The Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA) was founded on 13 September 1892. Even though it was established as a South African church body, its beginnings were firmly rooted in Germany; its foundation and important aspects of its history can only be understood by developments in that country. Therefore it is necessary to describe the situation in Germany before turning to the events leading up to the founding of the FELSISA in South Africa.
- The German background
- A Unique Lutheran Mission Concept in South Africa
- Unionism and Rationalism Prompt the Founding of the Hanoverian Free Church in Germany
- The Founding of the FELSISA
- 2. Fundamental Articles
- 3. Partner Churches and Other Partnerships
- 4. Global Affiliation
- 5. Unique Characteristics
- 6. Theological Training
- 7. Church Leaders
- 8. Size (as of January 2019)
- 9. Bibliography
The dominant theology in Germany during the 19th century was rationalism, a movement of thought in which churches preferred to proclaim only what could be grasped by human reason (Latin: ratio) and sought the saving truth not in the revelation of God’s Word, but in Christian experience. Thus the emphasis of Christian preaching, teaching, hermeneutics, and heuristics during this period was on human intellect, knowledge, and experience. Rationalism can also be described as faith in reason. It is characterised by a high esteem for human reason, a distinct optimism regarding the possibilities of and a belief in “rational education,” and a rejection of all divine words which speak of the sinful corruption of man. Rationalism has a positive view of human abilities and the human condition, of human nature not as lost, corrupt, and sinful, but as essentially neutral or even good. In rationalism, reason dictates what has to be taught and believed. Wherever rationalism predominated in churches, most of the biblical truth was lost and the Lutheran Confessions came to be viewed as irrelevant, old-fashioned, and primitive. Talk of sinfulness, depravity, human shortcomings, the need for a savior, and of truth and salvation imparted by divine revelation and grace made way for progressivist language emphasising human thought. Consequently, God no longer occupied the centre of the church’s proclamation any longer, but man with his knowledge, abilities, and needs.
This position led to the neglect of the Lutheran Confessions and to doctrinal differences between churches being considered ultimately irrelevant. As a result, the churches of many German states became increasingly unionistic by combining or at least tolerating as equal both Lutheran and Reformed teachings and confessions alongside one another.
In the face of growing rationalism and unionism, a spiritual revival took place in many parts of Germany which led many to rediscover Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. In reaction to what was happening in mainstream state churches, a number of Lutheran free churches (i.e. church bodies independent from the state) were founded. Such a revival also took place in the Kingdom of Hanover (today: the German state of Lower Saxony), and particularly in and around the village of Hermannsburg and in the surrounding countryside, known as the “Lüneburg heath.” Through the preaching and teaching of Rev. Louis Harms of the Lutheran church of Saints Peter and Paul in Hermannsburg, an awakening of faith occurred in many church members and also in other area congregations. Louis Harms was a contemporary of Wilhelm Löhe. He founded the Hermannsburg Mission in 1849 as a distinctly Lutheran mission funded and run by the congregation he served. With the help of his brother, Rev. Theodor Harms, he started training missionaries who were eventually sent to South Africa. It is important to note that this mission work was a purely private undertaking of Rev. Harms’ congregation, and for a long time, it did not operate under the auspices of the “consistory” (state church board).
The situation in Hannover was different from other German states in that the Hanoverian State Church, a national church body, had not adopted a unionistic constitution, but remained ostensibly Lutheran instead. Louis Harms remained a lifelong pastor of this state church, despite his many objections to its teachings and practices, since he was still able to do his work without hindrance, especially in the mission field. Towards the end of his life, however, Harms realised more and more that due to the growing doctrinal corruption in the state church, the confessional Lutheran church would inevitably be exiled from the state church and would be forced to become independent someday. Harms died in 1865. One year later, the Kingdom of Hannover was annexed by Prussia in the War of 1866. Prussia had united the Lutheran and Reformed churches in its own territories by imperial decree in 1817 already. This had led to the persecution of Lutheran pastors unwilling to participate in or to conform to this Prussian Union. Many Lutherans, both pastors and laity, had therefore chosen to emigrate from Prussia, mainly to the USA and to Australia. As the Prussian state expanded by conquest and annexation, so did the Prussian Union. Now even though the Prussian Union was not officially enforced in Hanover after its annexation in 1866, the Hanoverian state church nevertheless increasingly adopted unionistic practices, employed unionistic professors, tolerated and even promoted false teaching, and either silenced or suspended pastors who did not follow the mainline rationalistic theology of the day. This would have a direct impact on the Hermannsburg congregation and the mission it operated, and, by extension, also on the mission field in South Africa.
