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Schmidt, George (1709-1785)

                                                                                     

GEORGE SCHMIDT (1709-1785)

FIRST PROTESTANT MISSIONARY TO AFRICA

 

I want to read Acts 4:13: 

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marveled, and they took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus.

These disciples were certainly not ignorant, nor were they unlearned.  They just had not gone to the "accredited" schools of that day.  These men, who had sat at the feet of Jesus, turned the known world upside down.  They were obedient to His command to disciple all nations.  They were men who could testify of "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and with our hands have handled, of the Word of Life.  That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ" (I John 1:1,3).  And they took this knowledge of the Word to the world.

 

The Moravian missionary movement of the 1700's is reminiscent of that first century missionary church. Bohemia and Moravia had been evangelized as early as the 9th century, but these primitive Christians were almost always under severe pressure of the church of Rome. John Hus sparked a revival among them. This great Reformer paid the price of martyrdom for his stand for biblical truth. He was burned at the stake in 1415. Out of his ashes sprang the Moravian church. The official date given for the incorporation of this group is 1457. This movement prospered, and their numbers increased. But persecution by the Church of Rome led to dispersion, with many going as far as Poland, where a strong presence became evident. Despite the miracle growth, there continued to be severe persecution, particularly during the 30-Year War (1618-1648), during which time the movement was almost completely crushed. The persecution of the believers by the Roman Catholic Church continued unabated. Many were forced to become "pitmen" as they hid away in caves and forest dens to escape the sword.

 

Many of these persecuted Christians from Moravia found refuge on the estate of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. This colony of believers was started in 1722, in what is today the United Germany, and was known as Herrenhut, the meaning of which is "the watch of the Lord." Here they were under His watchful care and were themselves watchmen for Him. The godly young count's life motto- "I have one passion.  It is Jesus, Jesus only."- became the guiding light of those who became a part of this village of prayer, praise, preaching, and hard manual labor.  They were all humble artisans.

 

There were petty differences, but on August 13, 1727, a mighty revival broke out that welded them into a body of believers with singleness of purpose.  They made a covenant that "with joyfulness they would follow Jesus Christ and amid shame, reproach, persecution, or suffering if only they could be lamps for Him."  This gave rise to the great Moravian missionary movement that soon saw missionaries on every continent.  At times there were more missionaries on the field than members at home.  They recognized the great power of prayer; and from the time of the revival onward for 100 years, there was always someone in the prayer room praying 24 hours a day for the spiritual life of the community at home and for the missionaries that soon circled the globe.

 

The first Moravian missionary to leave Herrenhut was Leonard Dober, who went to the West Indies in 1732. As he was sent forth, Count Zinzendorf gave him this very wise counsel: "Live among the people as one of them. You are to serve. Don't expect great results at first." There he became a slave to the slaves, an example of Christ Who came to minister, not to be ministered unto.

 

Another whose name is well known is Christian David, who a year later went to Greenland. Many more followed. I would like to call our attention to one who became the first Protestant missionary to South Africa, and perhaps all of Africa: George Schmidt. He was born in 1709 in Moravia, but early on in his life joined the Herrenhut community on the estate of Count Zinzendorf.

 

As a young man, he returned to the land of his birth, where Protestantism was being severely persecuted; and he and an older Moravian missionary were thrown into jail. They suffered great indignities. Heavily manacled, they were made to perform the most degrading duties; and when exhaustion slowed up their efforts, they were speeded up by kicks and blows. Their only sustenance was bread and water, and at night they were thrust into ice-cold and clammy cells. The brutal treatment killed the senior man, but Schmidt lived on for six long and almost unbearable years. In 1734 he was released from prison and returned to Herrenhut. He was by trade a butcher's apprentice.

