The Gospel in South Africa #6: The Great Trek


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 sixth 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 late 1830’s, and 15 000 people were packing up their homes and lives. The Cape Colonies eastern frontier was not what they hoped it would be, and now they would go and form a country of their own in the interior of the unknown parts Southern Africa. These people, called Dutch by the English, but self named as Afrikaners; spoke a dialect that had significantly diverged itself from its Dutch Origins called Afrikaans. These people, also known as Boers (farmers) would later become known as the Voortrekkers (those who travelled ahead), had begun an epic migration, known as the Great Trek.

What were they talking about as they backed their kitchens and loaded their wagons? Perhaps the disgruntled mumblings of people who were dissatisfied with British rule, struggling with the harsh conditions of the Eastern Cape. These farmers were in frequent conflict with the Xhosa, who would periodically raid them. The British Cape Government forbade the farmers from taking any military action of their own, and so they felt exposed and vulnerable. Another point of aggravation was recently passed laws; these laws tended towards an equalization of the white and coloured communities, and this did not sit well with the majority of farmers[i]. These new laws were resented and seen as disturbing the long established pattern of relationship between master and servants, something they thought was vital to the ordering of a peaceful society. Another issue that created problems was the 1834 emancipation of the slaves. The Boers were not simply opposed to the emancipation, but were frustrated at not having received what they saw as adequate financial compensation for their freed slaves; thus they felt extremely economically violated by the British. These were some of the things that one would have heard being discussed as they made their journey.

On the 2nd February 1837 the following manifesto, in which the Boers gave their reasons for quitting the colony, was published in The Grahamstown Journal:

1 We despair of saving the colony from those evils which threaten it by the turbulent and dishonest conduct of vagrants, who are allowed to infest the country in every part; nor do we see any prospect of peace or happiness for our children in a country thus distracted by internal commotions.

2 We complain of the severe losses which we have been forced to sustain by the emancipation of our slaves, and the vexatious laws which have been enacted respecting them.

3 We complain of the continual system of plunder which we have ever endured from the Kafirs[ii] and other colored classes, and particularly by the last invasion of the colony, which has desolated the frontier districts, and ruined most of the inhabitants.

4 We complain of the unjustifiable odium which has been cast upon us by interested and dishonest persons, under the cloak of religion, whose testimony is believed in England to the exclusion of all evidence in our favour; and we can foresee as the result of this prejudice, nothing but the total ruin of the country.

5 We are resolved, wherever we go, that we will uphold the just principles of liberty, but whilst we will take care that no one shall be held in a state of slavery, it is our determination to maintain such regulations as may suppress crime and preserve proper relations between master and servant.

6 We solemnly declare that we quit this colony with a desire to lead a more quiet life than we have heretofore done. We will not molest any people, nor deprive them of the smallest property; but, if attacked, we shall consider ourselves fully justified in defending our persons and effects, to the utmost of our ability, against every enemy.

7 We make known, that when we shall have framed a code of laws for our future guidance, copies shall be forwarded to the colony for general information; but we take this opportunity of stating, that it is our firm resolve to make provision for the summary punishment of any traitors who may be found among us.

8 We purpose, in the course of our journey, and arriving at the country in which we shall permanently reside, to make known to the native tribes our intentions, and our desire to live in peace and friendly intercourse with them.

9 We quit this colony under the full assurance that the English government has nothing more to require of us, and will allow us to govern ourselves without its interference in future.

10 We are now quitting this fruitful land of our birth, in which we have suffered enormous losses and continual vexation, and are entering a wild and dangerous territory; but we go with a firm reliance on an all-seeing, just, and merciful Being, whom it will be our endeavour to fear and humbly obey.

By authority of the farmers who have quitted the Colony,

(Signed) P. Retief[iii]

Sadly the ‘quiet life’ which the Voortrekkers had hoped for never came. The devastation caused by Shaka’s widespread Zulu military campaign had left large tracts of land uninhabited; this created the impression that there was land that could be inhabited peacefully. Thus when setting off for the interior, the Boers did not anticipate the hardships, conflicts and losses they would endure.

VoortrekkerSatourThe story of the Voortrekkers, the various routes taken by different leaders, the bloody clashes with Dingaan and Mzilikazi, their internal quarrels, is one full of high drama and fascination. But our concern is primarily with the story of the church, and so we shall focus on the religious developments associated with the Great Trek and its aftermath.

The Dutch Reformed Church was not initially sympathetic to the emigration. In a meeting of a synod in October 1837, a pastoral letter was approved by the great majority of the delegates in which the Trek was sharply criticized as an unlawful act of resistance against the British authorities. The synod also expressed its concern that a religious deterioration would take place among the Trekkers in the wild interior of the country. To the disappointment of the Trekkers, no ordained minister of the church accompanied them. But they were able to procure the services of a former LMS missionary, Erasmus Smit, who had married a sister of one of the Trek leaders, Gert Maritz.

Smit’s origins with the LMS did not endear him to many of the Trekkers who regarded the ‘meddling and interfering missionaries’ as one of the principal causes of their departure from the Cape colony. Smit did not enjoy good health and was allegedly addicted to liquor. Moreover, many of the Trekkers felt that Smit had never been properly ordained. For these reasons he was never a popular minister and was eventually retired in 1840.

Ironically the man to replace him was another missionary, the American Daniel Lindley. Unlike Smit, Lindley was loved by the Voortrekkers and made a deep impact on the development of Christianity among the Afrikaners and the Zulus.

To go to the next post in this series click here

[i] Roy, Kevin . Zion City RSA. The Story of the Church in South Africa. (Cape Town, South African Baptist Historical Society 2000) Pg 79; Hofmeyr, J. & Pillay, G. J., 1994. A History of Christianity in South Africa. Pretoria: HAUM Tertiary page 94,

[ii] This word appears in the historical document and for that reason only it has been kept in this blog post as I quote that document.

[iii] 7Hofmeyr, J.W., Millard, J.A. & Froneman, C.J.J. History of the Church inSouth Africa: a Document and Source Book (Pretoria, UNISA, 1991), p.115.

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