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The Equality of Believers

Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa

Richard Elphick

Publication Year: 2012

From the beginning of the nineteenth century through to 1960, Protestant missionaries were the most important intermediaries between South Africa’s ruling white minority and its black majority. The Equality of Believers reconfigures the narrative of race in South Africa by exploring the pivotal role played by these missionaries and their teachings in shaping that nation’s history.

The missionaries articulated a universalist and egalitarian ideology derived from New Testament teachings that rebuked the racial hierarchies endemic to South African society. Yet white settlers, the churches closely tied to them, and even many missionaries evaded or subverted these ideas. In the early years of settlement, the white minority justified its supremacy by equating Christianity with white racial identity. Later, they adopted segregated churches for blacks and whites, followed by segregationist laws blocking blacks’ access to prosperity and citizenship—and, eventually, by the ambitious plan of social engineering that was apartheid.

Providing historical context reaching back to 1652, Elphick concentrates on the era of industrialization, segregation, and the beginnings of apartheid in the first half of the twentieth century. The most ambitious work yet from this renowned historian, Elphick’s book reveals the deep religious roots of racial ideas and initiatives that have so profoundly shaped the history of South Africa.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

I began my research while a fellow at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University. I am deeply indebted to the Rhodes community for generous hospitality, but...

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pp. 1-10

Soon after 1652, when the Dutch East India Company established a foothold in southern Africa, the pious wife of the first Dutch commander, Jan van Riebeeck, took into her home a young girl from a nearby Khoisan community. Krotoa (or “Eva”) learned fluent Dutch, became a translator...


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pp. 11

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1 The Missionaries

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pp. 13-25

Georg Schmidt, the first full-time missionary in South Africa, was a butcher by trade. He had been converted to Christ on a date he could remember exactly—29 October 1727—through the ministry of Johann Böhme, a linen weaver.1 Schmidt had lived at Herrnhut in Germany, the highly...

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2 The Africans

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pp. 26-38

When Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp, the pioneer missionary of the London Missionary Society, entered the church of Graaff-Reinet on 1 June 1801, he faced a volatile congregation. Before him was a mixture of white church members and a “greater number of Heathen of the Hottentot...

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3 The Dutch Settlers

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pp. 39-51

For much of South African history, white settlers sought to confine the egalitarian implications of evangelical missions to the spiritual realm. In the nineteenth century, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), the spiritual home of most Dutch-speaking settlers, pioneered the practice of segregated churches, and, in...

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4 The Political Missionaries

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pp. 52-64

In 1834, some farmers at Cradock in the Karroo expressed their desire to trek from the Cape Colony to a place “where the domination of Doctor Philip is not acknowledged.” Two years later, Piet Retief, a leader of the Great Trek, referred bitterly to the “Philippine hypocrisy,”...

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5 The Missionary Critique of the African

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pp. 65-81

“The time [is] past, if there ever was such a time, when the one and only goal of missionary effort was, in its narrow sense, the conversion of the heathen.” Speaking at the 1909 General Missionary Conference, James Henderson, principal of the Scottish educational institution...

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6 The Revolt of the Black Clergy

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pp. 82-100

In 1904, a rumor, eagerly transmitted by white enemies of missions, spread throughout South Africa and as far north as Rhodesia, that James Stewart, the principal of the Scottish secondary school at Lovedale, regarded his life’s work as a waste and Lovedale as a “splendid...


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pp. 10

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7 The “Native Question” and the Benevolent Empire

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pp. 103-115

While missionaries were debating segregation in the church, South African settlers were asking whether their interests as whites required segregation in the broader society. Africans who were flooding the burgeoning cities offered whites new supplies of cheap labor, and...

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8 A Christian Coalition of Paternal Elites

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pp. 116-131

The Benevolent Empire of missionary endeavor attracted a number of prominent allies who often called themselves, and were called by others, “men of good will” or “friends of the native.” Among these allies were university scholars, secular educators, government bureaucrats...

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9 The Social Gospel

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pp. 132-148

The Social Gospel seeped into South African Christianity almost unnoticed, and, perhaps for this reason, has been all but ignored by historians. In the early decades of the twentieth century, many missionaries in South Africa were expanding their faith into...

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10 High Point of the Christian Alliance

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pp. 149-162

By the 1920s, whites had become alarmed by unrest among urban Africans. Several strikes by blacks had been easily suppressed between 1913 and 1920, but the subsequent emergence of a radical black union leader, Clements Kadalie, and growing militancy...

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11 The Enemies of the Benevolent Empire

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pp. 163-178

In 1904, a Christian youth worker spent a Sunday afternoon in Joubert Park, Johannesburg, recording white men’s views of missions. Of fifty-two interviewees, only two wholeheartedly approved of missions; five were guardedly or partially positive, seven had no opinion,...


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pp. 179

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12 A Special Education for Africans?

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pp. 181-201

When he introduced his Bantu Education Bill to parliament in 1953, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd derided advocates of “equality” in education who created “expectations in the minds of the Bantu which clash with the possibilities in this country.”1 Verwoerd was referring to the English-speaking missionaries, the principal educators...

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13 The Abolition of the Cape Franchise

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pp. 202-221

After a near decade of debate, in the evening of 6 April 1936, a joint session of the two houses of the South African Parliament, abolished, by a vote of 168 to 11, the right to vote of Africans in the Cape Province. It was a right they had enjoyed for eighty-three years. In so amending...

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14 The Evangelical Invention of Apartheid

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pp. 222-237

“Calvinism is a determinist creed which consorts naturally with conceptions of racial superiority and of national separateness.” So wrote Leopold Marquard, a liberal Afrikaner, expressing a view widely held throughout the apartheid era by both supporters and enemies of the South African government.1 But what precisely was the “Calvinism...

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15 Neo-Calvinism

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pp. 238-257

The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) missionaries who did so much to develop apartheid thought were—like many of their English-speaking counterparts— evangelicals. The question then arises: What role, if any, did Calvinist or neo-Calvinist doctrines—distinct from evangelical doctrines and sometimes in tension with them—play in providing...

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16 The Stagnation of the Social Gospel

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pp. 258-278

For two generations, missionaries in South Africa had been engaged, in one degree or another, in carrying out the program of the Social Gospel through social work, conflict mediation, social research, and political advocacy. White “friends of the native,” moderate blacks...

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17 The Abolition of the Mission Schools

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pp. 279-296

In 1938, D. F. Malan, the leader of the opposition, declared that whites faced “even a greater and stronger and burgeoning power” than the rapid growth of the black population. “And that [power] is education. For knowledge is...

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18 A Divided Missionary Impulse and Its Political Heirs

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pp. 297-318

In the wake of its 1948 electoral victory, the Nationalist government imposed apartheid on trains and other facilities in the Cape Peninsula; abolished electoral rights granted to Indians by the Smuts regime; and outlawed all marriages, and later, all sexual relations, between whites and people of color. In 1950, three sweeping acts extended...

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pp. 319-326

The Voortrekker leader M. W. Pretorius charged the English-speaking missionaries with preaching “that the Gospel changes what was decreed by God, that baptism and confession destroys the eternal and thus necessary difference between white and black.” Among mission...


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pp. 327-386


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pp. 387-416


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pp. 417-437

E-ISBN-13: 9780813932798
E-ISBN-10: 0813932793
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813932736
Print-ISBN-10: 0813932734

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 1 map, 1 figure, 3 tables
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Race relations -- Religious aspects -- Protestant churches.
  • Protestant churches -- Missions -- South Africa -- History.
  • South Africa -- Race relations -- History.
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