 

When news reached Count Zinzendorf of the terrible depravity and degradation of the Khoi Khoi tribes people in South Africa, George Schmidt was chosen to go and take the Gospel to these despised people.  He departed for Cape Town in March 1737.  He was shocked by the sinful and careless behavior of the sailors on board and often sought opportunities to talk with the captain and with the soldiers on guard about the salvation of their souls. After four months, his perseverance paid off; and he led three men to salvation.

 

July 9, 1737, he arrived in Cape Town.  He was 26 years old. It was really a historic event, though the citizens of Cape Town thought it a laughing matter. He was the first Protestant missionary to reach the shores of southern Africa-and could very well be the first to reach the continent as a whole.

 

In Cape Town he was ridiculed as was his objective, that of evangelizing the Hottentots.  That was fantastically foolish.  The Hottentots were thought by many to be less than human and beyond redemption.  There was a Protestant voice in South Africa in the form of the Dutch Reformed Church, but they had made no effort whatsoever to evangelize the indigenous tribes people of South Africa.  In fact, they looked upon them as mere animals, not even having a soul.  Reports appear in literature of how the Dutch Colonists would on occasion, while on hunting trips, shoot the Hottentots as if they were some sport game.  It was almost to the point of extinction that Schmidt found small groups of the Hottentots, which is a derisive name for their real name Khoi Khoi.

 

From his letters and diary, one can conclude George Schmidt was a deeply honest and dedicated Christian. He lived a lonely life. With childlike faith he submitted himself to the task of evangelizing the despised Hottentots. He did not want to do anything of his own unless he was absolutely certain it was the will of God.

 

Schmidt followed Zinzendorf's admonition. We get a glimpse into his methods from his journal. He wrote: "Every evening I visited the Hottentots; sat down among them.  I told them that, moved by sincere love, I had come to them to make them acquainted with their Savior and to assist them to work."  Upon this, Africa (the name of one of the Hottentots) replied, "That is good, Baas." And so it was that Schmidt began his work of evangelization.  He settled among a group in an area known as the Dale of Baboons, built his simple house as the Khoi Khois did, baked his own bread, made his own candles and bedding, and washed and mended his own clothing. For seven years, Schmidt worked with these people, taught them to read and write, and preached Jesus Christ to these despised people. By and large the Dutch colonists were illiterate, but the fact that some of these despised Hottentots could read and write, which they themselves could not do, was a source of great indignation. Schmidt was able to point the Khoi Khoi to Jesus Christ.

 

He did not believe the confession of faith, creeds, or prayers should be memorized but, rather, that members of the congregation should spontaneously, from their hearts, give their testimony. To him it was important that his congregation first learn to love the Lord before they could sing of His glory.

 

He was ridiculed and hated by the Dutch colonists; and on one occasion at least, they gathered an armed group with the intent of doing away with him and his small group of Hottentots with whom he was living and working.

 

He considered his most important task that of instructing the Khoi Khoisan in Christian doctrine. It was a slow work. On one occasion he wrote, "It was as if the devil would not release their souls due to their unbelief." The colonists of the Cape expressed their surprise at the progress Schmidt's students made, but inland there were those who tried to confuse the students by inciting them not to listen to Schmidt. But he persisted, and eventually there were five who came to understand the message he was preaching and to put their faith in Jesus Christ.  Following a period of discipleship, he felt they were ready for baptism.  He then did what was heresy to the Dutch colonists.  He, an unordained man, baptized five by immersion.  This, likewise, was a great offense to the Dutch Reformed people.   They said that only an ordained clergyman was legally allowed to baptize and that immersion was not the way to baptize. 

 

Great pressure was placed upon him.  Finally Zinzendorf sent a letter of ordination, but this did not satisfy the church or government of South Africa; and after seven years of living with and ministering to the Hottentots, he was forced by the Dutch colonists to leave their territory.  It was under very severe conditions and great persecution from the hands of the Dutch Reformed "Christians" that he had ministered to for those seven years, and it was only under great duress that he was forced by the government to leave what had become the Valley of Grace.  One of the believers who had been baptized was given the Christian name of Magdelena.  Despite frequent persistent requests to the Dutch colony, no other missionaries were allowed to enter for almost 50 years. 

