Project Canterbury  

Charles Johnson of Zululand

By A. W. Lee

[no place:] The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1930.

Chapter VIII. Native agents

ONE of the first objects which every right-minded missionary sets before himself in his work is the training of native agents who will carry on the evangelization and instruction of their own people. The moment a missionary gets to real grips with work amongst a strange people whose language he speaks not at all or only imperfectly, and with whose modes of thought he is unfamiliar, he begins to long for the services of a liaison officer. The more remote the language and mentality of the people are from his own, the more need he will feel for such a person. With Charles Johnson this need was, as we have seen, not a pressing one-Neither the Zulu language nor the Zulu mind was strange to him. But even he, with all the enormous advantages of knowledge and habit which he possessed, found it imperative to use Zulus as quickly as he could in his work.

The opening of an out-station seems a comparatively simple affair. But when opened the question at once arises who can be placed in charge? A European, even if available, would be unsuitable, generally speaking. It is of the very essence of successful out-station work that it should be of and for the people. It must not be too elaborate, nor must it be of such a style that they feel themselves to be out of place in it. The teaching, again, must obviously be simple and given in such a way as to be easily assimilated by the people. Therefore a native of the country must be used. But think of the utter impossibility of using a raw Zulu to teach his countrymen the truths of Christianity! Therefore he must be trained to do the work. It is just because so many untrained, untaught natives of South Africa have either taken it upon themselves, or have been pushed forward by other people, to teach, that such a number of painful travesties of the Christian religion are to be found flourishing amongst the Bantu.

Obviously, the first step is to find a man worth training, and then to set to work to train him. The finding of the man is not so difficult as would at first sight appear. There is in the natural, unspoilt African an instinct to share good things with his fellows. It is the mark of utter unsociability and selfishness, for instance, for an African to eat alone. He shares with anyone who happens to be about whatever portion of food falls to his lot. So also with knowledge of any kind of which he becomes possessed. His first thought is to run quickly home and tell his people all about it. An instinct of childhood, the sophisticated reader will say. Very likely it is, and therefore all the more to be admired and copied by less simple folk. But whatever it is, and however characterized, there it remains. It is easy enough to see how this instinct works in favour of the spread of Christian teaching. Imagine a man who has, for the first time in his life, really grasped the fact that all the old inhibitions and taboos under which he has spent his life are nothing but bugaboos to frighten children. Imagine him learning that, as a matter of fact, the power above is a personal God who loves him, who is his Father, whose Son died for him in order that he might have life more abundantly, and that the wish of the Father is that every person shall join the great family of the Church. Here is news indeed! Obviously, he cannot keep to himself this new light which has flashed into his life. He must away home and share it with his people. This is the reason why Christian teaching has often and often been found in remote parts of Africa where no missionary has been. That is the reason why the missionary diocese of Lebombo came into existence, because so many natives of those parts had heard Christian teaching while at work in Johannesburg, and had gone home to spread the tidings. And, of course, this is the reason why it is so easy to find native agents to carry on the work of the Church in Africa. But how to train them, that is the difficulty. The missionary is at once brought face to face with essentials. What is it requisite that a native should know before he can teach his fellows? What is the absolute minimum amount of knowledge armed with which he may safely be sent out to preach? In other words, what constitutes a living knowledge of the Christian faith? The missionary must make up his own mind about this, and thereby be thrown back upon the essentials of faith and practice, greatly to his soul's gain, and then seek for ways of imparting it to his future helpers. He finds that Christianity is not in the first place a body of doctrine to be learned, so much as a torch to be snatched from a hand held out, and bravely to be borne into the dark places of the earth. When the man has been taught to hold the torch firmly, in spite of many temptations to let it go and grasp something else, and to run bravely with it without stopping or faltering, then he may be sent out to spread the light.

