The missionary career and spiritual odyssey of Otto Witt

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis is a theological and historical study of the Swedish missionary and evangelist Peter Otto Helger Witt (1848-1923), who served as the Church of Sweden Mission's first missionary and as such launched its work amongst the Zulu people of Southern Africa in the 1870S before growing disillusioned with his national Lutheran tradition and, after following a tortuous spiritual path through generally increasing theological subjectivity, eventually becoming a loosely affiliated Pentecostal evangelist in Scandinavia. Undoubtedly owing to the embarrassment he caused the Church of Sweden Mission by resigning from it while it was in a formative stage, but also to tension between him and its leaders, Witt has never received his due in the historiography of Swedish missions. For that matter, his role in Scandinavian nonconformist religious movements for nearly a third of a century beginning in the early 1890S is a largely untold chapter in the ecclesiastical history of the region. This thesis is intended to redress these lacunae by presenting Witt's career as both a foreign missionary and evangelist as well as the contours of his evolving religious thought and placing both of these emphases into the broader history of Scandinavian and other missionary endeavours amongst the Zulus, late nineteenth-century developments in Swedish Lutheranism, and the coming to northern Europe of those religious movements in which he successively became involved. As the copious documentation indicates, it is based to a great extent on little-used materials in the archives of the Church of Sweden Mission and other repositories in Scandinavia, South Africa, and the United States of America. Witt's own numerous publications also provide much of the stuff for it. The structure of this study is essentially chronological and, within that framework, thematic with clear precedents in previous missions and ecclesiastical historiography. The first chapter is largely a critical review of previous pertinent literature, professional and otherwise, emphasising its general misunderstanding and neglect of Witt. Chapter II covers his background in nineteenth-century Swedish Lutheranism, call to the Church of Sweden Mission, and role in establishing that organisation's endeavours amongst the Zulus. Chapter Ill deals with the trauma of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1819, particularly Witt's controversial but misunderstood role in it and the place of this in the existing historiography of that conflagration. Chapter IV surveys his part in re-establishing the Swedish Lutheran mission following the war and his co-operative and at times creative role in this major task. Chapters V and VI, on the other hand, have as their respective themes Witt's consequential spiritual crisis of the mid-1880s and resulting gradual departure from the Church of Sweden Mission. The seventh chapter is a consideration of Witt's Participation in and temporarily great impact on the Free East Africa Mission, a pan-Scandinavian free church undertaking which undertook evangelisation in both Durban and rural Natal in 1889. Chapter VIII treats Witt's generally independent career in Scandinavia from 1891 until his death, focusing on the new developments in which he became involved. The final chapter is an attempt to assess his general place in the missions and ecclesiastical history of Scandinavia and Southern Africa.

Bibliography: pages 325-334.