Untold Stories of Missions and Gospel Power

Weekend Musings

It is important to remember the lessons of the past. All mission activity has not always been successful or benign. Sometimes, Western arrogance has accompanied our attempts to take the gospel to the world and sometimes, God, in His sovereignty, still works miracles. The following historical account is from Kairos Journal.

Image of Zulu Christians at schoolZulu Work Ethic 

When American missionary Newton Adams landed near the Cape in South Africa in 1836, he soon learned that flexibility was the missionary watchword. He had expected to work in stable Zulu communities, but they had been scattered by recent war. So he quickly adjusted to serve a new social group—refugees.

Addressing both their physical and spiritual needs, Adams employed an evangelistic strategy whereby young Zulus were hired to live with his family in exchange for clothing, education, and a financial payment made to the youths’ parents. While the scheme resulted in many converts, it had a danger—that the Zulus could easily confuse dependence upon the missionaries with dependence upon Christ.1

This particular peril increased in the years to come, when renewed strife in the region forced the mission to move. Adams petitioned the English governor, Sir George Grey, for help.2 Grey was willing to do almost anything to bring stability to the area, so he gave mission societies 500-acre plots with thousands of surrounding acres to be used as their mission field. Unfortunately, Grey unwittingly created little economic fiefdoms, with missionaries at the top of the ladder and indigenous converts at the bottom. Once again, in such an environment, it was almost impossible to know if the converts were serving the missionaries or serving Christ.3 But time would prove that the Zulus had developed a genuine, Protestant work ethic.

These missionary outposts could have left a small community of converts dependent upon the financial and spiritual leadership of their foreign friends, but the deeper spiritual lessons took root: “[T]here emerged . . . a new class of Africans who, propelled by their own initiative [and] encouraged by the missionaries . . . had become entrepreneurs and landowners and were also the leading men in church affairs.

When the missionaries produced a makeshift seminary, “Grown [Zulu] men were willing to leave their stations and follow the missionary teacher, often uprooting their families to do so . . . [They] showed amazing determination, against discouraging odds, to receive an education.”4 Once prepared, the Zulus showed initiative by starting their own Home Missionary Society and traveling the surrounding regions, preaching the gospel to their neighbors who were beyond the reach of the American mission.

The Americans were “spiritual descendents of the Puritansfor whom “industriousness and Godliness were inextricably intertwined.”5 True to their roots, they offered both Bible study for the heart and tillable land to occupy the hands, making the Zulus property owners with responsibility for their own plots. The missionaries also encouraged small-scale industry, and the Africans responded; they built and ran profitable sugar mills—without missionary help.

These missionary outposts could have left a small community of converts dependent upon the financial and spiritual leadership of their foreign friends, but the deeper spiritual lessons took root: “[T]here emerged . . . a new class of Africans who, propelled by their own initiative [and] encouraged by the missionaries . . . had become entrepreneurs and landowners and were also the leading men in church affairs.”6

Footnotes:

1  Myra Dinnerstein, “The American Zulu Mission in the Nineteenth Century: Clash over Customs,” Church History 45 (June 1976): 236.
2  Great Britain had annexed the region in 1842. 
3  Ibid., 237-238.
4  Ibid., 239.
5  Ibid., 241.
6  Ibid. 


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