The Status and Prospects of Calvinism in South Africa


To form a balanced opinion in connection with the status and prospects of Calvinism in South Africa it is imperative to obtain a bird’s-eye view of history and of the present situation.

When Jan van Riebeeck landed in Table Bay in the year 1652 one of his first acts was to read the prescribed prayer of the Dutch East India Company, wherein the hope was expressed that the true Reformed faith might be disseminated among the native inhabitants to the glory of the Name of God and the extension of his kingdom. Truly a sound start.

At this time the Republic of the Netherlands was at its peak of prosperity, might, and influence and at the same time it was the bulwark of Calvinism in Europe. Consequently it can be said that the small settlement at the Cape was in reality a small Calvinistic state, in so far as this was possible in those pioneering days. The government subscribed to the Reformed faith and in the church the Reformed principles laid down by the Synod of Dort were followed as far as possible. The school nominally belonged to the state but in reality the church had the predominant influence.

In 1688 the Dutch Calvinistic element was strengthened by the arrival of the Calvinistic Huguenots who very soon became one with the nascent Afrikaner-nation with its own language.

The young nation was spread over a vast area, and circumstances were all but favorable for the building of a society with Calvinistic principles, especially as the whole history of about three centuries has been one continuous struggle against the savage native races and British imperialism.

On the other hand, precisely these circumstances were a dominating factor in molding the specific South African type of Calvinism. The oppression which they suffered at the hands of unsympathetic governors and the independent life in the Hinterland fostered their republican and democratic spirit which they inherited from the Dutch Calvinists. Their contact and battle with the indigenous races gave birth to the typically South African attitude towards the colored races of which the basic tenet is: no miscegenation or integration or anything that may lead to this. In practice they experienced the immense problems resulting from the fusion of faces so utterly distinct as white and black. The great (English-speaking) historian, G. Mc Theal, sums up the result in the following words: “To their feeling…it is due that the present colonies are not inhabited by a mass of improvident and worthless mongrels.” This racial philosophy brought them in conflict with European rationalism and naturalism of the brand of Rousseau, which fact—unfortunately—had disastrous results on missionary work.

The gradual development of a typical nationhood was rudely interrupted when the British took over the Cape for a second time in 1806. During a brief interval (1803–1806) the Dutch had control again and during that time Commissioner De Mist did much harm to the spread of Calvinism. He was a spiritual child of the French Revolution and his view of state, church, and society were in complete accord with the spirit of the age. From the shock we received at that time we have not recovered completely even now.

Unfortunately the church at that time was too weak to resist the tide, with the result that all kinds of -isms found a happy hunting ground in our beloved country: Liberalism, Methodism, Remonstrantism, etc. It was the time of emphasis on sane reasoning (gezond verstand), fostered by ministers who had their training in the modernistic universities of the Netherlands.

This process was checked in some measure by the return in 1859 to Reformed principles by the Gereformeerde Kerk and the deposition in 1862 of the rationalistic ministers by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Church (Nedercluitse Gereformeerde Kerk). Unfortunately, this act was annulled by the Court and in the same year a high tide of revivalism (inspired by similar movements in the United States) swept over South Africa. As every Calvinist knows, this spirit is not favorable to the spread of the Reformed faith.

As far as national and cultural life was concerned, a very healthy rebirth was experienced after the seventies of the former century in the so-called Eerste Afrikaanse Taalbeweging (First Afrikaans Language Movement) under the leadership of Rev. S. J. du Toit. This whole movement was definitely Calvinistic and will always be remembered as a highlight in our national development. The men of this movement did not hesitate to declare that for them language, nationality, and religion were one in opposition to Liberalism for which movement religion is a private matter of the individual.

Under the inspiring leadership of these men the foundations were laid for a nation with Calvinistic principles. In his concept of state, society, and church S. J. du Toit became the Abraham Kuyper of South Africa.

The Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902 ushered in a new century. A nation which was crushed physically was reborn in spirit and determined to fight for its future.


