3 - Translations (Missionaries and the invention of Christianity)  pp. 74-107

Translations (Missionaries and the invention of Christianity)

By Paul S. Landau

Image View Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Christianity commenced in South Africa's heartlands in the second decade of the nineteenth century. From the perspective of highveld people, the faith began as a novel way of using the language of mobilization, brotherhood, and settlement. In the midst of the violent displacements of the 1820s – the Difaqane – small numbers began to rework their basic political vocabulary in its remit. Among the pioneers were métis men from the Cape and the borderlands. Establishment missions insisted on the apolitical nature of métis and African mobilizations, argued with them, and translated and retranslated them. In this back-and-forth process, Christianity came to be.

This chapter is about the early translations that midwived Christianity out of highveld speech and highveld ideas. It is not claimed that such is all that Christianity was, nor all it became, but it was at least this. In particular the chapter is concerned with Robert Moffat, the pioneering missionary and translator. In contact with Christian converts, patriarchs, and other evangelists, Moffat contributed more than anyone else to Christianity's written canon. Only by understanding his interactions with junior chiefs and lords, in the crises marking the 1820s, can we grasp how Africans, métis, and Europeans together made Christianity in South Africa.

Scholars have produced a large and impressive historical literature about missionaries and imperialism in the colonial and postcolonial world. For southern Africa, there have been several veins of interpretation, but in recent decades Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff have created an especially enduring and influential model.

Cullen Library , “Station de Wagenmakers-Valley, Extraits d'une lettre de M. Bisseux, du 9 Mars, 1837,” Journal des Missions Évangéliques de Paris, 21 (1837), 203
Isabel Hofmeyr , We Spend Our Years as a Story That Is Told (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1993)
Karel Schoeman , ed., The Mission at Griquatown, 1800–1821 (Griquatown: Griqua Toerisme Veren/National Book Printers, 1997)
Paul Landau , “Transformations in Consciousness,” Robert Ross , Carolyn Hamilton , William Nasson , and Bernard Mbenga , eds., Cambridge History of South Africa. Vol. 1, Ca. 200 to 1885 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)