The Gospel in South Africa #4: The First Indigenous Minister


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 fourth 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

Ntsikana the first Xhosa convert was drawing people from far and wide to hear his preaching. His popularity did not escape the attention of the Xhosa chief, Ngqika who sent one of his foremost counsellors and warriors, Soga, to listen to Ntsikana’s preaching. Soga was deeply impressed and for the rest of his life was extremely sympathetic to the gospel. This impression can be seen in the lives of his children who were mostly converted to Christianity. The chief’s seventh child was Tiyo. The chief wife Nosuthtu who gave birth to Tiyo was a devout believer and she encouraged all of her children to study.

Young Tiyo attended a school run by William Chalmers, a United Presbyterian missionary. From there he went on to study at Lovedale where he excelled. There Tiyo discovered the Westminster Catechism and out of love for it, memorised it by heart; this drew the attention of his Scottish teachers.

In 1846 the War of the Ax brought enough chaos to force the Lovedale school to close down. Govan the principle of the school was planning on returning to Scotland, but before he left he offered Tiyo the chance of a lifetime. “Come with me to Scotland, further your education; I will see to it all. You will become a powerful instrument in the hands of the living God.”Needless to say Tiyo went to Scotland where he was baptized in 1848.

Towards the end of 1848, returned to South Africa. It had been two years since he left his native land. He began work as an interpreter and evangelistic teacher. This stint was interrupted by the outbreak of war once again. In 1850 the border war disrupted the mission. During this time Tiyo had to make a huge decision; he was offered a well-paying job as a court interpreter in Port Elizabeth, however an opportunity also arose for him to return to Scotland to study Theology in preparation for ministry.  Tiyo chose to go to Scotland. Soon he found himself immersed in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Philosophy, History and Theology.  He successfully completed his studies and became the first black South African to be ordained to the ministry in 1856.

tiyo and JanetThis was not the only thing to happen to Tiyo in Scotland; by God’s providence he fell in love and married a Scottish girl named Janet Burnside in 1857. Together they returned to South Africa. But it was not the South Africa Tiyo remembered. The cattle killing tragedy had taken its toll on the Eastern province; amidst the sad circumstances he began his work as an evangelist and minister among his own people in Mgwali.

Tiyo hoped to witness widespread turning to Christ but he was disappointed. Could it have been his Scottish wife, and the time he spent in Scotland? Had these factors somehow alienated him from his people who were still very traditional? Tiyo struggled with bad health which eventually led to his death at the young age of 47.

His ministry did however show fruit. The famous Scottish missionary to India, Alexander Duff, after visiting Tiyo’s work said that the standard of the spiritual work there was of the highest he had witnessed in South Africa.

Soga’s literary output was prodigious. A prolific hymn writer, about thirty of his hymns found their way into hymn books. He also assisted in the revision of the Xhosa Bible. His translation of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s

Progress into Xhosa, uHambo lomhambi, became the most widely read religious book in that language after the Bible, and it is often reprinted to this day.

Was Tiyo Soga a ‘black Scotsman’ as some alleged, or the father of Black Nationalism, as others have claimed? On the one hand, he was certainly deeply committed to the Reformed faith of his Presbyterian church and critical of many tribal customs. His marriage to a Scot and consequent adoption of many European cultural forms distanced him to some extent from the Xhosa culture of his birth. On the other hand, he was proud of being a Xhosa and rejected feelings of racial superiority or inferiority in any form. His advice to his children was:

You will ever cherish the memory of your mother as that of an upright, conscientious, thrifty, Christian Scotch woman. You will ever be thankful for your connection by this tie to the white race. But if you wish to gain credit for yourselves – if you do not wish to feel the taunt of men, which you sometimes may well feel – take your place in the world as coloured, not as white men; as blacks, not as Englishmen. … For your own sakes never appear ashamed that your father was a black, and that you inherited some African blood. It is every whit as good and as pure as that which flows in the veins of my fairer brethren[i].

Tiyo-Soga_zpsb412a8fcMany years after the death of Tiyo Soga, at the historic founding of the South African Native National Congress – the forerunner of the African National Congress (ANC) – in Bloemfontein in 1912, the conference opened with the delegates and observers singing together a moving rendition of Tiyo Soga’s hymn Lizalis’idinga lakho (Fulfil Thy promise). Thus it was that the life and work of this pioneer African missionary and minister was seen as a symbol of hope for all African people for justice and freedom in the land of their birth.

To read the next in this series click here

[i] 34Saunders, C. (ed.) Illustrated History of South Africa – the Real Story (Cape Town, Readers Digest, 1992), p.151.

Source: Roy, Kevin . Zion City RSA. The Story of the Church in South Africa. (Cape Town, South African Baptist Historical Society 2000) pg 57-58.

  3 comments for “The Gospel in South Africa #4: The First Indigenous Minister

  1. January 23, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    What a stirring story! I am thankful to those who stand for the truth and go to new fields. Also, it is great that God reaches out always to save some regardless of cultural differences showing it is His work and not a human cultural phenomenon.

  2. January 23, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    Reblogged this on beliefspeak2 and commented:
    What a stirring story! I am thankful to those who stand for the truth and go to new fields. Also, it is great that God reaches out always to save some regardless of cultural differences showing it is His work and not a human cultural phenomenon.

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