The Saints in South Africa

Today, 120 years after the first convert baptism near Cape Town, the South African Saints still exhibit that same remarkable spirit of independence and adventure that marked their forebears

Shouldering their own baggage, Elders Jesse Haven, Leonard L. Smith, and William H. Walker lumbered down the gangway, glad to be on solid ground once again. The trio’s long and sometimes dangerous voyage was over, and they were grateful that the good ship Domitia had landed them safely at Cape Town on the southwestern tip of the continent of Africa.

The three missionaries were part of a contingent of 106 elders who had left Great Salt Lake City on September 15, 1852, “to go into all the world and preach the gospel.”

That the three missionaries’ journey to Africa required over seven months to complete was due partly to their traveling without purse or scrip. Then, too, it was necessary for them to accompany a wagon train from Utah bound for the eastern part of the United States, before they made their way to New York. On December 16 they boarded ship for England, but when they arrived in Liverpool, there was considerable delay until they could arrange for passage to South Africa. Leaving London on February 11, the Domitia encountered squalls, windless days, and only intermittent fair weather, so it took another two months to complete the voyage to Cape Town.

When they arrived at their destination on April 18, 1853, the elders first sought the American consul and subsequently obtained from a local official permission to give a series of lectures on the gospel at the town hall.

In telling of the reaction to one of their first meetings in Cape Town, Elder Walker said, “As soon as Joseph Smith was mentioned as a prophet, they began to hoot and holler ‘Old Joe Smith.’ A mob broke up the meeting in an uproar.” 1 On other occasions the elders were assailed with rocks or pelted with softer missiles—rotten eggs and turnips. They were also preceded in their tracting by worried ministers going from house to house, urging the inhabitants to refuse the Mormons food and lodging and to shut their doors against them, hoping to drive the intruders from the country.

The elders persevered in their faith, however, and found an ally in a man by the name of Nicholas Paul, who lived in Mowberry. A man of considerable means, rare moral courage, and stamina, Mr. Paul defied mob rule by warning those attending a meeting with the elders at his home that “they were welcome to come to the meeting; but the first man that offered an insult on his premises either to the house or to the elders, he would put more holes through, than there were in a skimmer.” 2

In spite of the physical abuse and other setbacks, Elder Smith was able to baptize Henry Stringer into the Church as the first convert in South Africa on June 15, 1853. Two years later, when Elders Walker, Haven, and Smith sailed from Cape Town, the Church had been established with 176 members divided into three conferences and six branches.

Until 1857, when three new elders arrived from America to direct the missionary effort and other Church work, the Saints in South Africa were in charge of their own affairs. A year later this second group of missionaries returned home, and the South African Saints again managed their own affairs until 1861, when other missionaries were sent to preside over the mission. The Church in South Africa continued to grow slowly but steadily during this period.

In 1865 the work was once again turned over to the South African Saints, and this situation endured until 1903, when Elder Warren H. Lyons came to preside over the mission with the help of Elders William R. Smith, George A. Simpkins, and Thomas L. Griffiths. Only a remnant of those who remained faithful to the Church were left when the elders arrived, as was vividly demonstrated in Mowberry, Cape Town, where “ninety-year-old Elder George Buck, the sole survivor of the branch, and the one who had been left in charge, welcomed the return of the missionaries.” 3

During this 38-year period, a landing fee law had been enacted that required, among other restrictions, that each minister entering the country must have the equivalent of $100 or provide evidence that he wouldn’t become a public charge. Many missionaries who were traveling without purse or scrip, as well as others who could provide the landing fee, were not permitted to stay. A lack of knowledge of the Afrikaans language was also a deterrent to missionary work.

In 1919 the South African government refused to let the elders enter its country for proselyting purposes, but the restriction was lifted two years later. Then in 1955, when racial unrest was mounting, the South African government refused to grant visas to missionaries of any denomination from foreign countries. However, the Church could send missionaries from the British Commonwealth. As a result, missionaries called from Canada and South Africa spread the gospel message during this period of restriction.

In 1918 the Saints witnessed a remarkable and faith-instilling demonstration of the Lord’s healing power through the righteous exercise of the priesthood. That fall a flu epidemic that was afflicting people around the world finally reached Cape Town. It was recorded that in the first week the deadly disease took the lives of five thousand people in Cape Town alone.

