The Rhenish Church Family meeting in South Africa

27 – 28 October 2015

In conversation with our heritage

Respice et Prospice

The history of the Rhenish Church in South Africa can be confirmed as a neglected field of enquiry. The history of dispossession (land and church) and the emotional, theological and identity scares of the people has not been adequately dealt with by the Rhenish Mission Society, the Dutch Reformed Church,  Dutch Reformed Mission Church (now known as the Uniting Reformed Church) or the present Rhenish Church in South Africa. 

The reflective accounts of the history of the Rhenish mission work stretching from Elsies River in the South to the Orange River and beyond, primarily came from the missionaries as is reflected in the missionary reports and annual reviews. Most of these reports and reviews of mission activities and the minutes of meetings regarding the future of the mission work and the negotiations with the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) with regard to taking over of Rhenish congregations was written in German ( for example the letter of 5 January 1932).  The impact and influence of missionaries and the mission work seem to give a perspective that describes the missionaries as heroes who brought the Gospel to the pagan Africans. The view that these German missionaries could have been guilty of paternalism and aggressive attempts of cultural conversion of these Africans seems absent in these reports. A question of interest could be asked about the influence the missionaries had on the formation of the coloured identity, as a category of Blacks. 

Church history will however support the view and the reports of the missionaries can confirm that the mission work done by the RMS surely contributed to lasting spiritual, moral, intellectual and social upliftment of many communities, families and individuals. Based on the lack of adequate authoritative written material, there is need for the reporting and writing of the history of the Rhenish Church in S.A as a “history from below” reflecting the experiences of the indigenous people by the people themselves. 

Arrival of the Missionaries 

According to Strassberger (1969:89), the mission work done by the Rhenish Mission Society was directly motivated by the commission Christ gave his disciples in Matthew 28:19, 20. After much consultation and prayer, four missionaries were ordained on 30 June 1829 and commissioned to start with mission work in South Africa. This commissioning was done by the Mission Board in Barmen, Germany. 

The Rhenish Mission Society ( RMS) introduced a system for training of missionaries that involved a two-year preparatory course and  four  year of actual seminary training (Apelt 2008:65,66). Mission students had to learn a profession or trade before enrolling at the mission school (Apelt 2008:65, 66).  Bilbe (2009:73) observed that seminary training included three days a week of theory and two days of artisan training. Bilbe (2009:73) furthermore observed that many of the first recruits to the mission school came from the artisan class.

At 14h00 on 7 October 1829 the ship, Charles Kerr dropped anchor in Table Bay. Included in the passengers was the first four Rhenish Missionaries. They were received by Dr. John Philip, the resident Director of the London Mission Society (LMS) in Cape Town. The Dutch language of the colonists as well as the fact that the government of the Colony was protestant and a recognised protestant foreign missionary society was favourable for the Rhenish Mission Society. These first four missionaries were Johann Gottlieb Leipoldt, Gustav Adolf Zahn, Paul Daniel Lückhoff, Theobald Baron Von Wurm and his wife Johanna (Strassberger 1969:9). It was amongst the non-white racial group, the coloureds that the Rhenish mission started to work (Strassberger 1969:20, 91). 

The Rhenish Church in South Africa celebrates this day, 7 October, as the beginning of the church and the day of formation of the Rhenish identity and tradition in South Africa. We have been celebrating 186 years of Rhenish heritage in the month of October and will conclude our celebrations with this conference (27 – 28 October 2015) and a gala dinner on 29 October 2015. 

Presently the Rhenish Church in South Africa consists of 9 congregations in the Cape Peninsula and 1 congregation in the Clanwilliam district, some 300 kilometres from Cape Town. The 10 congregations are served by 8 ordained ministers and the congregation in the Clanwilliam district is presently cared for by a theological student under the supervision of one of the ministers. All 10 congregations is situated in of the pre-apartheid era classified coloured communities.  

Apart from converting inhabitants to the Christian faith the aims of the Rhenish Mission Society (R.M.S.) was to improve the financial, educational, social and economic situation of the people as the extension of the Kingdom of God (Strassberger 1969:89). 

