Nthabiseng Mokwena, Junior Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History 

Missionaries and the establishment of Christianity in South Africa

The Christian religion was introduced to South Africa by European settlers and later missionaries in the 17th century. This introduction started with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck from the Netherlands in 1652. He was authorised by the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, Dutch East India Company) to establish a refreshment station aimed at replenishing food and fuel for ships travelling between the Netherlands and Southeast and South Asia. Jan van Riebeeck was accompanied by settlers sailing on three ships, the Dromedaries, the Rejigger and De Goede Hoop. These people needed a place of worship and were eventually granted exclusive rights to start a church called the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (or Dutch Reformed Church). 

Christianity became further entrenched with the arrival of the German missionary, Georg Schmidt, who came to South Africa as a Christian missionary in July 1737. He founded the first Protestant mission called the Moravian Brethren. Georg Schmidt first settled at Zoetemelksvlei but he moved to Baviaanskloof, which is now known as Genadendal (today a town in the Western Cape Province of South Africa). His initial work was among the Khoi-Khoi tribe but after his controversial baptism of five Khoi-Khoi slaves in 1742, conflict arose with the Dutch Reformed Church who at the time, believed that baptised Christians must be free, not slaves.

Figure 1: The first Christian mission at Genadendal, Western Cape Province, South Africa.

Several missionaries were later established in South Africa but this article focusses on the historical background of the Zulu Kingdom missionary station which started at Hermannsburg (a small hamlet located in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal) in 1854 and the translation of the European Bible into isiZulu. This was the first station of the Hermannsburg Missionary Society based in Hermannsburg, Germany. The Hermannsburg Missionary Society was founded by Louis Harms, of the Saints Peter and Paul Lutheran Congregation in Hermannsburg, Germany. The missionaries led by Harms were denied permission by the Sultan of Zanzibar when they were on their way to Ethiopia. They then took a detour and stayed over in Port Natal (Durban), where local Lutherans led by Wilhelm Posselt from the German Missionary Society encouraged them to consider setting up a mission station for the Zulu people. When the Hermannsburg missionaries accepted it, it marked the start of their mission in South Africa. King Mpande kaSenzangakhona (monarch of the Zulu Kingdom from 1840 to 1872) denied Hermannsburg missionaries permission to settle on his land and this resulted in the purchasing of the farm Perseverance on the edge of Zululand near Greytown by the Hermannsburg missionaries. This marked the genesis of Christianity in the Zulu Kingdom.

Translation of the Bible into isiZulu

Christianity is the dominant religion in South Africa, and almost 80% of the population call themselves Christians. Historically, the role of Christianity in South African has been significant, with some Christian denominations theologically advocating for inequality, subjugation and racial segregation while others fought against these injustices. 

As the dominant religion, Christian teachers realised the importance of the South African congregants hearing and learning the word of God in their mother tongue or the popular language of the area. This brought about the translation of the Bible from European to South African languages, relating the importance of experiencing the Pentecost (Acts chapter 2, verse 4), where everyone heard the message of the great deeds of God in his or her own language. The importance of learning Biblical teachings in one’s language was realised through these translations. As the famous quote of Mr Nelson Mandela says “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.”

By the turn of the nineteenth century, there were already fully published Bibles in more than five South African indigenous languages: SeTswana by Moffat in 1857, Xhosa by Boyce in 1859, Shrewsbury, and Appleyard, Southern Sotho by Cassalis, Roland, and Arbousset in 1881, IsiZulu in 1883 and SePedi by Knothe, Kuschke and Trumpelmann in 1904, Tsonga by Swiss Mission in 1906 (Revised 1929) and Venda by the Berlin Mission in 1936.

The Gospel of Matthew was the first book of the Bible to be translated into the isiZulu language by a missionary named George Champion. The book was published by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1848. Genesis and two Psalms were the first portions of the Bible to be translated in isiZulu language in 1837. These were published in the First Book for Readers. The New Testament was translated by several missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and published in 1865. The complete Bible was published in 1883 after being translated by the ABCFM, corrected by Andrew Abraham, and finally edited by S. C. Pixley (American Congregationalist missionary).

In 1917, a revision of the previously published isiZulu Bible by James Dexter Taylor was rejected due to being riddled with errors and poor isiZulu language. A revision committee was later established to revise the 1893 Bible in a proper, more acceptable format. This revision was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in London in 1959. A modern version of the isiZulu New Testament and the Psalms were completed in 1986 and published in Cape Town by the Bible Society of South Africa.

Current state of affairs

The Jacob Zuma Foundation, established by the former South African President, Mr Jacob Zuma, had reportedly collaborated with the South African Roman Catholic Church to translate the original Greek and Hebrew Bible into isiZulu.

The Foundation donated approximately R560 000.00 with the aim of ensuring that readers of the isiZulu Bible would get the message as it is intended, with proper, direct translation. According to Bishop Mlungisi Pius Dlungwane (Bishop of Marrionhill, KwaZulu-Natal) the reasons behind this gesture were that the current translations lacked the “idiom and music” of isiZulu.  Other reasons given were the fact that Mr Zuma’s mother tongue is isiZulu, the main language spoken in South Africa and that the Bible was initially translated into isiZulu during the period of white minority rule, using other European languages. During an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Bishop Dlungwane reportedly explained that the translation of this Bible might take at least a decade to complete. 

It is evident from this widely reported gesture that even now, the translation of the Bible into the Isizulu language is extremely important for the people of South Africa. The DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History can play an important role in making sure that we take our place in preserving the rich history of these valuable documents.

Currently, the Museum has been entrusted with the Indaba Enhle kaNkulunkulu, the new translation’s 1st edition of 1979, which has three scriptures from the New Testament and one scripture from the Old Testament (Mark, Acts, Ephesians and Psalms). It was published by the Bible Society of South Africa.

Figure 2: The Indaba Enhle kaNkulunkulu in the historical documents collection of the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History (Accession number: HG 25999)


  • E.A. Hermanson, “A brief overview of Bible translation in South Africa”, Acta Theologica Vol. 22, No 1, 2002, 6-18.
  • Mthikazi Roselina Masubelele “The role of Bible translation in the development of written Zulu: a corpus-based study,” D. Litt. et Phil. University of South Africa, 2007.
  • South African church welcomes Zulu Bible translation funds, 6 January 2015. (accessed 10 May 2021).
  • The Hermannsburg Mission. (accessed 10 May 2021).
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