President Nicholas G. Smith, who presided over the mission at the time, said, in describing the insidious killer virus, that “it invaded the mission house—five of the missionaries were down—I remember Aaron U. Merrill of Cache Valley [Utah] and I were the only two left upon our feet!” President Smith then said to Elder Merrill, “Are you prepared to go with me through the city blessing the people?” And Elder Merrill answered, “I will go as far as I can.” And they left.

President Smith concluded his account of that exhausting and harrowing episode by saying that he and his companion “went from door to door that day, and of the fifty-seven who had been smitten with that disease, every Latter-day Saint was healed. Not one died. …” 4

The history of the white man’s entry and expansion into South Africa demonstrates the daring and extraordinary fortitude of the early European settlers who ventured there. In 1488 the Portuguese mariner Bartholomew Diaz, commanding two caravels, founded what was subsequently called the Cape of Good Hope; but it was not until April 6, 1652, that Jan van Riebeeck landed on the shores of Table Bay with his wife and, according to his journal, ninety “weak, inept, scurvy-ridden and sickly” men to establish the first white settlement in South Africa. Van Riebeeck was charged by his employer, the Dutch East India Company, to subdue the wilderness at Table Bay, to provide fresh vegetables and meat for passing fleets on their way to the Indies, and to build a fort and a hospital. Part of his task was to pacify the Hottentot cattle breeders so that he might barter with them for the necessary meat.

Early in the 1700s there was an exodus of Dutch farmers and French Huguenot refugees northward into the interior. Because many of them had grown up on South African soil, and because of their almost fierce patriotism toward a new fatherland, they became known as “Afrikaners.”

More than a century later, Boer frontier farmers, the Voortrekkers, who chafed under British rule from the Cape, made a dramatic migration to the north known as the Great Trek of 1835–37. This mass movement of thousands of men, women, and children by ox wagon across vast tracts of land that had been depopulated by the blacks warring among themselves is reminiscent of the Mormon trek westward in the United States a decade later, to avoid another kind of oppression. This common pioneer heritage is a distinct advantage when Latter-day Saint missionaries discuss the story of the Church with South Africans whose cultural ties are deeply rooted in the land.

This, in part, explains why South Africa is bilingual today. Afrikaans, the youngest of the Germanic languages, is the mother tongue of about 60 percent of the whites and about 90 percent of the coloreds. It evolved from seventeenth century Dutch spoken by early Dutch settlers. English, the other major language spoken in South Africa, developed as a result of the expansion of the British Commonwealth, which included South Africa in its reach. Many Bantu (blacks) speak English or Afrikaans or both. But among themselves most of them speak their own language.

South Africa has a multi-national population, and its government pursues a policy of apartheid or separate development for all of the distinctive peoples that make up its population. And while that definition may appear to be simplistic, it is reliable, without going into the many complexities of South Africa’s unique political structure.

The Afrikaans and English people or whites comprise about 20 percent of the population of the country. The Cape coloreds, descendants of the Bushmen and Hottentots and the only inhabitants indigenous to the country, are now a heterogeneous racial mixture and account for approximately 6.5 percent of the population. The Bantu or blacks, roughly divided into four major sub-groups, amount to about 70 percent of the country’s population; and the Asiatics, 3.5 percent, comprise the balance.

South Africa is steeped in many traditions—Asian, Western, and, of course, Africa’s unique pulsing life styles. Twenty-two major religions are represented in South Africa, and of the whites, more than two million out of approximately three and a half million belong to the Dutch Reformed Church.

South Africa is a land of varied contrasts: from Johannesburg with its sophisticated architecture (a $140 million skyscraper complex presently under construction), upbeat living tempo, and cosmopolitan atmosphere, to the wondrous game preserves, natural scenic areas, and the living styles of rural dwellers and those who live in the veld and bush country. The traditional form of the fluted, Ionic columns at the University of Cape Town high on Devil’s Peak are markedly different from the bold symmetry of the University of Pretoria’s administration block, with its bowed and converging vertical planes encompassing the structure.

The climate in South Africa is generally salubrious. And when one considers that the citizens of Pretoria, the administrative capital of the country, enjoy 3,240 hours of sunshine a year beaming down on a profusion of jacarandas, the boast that “when you’ve seen South Africa, then you’ve lived a little” doesn’t seem immodest.

