The Berlin Missionary Society in South Africa


The Berlin Missionary Society (BMS) was constituted on 29 February 1824: a group of pious laymen founded a "Society for the advancement of protestant missions among the heathens".

This was not the first Missionary Society in Berlin. Pastor Jänicke (the pastor of the Bohemian-Lutheran congregation in Berlin) had been training missionaries since 1800 and had sent them out into the world to work for other missionary societies (e.g. the London and the Basle Missionary Societies).

The BMS started training its first three missionaries in 1829. It was a difficult beginning as the Society did not even have enough funds to pay for a full-time teacher. Help came from the "Province": Missionary societies in Pommerania and East Prussia were willing to support the BMS. Despite the sympathies of the King of Prussia, many of these societies were forbidden to meet, which made continued support difficult.

South Africa

The Berlin Mission started sending missionaries to South Africa in 1833. A number of missionaries with close ties to Berlin had been working here for the London Missionary Society and the Rhenish Mission, and thus South Africa was chosen as the first mission field. The first mission station was founded on the far side of the Orange River and was named Bethanien. It did not get off to a good start, especially as the local population the Korannas drifted off and was only slowly replaced by Betshuanas. The first group of missionaries had fought so badly among themselves that all of them left the society within a few years. Luckily, replacements arrived from Berlin in time to continue the work without a break in continuity.

Next the focus shifted to Kaffraria. Ludwig Döhne started the first BMS station in this troubled area in 1836. Other stations followed, but the continuous wars between the British at the Cape and the Xhosa made all progress very difficult.

It is therefore not surprising that the BMS gladly accepted the invitation by the British authorities to start work in the new colony of Natal. The missionaries Posselt and Güldenpfennig founded the first BMS station in Natal in 1847 and named it Emmaus. With time further stations were started in the colony. It is important for the development of the Hermannsburg Mission that missionary Posselt had agreed to be the pastor of the Germans at New Germany close to Port Natal as this opened their way into South Africa a few years later.

The last area to be tackled by the BMS in South Africa was the North Eastern areas of the "South African Republic". Meresky and Grützner started here in 1860 at their first station called Gerlachshoop. Many further stations followed later and this are became the main focus of the BMS in South Africa.

Follow this link to a list of all Berlin Missionaries and Co-workers sent to South Africa over the years.

Other Mission Fields

The BMS was also engaged in (German) East Africa and in China.

In China the BMS worked in two separate areas. The BMS sent its first two missionaries to China in 1869. But it was not until 1882 that the BMS officially decided to declare Canton as its mission field. They inherited a station of the Rhenish Mission and the BMS took over the responsibilities of the Berlin Missionary Siciety for China. A sceond missionary field in China became available when Germany declared Shantung to be in their sphere of politico-colonial influence in 1896.

The Bethel Mission had established a missionary presence in German East Africa or Tanganyica. In 1903 it invited the BMS to take over a number of its stations. The presence of German missionaries became undesirable after the First World War (when Germany lost all its colonies) and impossible after the Second.

The Berlin Missionary Society from 1945 to today

The Berlin Missionary Society was hit particularly hard by the division of Germany after the Second World War. First it lost its hinterland when the Eastern provinces (Pomerania, East Prussia and Silesia) were given to Poland and the German population was forced to leave. On top of this, the seminary and offices of the BMS are located in the East of Berlin and thereby became part of communist East Germany. The BMS was thereby cut off from its mission.

The BMS established a branch in West Berlin in 1961 which remained in contact with the only remaining missionary field (South Africa) for the next 28 years. Since 1948, the engagement of the BMS in South Africa was dominated by the separationist (Apartheit) policies of the government.

The Berlin Missionary Society is still active today as an integral part of the Evangelical Church Berlin-Brandenburg-silesian Upper Lusatia. With respect to its daughter churches in Africa it sees itself more in a partnership role than a dominating parent.

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