Spoelstra, B.

Secession and the Reformed („Dopper”) Churches in South Africa



X. Secession and the Reformed („Dopper”) Churches in South Africa


The marks of the true church (Belgic Confession Art. 29) can either be applied to the local congregation as De Bres intended or, as has been done in the Netherlands since 1834, to assess various existing ecclesiastical structures. In the current Reformed tradition there are two differing views on the essential characteristics of a church. In Scripture and in the original Reformed standards a church is essentially a community of saints gathered and ministered by Christ through ordained means. During the 19th century the concept of what a church is changed as a result of rationalism. The church has become a legal persona with a specific name, a body with its own identity, a collegia licita with its own constitution.

The origin of the Reformed Churches in South Africa between 1659-1660 lies in terms of the former rather than the latter concept. The history will point to the fact that the „Doppers” without the leadership of any minister were concerned with reform of local ministries and public worship.

The sudden changes during the 19th century clashed with the traditional Reformed beliefs of the Doppers. They had conscientious objections to what they regarded as „novelties” which had been introduced into public worship after the French Revolution. It must be recognised that these simple people struggled against the onslaught of liberalism and modernism (Hanekom 1951:59, 179). They did not follow persons or ministers. The recurring refrain in their conscientious struggle was: are these changes in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures? The official church bodies in Transvaal answered this repeated request time and again by appealing to the autonomy of man and majority rule.

The Doppers did not opt for secession or an alternative „church” denomination. They tried within the unity of the church to


adhere to the faith, worship and discipline of the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618/1619 in the Netherlands. For this reason secession was deliberately forced upon them in 1859.



The turn of the century brought about immense changes. In 1795, during the Napoleontic wars, the commercial-political-ecclesiastical reign of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) was abruptly terminated by the arrival of the British forces. Prior to this, the VOC had scrupulously protected religion in Dutch reformed tradition. Even the practice of Lutheranism was not allowed before 1780.

In performing its religious obligations, the VOC was assisted by the Classis (district) of Amsterdam. The number of congregations were restricted and they were not allowed to form either a classis or a synod. Nevertheless they enjoyed local freedom in the best Genevan and Dutch traditions. In local churches the Reformed faith and church discipline were highly esteemed and practised.

By the year 1800 a group of closely related families bearing surnames such as Van der Walt, Venter and Kruger inhabited the North Eastern regions of the Cape Colony. They were isolated by mountain ranges, vast distances such as 800 kilometers and by semi-desert country from Cape Town and from church „civilization”. Despite their isolation and lack of formal education, these people were law-abiding and God-fearing, practising a puritan lifestyle. They controlled and governed themselves, adhering to their Reformed religion and cultural heritage. They neither modified their dress nor remodelled their fashions. They were very „un-English” but not at all „anti-English”. They could attend church services only a few times a year for confirmations, marriages, baptisms or to take Communion.

By 1850 these farmers of the North Eastern Cape Colony had been nicknamed „Doppers” by more „enlightened” citizens and by the British administrators in Cape Town. They were thus labelled as unenlightened, uneducated, primitive and even as the dirty Dutch. Notwithstanding this, Prof. John Murray of the


Dutch Reformed Church, who ministered to them from 1850 till 1859, said of them that they were „if not the brain, at all events the backbone of the nation that is being formed in South Africa” (Spoelstra 1963:1). They were the first pioneers to invent on their own in 1800 a unique scheme to placate and civilize the primitive San or „Bushmen” (Spoelstra 1963:30).

These people lived a free life but were in perpetual danger. There was also the risk of deculturation and assimilation due to the proximity of neighbouring San and Khoi-Khoi-tribes. Accordingly, parents transferred their fixed lifestyle to their offspring by means of home education. The parents educated their children to read and write from the Holy Bible and the Heidelberg Catechism. The pater familias conducted daily Scripture reading and devotions for the whole family and the black servants. On Sundays a complete sermon from a Dutch „author” (17th century) was read. Not only had they developed a strong sense of individuality, but also applied their Reformed religion as part of their daily life.

It is therefore obvious that their values for tradition, individuality, freedom and responsability to God would bring them into conflict with centralized ecclesiastical authorities which endeavoured to force changes upon them.


An Era of Change

In 1804, J.A. (Uitenhage) De Mist, Commissioner-General of the interim Dutch Batavian Republic government of the Cape Colony, promulgated for the church a constitution which was in full sympathy with the new ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. For the first time the church was now regarded as a denomination, a centralized body, a collegia licita, based on concepts of the autonomy of the individual, sovereignty of the people and freedom of religious association. The state supported the worship of a „Highest Being” to promote ,,virtue and good morals" of its subjects. Provision was made for a synod under supervision of the government to represent the supreme authority in this church. The operation of this provision was, however, postponed.


