Christianity in Black and White The Establishment of Protestant Churches In Southern Mozambique

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Patrick HARRIES, Lusotopie 1998, p. 317-333

Christianity in Black and White

The Establishment of Protestant Churches

In Southern Mozambique


he historical roots of the Protestant Churches in Southern Mozambique are to be found in neighbouring South Africa ; or, to be more precise, in the industrial revolution that shook the region in the last third of the nineteenth century. Protestant missionaries had worked in South Africa since the end of the previous century. The climate was good and governments run by coreligionists put few obstacles in their way. But the spread of the evangelical message was restricted by two important factors. Firstly, mission stations often served as places of refuge for people wishing to escape harsh employers or oppressive tribal rule. Secondly, missionaries believed their converts were surrounded by pagans practising customs inimicable to Christianity. Because of this a closed, « station system » developed in South Africa that gave political protection to converts and reduced the threat of backsliding1. But it equally prevented converts from spreading the gospel.

Industry and Evangelism
The nature of the evangelical mission was transformed when black migrant workers started to return home from centres of employment in South Africa with a knowledge of Christianity or an ability to read the Christian message. These men spread the gospel far beyond the small knots of worship huddled around the mission station. Their knowledge and practice of Christianity was often assembled in new and unexpected ways ; but it planted the seed of belief that would later be nurtured by evangelists in many corners of Southern Mozambique. In this paper I lay stress on African enterprise in the spread of Protestant denominations from South Africa to Southern Mozambique ; and I examine the ways in which Protestant missions expanded along linguistic corridors to open new mission fields. With their very particular ecclesiastical history in Europe, they provided a space for the emergence of a new, largely urban, intellectual élite.

The discovery of diamonds in 1867 brought a period of prosperity to the economy of Southern Africa. Within ten years, thousands of men were making their way from the area on the coast claimed by the Portuguese to the diamond fields at Kimberley. Evangelists quickly recognized the potential of this new mission field. For many migrant workers, uprooted from their homes, labouring under atrocious conditions and living in confined spaces, the gospel provided a message of consolation and hope. This often brief experience of Christianity, or the associated skill of reading, spread a knowledge of the gospel throughout Southern Africa. Numbers of men were also introduced to Christianity in Natal where, breaking their journey to Kimberley, they sought work on the sugar plantations or in the towns of the colony2. Others encountered it as they travelled further south to work in the coastal ports or on the railways and farms in the interior.

Missionaries of the Free Church of the canton de Vaud in Switzerland arrived in South Africa at the start of this industrial revolution. They were drawn by reports that large numbers of Pedi migrants had converted to Christianity while working in the Cape or when passing through Lesotho on their way home. This drew the Swiss to the Northern Transvaal where, after being rebuffed by the Pedi, they stumbled upon a cluster of immigrant refugee communities living without a missionary in the Spelonken foothills of the Zoutpansberg. It was in this area that the Swiss established the Valdezia mission station, near the headwaters of the Levubu and Small Letaba rivers, in 1875 and began work on the transcription of the local Gwamba language3.

The Swiss missionaries were not the first Christians to evangelize the region. Lutherans and Dutch Reformed Calvinists worked in isolated outposts to the north, west and south of the Spelonken. Migrant workers had also carried Christianity into the region. A Sotho-speaking Anglican known only as Daniel, who had spent fifteen years working in the Cape Colony, had started to instruct his compatriots in catechism and the skills of literacy. And several former migrant workers saw the arrival of the mission as an opportunity to formalize a conversion started earlier in Kimberley or Pretoria4. Three of the earliest converts of the Swiss Mission in the Transvaal were Hlakamela Tlakula, who had learned to read at Kimberley, and Yacob and Yosefa Mahlamhala, who had both worked on the diamond fields.

In July 1881 Hlakamela, Yosefa and two other converts left for the coast where Yosefa had succeeded in reestablishing contact with his family. Along the way they were warmly received by Magude, the ruler of the important Khosa chiefdom on the bend in the Nkomati river. On the coast Yosefa was reunited with his sister Lois Xintomane who, with her husband Eliachib Mandlakusasa, agreed to return to the Transvaal. This couple, together with their daughter Ruth Holene, were to play an important role in the spread of Christianity on the coast.

