Project Canterbury

Dawn in Swaziland

By Christopher Charles Watts, M.A.
Archdeacon of Swaziland

London: The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1922.

Chapter VI. The religion of the European

IN a country like Swaziland, where a small European population is scattered over an immense area, where opportunities for public worship are few, and where they are surrounded by a native population which, for the most part, is still living in all the grossness of heathenism, it could not be expected that the attitude of Europeans towards religion should be the same as in England. In the first place, there are no Church traditions--or only vague traditions that have come down from the past--Sunday has been a day of rest from the ordinary round of life, but has been used for journeys, for shooting, and for outdoor games. The heat often hinders men from attending services in small and hot iron buildings, while the fight against nature in a pioneer country is too keen for the farmer to have much time for spiritual things. It is true that "Man does not live by bread alone," and at times the truth is keenly felt. But, as a rule, the struggle for bread is great, and fills the mind. Official life flows on so easily, and is so full of varied out-of-doors interests that it would be strange for men to spend much time in the cultivation of their souls. The Boer, who is influenced by the traditions of his forefathers, is religious. Family prayer and Bible-reading are as much the rule with the elder generation as they are the exception amongst the English. The Boer's idea of farming is very different and he is prepared to in-span his ox-waggon, leave his farm in the charge of natives, and go off to "Nachtmaal" or "Sacrament" once or twice a year

Gathered in a little encampment on the outskirts of a little dorp, he will spend ten days on end in religious exercises, doing the little business he has to do, talking politics, and enjoying social life. "The Predikant" or "Minister" is well-paid and much honoured. He keeps his flock well in hand, sees that all rules are observed, and that church dues are paid, and his opinions on all subjects, especially upon politics, are deeply respected. But his theology is hopelessly out of date, and no longer holds the younger Boers, who are better educated. For instance, it is often taught and believed by the older generation that Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Shem was white in colour, Ham black, and Japheth a coloured man. Hence by direct decree the black and coloured sons were for ever accursed and doomed to be in bondage to the white. Old men of this school of thought have often, at the conclusion of the evening prayer and psalms, spoken most earnestly to the writer, and, indeed, according to their lights most truly, and have urged him not to undertake the wicked work of bringing the Gospel to the coloured and native people. "For," said they, "you are working against God's will, and to undo His own curse." When one considers the conditions under which they have lived, it is marvellous that they have preserved so much of the theology of two hundred years ago, but it is a serious difficulty, and one which repels all thoughtful people, that they have learned so little since that date.

The fact that those professing their form of religion regard "slimness" as more or less of a virtue, and that no great stress is laid upon honesty and truthfulness in daily life, is apt to disgust the Englishman with religion itself. An experienced and trustworthy native priest told the writer that it was most difficult to rouse the natives on Boer farms to any sense of the value of their souls. For so many years they had been carefully taught that they were mere animals and dogs, that they had almost come to believe it. Though outwardly respectful, they were inwardly full of sullen rage and deceit, and formed quite a different problem from that of the free natives of Swaziland.

It cannot be denied that the Boers are a people with real religious feelings. They have the "root of the matter" and there are possibilities of growth. Abraham and Jacob are their favourite heroes. Abraham's faith was so great and real that it hides and even transforms the vein of deception which existed in his character. Jacob was a man from whom no one would wisely have bought a horse without seeing it first, but from being the "sup planter," his religion transformed him into Israel, the prince and leader of his people.

The modern Boer does not always do credit to his Dutch and Huguenot ancestry. This is in part to be explained by his long contact with inferior races, whom he has made no serious attempt to elevate, and the absence of any necessity for manual work. His own ideals have fallen because he has not tried to implant them in others, and carry them out in his dealings with native races. But there is still hope. Like the native, the Boer cannot, and knows that he cannot, go on in the old ways. He is looking for light.

The case of the Englishman is different. He is, on the whole, well disposed to missionaries and their work, and having some knowledge of history, he is not inclined to despise primitive races, and has no objection to the rise of the native so long as it does not conflict with his own interests. "Give the poor beggars a chance, we were much the same once," is his motto. He thinks that religion is quite a good thing if you do not have too much of it, though he is rather inclined to associate it with Gothic buildings and a Puritan Sunday. He is quite prepared to attend services if they are not too frequent or too long, and has not given enough attention to the matter to know that there is much difference in the various creeds. His chief concern is with the practical results that follow outward observances, and he does not, as a rule, worry much about matters of the soul. He will support generously schools for the education of his children, and feels that this education should be on a definitely religious basis The education and care of his children is his main anxiety. He knows that they are brought into daily contact with heathen nurse-boys, whose conversation and ideas are unspeakably gross, and he realises the danger that must result. He cannot afford to send them to expensive boarding schools in other districts, and if religion can provide places where his children can be well educated, well cared for, and well equipped for the battle of life, he feels that it is well worthy of support.

