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This article was originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. If you would like to see some other articles from Missionalia, have a look at the list of Missionalia articles on the Web

Gunther Pakendorf1


The Berlin Mission and the Challenges

of Colonial South Africa2

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German missions have an important place in southern African mission history. They were active in all regions of the sub-continent and featured prominently in some areas, most notably the Transvaal Republic. Their written output was considerable and they published much that was of scientific value. Yet by and large they were characterised by a low public profile and, in the 20th century, a near-total silence with regard to controversial political issues. This paper looks at the response of the Berlin Mission Society to the challenges of 19th and early 20th South Africa. It traces the intellectual roots of German missions to three fundamental influences, viz. Lutheran theology, Pietism and Romanticism. Yet, important as these sources were in shaping the German reaction to problems arising from the black community and white rulers, this response was also influenced by the 'elective affinities' between missionaries, their children, and the larger white community.


Virtually all the major studies dealing with missionary activity in South Africa focus on English-language societies. In view of the strength of the British presence in South Africa since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the might of the British Empire in world affairs and the numerical preponderance of English and Scottish missions, this appears to be such an obvious choice that it does not seem worthy of comment. Yet some of the widely-held views on missionaries and the role they played within the context of nineteenth century colonialism are derived specifically from the fact that they operated under the umbrella of the Empire. Only indirectly could German missions be seen to be representatives of a metropolitan European power. On the other hand, a relatively large number of representatives of the London Missionary Society at the beginning of the nineteenth century came from Germany and there is no evidence of any serious conflict or disagreement, outside the two World Wars, between German missions and secular colonial and post-colonial authorities. But when all is said and done, the historian is faced with the fact that in spite of an impressive written output and considerable contributions to various areas of African studies, German missions were characterised by a low public profile and a near-total silence with regard to controversial political issues. This paper explores the reasons for this state of affairs, with particular reference to the Berlin Mission Society (BMS).

In global terms, German Protestant missions were never very significant numerically. Gensichen claims that in 1881 "they had a total of just about half a thousand workers in the fields – merely one third of the non-Roman British missionary forces, and no more than about 17% of all Protestant mission workers from North Atlantic countries" (Gensichen 1982:181). In nineteenth century South Africa there were only four major German societies "in the field" – Moravian, Rhenish, Berlin and Hermannsburg. Yet out of the total of 475 mission stations established in South Africa in the period 1737-1904, 169 – that is more than a quarter – belonged to German societies (Japha et al 1993:22). In some areas, notably in the Transvaal Republic (ZAR). where the British were viewed with great skepticism, German missions were for a long time practically the only mission societies present.

A radical differentiation between German and other missions in nineteenth century South Africa would not get one very far. The vast majority of missionaries from all European countries of origin came from relatively humble backgrounds, they were members of the petty bourgeoisie, mostly artisans with little or no higher education; but all were imbued with a strong desire for upward social mobility which appeared increasingly difficult to achieve in the big city environment of industrialised Europe, but which seemed eminently possible in the colonial situation. Thus the Berlin missionary Albert Kropf (1822-1910) – to cite one example – was born the son of a non-commissioned officer in the Prussian army and apprenticed as a printer from his fourteenth year on; he was ordained as a missionary at the age of 22. In his later life he was appointed as "superintendent" of the Xhosa synod of the Berlin Mission Society, had a lion's share in the translation of the Bible, wrote a monograph on the Xhosa and published what was to become, for generations, the standard Xhosa-English dictionary. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Berlin,

then one of the leading institutions of higher learning in Europe, and at the end of his life he was presented with a medal of honour by the German emperor (See Pakendorf 1993).

German missionaries therefore shared with their counterparts from other countries, by and large, the petty bourgeois worldview that shaped their thinking and which they sought to impart to their converts in Africa. It was the mani festation of an individualism that had developed in Europe in the post-medieval period; theologically, it revolved around concepts of sin, redemption and salvation, economically, it expressed itself in terms of the work ethic, that is, high produc tivity based on an internalised self-discipline, and ideologically it consisted of values such as orderliness, diligence, cleanliness, frugality.3

In class terms, however, they occupied the middle ground between the bourgeoisie and the lower classes, be they peasantry or proletariat; their world view was typically conservative, distrustful of the effects of industrialisation, the big city and the spectre of being swamped by the masses, while at the same time hankering after a romanticised image of the idyllic rural lifestyle of pre-industrial Europe, which in their way they sought to re-create in far-away Africa. This was a fundamental contradiction in which the missionaries found themselves: that they understood themselves to be representatives of a civilisation with whose modern development in the age of materialism and technical progress they could not identify. If this is true of all nineteenth century missionaries, it is even more emphatically so in the case of those from Germany.