Economic Development

In South Africa, the imparting of artisan skills by the Rhenish Missionaries was seen as possibly one of the greatest contributions to the economic development of the Khoisan in the Cape Colony.  At one of the mission station, Wupperthal, Leipoldt used the Moravian model of fostering industry and enterprise in order to transform the community of ex-slave households in particular by capitalising on the opportunities of economic development that was afforded to inhabitants after 1840 (Bilbe 2009:105 and Strassberger 1969:12). The Rhenish church on the Wupperthal mission station provided the people with houses, got the community to learn useful trades such as carpentry, hat making, shoemaking and gardening (Bilbe 2009:106). A tannery and a mill were erected and successful animal husbandry practices ensured good numbers of stock. In Tulbagh the missionary started a poverty fund for slaves where every member had to contribute on a weekly basis. Members had to attend church and school diligently. Reports and diaries of missionaries which was sent to Barmen in Germany, indicate the developing faith of the heathen, but also elaborated on their moral, social and cultural development which proved of great value to South Africa.


The Rhenish missionaries at the Cape regarded the educational work as secondary only to evangelization. Reports indicate that in every area where a mission station was formed, a school followed soon. 

A serious concerned however is that after 110 years of mission work by the R.M.S. only two coloured ministers were found qualified and fit for ordination. These two male adults was Frederik Hein and Gideon Thomas. Hein, the first black indigenous minister was ordained in 1893 while Thomas, the second indigenous minister was ordained in 1935. One of the most striking aspects of the RMS and the Wupperthal mission in particular, was the lack of internal appointments among the Coloured population to ecclesiastical authority of significance (see Bible 2009:221). The lack of a “suitable personality” in the words of Strassberger, the missionary serving the Wupperthal community, meant that no such appointments could be made.

The Emerging Mission Stations 

After a short interval in Cape Town of getting themselves familiar with the surroundings of Cape Town, and having some exposure of the methods followed by the Moravians on their mission stations, the missionaries started with the work.

The missionaries of the RMS settled in rather well and developed mission stations in the following areas:

Wupperthal  -Transferred to in 1965 to the Moravian Church 

Tulbagh, Steinthal – 1942 officially transferred 


Stellenbosch – 1940 transferred 

Sarepta – 1947 transferred

Kommaggas – 1936 transferred

Steinkopf – 1934 transferred 

Worcester – 1942 officially transferred

Concordia – transferred in 1934



Richtersveld ( Koeboes)

Carnarvon – 1940 transferred

De Doorns – 1933 transferred 

Saron – 1946 transferred  

Rietfontein – 1945 transferred 

The Sarepta congregation started to work amongst people living in the Bellville, Matroosfontein and Elsies River   area. This resulted in the formation of Rhenish congregations. Gideon Joseph Thomas, the second coloured ordained minister of the RMS, worked as an evangelist and later as ordained minister in the three congregations. 

Handing over of the church to the Dutch Reformed Church

Discussion in the early 1930s amongst the missionaries suggested that a hand-over to the Dutch Reformed Church. This initiative was relentlessly motivated by some of the missionaries and the Rhenish executive in favour of a DRC take-over. In the case of the mission station Wupperthal, the missionary Strassberger even motivated the church council to vote in favour of this take-over but it was the community that voiced their disapproval. The membership of many of the Rhenish Church congregations regarded the DRC as the apparatus of Apartheid and was understandably concerned about their future as becoming part of such a church. The distrust they felt for the DRC was undoubtedly linked to the distrust they felt of the missionaries and the Board that has been in conversation with the DRC but not informing the congregants of plans and content of such deliberations.  

In a circular to the congregations in the Cape Province written by the Board after the visit by the Director of missions of the RMS to the Rhenish Churches in South Africa dated 19 July 1932, reasons was given why it was seen as necessary for the congregations to be taken over by the DRC. Amongst the reasons mentioned by the director was:

  • Thousands of men and women has been reached by the Gospel through the faithful ministry of the missionaries;
  • The mission work of the RMS has therefore reached its goal and is therefore seen as complete;
  • Most of the people living in the area of the congregation has been Baptised or ascribe to the Christian faith and should no longer be seen as pagan;
  •  Because of the fact that the RMS has congregations that is in terms of the distance and location so far apart from each other, we are of the opinion that this can become a critical reason that can harm future growth;
  • Based on the fact that congregations were primarily dependent on missionaries from Germany, this has become financially difficult and is seen as no more viable;
  • The missionaries serving the present congregations will be allowed to serve you till they reach the age of retirement or death. Only then will they be replaced by ministers of the DRC as we will no longer supply congregations with ministered from Barmen Germany. This is also based on the fact that we can no longer afford to train ministers for the mission field in South Africa; 
  • We know and trust that you will remember us and believe you will hold us in high esteem based on the good work of more than a century my the workers of the RMS amongst your people, even if you are no longer members of the RMS;
  • We shall with interest enquire about your wellbeing as you continue to serve God and be of service to Christ in the bigger church ( meaning the DRC);

The letter concludes with the statement that the Board view the take-over as the ideal because now they will join a denomination of the church the same racial group as well as a church sharing the same ecclesiological traditions. Their conclusion was that the congregations would be best off if placed in the care of the Dutch Reformed Church while they are included in the Coloured branch of the DRC, namely the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (now known as the Uniting Reformed Church). According to the letter they stated: “We believe that you will soon see and experience that the transfer to the DRC will be to your advantage and will be of greater spiritual worth as what you could ever imagine”.  

The realities of lasting effects on the members of these congregations that was transferred to the DRC or disposed from their Rhenish identity and heritage should be investigated. My view is that if the history from below should be told, the bitterness, anger, disappointment and grief might be much more then was envisaged. I suspect that members would even express disappointment in the RMS for not having enough trust in them to allow them to operate independently as denomination called the Rhenish Church in S.A.    

The question then is: How come that we have today still THE Rhenish Church in SA?

Gideon Joseph Thomas 

On 13 April 1894 was born to Moses, caretaker of the Rhenish Church Sarepta, and Elizabeth Thomas a son called GIDEON JOSEPH. The Christian faith formation indicative of the mission station served as a guide for the conversion to the Christian faith of Gideon Thomas. 

  • The Early Years

The night of 11 November 1919 at the age of 25, Gideon made a confession of his sins and a commitment to serve Jesus Christ as his Lord. This commitment to be of service to Jesus Christ and his zeal to proclaim the Gospel, even at night after a hard day’s work at home and in neighbouring towns brought many under the conviction to accept Jesus as Lord and follow the Christian faith. Consequently he was nominated by the DRC, Kuils River to do mission and evangelism amongst farm workers in the area. This resulted in Thomas’ appointment in 1922 by Rev. Feige as Evangelist of the Sarepta Rhenish Church.

After serving diligently for 10 years on the farms in the region, Thomas was asked to serve the Bellville, Matroosfontein en Elsiesrivier area. At his arrival in 1932 Thomas was accommodated in the house that was reserved for the Elsies River school master.

  • The Context 

The public career of Thomas comprised roughly of the first half of the 20th century, from the early 1920’s to the early 1970’s. This time constituted a crisis in South Africa in terms of the political structure of the country, but in particular a crisis in the then so called coloured community of Sarepta, Kuils River, Elsies River and surroundings. The “ dopstelsel”,  where workers on farms were paid in the form of a bottle wine for work done  by famers caused unbelievable socio-economic and moral problems for these workers. The group areas act, where people of colour were forcibly removed from their land accompanied and job reservations where whites benefited was a serious blow to the dignity of this people. Poverty and poor housing with very little or no community development for people of colour was at the order of the day. 

Despair and the many injustices was party to the substance dependency in these communities.  It was a time for a new society and a new era – it was the time and opportunity of Gideon Joseph Thomas. 

  • Ordination of G.J.THOMAS

After serving these communities with dedication, Thomas was well respected by the members of the church as well as the members of these communities. His theological insight and drive to assist the members in their quest to grow as Christians became a point of discussion. The result was that the members requested that the RMS should consider ordaining him as a minister. The inspector of RMS in Barmen was asked to evaluate the suitability of Thomas. Soon hereafter based on the report and the training given by Rev. Feige a telegram came from Barmen: Orden Thomas. On 30 June 1935 G.J. Thomas was ordained the second indigenes minister of the RMS IN THE Stellenbosch Rhenish Church. The appointment was to serve the Matroosfontein, Bellville en Elsiesrivier congregations.