Now there are many ways of doing this, and the best way is so bravely and firmly to hold the torch yourself, so unflinchingly to thrust it into the dark spots, that others may receive from you, and carry themselves, some of the light which you bear. This was Charles Johnson's way. He inspired, he energized, he inflamed the minds of many Zulu men so that, all unlearned and uninstructed as they were, they yet bravely went forward with as much of the light as they could carry. Ecclesiastically they were hopeless. Not one of them could have told you the difference between a fast and a vigil, nor why certain colours were used to mark certain seasons. Some of their knowledge was of that fine confused kind which caused one of them, of a later generation, when asked what was the difference between Ember and Rogation Days, boldly to unite the two terms and to launch upon an astonished world a new Church season called the Days of Embrocation. Many of them, to return to our simile, let fall the torch and no more ran with those who carried it. But others were faithful through the years. Some few are still faithful, though far advanced in years. One there is who has worked for thirty-nine years as a catechist, with never a thought of self-advancement, a simple-minded, loyal, querulous man, who delighted to foretell ruin and disaster as a result of the plentiful lack of sense in the rising generation, but who none the less carried on his work. He must be over seventy now, and the death of his old friend and father in the Faith has much shaken him, so that he wishes to be relieved of the burden of his work and to retire to make his soul.

In the end there were gathered together by one means and another some seventy catechists and evangelists, having a diversity of gifts but the same Spirit. It was a heartening sight to see them together at their gatherings, to hear them tell the story of their experiences both before and after they became teachers and preachers. They were as diverse in appearance as they were in birth. Short and tall, from very black in complexion to various shades of plum colour; bearded and beardless. Some with the almost Semitic cast of face which marks an admixture of Arab blood with the pure Bantu. Others with the retreating forehead and prognathous jaw proclaiming a throwback to some Bushman mesalliance. The son of the petty Basuto chieftain, riding up on his spirited little horse, mixed with the grandson of a Zulu whose family had been "eaten up" by Chaka because they were alleged to be abatakati (black magicians). In dress they varied from the smart Jew-tailored garments of the young man lately returned from a spell of work in Johannesburg to the faded old greeny-black clerical frock worn by an elderly gentleman without collar or waistcoat, and obtained many years before at a jumble sale. Fashions in hats altered. There was a time when the ugly hard black billy-cock hat of commercial England was de rigueur. But this was frowned upon by the authorities. Clerical wide-awakes then "came in," with an occasional reversion to less ecclesiastical-looking headgear. There was one ancient "topper," incredibly rakish in appearance, Leicester Square at its very worst; but this only appeared on great occasions.

But here they were, whatever their outward appearance, one and all won from heathenism to the Faith, genuine African Christian men. Charles Johnson moved and worked amongst them as their father. He won their esteem and their trust in a manner given to few Europeans to accomplish. Their occasional follies he berated in no uncertain fashion. He did not find it easy to suffer fools gladly, in spite of the apostle's adjuration. Blessed with a powerful voice and an emphatic manner, his occasional fatherly ratings were feared by them, and accepted with meekness. But that manner he reserved for folly. For the sinner and the weak brother he had the tenderest compassion and understanding, for the tempted the utmost sympathy, for the penitent the readiest forgiveness. It was these qualities of mingled sternness and consideration which bound his band of workers to one another and to himself. They were, in spite of their very real desire to serve God and his Church, still Africans with all the African's easy acquiescence in low moral standards. But he taught them, and led them, and uplifted them, until many of them reached and retained a standard of life and conduct which was all that could be wished for.

In his earlier days there was no diocesan training-college, such as was afterwards founded at Isandhlwane, where they could go to be taught and trained. All that they could get was what he could give them, in his visits to their homes and in their quarterly gatherings at St. Augustine's. He held Bible classes for them, he gave them a series of sermons in outline, he published little books of the lives of the saints and their teaching. He helped in the translation of the Book of Common Prayer, as well as in the compilation of a hymnal in Zulu. Fie drew up a form of preparation for communion, containing a set of questions for self-examination based upon sins they were most likely to fall into. Some of these men went humbly to the school along with their own children, there to make pot-hooks until they could write, and to labour at Zulu spelling-charts until they could read. It was a touching sight to see the rough, bearded, middle-aged men striving so patiently to master these elementary lessons and trying to understand why "Ba" should stand for one sound and "Be" for another; or to watch them, with pen in unaccustomed hand and tongue-tip protruding, laboriously trace weird hieroglyphics, to them almost meaningless, upon the once-white page. But their earnestness and enthusiasm, coupled with his driving-power, mastered many difficulties and enabled them to build up in many places settled and numerous Christian communities.

