The divided roots of Lutheranism in South Africa : a critical overview of the social history of the German-speaking Lutheran missions and the churches originating from their work in South Africa

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This study defends the thesis that the present social location of the Lutheran churches can be explained by examining the history of their internal divisions and their relation to broader struggles in society. The history of the Lutheran missions and churches is considered in relation to the political and socio-economic dimensions of South African history. Church history is conceived as an internal struggle between a dominant and an alternative theology (and their respective ecclesial bases), which affects the participation of the churches in broader social struggles. The development of the churches is divided into three periods, corresponding to the growing independence of the black churches from the mission societies. The thesis is examined by extensive reference to primary and secondary sources on the Lutheran church. Interviews with key informants from the various missions and churches provide additional information. The broader field of church historiography, as well as theoretical writings on church history are considered. The analytical aim of the thesis is to show how· the struggles internal to the Lutheran churches - including struggles around theological issues - have affected their ability to participate in the broader struggle for liberation in South Africa. In addition to this analytical aim, the thesis provides a narrative history of Lutheranism in South Africa. The findings of the thesis are that white Lutherans have been the dominant group in the Lutheran churches throughout their history in South Africa. White Lutherans produced the dominant theology of all the Lutheran churches for most of the history of Lutheranism in South Africa. This dominance of German-Lutheran theology was established in the missionary period. The social base of the missions was the German farming community. This community broadly formed part of the ruling classes of colonial society, and its interests converged at many points with colonialism. Lutherans were not allied to the dominant colonial power, the British, but from the end of the nineteenth century to the Boers. Their theological self-understanding as Lutherans, with their specific missiology, ecclesiology and doctrines (e.g. the Two Kingdoms Doctrine) gave them an identity distinct from others in the ruling bloc. This theology was the dominant theology of all Lutheran churches, black and white. This theological self-understanding, however, gave them only limited autonomy. They conformed to dominant values by dividing along racial lines. This dominant ecclesiology had its effect beyond the missionary period, and resulted in the separate development of black and white Lutheran churches. Although the black churches gained more independence through the formation of synods and later regional churches, they have internalized to some degree the dominant theology taught by the missionaries. The internal divisions within Lutheranism have continued to prevent effective engagement in external struggles for justice. Yet in the course of struggles for unity and a more effective political witness, an alternative Lutheran theology and ecclesiology has emerged, mainly among young black pastors and church members, but also among some white Lutherans. It is among these people that a Lutheran tradition of resistance to apartheid in church and society can be discovered. It is here that the hope of the church is found.

Bibliography: pages 126-137.