The arrangement by the RMS Board to transfer the congregation to the DRC caused much tension for the three congregations where Thomas served as minister. Many church council meetings were held to discuss and consider this decision of the RMS and the implications for the three congregations.  The meeting with Rev. Thomas by the DRC mission committee indicated to him that these three congregations now belong to them and transfer should take place based on the 1932 decision. Consulting the members, the conclusion was that all three congregations conclusively decided not to follow the other congregations in joining the DRC and becoming DRMC congregations. For this reason the DRC consulted legal opinion and the court in order to enforce the decision. The judgement of the court was that the three congregations can legally continue to exist independently and could not be forced to join the DRC or any other denomination for that matter. Precaution was taken to ensure and secure that no further demands can be made by the DRC in that the name was change from Die Rynse Kerk, to Die Selfstandige Rynse Kerk. This happened in 1951. At the synod of 1978 the decision was made to change the name back to Die Rynse Kerk. 

Rev. Thomas retired in 1972 and he died in 1984.


An icon has a striking value. An icon is an example of an outstanding person with influence who people think represent a particular idea. 

Christians portray features of the Gospel, of the transforming power and wisdom of Christ to the world. Christ claimed that the Christians are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Not all Christians portray features of the Gospel to the extent that they have influence.

An icon is an example of an outstanding Christian, influencing others. G.J. Thomas, reflecting the Christian characteristics and influencing his time in order to create a new society, may be seen by some as an ICON. I recognise Rev. Thomas   in his unique qualities and approaches in reflecting the Word of God making an impact on generations.

Yet so little is known and written about this man.

Societies hunger for people of public and civic virtue in contexts of greed, inequalities and injustices, tragedy and powerlessness, consumerism amidst poverty. All this is needed in the absence of solidarity and compassion.

How did we survive amidst the odds and the subtle and obvious acts of dispossessing us as a people?

I think the word to describe a response would be: RISK.

The word “risk” evokes the idea of facing the unexpected and risking exposure possibly to dangerous situations. The word also suggests a sense of daring, of pushing boundaries, of being at the cutting edge. Calls for a transformed humanity in a transformed world require responses that do not duck risk. Awareness of the irreparable damage of structural evil, and hearing the cries of the needy, necessitate actions that are risky, imaginative and courageous as they seek a better way.      

 The Rhenish Church in South Africa survived without the RMS, the DRC, the URCSA and supports from either the government of white money, because our faith was and is placed in Jesus our Lord who enabled us to risk in order to advance God’s kingdom. 

We need to acknowledge and solute those who worked tirelessly with the laborer salary income, to sustain this heritage.


After many attempts to make contact with the RMS, it came to our attention that the RMS with other mission organizations formed the United Evangelical Mission. A meeting was organized by Julia Besten in Wuppertal, Germany between the General Secretary of UEM and the Moderator of the Rhenish Church. This meeting took place in November 2008 and lasted only 10 minutes. An invitation was extended by the RCSA to the General Secretary of UEM to attend the 180 year celebration of the Rhenish heritage in Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Fidon, the general secretary of UEM accepted the invitation.  Dr. Fidon preached at the services where the commissioning of the first 4 missionaries and Rev. Thomas was commemorated. One of the striking and memorable comments made by Dr. Fidon was that nor he or any of the leaders before him, stretching as far as the 1940s thought that this church would survive. The contrast was proven and for this he commented the people of God serving the RCSA. 


The task before us cannot be under-estimated. But we believe that God is ceaselessly engaged with this world and with us. We are not alone as we respond to God’s call to make a difference and to continue the work of redemption.

The church, if properly functioning, should be a carrier of information and values that would help stabilise and build the society in which she find herself. The church is basically “a life support system not only enabling its members to survive in a cruel and hostile world but also empowering them to prevail over the principalities and powers of this world.

The church is a change agent, one of reconstruction that takes full responsibility to rebuild the wall under Nehemiah’s guidance taking hold of their future and rejecting the ideological propaganda which portrays them as helpless and hopeless. 

Tommy Solomons

27 October 2015

Published by Rhenish Church South Africa

Rhenishsaonline is an the online platform of The Rhenish Church of South Africa

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