At Lourenço Marques the evangelists experienced a setback when the governor of the town refused to allow the establishment of a Protestant mission in Portuguese territory. This meant that the spread of the mission into the coastal plain had to be centred on the Khosa who lived beyond the effective control of the Portuguese. As the climate on the coast was unsuitable for white missionaries, Yosefa Mhalamhala was hastily ordained in April 1882 to serve the new Church at Magude's. Amongst those accompanying him when he left later that month were his sister and her family. While Yosefa remained at Magude, Lois returned to her home and eventually settled at Rikatla, some 25 kilometers north of Lourenço Marques.

Meanwhile the Africanization of the Church in the Spelonken had continued apace with the ordination in 1882 of Yosefa's brother Yacob. Two years later the unity and purpose of an African-driven mission enterprise was stressed when members of the Spelonken Church raised £30 for Yosefa's Church and Yacob visited his brother at Magude5. The two brothers then continued to the coast where the work of Eliachib Mandlakusasa and Lois Xintomane was showing signs of success. Their daughter Ruth and her friends had spread the gospel in various directions and, before returning home, Yacob travelled south of Lourenço Marques to visit a new Christian community established in Tembeland. This community was directed by Jim Ximungana, an important local trader who, having learned to read and write in Natal, had been drawn to the Church by his reading of the buku, a collection of scriptures and hymns translated into Gwamba by missionaries in the Spelonken6. Up until this point the evangelical efforts of the native Church received the full support of the white missionaries in the Transvaal.

A native Church and indigenous ideas
The political climate, and with it the fortunes of the mission at Magude, changed suddenly in 1884 when, following the death of the Gaza king, refugees started to return from their exile in Swaziland and enter into political intrigues with local chiefs. Unsure of his position, the new Gaza king, Gungunyana, prohibited contact between the Khosa chief and outside forces, including missionaries. A further setback for Yosefa's small Church occurred the following year when Magude died and the regent, Mavabaze, displayed a hostile attitude to the Church.

In an attempt to investigate the plight of the Christians in Khosaland and report on prospects for expansion in the coastal areas, an expedition left the Spelonken under two Swiss missionaries, Henri Berthoud and Eugène Thomas. After a voyage of three months they confirmed that « the real homeland » of their Gwamba congregation in the Transvaal was indeed to be found along the coast7. Through the language transcribed in the Spelonken, they believed, the mission had been divinely ordained to take the gospel to an entire nation. Although Yosefa had achieved little formal success, his work was particularly important as it was situated in the Gwamba heartland, the lieu d'origine of the immigrant refugees in the Spelonken8. The native Church had achieved over thirty conversions and had established or nurtured five Christian communities stretching along the coast from Tembeland in the south to the Nkomati river. Henri Berthoud particularly stressed his confidence in the religious vigour and conviction with which his black colleagues had spread the Christian message.

Berthoud's report was soon followed by news that the political turbulence in Khosaland had calmed and that Yosefa's small community was experiencing a religious revival. The enthusiasm with which people suddenly embraced Christianity was especially felt along the coast at Rikatla and in Tembeland9. The Free Church missionaries viewed this revival with sanguine expectation for it seemed to conform to their notion of Christianity. This was an intensely individualistic practice of religion in which there was no State interference and little place for stale Church rituals, hierarchy and dogma. For the Free Churches of Switzerland, conversion was an intimate, emotional experience based on introspection, prayer and divine revelation. It was only through the personal recognition of sin, and the accompanying anguish of contrition, that individuals could be introduced to the possibility of salvation through God's grace.

The spiritual movement on the Mozambican coast lived up to many of these ideals10. Congregants were shaken by powerful visions and dreams that produced emotional, spontaneous conversions. Lay members of the Church gave long speeches in which they denounced sin and extolled the need for remorse. Spiritual rebirth was accompanied by the likelihood of moral renovation as Christians formed tight communities around places like Rikatla, their centre of pilgrimage. The disregard for ritual conformity and theological strictures initially provided evidence of the raw energy produced by the revival and of its potential to rejuvenate the entire Church. An active desire to redeem sinners and spread the word of God in its written form indicated that this self-governing, self-supporting native Church would even succeed in propagating the gospel into areas untouched by formal evangelical endeavour.