Two years later the British re-occupied the Cape Colony. Dutch ministers became increasingly hard to come by. Governor Somerset decided in 1820 to introduce ministers from the Scottish Presbyterian Church into the Dutch (Afrikaner) communities. This coincided with his deliberate anglicanization policy whereby use of the English language became obligatory in all official communications.

In 1824 these Presbyterian ministers induced the Governor to permit the first Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church. De Mist’s Church Order was adopted as the basic constitution while the General Regulations for the Reformed (Hervormde) Church in the Netherlands, introduced by King William I in 1816, were applied to constitute a centralized synod with regional presbyteries and local consistories.


A Rift surfaced

By 1830 the British colonial government had established new towns and parishes manned by Scottish clergymen among the Doppers who must not be confused with the Voortrekkers. The Voortrekkers who left the Cape Colony in large numbers during the Great Trek from 1834 onwards were dissatisfied with British colonial border policy. The Doppers were loyal to the British rule because of their understanding of the fifth commandment. A few Dopper families, however, including that of Paul Kruger, did join the Trek, more or less coincidentally, beyond the borders of the Cape Colony. The Kruger family was destined to play an important role in the Transvaal in political and ecclesiastical affairs.


The Singing of Hymns

The first sign of tension in the Dutch Reformed Church manifested itself simultaneously with the Great Trek in the congregation of Cradock in connection with the introduction of a new Evangelical Hymn Book. The Book had been introduced in the Netherlands during the French Revolution. This example was gradually followed by one congregation after the other in the Cape Colony without any theological examination or appraisal. The precantor


at Cradock refused to sing the words of a hymn, but conceded to do the tonology. The Presbytery of Graaff Reinet advised the Church Council to try to dissuade such persons from their „bigotry”.

In the neighbouring congregation of Colesberg a number of office bearers simply closed their books whenever a hymn was announced for singing. The Scottish minister Thomas Reid and his supporters attempted, without any success, to enforce the 1833 decision on the Presbytery. Reid refused to baptise children of those who objected because he did not consider them to be true believers (Spoelstra 1963:66).

In 1841 the attention of the Presbytery was again drawn to the persistent demonstrations of objection. The Presbytery issued a pastoral circular in 1841 to all the objectors in all the congregations. It rejected the charge that the hymns contained a „new” gospel as well as the objection that the hymns lacked a scriptural base and therefore were not acceptable according to Art. 7 of the Belgic Confession (Art. 69 of the Church Order of the Synod of Dort 1619). The Presbytery appealed to the judgment of the ministers on the Hymns and accused the objectors of committing a „grave sin”. In spirit they were summoned before the crucified Christ to answer whether they were persisting in their stubborness and thereby literally piercing his bleeding thigh and tearing his body apart. They were entreated, for the sake of unity, to humble themselves.

This highhanded approach was doomed to fail. The Dopper community as believers strongly objected to being blemished and branded as desecrators of the body of Christ. Since the liturgical process of self-examination precludes such persons from Communion, they abstained.

In 1846 a Colesberg deacon, Jan H. Venter, appealed to the Synod in Cape Town to have the defamatory allegations in the Presbytery’s pastoral letter withdrawn. He pointed out that in matters of religion these people did not want the convictions of others forced upon them. The Dutch Reformed Synod nevertheless upheld the Presbytery’s official pronouncements (Spoelstra 1963:70).


Further fuel was added to the fire of discontent when the Rev Reid permitted the Anglican bishop on his visitation tour to conduct a service in the Dutch Reformed Church of Colesberg without the consent of the Church Council. Widespread discontent united believers, both those in favour of and those against evangelical hymns, to reject the ministry of Rev Reid. One third of the congregation obtained the services of the Rev John Murray from the neighbouring congregation at Burgersdorp to minister to them independently.

In order to terminate the disruptions in Colesberg, the Presbytery arranged in 1850 that Reid would resign from his position against payment of the amount of one thousand pounds by the deacon and three other persons. After this arrangement had been properly effected, Reid sued his adversaries in the Supreme Court for damages. His claim was dismissed in 1856 but the defendants were ordered to pay the costs of the suit. The Presbytery remained a bystander to these proceedings.

In public attention drawn to the trial mention was made of the „peculiarities” and „awkwardness” of the Doppers. This was openly discussed in 1856 in the Cape Town papers. But even then an authoritative contributor using the pen-name „Zwerfgraag” (probably John Murray) testified to the loyalty of the Doppers to their church, religion, government, puritan way of life and excellence of character (Spoelstra 1963:16-32).

