Methodist Heritage in Gauteng & the Central District

Methodist Heritage in Gauteng & the Central District

by Dr J Millard Jackson

 

 

The first Methodist missionary in the Transvaal was not a minister sent by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society but a humble Tswana man from the Rustenburg district later named David Magatta by the Methodists but whose name was actually David Modibane Mogatle. His home was destroyed and he was taken prisoner by Mzilikazi in the 1830s but managed to escape and fled to Thaba ‘Nchu where he was converted, baptized and became a preacher. He returned to the Rustenburg district, found his family scattered and went to Potchefstroom where he started preaching and soon gathered a small group of people who called themselves Methodists. In 1871 when the Rev George Blencowe from Ladysmith, Natal visited Potchefstroom he met Mogatle and arranged for him to receive a small stipend and for an old building to be converted into a church. David died soon after in 1874.

 

Blencowe recommended that the WMMS send missionaries to Potchefstroom and Pretoria. Later when the Rev T Creswell arrived in Potchefstroom he arranged to buy the farm “Uitkyk” to settle some of the Barolong people who had lost their land. It was here that the first training institution was built. A number of graduates from this institution, such as Henry Ntsiko and John and Michael Boweni, served the Methodist Church well in various Societies in the Transvaal, like Klerksdorp and Johannesburg.  When the new institution was opened at Kilnerton in Pretoria the ministerial students from Potchefstroom were transferred there.

 

The first Methodist minister in Pretoria was the Rev George Weavind who arrived in 1873. He met some of the unofficial evangelists who had started Methodist missions among their own people. These were men who had gone to the Cape or Natal to earn money to buy blankets and guns. They met up with Methodists and were converted and educated and returned bringing with them the Word of God. They started small Societies and called themselves Methodists. When the Rev Owen Watkins arrived to start a “Trial Mission” in 1880 he, too, met up with men like Hans Apie and Klaas Ndlovu and their Societies became part of the Mission. These men received their training from Watkins and other ministers who arrived to serve in the Transvaal. They were also taught and examined at Synod which made the proceedings very long. The Separate District Meetings were started so that those not involved in the training exercise could return home to their congregations. Kilnerton Training Institution opened its doors in 1886 to train fifty men for a five year course and African ministerial training improved as the graduates proved more successful than those who had had to study alone with the infrequent help of a white minister.

 

Gold was discovered on the Reef in 1886 and among those who flocked to the Witwatersrand were Methodists. The first Methodist sermon to be preached in Johannesburg is attributed to John Thornhill Cook, a local preacher from Port Elizabeth. He preached from Luke 15, the story of the Prodigal Son. He was a surveyor and the son of the Rev Edward Cook, the pioneer Methodist missionary to Namibia. He designed a number of the early Methodist church buildings including the main President Street church.

 

 

The Rev Fred Briscoe from Pretoria moved to Johannesburg in 1887 to become the first resident minister. The President Street Church was opened ten years later. There was also a lay ministry by Deaconnesses Evelyn Oats and Miriam Scriven who worked among the needy in Johannesburg. In 1886 the work on the Albert Street Church for African members was begun. That year Weavind wrote in the WMMS Notices that there were at least 6,000African miners in need of pastoral care. The “Mission Bands” – and outreach by young Christian men to those working on the mines was begun. The Albert Street congregation went through a very painful time in the early 1930s which led to a split and the formation of the “Donkey Church”. The Superintendent of the Witwatersrand Mission, the Rev Enoch Carter told the people at Albert Street that they would have to pay an extra sixpence (five cents) pledge money. It was the time of the Great Depression and most of the people were very poor. There was a dispute and the communion table was overturned and the wine spilt. Some of the members left Albert Street (featured below) to form their own independent Bantu Church of South Africa.  A new Central hall was opened in 1919 and served the people of Johannesburg until 1965 when the present church was built.

 

When we think of our heritage and the witness of those who have gone before we realize how much they have shaped the Methodist Church of today. There are a number of church buildings, like the Albert Street Church, which are over 100 years old and need to be declared National Monuments and/or heritage sites. Local histories need to be recorded as there are many Societies that are well over 100 years old even if their buildings are no longer the original ones, and these stories must not be lost.