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Charles Johnson of Zululand

By A. W. Lee

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

Chapter IX. Building

THE first building which Charles Johnson erected in Zululand was as characteristic of him as was the last he put up. His first was the grass hut, built at Isandhlwane in 1880, in which he and Mrs. Johnson spent some heroic but sodden months. His last building was the fine stone church which he erected at Kingsley in memory of his dead friend, Titus Mtembu, in 1925. During the intervening forty-five years he spent thousands of pounds in building churches, schools, and dwelling-houses for his native staff.

In a previous chapter it has been said that his first out-station buildings were poor hovels. So they were; their poverty being in no way due to any lack in him of the sense of what was fitting, but merely to the lack of money with which to build better places. He began where all must needs begin, at the beginning. His first essays in church building were undertaken and carried out with unusual materials. Having practically no money, he made use of whatever materials he found to hand. Many of his early churches were dug out of the ground in the form of sods of earth with grass attached, which were used as bricks, and laid in rows to form rough walls. This, with small spaces left for very necessary ventilation and light, thatched with grass or reeds, and having beaten-earth floors, was the cheapest and quickest method of building known to him. If anything simpler and cheaper could have been found, he would have used it. It was, of course, impossible to strive with these materials after architectural effects. It was a miracle that the churches stood at all. So grew up a style of building which has come bo be known as Early Zulu, a style, it may be said, which still persists in some parts of the diocese. One of these sod churches stood, or perhaps it would be truer to say reclined, for well over twenty years. Others fell down with disastrous finality after a few days or a few years. The interior furnishings of these buildings matched their outward simplicity. A table for an altar, decked in hangings which were frequently ragged, but nearly always clean. A simple wooden cross, two home-made stone candlesticks, one or two native stools which did duty as prie-dieu or seats as occasion demanded, a home-made lectern, and a few grass mats on the floor completed the tout ensemble. No amount of watchful care on the part of the authorities would serve altogether to keep out of the church some of those appalling coloured prints whereon are depicted realistic devils pushing poor souls into the pit, or which contrast the smug death-bed scene of the righteous with the wild terrors of the wicked. These constituted the pictorial art of the interior, and their banishment by an outraged European would be regarded as high-handed tyranny by the Zulu in charge. These buildings were always dark, often overcrowded, and sometimes malodorous, but they did duty for a long time until more people and more money made better ones possible. Some churches were built of wattle-and-daub, a process which consists in putting up a rough framework of poles, wattling the open spaces with green sticks, and filling in with mud. The result of this process fortunately quickly crumbles away in the rain, and it is soon abandoned by any who use it.

The next stage in building was the use of rough stonework. The one crop which the Nqutu district produces with prodigality is the stone crop. Everywhere there is a super-abundance of whin-stone and sand-stone, which seem to lend themselves to the rough methods employed by native masons. Charles Johnson made full use of these methods. The Basutho learn very easily to build with stone after a fashion, and the second flight of churches in the district was generally built by them. Grim-looking buildings they were, standing squat on the veld, with none of the picturesqueness of sod or wattle-and-daub, but with many more enduring qualities than these.

Most people could, if put to it, manage to put up the kind of building which did duty as a church in those early days. One they might build or even two, but not the twenty or thirty which were needed by Charles Johnson's work. How he did it no one knows but himself. With what pains and labour they were finished it is impossible now to describe. He dug and delved, he mixed mortar, he carried sods, he rough-carpentered the roofs, he did the thousand and one bits of work which even the simplest building requires to be done. Even when on a holiday, as Mrs. Johnson relates in her diary, he sometimes kept the whole family waiting, camped in the trek-waggon in which they travelled, for a week while he put a roof on to a church which was ready for it. The amount of moral suasion and force which is required to get Zulus to begin any new undertaking is tremendous, as all missionaries know. To bring one church, however simple, to perfection is a feat. But to build a whole crop of churches in a very few years is a deed which borders on the miraculous.

How far his early training helped him we have already seen. He was a born builder, and his youthful experiences had developed this gift. Every one knows the kind of man who cannot see two stones lying about without wanting to stand one on the other and make something of them. Charles Johnson was just that kind of man. He never passed a house under construction without becoming deeply interested in it, and stopping to calculate how many thousand bricks would be needed, how many sheets of galvanized iron its roof would require, and how much the whole house would cost when completed. To him it was child's play to muster in order all those mysterious articles which go to the completion of a house. He knew without looking in a dictionary what an architrave was, and by instinct where a louvre should be placed. An enviable gift. To complete a deal in galvanized iron, that untractable and unattractive material, gave him as much joy as the completion of a picture gives to an artist. After the rough stone period, the Early Stone age it might almost be called, he began to have visions of a more ambitious kind of building. With the growth of the number of out-stations, and with the marked increase in the numbers of people attending them, which was so wonderful a feature of the period between 1890 and 1900, he began to dream of a really noble church to be built at St. Augustine's, which should become the spiritual home of the thousands of Christians now living in the district. His church there was a plain and unpretentious building, adequate for the small congregation for whose use it had been erected, but now rapidly proving too small. He wanted a House of God which should be an inspiration to all worshipping in it. Writing in 1901 on this subject he said:--

I am building a large church here at Rorke's Drift, a very large one to hold 2000 people. Many of my friends consider, I think, that I am extravagantly building too large a building for our present congregation, but the church is not being built simply for our local congregation. My great wish has been for years to get a real central church large enough to allow the people from the little out-stations in the district to congregate together at this centre on all great festivals to teach them that they are all members of the one parish church--simply different sections of the one congregation. If we could have a priest and a real church at every out-station there would not be the same need for a central teaching church; but this we may not hope for in this generation.

