African perceptions of the missionaries and their message : Wesleyans at Mount Coke and Butterworth, 1825-35

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Missionary endeavours in the Eastern Cape were characterized by African resistance to the Christian Gospel during the first half of the nineteenth century. Current explanations for this rejection point to the opposition of the chiefs, the association that the listeners made between the missionaries and their white oppressors, and the threat to communal solidarity. This thesis aims to see if these explanations fully reveal the reasons for Xhosa resistance to Christianity by examining African perceptions of the missionaries and their message at the Wesleyan mission stations of Mount Coke and Butterworth for the period 1825-35. The research is based upon the Wesleyan Missionary Society correspondence and missionary journals and is corroborated and supplemented by travellers' records and later studies in African religion and social anthropology. The economic, social, and religious background of the Wesleyans is described to show how the Christian message was limited to their culture and system of thought. Concepts of divinity, morality, and the afterlife are compared to demonstrate the vast differences between Wesleyan and African worldviews and the inability of the missionaries to overcome these obstacles and to show the relevance of Christianity to African material and spiritual needs. Various types of perceptions are surveyed to show that, though the missionaries were respected for their spiritual role, their character and lifestyle presented an unappealing model of the Christian life. The threat that the missionary message posed to the structure and functioning of African communities is examined as well as African perceptions of these implications. A theory of conversion is advanced which reveals a consistent pattern of association with the missionaries for reasons of self-interest, exposure to the Gospel over a lengthy period of time, and finally conversion. The missionary-African contact of this period is thus characterized as the encounter between two systems of thought which did not engage.

Bibliography: leaves 175-183.