From the Colesberg-Burgersdorp area in the Cape Colony several objectors had trekked and resettled after 1847 in the southern parts of the Orange Free State, which was under British control. The Rev. Andrew Murray was appointed by the Governor to be the Dutch Reformed minister of religion for Bloemfontein. Britain recognised the Orange Free State as an independent „Boer” (Afrikaner) Republic in 1854. An emigrant from Colesberg, J.J. Venter, became the vice-President. Two years later he clashed with Murray in the Bloemfontein church. Andrew Murray became a well-known revival leader and his brother John became one of the first theological professors at Stellenbosch in 1859. The Scottish ministers are connected with the so-called „Marrow”-men (viz., Fisher 1718: Marrow of Modern Divinity, Jooste 1958:22). It is doubtful whether Andrew Murray adhered strictly to Reformed doctrine.


Nevertheless, since 1856 a „revival”-movement reacted strongly to the growing influence of liberalism and modernism in the Dutch Reformed Church. The revival approach differed from that of the Doppers who accepted God's Covenant unconditionally. Andrew and his brother John conceded that they were unable to fathom the religious mind of the real Dopper (Spoelstra 1963:25, 50-57, 161, 165, 177; Van der Vyver 1959:489).

P. Huet, a Dutch Reformed minister at that time, was convinced that the failure to teach true reformed doctrines from the pulpit caused general discontent amongst the Doppers (Huet 1860:46; Spoelstra 1963:50). The launching of an evangelical campaign for revival and missions within the Dutch Reformed Church coincided with the secession of the Reformed Churches from the Dutch Reformed Church.

Vice-president Venter who had had no formal education, was an intelligent, headstrong man with a unique picturesque character. In 1856 he informed the Council of the Dutch Reformed Church in Bloemfontein where Andrew Murray was the minister, that, much to his regret, his conscientious objections compelled him to resign as a member of the congregation. He referred to the evangelical hymns and the doctrines taught in the church and to the manner in which public worship — which by implication included methodistic prayer meetings — and confirmation were conducted. He stated his dissatisfaction with the manner in which the gospel was preached. He took his example from Abraham and Lot and left the Dutch Reformed Congregation of Bloemfontein (Spoelstra 1963:158f.).

Although this seems difficult to believe, like all Doppers Venter had no knowledge of the Reveil in Switzerland and of the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands. He had obtained limited information from a Dutch immigrant about a certain conservative minister Callenbach within the official Netherlands Reformed Church. Venter extended an open invitation to any minister in the Netherlands to come and take up service in the Orange Free State. The only requirement was that such a person should adhere to the traditional Reformed religion and public worship. He guaranteed his financial commitment by pledging all his possessions.


Venter’s initiative was responded to by an elder, Van Andel, of the Christian Seceded Reformed Church of the Netherlands. Van Andel put the communications before the Synod of that church in 1857. There it was decided that the Rev Dirk Postma should go and offer help in the form of ministers and teachers to the Government of the Republic of Transvaal.


Ecclesiastical turmoil in the young Transvaal Republic 1853-1859

After 1837 the Matabele had emigrated from Transvaal to Buluwayo in the present Zimbabwe. The Voortrekkers now settled in the Transvaal. In 1852 Britain recognised the independence of the Republic of Transvaal.

In the Dutch Reformed Synod of 1837 in Cape Town strong pro-colonial British sentiments prevailed. The Synod enforced an ecclesiastical ban on the Voortrekkers and prohibited any minister to administer sacraments to them. This attitude began to change only in 1847.

In 1847 the Rev Van der Hoff unexpectedly arrived from the Reformed Church in the Netherlands (NHK). The Transvalers immediately founded an independent State Church. They adopted in 1858, with suitable amendments, the laws and bylaws of the Dutch Reformed Church of the Cape Colony, whereby the former had been constituted a state church in the Cape Colony and the latter was given the same status in the Transvaal Boer Republic.

Since the inception of the Nederduitsche Hervormde Kerk (NHK) in 1853 in Transvaal some had tried to abolish the compulsory singing of evangelical hymns. The Doppers among this group required from the Rev Van der Hoff that he alleviate their conscientious objections with proof from the Scriptures. In a pastoral letter during 1854 he demonstrated his unwillingness to take up this challenge. His attitude was likewise exposed in writing by P.A. Venter, one of the Doppers.