Very soon a movement for Christian-National education was ushered in as a protest against the liberalism of general Smuts and lord Alfred Milner, whose avowed purpose was “to break the neck of Afrikanerdom”. Calvinists from the different Afrikaans Churches exerted their influence individually in the different organizations but a united Calvinistic organization was not brought into being until after the twenties. It was started with the aim of removing the so-called “conscience clause,” according to which a university was not allowed to inquire about the religious convictions of its personnel. The newly incorporated Polchefstroom University College for Christian Higher Education fought the battle with the help of Calvinists from the three Afrikaans-speaking churches.

This struggle resulted in the Calvinistiese Bond which was inaugurated in 1929 and experienced the difficulty which was the drawback of every Calvinistic movement since then: the deplorable fact that the rift between the churches is also maintained in organizations on the broad field of the kingdom of God. After a few years of good work the Calvinistiese Bond disbanded and was succeeded by the Calvinistiese Unie which, among other things, succeeded in starting a Calvinistic publishing house k now n as SACUM (South African Calvinistic Publishing House). After a few years of fruitful labor, the Calvinists from the Nederdflitse Gereformeerrde Kerk deemed it better for the cause of Calvinism to organize separately. This resulted in two Calvinistic movements. (The Hervormde Kerk in South Africa does not believe in separate organizations of Calvinists and is of the conviction that every individual Christian has to exert his influence in the national and cultural organizations.)

The Calvinists of the N. G. Church have their society for Christian Higher Education which now collaborates with Sacum and has two full-time organizers. The society for Christian Higher Education publishes a magazine with the title Roeping (Calling). The Calvinists from the Gereformeerde Kerk have their Afrikaanse Calvinistiese Beweging with its magazine Woord en Daad. Moreover, these Calvinists have their own publishing house Pro Rege Pers and their own printing establishment Herout Drukpers, both at Potchcfstroom.

Up till now we have only spoken about Afrikaans-speaking Calvinists. The reason is that real Calvinists among the English-speaking section are few and far between. Efforts are being made to contact those who are known (or their zeal in this matter.




When the progress of the last two or three decades is kept in mind, there is hope for the future. The fact that the kingship of Christ is continually stressed and that our people read more and more Christian books, as a result of the labors especially of Sacum and Pro Rege Press, the phalanx of active Calvinists is growing. May God grant in his mercy that the roads which run separately at present may merge in the near future so that Calvinists of all churches may in one way or another work together under the banner of our Lord and King.

This is the more necessary as critical times lie ahead in this large continent and there is work that can be done neither by the state nor by the church. It will be a difficult struggle because so many people in our country know only of church and state and because in the days of indifference which we must expect the Reformed faith will not be popular.

Nevertheless, we agree with Spurgeon that Arminianism may be only a religion for a painted boat on a calm sea, but in the days of tribulation the conviction that our Lord is sovereign supplies the necessary stamina. Our motto therefore is: ora en labora. Like Daniel, after the vision of the terrible things that are to happen in apocalyptic times, we want “to do the kings work,” but happily not the work of the heathen king Belshazzar but that of the King of kings.

This year of remembrance in connection with the birth and the great work of John Calvin brings a renewed call to action. It is inspiring to read the words of Dr. N. J. Hommes in connection with the opening of the house of Calvin’s birth in Noyon as a museum in 1955: “Whatever one may think of john Calvin, one fact cannot be ignored, namely, that his work 011 the foundation of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ has placed such a stamp on our world that, compared with him, all modem atheists and blasphemers like Multatuli, Nietzsche, Shaw, Sartre, with all their biting and brilliant sarcasm, are mere stammerers who will Io n g have been shunted to a side-line when the name of Calvin will still live.”

On the above-named occasion professor Lefranc made a historical speech from which we quote only these lines; “Calvin, this son of Noyon, remains one of the peaks of the sixteenth century and even one of the builders of our modern world. Of Geneva, a small border-state with limited horizon, he made a metropolis, one of the high places on which the Holy Spirit breathed continually.”

I conclude with the words of a biographer of John Calvin, professor Doumergue: “The true house of Calvin is not the house of bricks, but it is his church, the presbyterial, synodical church, the mighty faith and wise democracy of which were the effective cause of the honor, the might, and the glory of Switzerland, Holland, Hungary, England, America, and France…Calvinism, that is the invigorating water which our time and our churches need, weakened as they are by so many ruinous influences.”