It is important to note that from the beginning, Rev. Louis Harms had sought to implement a unique concept in the mission to South Africa. With this concept, he wanted to emulate the practices of the Anglo-Saxon monks who had originally brought the Gospel to Germany in the eighth and ninth centuries. In essence, what this meant is that Harms from 1853 onwards sent out not lone individual missionaries, but rather whole cohorts of Christians organized as an officially constituted congregation of the Hanoverian State Church. To be specific, the Hermannsburg Mission sent out missionary groups consisting of both trained missionaries and lay Christians, with the latter being known as “colonists.” While the term “colonists” is certainly loaded with negative connotations today since it implies people sent out to further the interests of a particular colonial enterprise or nation, Harms used the term “colonists” in a very different sense. The only interests the lay Hermannsburg colonists had were to serve in the gospel of Jesus Christ by way of the Hermannsburg Mission. The laypeople sent out in this way were trained farmers, craftsmen, artisans, masons, and the like. Harms instructed them to perform two main tasks: Firstly, they were to support the called missionaries and the cause of the mission. They were to build churches, mission stations, houses, smithies, mills, and other places of industry, acquire land and farm it. In this way, using their skills and technology, the colonists were to provide the missionaries with food, shelter, and other essentials and to ensure that the mission become self-sustaining in due time, since it would be endorsed by a self-sufficient local economy. Secondly, the laypeople were to set a collective example for the indigenous population and serve as a kind of model congregation. The idea was that over time, they should expand to form entire networks of Christian congregations and show the people around them how God’s children live together under the Lord’s blessing, serving him and following Christ; in this way, they would encourage and invite the indigenous people to Christ also.
As a direct consequence of this concept, groups of German Christians, both lay and ordained, emigrated from Lower Saxony to South Africa in the time frame from 1853 to 1869, founding Lutheran congregations wherever they went. From the very beginning, these congregations were founded not mainly for the spiritual nourishment of their own members, but to support mission among the indigenous population groups. During the first decades, the Lutheran pastors of such German immigrant congregations in South Africa usually served as missionaries as well. They conducted divine services not only in German, but also in indigenous languages. As indigenous people came to faith by the preaching of the gospel, multiple language groups came into being around the mission stations; frequently, the indigenous language groups of the African Lutheran congregations soon became larger than the German groups.
From 1869 to 1870, for a number of reasons, the Hermannsburg mission abandoned the colonist concept. All German mission colonists who had been sent out to South Africa were now suspended from the mission, but encouraged to remain in Africa and to support the Lutheran mission effort. As a result, the colonists moved away from the mission stations to suitable locations where they could settle down and make a living. Most turned to agriculture to provide for their families. Wherever they went, they also founded congregations of their own, and being German, they founded German congregations. These congregations drew their pastors from the ranks of the Hermannsburg missionaries and continued to contribute to the mission financially. While loosely linked with the mission, the question arose as to how these congregations would organise themselves. Until 1890, the question was more theoretical than practical, but things then came to a head as various factors led to the founding of a South African synod.
Before we proceed to the founding of the FELSISA, we need to return to what was happening in Germany during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In the Kingdom of Hanover, unionism was proceeding apace and making strong inroads into the state Lutheran church. Under the leadership of Rev. Theodor Harms, the brother and successor of mission founder Rev. Louis Harms, Hermannsburg bravely soldiered on as a Lutheran mission, and mission efforts to South Africa continued. However, pastors seeking to maintain the Lutheran confession were coming under increasing pressure from forces within the state church. A number of faithful Lutheran pastors in the Hanoverian state church with close ties to the Hermannsburg mission refused to bow to the mounting dictates of unionism and came into conflict with the state church as a result. Over time, many of them were suspended. Rev. Theodor Harms was finally also suspended in 1878. In protest, more than 2,000 members of his congregation decided to leave the state church and to found a confessional Lutheran congregation in the town of Hermannsburg, named the Church of the Cross (Kreuzkirche). At the same time, this congregation joined with other newly-founded congregations in the area whose pastors had also been suspended to form the Hanoverian Evangelical Lutheran Free Church (HELFC).
