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The Life of James Stewart
The Converts

How Heathens come to Christ—Their Religious Instincts— The Rev. Tiyo Soga—King Khama—The Cullinan Diamond—Kafir Socialism—Ethiopia’s Contribution to our Faith.

'O the unworked jewel mines of Heathendom.’—Amy Wilson Carmichael, in ‘Things as they are.’

‘The Holy Ghost can work under the red clay. ‘—A Kafir Woman.

Behold Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia, this man was born there.’— Psalm lxxxvii. 4.

‘Let us be thankful for what they are, when we remember what they have been. ‘—A Missionary's Advice to the Critics of African Converts.

THE traveller who visits South African missions will be surprised to find so many mission stations, and so many natives under the influence of the churches and the schools. At the Johannesburg Missionary Conference, Stewart confessed that, while he had studied African missions with great care, he had underestimated their number and influence.

Dr. Noble reports 295 different missionary organisations in Africa. The last census showed that among the native and coloured people in Cape Colony the Christian Church is as powerful in numbers as heathenism is. [The last census gave the population of Cape Colony as 2,409,804, of whom 1,344,498 were returned as Christians. That number of Christians included 786,725 natives and coloured people. The native congregations are not ‘tiny’ islands in a sea of surrounding paganism. Many of the churches there are remarkably well filled.] Stewart reported that in the valley in which Lovedale stands, there was not a single Christian when the mission began, whereas in 1899 there were two churches in Lovedale itself, with over 1000 members; that one of these churches was entirely self-supporting; and that there were many other churches in the district round about.

The African mission-field has many surprises. The English doctor in charge of a large Chinese compound at Johannesburg said to me: ‘The first question these Chinese asked after their arrival, was about a church where they could present their certificates of church membership. Seventeen of them went to one church, and companies of three or four went to other churches. We have several Chinese doctors and interpreters, and almost all of them profess to be Christians.’

Stewart was always pondering such questions as these: How does the African become a Christian? By what roads does he move Christwards? What is the itinerary of his soul? How does Christ cross the threshold of the Ethiopian heart?

These are intensely interesting questions. If the proper study of mankind is man, that study at its best has to do with the soul, the noblest part of man. In dignity and usefulness no other study can equal that of the development of the inner life.

The process which the missionary witnesses in the African mind to-day is one of rapid destruction. His religion is like one of those historic corpses which has lain for ages in a vault, and crumbles when exposed to fresh air. As education and civilised ideas spread, the old order passes away with ever-increasing rapidity. It is now a crime for the native to indulge in practices which he used to consider essential to his religion. Then his religious beliefs have very little to recommend them, for they consist largely of devil-worship and inhumanity. As the Ganges is undermining daily the sacred stairs and temples at Benares, so European influences in full flood are threatening to overthrow the whole fabric of the African’s creed. His religious habits cannot long survive the ideas which have created them. The stars in their courses are fighting against African paganism.

The previous chapters show that the native has often a sense of weariness and disgust. The man in him is dormant but not dead. For he has his own share of the original dowry of the soul, though some have questioned whether he has a soul. The native under Christian training often grows tired of his empty and barren life. ‘What a land of dark hearts ours is,’ said one South African. ‘I have a heart of mud,’ said another. ‘Perish our customs and our superstitions!’ said King Lewanika of the Barotsi; ‘they hold us enchained in darkness, and conduct us to ruin. I see it!’ Livingstone says: ‘The prayer to Jesus for a new heart and a right spirit at once commends itself to them as appropriate.’ We know that they often have deep and troubled thoughts about the mysterious life beyond the grave. Many of them learn wisdom in the school of sorrow, and then turn to Christ.

The African has also a sense of the superiority of Our religion. Nearly all heathens have this feeling, and many frankly confess it. But the feeling is probably stronger in Africa than in any other country.

The lives of undisciplined whites, and of those whose religion has evaporated, are often fitted to hinder the work of the missionary; but the natives soon learn to make a distinction between those who are Christians in name and in reality. The life of the missionary powerfully attracts the heathen. Few stories are more touching and romantic than those which tell how many of the most savage of Africa’s chiefs were drawn to the great African missionaries. ‘Goodness and unselfishness,’ says Livingstone, C impress their minds more than any kind of skill or power.’ One of the most interesting facts of modern history is the favour African missionaries have found among myriads of all classes, and this was due to their likeness to Christ. Many passages in Stewart’s life might be quoted in proof of this statement.