But the growing success of the spiritual movement on the coast, together with its very ecclesiastical and dogmatic independence, soon raised anguished and divisive debates over the role of the native Church and clergy. Paul Berthoud believed the leaders of the coastal Church had insufficient training in dogma and ecclesiastics to discipline and run a large organization. Jim Ximungana, for instance, was adding to his adherents in Tembeland a growing following in Lourenço Marques. Yet, although he had learned to read and write while working in Natal, he had received no formal religious instruction or training. He was unbaptized, had three wives and several slaves. Equally seriously, when obliged by his commercial activities to absent himself from his congregation, Ximungane frequently placed his Church in the hands of an unbaptized slave girl or, perhaps more insidiously, in the charge of an agnostic beneficiary of a Catholic education11.

Berthoud was highly critical of the dominant role played by women within the Church. They not only constituted eight out of ten congregants and occupied almost all leadership posts ; women were also overly assertive and their emotional instincts pushed the Church in unwarrented directions. The « exaggerated imagination and sensibility » of female members of the Church contradicted the modesty and internal reflection required of converts12. Women exercised little control over who spoke and placed no restriction on the length of speeches. The general exuberance of Church services passed into intemperance as thunderous sermons, often filled with rabid denunciations of sin, provoked congregants to sob, cry and experience hysterical convulsions. Moreover, the depth of conversion was measured by these emotional outbursts ; and those unable to express themselves in this uproarous manner were denied membership of the Church. Visions and dreams were another, more personal, indicator of religious conviction. But these included disquietingly frequent reports of contact with God ; and one slave woman even attracted a small following when she declared herself to be the virgin Mary13.

Perhaps most seriously, Berthoud believed the native clergy to be ill-prepared or unwilling to direct and channel this spiritual movement. He was dismayed when Yosefa ascribed the disorderly nature of Church services to the work of the Holy Spirit and was appalled by the inability of the native minister to provide pastoral guidance in matters ranging from moral comportment to the interpretation of religious literature14.

Berthoud feared that, far from re-awakening belief in a Supreme Being, the « revival » would halt the development of Christianity as novices brought pagan customs into the Church. This was a serious allegation as he saw « superstition » and fear at the heart of a native religion whose « degeneration » had caused it to lose any belief in a Supreme Being. The native Church had « deviated from the correct path » and was filled with « erroneous tendencies » ; as an « emerging Church » it reflected « an inconceivable moral disorder, an extraordinary ignorance ». Without correct discipline and guidance, he believed, this degeneration would contaminate the entire Church on the coast15.

From our distance in time and space it is easy to see the « revival » as a bricolage of beliefs and rituals ; a way of making the world more comprehensible and controllable by reworking foreign and local sources of power into a battery of Christian ideas and practices16. The « revival » was an indigenous version of the Pentacostalism that Sundkler would later classify as « Zionism » ; and in this sense it was one of the first independent Church movements in Southern Africa17. It would also be easy to see Berthoud's views on the need for white leadership as merely one more example of the rising racism within the wider mission community in the late nineteenth century18. This interpretation would be supported by his frequent comments on the childish perspective of Christianity held by black converts, and on the need for black Christians to experience a lengthy period of missionary tutelage in order to reach the Europeans' level of evolution19. But at the same time, it is important to see that Berthoud's opinion of the native Church represented a minority view within the mission. For when in 1886 he solicited the support of the governing Council in Lausanne, the missionaries in the Spelonken formally opposed his attempts to end the independence of the native Church.