Now since Theodor Harms remained director of the Hermannsburg mission, and since many others who endorsed it were now members of the HELFC, this meant that the Hermannsburg mission was now being run to a large extent by Lutherans who were no longer part of the Hanoverian state church. Even so, Hermannsburg also retained close ties to the state church because of its heritage and was still being supported by Lutherans who opted to remain within the state church. This led to increasing tensions over the confessional position of the mission: Did the mission publicly represent only the independent free Lutheran position (HELFC) or also the interests of the state church? With whom was it aligned? Was it possible to be aligned with both without compromising the confession of Scripture in its truth and purity and without compromising its confessional stance? Officially, at any rate, the Hermannsburg mission remained “neutral.” At the same time, only missionaries belonging to the independent HELFC were sent to South Africa. This meant that missionaries from the state church had to join the independent church before they could be sent out into the mission field by the Hermannsburg mission.
During the 1880s, as the state church continued to become more and more unionistic, tensions increased between the independent Lutheran church (HELFC) and the Hanoverian state church. Since the Hermannsburg mission was an area of shared interest and indeed cooperation, tensions simmered over the financing, the endorsement, and the confessional position of the mission, and especially in terms of the theological training of its missionaries. Theodor Harms managed to keep the tensions in check as long as he remained director of the Hermannsburg mission, but when he died in 1885, the tensions came to a head under his son and successor Rev. Egmont Harms. One of Egmont Harms’ concerns was to secure the ongoing financial support of the state church for the mission enterprise, in order to keep the mission solvent. In 1890, under Egmont Harms’ supervision, the Hermannsburg mission formulated an official agreement with the Hanoverian state church. This agreement ensured the financial support of the Hanoverian state church, but it also proclaimed official pulpit and altar fellowship between the state church and the Hermannsburg mission (along with all its patrons) as a condition of the support. While the independent Lutherans had no problem with the financial support given by the state church, they were dismayed and alienated by the church fellowship agreement that came with it. To them, this was too high a price to pay, since it compromised the confessional integrity of the mission and the church. In fact, this situation was unbearable for the HELFC – via the mission, the HELFC again found itself in full pulpit and altar fellowship with the very same state church which had suspended its pastors and openly endorsed rationalism and unionism, thereby severely compromising the confession of faith. As a result, the independent Lutherans of the HELFC withdrew from the Hermannsburg mission in 1892 and founded an independent Lutheran mission of their own. In time, this mission would come to be informally known as the Bleckmar Mission, since its headquarters was located in the little hamlet of Bleckmar in Germany.
Officially, the problems of rationalism, unionism, and compromised fellowship were restricted to Germany and did not affect the congregations in Africa. However, in reality, it was simply impossible to prevent these problems from spilling over into the mission field in Africa, since the mission congregations continued to be associated with the Hermannsburg mission, from which they also received their pastors. Members of the South African Lutheran congregations also sometimes visited their friends and relatives at home and were visited by them in turn, raising the question of at which altars they could and should commune and to which church body they should hold themselves. The church fellowship practiced by the patrons and supporters of the Hermannsburg mission in Germany was thus by default also the church fellowship practiced by the mission congregations in Africa, all the more so since the Hermannsburg mission was a congregational mission and not simply a mission society. The problems in Germany thus directly affected the congregations in South Africa and raised grave concerns there over unionism, doctrinal corruption, and the question of confessional allegiance. Three South African congregations in particular were very concerned over what was happening in Germany and used every means at their disposal to persuade the Hermannsburg mission to reverse its compromise with the state church. Their main concerns may be summarised as follows:
- They came to the conviction that Louis Harms’ predictions had indeed come true: that the Hanoverian state church had ceased being a true Lutheran church as a result of unionism and rationalism, and that the Hermannsburg mission was also increasingly being compromised in this regard by its allegiance to the state church and its practice of church fellowship with the state church.
- Consequently, they were convinced that by declaring fellowship with the state church for the sake of money, the Hermannsburg mission had sold out its confessional integrity.