All men, especially chiefiess men like those in Africa, have a craving for heroes. They are ever in search of men whom they can completely trust, love, and follow. These cravings have been cruelly disappointed by those of their own kin, and so they have to go outside their own tribes for non-military heroes. They find them among the missionaries and sympathetic magistrates. Stewart had an immense advantage, as he possessed those qualities of bearing, vigour, and fearlessness which the natives regard as the proper tokens of chieftainship.

Show do your people become Christians?’ I once asked a very successful missionary among cannibals.

‘I have often thought about that,’ be replied, ‘and I have my answer ready. They have all a sense of right and wrong; they have a great curiosity about the life beyond the grave; and they begin to trust the missionary as their true friend. Christ appeals to their sense of right and wrong. He meets their craving for light about the future; and they wish to be in the same boat with the missionary. In these ways they are won for Christ.’

The character of Christ allures them, and most of all His death for our salvation. What the old Divines called the self-evidencing or self-recommending light has often supreme power over heathen hearts.

In the early days of the French mission in Basutoland, Moshesh, the king, sent a chief to watch them. [Moshesh was very diplomatic. He said: ‘The missionary’s message from God is an egg. I will wait till it is hatched before I form an opinion about it.’] That chief became a Christian, and the king’s rebuke drew forth the following retort: ‘You told me that I was to put only one foot in the Church, and to keep the other out; that I was to listen with one ear, and to keep the other closed. I put one foot into the Church, but I could not keep the other out.’

Those familiar with the history of the African tribes know that among them men of remarkable ability have risen from time to time. Some of these have adorned the doctrine of Christ. Mention has already been made of William Koyi, whose youth was spent in the most degrading surroundings, and whom Stewart regarded as one of the noblest men he had ever known. Then there was Tiyo Soga, who came to Lovedale clad in a sheepskin and equipped only with a knobkerry: a pure-born Kafir and thorough gentleman, in whose presence white men entirely forgot his nationality and colour. He was the translator of the Pilgrim’s Progress into Kafir. Learned and eloquent, he was a preacher able to address effectively both black and white audiences Two of his Sons continued his work, one of them as a medical missionary. He showed that a white soul could tabernacle in black clay, and he gained the highest esteem of black and white. Dr. Theal describes him as an ‘earnest, enlightened, zealous, self-denying Christian missionary, such a man as any nation in the world might be proud of.’ Robert Moffat’s friend Africaner, chief and outlaw, the terror of both blacks and whites, a man of blood, became a consistent Christian, whose soul was even as a weaned child. The Governor and the public found it very hard to believe the fact.

King Khama, the pupil of the missionaries, is by far the most remarkable Kafir now living. Some have called him the Alfred the Great of South Africa. He tells that he became a Christian in his youth by reading the New Testament. His father disinherited him, exiled him, sought to kill him—and almost did it—because he would not marry many wives and follow heathen practices. He is very brave, and the only man of whom Lobengula was afraid. He has been a consistent Christian for fifty years, and writers of all sorts have spoken in glowing terms of his ability and his noble character. The testimony of Selous the hunter is that ‘Khama’s has been the work of converting a tribe of miserable nomadic savages into a happy pastoral people.’ He who reads his Life will probably come to the conclusion that no ruler in Europe since the dawn of history has had a nobler record. The Rev. Edwin Lloyd, in his Three Great African Chiefs, says that ‘to-day the most influential and respected of the native chiefs are Christian chiefs.’ We may accept these pictures from the past as illustrations for the present and inspirations for the future.

‘But these are exceptions,’ some will say. Yes: the Cullinan Diamond was an exception; but it advertised a ‘diamondiferous’ soil, where other ‘finds’ might be expected. Large diamonds come from mines that have many small ones. Among the humble African converts are many who are ‘approved in Christ.’ Here is Stewart’s testimony: ‘You find native Christians, not a special few but many, in whom morality is not divorced from religion, and whose consistency and steadiness are not beneath the attainments of Christians in the more favoured lands.’ Many missionaries tell us that the average among converts from heathenism is as good as in our own country.