As the nineteenth century wore on, European thought and culture became increasingly less universal and more narrowly nationalist. Internally. Europe was experiencing the effects of aggressive competition between economically expanding concerns; in commerce and industry, conglomerates and monopolies were emerging, while in international politics, alliances and ententes between the great powers were formed. As far as non-European nations were concerned, however, Europeans saw themselves as universally superior to the "lesser breeds without the Law", to use Kipling's contemptuous term. It is small wonder that the missionaries of all persuasions also became more and more nationalist and racist in their view of themselves and others.

The differences between German and other missionaries would then seem to be a matter of degree only. It is true that before 1870 there was no unitary state by the name of Germany and that the German colonial empire only dates from 1884, so that German missionaries can not in any strict sense of the word be said to have been agents of a colonial state before that time. But it is less in this respect than with regard to their intellectual and spiritual heritage and self- definition and the consequences emanating from this, that the Germans differed from other missionaries. This heritage can be seen to consist essentially of three inter-related elements: Lutheran theology, Pietism and Romanticism.


German Protestant missions, though non-conformist by origin, were mostly committed to the Lutheran creed and there is no doubt that they consciously applied the classic Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms – based on Luther's interpretation of Romans 13 – when dealing with secular authority.4 This is reflected, for instance, in the Platzordnung or station regulations, for the Berlin Mission station Botshabelo in the Transvaal, which is typical of practically all German Protestant missions; it states expressly that "we reside in the country of the Boers, therefore we have to obey the laws of their state and pay taxes to them" (Merensky 1899:412). This gave rise to conflict on the station, which caused a group of the inhabitants on the station to lose the absolute trust they had in the missionaries. Merensky, the missionary in charge, explains:

They found the loyalty we had pledged to the Boers from the start difficult to comprehend. We saw in the Boers a "power that be" (Romans 13,1) to whom we owed obedience for the reason alone that we had pledged it and because we had been permitted into the country under the condition of such obedience; but those of our people who had been moved by the spirit of national reaction regarded the power and authority of their traditional leaders as far more legitimate than the white invaders (Merensky 1899:295f).5

Another example: the missionary Christoph Sonntag had a close and friendly relationship with Maleboch of the Bahananoa people in the Northern Transvaal. When he first met the chief, he declared to him that "(h)e would get to know me and realise that I desired nothing else in his country but to teach his people God's Word, to help the sick as much as I could, also with medicine, and to assist everybody as a teacher to the best of my ability" (Sonntag n.d.:8). Yet when conflict arose in the 1890s between Maleboch and the Boer government, Sonntag, while being consistently friendly and loyal towards the Bahananoa, acted as mediator between the two warring parties and insisted that the Africans had to pay taxes and observe the laws of the land.6

If there is one single characteristic feature of Martin Luther's thought it is the dualism which expresses itself as the antithesis between spiritual and worldly matters, the separation of body and soul, or the internal and external worlds. According to Luther, the true freedom of a Christian, which is derived from his faith, is so absolute that it releases him from subservience to secular laws:

It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no works to justify him; and if he has no need of works, he has no need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law (Luther 1957, 1971:349).

In the history of German ideas, this dualism had an important effect on the attitude toward the self and the secular or external world. The eighteenth century in particular saw a significant development in this regard when the "external world" failed to provide a stage for the realisation of the aspirations of the middle classes and the "inner realm" came to assume a central position in the ideological struggle of the bourgeoisie against the hegemony of the absolutist state and its institutions. Henceforth, in German history, the world of ideas, the realm of the imagination and speculation, was to assume far greater importance as a vehicle for self-expression in relation to the world of politics, commerce and public affairs than for other European nations.

In his recent study, Gerhard Jooste has shown how the reluctance on the part of the BMS and its representatives to get involved in politics was a fundamental factor in their largely uncritical acceptance of the stringent conditions for missionary activity laid down by the authorities of the ZAR (Jooste 1996:48-89). However, the interpretation of the Lutheran creed was not free from racial bias, which manifested itself more openly as the nineteenth century progressed. Thus, while the Berlin missionaries were still quite prepared to accept Griqua authority in Transorangia prior to 1854, the only authority they acknowledged in the Transvaal in the 1860s was that of the Boers, even in areas where they had not yet established their control, as in Sekhukhuneland, or where they never had any authority, as in Swaziland.

Jooste makes the interesting observation that there seemed to be a correlation between the increasing acceptance of and co-operation with Boer authorities on the part of the missionaries on the one hand, and their growing alienation from the needs and aspirations of the indigenous converts on the other. Where there was armed conflict the Berlin missionaries invariably sided with the Boers and ferquently exhorted their followers to abstain from any militant activity against the white rulers.

In addition to growing cordial relations on a personal basis between individual missionaries and their children with the broader Boer community, as well as between Boer leaders such as Paul Kruger and the BMS directors, the mission was also guided by the pragmatic observation that it was "certain that in a country where God's judgement has broken a people politically the seed of evangelism is most conveniently sowed; that is where the missionaries enjoy the legal protection of the colonial government." (BMB 1861, quoted in Delius 1983:118). Whatever independent African movements there were, from the earliest separatist churches and nationalist organisations to the ANC and trade unions in the twentieth century, German missionaries always opposed them. Thus, when in the apartheid era human rights violations, mass removals and political repression were affecting not only the general population but the very adherents of the mission churches themselves and protest against these policies came from various quarters, the German missions were to a very large extent silent. It was a silence resulting as much from the absence of an interventionist tradition in Lutheran theology as from the elective affinities, developed over several generations, between German missionaries and their children and the white rulers of the land.