- One of the Hermannsburg missionaries in South Africa was suspended for refusing to abide by the agreement made between the Hanoverian state church and the Hermannsburg mission. This implied that the Hermannsburg mission was serious not only about tolerating unionism, but also about enforcing such tolerance on all its missionaries in the field.
- The lecturer in dogmatics at the mission seminary in Hermannsburg in Germany now openly taught that the bible contains verifiable inaccuracies. When called to account by the Lutherans in South Africa, the lecturer refused to distance himself from his statements in this regard and was protected and even publicly endorsed in his position by the leadership of the Hermannsburg mission. This implied to the confessional Lutherans in South Africa that Hermannsburg had abandoned its former confession of Scriptural inerrancy and infallibility and the Lutheran confessions.
When it became clear that the Hermannsburg mission would not listen to their pleas and revoke the agreement with the Hanoverian state church, doggedly insisting on adhering to the path it was on, the South African congregations had no choice but to secede from Hermannsburg and to form an independent Lutheran church in South Africa. This led to the founding of the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA) on 13 September 1892. The term “Free” here implies independence from state churches and state church governance and an affiliation with identity and position of the HELFC.
In summary, it may be said that the founders of the FELSISA wanted at all costs to preserve both the clear proclamation of the pure gospel of the bible and the confessions of the Lutheran church as the true exposition of this gospel. They did not want the Word of God to be replaced with or diluted by human ideas, but to retain it in all its purity for the sake of confidence about their salvation. This is the reason why the founders of the FELSISA opted for the narrow and lonely way of the confessional Lutheran church.
With its founding in 1892, the FELSISA became the first independent Lutheran church in South Africa. Both financially and in terms of governance, it was thus no longer dependent on a mission society or church in Germany, but completely independent. Even so, the awareness of the centrality of Christian mission remained an important aspect to the congregations of FELSISA, and its members are very much aware of this as their task even today.
The FELSISA was founded on Holy Scripture, the Book of Concord of 1580, and on the basis of the Lüneburg church order of 1643. Accordingly, the constitution of the FELSISA in its fundamental articles states the following regarding its understanding of Scripture, the Lutheran confessions, and church fellowship:
1.1.1 Doctrine and Confession
184.108.40.206 The Free Evangelical-Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA) is united with the One, Holy, Christian and Apostolic Church, which is recognizable wherever the pure Word of God is taught purely and the sacraments are administered according to their institution by Christ. She bears witness to Jesus Christ as the sole Overlord of the Church and proclaims Him as the only saviour and redeemer of the world.
220.127.116.11 The FELSISA is bound to the Holy Scripture of the Old and the New Testament – the infallible Word of the triune God inspired by the Holy Spirit – as the sole source and guiding principle of Faith and Doctrine.
18.104.22.168 As true and binding statement and exposition of the Holy Scriptures the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church are accepted; that is, the three Ecumenical Symbols (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed) the Unaltered Augsburg Confession and its Apology, the Smalcald Articles, the Small and the Large Catechisms of Dr. Martin Luther and the Formula of Concord. (The Lutheran Confession)
1.1.2 Church Fellowship
22.214.171.124 Fundamentally the FELSISA stands in church fellowship with all churches whose doctrine and actions conform with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions as obligatory exposition of Holy Scripture.
(Church fellowship exists on the basis of the unity of the church as given in Jesus Christ. It is expressed in the joint confession of faith and practice. The unity of churches embracing this confession of faith is expressed by the mutual admission of members of such churches to Holy Communion and reciprocal altar and pulpit service of pastors.)
126.96.36.199 The FELSISA rejects those doctrines which contradict the Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions or their toleration as well as every association with churches contravening the Scriptures and Confessions.
Immediately after its founding, the FELSISA entered into pulpit and altar fellowship with the Hanoverian Evangelical Lutheran Free Church (HELFC) in Germany. This fellowship has endured up to the present day in the form of the successor church to the HELFC, namely the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany, also known as the SELK. Both the FELSISA and the HELFC (and later the SELK) joined together to fund and operate the Bleckmar Mission (officially known today as the Lutherische Kirchenmission or Mission of Lutheran Churches), which still operates today. Its areas of operation include South Africa, Mozambique, Brazil, and Germany.
