Christian Missionaries in Phokeng

Christian Missionaries in Phokeng


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The first thing to do, he told them, was to give themselves to Jesus, by consenting to be baptised,

and thereafter building a church . . . to praise God through Christ, worship him and honour him. 



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Christian Missionaries in Phokeng

Excerpts from The Autobiography of an Unknown South African

By Naboth Mokgatle 


The First Christian Message — Lutherans

One day, I was told, a man arrived in our village and introduced himself as a missionary for the Dutch Reformed Church. and said that he wanted to start a mission station in the village. My grandfather, Paramount Chief Mokgatle, then asked the gentleman to call back in a few days time to meet him with his people and the tribe’s councillors. As agreed, several days later the missionary arrived to find a large gathering of people, among them tribal elders and councillors. The missionary then, without wasting more time, began to explain in detail the message of Christianity he had brought to our people.

He told the gathering that what he was preaching was the word of God and that God could only be reached through his Son Jesus Christ, whom he went on to explain came into the earth to testify that there was a living God, the father of all peoples and nations on earth. He went on to say that Jesus gave his own life for the sake of all peoples because the people at the time of his birth were no longer obeying the commands of God who was angry and about to punish his people. 

He ended his talk, I was told, by saying that the only way people could speak to God, who made the earth, people and everything on earth, was by believing in God by first believing in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the representative of God the father to the people on earth.

Having explained the teachings of Christianity, which he keenly urged our people to embrace, he told them that in addition he was bringing a new system of learning and communication. But the first thing to do, he told them, was to give themselves to Jesus, by consenting to be baptised, and thereafter building a church in which they could meet to praise God through Christ, worship him and honour him. 

At the end of his lengthy talk, when he had explained everything he knew needed explaining at first, grandfather asked the learned gentleman to give them time to consider alone what he had told them, but to return again in a few days’ time to hear their detailed considered reply. the missionary readily agreed to their request and, after he had been entertained, he left. That was the first Christian message to my people.

When he returned to our tribe to hear what my people had decided, he received an answer which must undoubtedly have disappointed him. My grandfather, I was told, with the advice of his councillors and the elders of the tribe, said this to him:

“We thank you very much for the trouble you have taken to come here to introduce to us your religion and the church. We are sorry . . . we cannot accept your religion and the God your urge us to accept and believe in. We have our own way of worshipping God and the way we think we can reach him. We think that our dead ancestors are the way we can speak to God. Through them we firmly believe he can speak to us, by accepting our humble requests to him or rejecting them. We, therefore, think that it would serve no useful purpose for you or ourselves, to join together and worship the God you have spoken to us about. The best thing we think is that you pass on to try elsewhere.”

The gentleman waited after grandfather had spoken to see whether there were someone or other in the gathering who would rise to support what grandfather had said, or to say something contrary to it. No one rose and the missionary felt satisfied that grandfather’s reply was a unanimous one. . . .

No doubt, though his invitation to my tribe to join the Dutch Reformed Church was fruitless, the words he left with them had built themselves houses in the heart of some members of my tribe. Some of them had already become Christians in their hearts but were not courageous enough to say so at the time. 

They thought that if they did they would be regarded as men of weak faith, who were easily blown away from their faith in the power of their ancestors by something new and foreign to them. Christianity was indeed a new thing to them, they needed more time to think about it and everything that went with it.

The missionary left our tribe like a man who planted a seed in a dry soil, knowing well that one day rain would come to water the dry soil and the seed would grow and bear results. . . .

In Durban, among the Lutheran missionaries [Lutherans of Hermannsburg], men from my tribe, like teen-age boys amongst teen-age girls looking for sweethearts to marry, made their choice. they picked one for themselves and asked him to consent to become their teacher of the Christian doctrine and priest. His name was Penzhorn. Having been chosen, Mr. Penzhorn and his family agreed to accompany my people on the long journey back to Phokeng. On arrival, they were given everything a strange family needed and a site on which to build their home. Since they were brought to the tribe, the building of a home for them became the tribe’s duty.

While their home was under construction they lived at the Paramount Chief’s home, and Mr. Penzhorn began his baptismal work to make sure that he had people in the tribe to join his church. At that time the whole tribe . . . was polygamous. Men were free to marry as many wives as they could support. the legend is that the first man to be baptised — in the presence of a large crowd — was grandfather’s son of his third wife, who was named for grandfather’s father, Sekete. He was a polygamist himself. Mr. Penzhorn gave him the Christian name John, and from that day he was known amongst the first Christians as Johannes.

He was followed by his brother, who was given the name of peter and thereafter came to be known as Petrus. Peter had not become a polygamous at that time and the church he joined barred him from becoming one.

African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church in Phokeng

While the Lutheran Church under Ernest Penzhorn flourished in my tribe teaching people the Bible solely in their own language, Sesotho, so enabling them to understand better and better the religion they had chosen, issuing pamphlets to make it easy for them to read catechisms, but not teaching them the art of writing; while all this was going on another man appeared on the scene. he was an American Negro, Mr. Morrison. he introduced himself as a representative of a Christian Church but of a different denomination; the church he was asking my tribe to allow him to establish was the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).

