HISTORY

 

Beginnings

In the early 19th century, a Presbyterian missionary en route to India came across of group of Presbyterian soldiers who were members of a Scottish regiment and part of the British force who had occupied the Cape Colony since 1806. He began holding services for them: this marked the beginnings of Presbyterianism in the Cape. In 1829 St Andrew’s, Cape Town was founded. The rapid extension work undertaken by this congregation enabled a Presbytery to be formed in 1893. In September 1897, a decision was taken to bring together the scattered Presbyterian elements in South Africa under a single General Assembly to form the Presbyterian Church of South Africa.
By the 1890s Presbyterians had settled in Stellenbosch, and were holding English services in the Dutch Reformed Church (Moederkerk). The outbreak of the South African (Anglo-Boer) war in 1899 heightened tensions between English and Afrikaners in the town. Although the Dutch Reformed church terminated the use of their church by the Presbyterians, Rev SJ Hamilton, a young Irish minister from the Transvaal (South African Republic) formed a ‘preaching station’ for Stellenbosch Presbyterians. The first service was held in the Rhenish school on 21 October 1899. The congregation grew so rapidly that, by February 1900 the General Assembly changed its status from ‘preaching station’ to ‘congregation’. The Rev JL Scott was inducted as the congregation’s first permanent minister in November 1900..
 

Growth

The congregation initially met in the Lutheran Church, where it worshipped for 25 years until it had sufficient funds to build its own church. Congregational life was affected during this time by the two major international crises in the early 20th century – the First World War (1914 – 1918) and the Great Influenza epidemic (June 1917 – Dec 1920) as well as by the significant political changes which the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 brought on the domestic front. In November 1919 the congregation voted to purchase a site for a new church in The Avenue for £550 after the church Managers had “ascertained whether the singing in the Dutch Reformed Church can be heard on the proposed site.” They also had to agree to the owner’s stipulation that “no house erected on it should be let for the sale of intoxicating liquors or as a bioscope or as a dancing hall.” But before building could begin, a plot in van Riebeeck Street came onto the market: it was much larger than The Avenues plot, was closer to the Manse which was situated at 22 van Riebeeck Street, and “the music from the Dutch Church was not audible...” It was purchased for £700 and The Avenues plot was eventually sold.
The foundation stone for the new church was laid on 23 December 1925 and it was dedicated on 28 July 1926. An article in The Cape Times described the church as “a building of plain and simple exterior, but it is exceedingly substantial, and all solid teak work in pulpit, choir, porch, gallery and pews gives the feeling that the people have desired to honour God in the richness and beauty of the furnishings of His house.”
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had a profound impact on the South African economy, and on the congregation’s finances, but by 1936 the economic situation had begun to improve. The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 also impacted the congregation. It reflected the same tensions that were present in the wider Stellenbosch community and the rest of the country as a whole between those who were pro-Allies and those who backed the Germans. The Session minutes for 1940 record the “marked deterioration in the friendly attitude of the University students towards the Church.”
The post-war years were equally challenging. By the mid 1950s Stellenbosch Presbyterian Church was in crisis: membership figures were down; the church finances were precarious; and there was even talk of the congregation reverting to ‘Preaching Station’ status. In 1956 the congregation called the Rev Gustave Pons as its minister. Under his ministry the congregation’s membership more than doubled, and sufficient money was raised to build the long-planned church hall. It was opened and dedicated in October 1960, and provided space for the Sunday school, social activities and badminton.
The 1950s were years of increased oppression, as the foundations of the apartheid regime were put in place. They were also years of increased resistance as evidenced by the Defiance Campaign (1952), the Freedom Charter (1955); the Women’s March to Pretoria (1956); the formation of the Black Sash; and various bus and beer-hall protests. The mounting pressure culminated in Sharpeville (March 1960) and the banning of the ANC and PAC. The 1960’s resulted in growing polarization, with the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and 7 others in 1964, and the promulgation of increasingly draconian legislation. The 1970s were turbulent years: the growth of the Black Consciousness Movement, the Soweto youth revolts (1976), the formation of trade unions (FOSATU & COSATU) and growing international pressure on the apartheid government opened up cracks in the apartheid system.
These years were challenging ones for the Stellenbosch Presbyterian church too. As one of the few English congregations, and before the DRC had expanded its student ministry, many students of other denominations attended the ‘Pres’. Congregation members were encouraged to wrestle with the socio-economic and political issues facing the country; students were also given the space to think through these issues theologically. During the height of the tensions in the 1980s, the congregation responded to calls for help from the Nyanga and Gugulethu congregations as they dealt with the needs of a community ravaged by ‘third force’ terrorism sponsored by the state.
While the release of Nelson Mandela (1990) and the transition to democracy in 1994 have addressed some of the political inequities challenging the country, the journey towards the transformation of South African society is a long one. The Stellenbosch congregation is committed to reconciliation on every level. In 1991, as an expression of its commitment to church unity, Stellenbosch Presbyterian Church united with the Congregational Church to form Stellenbosch United Church. It has also strengthened its ties with Presbyterian Churches in Gugulethu (1989-1990), Nyanga and Khayalitsha (1991 – 1996) and, since 1999 with the work in Kayamandi.

