed man who escorted the groups to their territory would always end his tour of their new land by saying, “Gentlemen, when you go out to plough never leave your guns behind.” with that he would get on his horse and be off. This didn’t make sense to these settlers, but what they didn’t know was that the British government had decided to bring them here, not to grow them in prosperity, but to use them as a buffer zone between the hostile and aggravated Xhosa tribes and the Cape Colony. Few managed to stay after the first few months in the area, and for those that did it was a difficult time. Everywhere you looked all you could see were fragile and grotesque looking huts and cottages. These lodgings were built in a style called ‘wattle and daub’. Mats and rugs served as doors, and a white piece of calico served to cover the windows. Some decided to try to dig huge excavations and put a slight covering over them. Few of these early attempts and building a shelter were successful[i]

Shaw was the only chaplain among this group of disillusioned and dejected people. He spent his first three years in South Africa ministering to them and establishing a church. Shaw saw to it that chapels were built and that local preachers and class leaders were appointed. Shaw also began spending time assisting other denominations. The Anglicans held services in the chapels he and the Methodists built, and many Dutch Reformed people brought their children to him to be baptized. But Shaw was not happy just to minister to his European counterparts; his vision was filled with the regions beyond, and the tribes that knew not Jesus. Shaw purposed in his heart to reach them.

William Shaw

William Shaw

Shaw spoke with some of his friends, “From the time when I received my appointment to Southern Africa, as Chaplain to the British settlers, my mind has been filled with the idea that Divine Providence designed. I feel I have accomplished some preparatory work among the settlers, but I need to move beyond the colonial boundaries, and establish a Wesleyan Mission among the unbelieving blacks. Friends I cannot be disobedient to the heavenly call! I wont abandon the work here with the settlers, but my eye is constantly fixed on the black areas,  that is the great field for future Missions![ii]” His friends met this with excitement and a bit of fear. Shaw then showed them a letter he had written to the Weslyan Missionary Comittee in 1820, a few months after his arrival, it read, “I hope the Committee will never forget that, with the exception of Latakoo, which is far in the interior, there is not a single Missionary Station between the place of my residence and the northern extremity of the Red Sea; nor any people professedly Christian, with the exception of those of Abyssinia. Here, then is a wide field – the whole eastern coast of the continent of Africa! If ever the words of the Saviour were applicable to any part of the world at any time, surely they apply to Eastern Africa at the present time: The harvest is great, but the labourers are few[iii].(Latakoo was Robert Moffat’s mission station).

Shaw had a dream of establishing mission stations along the coast from the Eastern Province to Natal. By the time he had completed his ministry in South Africa, the following mission stations were built:

Wesleyville (1823)

Mount Coke (1825)

Butterworth (1827)

Morley (1829)

Clarkebury (1830)

Buntingville (1830)

Others were also established. As could be expected in the troubled circumstances of the Eastern Cape, the work did not always progress smoothly. When one of the border wars broke out in 1834 many of the stations were burnt down and the missionaries dispersed. But destruction was followed by patient rebuilding, and the gospel became increasingly rooted in the hearts of a growing number of Xhosa people.

Things were not all sunshine and rainbows, but God was faithful to Shaw. One such time was a season of severe drought that struck South Africa. As a result of this drought a debate broke out between Shaw and Gqindiva, the official rainmaker. In the presence of the Chief Pato with his counsellors and subjects the air was tense as Shaw and Gqindiva argued. “You are the reason the rain is not coming!” shouted Gqindiva. He continued “I have slaughtered cattle, and offered to the spirits; I have often burned herbs. When the clouds come up from the sea, and spread all over the land, and the rain is ready to fall, that thing which you have brought into the country and set up on a pole on the hill at Etweca [Wesleyville] goes tinkle-tinkle-tinkle; and immediately the clouds begin to scatter, they disappear, and no rain can fall”. The crowd began to mumble and murmur, the people being divided. Shaw felt that he knew what he needed to do; he called for a day of prayer and fasting for rain. The fast was heartily observed, and a number of services were attended by many of the people, including the principle chiefs. Many fervent prayers were offered. Then just as the people were beginning to assemble for the evening service (the last for the day) drops of rain began to fall slowly, and without any great promise of a copious flood. But, while the service was proceeding, the clouds were rolling up from the direction of the great Southern Ocean; and, at the time of its close, the rain was falling in heavy showers. It increased during the night, and became continuous, coming down heavily hour after hour. All the smaller streams were speedily  overflowing; and on the third day some of the people came to the Missionary and said, “The rivers are overflowing their banks, and washing away some of the gardens: would it not now be well to thank God, and tell Him that it is enough, and pray that He may now withhold His hand?” Everyone acknowledged that this was ‘God’s Rain.’ Gqindiva and his profession fell into disrepute in all that neighbourhood; and, for many years after, the Chiefs and counsellors or the Amagonakwaybie never made another application to a rainmaker[iv].

In 1834 there was born in Butterworth (one of Shaw’s mission stations) an African boy, Charles Pamla, who was destined to become a powerful instrument for the reviving and expansion of the church in the 1860’s. This will be an example of the fruit born out of Shaw’s ministry. More will be told about him in a later post.

To grasp an idea of how God used William Shaw in South Africa, consider the following: Starting from scratch, after forty years’ labour, in 1860, there were 36 Methodist missionaries, 96 school teachers and catechists, about 5 000 church members, 80 Sunday schools and 48 day schools, 74 chapels and 183 preaching stations.

To go to the next in this series click here

[i] Hinchliff, P. The Church in South Africa (London, SPCK, 1968), p.31.

[ii] The Story of my Mission among the Native Tribes of South-Eastern Africa

[iii] 29 Quoted in Davies, H. & Shepherd, R.H. South African Missions 1800-1950 (Edinburgh, Thomas Nelson, 1954), p.109.

[iv] William Shaw. The Story of my Mission among the Native Tribes of South- Eastern Africa. Quoted in Davies, H. & Shepherd, R.H. South African


This is an excerpt with slight alterations from me: Roy, Kevin . Zion City RSA. The Story of the Church in South Africa.  (Cape Town, South African Baptist Historical Society 2000); Hofmeyr, J. & Pillay, G. J., 1994. A History of Christianity in South Africa. Pretoria: HAUM Tertiary .

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