The German Protestant missionary movement emerged at the historic juncture when the Pietist revival of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries fed into secular thought against the backdrop of the unfulfilled struggle of the middle classes in a politically fragmented and economically still largely backward con stellation of principalities. The beginnings of the German mission movement are intimately associated with Pietism. Among the most influential figures in the history of Pietism is Count von Zinzendorf, the founder of the Church of the "re newed" Moravian Brethren at his estate Herrnhut in Saxony in 1727 (Cf. Pinson 1934; Krüger 1966). Herrnhut was a place of refuge for religious dissenters who had fled from Moravia, and was to become the model for mission stations, not only of the Moravians, all over the world.

As a religious movement Pietism was not a sect in the normal sense of the word (For this cf. Pinson 1934:14ff). It is characterised by a more heartfelt, inward, emotional and enthusiastic form of Christianity, which places great emphasis on practical piety, prayer, philanthropic works and missionary activities; in general, its appeal appeared to lie in its "participatory" approach as opposed to the formality and distance characteristic of a more orthodox Protestantism. Conversion is of fundamental significance in Pietist experience, as Jenkins has pointed out:

It would become the individual's Herzensbedürfnis (lit. "heart-felt need") to experience the release from personal guilt which the teaching of forgiveness promises. The Pietist thereafter expected to experience this forgiveness repeatedly as a confirmation of God's call to him to take up a particular vocation and behave in particular ways in spite of his being by definition bound never to achieve the divinely prescribed standards of conduct. This central experience was incorporated in and fostered by daily devotions, including a relatively simple reading of the bible, but also by a belief that everything which happened in the personal life was "given" by God, and had its intended role in the "schooling" of the individual. In other words, a continuous critical self-examination, to identify where God was speaking to the individual and what he was trying to communicate to him (1978:3).

It is in this context that the wish to do missionary work arose, as the desire to help others achieve salvation and forgiveness which one has experienced oneself. This spiritual impulse cannot be underestimated as a powerful driving force for missionary work; it also helps to explain how the "heathen" were viewed by most missionaries. Thus the constitution of the Berlin Mission Society, founded in 1824, states that members of the society wish to spread the gospel because they are "filled with compassion for the wretched spiritual state and the resulting physical decay and degeneration of millions of heathen who live with us on earth and with whom, in spite of the distortion of the divine image, we feel closely related (stammverwandt)" (Quoted in Richter 1924:9).

For German missionaries, therefore, the indigenes living according to traditional customs were living in the realm of sin, their souls destined for perdition. In recorded conversations of German missionaries with Africans, one repeatedly comes across the rhetoric of sin, repentance and salvation. For the missionaries, the immorality, superstition, witchcraft and sinfulness they observed among blacks was evidence not of a different culture and religion, but of the rule of Satan himself, who had the whole of heathendom in his control. Thus, in a commentary in the journal of the BMS on the causes of the bloody eighth frontier war in the Eastern Cape in 1850-1851, one comes across a remarkable mixture of political insight, fear of a mass uprising and the view that the whole Xhosa nation is under the spell of the Evil One:

... with a crazed fanaticism for this false prophet "Mlanjeni" and with an obedience which, if it came from God, could be held up to all Christians as an example and a model, the whole tribe controlled by this person rose like one man to liberate its heathendom and its country once again from the God of the Christians and from the rule of the whites. There can be no doubt that this miserable Xhosa boy [Kaffernjunge] could not derive such powerful hatred against Christianity and such a spiritual power over his people from his own resources; he is far too stupid and insignificant for that. It is the devil speaking out of him and ruling through him. Our missionaries recognised and declared him as a tool of this kind right from the beginning of his actions (BMB 1851(12):200).

Peter Delius has published the extraordinary tale of a convicted murderer, one Rooizak, a "heathen" who in 1875 was regularly visited in his prison cell in Lydenburg by the Berlin missionary Nachtigal and systematically prepared for conversion (Delius 1984). For the missionary there was no doubt that Rooizak had not only sinned by killing another man and therefore deserved to be executed but also that he was facing eternal damnation unless he first accepted Christ as his redeemer. In the presence of a few other missionaries, Nachtigal finally baptised Rooizak literally minutes before he was taken away to be hanged. His comment: "The baptism made a beautiful preparation for death" (1984:44) can only be fully understood against the background of the importance of conversion and salvation in Pietist thought.