One of the plainest signs of the success of their work amongst their own people is to be found in the fact that remarkably few of the Christian Zulus taught by them have gone off into schism. Anyone at all acquainted with the Bantu of South Africa is aware of the strong tendency among them to break away from any kind of organized body, whether it be a religious, a political, or merely a trade organization. This fissiparous tendency is in their blood. The son, on marriage, broke away from his father and set up a fresh village. The petty chief, the moment he felt strong enough to do so, threw off his allegiance to his over-lord and set up as a chief in his own right. It is, to them, the natural assertion of manhood, and carries with it no stigma of rebellion or ingratitude. In their political associations the same drift towards separatism is plainly seen. In ecclesiastical matters this tendency has been strengthened and accentuated by the fact of the divisions which exist amongst European Christians by whom the Bantu have been taught. It is often said by interested persons that the introduction amongst Bantu of competing sects of Christian missionaries must confuse their minds and lessen the chance of them accepting the new teaching. This is not really so. They understand only too well the reasons for divisions, and fall in only too readily with the idea that anyone who can command a following is justified in breaking away from the parent body and setting up a new sect. Every native community, whether urban or rural, is over-run with sects calling themselves by high-sounding titles, founded and organized by natives who have led out from some larger body a few, or many, dissatisfied persons. The Nqutu district of Zululand has been in no way exempt from this trouble. But Church Christians have, with few exceptions, clung to their Church loyally, in spite of fervent appeals to racialism, of the temptation to throw in their lot with bodies calling themselves Christian which permit polygamy, and of the attractions of other strong missionary Churches. This gratifying loyalty is the result of two causes. One is the strong personality of Charles Johnson, the helpfulness of his ministry amongst them, and the obvious good results which have flowed from it. The other is the fact that from the beginning his work had been largely carried on by the natives themselves, and thus it has always possessed characteristics which made a strong appeal to their natural desire to share in the progress and the government of their own Church.

If any justification of the policy of using native agents in order to spread the Faith over a large area is needed, it may be found here. In spite of the obvious dangers which are run in employing men who, judged by any European standard, seem ignorant and unfit, the greatest danger of all, that is the excessive Europeanization of what must be, if it is to survive, an indigenous African Church, is avoided.

The late Titus Mtembu, the first Zulu priest in Zululand, was one of Charles Johnson's great successes. Some allusion was made to this man in a previous chapter. He was a member of a once powerful tribe, the Abasebatemjini, which was driven away from its original home near the Hlazakazi by Chaka. After the Zulu War of 1879 many families of the tribe returned from Natal, where they had taken refuge, to their home. Amongst them was the family of Samson Mtembu, already Christian. Titus was a son of Samson, a, Christian from his birth and baptism. While a young man he volunteered to become a school teacher in the Nqutu district, and for some years he carried on this work. Always a devout and steady young man, he gradually began to use his powers in more directly evangelistic work, combining, for a time, the work of schoolmaster with that of catechist. Eventually he was ordained to the diaconate by Dr. Carter, who succeeded Bishop McKenzie in the diocese. From that time Mtembu became Charles Johnson's right-hand man. He laboured incessantly and successfully amongst his own people. Ordained to the priesthood in 1897, he continued in his self-denying and hard-working way to serve his generation until his death in 1924. He was a man the purity of whose life was a standing rebuke to those who unwisely scoff at the idea that a Zulu can ever become a satisfactory Christian. He spent himself, without thought of reward and in the most ungrudging manner, on behalf of his people, travelling without cessation around the district, preaching, administering the sacraments, interviewing individuals, and setting up, wherever possible, new little branch stations. His work is commemorated in the beautiful church, one of the last which Archdeacon Johnson built, at an out-station founded by him in the little veld village of Kingsley and in the little book written by his son James. [The Life of Titus Mlembu, by his son James Mtembu. S.P.G., 1929.]

Amongst the many means of keeping his staff alert and of bringing his personality to bear upon its members which Charles Johnson adopted, the most important and fruitful means was the quarterly meetings which he carried on for many years. Beginning as meetings for the conduct of necessary business they gradually grew and developed into miniature Church Assemblies.