Van der Hoff was fighting for power in the church. It brought


him into conflict even with the head of state and the Dutch Reformed congregation of Lyndenburg. To safeguard his salary he tried to prevent Lyndenburg to secure its own minister. Ph. Snyman, an elder of Rustenburg, lodged a complaint with the president that the ecclesiastical affairs of the state church had not been conducted in accordance with the norms laid down by „our” Synod of Dort 1618-1619. Further discord in the young and still disordered Republic resulted (Spoelstra 1963: 118-126).

The President, Ph. Snyman and others reacted strongly against Rev Van der Hoff’s ambition to become chief minister of religion in the Transvaal. They even considered organising a congregation independent of the state church, one to be financed by themselves and affiliated to the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony.


The Die is unexpectedly Cast in Transvaal 1858-1869

While this schism was in the air the young talented and prominent leader in Government, Paul Kruger (1825-1904), interfered and came to the rescue. He was in sympathy with the Doppers in Transvaal and was committed to consolidate the young republic on the basis of a constitution; in this he succeeded early in 1858. To stop internal strife he rejected the plan to secede from the Transvaal Church in order to join the Cape Synod. He must have been informed about Venter’s call for a conservative minister from the Netherlands.

Ironically, the Constitution of Transvaal prescribed the Synod of Dort 1618/1619 as a basis for the Transvaal Church. To avoid secession Kruger suggested extention of liberty to the objectors to institute their own worship on that constitutional basis in a separate congregation but in full fellowship with the Transvaal Church. That was agreed upon by the Church Council of Rustenburg in August 1858 and endorsed by parlement on September 1858 (Spoelstra 1982:166).

The Transvaal Government had been informed that the Rev Dirk Postma of the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands


was on his way and should be picked up in Natal to offer help in Transvaal’s burning need for ministers and teachers.

The Church Council of Rustenburg transferred this obligation to a committee consisting of Paul Kruger, elder Ph. Snyman and ex-deacon S.J. Kruger. They were under the impression that Postma would be their minister within the fellowship of the state church. If he did not please them, they were responsible for his return to Natal. Postma arrived in Transvaal in November 1858 (Spoelstra 1963:134-137; 1982:164-166).

According to the new Constitution, it had to be established whether Postma should comply with the standards of the Synod of Dort 1618/1619. For this purpose the General Assembly of the Transvaal Church gathered on January 11, 1859 in Pretoria; it was chaired by Rev Van der Hoff who had just survived the serious ecclesiastical conflict. Having been Hervormd in the Netherlands, he loathed the idea of having a minister of the Christian Reformed Church as his only colleague among a conservative Transvaal population. He therefore had to play his hand most cautiously.

It was a mere formality to establish that Postma conformed to the standards of Dort 1618/1619. Nobody observed the breach of agenda when the chairman asked for Postma's view on the already arranged matter of singing evangelical hymns in public worship. Postma replied in writing that
(1) When a church is at peace with the singing of hymns, he would not give judgment against such a church; (2) should a church adhere to the rule of the Church Order of Dort Art. 69 it would be the safest way; (3) if some have conscientious objections against hymns not based on Scripture, unity and love should impell others to cease singing such hymns; (4) if it becomes impossible to achieve, the matter should be left to the conscience of every minister to conduct services according to the situation in every congregation so as to prevent division and secession for a reason like this (D. Postma 1905:119-120).

It was argued that even the last alternative could jeopardize the evangelical hymns and therefore the Assembly stated that the Reformed (Hervormde) Church with its evangelical hymns


would be maintained unimpaired because it was not a Seceded Christian Reformed Church.

The following day fifteen members of the State Church, including Commandant Paul Kruger, informed the General Assembly that they would „. . . retire from the community of your church and desire to live as a Free Reformed Church (Vrye Gereformeerde Kerk) in accordance with the teachings, discipline and devotions of the Fathers as revealed in the Synod of Dort in 1618 and 1619 . . .”. They declared their heart-felt sorrow occasioned by this move, but said that they believed and prayed that the existing mutual brotherly love between the two (take note) „congregations” would not weaken and that with regard to the existing difference they would bear one another with affection. They mentioned that the Commission which during August 1858 had been appointed by the Hervormde Church Council of Rustenburg would henceforth act independently.


Secession Materialises in 1859 and 1860

If one analyses what occurred during January 1859 in the Transvaal, it becomes evident that for many long years the objectors were concerned about the character and substance of the administration they had been receiving. They had expected that not only the administration but also public worship would be determined by the Word of God.