Hildegarde Fast's conclusions with regard to the early missionary efforts by the Wesleyans in Xhosaland in the 1820s and 1830s would apply to a large extent to German missions as well: so deeply were the missionaries rooted in their Western notions of spirituality, sin and redemption that they were largely blind to the worldly needs of the Xhosa as well as to their culture and system of thought. This made a reconciliation between other-worldly Christianity and this- worldly African culture hard to achhieve:

Existing concepts of divinity were ignored and instead a personal God was presented who appeared to exhibit primarily negative characteristics, such as wrath and judgment. The pressing physical needs of this world were neglected and the emphasis placed on an unfamiliar hereafter (Fast 1991:167f).

In her study of literacy and orality in the wake of BMS activity in the Northern Transvaal in the nineteenth century, Isabel Hofmeyr has shown how the missionaries' one-sided concepts of inner disicpline and spirituality similarly led to an overemphasis on literacy and a misunderstanding on their part of the Africans' interest in literacy as a manifestation of religious feeling and a commit ment to the values of the mission world (Hofmeyr 1993:41-58).



Mission stations in South Africa, based ultimately on a model derived from the settlement at Herrnhut and replicated at Genadendal in the Cape, had a central place, with their temporal and spatial organisation, in the reshaping of the African landscape: regular hours, controlled working time, straight walls, right-angled roads on the grid plan, houses built in the European style, planned and orderly conditions. As we can read in the life-story of Naboth Mokgatle (1971:61), this change affected not only newly-built mission stations but existing settlements as well:

Mr. Penzhorn, the first Lutheran priest in our tribe, not only taught my people how to read the Bible, but transformed their lives entirely. He brought European architecture into their lives and new ideas. Houses built with bricks began to appear. Though many thatched roofs remained, they pushed rondavels out of the way and houses with European-type doors and windows spread all over the village. Old habits of building houses anywhere, anyhow, died out. Anyone in the tribe who wanted to build a house, particularly newly-married couples, had to go to the Chief's court to ask for a site. From the Chief's court they were sent out with three or four men to a place to cut a site for them and to see that it would be in a straight line with other houses built before theirs.... As a result of these new methods, which were due to the church and Mr. Penzhorn's influence, well-surveyed streets developed and houses facing each other, in a manner which was absent before the church came. Phokeng became a Europeanised tribal village.7

The mission station is the site of a peculiar paradox underlying the mission. On the one hand it represents the projection of an atavistic yearning for a lost harmony where the simple and self-sufficient life under God's guidance was supposed to have been possible, beyond the world and its corrupting influences; on the other hand the presence and the praxis of the mission amount to a revolutionary onslaught on the culture, religion and political structures of the autochthonous population. But this transformation is in itself contradictory, and nowhere more so than in the case of German missions, since their attempt at conversion of Africans to Christianity and clearly also to the Protestant work ethic is accompanied by the stated desire not to change their traditional culture or their own being. Thus the missionary pioneer Alexander Merensky, for example, refer ring to the initial work, in the early 1860's, among the Bapedi of the Eastern Transvaal by himself and his colleague Grützner, mentions that they were deter mined to seize all those pagan customs among their flock which were incom patible with Christianity by the roots and eradicate them. However,

    ... all the remaining national customs [Volkssitten], indeed the whole life peculiar to the people [Volk] in the home, courtyard and garden we left untouched, to the extent that it had nothing specifically pagan about it. We said to the people that they should remain Basotho and not attempt to imitate the whites (Merensky 1899:113).

    This concern for the customs of a nation is the result of another formative element in the consciousness and practice of German missionaries: Romantic thought as expressed in a particular notion of language, history and anthropology. Even more, perhaps, than the heritage of Lutheranism and Pietism it had a profound influence on German missionary discourse. The spirit of Romanticism dominated German intellectual life in the first half of the nineteenth century. It determines the views of the missionaries who saw themselves as mediators between two cultures and at the same time as interpreters of African life. Herder's anthropology and philosophy of history, as developed by the Romantics, pre sented them with an ideal theoretical model and scientific method for this dual task (For a comprehensive treatment of Herder's ideas, see Barnard 1965, 1967).

    The intellectual development of practically all German missionaries of the nineteenth century can be traced back to the time when, in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the vulgarised ideas of Herder and the Romantics had already become part of the political programme of rising European nationalism. The idea that humanity is organised in larger groups who may share certain similarities with others but nevertheless form discrete and organic entities, was treated as axio matic by the missionaries. Equally it was taken for granted by them that it is pri marily through an own language that a Volk or nation expresses itself and dis tinguishes itself from other similar groups. It was no other than Wilhelm von Humboldt who declared in his book Über das vergleichende Sprachstudium in Beziehung auf die verschiedenen Epochen der Sprachentwicklung that

    the specific spiritual quality [Geisteseigentümlichkeit] and the linguistic expression of a nation [Volk] are fused so intimately with each other that, if the one were present, the other should be derived from it completely .... Language is, as it were, the outward appearance of the spirit of nations; their language is their spirit and their spirit their language (quoted in Helbig 1974:13).

