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A conspiracy of silence – South African church history

2 February 2008

The charismatic renewal movement in South Africa — don’t talk about it!

A little over a year ago I read Charles Villa-Vicencio’s Trapped in apartheid, which had been published 25 years previously, at the height of the struggle against apartheid. Villa-Vicencio’s thesis was that “the English-speaking churches” were trapped in apartheid, and so could not effectively struggle against it. What struck me, though, was that his book left out huge chunks of church history, and things that were very influential in the Christian churches in that period. One of them was the charismatic renewal movement.

I blogged about my response to Villa-Vicencio’s book at the time: Notes from underground: Trapped in apartheid – South African churches, and after discussing it with a few other people began to do some research into it. I thought it was a story worth recording. I posted an outline for a research project and began to collect information.

Some people were willing to share information, while others were not. That was when I discovered the conspiracy of silence. So it raised yet another research question. The first was “What can account for the rise and fall of the charismatic renewal movement in South Africa, and what effect did it have on South African Christianity?” The second question raised by this was “Why are some people apparently so unwilling to talk about it, and so eager to pretend that it never happened?” That is in itself a significant historical question.

As I tried to find out more, I began to hear rumours. John de Gruchy, a Congregational minister and a respected academic, I was told, had written a book on the history of the charismatic renewal in South Africa, but it had never been published. Another rumour went further: de Gruchy had been told that he should not publish it, because if he did so, it would destroy his academic career.

Here are some extracts from Dawid Venter’s review of a book by John de Gruchy that was published:

John de Gruchy’s The Church Struggle in South Africa first appeared in 1979–a year after P. W. Botha’s ascension to power, two years after Steve Biko’s death, and three years after the Soweto uprising. Still to come were Botha’s two states of emergency (1985, 1986-1990), arrests of thousands, death squads, and assassinations of activists (such as Matthew Goniwe, died 1985), torture of clergy (like Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, 1986), destabilization of frontline states, surveillance through the multilevel Joint Management Centres, detentions without trial, and endless rounds of forced removals.

Actually the forced removals and detention without trial had been around a long time, and one of those who had died in detention, about the same time as Steve Biko, was Phakamile Mabija, an Anglican youth worker in Kimberley.

Venter goes on to say

The title inevitably raises questions about what “the church” and “struggle” may mean. For John de Gruchy “the church” is a theological term encompassing all Christian denominations (see p. 3). Not all denominations were involved in “struggle,” nor does De Gruchy deal with all who were (p. 86). Instead, he concentrates on “English-speaking churches” of British origin (p. 18) that opposed apartheid policies and participated in the South African Council of Churches (p. 84). The resultant list comprises Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists (in which John de Gruchy is ordained). The four denominations are conflated with major ecumenical organizations to connote the “ecumenical church” (p. 201), which by implication also incorporates “the mission church” and “the black church.”

In a footnote Venter remarks

One of the earliest references to English-speaking churches in this manner is found in Peter B. Hinchliff, “The Crisis for English Christianity in South Africa,” Pro Veritate 1.7 (1962): 1. Hinchliff wrote, “By ‘English’ Christianity in South Africa I mean those Churches which derive from Britain, who use English as their principal language of worship, who are in communion with a ‘mother’ Church in England, and some of whose clergy come from England … [and] are probably unhappy about the apartheid policy of the present government” (p. 1).[1]

Like Venter, I had been struck by the references to “the English-speaking churches” in Villa-Vicencio’s book. It seemed a strange limitation. There were many other denominations involved in such bodies as the South African Council of Churches, though there were two ecumenical institutions that did seem to be coterminous with “the English-speaking churches”: the Church Unity Commission and the Federal Theological Seminary. The latter, after surviving government pressure and persecution, failed disastrously about 10 years ago. Both seemed (to me at least) to end up showing disunity rather than unity.