Initially, the Bleckmar mission also incorporated and cared for the predominantly black mission congregations in South Africa which grew out of the joint mission work of FELSISA pastors, Bleckmar missionaries, and some former Hermannsburg missionaries. This led to a parallel situation in South Africa, with German-speaking, predominantly white FELSISA congregations located in many instances alongside IsiZulu- or SeTswana-speaking, predominantly black mission congregations. This parallel arose on the basis of historical differences in organization and affiliation and differences in language and culture. The mission congregations of the Bleckmar mission eventually joined together in 1967 to form the Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (LCSA). This reflects the prominence given at the time to independence on the mission field and a drive to encourage self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation (i.e. independent mission efforts). The pulpit and altar fellowship declared between the FELSISA and the HELFC (later: the SELK) and their missionaries in 1893 was immediately extended also to the LCSA in 1967 and has been practiced ever since.
It goes without saying that the political history of separation arising from apartheid in South Africa has troubled the relationship between the FELSISA and the LCSA for many years, since the two consists predominantly of different race groups (in the terminology and conceptual models of apartheid). For more on this issue and the positions taken by the two church bodies in this regard, the reader is directed to the book edited by Werner Klän and Gilberto da Silva entitled “Mission und Apartheid” and to the publication by Karl Böhmer entitled “Getrenntes Nebeneinander im südlichen Afrika: Die Apartheid, die Schwesterkirchen und die einigende Mitte” (see the bibliography at the end of this article).
In 1962, church fellowship was declared between the FELSISA and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) in the USA on the basis of a common confession of Scripture and the Lutheran confessions. This church fellowship came about as a result of contacts with WELS missionaries stopping over in the South African port of Durban on their way to WELS mission fields in east and central Africa, and also as a result of shared history between the two church bodies, since many Hermannsburg-trained pastors had ended up serving in the WELS in the past. Church fellowship was maintained until 1985, when it was terminated by the WELS because the SELK in Germany, with whom the FELSISA is in fellowship, also maintained fellowship with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) of the USA (with the WELS refusing to engage in “triangulated church fellowship”).
Church fellowship was also declared between the FELSISA and the Lutheran free churches of Finland and Denmark in 1984.
There had been close contacts between the Hermannsburg Mission and the LCMS from the 1860s onward by the latest. In 1866, an agreement was concluded between the Hermannsburg Mission and the LCMS to document unity and to establish cooperation and support between them, and quite a number of theologians trained in Hermannsburg eventually became pastors in the LCMS. However, church fellowship was not officially declared between the two at the time, and by 1885, the LCMS decided for various reasons to distance itself from the Hermannsburg Mission officially. While there was infrequent contact between Lutherans in South Africa and the LCMS and also close cooperation between the LCMS and the South African Lutherans from the 1980s onward, it took until 1995 for church fellowship to be established officially between the LCMS and the FELSISA. The two remain in fellowship today.
Subsequently, church fellowship was also declared between the FELSISA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (IELB) in 1998, and between the FELSISA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England (ELCE) in 2002.
The FELSISA became a full member of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) in 1995 and has remained a member ever since. The FELSISA is not affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
The situation of the FELSISA in South Africa has been and continues to be inextricably linked to the abuses and complexities of the apartheid system and its legacy which haunt the country to this day. For one thing, the change of political power in South Africa in 1994 caused many citizens to leave the country. The FELSISA was affected by this emigration wave too, and through it lost nearly 15% of its members, as far as it is possible to estimate. Since then, members of the FELSISA continue to emigrate, and this continues to have a negative effect on the synod’s membership. Yet emigration is but one of the factors arising from the country’s challenges. Far more significant are the problems arising from apartheid-related separation for the confessional Lutherans remaining in the country. Apart from the sins of racism and discrimination, the churches have struggled with how to address the very real inequalities and imbalances between the different ethnic and linguistic people groups in the country. These imbalances and disparities often determine even the basic living conditions of various groups and individuals and seem to have become ingrained in the collective South African psyche. People are still divided as much by language and skin colour as they are by respective socioeconomic considerations, levels of education, levels of perceived sophistication, cultural practices and customs, worldviews, respective quality of healthcare, political views, employment opportunities, levels of individualisation versus collectivisation, historic allegiances, land ownership, lifestyle trends, and the like. Even today, South Africa appears to be heavily divided and splintered into very diverse micro and macro contexts and milieus. Even the predominant divisions are very complex and nuanced to different degrees and levels in and of themselves, with individuals identifying with different identities on different levels at the same time. In such a national situation and in the face of such division, it is extremely challenging to proclaim and to embody as churches the unity of confession and truth given by the gospel of the one Lord Jesus Christ. The confessional Lutheran churches have both succeeded and failed at this to varying extents over the years.