    German mission theory and practice of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were deeply influenced by the writings of Gustav Warneck (1834-1919). His magnum opus, entitled Evangelische Missionslehre (1897-1903), contained the essence of German thought on this subject, in the sense that the various strands in the development of German missions, "a Biblicist orthodoxy combined with pietist devotion and romanticism reminiscent of Herder and Schleiermacher" (Rosenkranz quoted in Verkuyl 1978:28) converge in this work. Warneck devel oped the notion of Volkschristianisierung, or conversion of peoples, an unmis takable product of the Romantic heritage and its morphological approach which sees a Volk as a living organism with a "folk spirit" that manifests itself chiefly in the mother tongue as well as in all other aspects of culture, custom, law and literature. This concept lies at the heart of the peculiar paradox of German mis sions in particular: the attempt to change the indigenous people completely through conversion, while at the same time immersing oneself in their language and culture in order to preserve these.

    It is for this reason that German missionaries placed so much emphasis on the study of African languages and ethnography. It would be no exaggeration to say that Germans, and in particular German missionaries, had a central place in the field of African linguistics in the nineteenth century. Their contributions to the study of numerous African languages, in the form of grammars, dictionaries, translations and theoretical speculation still stand today as a monument to their achievements. Interestingly, the great African linguist, Carl Meinhof, the founder of comparative Bantu studies, always regarded himself, by his own admission, as the pupil of the Berlin missionary Karl Endemann, who was active in the Northern Transvaal (Jungraithmayr/ Möhlig 1983:82). And the tribute by Naboth Mokgatle to the Rev. Ernst Penzhorn that he was so fluent in Sesotho that he not only spoke and wrote it and gave his sermons in it, but that he even taught the children in confirmation class some words in their own language they did not know (Mokgatle 1971:62), could equally apply to a number of other German mission aries.

    It is instructive that the "African textual response" to missionary discourse described by Leon de Kock (1996) emanated mostly from Lovedale and other English-language institutions. Of all the great leaders of the African nationalist movement only one, Sol Plaatje, received his education at a German mission. There are several reasons for this. The German Protestant mission movement saw its task as a spiritual one; therefore all other activities, including education, were to be subservient to this, as the explication by T.H. Wangemann, the director of the BMS, of the Mission Regulations [Missionsordnung] of 1881 makes quite clear:

      In all school education it should be remembered that the instruction of young people to become Christians is the single main purpose and that everything else is subsidiary, and teachers have to guard with great diligence that subsidiary matters do not become primary ones nor that dispensible things are drawn into the area of teaching subjects (Quoted in Jooste 1996:132; my translation).

    Teaching people skills that were useful outside service to the Church or a nar rowly defined ethnic community – as was the case with English missions – was seen as a mistake. As a consequence the BMS, as comprehensive as its undertaking was in building schools and providing education, concentrated largely on primary schools; whatever further education was offered was mostly intended for training of the mission's own evangelists and teachers.8

    No doubt black South Africans had a high regard for the deep interest and dedication to indigenous language and culture on the part of German missionaries. Yet this dedication and the acceptance of the concept of Volks christianisierung seems to have been so absolute that these missionaries were insistent on giving Africans what they did not always want. Thus, in the 1870s, the Eastern Cape Berlin missionary Kropf complained that Africans at German missions found the schools with their never-ending Bible classes boring, and some parents complained that the German mission schools did not teach enough English, so they preferred to send their children to English missions (BMB 1873 (5/6):80f).

    The Hermannsburg missionaries at Phokeng in the Western Transvaal had a similar experience at the beginning of the century when, after a number of decades of being the only Christian church in the area, two new churches arrived in succession, both apparently less rigid in their demands than the Lutherans and both served by English-speaking priests who did not seem to bother too much about learning Sesotho. Many members of the Lutheran congregation now sent their children to Mr. Spooner's school to learn English, much to the dismay and irritation of the German missionary Penzhorn, whose arguments deserve to be quoted here in greater detail since they are typical of virtually all German Protestant missions:

    Mr. Penzhorn, I was told, tried to discourage them [the parents], but they told him there was a need for their children to learn English because, unlike their parents, the children were bound to have dealings with the English people who had established their rule in the country. Because there was no English school at the Lutheran Church Mr. Penzhorn's persuasions could not work. His line of argument was that since the people of my tribe were not English, it was pointless for them to be eager that their children should learn English, which, he imagined, would turn them into black English men and women. He pointed out at great length that Mr. Spooner's school devoted most of its time to teaching the children a foreign language and little time to teaching them their own mother-tongue. Mr. Penzhorn saw in that a danger that in the end the children of my tribe would know only English, speak, read and write only English, and when they had reached that stage they would look down on their own parents, traditions, customs and language. When they ceased to read, speak and write their own language, Mr. Penzhorn said, they would cease to know themselves and their backgrounds and cease to be a nation (Mokgatle 1971:78).

