The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa

By Hofmeyr, J. W. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2013 | Go to article overview

The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa


Hofmeyr, J. W., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa. By Richard Elphick. Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2012. Pp. x, 416. $40.

Richard Elphick's Equality of Believers stands in the line of major and important publications on the ever complex - and challenging - South African society, with its fascinating ecclesiastical, missionary, and secular history, especially during the twentieth century. Amajor predecessor of this book is Johannes du Plessis's History of Christian Missions in South Africa (1911), which covers the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and paved the way for a new and more ecumenical approach to South African historiography. According to Elphick, since 1911 there has been no grand synthesis like that of du Plessis; in fact, few studies have ventured far beyond 1900. No broad interpretive history of twentieth-century missions in South Africa has actually been attempted.

This volume offers such a history, both broad and interpretive, without being a general history of the missionary movement or of South African Christianity as a whole. Rather, it is the history of an idea - the equality of believers - and an investigation of how,despite the failure and shortcomings of its proponents, this idea profoundly shaped the history of South Africa, both negatively and positively. Elphick gives most attention to the four missionary enterprises that wielded the strongest influence on black-white politics and that dominated missionary discourse on race in the twentieth century: the Dutch Reformed, the Anglican, the Scots mission, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. This book encompasses blacks and whites, as well as Afrikaans and English speakers, in a single narrative - a unique accomplishment.

Elphick treats his topic in three sections. Part 1, "The Missionaries, Their Converts, and Their Enemies," includes six chapters addressing (1) the missionaries: from egalitarianism o paternalism; (2) the Africans: embracing the gospel of equality; (3) the Dutch settlers: confining the gospel of equality; (4) the political missionaries: "our religion must embody itself in action"; (5) the missionary critique of the African: regarding witchcraft, marriage, and sexuality; and (6) the revolt of the black clergy: "we can't be brothers."

Part 2, "The Benevolent Empire and the Social Gospel," considers five topics: (1) the Native question and the "benevolent empire"; (2) a Christian coalition of "paternal elites"; (3) the social gospel: the ideology of the benevolent empire; (4) the high point of the Christian Alliance: a South African Locarno; and (5) the enemies of the benevolent empire: gelykstelling (equalization) condemned.

Part 3, "The Parting of the Ways," includes seven chapters: (1) a "special" education for Africans; (2) the abolition of the Cape Franchise: a "door of citizenship" closed; (3) the evangelical invention of apartheid; (4) neo-Calvinism: a worldview for a missionary volk (nation); (5) the stagnation of the social gospel; (6) the abolition of the mission schools: a second "door of citizenship" closed; and (7) a divided missionary impulse and its political heirs. Throughout the book, Elphick develops three central claims. First, the struggle over racial equalization is pivotal to South African history; second, this concept is rooted in the missionaries' proclamation of God's love to all people; third, the ideal of equality was to a large extent nurtured by missionary institutions. …

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