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Indeed Mr. Morrison, like a young man seeking a young woman to marry amongst married and unmarried, succeeded in getting recruits for his church. The church became popularly known as the church of Morrison.

In Phokeng itself, it seems, Mr. Morrison did not enjoy a large following, but he did establish his church. The English language was heard for the first time through Mr. Morrison, who found himself confronted with the problem of talking to people who did not understand what he was saying. . . . Those who chose to join Morrison’s church began to make bricks with him, and asked the chief to give them a site where they could build their church.

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In Phokeng Mr. Morrison started a day school for the children and taught them their first lessons in English. The English alphabet was studied and heard for the first time. Morrison’s English day school attracted a good deal of attention among the people of my tribe. At that time . . . the people were aware that the white man’s rule was spreading all over the country and therefore it was essential to get prepared and to learn his language. 

Those men of my tribe who had been to Kimberley to work for money in the claims had had contact with the English people there and were impressed by them and found them very clever; they found no comparison between them and the Dutch people they knew. Although the Anglo-Boer war had not broken out, they could sense that eventually the Englishmen with his cleverness, was bound to make an impact on the whole country.

Pentecostalism in Phokeng

The man and woman who reached our tribe in nineteen-thirteen were Kenneth Spooner and his wife. . . . Kenneth Spooner, like Mr. Morrison before him, came from the United States of America. He was not bringing a new religion, it was the same as the one brought by Mr. Penzhorn of the Lutheran and Mr. Morrison of the AME Church, but his method of applying that religion was different. Mr. Spooner and his wife were received and allowed to tell the people who they were and the differences between his church and the other two already in Phokeng.

When Mr. Spooner unfolded his story there were, as always happens, some members of my tribe who were attracted right away by what he told them. It seems to me that two things appealed to them most: first, in his new church baptisms are held in the open in the rivers, lakes and ponds; parents do not make decisions for their children to be baptised, the children must grow up first and when they are over the age of sixteen they must ask for baptism themselves. He went on to explain that thatw as how Christ, whose servant and worker Mr. Spooner was, was baptised by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. That, I think, sunk deeply into the minds of those who later made up their minds to join Mr. Spooner’s church.

The other point which I imagine also played a large part in recruiting members for Mr. Spooner was that in his church the priest did not have to pray for all the congregation; when the time for prayer came, everyone must make his or her own appeal to God.

Mr. Spooner gave the name of his church as the Pentecostal Holiness Church. It was Baptist in character and method and, like the Lutherans and the AME before it, it was against polygamy. There were two other elements which I imagine did not appeal strongly to those who listened to Mr. Spooner, even those who join him in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. He said that medicines were not allowed in his church; prayer was more powerful than medicine.

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Mr. Spooner did not speak, read or write Sesotho. He was a stranger in a strange land among strange people. Mr. Penzhorn disliked him intensely. he nicknamed him Rabodiba (Man of Ponds) because he took people to ponds for baptism.

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Boys and girls at Mr. Spooner’s school who were fast learners became Mr. Spooner’s assistants in teaching the beginners. To get them to speak English quicker, Mr. Spooner made a rule that at school the children should speak in English, and in their mother tongue after school. Those who were caught speaking their own language were punished.

*   *  *

Reverend Kenneth Spooner died in Rustenberg General Hospital, after undergoing an operation, in nineteen-thirty-six or ‘thirty seven. News of his death reached me in Johannesburg while I was there visiting my sick mother who was staying with my sister Majone . . .  

One thing we all did not understand was how it was that Kenneth Spooner died in hospital when his church’s doctrine was that no medicine helped, only prayers were essential when anyone fell sick. Our queries did not help us much, Reverend Kenneth Spooner was no longer sharing life with us.

Source: The Autobiography of an Unknown South African by Naboth Mokgatle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.Winner of the 1971 Anisfield-Wolf Award in Race Relations


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My name is Monyadioe Moreleba Naboth Mokgatle, I was born in a tribal village called Phokeng in the district of Rustenburg, Transvaal Province, South Africa, on the first of April nineteen-hundred and eleven. I was one of the three sons of Sethare Hebron and Salome Mokgatle, and the last-born in the family. My parents had eight children, three boys and five girls. I do not know when they married, but my mother told me that in eighteen-ninety-six, at the time when the Bafokeng tribe lost most of their cattle through cattle sickness which swept the tribe and the surrounding tribal lands, their first child, a daughter called Nkatlholeng, was a baby of about nine or twelve months.

My mother was a Christian and my father was not. Because of that, their marriage was performed in both Christian and non-Christian traditions. The ceremony, according to my mother, was held in a Lutheran church at Hermannsburg Mission and at my father’s home in the traditional way.

My father’s parents, like all African parents, paid bogadi (dowry) for their son’s bride. Without the payment of bogadi, African law and tradition would not have recognised their union as a legal one.

Source: The Autobiography of an Unknown South African by Naboth Mokgatle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.Winner of the 1971 Anisfield-Wolf Award in Race Relations

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update 2 January 2012




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