This difference of opinion, it seems to me, was the product of unresolved tensions within the system of beliefs and practices brought to Africa by the Swiss missionaries. These differences went back to the political revolution that had shaken Switzerland in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Free Churches were the product of a rebellion against political radicals who had subordinated the national (or cantonal) Churches to the dictates of the State. Out of this conflict the Free Churches emerged as the inheritors of a long tradition associating local, cantonal identity with religion and Church membership. They were also strongly evangelical, and stressed a form of philanthropy that was at times telescopic rather than local in its concerns. Instead of receiving their salaries from the State, Free Church ministers were dependent on the financial contributions of laymen gathered in elected synods. This sudden, enforced direction taken by the Churches in mid-century created a certain ambivalence within the pastorate. While many saw this European version of the self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating Church as a source of renewed energy and strength, others saw the Church drifting at a time when industrialization was undermining the cohesion of the national community. For this enlightened élite, the guiding hand of the pastorate and its Church was needed more than ever as emigration, uprootedness, avarice, alcohol and immorality destroyed the social fabric created and maintained for three hundred years by the cantonal Churches in Switzerland.

Paul Berthoud and others saw Africa as a social laboratory in which the Church would reestablish its role as paternal guide. Unlike Europe, the continent had not been contaminated by wars of religion, materialism and industrialization, and its primitive vitalism would rejuvenate the Church20. Hence the Swiss missionaries remained staunch opponents of the cultural assimilation practised by many British and American missions21. But they were equally convinced that, to build this New Jerusalem, the mission had to nurture and separate the positive elements in African beliefs and practices. In Africa the Church was able to reestablish the historic role it had recently been denied in Europe : that of national guardian and tutor. The decision of the Mission Council in Lausanne to send Paul Berthoud to take charge of the coastal Church should be understood in these terms. But it was a decision that would unleash a struggle within the Church as Swiss missionaries attempted to impose on their congregants a foreign morality based on temperance, frugality, providence, modesty, monogamy and paternal tutelage.

Indigenous agency
This new way of thinking and acting restricted the numbers of people willing to convert and join the mission stations operated by the Swiss. Others preferred to join the Protestant communities established by migrants returned from South Africa. Andreas Hongwana, for instance, had built a small chapel-school near the mouth of the Tembe river, Isaac Mavilo was attempting to bring Christianity to the capital of the young Maputo king, and the unbaptized Simon Masinga had returned from Barberton to start his own school22. Many migrants almost inadvertently spread the gospel as they had acquired some knowledge of Christianity when learning to read, or had returned home with Christian wives23. For others, like Jim Ximungana, Christian beliefs lay dormant until they were activated by the circulation of Christian literature or visiting evangelists.

The most successful indigenous attempt to bring Christianity to the Delagoa Bay region was undertaken by Robert Ndevu Mashaba. Born at Nkasana in Tembeland in about 1861, Mashaba had first left home as young boy to seek work with his uncle in Natal. On a second tour in the British colony he had learned to read, a skill that gave him access to better-paid employment. In Port Elizabeth he converted, joined the Methodist Church and in 1879 entered Lovedale college in the Eastern Cape. After spending three years at this celebrated Presbyterian training ground for the African élite, he was employed in the Kimberley telegraph office where he continued to mix with educated black Christians.

In 1885 Mashaba returned to the Delagoa Bay area with the intention of spreading the gospel. His Christianity was closely tied to the civilizing mission. « Africa is a dark continent », he wrote to his old head-master at Lovedale, « the greater part of her children are brooding on darkness as if on white fresh eggs ». And to achieve a cultural renaissance he believed it his duty to « fight with darkness in the name of Christ […] till darkness gives way to light »24. In persuance of this mission he opened a school near Lourenço Marques and started to study Portuguese. But as a Protestant trained by British missionaries, he received little support from the Portu­guese and was obliged to seek work at the Komati Drift. With his savings he established a day school in May 1888 and quickly attracted sixty-six children on a regular basis. Preaching in his own language, Mashaba was able to draw a large following. Within three years he had built a church at Nkasana and nine out-stations along the Tembe river, four of which included day schools. In this task he was assisted by four local preachers and five class leaders ; and some two hundred people were on trial for communion.

In 1890 Mashaba was officially recognized by the Methodists as a minister, his Church incorporated into their Transvaal District, and his converts baptized25. During this time he produced two reading primers and a collection of hymns in the local language form, to which he afixed the label « Ronga ». In 1893, the year he was finally ordained, he consolidated this language work when he helped the British consul at Lourenço Marques draw up a 31-page Ronga dictionary26. The familiarity of Mashaba's Ronga literature appealed to local sentiments and won converts in much the same way as had, only a few years earlier, the Swiss missionaries' buku. It almost certainly also accounts for much of the success with which Thomas Gebuza, another remarkable migrant worker turned Methodist evangelist, spread the gospel in the southern part of the Maputo kingdom27.

