An Overview of South African Church History

An Overview of South African Church History
21 April 2020

A newcomer to the South African Christian scene can be overwhelmed by the confusing array and complex history of thousands of separate and widely different denominations. Yet each one has its own fascinating history, and imbedded in each are thousands of little stories

For convenience we will divide the history of Christianity in South Africa into 3 periods:

  1. The Dutch period: 1652–1800
  2. The British period: 1800–1910
  3. The modern period: 1910–current

 The Dutch Period 1652–c1800

Roman Catholic naval explorers and missionaries from Portugal were the first people professing the Christian faith to make contact with South African soil. But no continuing church issued out of these early contacts. In the year 1652 about ninety employees of the Dutch East India Company landed at the Cape of Good Hope with the purpose of establishing a refreshment station where the Company’s ships could be supplied with fresh food and water on their way to the East. From that time, and from those small beginnings, there has been an unbroken and continually expanding Christian presence in those regions which were to become South Africa.

The Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope (20715082746)

The Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope           

Not that any church growth records were broken in these early years. In the next century and a half, the Dutch Reformed Church (the only church permitted in the Cape) increased from one congregation to seven. In this first 150 years of the Dutch Period, church and society in the Cape were under the jurisdiction of the Dutch authorities. While initial growth was slow, nevertheless important foundations were laid. The faith spread from the Dutch speaking community to a few of the indigenous Khoikhoi people, some of the slaves who had been imported to the Cape, and to most of those of mixed parentage (who were to become the so-called Coloured community). The family of Reformed churches which have their roots in this early period is the largest of the denominational families in South Africa today, numbering some four and a half million souls, divided between four major bodies and a number of smaller ones.

Towards the latter part of this first period, the Moravian and Lutheran churches laid their first foundations, not without some resistance from the Dutch civil and ecclesiastical authorities.

The British Period c1800–1910

The Dutch Period came to an end towards the end of the eighteenth century when the British took control of the Cape during the Napoleonic wars. During the following century the British were to extend their control from the Cape to cover the whole area that is known as South Africa today. Significant immigration throughout this British period resulted in the planting of virtually all the denominations existing in Britain at that time – Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists, together with some smaller bodies.Catholic Church Building in South Africa

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a tremendous upsurge of missionary interest in European and American Protestantism. It is not surprising, then, that during the nineteenth century many missionary societies entered South Africa with the aim of gathering converts from the indigenous African peoples. These included the London Missionary Society, the Moravians, the Wesleyan Missionary Society, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and various Lutheran and Reformed missionary societies. Missionaries from Britain, America, Germany, France, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and other parts of the world all converged on South Africa to build there the walls of Zion as best they could according to their abilities and insights. Catholic missionaries, too, from many lands came to South Africa to extend their church. All took advantage of the fairly liberal policy of the British administration governing such activities.

It was during this period that diamonds in Kimberley and gold in Johannesburg were discovered, stimulating rapid economic growth and large-scale population redistribution. During this period the British colonial authorities fought major wars against the Xhosa peoples in the Eastern Cape, the Zulus in Natal, and the Boers in their northern republics. The triumph of British arms in all these conflicts led to the incorporation of all the above-named territories within the Union of South Africa in 1910, which marks the birth of the modern state of South Africa within its present borders.

As a result of considerable immigration and missionary work during the nineteenth century, the church saw significant growth, both in numbers and the complexity of its make-up.

As a result of considerable immigration and missionary work during the nineteenth century, the church saw significant growth, both in numbers and the complexity of its make-up. In addition to the original Dutch Reformed Church (virtually the sole representative of Christianity for more than a century), there were now also Anglicans, Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, as well as smaller groups such as Quakers and the Salvation Army. Further divisions, resulting in two Anglican churches, three Dutch Reformed churches, several Lutheran churches, etc. complicated the ecclesiastical scene even more. But that was not all. Conflict and tensions between the indigenous African people and the politically and economically dominant white people inevitably affected church relations. The closing decades of the nineteenth century saw groups of African Christians separating from mission-established and controlled churches to form African initiated churches (AICs) wholly controlled by Africans. This small trickle was to become a mighty flood in the twentieth century.

The Modern Period 1910–current

The third and last period in our story consists basically of the twentieth century, moving into the twenty-first Century. In future tellings of this story, this last era has an obvious dividing line, namely the 1994 elections which marked the transition from white minority rule (bringing to a close more than three centuries of white ascendancy) to black majority rule. But this date is so close to the present that it falls under contemporary events rather than history. So we will simply treat the twentieth/twenty-first century as the modern period.

This period has seen the most extraordinary growth and diversification of the church in all its history. Four significant factors can be singled out as having had a profound impact on the development of modern South African Christianity:

  1. The Pentecostal movement and the ongoing Charismatic movements following it
  2. The rapid growth of the African instituted churches
  3. The ecumenical movement, touching most of the mainline churches
  4. The growing struggle for equal social and political rights for all people
  5. The transition from white to majority-black rule

The political struggle of the majority of black people to obtain full political, economic and human rights in their own country profoundly affected all the churches, in different ways, and finally triumphed in the victory of the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela in the 1994 elections. Of the present 50 million inhabitants of South Africa, about 70 per cent profess adherence to the Christian faith and would claim some sort of connection, however tenuous, to particular churches which would be numbered among one of the most complex arrays of churches to be found anywhere in the world. In addition to the traditional mainline churches, which still represent a very significant proportion of South African Christianity, there is a whole new generation of churches, movements, fellowships, and groupings that had no existence prior to the twentieth century. These would include:

  1. The classical Pentecostal churches (e.g. Apostolic Faith Mission, Full Gospel Church, Assemblies of God, Pentecostal Protestant Church) which grew out of the Pentecostal movement at the beginning of the century.
  2. Thousands of African instituted churches, each separately organized but bearing certain family characteristics and often with impressive sounding names (e.g. The Zion Christian Church, The Christian Catholic Apostolic African Church in Zion of South Africa, The Ethiopian African Church of Zion in South Africa).
  3. New Charismatic groupings (e.g. International Fellowship of Christian Churches, Vineyard, His People, New Covenant Fellowship, Christian Ministries Network) which have emerged out of charismatic renewal movements in more recent decades.

A newcomer to the South African Christian scene can be overwhelmed by the confusing array and complex history of thousands of separate and widely different denominations. Yet each one has its own fascinating history, and imbedded in each are thousands of little stories – wonderful, sad, heart-warming, tragic, inspiring tales of men and women who have laboured, with sacrifice and devotion, to the best of their insights and abilities, to build the walls of Jerusalem in South Africa.

The development of Christianity in South Africa has not only been characterized by growing complexity, but also by changing complexion. Only in the nineteenth century did black people begin to enrol in the churches in significant numbers. In the twentieth century the number of black Christians surpassed that of white Christians, and today the church, as a whole, is predominantly black.

By Kevin Roy

About the Author:

The Story of the Church in South Africa

Kevin Roy taught church history in South Africa for over twenty-five years and earned his DTh from the University of South Africa. He has pastored and founded several churches and his major passions include church history, the body of christ, walking and music. Buy his book, The Story of the Church in South Africa, from Langham Publishing today.