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Afrikaner Calvinism

From between 1652 to 1835, settlers primarily from the Netherlands, and migrant and refugee Calvinist Protestants from Germany, France, Scotland, and elsewhere in Europe, combined in South Africa to form a distinct people, eventually called the Afrikaners or Boers. A significant number of the French progenitors of the Boer people were Huguenots, who were fleeing from the persecution that lasted for one hundred years after the Edict of Nantes was revoked. Between the end of the 18th century and the end of the 20th century, these people increasingly considered themselves Afrikaner rather than European. They spoke a dialect of the Dutch language called Afrikaans, and were bound together by a form of Calvinist religion. Though they lost control of their South African republics to the British after the Boer Wars, the Afrikaners finally negotiated a home-rule arrangement 10 years later and firmly established themselves as the ruling minority in South Africa until international pressure and increasing chaos within South Africa compelled them to dismantle their policies of exclusive control, called Apartheid. See History of South Africa.

The Calvinism of the Boers of the Transvaal in South Africa developed in a different way than its European and American counterparts. This uniqueness is generally regarded as a direct result of geographical isolation and political and cultural estrangement, which shut out the influences of the Enlightenment. The cross-currents of change which arose within the Protestant cultures of Europe in response to the Enlightenment had minimal effect upon the development of religious thought among the Boers.

This view of Afrikaner Calvinism implies that it is a purer expression of what Calvinism originally was, without the diluting effects of the Enlightenment. Particularly, this view implies that cultural development under the influence of Boer civil religion is an illustration of the cultural implications of Calvinism. This is especially interesting to contemporaries considering that a form of nationalistic Calvinism arose, which had direct bearing upon the establishment of the Apartheid policy in 1948.

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Settlement period The Dutch settlement of the Cape of Good Hope was the first colonial success in South Africa after numerous failures by the Portuguese and the British. The key to this success was the establishment of strict rules of trade between the settlement and the native population. No trade or Christian missionary[?] ventures among the Africans were permitted without the permission of the company administrator. Stealing or shooting cattle was especially forbidden as a cause of inevitable conflict with the natives. The early Europeans were appalled by the appearance and the customs of the Africans, and the completely false report that the natives were cannibals reinforced their motive to avoid unnecessary contact. The Cape was a walled garden, with Africa on the outside and Europe within. This strict order minimized conflicts with the Africans during the early settlement period.

Yet, many of the settlers had arrived with a missionary motive. The synthesis of these attitudes of strict avoidance and a missionary conscience resulted in the widespread practice of bringing natives into slave service, and within that master/servant relationship, to teach the Bible to them in hope that the message would filter back through the servant's family (along with reports of the superiority of European life) and thus bring about conversion.

The farmers who lived outside of the physical walls of the towns had a different arrangement than the townspeople. To them, occupation meant ownership, and ownership implied the right to protect their property. As they settled into the seemingly unnoccupied territories surrounding the Cape, they enforced these assumptions of ownership and its rights when the wandering hunters or herding tribes would cross the Fish River[?] into farm territories in search of grazing land or game. Thus, the farms represented an extension beyond the towns of the wall of separation between the white and the black occupants of the land. As in the towns, plantation slavery was sometimes seen as a means of evangelism.

Separation and rules of exchange were opposed very early in the Afrikaner mind to invasion and conquest. And, this anti-imperialism extended also to the theory of missionary obligation that developed within the Dutch Reformed Church: the kingdom of God[?] will grow within the sphere of influence assigned to the church by divine providence, as children are taught the Gospel by their parents and family. If God deems it fitting for the Gospel to be received by the natives, and taught to their children, then this is his glory. Toward that end, Christians have a defining role given them from God, a calling, or covenantal responsibility as God's people, to keep themselves pure in the faith and just in their dealings with the heathen, and to be absolutely unyielding in their protection of what has been legitimately claimed in the name of the Triune God.

