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Image: Ashish Lohorung / flickr

Image: Ashish Lohorung / flickr

Much has been said and written about Nelson Mandela—except about his theology.

Because he became drawn to the ideology of Communists like Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Tse Tung, many commentators (and their readers) assume that Mandela also embraced these thinkers’ atheism. Near silence about Mandela’s religious views has contributed to the plausibility of this reasonable, but misplaced conjecture.

Since Mandela’s death, only one, brief analysis probing his relationship to religion has appeared in the media: Fredrick Nzwili’s “Shaped by Methodists, Mandela paid tribute to the role of religion,” RNS, Dec. 6, 2013.

As Nzwili reported, the primary religious influence on Mandela was the Methodist Church which, with 7% of the population, is the largest mainline Church in South Africa. Throughout his life, Mandela was deeply attached to the Methodist tradition in which he was raised. In 1994, at the age of 76, he addressed the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church and, sharing his joy in participating, he explained that, for him, the Conference was a spiritual homecoming. “I cannot over-emphasise [sic],” he said, “the role that the Methodist Church has played in my own life.”

Though the impact of religion and of the Methodist Church on Mandela may come as a surprise to admirers and disciples, it is probably no accident that South Africa’s great anti-apartheid activist came out of the most anti-apartheid religious tradition in the country.

Mandela highlighted the Methodist Church’s strongly-held commitment to social-justice activism in his 1994 address:

It is fitting that this Conference is taking place in this particular Chamber, after the advent of democracy in our country. The Methodist Church was the only Church to be declared an illegal organisation under apartheid, and for ten long years you were forbidden to operate naat e Transkei bantustan. It is in this very chamber that this banning order was promulgated.

One cannot over-emphasise the contribution that the religious community made particularly in ensuring that our transition achieves the desired result. The spirit of reconciliation and the goodwill within the nation can, to a great measure, be attributed to the moral and spiritual interventions of the religious community.

Distinguishing features of the Methodist tradition are its dedication to helping the poor and its systematic approach to moral, spiritual, and educational development. In his 1994 speech, Mandela praised, in particular, the early commitment of the Methodist Church to building schools in remote areas and to educating black Africans.

According to the History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of South Africa, the Church’s program of education began in a sustained way in 1815 when the Wesleyan Methodist minister, the Reverend Barnabas Shaw, and his wife set out from England for Cape Town with instructions to preach to the English soldiers stationed there and to the local white community, but mainly “to pay special attention to the large slave population.”

The Shaws opted to leave the comfort of city life and to travel some 500 km north into the thinly-populated land of the Namaqua tribe. By 1817, Rev. Shaw had baptized two Namaqua converts. As the Church grew, converts became schoolteachers, preachers, and tribal leaders; a few became missionaries to other tribes.

Additional Methodist missionizing activity, this time focused east of the Cape, began in 1820 when the Reverend William Shaw (no relation to Barnabas) arrived with British settlers. He, too, did not limit his attention to whites. By 1830, he established Wesleyville, planted six more mission-stations stretching east, and laid the foundation for another in the former Transkei.

In his 1994 speech, Mandela noted that the Methodist Church’s commitment to educating black South Africans had an invaluable and positive effect on the course of South Africa’s history. He was himself a beneficiary of the Church’s ministry of education.

Your Church has a proud record of commitment to the development of Africa’s sons and daughters in more areas than one. The great institutions of learning which spread from the Reverend William Shaw’s “Chain of Mission Stations” in this region shaped the minds and characters of generations of our people as well as many of our present leaders.

Note that Mandela uses the possessive pronoun, “your,” to refer to the Methodist Church instead of “our,” suggesting distance exists between himself and the Church. However, according to the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa, Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa, Mandela “remained a committed Methodist [throughout] his life.”

Born to a Transkei chief and a devout Methodist mother, Mandela was baptized Methodist and sent to a local Methodist school at the age of seven. Though his first-name was Rohihala, he was given the English name, Nelson, by his teacher, as was customary at the time.

Mandela’s father died when Mandela was nine and the boy was sent, by his mother, to live with his guardian, Paramount Chief David Dalindyebo. With Dalindyebo and his family, Mandela attended Methodist services every Sunday. Mandela also attended a Methodist mission school next to his new home.

For the start of his secondary education, Mandela chose to attend Healdtown, a Methodist college. Continuing his studies, he worked on a Bachelor’s of Arts at the University of Ft. Hare, where he joined the Student’s Christian Association and taught Bible classes in the local community. Of his education, Mandela said:

Although the dark night of apartheid sought to obliterate many [religious] institutions, the impact of their academic and moral teachings could not be trampled on. We who passed through them will not forget the excellent standards of teaching and the spiritual values which were imparted to us.

