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 fourteenth 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 late 1909, and the Norwegian Lutheran mission church in Eshowe was anticipating a gift. Their evangelistic worker was expecting a baby boy. Bhengu arrived safely and grew to become an influential figure in South Africa. As a youth Bhengu was attracted to Marxism, becoming an active worker in the Communist Party.
At the age of 20, Bhengu attended a Full Gospel evangelistic crusade held in Kimberly by two American evangelists. It was here that Bhengu met Christ and was converted. 5 years later in 1934 till 1936 he attended the South African General Mission Bible Training School in Dumisa, Natal. After graduation, his ability in several languages allowed him to work as a court interpreter. But he couldn’t shake the call to ministry! He decided to resign he secular work and follow in the steps of his father as an evangelist.
In 1937 he was ordained by the Assemblies of God with whom he had affiliated. While Bhengu retained this affiliation until his death, his work was of an independent nature, and at no time was he under any sort of white supervision. In 1940 he became a member of the first multiracial executive council of the AG. From 1945 Bhengu began holding meetings in Port Elizabeth which were marked by ‘changed lives, allegedly outstanding miracles of healing and the overflowing joy of the people.[i]’36
From these meetings a local church began to grow, and in 1950 Bhengu opened ‘The Pilgrim Bible School.’ That same year he launched the ‘Back to God Crusade’ in East London. The results ‘far exceeded what had happened in Port Elizabeth. Thousands attended the services which were characterized by extraordinary power both in preaching and in healing. The whole of East London was moved.[ii]’
Bhengu’s Back to God Crusade began as a non-denominational ministry, but soon he began to gather his converts into a church which grew to 1 500 active members within a year. This was probably the largest Pentecostal church in the country at the time. In April 1952 a mass baptism of 1 300 converts was held under Bhengu’s direction. Five years later a church building seating four to five thousand people was dedicated in East London which became the headquarters of the evangelistic and church planting ministry of Bhengu[iii].
By 1959 at least fifty churches with about 15 000 members had been planted as a result of Bhengu and those working with him. These churches soon became the biggest group within the Assemblies of God. The impact of Bhengu’s preaching was astonishing. In some areas where he ministered, the crime rate dropped by as much as one-third, and it was not unusual for people to respond to his messages by leaving their weapons and stolen goods in piles at his feet[iv].
Bhengu’s refused to be involved in political issues, this brought considerable criticism on him during his life and since his death. He was described as a ‘sell-out’ by some African nationalists and even received several death threats. He believed national redemption would come ‘through non-violence, good relations with Whites, obedience to the laws of the land and, above all, through faith in God rather than in political action.[v]’ He forbade his members any political affiliation. However he was not merely a pushover. He possessed a strong independence of mind, a sense of dignity, and self-confidence. C.P. Watt, the historian of the AG in South Africa, even went so far as to suggest that ‘Bhengu was motivated philosophically by his understanding of Black Consciousness. He taught the people by word and example not to be ashamed of their blackness.[vi]’
Bhengu’s commitment to building black self-reliance led him to entertain, for a while, a certain sympathy for the ideology of apartheid, with its emphasis on the separate development of black people within their own cultural context and under their own forms of government. Later, however, he changed his views as the injustice and unviability of the apartheid system became increasingly apparent. Politically Bhengu was certainly influenced by the views prevalent among most Pentecostals at that time. But in one thing he remained constant since his conversion to Christ, namely a passionate desire to see people of all races, cultures and classes come to an experience of salvation, peace and unity in Christ. Several weeks before his death in 1986 he wrote in a Farewell Message to the Church:
Build the Church of God. The names of our Churches are our own inventions and not God’s! Let the Christians come together as God’s children. Build the nation where you are remembering that you are part of that nation and you are in it for a specific purpose for God. Pray for all leaders in Africa, support leaders of your nation and present Christ to them by all means. The Church is the light of the world. The Church is the salt of the earth and the Church should lead the nation to peace, unity and prosperity[vii].
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