This involvement had been initiated under the ministry of Rev DS Robertson. In 1951 he had discovered the presence of 17 ‘Presbyterian Bantu’ in Kayamandi, and had strongly urged the congregation to become involved. In 2005 this connection was further embodied when over 100 members from the GG Ndzotyana congregation in Kayamandi transferred their membership to Stellenbosch United Church. Although we recognize that different needs and preferences require different styles of worship, pastoral care and Christian education, we endeavor to build bridges between the two communities as much as possible through shared monthly Communion services, elders serving on the Council, and support for various community projects in Kayamandi.

 

Ministers

Eight ministers have served our congregation over the past century

The newly constituted Stellenbosch Presbyterian church inducted their first permanent minister, the Rev JL Scott, in 1900. The brief ministry of Rev Scott is largely unrecorded, except for an announcement by Scott a few months after his arrival that he “contemplated starting a Literary and Scientific Society for the young men of the congregation.” He also asked the Managers to think about purchasing a manse. By mid 1902, the Managers agreed to increase Scott’s salary from £200 to £250 pounds p.a. “Since the coming of Mr Scott the church has enjoyed a large measure of prosperity. “
In March 1903 the Scotts left, and in May the Session Clerk offered Rev JA Campbell “a salary of £200 pounds p.a. and a Manse” which was not yet built. Campbell accepted. The Manse eventually built and, in 1904, Campbell and his family moved into their new home at 22 van Riebeeck Street. It was to be home to six ministers.
Rev JA Campbell, a learned and erudite man, served the congregation for 14 years (1903 – 1917) before he accepted a call to King William’s Town. The Session noted that “his decision was received with deep regret by the congregation, lightened however by the hope that the change of climate and surroundings would prolong Mr Campbell’s usefulness to the church in South Africa for many years.” This was not to be: James Campbell died two years later. In its obituary, the General Assembly commented upon “his ample and accurate scholarship, his sagacity of mind, his clear vision and wide outlook, wedded to a nature that was scrupulously honest in thought and life ... a power for good in our midst.
Rev Campbell was succeeded by Rev AB Griffiths, a young chaplain from Wales who had been working in South West Africa. His ministry (1918 – 1921) spanned the difficult post-war years (in 1918 there were 40 names from the congregation on the Roll of Honour; three had been killed and several wounded); and the Great ‘Flu epidemic, and was cut short by the death of his young wife. He took leave of absence for six months, during which time he returned to Wales. He then resigned from the congregation. The Session recorded that “the influence that Mr Griffiths exerted, both through his preaching and his personality, was such as to enrich and deepen the spiritual life of those with whom he came into contact.”
The post-war years were equally challenging. By the mid 1950s Stellenbosch Presbyterian Church was in crisis: membership figures were down; the church finances were precarious; and there was even talk of the congregation reverting to ‘Preaching Station’ status. In 1956 the congregation called the Rev Gustave Pons as its minister. Under his ministry the congregation’s membership more than doubled, and sufficient money was raised to build the long-planned church hall. It was opened and dedicated in October 1960, and provided space for the Sunday school, social activities and badminton.