Throughout the first day of the meeting the catechists, evangelists and teachers came riding or walking in from their stations in little groups of two or three. Arrived at St. Augustine's they went first to the hut placed for the receiving and entering of money and records of their quarter's work. There they presented their imbuya or returns-sheets, their registers, and their receipt books. These were scrutinized and entered into the proper books by the assistant priest in charge of this part of the work. At his side sat one of the native priests to receive and count the money and to estimate the value of the offerings in kind which the people had made. This was by no means a light task. Money is to the ordinary African an exasperating and tricky thing to deal with. He never can remember in time how many izindibilitshi (pence) go to make a shilling. The number of izinhlamvu ezimhlope (white coins--shillings) which when joined together make uhlamvu olubomvu (red money--pounds sterling) eludes his memory constantly. When dealing with the mysteries of ufakolweni or half-crowns he is as a lost soul. Added to these puzzling matters was the fact that half of the amount for which he had to account was not in cash at all, but in baskets of mealies, sheep, goats, fowls, boxes of matches, stamps, all or any of which are constantly to be found figuring amongst the collections of a Zulu out-station. It has not been unknown for a devout worshipper to bring a highly-coloured cup and saucer, adorned with the legend "A present from Scarborough" done in gold with a scroll of forget-me-nots around it, and to lay it with an air of conscious self-abnegation at the chancel steps as an offering. How was the unfortunate catechist to arrive at any estimation of the value of these various chattels? Or how could the assistant priest himself settle their value? To him the cup from Scarborough, a cup that neither cheered nor inebriated him, was anathema. To the catechist, with possibly a less aesthetic outlook on life, it was worth much money. But sooner or later some kind of settlement was reached, and the conversation in mingled English, Zulu, and Sesutho came to a satisfactory end. The catechist was then sent on to the office in which sat the head of affairs. To him he presented his returns which were looked over and commented upon with considerable vigour. Woe betide the unfortunate wight whose record showed an unsatisfactory amount of work done during the quarter! The deep booming voice of his spiritual father would be heard raised above the din of conversation in righteous indignation. The assembled Zulus would glance at one another rather sheepishly. "Liyaduma," they would murmur, one to another, "it is thundering." This business would go on all through the day. Slowly, for it was one of his characteristics always to work slowly, the file of men would lessen. Often the assistant, despairing of getting things finished up before evensong, would run in to the chief to see if the work could not be hurried up a little. He would, as often as not, find him deep in a conversation, of overwhelming interest to him, with a catechist on some family trouble, or on the exorbitant price of mealies in his locality. He had imbibed the Zulu contempt for time, it Was a convention which had no meaning for him.

At length all was finished and the bell called to evensong. The staff would don its cassocks and surplices and file in to the church in a sort of irregular straggle. Service, preparation for communion, and tea over, the whole meeting would gather in a dimly-lit schoolroom for its quarterly conference. The meeting was very informal. The chief would first address it laying down matters which he wished it to consider, and then sitting down to await comments. Now the Zulu is a very loquacious person. He is a convinced believer in the merits of talking. Once on his feet he finds a difficulty in getting off them again. The resulting debate was, therefore, frequently prolonged into the early morning. Each man must have his say. No matter how many times previous speakers have traversed the ground, each fresh man will begin determinedly at the beginning and carry on until the bitter end. The usual formula for beginning a speech of anything up to forty minutes' duration is something like what follows: "Fathers and brothers, I rise before this great assembly, unworthy as I am, having nothing whatever to add to the wisdom with which my brothers who have spoken before me have lightened our minds. But the first thing I wish to say is . . . "and then on he would go to say it until thirteenthly or thereabouts. It was a trying procedure for the very ordinary European who had done a day's work and was longing to end it. But with stoical patience the chief would sit and listen, hour after hour, to the outpoured eloquence. Did he never nod? It would be hard to say. The light was bad, and it cast curious shadows sometimes: but if he slept he did it with one ear open, for never was wild statement allowed to pass unchallenged, never was mistake allowed to go uncorrected. Sometimes a word would be said which roused the combativeness of his nature, and he would rise and deliver his soul in a torrent of eloquent Zulu which roared and foamed round the meeting like the waves of a heavy sea. There is no doubt at all that these meetings with their all-night sittings played a very important part in the development of a public conscience in the district. The three standing dishes which were always served up were witchcraft, beer-drinking, and polygamy, the three great stumbling blocks to the progress of Christianity amongst the Zulus. It was very necessary, if Christianity was to take root amongst these people, that a public conscience about them should be aroused, and one way of doing this was to impress upon the preachers and teachers how completely antagonistic to the spirit of Christ were these three practices. No effort was spared by Charles Johnson to bring this about. He exhorted, he persuaded, he thundered, he cajoled, until he did succeed in making his staff understand that these three pet sins could not continue side by side with the Christian calling.