He began to collect money for this great adventure. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel from the Marriott Bequest granted him £1000 as a beginning. This splendid gift heartened him greatly. More money came in, and he began to get together tools and men for the work. It was plain that he would have to rely almost entirely upon native workmen, so he wisely set to work to train the most promising of his people in the arts of quarrying, stone-cutting, and building. It was a stupendous undertaking for a man to embark upon with such slender resources. But Charles Johnson never lacked courage and vision, and he never feared to undertake responsibility. He was his own architect, his own clerk of the works, and he gradually bought all the necessary materials. The foundation-stone of the new church was laid by Bishop Carter in 1898. But the outbreak of the Boer War greatly increased the difficulties and the cost of the work. In the first place transport became almost impossible. The territory of the Boer republics was quite near to St. Augustine's, and besides this, the country in between that place and Dundee, its nearest rail-head, was occupied by the Boer forces early in the campaign. A great deal of the building material which was lying at Dundee was commandeered by the forces, and this not only delayed the work, but, as adequate compensation was never paid for it, it also added considerably to the cost. But the greatest blow fell when the moving spirit, Archdeacon Johnson as he was by this time, was suddenly obliged to go to England. His health broke down under the strain of all the work he had in hand. He was away from Zululand when war was declared, and he came hurrying back from England in order to be with his devoted wife, who had most courageously carried on alone during his absence, and his family and work.

Upon his return he found that, in spite of all the delays which had occurred, the walls of the church were almost completed. He had designed a nave 100 feet long by 60 feet wide, with a chancel and sanctuary 60 feet long by 40 wide. The clerestory was upheld by two rows of massive stone pillars, each 32 feet in height, which stand, rugged and grey, along the length of the nave.

The presence of these pillars gives the church its distinctive note of dignified simplicity. But the building of them cost the archdeacon many a sleepless night. When they were just approaching completion, and before the roof could be put on to cover and hold them, a series of strong gales got up to blow night after night, to his great discomfort. During many a night, as he was accustomed afterwards to relate, he got up from his bed and wandered about the building gazing with apprehension amounting almost to terror at his pillars rocking in the rough wind. He found himself occasionally hugging one at the base in order to help it to withstand the buffeting it was undergoing. Fortunately the work of his native builders was sound and good, and no mishap befell. The task of roofing so large a building was beyond the powers of the native staff, so a European carpenter, a Mr. Chilvers, was called in to perform this task. With his usual foresight the archdeacon saw that the time was coming when he would require native carpenters to complete his churches. He therefore founded the St. Augustine's Workshop under the charge of Mr. Chilvers in which native youths could be properly apprenticed to the trade of carpentering. The shop has been carried on from that time to the present day, and has proved a most valuable aid in the development of the work of the district. Not only have many young men been trained there as carpenters, painters, and builders, but for many years the shop has made school and church furniture, and has given very material help in the construction of the churches, schools, and houses themselves. For the past twenty years the shop has been under the charge of a native carpenter, Mr. J. Mti, who was trained in Grahamstown. The roof was finally finished and the church completed in 1902. During that year the bishop of the diocese, Dr. Carter, was translated from Zululand to the diocese of Pretoria, from whence he after-Wards went to Cape Town as metropolitan of the province of South Africa. Bishop Carter had always displayed a keen admiration for his archdeacon's many gifts and enterprise, and though he was perhaps among those who feared that the building of so large a church would unduly strain the resources of the district he gave every encouragement to the work when he saw that it was to be carried through. In Dr. Carter's stead the elective assembly of the diocese, with Archdeacon Johnson as its vicar-general, chose the Rt. Rev. W. L. Vyvyan, then a missionary priest of the diocese, to preside over it.

In July of the following year, 1903, Bishop Vyvyan had the happiness to dedicate the now finished church.

It had been built at a cost of nearly £7000, for the last £2000 of which its builder had made himself personally responsible. This debt hampered him for a considerable number of years, and to some extent its dead-weight retarded the progress of the work in his district. Not until some of his friends and relations in England generously collected enough money to pay off the balance in 1917 did he really recover from the large expenditure forced upon him by his ambitious scheme. It was, no doubt, his prevision of this state of indebtedness which caused Bishop Carter to doubt the wisdom of the undertaking.