In early 1922 the congregation issued a call to Rev HW Cochran, a man of considerable education and experience. Born, trained and ordained in Scotland, he had emigrated to Rhodesia in 1904 for his wife’s health, and founded the first Presbyterian church in Salisbury. Cochran’s considerable energies were focused firstly on overseeing the building of the new church, which was dedicated on 28 July 1926, and on founding a new Preaching Station for Presbyterians living in Somerset West in 1928. This was later erected to the status of Congregation in 1939. Cochrane’s long ministry (1922 – 1945) spanned the turbulent period between the two world wars: the economic depression following the Wall Street Crash in 1929 had a profound impact on the congregation, as did the growing tension within South African society as war broke out. In 1940 the Session noted the ‘marked deterioration in the friendly attitude of the [Stellenbosch] University students towards the Church – a direct reflection of the conflicts within South African society. By 1944 Cochran was seriously ill and, in 1945, he asked to be allowed to retire. When he died in 1950, the General Assembly obituary noted that “Mr Cochran ... invariably delivers a message in scholarly language, expressed with deep conviction of its truth and full of fresh viewpoints on passages of Scripture and their application to everyday life. There is little academic or dogmatic in the message and no fireworks of elocution – but it goes home with a quiet dignity stimulates a sense of individual responsibility and close communion with a personal Saviour.
Cochran’s successor, the Rev Donald Robertson, another Scot, was inducted in July 1946. He also left an indelible impression on the shape of our congregation. A Session report in 1948 states that “although we have few organized activities, our members are to be found taking an active part in the social welfare of the community, and are earnest in furthering every good cause.” Robertson had a heart for Africa, in particular ‘Native’ Mission work. In 1951 he discovered the presence of 17 ‘Presbyterian Bantu’ in Kayamandi, and strongly urged the congregation to become involved. Although he was supported by Mr Schelhase, a Board member, he received very little support from the rest of the congregation. He left the congregation in 1956 to become Principal of the Gloag Ranch Mission and Convenor of the PCSA’s African Missions Committee. The General Assembly’s obituary for Rev DS Robertson: “Frail in body, he spared not himself either physically or mentally. He had given himself to work among the Africans because he saw that there lay the real challenge to the Church in our own day.”
Gustav Pons, who succeeded Robertson in 1956, shared his predecessor’s heart for mission, and was particularly intolerant of racism in any form, and of the daily personal tragedies caused by what he called ‘the inexorable policy of a pitiless Apartheid.’ During the 1950’s and 1960’s, as daily life in South Africa became increasingly proscribed by the repressive laws of a police state, the congregation wrestled with the meaning of faithfulness. The congregation more than doubled during this time. During the long ministries of Jimmy Stevenson (1963 – 1988) and David Hunter (1989 to present), the congregation has been encouraged to wrestle with the socio-economic and political issues facing the wider South African community.
On the church front, this led to the union of Stellenbosch Presbyterian Church (nicknamed ‘The Pres’ by students) with the Congregational Church in 1991. Although there was no Congregational Church congregation in Stellenbosch, the union was symbolic gesture of openness on the part of this congregation towards embracing ecumenism. Links with Presbyterians in the surrounding Black townships have also been strengthened under the ministry of David Hunter, with his involvement in Gugulethu (1989 – 1990), Nyanga and Khayalitsha (1991 – 1996), GG Ndzotyana, Kayamandi (1999 – 2005) and, from 2005, many people from Kayamandi have taken out membership of Stellenbosch United Church.