    Needless to say, Mr. Penzhorn's exhortations had practically no effect.

    There were similar, and widespread, appeals to the BMS by its African members for the provision of English medium education (Cf. Jooste 1996:134- 137). Not only did this agitation fall on deaf ears but German missionaries and their descendants managed to spread the concept of mother-tongue instruction in government circles as a fundamental principle of African education. From the 1920s on, the government made increasing use of missionary experience and expertise in African education, linguistics and anthropolgy. Several descendants of German missionaries, most notably G.H. Franz and W.W.M Eiselen, became prominent figures in "Native education" and administration, where notions derived originally from the ethnic approach inherent to Volkschristianisierung were merged with a policy of racial segregation that was to lead, ultimately, to "sepa rate development" and Bantu Education in the fifties. In this process, the increas ing vocal opposition to these policies from the black community was totally ignored.



    In the descriptions of blacks by missionaries one comes across the whole range of prejudices and stereotypes known from the discourse of the encounter between Europeans and other cultures. In his reminiscences and diaries, the missionary Wilhelm Posselt, for example, who spent many years from the mid- 1830s on, both in the Eastern Cape and later among the Zulu in Natal, gives some classic examples of this discourse which is ultimately derived from the dichotomy between culture and nature and therefore riddled with ambivalences and contradictions. Culture, if one follows Freud, is the result of a process over centuries, if not millennia, of repressing the sensual and irrational, those aspects seen as nature. In the encounter with so-called savage races, the European recognises in them the embodiment of all those parts of his self which he, in a great collective effort, has managed to blot out of his life and his consciousness, uncontrolled sensuality, and a carefree existence without the dreadful work discipline that determines his weekday and spoils his free time.

    Posselt's descriptions of the Zulu are riddled with ambiguities of this kind. On the one hand, he admires them for their fine physical features, their friendly nature and joviality, their politeness and love of children; on the other hand he condemns their "ignorance, brutality and beastly vice" (Posselt n.d.:72), "to which one should add covetousness, avarice, quarrelsomeness, intolerance, ingratitude, blind rage and cruelty to animals" (n.d.:77). Yet the Christian missionary who feels offended by the shamelesness of young girls dressed only with a string around their waist (Posselt n.d.:72) and the generally unrestrained way of life of these people, has a secret admiration for them:

    Our black brother does not know what worries mean. He does not have to pay accounts to the tailor, shoemaker, butcher, baker and teacher. As an animal contains within its own anatomy everything it needs by way of clothing, footwear, knife, fork and spoon, so is it with the Zulu. Heaven does not allure him, nor does hell frighten him; he has no religion of this kind.... I have never dared to preach to these people on the text: "Take therefore no thought for the morrow !" The life of nude savages in such a benign climate, where the fertile soil returns the slightest effort at cultivation a hundred fold (sic), is surely the most carefree existence that any one can imagine. Thus they live, following the dictum: "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die!" (:75).

    No wonder that it is so difficult to teach them hard work, for in this Schlaraffenland or land of cocaigne, even laziness becomes a virtue, as Posselt avers in a re markable statement:

    Sloth and indolence are inborn features of a native's make-up, which he will carry throughout life into his grave. As little as it is possible for him to change the colour of his skin, as little does it seem possible for him to spend his time on useful exploits. His time never runs out. He cannot get into his head, that time is precious and must be spent purposefully. Even Christianity has not succeeded in advancing him beyond his ingrained concepts.... When left to themselves they will loaf in a nation of loafers. They laugh at us, that we make our lives so difficult on account of our many requirements, which have turned us into our own taskmasters. And if a white person could get on without head cover, shirt, coat, socks and shoes, sleep on the ground, live in a straw hut and feed himself on mealies and milk alone, and if he lived in a land of eternal summer which feeds people almost by itself, then he would also choose an easier life and become a follower of his black brother in loafing (:76)9

    Clearly, these observations say more about the missionary himself as a product of a tightly controlled and rigidly disciplined way of life – the Protestant work ethic and narrow-minded bourgeois morality – than about the blacks he purports to describe. This was evidently not peculiar to any particular European nation. The early Methodist missionaries in Xhosaland also "envisaged their converts being transformed into godly people which, due to Wesleyan ethnocentrism, meant conforming to the evangelical values of industry, thrift, and temperance" (Fast 1991:141).

    There is another stereotype that plays into these images however, a view that has prevailed ever since the very first encounter between Europeans and non- literate cultures in 1492, when Columbus believed that he had somehow landed in the earthly Paradise. In 1555 Peter Martyr wrote about the Indies:

      But amonge these simple sowles, a fewe clothes serve the naked. So that if we shall not be ashamed to confesse the truthe, they seeme to lyue in that goulden worlde of which owlde writers speake so much: wherin men lyued simplye and innocentlye without enforcement of lawes (Quoted in Duerr 1988:309f).

