Calvinism and Apartheid
from the blog: The Pilgrim Underground: Non-conformist and Non-Constantinian Commentary. Resources for Wayfarers, Exiles and Existential Nomads devoted to the Kingdom of Truth
No one in Reformed circles wants to talk about South Africa. Settled by Dutch Reformed and Huguenot (French Calvinist) refugees, these peoples would become the Boers and Afrikaners. Over time many Germans and English also embraced the Afrikaner identity and yet were not specifically Dutch/Boer in ancestry.
These people established the Cape Colony only to lose it to the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Rejecting British rule the Voortrekkers (foo-uhr-trrek-ers) or fore-trekkers headed inland and formed the Boer Republics, the Orange Free State and Transvaal. These pioneers took on an almost legendary quality and viewed themselves as Neo-Israelites. Their trek was forged into a narrative drawing parallels with Israel’s departure from Egypt. South African rivers became the Nile and the Zulus became the Egyptians or Canaanites.
Deeply Calvinistic these people were also deeply entrenched in an Old Testament biased Dominionism. Viewing themselves as Israelites in a hostile land, chosen by God, and defining the Kingdom in terms of cultural purification and advancement, over time they moved from not merely seeking to dominate the ‘lesser’ races but found it needful to limit contact altogether.
If your culture is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God, and your culture is also tied to race…then there is a certain logic in trying to keep your culture (the Kingdom) pure and free from corruption. This is a wicked and very erroneous theology, but operating within that circle it exemplifies coherent thinking.
I contend all Nationalism is essentially racist. It is pride in culture which all too often is race-based or at the very least favours the dominant race. Even if you wish to argue that empires like Rome and America are not racial but idealistic…in the end you have essentially a new culture which claims supremacy. And likely as not within that culture there will still be dominant groups that drive policy and more or less guard the culture.
In many ways it’s not that different from what happened in the United States. Like the South, the Boers lost again to the British. Unfortunately for them they settled in area rich with diamonds and gold and though they had fled the Cape Colony, they found themselves in the middle of Cecil Rhodes strategy for British domination of Africa. The British claimed these new interior lands as well. This time the Boers weren’t going to take to trekking, they decided to fight.
After the very brutal the Boer War they found themselves defeated and dominated. And they like the American South took it out on the Africans who lived in their midst. Eventually the British granted South Africa autonomy and not too long after Apartheid was formalized in 1948, they broke with the Commonwealth altogether.
Through all this they never abandoned their Reformed theology and in fact viewed themselves as its rightful heirs and as its true proponents. Nigel Lee was a lone voice in North America promoting and defending these men and yet in reality many other Reformed people who embrace the Confederacy and the racial views of many Confederate theologians should have (if they were consistent) also been standing with South Africa.
Like the South, the whites in South Africa took out their anger and frustration on the blacks among them. And like the Southern Baptists and many other Christians in the South, they believed their actions were Christian.
I suppose the only difference is the Afrikaners don’t today pretend like they stood with Mandela. (sic.) In the United States, politically conservative Evangelicals have ‘claimed’ the Civil Rights movement as their own even though it was largely politically conservative Evangelicals who opposed the Civil Rights movement.
I’ve always found it interesting that most Americans haven’t heard of the Reformed (Calvinistic) Churches, even though at the time of the American Revolution they compromised a majority among the colonials. The Reformed Churches declined after the Revolution and lost out on the frontier to the much more aggressive Methodists and Baptists. So that today you can meet many people with Scottish last names whose ancestors were Reformed Presbyterians, and yet the descendants no longer know what Reformed means.
And yet whenever I meet black Africans visiting the United States, you can be sure they’ve heard of it.
And it has an evil name.
Is Afrikaner Calvinism really a deviation? If you read mainline-type scholars they’ll mention how European Calvinism underwent changes during the Enlightenment and hence was ‘softened’ a bit. The Afrikaners (as this argument goes) were products of their isolation.
Undoubtedly their context affected them, as it did Presbyterians and Baptists in the American South. But the parallels are too interesting to ignore.
The Boers largely retained their theologically conservative outlook as did the American South. The North for various reasons fell into Rationalism and ultimately secularism, and yet it was the North that largely opposed slavery.
Why did the more theologically conservative cultures retain slavery? It’s not a question that can be easily answered but I think a conservative stance toward Christian Sacralism played no small role.
In the North, the Enlightenment had been embraced and an essential component of the Secular Enlightenment was the concept of progress. The North was looking ahead, looking to forge a new and better and world…whether they were right or not is another discussion…while the South wished to retain old ways and old customs… the old political order.
In this sense it could be argued the South and perhaps even the Boers did indeed represent a gritty version of the Old Orthodoxy, or perhaps it could be argued the old orthodoxy applied in a different context and under adversity. Even the Puritan ancestors of the Yankee New Englanders did not hesitate to take up the sword against the Stewarts. And English Puritanism under Cromwell exhibited an attitude toward the Irish that can only be termed racist. And not a few Puritan’s were involved in the notorious Triangle Trade. It was often Puritan sea captains who brought the slaves over to the West Indies.
In no way am I defending the Boers, but at the same time it seems kind of ridiculous for European Calvinists to disavow Confederate or Boer Calvinists…the context was not the same.
Given Dutch and Puritan behaviour in terms of the slave trade it would seem historic Calvinism had no problem with racism and imperial conquest.
Is this judgment out of context? Shouldn’t we view these people through the lens of their time?
The argument would have validity but for the reality that the groups of Quakers, Anabaptists and most of the Moravians….groups which rejected Constantinianism and Sacralism…all rejected the concept of the Christian state and the racism and violence that often went with it.
Their testimony exposes the shame of the Reformed legacy.
Here are some articles of interest related to this topic…