Any regular form of sacramental religion is for him almost impossible, nor does he understand the ideas underlying it. Missionary work of all kinds amongst the natives he groups together and regards as a whole. As a matter of fact, although this work has been going on around him for years, he knows remarkably little about it, and is amazed when told that the natives who belong to the missions of the Anglican Church are confirmed and attend Holy Communion in the same way as Europeans. His attitude towards Christian missions is decided by the conduct of the one or two natives whom he employs as servants. If they happen to be of good character and are Christians, he thinks well of the missionary and his work. If, however, they are called Christians, but steal or are idle, he condemns missionary work en bloc. His idea of what a Christian native should be is a high one. He should require fewer holidays and less pay than the heathen, should raise no complaints about food or quarters, should be respectful, honest, sober, and industrious, and in all cases put his master's interests before his own. It speaks well for Christianity and the native race that many attain this standard, and that the attitude of the European is often very friendly to the work.

But his attitude towards the natives is influenced by other causes. The trader has found out that the civilised native is his best customer, that he wants more, and works to get it. Moreover, less crime is found amongst Christians than among the heathen. The average man now knows that it is nonsense to talk of keeping the native in his raw state, when his land has been taken and his customs have been upset. To use the words of Mr. Merriman, the veteran statesman at the Cape, "Johannesburg, the University of crime for the native, has opened her arms to receive them in their thousands." The average man knows that the native is in a dangerous transition stage, and sees dimly that Christianity is the only force that can guide him. "It is only those who half know the native that are against missionary work," said the oldest and most respected native trader to the writer. "No thinking man is against missionary work, but let it be done in a responsible way by responsible people," said the manager of the largest cattle ranch.

The way in which the British Government has adopted in her Colonial Empire the methods, and to a certain extent the ideals, of ancient Rome at her best, is amazing. Roughly speaking, Swaziland is administered by the machinery of a Roman province, and the machinery works well.

In religious matters the Englishman seems often to adopt the attitude of the old Romans. At the bottom of his heart he believes in his own religion, but says little about it, especially in public. Though he is willing to put other gods into his pantheon, he regards himself as a Christian. He feels that his forefathers owed a great deal to Christianity. For himself, Christianity involves rules of conduct rather than any positive belief.

At the same time, he has no desire to propagate it, and, indeed, his faith is so vague that to do so would be frankly impossible. He thinks that Buddhism is suited to China, and Mohammedanism to eastern countries, and he would not interfere with any man's creed, believing that there is good in all. The Swazis having no gods, he thinks, are best left with none, though they should be treated kindly and ruled well. In any case, the teaching of religion is the business of missionaries, not his. Nor does it concern or interest him.

But every now and then--about every three years, as an experienced clergyman said to the writer--the Englishman requires religion, and when he does want it he wants it badly. When the sixty Swaziland volunteers marched away to German South-West Africa in the war, it seemed a natural thing that the whole European population should assemble on the Mbabane Court House square to invoke God's blessing upon them. On the occasion of King Edward's death and of the Coronation of King George, and on the Declaration of War, it was the Church and the Church alone which could meet the need for prayer and divine guidance.

In the great crisis of March, 1918, when our armies were driven back and all seemed to he in the melting-pot, a message hurriedly sent round could draw, at an hour's notice, the whole population of Mbabane, official and civil, to the little church and keep them upon their knees. And in times of death, anxiety, pain, and sorrow, the ministry of the Church is felt to be the only means of help.

Such crises can only be met if the Church has "stood ready" during many years of patient, and sometimes difficult, times of expectancy and toil.

Moreover, in Swaziland, as elsewhere, there is a little band of stalwarts who, year in, year out, fail not; men of real Christian character, few in number, but true as steel; a little band of brothers such as those "whom when Paul saw, he took courage," for they gave the Christian worker that sympathy in the present, and that vision of the future, which he needed.

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