The FELSISA remains predominantly German-speaking to this day, although this is changing. There have been many intermarriages with other people groups over time, to the extent that ministry has been for years and is increasingly being done in various languages at the same time. This makes for challenging ministry contexts. Different language groups within one church body or between two associated church bodies always make for more complex situations in which the potential for additional and compounded strife is very real. That being said, while for many years, the FELSISA was uniformly white in terms of its ethnic make-up, other ethnic groups have been explicitly welcomed in recent decades as well, which has led to some FELSISA congregations becoming thoroughly mixed or even predominantly black in a few cases.
At the same time, since 1892, many FELSISA members have retained close personal and family ties to the Lutherans who opted to remain in the Hermannsburg mission and its successor church body in South Africa, which retains various allegiances to state churches in Germany and also to the LWF today. Consequently, distinguishing between personal and confessional allegiances between these two church groups in South Africa, both of whom share a history and close language and familial ties, has remained a difficult and troubled endeavour and has occupied the attention of the FELSISA for many years.
In many ways, the constitution of the FELSISA and its way of operation still closely resembles its German heritage and counterparts. One example of this is the way its pastors are paid; the FELSISA centrally mandates the salaries paid to its pastors, meaning that its pastors are all paid the same. Since the salaries of FELSISA pastors historically reflect the socioeconomic standards and match the average income of whites in South Africa, this makes it very difficult for churches who fully endorse the Lutheran confession but who are small or who tend to come from economically challenged backgrounds to join the FELSISA, since they cannot raise the required contributions stipulated by the FELSISA structures. At the same time, if congregations were able to determine the salaries of their pastors themselves, it would almost inevitably lead to exponential disparities between pastors’ incomes, which would in turn be very visible and disruptive for a small church body such as the FELSISA.
One way in which the FELSISA is seeking to overcome this challenge is by introducing the temporary status of associate membership – congregations who fully share its confessional position are able to affiliate with the FELSISA and gradually to strive towards full participation in all of the FELSISA’s structures while already enjoying church fellowship on all levels. At the same time, established congregations are challenged to demonstrate greater generosity towards their brothers and sisters in the faith.
Originally, pastors serving the FELSISA came exclusively from Germany, drawn from the ranks of the HELFC and the Bleckmar mission, with only a very few exceptions being sons of German missionaries or pastors born in South Africa who studied in Germany and then returned to serve in South Africa. All but one of the presidents and bishops of the FELSISA to date have been native Germans. Over time, the balance in the ministerium has shifted, however, with more and more South Africans entering the ministry of the FELSISA and fewer and fewer coming from Germany, such that all current pastors of the FELSISA are native South Africans. Because the FELSISA has retained much of its German heritage and still has many German-speaking churches, theology students from the FELSISA have been overwhelmingly German-speaking as well. This and the demands of the congregations have meant that FELSISA pastors needed to be trained in German as well. Almost all FELSISA theology students first completed a bachelor’s degree in ancient languages at a South African university and then went on to study at the seminary of the SELK in Oberursel in Germany, at least for a time, with most having completed their studies to graduate from there as well, after also studying at German universities for a time. Some FELSISA pastors attended WELS seminaries during the time of fellowship between the two church bodies; others have more recently received training from the ELCE in Cambridge, UK. Since the year 2000, a number have also studied at or even graduated from LCMS seminaries in the USA. Currently, one FELSISA student is studying at St. Catherine’s seminary of the LCC in Canada. The general practice of the FELSISA is to have all its students complete a vicarage in South Africa after returning from overseas, following which they have to pass the final theological examination administered by the FELSISA in order to be recommended for ordination.