Written in the Gwamba dialect drawn up by the missionaries in the Spelonken, the language of the buku had more in common with the Thonga or Tsonga language form employed in the area between the Nkomati and Limpopo rivers. For this reason Mashaba's Ronga literature was more favourably received than the « foreign » Gwamba or Thonga reading material. The Swiss Presbyterians, with their experience of the ties between nation and Church, were opposed to this intrusion into the mission field occupied by the « tribe » they considered their evangelical preserve28. When their attempts to combine with Mashaba failed, and they realized they were placed at a competitive disadvantage by their inability to publish in the local language form, the Swiss brought out their own grammar, dictionary and later a New Testament in Ronga29. This intellectual activity led them to study the customs and habits of the population they later called the Thonga ; and to lay the foundations of anthropology as a discipline in the sub-continent30.

External agents
In 1893 the Anglican Church joined the Swiss Presbyterians and Metho­dists at Lourenço Marques, the growing entrepot for the Witwatersrand. Their initial interest in the area had come from Natal, where the northern limits of the bishopric, created in 1853 to serve both settlers and Africans, had been as uncertain as those of the colony31. At this time the British in Natal communicated freely with the independent chiefs living behind Lourenço Marques and Inhambane and, until 1875, formally claimed the southern shore of Delagoa Bay32. Bishop Colenso's home outside Pietermaritzburg hosted several embassies from the Gaza, a people living north of the Limpopo who traced their historical roots back to his diocese and spoke a language close to that of the Zulu33. British interests in the area claimed by the Portuguese were reinforced when in 1870 a dispute in the Anglican community in Natal led Colenso's High Church opponents to create a separate bishopric for the independent territory of Zululand. This new diocese nominally included the vast stretch of country « towards the Zambezi river »34.

The formal establishment of a separate Anglican diocese in Southern Mozambique was first mooted in 1875, and again in 1879, the year the British gained partial control of Lourenço Marques35. But the will to create a new bishopric evaporated with Britain's desire for a South African confederation, and it was only with the development of Lourenço Marques as a strategic port for the Witwatersrand that the plan was resuscitated. In 1891 the whole of Mozambique south of the Zambezi river was incorporated into the Anglican mission field when the Sabie river was delineated as the border between the dioceses of Lebombo and Mashonaland. Two years later Edmund Smyth was consecrated bishop of Lebombo and stations were established at Lourenço Marques and Inhambane and, a decade later, in Chopiland36.

Much of the Anglican drive into the interior had been undertaken by Mozambicans who had converted while working in the Cape Colony. As early as 1861 four interpreters drawn from the large community of Mozambican freed slaves in Cape Town had been included in Bishop Mackenzie's fateful expedition to the Shire Highlands37. Thirty years later Bernard Mizeki, a migrant worker from Inhambane who had joined the Anglican Church while employed in Cape Town, became a pivotal figure in the founding of the Mashonaland Mission and a pioneer Shona linguist38. Other Mozambicans returned to South Africa with a less formal evangelical enthusiasm. When Bishop Douglas MacKenzie surveyed the Lourenço Marques area in 1889, he feared that the many « natives who had known Christian influence or teaching in the mines » would lose their faith without the support of an active and organized diocese39.

When the Anglicans established their mission at Lourenço Marques they chose to proselytize a group of Chopi refugees living on the edge of the town. These men had fled south to escape the constant wars waged by the Gaza on their kinsmen living on the coast between the Limpopo and Inhambane. By turning to these « foreigners », the Anglicans avoided duplicating the work undertaken by Methodists and Swiss Presbyterians amongst the local Ronga-speakers. The refugees included fourteen Anglican communicants baptized while employed in various parts of South Africa40. But it was to Johannesburg that the Anglicans turned in their search for a lay worker capable of interpreting and undertaking linguistic work. The St. Cyprian native Church in Johannesburg was frequented by a Chopi community, one of whom, a churchwarden named John Matthews Nyoko, was persuaded to undertake this mission work. Funded by his St. Cyprian compatriots, Nyoko abandoned his job in a jeweller's shop and moved to the Hlamankulu location occupied by the refugees. He and Bishop Smyth soon produced the first grammar, vocabulary and reader in the Chopi language41.