By 1941, Mandela had moved to Johannesburg where he attended Communist talks and gathering. However, he refused to join the Communist party, in part because its atheism conflicted with his Christian faith. In 1947, after he participated in founding the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), Mandela tried to expel Communists who joined. The same year, as a member of the ANC Transvaal Executive Committee, Mandela successfully helped oust its regional president for his cooperation with Communists.

Not until 1950, when he was elected President of the ANCYL, did Mandela concede to welcome and cooperate with atheistic Communists.

Was Mandela’s increasing politicization caused by his growing interest in Communist thinkers like Marx and Lenin? No. The record makes clear that he began to devote more time to politics and to participate more frequently in direct actions (like boycotts and strikes against the apartheid regime) before 1950, when he was actively anti-communist.

It is more likely that Mandela’s increasing politicization grew out of his religious commitments.

A distinctive tenet of Wesleyan Methodism is that faith in Jesus Christ is only the first step toward salvation. What is required, from then on, is to lead a moral life and to devote oneself to good works and social justice. In Mandela’s words:

The sense of social responsibility that the religious community has always upheld found expression in [the Methodist Church’s] immense contribution to the efforts to rid our country of the scourge of racism and apartheid. When pronouncements and actions against the powers-that-be meant persecution and even death, you dared to stand up to the tyrants.

The Methodist Church of South Africa expressed its “sense of social responsibility” by objecting to the policy of apartheid from the moment its imposition in 1948. The Church’s opposition culminated in its election of the Reverend Seth Mokitimi as President in 1964—an election that put the Church at risk of being declared “black” and thus evicted from properties located in white areas.

According to Mandela:

Especially while political leaders were in prison and in exile, bodies like the South African Council of Churches and its member churches resisted racial bigotry and held out a vision of a different, transformed South Africa. Methodist leaders were prominent among the prophets who refused to bow to the false god of apartheid. Your ministers also visited us in prison and cared for our families. Some of you were banned. Your Presiding Bishop himself shared imprisonment with us for some years on Robben Island. This you did, not as outsiders to the cause of democracy, but as part of society and eminent prophets of the teachings of your faith.

Besides Mandela’s positive view of the difference religious communities can make in righting political wrong, little is known about Mandela’s personal religious views during, and after his prison years. Yet, while jailed on Robben Island, he attended Christian Sunday services and participated in Holy Communion.

There are several possible reasons for the sparseness of the public record about Mandela’s religious commitments. Possible reasons include: media interviewers and biographers did not ask; well-known to have been an intensely private person, Mandela may have been reluctant to discuss his beliefs; in the interest of inclusivity, Mandela may have wished to model how to welcome multiple traditions (according to Bishop Siwa, Mandela received Holy Communion from an ecumenical team while at Pollsmoor Prison); after leaving prison, Mandela was preoccupied with implementing his vision of a free and democratic nation-state.

In Bishop Siwa’s obituary for him, the Bishop affirmed that Mandela’s life “demonstrated the finest characteristics of the Methodist faith: tempered with graciousness; a strong ethic of industriousness; and honesty with reconciliation.” (Of course, we might say, Bishop Siwa would claim Mandela as part of his Methodist community—who wouldn’t?)

Whether Bishop Siwa’s assessment is accurate or not, it remains important to ask why, in recent news reports and in the plethora of published obituaries, so little has been said about Mandela’s religious views, because the absence of a substantive treatment of these views allows the millions inspired by Mandela’s life to ignore what, ultimately, may have inspired him most—his grounding in Methodist beliefs and values.

The absence of such details also sends the message (if only unwittingly) that his political commitments can be divorced from his religious commitments, although the latter, by all indicators, ran deep, informed his actions, and remained consistent until his death.

With the hope that scholars, media commentators, and biographers will at last turn their attention to Mandela’s under-examined theology and its relationship to his political advocacy, Mandela reminds us of religion’s ability to serve as a powerful moral force:

The Church, with its message of forgiveness, has a special role to play in national reconciliation. After so much suffering and injustice, the instinct for revenge is a natural one. But the transition we are going through shows that those who suffered under apartheid are prepared to bury the past. At the same time, those who enjoyed the fruits of unjust privilege must be helped to find a new spirit of sharing. Your message and example can enable that to happen.

Source for the text quoted in green above: African National Congress. “Address by President Nelson Mandela to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church.” Delivered September 18, 1994.

Other sources: 1. Alistair Kee, The Rise and Demise of Black Theology (Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2006); 2. J. Whiteside, The History of the Methodist Church in South Africa (Capetown: Mssrs. Juta & Co, 1906); 3. “Methodists Mourn Tata Madiba: Statement by the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa, Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa, Johannesburg,” 6 December 2013; 4. Fredrick Nzwili, “Shaped by Methodists, Mandela paid tribute to the role of religion,” Religion News Service, December 6, 2013.

Note (added January 2, 2014). For an in-depth article about the role of mission schools in Africa, read Samuel Freedman’s December 27, 2013, International New York Times article: “Mission Schools Opened World to Africans but Left an Ambiguous Legacy.”