Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social,
and Cultural History. Richard Elphick and Rodney Davenport, eds. Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1997, 480pp. Cloth $50, Paper $25.©
This impressive book has much to recommend
it. A collection of papers drawn from a conference held in South Africa
in 1992, the book gives empirical information on the history of different
churches and the history of Christianity in various communities in South
Africa. More importantly, the book jolts the standard narrative of South
African twentieth century history which has tended to be conceptualized
as a story of the rise of racial capitalism, as a story of the triumph
of Afrikaner ethnicity, or as a story of the mobilization of black nationalism
and the radicalization of black South Africans. In accordance with the
editors' claim in their introduction, some chapters convincingly make
the case that in order to fully grapple with politics (perhaps especially
in twentieth century South Africa) one has to appreciate the important
role Christianity played in the lives and beliefs of politicians and
their followers, both black and white.
The book is divided into five sections: The Transplanting of Christianity;
The Churches of Modern South Africa; Christianity in South African Subcultures;
Christianity and the Creative Arts; and Christianity, Power and Race.
Since this is an edited collection, various sources are used including
architecture, musical scores, indigenous poetry and oral tradition,
as well as primary and secondary missionary and other written archival
sources. The first section recounts the establishment of Christianity
from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century in what became South
Africa. Chapters deal with the rise of Xhosa prophets, Christianity
among the Tswana and Sotho, the Zulu and Swazi, as well as the spread
of Christianity in Transorangia.
Jonathan N. Gerstner's chapter offers insights into the ways in which
the theological underpinning of reformed Christianity helped foster
white ethnicity. He argues that the Dutch Reformed Church drew on a
belief in "internal holiness" which conceptualized all children
of believers, that is Europeans, as being redeemed but which viewed
indigenous inhabitants as unredeemed, indeed possibly beyond redemption.
The chapter by Elizabeth Elbourne and Robert Ross examines different
strands of missionary activity in South Africa. The authors demonstrate
the success of the mission enterprise to the descendants of slaves and
Khoi in the Cape, but point to the failure or inability of the missionaries
to offer more than spiritual incorporation. Irving Hexham and Karla
Poewe's discussion of Transorangia interestingly discusses the similarities
between Boer folk religion and some indigenous African religious concepts.
This consideration of the influence of indigenous religion on Christian
communities, rather than only the imposition of Christianity on African
communities distinguishes this chapter from others in the book and points
to very fruitful areas of further enquiry.
Part Two discusses different churches and theological tendencies in
twentieth century South Africa. Its chapters cover the Afrikaans churches
and apartheid, English-speaking churches and their imperial cultural
heritage, Lutheran activity, the Roman Catholic Church, the African
Initiated Churches and, finally, the Pentecostal churches. All provide
solid and useful empirical information on the specific church under
review, but Johann Kinghorn's excellent chapter does more. It most fully
realizes the aims of the editors to demonstrate the intersection of
Christianity and wider political culture in South Africa. Kinghorn argues
and demonstrates through consideration of various Dutch Reformed Church
(DRC) texts that the DRC adopted a "racially defined nationalism"
which helped unify different "currents of thought: nationalism,
the neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper, and racism" (p144; p142).
Part Three draws the reader into fascinating discussions of Christianity
in mining communities, Indian communities, women's Christian organizations,
and of relations between Jews and Christians. Robert Shell discusses
slaves and freed peoples' relationship to Islam and Christianity in
the Cape Colony during slavery and under emancipation. Shell's sensitive
study draws careful distinctions between the experiences of slaves and
free in town and countryside and argues that while Islam was a prime
site of resistance to slavery, it declined in importance as emigration
and Christian prosletyzing successfully made South Africa a Christian
In a chapter on white and black women's Christian organizations, Deborah
Gaitskell demonstrates that even within patriarchal religious organizations,
women could forge organizations which gave them much autonomy. Tshido
Maloka's chapter, which starts Part Three, illuminates both the cultural
worlds of the mines and the reasons why miners responded ambivalently
to missionaries: on the one hand some miners resented missionaries'
attempts to ban liquor and dancing; on the other, learning to read at
a missionary literacy class promised a better job and greater security
on the mines.
Part Four is short, only three chapters. Jeff Opland discusses the potency
of Christian symbols within poetry in South Africa. While Opland might
over stress the "unfettered" quality of African oral speech,
the chapter introduced this reader to poems and literature I intend
to introduce into my African history courses.
In Part Five the stated aim of the book to show the centrality of Christianity
to a study of South African history and politics is most fully realized.
Wallace Mills asserts that postmillennial thinking--the optimistic belief
that the world is progressing and getting closer to God--significantly
influenced the non-racial and liberal trends within African nationalism,
at least until the shock of Sharpeville.
In what is probably the best chapter in the book, Richard Elphick argues
along similar lines, that belief in the ideology of the Social Gospel--the
belief that elites should actively work for social justice in the service
of eventual equality between people--powerfully shaped African nationalism
and white liberal politics for much of this century. Elphick demonstrates
that the ideas of Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute, which
asserted black people's power to organize and educate themselves as
well as the importance of cooperation between the educated black elite
and liberal whites, influenced both the African National Congress and
white liberals, although the power of the Social Gospel had waned by
the 1970s. Elphick argues, convincingly, that the philosophy of the
Social Gospel " did inspire a dissenting tradition of faith in
human equality ... that, once purged of its paternalism, inspired powerful
strands of resistance in the era of apartheid" [p369].
Elphick and Davenport should be proud of their achievement. They have
produced nothing less than a standard reference book on Christianity
in South Africa as well as an excellent academic discussion of the significance
of Christianity to South African history. Certainly there are other
ways such a book might have been organized. This reviewer found the
organization of some of the chapters around seemingly unproblematic
or ahistoric ethnic categories of Indian/English-speaking whites etc.
a little too simplistic. Chapters which analyzed how Christianity helped
produce certain ethnic identifications and communities, or could borrow
from indigenous religious concepts pave a way forward. But this is a
very good book, well suited to both a popular audience interested in
religious life and history as well as students and scholars of African
and South African history.
Department of History