      But for German Protestant missionaries of the nineteenth century, whose views on black South Africans are also filled with allusions to life in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, Paradise signifies carefree innocence – interpreted in a highly ambiguous way, as we have seen – but more importantly, it is reminiscent of the angel at the gates of Paradise and the injunction that man should henceforth toil in the sweat of his brow. The Christian message of salvation is at the same time an announcement of the loss of innocence and the commencement of a time of hard work.

      This is frequently transmitted in terms of conflict and violence. In his journal recounting his travels in South Africa in 1866 and 1867, the Director of the BMS, Wangemann, recorded numerous conversations he had with black South Africans, mostly leading personalities, admonishing them to attend church ser vices, send their children to school or be converted themselves. Thus in a conversation with Chief Siwane in the Eastern Cape, who appeared to be im pressed by the military might of the English, Wangemann explained:

      Look,Siwane, it is the Lord God alone who humbles a nation and raises it up again.... It was not the English, but the Lord God who has caused the Xhosa to be overthrown. But with that he did not have thoughts of anger but thoughts of peace. You Xhosa [ihr Kaffern] are a proud nation and you would never work if you were not humiliated beforehand (Wangemann 1868:248).

      And in a sermon to a large gathering of Xhosa, both converts and others, Wangemann explained that Christ had died to liberate them from their sins. Yet his message of freedom and peace is couched in a rhetoric of violence:

      This Jesus Christ, God's only Son, has destroyed the kingdom of Satan and established his own kingdom, as far as the sun shines, everything is his, you also belong to him, for he has bought you with his blood and you have to serve him, whether you want to or not! He will force you! (Wangemann 1868:243).

      Again, this is by no means unique to German missions. In Fast's analysis of Wesleyan sermon topics and texts in the period 1825 -35 among the Xhosa, the subjects of salvation, sin/repentance/forgiveness, and afterlife: death/eternity/the final judgment emerge as by far the most prominent (Fast 1991:169-174).


      The world German missionaries came from determined their attitudes and views, their thoughts and behaviour. It was a world of strict controls within clearly defined bounds, privately, socially and politically. The mission societies themselves reflected the tensions and ambiguities of the nineteenth century. In terms of social structures they were still largely determined by the form of the pre-industrial extended family which was patriarchal and authoritarian but cultivated strong inter-personal bonds. If the director of the society was regarded – and addressed – as the father, and the missionaries all called each other "brother," it is only understandable that these bonds would be extended to black South Africans as well. When in missionary writings black people are referred to as children, this should therefore be seen less as a sign of condescension or contempt but rather as an indication that they are accepted as part, albeit on the bottom rung, of the hierarchical order of one great family.

      The demands on individual missionaries by the mission societies were exceptionally great. Not only did they have to be men of impeccable moral behaviour, they also had to pass a rigid training course in the seminary which in the case of the BMS comprised four and a half years and included not only Biblical and related liturgical studies but also mission and Church history, world history, geography, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Dutch and English in addition to practical subjects such as gardening, music, carpentry and medical training. On arrival in South Africa they would have to spend further time acquiring an indige nous language and studying local customs before they were ordained (Cf. Kratzenstein 1878:6). Apart from normal administrative and spiritual duties, they also had to keep diaries and submit regular and detailed reports of their activities. It is understandable, therefore, that where they established themselves in mission settlements, they replicated the structures that had formed and determined them.

      This can be clearly seen in the station regulations that Alexander Merensky drew up for his station Botshabelo and which were subsequently used as a model for most Berlin Mission stations in South and East Africa. These "Laws for the inhabitants of Botshabelo" (see Merensky 1899:411f) give clear evidence of the hierarchical and patriarchal order of the station. The instances of authority are given in descending order: The station is placed, firstly, under the protection of God whose word shall reign; secondly, the "great teachers beyond the sea" are to be regarded as masters of the property; the missionaries, in the third place, are their representatives and "pastors of this congregation". Therefore no one may build, till the land or cut wood without their permission. The inhabitants are supervised by the fourth instance of authority, the elders, who also dispense justice: "The common people do not govern, they shall hear and obey for God's sake, for the elders must be honoured" (:411). Transgressions that are singled out for severe punishment include theft, "fornication (and) resistance against the elders."

      There can be little doubt that the patriarchal, and not infrequently patronising, attitude of German missionaries met with a generally positive response from blacks on the mission stations. And if the close relationship between Rev. Penzhorn and Naboth Mokgatle or the interest Rev. Ernst Westphal and his wife took in Sol Plaatje (cf. Willan 1984:1-27) are anything to go by, then some black South Africans benefitted from it greatly. But the bonds were often too close and the demands too high and while the Germans were proud of their disciplined con trol, their flock frequently were of a different opinion, especially when they had the opportunity of comparing their situation with others. In his reminiscences, Merensky describes how inhabitanbts of Botshabelo came into contact with other Christians when they went to the diamond mines in Kimberley in the 1870s:

      Even if our Basotho, especially the more serious ones among them, criticised the poor knowledge which the coloured Christians from the Cape Colony had of the Word of God and had nothing good to say of their Christian conduct, the tales of those more experienced people about what their missionaries expected of them and about the laws on stations in the Cape Colony, interested them greatly. Unfortunately discipline in English congregations is not good and civil discipline [bürgerliche Zucht] on English mission stations is even worse. It was understandable that people from there would condemn the strict discipline that exists in Botshabelo and also that they had much to say against the unpaid work for the church and school [in Botshabelo] as well as against our monthly labour day. [These influences had the effect] that the unconditional trust in us which we had thus far commanded undisputedly started crumbling with some of our people (Merensky 1899:292f).