Around Inhambane the Anglicans came across American missionaries who had been in the area for over a decade. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had been active in Natal since 1835. But after forty years of evangelical effort the mission field in the British colony was becoming overcrowded and the Americans were ready to extend their pioneering form of Christianity into new areas. They were particularly anxious to employ their Zulu-speaking converts to open a new mission field and, in this way, realize the ideal of a self-propagating mission. The Gaza empire was a « natural » extension of their work in Natal, mainly for linguistic reasons but also because, like Colenso, the American missionaries had been visited by Gaza embassies42. Gazaland also offered the mission a new start as it had not been contaminated by European settlement and had never been evangelized. The Americans were also drawn to this sprawling African kingdom by the prospect of effecting the conversion of a powerful suzerain who would press his followers to accept the gospel. In 1880-1881, several American Board missionaries sailed from Durban to Inhambane from where they travelled overland to the Gaza capital43.

Although the Gaza king, Umzila, invited these American Congre­gationalists to settle at his capital, they chose rather to establish themselves in 1883 in the populous country around Inhambane. Here they were joined by Cetewayo Goba, another Lovedale graduate, and two other Zulu missionaries who soon took the lead in transcribing the Tonga language. Reinforcements allowed the mission to expand westwards into areas independent of the Portuguese, where work was started on Tswa, a language that would later be incorporated into the Tsonga cluster44. The room for optimism grew further when in 1886 a party of American Free Methodists established themselves on the border between the Tswa and Chopi-speaking peoples, about eighty kilometers south of Inhambane.

But the enthusiasm of the early missionaries soon wilted as their numbers were depleted by disease and by their inability to effect more than a handful of conversions. Evangelical work was also restricted by the continual disputes between these natural dissenters and by the inaccessibility of a colonial government suspicious of Protestant, anglo­phone missionaries. As the mission faltered the American Board, never fully convinced of its viability, decided in mid-1893 to abandon Inhambane. A healthier area had been located in the Mashonaland highlands on the British side of the newly-defined border with Mozambique, and it was to Mount Selinda in this area that the American Board relocated its evangelical energies. This left for the next twenty-five years the small communities of Congregationalists around Inhambane dependent on migrant kinsmen returning from the Witwatersrand for their knowledge of Christianity45. Another reason for the withdrawal of the American Board from Inhambane was the expulsion from the Church of its premier missionary, Erwin Richards. Unwilling to leave the mission field at Inhambane, Richards chose to serve the Methodist Episcopal Mission to which he succeeded in attracting several early Congregationalist converts. These included Tizora Navess, a qualified printer and charismatic preacher, and Muti Sikobele, one of a growing number of graduates returning from American Board colleges in Natal. The efforts of Richards and those of the newly-arrived Anglicans were, however, counterbalanced by the departure for the Witwatersrand of Harry Agnew, the single remaining Free Methodist at Inhambane.

The situation was equally unpromising in the Delagoa Bay area where Swiss missionaries had taken charge of the major settlements associated with their Church. As the Swiss tightened their hold on dogma and ecclesiastics, the energy of the revival was dissipated by internal rivalries and dissension. Although the Swiss were able to initiate a medical mission under Dr Georges Liengme at the Gaza capital in 1892-93, the vibrant and coherent local culture practised in this and other independent chiefdoms impeded the spread of Christianity. It was only in Lourenço Marques, the white man's town (Xilungwini), that large numbers of people were sufficiently separated from the grip of kin and custom to adopt Christianity. While the membership of rural missions had stagnated since the late 1880s, that of Lourenço Marques had almost doubled. In 1894 fully 815 of the 938 members of Swiss Mission stations were to be found in Xilungwini and neighbouring Tembeland46. Another growing problem for the Protestants was the rise of Catholic interest in missionary work in the region.

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