From what was said above, it follows that historically, FELSISA pastors have either been born in Germany or were trained in Germany and elsewhere abroad. However, it should be added that there have been efforts to train Lutheran pastors in South Africa as well, mainly on the part on the Bleckmar mission. After offering largely informal training to black South African Lutherans from its beginnings (the first black Lutheran pastor in the Bleckmar mission was ordained in 1918), the Bleckmar mission started a more formal seminary in Salem, South Africa in 1941. It became known as the Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTS). Here catechists, evangelists, and future pastors were trained for service in the church. Instructors were drawn from the ranks of the Bleckmar missionaries. In 1955, the seminary relocated to Enhlanhleni near Pomeroy in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. From 1982 onwards, missionaries from the LCMS also began to serve as lecturers at the seminary in Enhlanhleni. In this way, more than a hundred graduates from the seminary were trained in confessional Lutheran theology and ordained to serve as pastors in the LCSA. In early 2001, the LTS was again moved, this time to the national capital, Pretoria. This made for a more central location close to international transit points; in addition, the close proximity to the University of Pretoria also made possible close ties and cooperation agreements with an internationally recognized academic institution.
For many years, the LTS has had an international character as well. In response to requests from various Lutheran churches throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the LTS has enrolled students from other African nations to address the growing need for well-trained pastors throughout the African continent. Also, a large number of renowned confessional Lutheran scholars and lecturers from international partner churches have served as guest lecturers at the seminary, providing training not only to students but also to pastors already in the South African field, mainly in the form of refresher courses and continuing education. Of signal importance to the international character of the LTS is also the support it has enjoyed in the form of personal and financial assistance by volunteers and theological experts from partner churches from around the world.
After 2008, a deaconess training program was also instituted at the LTS.
Throughout its history and in its various instantiations and locations, the LTS has remained committed to the goal of raising up confessional Lutheran pastors, evangelists, and later also deaconesses for Africa and providing them with the best possible theological training.
Now even though the FELSISA has not sent its own students to the LTS on a full-time basis, nevertheless, the LTS is mentioned in this context for several reasons. Firstly, the FELSISA has from the beginning supported theological training of Lutheran pastors in South Africa in its cooperation with and support of the Bleckmar mission, with a great deal of predominantly financial support flowing from the FELSISA towards the LTS over the years. For some time, the FELSISA has also helped deploy lecturers to the LTS. In addition, over the years, there have been repeated efforts to have theological students from the FELSISA study at the LTS, with a number having done so for a time; that being said, no white FELSISA pastor has graduated from the LTS as yet. The reasons for this arise mainly from complexities in the South African context related to the apartheid system and its legacy; aside from the need to have most FELSISA pastors be competent in theological German and thus to study in Germany, the education offered at the LTS has not yet been academically accredited, leading the FELSISA to send its students to accredited institutions overseas. A side benefit from this international study has been to promote contacts and relationships with international confessional Lutheran church bodies and their clergy on a personal level, which is of tremendous benefit especially for such small and isolated church bodies as the FELSISA.
1892-1897 President Heinrich Prigge
1897-1912 President Christoph Johannes
1912-1923 President Wilhelm Hellberg
1923-1924 President Christoph Johannes
1924-1925 President Johannes Kehrhahn
1925-1928 President Martin Bielefeldt
1928-1932 President Herbert Graustein
1932-1960 President Willi Reusch
1960-1971 President Ludwig Wiesinger
1971-1990 President Günter Scharlach
1990-1994 President Ernst-August Albers
1994-2009 President Peter Ahlers
2010- Bishop Dieter Reinstorf
Number of member congregations: 18
Number of congregations with probationary membership: 2
Number of pastors: 17 (+2 pastors with probationary status = 19 total)
Total membership: 2571 (+459 probationary members = 3030 total)
Ahlers, Peter. History of the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA). Unpublished.
Albers, Andreas. “Eine Untersuchung der Lehrstreitigkeiten über Gnadenwahl und Chiliasmus zwischen den Brüdern Harms und der Missouri-Synode unter Berücksichtigung der kirchenpolitischen Konsequenzen im Bereich der selbständigen evangelisch-lutherischen Kirchen.” Examination thesis, Lutherische Theologische Hochschule Oberursel im Taunus, 2018.
Beneke, Thomas. “Dem anderen ein Christus werden: Eine systematisch-theologische Studie zur Versöhnung zwischen Konfliktparteien in der Christenheit – mit einem Ausblick auf die Gestaltung der Gemeinschaft zwischen LCSA und FELSISA.” Examination thesis, Lutherische Theologische Hochschule Oberursel im Taunus, 2012.
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