Folk Religion This history is essential to understanding the distinctive concept of "calling" that developed among the Afrikaners. These attitudes, very early adopted, went with them through later conflicts, formed in a way that seemed to them obviously crafted by the hand of God Himself. They believed themselves preserved by God's own wisdom and Providence[?]. The things they suffered, and the strong bonds between them that were formed through it all, seemed to confirm this idea at every turn. Their history as a people has a central place in forming the Boer religion. In this way, a distinctive folk character became attached to their Calvinistic beliefs.

This folk religion was not articulated in a formal way. It was the experience of the Afrikaners, which they interpreted through their assurance that their absolutely sovereign Creator and Lord had shown special grace to them as a particular people. Their faith, tied as it was to their identity as a people, produced in them no appreciable trouble of conscience over their treatment of blacks as though they were incorrigible and dull-witted children, or animals in the shape of men. It offered no resistance to the slave-trade dependent culture ruled over by the Dutch company.

Nationalism However, the French Revolution brought these habits of thought more self-consciously to the surface. Because the Dutch of the Netherlands supported the French and American revolutions, the British declared war on the Netherlands and began seizing their trade routes. They landed at the Cape of Good Hope in 1797. After the Dutch declared bankruptcy, the British annexed the Cape and appointed British land administrators there in 1805, who were zealous propogators of the Enlightenment. They loosened the trade and labor regulations, speaking of the blacks as 'noble savages' whose untainted natural souls they professed to admire, finally outlawing slavery in 1835. They called the blacks equals, and gave them access to the courts in suit against white landowners. And, they professed to believe in their own autonomous Reason above all else.

A more antithetical message could hardly be imagined, as the English Enlightenment forced itself upon the Afrikaners. From the Boer point of view, the Enlightenment invaded their shores, seized their properties, annexed their farms, imposed alien laws, liberated their slaves without compensation, justified these actions by appeal to Reason alone, and claimed in all of this to be more virtuous than God. They were exposed to the Enlightment, and it appeared to them to be a revolution against God.

Laager strategy Resorting once again to the time-tested wisdom of progress through separation, thousands of farmers, called Voortrekkers, left the Cape beginning in 1835, and travelled in ox-drawn wagons as far as the Transvaal. Along the way on this Great Trek[?], the pioneers heading east were attacked by Xhosa tribes who were also moving into the region in retreat from the Zulus. To the north, they were attacked by the Zulu, when trade relations failed. And behind them, the British offered no protection. The great journey of the Voortrekkers is a central, defining event in the history of the Afrikaners. At the symbolically significant battle of Blood River[?] in December, 1838, fewer than 500 Boers circled their wagons to fight off tens of thousands of Zulus without losing a single member of their own party. The laager (wagon fortress) became symbolic of Boer solidarity, and of their confidence that God would keep them safe against overwhelming odds, if only they would be faithful to Him and rally to the aid of one another.

The partly mythologized history of the Boers grew into a theological/nationalistic consciousness in the second half of the 19th century. The Voortrekker departure had been opposed by the Dutch Reformed (Hervormde) Church (NHK); and thus it was coincidental with the formation of a new Dutch Reformed (Gereformeerde) Church (NGK). The Dutch church in the Netherlands had been transformed by the Enlightenment; and within the Netherlands a movement grew in reaction to this dismantlement of Biblical faith. It was called the Doleantie[?] (grieving). The writings of Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer[?], and the leader of the Doleantie, Abraham Kuyper[?], began to become known to the Afrikaners in the NGK. Highly critical of the Enlightenment, the "revolution" as they called it, the Doleantie in the church had counterparts in education and in politics. The timing of this influence was significant, coming on the crest of a wave of evangelical revival (Reveil[?]) in the Dutch Reformed Church which had been led in South Africa by the Scottish preacher, Andrew Murray[?]. The slogan of the Doleantie, which rang with unintended nationalist nuance for the Afrikaners was, "Separation is Strength".