Against this brief historical and cultural background, what can be said of the Saints in South Africa today?

On the continent of Africa there were 6,384 members of the Church at the end of 1971 (latest available figures): the Transvaal Stake, 3,128; the South Africa Mission, 2,718; Rhodesia, 345; Kenya, 104; Ethiopia, 89. (The latter two are in the Switzerland Mission. Rhodesia, which is contiguous to the northeast tip of South Africa, is considered part of the South Africa Mission, and for the purpose of this article only is not treated as an autonomous unit.)

The Transvaal Stake, with headquarters in Johannesburg, consists of five branches and five wards and is presided over by Louis Philipus Hefer. Its creation was sparked by a challenge given to the South African Saints in 1968 by President Marion G. Romney, who was visiting the mission.

It means a great deal to the South African Saints to have the General Authorities come there to counsel with them. Always their dedication seems to increase after such visits and their testimonies are strengthened. When President Romney said to them, “Why isn’t there a stake in South Africa?” they were deeply touched. He went on to tell them that if they had a stake, they could enjoy the full benefit of the Church. They could have more contact with the Church in Salt Lake City, more visits from the General Authorities, and they could have their own patriarch. He asked each family to find one good man and bring him into the Church, together with his family, during the coming year. If they would do this, President Romney said that he would recommend that a stake be created in the Transvaal area.

Given this prospect, the Saints in South Africa rallied to the challenge with tremendous zeal; and on March 22, 1970, the Transvaal Stake was organized as the 505th stake in the Church.

The South Africa Mission, which is also headquartered in Johannesburg, is presided over by Harlan W. Clark, who was called to that position in 1970. In addition to the Cape District with two branches and the Natal District with three, the mission includes eight other branches, three of which are located in Rhodesia.

The first LDS chapel in South Africa was built in 1916–17 as an addition to the first mission home at Mowberry, a suburb of Cape Town. By 1937 a new chapel had been erected on the site of an old tennis court next to the mission home. The mission home, which was named “Cumorah,” was the former residence of Colonel Frank Rhodes, brother of Cecil Rhodes, who founded Rhodesia.

In 1925 the first LDS chapel in Johannesburg, known as “Old Ramah,” was constructed on Commissioner Street. It was a joint building effort of the local members and the missionaries, and the funds for its construction were raised by the sale of books and cakes and by holding concerts. When the little building was dedicated, its capacity was sorely taxed by the South African Saints and missionaries who attended the ceremony.

In 1950 missionary work was extended into Rhodesia, where several branches of the Church were established. And to give further impetus to the Lord’s work, tracts and pamphlets were translated into Afrikaans during this period. Other chapels were built at Springs, Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Johannesburg, until there are now 16 chapels in South Africa. In Rhodesia, a chapel was erected in Bulawayo and another in the capital city of Salisbury.

Mission headquarters were moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 1960, because more missionaries were arriving by air than by boat and because Johannesburg was the largest population center and more centrally located to the majority of the South African Saints and the areas of greatest mission activity.

The response to the Church in South Africa today is positive. Because of the fine example of Christian living exemplified by the Saints residing there, the acclaim given to Church musical groups, and the prowess of LDS athletes, the Church has become known as a source for good. Particularly is this the case in the nation’s press, which is often complimentary in reporting the activities of the Saints. One Johannesburg newspaper recently reported in laudatory detail the function and purposes of the family home evening program.

One of the greatest single achievements of the South African Saints was the recently completed translation of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans. The South Africa Mission was officially classified as a foreign language mission in 1963, and missionaries going to South Africa now learn Afrikaans at the Language Training Mission at Brigham Young University.

At a meeting in Johannesburg on May 14, 1972, when the Afrikaans Boek van Mormon was introduced to the South African Saints, it was a happy and, at the same time, an emotion-packed experience for those in attendance. A missionary who attended the landmark event said that “to sit in that meeting and observe the rapt attention and subsequent tears in the eyes of the audience when the first few pages of the Boek van Mormon were read aloud was one of the greatest spiritual experiences of my mission.”

Bishop Johannes P. Brummer of the Johannesburg Second Ward, one of those who shepherded this valuable and important translation, told of the divine guidance that made its publication possible. He had translated about a third of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans, but it had been a long, tedious effort, and it was imperative that the translation be completed without further delay so that the building up of the Church in South Africa could progress with greater speed and with every possible advantage. But where could a person be found with the necessary academic excellence and sufficient spirituality to complete such a task?

