Norwegian Missionaries and Zulu Converts: Conversion and Church Discipline in the Norwegian Missionary Society's South African Congregations, 1879-c.1925


Hege Roaldset
Keywords: mission, converts, Zulu


This thesis explores the encounter between the Zulu people of south-eastern Africa and envoys from the Norwegian Mission Society (NMS), from around 1879 to the 1920s. Specifically, it investigates the Zulus' conversion to Christianity as a result of the Norwegian missionaries' presence and examines what it meant for a Zulu to become and remain a Christian. The two key concepts in this study are conversion and church discipline. Mikhail M. Bakhtin's dialogical principle provides a theoretical framework for the study, and, consequently, the encounter between the Norwegian missionaries and the Zulu people is perceived as a dialogue between two subjects, defined and delimited by a specific historical, geographical, and cultural context.

The Norwegian missionary enterprise in today's KwaZulu-Natal began in 1844, when Hans P.S. Schreuder arrived in Port Natal. According to 19th century missionary discourse, people beyond the Christian world yearned for salvation and it was widely believed that the Zulu people soon would embrace the missionaries' message and convert to Christianity. Yet, it turned out that most Zulus were unwilling to give up traditional religion and culture to become Christians. The downfall of the Zulu kingdom in the wake of the Anglo-Zulu war in 1879 marks the beginning of a long period of decline for the Zulu people. At the same time, and especially from the early 1900s, the number of converts increased.

The missionaries tended to explain their lack of converts by pointing to micro- level factors, that is, factors that concerns the individual. However, conversion is a complex phenomenon, and macro-level factors, such as political and socio- economic circumstances, must be included to understand both conversion to Christianity and resistance to conversion. Thus, the history of Christianity in Zululand and Natal is closely linked to contemporary political, economic, and social factors. To assess a person's conversion and decide whether it is accordance with a theological understanding of the phenomenon (i.e., a change of one's inner conviction caused by divine intervention) is beyond the scope of a historical investigation. The scarcity of personal accounts of conversion, in addition to the uncertain value they have as historical sources, makes in useful to look for outward and visible signs of conversion. The Norwegian missionaries believed that outward signs could reflect someone's inner conviction, and we find examples that the idea of a connection between social transformation and physical appearance also existed within Zulu society. Inspired by Norman Etherington, I have therefore examined whether four outward signs (the name, the body, the house, the word) can contribute to our understanding of Zulus' conversion and Christian faith.

The study of Zulus' conversion to Christianity demonstrates that it was not easy to become a Christian. Further, apostasy and exclusions from the NMS's congregations imply that it was equally difficult to remain a Christian. The missionaries' agreed that their work was not complete once they had managed to convert people to Christianity, but that they had a continuous responsibility to educate the converts to live according to the teachings of Jesus. Therefore, in order to regulate and correct their congregation members' behaviour, church discipline, excommunicatio minor (exclusion from Holy Communion) and excommunicatio major (exclusion from the congregation), was commonly used in the NMS's African congregations. An excluded member could make a public confession of his or her sin and thus be readmitted into the congregation. This movement of converts in and out of the congregations suggests an on-going friction between converts and missionaries; between the traditional Zulu society and the missionaries' expectations of their converts.

Church discipline was an enduring and stable duty for the Norwegian missionaries. Among the most common causes for exclusion were polygamy, sins against the sixth commandment, beer drinking, and lack of contribution to the congregations' self-help. Especially from 1910, the so-called Ethiopian movement challenged the position of Western mission societies, and many congregation members left the NMS to join an independent African church instead. As was the case with conversions, the practice of church discipline was affected by the contemporary context and reflected a broader historical development. The rules for Church discipline was formulated with reference to eternal Biblical truths, but specific political, economic and social conditions forced the missionaries to adjust and adapt their practice.

Author Biography

Hege Roaldset

Department of Teacher Education and School Research, University of Oslo

Cover for Norwegian Missionaries and Zulu Converts: Conversion and Church Discipline in the Norwegian Missionary Society's South African Congregations, 1879-c.1925
November 11, 2020