The evangelizing of South Africa includes more than breaking down the barriers of heathenism. Although the 7,000,000 Bantu natives present a mighty challenge, the 2,000,000 white and 800,000 colored people offer no less a challenge, and just as wonderful possibilities.
For three centuries the white man has been steadily extending his sphere of influence in the southern part of the Dark Continent. The earliest settlers came from that center of Reformation fervor, Holland. Later they were joined by Huguenots who had been driven out of France by the persecutions that deprived their fair land of many of its most industrious and God-fearing citizens.
These hardy sons of the Reformation were brought under British rule during the Napoleonic wars. Almost immediately an era of colonization and exploration spread the white man's civilization to the borders of the Transkei, across the Orange River, over the great high veld to the borders of the Limpopo, and beyond the Drakenberg to the kraals of Zululand.
Along the east coast thousands of hardy British settlers built their homes in the vicinity of what are now the thriving cities of Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, East London, and Durban.
The hardships of pioneer life and the isolation from the world's large centers of population have developed a people of independent character and somewhat insular outlook. These conditions have also shielded them from much of the rationalism and materialism of modern Europe.
The vastness of the country tended toward the growth of isolated settlements of English and Dutch people who, in a number of instances, organized independent governments, which were later united under the Union of South Africa. Among these hardy pioneers, religion was considered just as important as dinner or supper, and was made as regular a part of the daily program.
This background needs to be kept constantly before us when we analyze the problems of evangelism in South Africa. It helps us to understand how Brethren Wessels and Van Druten came to take their stand on the Sabbath truth when they believed that they were the only people in the world observing that day as holy.
Some further facts may help to clarify the situation. Nearly half the white population is on the membership lists of the Dutch Reformed Church. They are generally fundamentalist in belief, though modernism is increasingly in evidence among the younger ministers.
The form of church government, and the confidence of the people in their ministers, favor a firm control of the members. The ministers are quick to combat heresy both from the pulpit and by personal visits. So strong is the influence of the minister, especially in the rural areas and smaller towns, that few will knowingly attend services against which they have been warned. However, if the people can be led to attend three or four of our evangelistic meetings, they will usually continue to cothe in spite of opposition. They are often willing to listen to the truth when they have had the opportunity of testing the truths of our message by the Bible. In the larger cities, where the members of many denominations are living in the same area, the problem is still present, but less acute.
In Afrikaans evangelism the choice of topics during the first few nights is important. The presentation of Daniel 2 on the first night will often lead the minister of the Dutch Reformed church to warn his members.
There are other problems which our evangelists must face. Tents are coming to be associated with sects. The high cost of materials and high transportation costs often make tabernacles uneconomical. Also, the large farms and long distances make it difficult for people to attend a series of meetings regularly. Again, the subtropical climate favors every form of outdoor activity in the late afternoons and evenings. Young people are especially attracted by these features.
The English-speaking section is divided into a number of denominations, the largest of which is the Church of England, followed by the Roman Catholics and other smaller groups. Among the Protestant churches modernism has made some progress, and wide latitude in belief and practice is permitted. This does not mean lack of prejudice or opposition, but often it means indifference to spiritual things. To interest these people, careful attention must be given to securing the best halls available, maintaining a very high and conservative standard in advertising, and presenting the message in a dignified and compelling manner.
Above all, every evangelist who expects to succeed must be filled with the Holy Spirit. He must be prepared, just as his Bible instructors are, to go from house to house and pray and study with the people. I am glad to report that such is the spirit that actuates our evangelists in South Africa, and that God has honored His servants with an abundant harvest of souls. To illustrate, in the Cape Conference during the five-year period 1940 to 1944 inclusive, the average number of baptisms a year for each ordained minister was thirty-one, and the average net gain a year in membership for each ordained minister was twenty.
We believe it is in God's providence that there is a substantial white population in South Africa.
With the souls won in this country a strong base has been built up from which an ever-increasing number of men and women are going into the great fields to the north.