In forming our opinion of the converts we should try to realise how great a thing it is for a heathen in a heathen land to become a Christian. In any case it is a marvellous triumph over hindrances. An effort to understand it would give us a deeper sympathy with the convert, and a worthier appreciation of his heroism. Dudley Kidd, in his Kafir Socialism, reveals to us the additional barriers which are created by the African system. The first principle among them is that the rights of the clan must supersede those of the individual. Religion, conscience, and personal responsibility are as thoroughly socialised as is the land. The Church and State are absolutely one, and religious nonconformity is counted treason. The whole system is a negation of conscience, of individuality, of personal freedom and initiative. The Christian cuts himself adrift from his clan, is branded as anti-social, and is held guilty of an extremely grave offence against his people. This Socialism seems to have all the power of caste in India, and it allows no room for the individual man. The African who confesses Christ is thus likely to feel as Luther did when he left the Church of Rome:

‘I felt,’ he said, ‘as if I were jumping off the planet.’ Missionaries believe that this is one chief reason why promising converts fall away when they are separated from Christian society. They are caught in a maelstrom that drags them down.

The ideas of a clan-conscience and a clan-religion have been rooted in their nature, and it is not surprising that these should sometimes overawe and overmaster the convert when he returns to the kraal. Many men in Christian lands are the slaves of public opinion, and fail to realise and assert their personal responsibility. We should not therefore expect among the Africans a perfection which we do not find among the most favoured races. The failures among African converts prove the imperfection, but not necessarily the insincerity, of their faith. It need not surprise us that some among them are not sincere. The early Church Fathers complained that some of their fellow-professors were only ‘Christ-traffickers.’

Many native Christians in South Africa set us a needed example. Near Lobengula’s kraal at Bulawayo I worshipped with a congregation of Zulus and Kafirs, several of whom had been at Lovedale. They were nearly all young men, and they filled every part of the church, including the passages. Many of them had recently come from the South. They had built and paid for their iron church, and were supporting their own pastor. Around them were white men who had left their religion behind them when they entered that stronghold of heathenism. In the same neighbourhood there were other two self-supporting coloured congregations. Such native converts put us to shame.

Ethiopia may yet make a distinct and valuable contribution to our common faith. She has a precious box of ointment, the outpouring of which may surround the Church of Christ with fresh attractions. Chapters XII. and XXXIX. prove that in liberality the African converts excel many in the home churches. They have rare gifts of oratory and music, and a notable capacity for devotion. ‘The Africans,’ says Bushnell, ‘are now the true Nazarenes and Galileans of the world—they are humble enough, and they know how to believe.’ ‘They know also how to express their Christian experiences by a symbolism of their own which is near of kin to that employed in the Bible. ‘Jesus Christ is my forest,’ is the frequent expression of the faith of a South African convert. It is their equivalent for Biblical statements about ‘God is our hiding-place,’ ‘the Rock of our Salvation,’ and ‘our High Tower.’ Dr. Godet, the commentator, says that one of the very best definitions of faith was given by a Bechuana convert: ‘Faith is the hand which receives the gifts Christ offers us.’ Livingstone once asked one of the natives what he understood by the word used for holiness. The native replied: ‘When copious showers have descended during the night, and all the earth and leaves and cattle are washed clean, and the sun-rising shows a drop of dew on every blade of grass, and the air breathes fresh—that is holiness.’ ‘I have leapt the ravine,’ said a Kafir huntsman who had passed over the dividing line. Augustine uses the same simile, but not quite so graphically. Many of the converts have a real missionary conscience. ‘In former times,’ said a Kafir girl, ‘when the men of our tribe went to war, we young women wanted to help them. Christ is now calling us to the war against heathenism, and we girls must help in the fight.’

‘We have been made slaves for man, and we can be made slaves for Christ,’ said an African freedman. ‘Do you know,’ a convert at the Victoria Falls said to Coillard, ‘at one time the current bad already carried me away? I should have been swept into the abyss, and have perished. Jesus came with His canoe, he saved me and placed me on the bank, and shall I throw myself into the ravine again? God forbid!’

Ethiopia has sheltered both the Law and the Gospel, both Moses and Christ. The Queen of Sheba, Simon the Cyrenian bearing Christ’s cross, and the Ethiopian eunuch may be accepted as the leaders in a great procession moving Christwards. African missions are always making additions to that throng. Christianity has had hitherto a Western career and a Japhetic. It seems as if the set time to favour Africa were now come, and facts like Uganda and Livingstonia favour the hope that it is coming speedily. It may be that in our day the story of the Infancy shall be repeated on a large scale, and that Christ, rejected by many of the mighty in the most favoured lands, will again find a home among the humbler races in Africa. The Bible, neglected by the children of culture in Christian lands, is finding eager and successful students of the same blood and spirit as the Ethiopian eunuch. God’s seeds have been sown plentifully in Africa, and they are growing both under and above the ground.

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