Formation of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian

Dr Retief Müller of the University of Stellenbosch

Along with other students, I look forward to the Centre’s weekly research seminars. Each week brings scholars from all over the world. The 7 November seminar brought Dr Retief Müller of the University of Stellenbosch who presented a paper entitled ‘Negotiating (with) the Other: Afrikaners, Scots, and the Formation of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) [Nkhoma Synod]’. In it, Müller examined the role played by missionaries from South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church in creating the CCAP out of disparate missions, largely of Scottish origin. His presentation was especially interesting to me because my own doctoral thesis also examines aspects of the interactions between Scotland, South Africa, and Nyasaland (present-day Malawi), as well as Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).

Müller began by reviewing the circumstances of the first Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) missionaries to what was then the British Protectorate of Nyasaland. Their efforts were not officially sanctioned by the church in South Africa; rather their mission was the initiative of a group of mission enthusiasts called the Ministers Mission Union. Without the sanction of their own church, the missionaries joined the Free Church of Scotland’s existing Livingstonia Mission instead. Not until 1903 did the DRC take responsibility for their missionaries in Nyasaland. By then, the subject of uniting the Free Church’s missions with those of the established Church of Scotland had already been broached.

The union of missions into a single church in Nyasaland would have to wait, however. Müller’s paper showed how global and local affairs, as well as circumstances within the South African DRC delayed unification. The most obvious obstacle was the First World War, which saw a decline in mission work as the missionaries were called into national service. In addition, the DRC’s missions were not unified themselves. One of the missionaries, William Hoppe Murray, argued that before entering a union with the Scottish missions in Nyasaland, the DRC missions in Nyasaland, Portuguese East Africa, and Northern Rhodesia must be united. A union which never took place.

The CCAP was formed in 1924 without the participation of the DRC, despite lobbying from missionaries like W. H. Murray and his cousin Andrew Charles Murray. According to Müller, a major concern for the South African church was differences with Scottish missionaries over race. DRC representatives at the conference to agree on the terms of union were appalled to find black and white Christians eating together. Other theological issues, such as modernism, were also at issue. In the end, and with several caveats and concessions, including the right to later withdraw from the union, the DRC in Cape Town was convinced and allowed the congregations of its Nkhoma mission to join the CCAP in 1926. Despite the fait accompli of union, opposition persisted. In fact, as South Africa moved closer to 1948 and the implementation of formal apartheid, opposition within the DRC increased on both racial and doctrinal grounds.

At the conclusion of Müller’s paper, Professor Brian Stanley thanked him for sharing his research and noted the importance of remembering that missions to Africa aren’t always launched from outside the continent. The Dutch Reformed Missionaries to Nyasaland were only one example. Müller then fielded questions and several of the audience took the opportunity to probe further some of the interesting issues he raised. Several others engaged him in private conversation following the seminar’s scheduled end.

Though Dr Retief Müller’s paper was admittedly a work in progress, he capably martialled strong evidence for his argument. Presenting research in various stages of completion is a feature of the Centre’s seminars and gives presenting scholars as well as the audience a chance to engage with the material and improve the final publications. It also gives students an insight into the methods of other scholars, complementing the research supervision provided by the Centre’s teaching staff.

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