In 2016 Dr Karl Böhmer published the results of his research in the field of South African Mission History. We interviewed him to ask him about his book and the research involved.
What moved you to publish a dissertation?
I had always wanted to study further. I started in the ministry at a very early age and had originally planned to do post-graduate studies. That wasn’t possible at the time. But the opportunity arose when I was able to serve a congregation in the USA, allowing me to study part-time.
What are the steps towards becoming a Dr of Theology?
It differs from country to country. In the USA (and in this case specifically at the Seminary in Fort Wayne), a two-year intensive course precedes the actual dissertation. Once the preliminary exams are done, one may continue with the thesis.
Why August Hardeland?
I wanted to work on our very own South African Church and Mission History. For that reason I approached a specialist in this field from our sister church in Germany (SELK), Dr Hartwig Harms, who himself had worked as a missionary in Ethiopia for many years. He suggested the topic of “August Hardeland,” the first superintendent of the Hermannsburg Mission in South Africa. In the opinion of Dr Harms, there was a great need to research this period of history – something that became evident during my time of research. In retrospect this topic turned out to be very fruitful!
Had you heard about August Hardeland before?
What is your research all about?
I posed the following question (amongst others): If the colonists (those laypeople, who had been sent by the Hermannsburg Mission as artisans to help with the establishment of mission settlements – i.e. the forefathers of many of the German-speaking FELSISA members) who had given a solemn oath to Louis Harms before the altar in Hermannsburg (Germany) to serve the mission till the day they die, arrive in South Africa, yet 15 years later are no longer working for the Hermannsburg Mission – how can that be? What happened there?
What was the result of this research?
The conventional explanations for these occurrences were obviously insufficient to illuminate the real course of events, which involves many conflicts, leading to the colonists being “bullied out” in a sense (Hardeland playing a major role there). The Mission model set up by Louis Harms had turned out to be unprofitable – also because of these conflicts! That is why the era of the colonists was over so soon.
What effect did these conflicts have on the course of history?
There are numerous effects! To me the most important one is this: The colonists left the mission due to these conflicts and were consequently no longer a part of the Hermannsburg Mission Society. They thus formed independent, German, white congregations in Africa (up to that point they had been members of the mission church and had celebrated their services in the mission churches). In their heads the mentality changed: there was now a difference between “church” and “mission” – we are the church, they are the mission… But under Louis Harms, church and mission was always one entity! Obviously, the former colonists made every effort to support the mission, but they were now a separate entity.
Whilst reading your book it became apparent to me how passionate you are about your work! What does this research mean to you personally?
It really is an existential question! Not only for me personally, but also for my church. Because if you think about it, it really is unique that we have this small church in southern Africa that has remained largely German-speaking (and that for over 150 years), contrary to the developments in Australia, North-America, or Brazil. It was never the intention of Louis Harms to serve the ideals of immigration. In fact South Africa was never a great immigration destination (like the USA was for example). This means that my forefathers came here with the express wish to serve the mission – this applies to most of the forefathers and mothers of the FELSISA! It seems to me as if we’ve lost sight of that a little. Mission is the life of the church – it is “the one church of God in motion” as Wilhlem Löhe puts it so well. To me, it is imperative that we try and to overcome our at times distanced relationship to the mission.
What impact does this research have on the FELSISA today? What can we learn from it?
We learn that there are historical reasons for the segregation between the FELSISA and the LCSA (the same goes for the ELKSA-NT and its black sister church, the ELCSA). We should be aware of these historical developments, and at the same time take a new approach in addressing these relationships in our day and age. As a
Synod we should re-evaluate our situation here: what gifts have we received from God? How are we to use these gifts for furthering the kingdom of God here in South Africa?
How did the members of FELSISA react to the results of your research?
Generally people were very receptive and thankful for the results of the research. There were also reactions of shock and mourning – many were reminded of the oath made by the forefathers when they came to South Africa to serve the mission. I sense that there is a willingness to review the past, to come to terms with it. I’m very happy about that! There are also those who are sceptical, but that I can understand too.
Facts change our understanding of the past. Correct?
Most certainly! In this case, certain facts were simply and conveniently swept under the carpet. But when you look at the facts in a new light and realise what really happened there, then, on the one hand, one becomes aware of the incredible tragedy of this episode, but on the other hand one gains a better understanding of the present situation. It also persuades us in a sense to rethink our view of these things.
In your opinion why is it important that we as confessional Lutherans address the difficult issue of racial segregation instead of running away from it?
As confessional Lutherans, we are rooted in the confession of the church. And what is that confession? It is the confession of Jesus Christ, who is active in history and in the church – to this day. Our theology is centred on repentance and the forgiveness of Christ. Of all denominations, we confessional Lutherans have the best “tools,” the best Theology to talk of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation! Herein lies the challenge that we actually do just that – that we address and face the pains of the past head-on, but at the same time look to rebuild the relationship with our black brothers and sisters from our sister church, the LCSA.
Which aspects of FELSISA and Mission history should be researched further? Do you have any more research projects in the pipeline?
That will depend on me getting permission from my wife (laughs!). There are at least two major events in the history of the FELSISA that need to be researched further: firstly the separation from Hermannsburg (now called the ELKSA-NT) 125 years ago, and secondly the failed reconciliation talks of the 1920s. Especially here it will be important to present facts to prevent misunderstandings – of which there are unfortunately more than enough! This will also help us to better understand the establishment and development of the FELSISA as a confessional Lutheran church.
Thank you very much for this interview and God’s richest blessings to you and your work!
(The book, which was published as part of the “Oberurseler Hefte Ergänzungsbände” by Edition Ruprecht, can be purchased directly from Dr Böhmer.)
Pastor Roland Johannes, Wartburg