 

Schmidt left in 1744 with a sad heart.  On his return to Europe, the missionary continued his evangelical labors in various parts of Moravia, Silecia, and Bohemia. He died in 1785, at the age of 76.  Throughout his life, he was a man of faith and prayer.  In 1792, almost 50 years after Schmidt left his unfinished task, three Moravian missionaries were again allowed to enter South Africa.  They expected to find no traces of their predecessor's work, but they discovered a ruined house of Schmidt's, traced the outlines of his garden and orchard, and found a flourishing pear tree that he had planted. 

 

They asked the Hottentots if any remembered the missionary who had left half a century before.  To their surprise, they were told to visit the hut in which an old woman lived.  The old lady, now almost blind, said, "Mynheer Schmidt baptized me and gave me the name of Magdelena."  Then she fumbled in the corner of her hut, pulled out a couple of sheepskins, and disclosed a leather bag within.  Inside was the Dutch New Testament that Schmidt had given her.  They asked her if she could read it.  Then she pointed out to them her granddaughter, who with her mother had been taught to read from that New Testament, and she read out to them the second chapter of Matthew's Gospel.  Thus, in a most marvelous way, the missionary had been withdrawn, but the Word of God had continued to be read.

 

Today, many years later, the Moravian church has spread widely over South Africa and in many other parts of the world. As most of the Moravian missionaries were self-supporting (tentmakers), over the years they have given more attention to their earning a living than to preaching the Gospel. As a result, the Moravian church has lost its missionary vision and by and large no longer preaches the undiluted Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. We can only call it an apostate church.

 

The mother church of the Moravian movement in South Africa was on the very tip of South Africa. It's a large facility, and there's quite a museum in connection with that whole campus. There is a church-a museum of artifacts that date back to the 1700s. Other buildings where some of the Moravian brethren lived, a printing press, other things that were added over the years, and the outline of the foundation stones of Schmidt's house are still preserved. The museum particularly is very interesting. The curator of the museum is Dr. Isaac Balie. This man is very knowledgeable concerning the Moravian history. He has been most gracious in relating the history of the Moravian church on the occasions of our visits. However, through the reading of the Word of God itself, he recognizes that the Moravian church is no longer a Gospel-preaching church; and he has resigned from it. His position is funded from other sources, so he stays on as the curator of the Moravian museum. He has started his own independent, Bible-preaching church and very frequently communicates with our GFA missionaries in South Africa. Many of our mission leaders have visited him, and as a result he has sent his daughter Judith to be a current student at Bob Jones University (2009). When my wife and I first met Dr. Balie, he, with a twinkle in his eye said, "You can tell that a drop of white milk has dropped into the black coffee." It is evident that he has white blood flowing through his veins. At the same time, he said with real earnestness, "I am proud that I am a Khoi Khoi." He values greatly the rich heritage that is his.

 

I find it very interesting that several years ago his daughter Judith, who at the time was a student at one of the major universities in South Africa and who had frequent contact with our missionaries, wanted to be baptized. After questioning, it was felt that she was indeed a good candidate for baptism. She had gone home on school break and was going to be baptized there. Dr. Balie invited our missionaries to come to witness this very important step in the life of his daughter. In fact, he insisted that one of our missionary men baptize Judith. This baptism was done March 2007 in the very same pool where the first five Khoi Khoi converts were baptized seven generations earlier. The Dale of Baboons is now referred to as the Dale of Grace. Our missionary thought it was a great honor to have the privilege of baptizing this lovely young lady.

 

The work of George Schmidt that was terminated in 1744 by the Dutch colonists of the Cape still carries on 240 years later. This, I believe, is an epic in mission history.

 

A fitting sequel to this account is Psalm 126:5, "Those that sow in tears shall reap in joy."

 

05/25/1998-original writing

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