Doppers The new Boer states which arose after the Great Trek needed a comprehensive philosophy upon which to organize a genuinely Afrikaner society. Voortrekker 'Uncle' Paul Kruger, first president of the South African Republic, adopted the Doleantie in its political form, called the Doppers[?] (lamp snuffers), and formulated the Afrikaner cultural mandate based on the neo-Calvinism of the Doleantie. The Doppers waged an intellectual war against outlander culture which was flooding into South Africa through the mass settlements of foreign squatters lured by gold and diamonds, accompanied by British armies. To the Afrikaner mind, the British represented imperialism, viciousness, outlander oppression, covetousness, envy, and unbelief. When the Anglo-Boer wars broke out, Paul Kruger's idealized version of Afrikaner history and alienation by the hostilities of all other peoples forged the Afrikaners into a united force. They were utterly crushed by the British, at great expense of life for the British, Afrikaners, and natives. But the Doppers won the war for the hearts of the Afrikaners, and left them absolutely committed to their laager mentality, to preserve themselves and their way of life against the British melting pot.

Afrikaner Broederbond The Boer Wars had left many of the Afrikaners utterly destitute. The ruined farmers were seen in the hundreds, following the war, lining the highways selling produce by the basket. After the British reorganized the Union of South Africa and relinquished control to democratic elections, a small, anonymous group of young intellectuals called the Afrikaner Broederbond[?], resorted to the Dopper philosophy to develop a strategy for addressing the overwhelming social problem of poor whites. These social strategies were directly responsible for the establishment of the Apartheid system of separate development beginning in 1948, crafted on the platform of an extensive civil religion and a kind of socialized capitalism. They believed, with deep-rooted conviction, that what their past had provided them through the interpretation of faith was a model of anti-imperialism, self-discipline and responsibility, which in the end would preserve justice for all -- blacks, coloured, and whites -- against Communist deceit. A Fascist, social darwinist agenda in sympathy with Hitler arose among some whites in South Africa during the Second World War, which became an unwelcome ally in the support of these policies. The Broederbond tried to distance itself from this movement, with very limited success because of the secrecy of the organization, their later confessed complete misunderstanding of the real ambitions of non-Afrikaners and blindness to the agony of 'Coloureds' and 'Blacks' under apartheid, and the extreme unpopularity of the apartheid policies in the eyes of non-Afrikaners. Besides, the racial rhetoric of the white supremicists was practically indistinguishable to an unsophisticated Afrikaner ear from the religiously motivated apartheid policies. International pressures mounted, increasingly isolating the Afrikaners and identifying their policies with the worst kind of godless oppression; but this was a long time in producing a crisis of conscience.

After the Sharpville massacre[?] in 1960, the Broederbond began a slow and quiet re-examination of their policy proposals. And yet no significant changes took place to reform the apartheid system until the Soweto riots in 1976. Some time after this, the Broederbond declared apartheid an irreformable failure and began work to dismantle it. The conviction had finally become established, although not universally that, if the Afrikaner people, language and religion were to survive, they must take the initiative to emerge from the laager, and invite South Africa in. The Broederbond (dropping the policy of secrecy and with the new name Afrikanerbond) began proposing initiatives for land reform and the reversal of apartheid.

Radical changes The reversal of apartheid has cast the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) into a period of change. While remaining confessionally Calvinist, the religious character of the church is now less cohesive and more difficult to assess. Having been thoroughly conflated with apartheid, historic Calvinism appears to have fallen out of favor. In some quarters, Liberation theology which embraces the Enlightenment idea of Revolution has gained a foothold, and appears to have advocates on the left and the right ends of the political spectrum. American-style evangelicalism also appears to have made inroads, which with its more individualistic emphasis has less potential for a full-scale civil religion. Certainly, the old synthesis of revealed and Natural theology is largely repudiated; officially at least. But, the folk religion of the Afrikaners is not dead. Some scholars and revisionist historians are attempting to draw lines of distinction between Calvinism per se, and the history of the Afrikaners, and the civil religion of the apartheid regime in particular.

See also: History of South Africa



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