It would be difficult to say off-hand whether the building of the church at that stage of the development of the district was justified or not. It might be thought that the heavy weight of debt which had for so many years a cramping effect on his work more than counterbalanced the joy it gave him to see his big church full of devout worshippers on great festivals and other important occasions. It might also be maintained that the necessity laid upon the archdeacon to hasten the pace at which the spirit of almsgiving was developing amongst his people in order that the debt might be discharged had a depressing effect upon his work, which was hardly compensated for by the spiritual impetus given to the people by their share in the common worship of a large congregation.

But, while these reflections must occur to anyone thinking over the story of his life and work, he himself never had a doubt about the wisdom of what he had done. After so many years spent in worshipping in dark, noisome huts, in tumble-down and untidy churches, in overcrowded rooms with purely secular surroundings, it was to him the very greatest joy and refreshment to be able to pray in the dignified spaciousness, the quiet simplicity, the reverent orderliness of the work of his own hands. To him the church was the crown of his life's work. It was, possibly, a luxury at the time and in the circumstances of its building. Well, he had earned some kind of luxury in his strenuous life, and this was the single one he ever permitted himself.

For ten years after the completion of the church of St. Augustine very little building was carried on in the district. It seemed as though the impulse to build had lost strength in Charles Johnson's mind. But about the year 1915 he began again to plan big churches, and between that year and 1924 he built a large church at All Saint's, Hlazakazi, another, even bigger, at St. John's, Blood River, and he ended his great work as a builder, as has already been mentioned, by building the fine church of St. Philip at Kingsley in memory of the Rev. Titus Mtembu.

Apart from the building of churches and schools, there was the unending need for building houses to accommodate his staff. In the early days a grass hut was sufficient for the needs of most of his workers. These were not costly either in money or in labour. But they were unsatisfactory in other more important ways. Archdeacon Johnson held it as an axiom that unless the people were raised off the ground they would rise in no other way. It is difficult for civilized people, accustomed as they are to the use of all the furniture of civilized houses, to understand how sordid life can be if it is lived entirely on the ground. An occasional picnic meal eaten off a white cloth spread on beautiful green grass is probably the worst in this direction which the vast majority of Europeans have ever experienced. But when every action and experience of life takes place upon the ground, from birth to death, the matter becomes very different from playing at the simple life for a week or a month. Life without tables, chairs, beds, plates, cups and saucers, wooden floors, fireplaces, and the thousand and one other simple comforts of living which are taken so entirely for granted by Europeans, is a sordid and unattractive business. It is a singular thing that the mere act of raising people physically from the ground-level seems to raise them also morally and mentally.

Missionaries are often charged by thoughtless people, who imagine that life is easiest when reduced to its simplest form, with spoiling the happy savage by introducing into his arcadian existence such entirely unnecessary adjuncts as those enumerated above. Nothing could be farther from the truth than this touching belief in sordidness as a happy solution of all life's little difficulties. Life lived on the level of the ground is brute life. Men like Charles Johnson, who have lived all their lives in close contact with the life of a savage people, know perfectly well that their first task in raising the savage in any way is to raise him from the brute life with which, hitherto, he has perforce been content. Acting upon this knowledge, the archdeacon very early in his career began to try to provide better housing for his native staff than they had been able to provide for themselves.

Exactly how many houses he built is not known. At a rough guess the number might be put down as sixty. Each one of these houses represented a struggle, just as each one came to stand, in the eyes of the Zulus, for progress and enlightenment. They stood in the social sphere for what his little churches stood in the spiritual. In the early days, it is true, many of the members of the staff, the catechists and schoolmasters, found that the effort to live up to their houses was a little beyond them. Like the English class which keeps its "parlour" only for Sunday use and lives contentedly in the kitchen for the other six days of the week, the Zulu teachers placed their pathetic little lares and penates in the grand house and retired to live at their ease in the grass hut they erected behind the house. Singularly enough, their ideas of house decoration also coincided to some extent with those of the English "parlour" class. The Victorian antimacassar, the woollen mat of brilliant hue, the cheap lace curtain, the waxen fruit under a glass dome, the presence of all these helped to enforce the truth that it is one touch of artificiality which makes half the world kin.

The annals of ecclesiastical history bristle with the names of great builders. Kings, popes, bishops, abbots, and even simple rectors have built houses large and small, plain and ornate, to the glory of God and for the benefit of mankind. It may be permissible, however, to express the doubt whether any has ever built over so extensive an area as Charles Johnson did. The children of Israel were condemned to make bricks without straw, a task which seemed too heavy even for their racial ability to make much out of nothing. Charles Johnson had to make his bricks, not only without straw, but without money also. He achieved a task in this particular direction which literally not one man out of a million could have carried out. With what labours and self-sacrifice, with what burden of debt, what spreading out of the small resources at his command, will never fully be known now. But his great work in building with actual stone is only a parable of the much greater spiritual temple he erected among the primitive Zulus. His epitaph, if one be needed, should surely be, "Here lies a master-builder."

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