The Rhenish Mission in South Africa and Namibia

Please Note: This is not the official website of the Rhenish Mission nor of its successor, the Vereinigte Evangelische Mission (the United Protestant Mission) in Wuppertal, Germany. The author in no way represents either of these organisations.

The Beginnings of the Rhenish Mission

The first small Mission Society was founded in Elberfeld on the second day of Pentecost in 1799. It was an ecumenical society right from its very beginnings - pastors and laymen from both the Reformed and Lutheran churches cooperated within the society. There were also close connections to Britisch and Dutch Missionary Societies. Donations were actively collected and potential missionaries were recruited for the Berlin seminary run by Pastor Jänicke.

In those days, the towns of Barmen and Elberfeld lay on opposite sides of the Wupper river (today they have been combined in the city of Wuppertal). In Barmen a Missionary Society started on 8. September 1818 that had close connections to the Basle Mission. This group in Barmen was led by the preacher Wilhelm Leipoldt. Initially the Barmen group sent its applicant missionaries to Basle after they had completed a preparatory course in Barmen. But from 1825 onward, the preparatory program was extended to a fully fledged seminary because the Basle Mission was no longer able to deal with the flood of applicants from Barmen.

In 1828 the first few candidates of the Barmen seminary were due to complete their courses and the Society needed to decide where to send its missionaries and also how it would finance the missionary activity. On 23 September 1828 the missionary groups from Elberfeld, Barmen and Cologne (Köln) decided to amalgamate to form the Rhenish Mission Society. In later years, this was to become the largest Mission Society in the whole of Germany.

South Africa and Namibia

The first missionaries were ordained and sent off to South Africa toward the end of 1828. Close contacts had been established with the London Missionary Society in the past, mainly via Pastor Jänicke in Berlin. This society had been active in Southern Africa for a long time and was prepared to help with the start of the activity of the Rhenish Mission. Other factors that favoured a start at the Cape were the Dutch language and the Protestant administration. Initially the Rhenish missionaries assisted on the stations of the LMS, but very soon they began to establish their own stations. The very first was a mission station located in the Cedarberg which was established in 1829. It was given the name Wuppertal. With that it predates the naming of the German city of the same name by nearly 100 years.

The area of activity very soon expanded northward beyond the borders of the Cape colony. This area was arid and only very sparsely populated and had, until then, escaped colonisation efforts by the colonial powers of the day. But the - often negative - effect of European settlement at the Cape was being felt ever more strongly even in this remote area. The local tribes such as the Herero and the Damara were challenged for control of the land by bands of Nama and people of mixed race (the 'basters') and many wars and skirmishes ensued between the groups. The missionaries often tried to broker peace agreements between the various parties and as a result they were often seen as a political asset by the local tribes. Despite this, the beginnings were very difficult because of the inhospitable climate and the vast distances to be covered. Despite these potential problems, the Rhenish missionaries persevered and were able to win many local people for Christ.

Here is a link to an incomplete list of Rhenish Missionaries and assistants who have participated in the work of the Rhenish Mission in South Africa and Namibia. And here you can read a transscript of the original letters sent home by the missionary Johann Gerdener from Hollich (in German only).

The Rhenish Mission was one of the main contributors to starting the debate in Germany around establishing a German colonial empire. And it is therefore not surprising that the 'unclaimed' area north of the Cape Colony became one of the first colonies of the newly established German empire. The colony of 'German South West Africa' was put under German 'protective administration' in 1880. The Germans had not had much experience with colonies up to this point and often did not do too well in their attempts to rule their new colonies. The Herero War (1904-1907) one of the darkest moments of German colonial history occurred in German South West. While some missionaries attempted to assist the local inhabitants in these difficult times, others acted far more strongly in favour of the colonial interests.

Other Areas

Outside of Southern Africa, the Rhenish Mission also focussed its missionary activity on other areas around the globe. Most importantly, attention was focussed on various islands that today are part of Indonesia: Borneo, Sumatra, Nias, Mentawei and Enggano. Other than that, missionary activity was established in China (in and around Hong Kong) and also in Papua Neu Guinea. Initial attempts were also made to reach the indigineous people in North America, but many missionaries - especially if they could not be sent out to other areas - ended up becoming pastors for German immigrant congregations in the USA instead.

The Rhenish Mission in the 20th Century and beyond

The 20th Century saw the Rhenish Mission refocussing its work out of South Africa. The Rhenish missionary congregations were mostly integrated into the Dutch Reformed Church. Only Wuppertal was an exception and joined the Moravian Church. In contrast to this development, the work in Namibia continued throughout the 20th Century, despite the loss of the territory as a German colony after WWI. Two of the three large Lutheran churches in Nambia, i.e. ELKiN (DELK) and ELKRiN, trace their roots back to the Rhenish Mission.

The two World Wars and also the difficult period between the wars, brought many challenges and losses for the Rhenish Mission. During the Third Reich the Rhenish Mission distanced itself from the Nazi-fied 'German Christian' movement and together with the other missionary societies refused integration into the newly crated Protestant German State church. Instead, it associated itself with the 'Bekennende Kirche'. This meant that the period leading up to WW2 was already very challenging for the Rhenish Mission. But the war years and the total collapse after the war hindered the work to a much larger degree.

In 1971 the Rhenish Mission and the Bethel Mission joined forces to become the Vereinigten Evangelischen Mission (United Protestant Mission). The whole approach to missionisation changed radically in the period after the war, as the missions struggled to make sense of their role in history. The 'Vereinigte Evangelische Mission' therefore emphasises its partnerships with the independent churches that grew out its missionary work nowadays. Exchange and discussion between the various churches around the world are encouraged.

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