Congregationalism in Africa by Dave Wanless

Congregationalism in Africa by Dave Wanless

Posted 5 Nov 2009 - 10:42 by admin

United Congregational Church of Southern Africa website:

The United Congregational Church of Southern Africa traces it's beginnings in Africa to the arrival, on 31st March 1799, of four missionaries sent to the then British Cape Colony by the London Missionary Society. From the vision and mission of that small beginning 200 years ago, uncounted thousands have served the cause of God's kingdom in five countries of southern Africa: Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

A second missionary initiative to which the UCCSA traces its roots is the arrival of personnel sent by the Foreign Missions Board of the American Congregational Church to the Natal Colony in the 1830's. A third tradition incorporated into the UCCSA (when it was formed in1967), was the Congregational Union of South Africa, whose membership was comprised mainly of churches established along the lines of British Congregationalism by white settlers.

The work of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) entered the union in 1972. Today, the church estimates its total membership of adults and children at over 400 000, grouped in over 350 local churches, many of which have widely scattered 'outstations' in the rural areas.

In common with Congregational churches around the world, the UCCSA believes that the initial biblical model of the church was of an autonomous gathering, in one particular place, of those who had confessed the faith that 'Jesus is Lord'. They governed their life together according to the teaching of the first apostles revealed through the Holy Spirit.

Today, while each church reserves the right to govern itself according to those teachings in each local setting, we acknowledge that we are inter-dependant on all other churches in the denomination, and that, by pooling our resources, we can do more together than we can separately. Congregationalism has always been based on the biblical principle of covenant, in which individuals and groups of God's people respond to God's revelation. They bind themselves to one another and the Lord, to "walk together according to God's ways, made known or to be made known, the Holy Spirit so helping us".

Although Congregational churches embrace a wide variety of theological positions in the varying historical and cultural contexts in which they have taken root, they trace their common understanding to the Reformation teachings of John Calvin. They also stand in the radical Anabaptist traditions that developed in England and Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Religious toleration is dear to the hearts of Congregationalists. To escape the intolerance of the English authorities, 'separatists' (as they were then known), rejected the establishment of the church in England, and what they saw as an incomplete reformation. Congregationalists were thus among the "Pilgrims" on board the Mayflower, which sailed for the new world of the American colonies in 1620.

Missionary zeal, rather than an escape from intolerance was what brought Dr Theodorus van der Kemp and his colleagues to Cape Town in 1799. The first permanent missionary station they established was on the eastern frontier at Bethelsdorp. Today the congregation continues the work of witness and mission in the present-day city of Port Elizabeth.

Missionaries sent to southern Africa have played an important part in the development of both religious and civil life in southern Africa. Among the most prominent LMS personnel was Dr John Philip, the Society's first Superintendent in South Africa. While his wife undertook the then unpopular task of organising a school for the children of the slaves and indigenous people of the colony, Philip oversaw a rapid expansion of mission work. The settler farmers initially saw him as a champion of their cause against the colonial administration, but turned against him because of his efforts to promote the adoption of Ordinance 50, which safeguarded the rights of the Khoi and San farm labourers and herders.

Educational work was an important part of the missionary task. Among the most notable institutions in the LMS work was Tiger Kloof College in the Northern Cape where, among many eminent leaders, the first two presidents of independent Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama and Sir Quetumile Masire, were educated. Inanda Seminary and Adams College arose out of the work of the American Board.

During the nineteenth century, there were many others who left a permanent mark on the life of the peoples to whom they brought the gospel. Robert Moffat of Kuruman set down the rules of the Setswana grammar, and printed the first Bible in Africa south of the Sahara in that language. The missionary explorer Dr David Livingstone joined Moffat and they extended the work northwards among the Batswana and Ndebele peoples.

From 1820 onwards, groups of English, Scottish and Welsh Congregationalists settled in the colonies and established fellowships which reflected the church life of their congregations 'back home'. For long periods, the 'settler' and 'mission' churches had little contact, although clergy often served both groups.

In 1835, the first American Board missionaries arrived to work among the Zulu people in Natal. Daniel Lindley was among the first to establish mission work around what is now the city of Durban. He did not, however, limit himself to work among the black population. He became concerned at the increasing conflict between the native population and the 'Boers' (descendants of the original Dutch settlers) who had trekked to the interior to escape British rule. For a time, he ministered to the Voortrekkers, in the hope that, by converting them from their harsh and somewhat primitive Calvinism, the tasks of mission among the colony's black inhabitants would be made easier.

Perhaps the most notable 'child' of the American Board Mission was Chief Albert Luthuli. His grandparents had been converted by one of the early American missionaries, Aldin Grout, and Chief Luthuli was a Life Deacon of the Groutville Congregational Church. He played a prominent role in the work of the South African Christian Council. Luthuli's Christian conviction led him to champion the cause of disenfranchised black South Africans, and he eventually became President of the African National Congress. He was banned by the apartheid government, and stripped of his title of Chief. The world recognised the justice of Luthuli's cause, and in 1962 he became the first South African to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Congregationalists in South Africa were among the trailblazers in other respects. Denominational tradition regarded all distinctions void in Christ, and full equality was accorded to men and women in church life. CUSA was among the first to ordain women from the 1930's onwards. In 1937, Miss Emilie Solomon, a laywoman, was appointed as the Chair of CUSA, the highest office in the denomination.

From the time of its formation in 1967, the UCCSA has been in the forefront of ecumenical endeavour. Ministers and laypeople have played an active role in the Christian Councils of the five southern African countries. The first General Secretary of the denomination, Rev Joe Wing, also served with great commitment and enthusiasm as the Secretary of the South African Church Unity Commission.

Rev Steve Titus, President of the UCCSA from 1997-1999, serves on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. The current General Secretary, Dr Des van der Water is the Chairperson of the Forum Heads of Churches in South Africa.

Rev Ian Booth of the Glenashley Church in Durban serves a two-year term as president of the UCCSA from September 1999.

The UCCSA also has strong ties with the World Council of Churches, national Councils of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Council for World Mission (the successor body to the London missionary Society) and Global Ministries, the joint Mission body of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ in the United States.

While not ignoring or rejecting its historical tradition, the church is currently involved in a search for ways in which to locate the gospel more firmly within the African context. It recognises the need for its life, work and witness to incorporate the spiritual experience and cultural diversity of all its members at the southern tip of the African continent.