Evangelical missionary work in South Africa goes back to 1737 when George Schmidt, a Moravian missionary, preached the gospel to the Hottentots. Some were saved and later baptized. However, there was opposition to his work and the authorities were persuaded to expel Schmidt and to forbid his return. Later, the London Missionary Society and other evangelical missions worked in South Africa. Robert Moffat (father-in-law to David Livingstone) started work in Cape Town in 1817, but later moved on to Botswana.
Assembly work commenced around the year 1850. At first, businessmen who came to the country, sought to reach out to the indigenous people, and were later joined by full-time commended workers. Many workers from various countries have been commended and have rendered many years of faithful service to the work in South Africa. Their efforts have been concentrated mostly in the major cities. Although a number of assemblies have closed in recent years, there are still a good number in existence today. Generally there has been sympathy shown toward the gospel message and many respect those who preach it. Amongst many who live in the rural areas of the Western Cape it is counted an honor to open one’s home for a “cottage meeting.” This is typically where a few brethren will come along, sing a few hymns and choruses, and preach the gospel, often in an unbeliever’s home. Other types of outreach are: open-air meetings, meetings in halls, and tract distribution. Through this type of outreach, souls have been saved and assemblies planted, many of which are presently going on zealously for the Lord.
There are many small towns in the Western Cape where couples commended from assemblies are working. These brethren have gone to these outlying areas seeking to pioneer in the gospel with literature distribution and meetings and also helping in other ways, e.g., helping to transport people to hospital appointments and to the shops. In this way they become well known in these communities, become personally acquainted with the people, and have been able to share the gospel with them. As a result, people have been saved and baptized, and assemblies planted. Many of them are very small and are supported in their efforts by brethren from Cape Town who travel out at weekends to help in the work. Alcoholism is a big problem in many of these towns. I have observed at open-air meetings that as we have arrived and started to sing choruses that quite a number have come and sat around us. As we sang, they sang with us and as we quoted verses of Scripture, they quoted them with us, but under the influence of alcohol. Also, there is the problem of unfaithfulness in marriage. Sadly, sometimes those affected with this problem are those who profess to be saved and some have been in fellowship.
Many of the Lord’s servants over the years have worked around the Cape Town area. In earlier days when ships docked at Cape Town, missionaries who were en-route to other countries would have spent some time there helping in Bible teaching. There are quite a number of assemblies in the Cape Town area today. However, some of these assemblies are now very small and some have closed due to declining numbers.
Assembly work in Johannesburg commenced in the early 20th century. A large work was done with those employed in the gold mines and subsidiary industries. People were saved and assemblies formed. The testimony was strong in the region for many years. Here also, however, quite a number of assemblies have closed and some are very weak numerically. But there are a few brethren still very active in the gospel and seeking to carry on faithfully. One of the assemblies in Johannesburg carries on a gospel meeting on Sunday nights specifically for “street people.” Many of these people are refugees from other countries. Some of them have been saved and have taken the gospel back to their home countries.
In the Kwazulu Natal province there has been a lot of work done among the Zulu speaking people and as a result many have been saved and are now meeting in assemblies. There are also quite a few locally-commended evangelists working among them with some workers commended from overseas. There are many English-speaking people in this province and there have been a number of English-speaking assemblies established. There is also a long standing work amongst the Xhosa-speaking people.
Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, has a few assemblies. They work in fellowship with each other and continue in the gospel and in ministry of the Word. They hold conferences at various times of the year and it is good to see the unity between them. There is a pioneering work among the Xhosa people north of Port Elizabeth.
It seems that there has been very little assembly work done in the Orange Free State which is in the west of the country. This is a particularly strong Afrikaans-speaking province. I am not aware of any assemblies there.
There have been numerous visits by brethren to areas in the far north of the country. Areas where Venda and Shangaan are spoken have had periodic visits from brethren from Johannesburg over quite a number of years. Generally the reception has been good but progress in the work is slow. One reason for this is that there are no evangelists from assemblies living in these areas. How good it would be to see those called by God serving Him in the gospel in these places!
Generally speaking there is much liberty to preach the gospel in South Africa. However, with various influences we do not know how long this will continue. May we all be faithful in that to which the Lord has called us! How good it will be in “that day” to see many from South Africa gathered around the throne singing the praises of the Lamb!