It should be noted that the resolution of the General Assembly, adopted 11th January 1859, was founded upon an anxiety concerning the identity of the visible institutional church. The assembly wanted to bring about and enforce uniformity by majority vote. In order to achieve this the NHK elevated the evangelical hymns to an absolute norm. They explicitly stated that in this manner the character of the NHK should correspond with that of the Hervormde Church (NHN) rather than with the CRC in the Netherlands. The question considered was not whether or not the objectors were true believers and members of the body of Christ.

On the 10th of February, 1859 three hundred and ten persons assembled in Rustenburg to form a „new congregation” and


called the Rev Dirk Postma of the CRC of the Netherlands (Postma 1905:142). They notified the Government that this church fully corresponded in doctrine, service, and discipline with the Reformed Church in the Netherlands as pronounced by the Synod of Dort 1618 and 1619. Although they were conscious of the CRC in which the Rev Postma was involved, they never contemplated founding a CRC or seeking affiliation with the CRC. They did not see their church as a denomination or an association but as a congregation which exhibits the marks of the true church.

During May 1859 Venter and his supporters once again did not constitute a branch of the CRC or of the Transvaal Church near Bloemfontein. They simply installed the church offices and thus established another congregation on the same basis of the 17th century reformation. Primarily we do not find here an offshoot of some denomination, but only an attempt to reform the church ministration to comply with the required norms. In a similar manner independent and autonomous congregations sprang up in the Cape Colony at Burgersdorp (January 1860), Middelburg and Colesberg (December 1860). It is ironical that Colesberg should be the last to form its own Reformed congregation.

In 1862 these five autonomous congregations convened and adopted the Church Order of Dort as a common basis for church management. Thereafter these churches could freely consort in a federal synodical relationship. They were the first Afrikaans churches to cooperate in unity and fellowship across the existing colonial and political borders within which the other two Afrikaans speaking churches were confined.


Immediate Efforts to Restore Unity

From an ecumenical viewpoint it is significant that the Transvaal Government tried to restore unity. With this in mind a further General Assembly of the church was called for 26 April 1859. Van der Hoff inspired so little trust with the state officials that the Government invited one minister from the Orange Free State and one from the Cape Colony to the meeting. This move however introduced a Trojan horse into their midst.


The Church Assembly resolved that the Rev Postma could, under the supervision of the Rev Van der Hoff, minister to a congregation in the NHK without using evangelical hymns. Notice was thereupon given to the Government that the Reformed Church at Rustenburg had thereby ceased to exist.

The members of the Reformed Church did not take this thoughtless and offending resolution seriously. They simply pointed out that now they were not a NHK without hymns. Following their secession, unification could only be restored on the basis of the doctrine, service and discipline of the Synod of Dort 1618 and 1619. They had done everything to prevent a religious split. Having developed as far as it had, they were no longer prepared to abandon their Reformed institution and be absorbed by the liberal-minded NHK. In the absence of unity in spirit and faith, a unity in organization no longer appealed to them.


In Conclusion

It is a miracle that the church movement of the Doppers bears such a resemblance to what occurred in Switzerland, the Netherlands and the USA, especially because in South-Africa there were no ministers or theologians to show them the way. Nevertheless the movement among completely unschooled and untrained people resembled the secession movements in Europe which were a secret closely kept from them by the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church in South-Africa.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century had caused secession movements all over the world. The reason for this can be found in the fact that the sola scriptura concept of authority was replaced by the authority of the synod and by emphasis on the church as an organised unit. The church as an associative institution expected people to subscribe unconditionally to its policy. The Church Council of the Reformed Church in the Orange Free State ex-plained plainly and lucidly in a letter to the Netherlands on 14 January 1860 that their secession was due to the governing of the church which had become too „worldly”. They stated: „We are forced because the Synod decided this or that — would it had


been a regulation. The question whether or not this is according to God’s Word was asked too infrequently or never at all”.



T.N. Hanekom: Die Liberate Rigting in Suid-Afrika. ’n Kerkhistoriese studie. 1951.
P. Huet: Eéne Kudde en één Herder. Verhandeling over de Toebrenging der Heidenen tot de Christelyke Kerkgemeenschap. 1860.
J.P. Jooste: Die Geskiedenis van die Gereformeerde Kerk in Suid-Afrika. 1958.
D. Postma: De Geschiedenis van de Stichting en Ontwikkeling der Gereformeerde Kerk in Zuid-Afrika. 1905.
B. Spoelstra: Die „Doppers” in Suid-Afrika 1760-1899. 1963.
B. Spoelstra: Paul Kruger as lid van die Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk. Die kerk in die wereld. ’n Bundel opstelle, 1982.
G.C.P. van der Vyver: Professor Dirk Postma 1818-1890, 1959.