One day an acquaintance of Bishop Brummer brought his friend, Felix Mynhardt, a language teacher from Pretoria, to meet him. The man not only had a consuming interest in everything related to the scriptures, but he also had been raised in a home with a spiritual atmosphere. His father, the Reverend C. F. Mynhardt, compiled the first concordance of the Afrikaans Bible.

Felix’s facility with languages was phenomenal. When he was a young boy he could read Latin text; at nine, he read Latin and Greek fluently; by sixteen, he had mastered English, Afrikaans, Aramaic, and Hebrew; then he took up other languages—German, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Finally, he gained a reading skill in Chinese.

Bishop Brummer bore testimony of divine intervention in the translation: “I can tell you that I have no doubt about this that when Felix Mynhardt made his appearance in my office on a given day, it was not just a coincidence. He was sent to us by the Lord. This has been confirmed to me on many occasions since then. You might well ask the question whether a man of such academic preeminence and authority would have the necessary humility of spirit to enable him to do work of this nature.”

Felix Mynhardt, a nonmember, provides the answer to that question himself.

During a difficult period in the translation Felix said: “It’s as though darkness seems to settle on my mind when I get down to work so that I just cannot get the translation done. On some occasions I have in absolute despair gone down onto my knees and asked the Lord to help me. I have come to you today to tell you that I think you folks are just not praying for me.”

There are many fine examples of the righteousness of the South African Saints. Home teaching and Relief Society visits are often made to members’ homes many miles away. Money is carefully saved by members who go to the London Temple to do ordinance work, a feat that for many of the Saints with large families requires frugality and considerable sacrifice.

The logistics of attending youth conferences, speech festivals, and other Church-sponsored activities are staggering and are another measure of the South African Saints’ willingness to do the Lord’s work. The Salisbury members live 750 miles north of Johannesburg, and the Cape Town members are 900 miles to the south. Port Elizabeth is 600 miles away to the southeast, and Durban, the country’s busiest seaport and “playground of the southern hemisphere,” is 400 miles east of Johannesburg, which hosts most area meetings.

The South African Saints’ deep religious heritage and allegiance to the Church is evidenced by their sound knowledge of the scriptures. They are generous in their support of Church building funds and contribute unstintingly to the tithing fund and for other needs of the Church. They actively support the missionary program of the Church, and some families have sent as many as three of their children on missions. There are other families in which every family member holds a position in the branch or ward.

In conclusion, what could be said about these valiant Saints regarding their solidarity toward the Church could be repeated about thousands of other members in South Africa, who are firmly convinced of the truth of a phrase common to them all: “We’re as far from Salt Lake City as any Mormon on earth, but we’re just as close to heaven.”

[photo] Opposite page: Cape Town city hall by night

[photo] Left: Wide-angle view of Salisbury, capital city of Rhodesia

[photo] Below: Atlantic breakers at Sea Point, Cape Town

[photo] Above: Residential area of Selukwe, chromium mining center in Rhodesia, showing jacarandas in bloom

[photo] Left: Country “strip” road between Gwelo and Selukwe in central Rhodesia

[photo] Right: One of the historical needlework tapestries (15 in all) on display inside the Voortrekker monument near Pretoria, depicting the beginning of the “Great Trek”

[photo] Bake sales are common as fundraising projects among Rhodesian and South African Saints

[photo] Above: Zebras foraging in world-famous Kruger National Game Park in eastern Transvaal

[photo] Left: Unique architectural style of Bloemfontein Chapel in central South Africa

[photo] Right: Handsome brick and stucco chapel at Springs, southeast of Johannesburg

[photo] The Groot Constantia national monument near Cape Town, typical of many early Dutch homesteads on the Cape

Show References


  1.   1.

    Elizabeth Jane Walker Piepgrass, The Life Incidents and Travels of Elder William Holmes Walker and His Association with Joseph Smith, the Prophet (Salt Lake City 1943), pp. 23–24.

  2.   2.

    Ibid., p. 27.

  3.   3.

    John G Kinnear, “South Africa Mission,” Improvement Era, March 1959, p. 150.

  4.   4.

    “The History of the South African Mission.” Cumorah’s Southern Messenger, October 1957, p. 156.