Among the excluded groups are the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Churches and the Baptist Churches. Though they spoke English at their gatherings, the Roman Catholics and Lutherans were not, for the most part, of British origin. The Roman Catholic Church had Irish, Italian, German and other missionaries. The Lutherans had German, Swedish and Norwegian missionaries. The Baptists, however, had a fair prioportion of British missionaries, so what made them different? And yet the Church Unity Commission admitted the Tsonga Presbyterian Church (later the Evangelical Presbyterian Church), which had Swiss missionaries.

While it may be metahistory, the concentration of some South African church historians on what they called “the English-speaking churches” is in itself a fact worthy of historical study. What motives and attitudes lie behind this selection and conceptualisation? What has shaped South African church historiography in this way? Could its roots perhaps be found in Brit-Boer rivalries that go back to the Anglo-Boer War, and beyond? Certainly some Afrikaner nationalists saw it in this way. They saw the multiracial nature of “the English-speaking churches” as part of an elaborate conspiracy against the Afrikaner people, an attempt to coopt blacks into the anti-Boer forces and promote “Boerehaat”. And the nationalisation of church schools uinder Bantu Education was one of the steps taken to counter it.

I’m caricaturing now, of course. But the “English-speaking churches” school of historiography invites such a caricature, and my preliminary research into the history of the charismatic renewal showed me first, that there was in fact such a school, and secondly, that they rather pointedly ignored the charismatic renewal movement in their writings, even though I know for a fact that it affected two of the “English-speaking churches” (the Anglicans and the Presbyterians).

In my search for sources I looked through several issues of the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, which might almost be described as the official journal of the “English-speaking churches” school. Over 25 years there was only one issue that attempted to deal with the charismatic renewal, Number 7, of June 1974. But in its article on the Catholic charismatic renewal it dealt almost entirely with events in America — information one could find in numerous books. It said next to nothing about people and events in South Africa like Fr George Purves, Fr Ignatius Heer, and the ubiqutous lay evangelist Cliff de Gersigny, whose jaunty spirituality some found rather daunting. [2] When you read each issue of the journal as it comes out, these things don’t strike you. But when you look through the table of contents of 80 issues one after the other, a pattern begins to emerge, a pattern of gaps and absences.

In 1973 Godfrey Ashby, also an academic, but from a different school of thought than the “English-speaking churches” school, said that there were three forces shaping the life of the Anglican Church in the Eastern Cape at that time: group dynamics, challenge groups and the charismatic renewal. movement. Many people seemed to back one of those and scorn the others, but he said they needed all of them. He said all three were affecting the churches, and that there were some Anglo-Catholics who were alienated from the charismatic movement, and some Evangelicals (mainly non-Anglican) who were pietist, and alienated from the challenge group thing, but generally all three were causing a real turmoil and revival in the church.

None of this is apparent in the writings of the Cape Town school (which might be another name for the “English-speaking churches” school). Yet all three of these forces — group dynamics, challenge groups and the charismatic renewal — had a significant influence on the Anglican Church, at least, in the period 1965-1985. And the question church historians need to ask is what influence they had, or failed to have, on the life of the church and the role of the church in society.

Group dynamics (also referred to as T-groups, or sensitivity training) was seen as a huge threat by some government commissions, softening people up for communism, and generally weakening their neurotic grasp on “their own”. For some people, however, it became an obsession, an idol, a cult, so that they wanted the entire life of the church to be all process and no content. This sensitivity training was done ecumenically (yes, mainly by the “English-speaking churches”, though some Roman Catholics and Lutherans were allowed to muddy the waters).

“Challenge Groups” were set up by Anglicans to challenge instances of racism in the church. In my own experience they were talking shops, adept at sidestepping the real issues and getting bogged down in bureaucratic trivialities. But that is just one person’s impression, and clearly Godfrey Ashby’s experience was different. Some historical research is needed to get a clearer picture. Other denominations may have had similar programmes.

