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  • The Equality of Believers: Protestant missionaries and the racial politics of South Africa by Richard Elphick
  • Joel Cabrita
RICHARD ELPHICK, The Equality of Believers: Protestant missionaries and the racial politics of South Africa. Charlottesville VA: University of Virginia Press (hb $40 – 978 0 8139 3273 6). 2012, 437 pp.

Richard Elphick’s history of Protestant missionaries in South Africa is an important contribution to both missionary history and South African scholarship. Elphick provides a rich intellectual history of the theological underpinnings of Protestant, white-led churches in South Africa from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, supplying for the first time a coherent story that encompasses not only the more frequently studied nineteenth century but also the less well-documented twentieth century. Elphick includes both English- and Afrikaans-speaking churches in his study, as well as European, American and local white organizations, a welcome comparative move.

While most studies of racial thought in South Africa have emphasized theories that promote the innate inequality of the races (focusing largely on the mid-twentieth-century teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church), Elphick argues for the saliency of Christian ideas that espoused the opposite viewpoint. He suggests that Protestant missionaries’ advocacy of the equality of humans, regardless of physical or social distinction, has been obscured by conventional scholarly emphasis on the more derogatory theologically derived racial ideas that achieved prominence in twentieth-century South Africa, largely with the complicity of the Dutch Reformed Church.

In this regard, Elphick’s book is a significant contribution to a more nuanced understanding of the diversity of religious ideologies that shaped racial thought in South Africa in the modern period. The book also stands amidst a more recent revisionary historical literature on the origins and history of apartheid that challenges the depiction of apartheid as a monolithic and intellectually coherent strategy. Instead, as Elphick’s study demonstrates, apartheid theoreticians – religious or otherwise – operated with an internally contradictory and highly heterogeneous group of ideas.

The Equality of Believers is divided into three parts. Part one discusses the arrival of non-conformist Protestant missionaries to the Cape in the late eighteenth century, focusing on their promulgation of an evangelically informed [End Page 341] egalitarianism: gelykstelling (equalization) of the races, according to their belief that all humans were created equal before God. Elphick shows how both European missionaries and African Christians found good cause to embrace this message. Africans, in particular, discerned in this teaching the potential for emancipatory forms of claims-making. Yet white espousal of racial egalitarianism was ambivalent and partial at best. For example, missionaries offered little challenge to colonial rule itself, merely seeking to defend blacks from its worst excesses. Political egalitarianism, in other words, was not the result of racial equalization.

The book’s second part explores the twin themes of the twentieth-century Benevolent Empire and its theological counterpart, the Social Gospel. Missionary proponents of the Benevolent Empire viewed the provision of churches, schools and hospitals to Africans as an integral part of their Christian duty, as well as key to their efforts to position themselves as mediating figures between the white administration and black subjects. Through doing so, missionaries unwittingly prepared the ground for a later generation of black political activists and nationalists, almost all of whom were products of the missionary schooling system. At the time, however, the tone and ethos of this Christian Benevolent Empire was one of ‘mediation, moderation and peaceable progress’, a vision whereby black Christians would, over time and with correct tutelage from missionary patrons, attain comparable levels of civilization to their white brethren.

The doctrine of the Social Gospel provided the theological rationale for this Benevolent Empire. Elphick outlines how this theology was broadly characterized by the desire to direct and encourage Africans’ moral improvement. Crucially, however, the Social Gospel did not translate into a radical advocacy of total equality between whites and blacks in the present day, but rather espoused a more gradualist belief–advocated by both whites and certain elite blacks–in progress and moderate advancement. However, this was the same period that witnessed the growing attack on these ideas by theological and political enemies, primarily Afrikaans-speaking ministers and theologians within...


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