      German Protestant missions shared a number of fundamental characteristics with other missions operating in South Africa. These concern particularly the historical origins of the mision movement in eighteenth century Europe, the social and economic background of most missionaries and a theology based on individual efforts at attaining grace as well as notions of sin, salvation and redemption, all of which was infused with an ethic of hard work, cleanliness and self-discipline.

      In another sense, however, they were the odd ones out in the mision field. They always regarded themselves as guests in the country and in both World Wars they suffered immensely, not only because many of their representatives were interned in camps but also because they were cut off from their metropolitan leadership. For years during and after both wars neither new workers nor sufficient funds were available for the societies in South Africa.

      Yet while their Lutheran heritage and their perceived guest status made political neutrality an obvious route for them, in times of conflict or when decisions were required, they consistently chose to side with the white powers that be, often against the interests and aspirations of their black congregants. Their insistence on a strict other-worldliness caused them to be politically naive and mostly blind to the consequences of their actions.

      This can be seen clearly from the prognostic conclusions by Martin Wilde, director of the BMS, in his book on his visit to South Africa shortly before the First World War, when the mission was approaching the end of its golden era and had to face the twin challenges of urbanisation and a recently unified country in which white power was entrenching itself to the exclusion of black South Africans:

      In the interest of its own work it [the mission] has to take the spiritual and cultural state of the coloured people consistently into account and to consider the differences that exist in reality between Black and White. It therefore addresses the race question as well but can do so with the greatest objectivity and impartiality, since it concerns questions of Christian education, which is in the interests of the Blacks themselves. All its practical measures are taken from this viewpoint. For the sake of his faith the Black man must obey the existing authority, for the sake of his Christian character he should humbly keep to the boundaries imposed on him by the existing differences in education and training. For the sake of his Christianity he should work in such a way that even under the changed conditions he can eat his own bread and show himself to be a useful member in the total population. It is the mission's task to educate Black people to a Christian personality and – with that it serves colonisation. The more carefully it observes its purely religious character and does not allow itself to be swayed in either path or destination, the more effectively does it serve the spiritual welfare of Black people and the deepest interests of colonisation (Wilde 1913:283).


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      DELIUS, Peter. 1984. The Conversion. Death Cell Conversations of "Rooizak" and the Missionaries, Lydenburg 1875. Johannesburg: Ravan.

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      1 Assoc. Prof. Gunther Pakendorf teaches in the Department of German, University of Cape Town, Private Bag, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa.

      2 The financial assistance of the Centre for Science Development towards this research is hereby acknowledged. Opinions expressed in this paper and conclusions arrived at are those of the author and are not necessarily to be attributed to the Centre for Science Development.

      3 The Comaroffs (1991:54-85) give a detailed discussion of this aspect with regard to British missions.

      4 For a detailed discussion of this aspect, particularly with regard to Namibia, see De Vries (1978).

      5 All translations fron the German are my own, except where otherwise stated.

      6 Cf. Peter Delius' statement in this regard: "The experience of these missionaries 'of the Berlin Mission Society' in the Transvaal also led them to perceive the political independence of African communities as a fundamental barrier to evangelization and 'civilization.' They increasingly insisted that all converts should recognize the authority, and observe the laws, of the Z.A.R." (Delius 1984:14).

      7 See also Hildegarde Fast's remark with regard to the Eastern Cape in this respect: "Xhosa huts were circular and therefore could not be divided; European homes by contrast had rooms which emphasized the privacy and individualism of their occupants. Cottages also ensured the permanent settlement of the station residents instead of their 'partially wandering life' which Xhosa huts made possible" (Fast 1991:143). In a related vein, Isabel Hofmeyr (1991:78-101) looks at the courtyard among Northern Transvaal Sotho people: the "traditional, cluster-style settlements" in which the kgoro (courtyard), "the focus of a circular arrangements (sic) of dwellings, could find no exact equivalent in the rectangular world of the betterment settlements, and its demise held out a series of consequences for oral storytelling" (1991:80).

      8 Thus, according to Jooste (1996:133), of the 211 schools run by the BMS in 1911, only 2 provided secondary education; the figures for 1934 were 18 out of 383.

      9 The last sentence is not contained in Bourquin's translation; I have translated it from the original (Posselt 1888:102).

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