In 1857 the Dutch Reformed Church debated for the second time, the first being in 1829, as to whether “persons of colour admitted as members of the Church should be served Holy Communion equally with born Christians.”1
Both Desirable and Scriptural:
After much debate the synod declared that while it was both “desirable and scriptural that our members from the Heathen should be taken up and incorporated in our existing congregation, wherever that can be done; but where this rule because of the weakness of some should stand in the way of the advancement of Christ’s cause among the Heathen, the congregations raised up, or to be raised up, from the Heathen shall enjoy their Christian rights in a separate building or institution.” 2
To fully appreciate this decision and the role which evangelicals played we need to know something of the backstory to this debate. For most of the time of the Dutch rule of the Cape (1652-1795) the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) alone, as the official church of the time, was allowed to hold public worship services. This formed not only a spiritual but a cultural boundary between the Dutch speaking settlers (or Afrikaners) and not only the indigenous and slave popular but also the other white immigrants. Most Dutch ministers at this time believed that the Afrikaners, were God’s special and chosen people and that the “heathen” indigenous people’s were beyond the scope of salvation and were predestined for destruction. Even when the British gained control of the Cape from 1806 the DRC remained the spiritual and cultural home of the Dutch settlers. The Church which would during the 20th century give birth to the doctrine of apartheid.
The Evangelical Origins of Apartheid:
However from 1817, in response to a shortage of Dutch clergy to fill the DRC pulpits, the British Governor Somerset imported Scottish evangelical ministers, including the Murray family, to fulfill these Reformed pulpits. These evangelicals ministers believed that all people, whatever their ethnicity or nationality, needed to be converted and come into a personal relationship with Christ. As a result they preached the gospel and called all, both white and black, indigenous and immigrant to repentance and faith. This together with the influence of the missionaries from the evangelical missionary societies such as Johannes van der Kemp and John Philip meant that there was an increase of converts coming from the ranks of former slaves and the indigenous peoples.
Many Dutch speaking Christians feared that this would lead to a gelykstelling, an equalization of the races. Evangelical missionaries and ministers thus faced the problem of how they would integrate these new black converts into the existing church structures. The Dutch settlers opposition to gelykstelling posed a serious threat to the evangelical mission among the indigenous people.
Richard Elphick notes that “Gelykstelling was the evangelical’s problem. Their zeal for missions brought the issue into the bosom of the church, and from their ranks came the principal advocates, and opponents, of neutralizing whites’ wariness of missions by instituting racially separate churches.” 3
It was an evangelical, Andrew Murray, who introduced the resolution proposing separate communion. Evangelicals were not, in their minds, promoting racial prejudice as much as safeguarding the priority of missions among the indigenous people. By assuring the Dutch settlers that missions would not automatically lead to racial integration they safeguarded their evangelistic mission among the indigenous people. They had chosen evangelism as more important than racial equality. The right to evangelism was to be safeguarded at all costs. Even at the cost of the very gospel they sought to preach.
Evangelism at all Costs:
The priority of evangelism was clear. Black people were deemed as important enough to have the gospel preached to them but yet those same people were, in effect, not recognized as being made in the image of God and worthy of full rights and inclusion into the church. Evangelicals effectively developed a theology of saving souls which denied the basic humanity of those deemed lesser humans. Indigenous people were regarded as worthy to have the gospel preached to them but not as people fully made in the image of God.
This decision born out of a pandering to racial supremacy, and an incorrect interpretation of Romans 14-15, led to separate churches, mission churches, entire separate denominations, the doctrine of separate development, and finally to full blow apartheid.
The theology of Apartheid may have been perfected by the DRC but it was born among the English-speaking evangelical missionaries who sought to promote the evangelization of the indigenous people whilst yet leaving white supremacy untouched. “Apartheid was, in fact, an elaboration by DRC mission leaders of the segregationist ideas of English-speakers. It arose from the DRC’s urgent need to square the imperatives of its successful evangelical missions with its aspirations to be a volkskerk protecting white Afrikaners from, among other things, black economic competition and black political domination.” 4
We are still living with these decision today:
We are still living today with the decisions made by the church of 1857. Our communities remain separate and divided to this day. We still bear the scars of spatial apartheid on our city. We are still economically and materially greatly unequal to this day. Our resources, schooling and economic capital reflect vastly different histories. Our churches remain areas of great inequality when it comes to power, resources, conferences and positions of power and influence.
It was our “good evangelical” theology that allowed apartheid and which created the space for evil to flourish, in the name of Christ. How does our good apolitical, colour-blind, a-contextual evangelical theology allow the substantial economic and racial inequality we experience in South African today to continue? How can we call ourselves brothers and sisters when our family is so dysfunctional and unequal? How can we speak of the equality in the gospel when clearly some of us are more equal than others? How can we teach that because of the redeeming, reconciling work of Jesus the dividing walls of hostility are down when quite clearly the roads and railway lines still divide us today?
There is something deeply flawed with our theology when we can preach the gospel of King Jesus. The King who took all the brokenness, the injustice, the sin and hatred upon himself and allowed the full wrath of God for all our complicity, apathy and willful injustice to be poured out on him, yet have little to say to the devastating economic and racial inequality in our country and the systems which uphold and perpetrate it. We have separated what never should have been separated. Evangelism and justice belong inextricably together in the kingdom of God and the mission of his church.
- Elphick, Richard. 2012. The Equality of Believers: Protestant Believers and the Racial Politics of South Africa. p43
- Elphick, p43
- Elphick, p51
- Elphick, p320