The meeting ended, a few--a painfully few--hours' sleep would be snatched until the early morning bell gave warning that mattins would be said in half-an-hour's time. After mattins any new catechists would be admitted to the order in a simple ceremony, and afterwards the Holy Communion service would begin. The service was always extraordinarily beautiful and sincere. It was the family table, the royal feast. To it were brought all the aspirations of these simple souls, all the good resolutions which the meeting had provoked, all their earnest prayers for the conversion of the people. The chief rose to great heights in his sermons on these occasions. It was the joy of his life to see all around him his children in the Faith. So well he knew them, with their weaknesses and their strength, so well he understood how their souls were drinking in the hallowing influences of that communion with their Lord; and Master and the saints at rest, that the knowledge inspired him to real eloquence and true dramatic force. A favourite subject with him was that drawn from our Lord's charge to the seventy, with its many applications to the circumstances of their own lives. The end would quickly come after the service was over. A hurried breakfast, a speedy clearing-up of odds and ends of business left over from the previous day, and horses would be saddled up, farewells said, and within an hour the place would be cleared of its visitors.

As new developments took place it became possible to send men to be trained at the Diocesan Training College at Isandhlwane, and later at KwaMagwaza. A higher standard of education for native agents began to be demanded as generation of school-taught young people succeeded to generation. It was no longer desirable that untaught men should minister to those who had made some progress along the path of knowledge. The older type of worker, earnest but ignorant, began to be displaced by those whose good fortune had made it possible for them to learn to read and write in their early youth. The diocesan organization also progressed and native priests in some numbers began to be needed. A second priest was ordained for work in the district, the Rev. John Mnareng, a Mosutho who had worked for years as teacher, catechist, and deacon at St. Augustine's. It was a most fortunate circumstance for the district that its first two native priests should be men of outstanding worth and ability. Mnareng died at St. Augustine's early in 1929. His self-denying labours have been an encouragement and an incentive to the generations which have followed his ordination.

Many years after the date of which we now write the large district was divided up into four sub-sections with a native priest in charge of each, so that now there is one at St. Augustine's who assists there and superintends the work of the near-by out-stations; one at St. John's, Blood River; one at St. Alban's, Mvunyane; and one at All Saint's, Hlazakazi.

A further necessary development was in educational work and the provision of a trained staff for the day-schools. In the early years the sole aim of mission schools was to teach those attending them how to read and write Zulu and how to read their bibles and prayer books, together with the inculcation of some notions of discipline, cleanliness, and punctuality. The task of teaching these small and often struggling schools was given to any young man who showed an aptitude for teaching, and had himself reached a not very elevated standard of education. With the exception of the school at St. Augustine's itself, which was, from its inception until the year 1927, under the care of Mrs. Johnson--a truly wonderful record of forty-six years of devotion--all the schools were taught by this class of person. The increase in educational demands made it necessary for teaehers to receive some professional training, and this they obtained for years at Isandhlwane. Later, the Natal Government began to take a somewhat belated and not altogether welcome interest in native education. First the resident magistrates went round and inspected schools, making small grants-in-aid to those which reached their not very exacting standard of efficiency. Then a government inspector was appointed, with a small increase in the grant. Lastly trained educators were placed by the government in charge of native education, and for a time continually increasing demands were made by them upon the resources of the missionaries. There ensued the inevitable debate between those in favour of accepting government aid with its necessary regulations regarding the conduct of schools, and those to whom government aid and regulations were anathema. Charles Johnson threw all the weight of his opinion on the side of accepting the preferred aid. He saw that the bishop could not undertake with any hope of success to bear the whole cost of educating the Zulus with the limited resources at his disposal. Government regulations, though designed, in the view of an older generation, to hamper and to restrict, he saw to be framed in the best interests of education. Cordially he worked with the authorities in the development of native education, and when a Native Education Advisory Board was formed, consisting of various government officials and representatives of missionary societies, he was appointed by his bishop to serve upon it, a task which he carried on until his death.

Gradually the number of schools under his care increased until he had nearly forty schools in receipt of government aid, with roughly 3000 scholars attending them, taught by sixty trained and certificated teachers, the majority of whom were the children or grandchildren of his early converts.

So the years brought him a staff of over a hundred paid native agents, with many more unpaid ones, all working to the one end of raising, instructing, civilizing, and Christianizing the Zulu and Basutho people in his district.

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