The charismatic renewal certainly affected Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. At one time I was told that there were 13 Presbyterian ministers in Durban who had been “zapped” (baptised in the Holy Spirit), but where are they today? One is in America, but he’s not saying anything. The Methodists, too, are keeping mum. “It was divisive,” was all one would say, from which I deduce that the Methodists were affected by the charismatic renewal, but don’t want to talk about it.

It also seems to me that a big change came over the charismatic renewal in South Africa about 1980, and that it did indeed become divisive after that. It would be quite important for understanding the history of Christianity in South Africa to know what happened and why, and what effects it had.

So after a year of preliminary research, trying to see if there is anything worth writing about, I seem to have uncovered a conspiracy of silence, and wonder what is this big secret that no one wants to talk about.

[1] Dawid Venter. “Review of John W. de Gruchy with Steve de Gruchy, The Church Struggle in South Africa,” H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews, May, 2007. URL:

[2] Cliff de Gersigny later left the Roman Catholic Church and joined a Protestant group.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 February 2008 6:45 am

    I had never thought about it as a ‘conspiracy of silence’ – rather ‘surrender’ in the face of ‘liberation theology’ and as far as Anglicans were concerned, a wish to be identified with the ‘cuckoo in the next’ as Archbishop Bill Burnett described Tutu.

    I battled for the charismatic renewal over ten years via Contact Online, and published all of Burnett’s ICTHUS (spelling?) letters. But the response, with some few exceptions was….well yes, a guilty silence.

    But well done ! Here is some real fascinating research to be done. Go to it ! I wish I had kept a diary !

  2. 3 February 2008 6:47 am

    Sorry about the mistake It should be a cuckoo in the NEST !

  3. 3 February 2008 7:50 am

    As I was reading this I remembered the ‘Toronto Blessing’ which hit South Africa, was it in the early 90’s? That was also one of those hugely controversial things that then suddenly dissapeared.

    Michael Cassidy wrote an interesting book (not at all academic) titled ‘Bursting the Wineskins’ first published in 1983 where he discusses the Charismatic phenomenon from the perspective of an Anglican and leader of African Enterprise. I found it an interesting read which may perhaps be relevant to this.

  4. 3 February 2008 8:38 pm


    I think things are a bit more complex than that, and that Bill Burnett was barking up the wrong tree with his antipathy to liberation theology, and the idea of Desmond Tutu being a cuckoo in the nest. Perhaps I should see if I can find a letter I wrote to him at the time.

    But there are two (possibly several) different things here — one is the decline of the charismatic reneal movement, which I don’t think can simply be blamed on ‘liberation theology’. The other is the conspiracy of silence about it, which may or may not have had anything to do with its decline. I think both deserve investigation, though.


    Yes, Michael Cassidy’s book is an interesting record, both of the incluence of charismatic renewal on evangelical Anglicans in South Afreica, and the strong antipathy between “evangelicals” and “charismatics” in the 1960s and 1970s, which many people forget.

  5. Andrew Symes permalink
    4 February 2008 1:03 pm

    During my curacy at St John’s Walmer, PE, I heard stories of what was perhaps the first “outbreak” of charismatic renewal among affluent white Anglicans, in about 1973: people crammed into the church hall listening to Dennis Bennett on a reel to reel tape, and then pandemonium breaking out with tongues, prophecies etc!

    On my first arrival in South Africa (1988) I noticed a strong polarisation between charismatics, conservative evangelicals (CESA and some Baptists etc) and ecumenicals. Sure, we can all quote many examples of how charismatic pietism allowed whites to put their heads in the sand about apartheid. However it was also noticeable how when the renewal was genuine (ie the Holy Spirit really affected people’s lives in terms of conviction of sin and love for God and his people), white Christians were “softened up” by God to see the reality of injustice. In other words, charismatic white Anglicans often tended to be more pro political change than theologically reformed conservatives.

    Historically we need to remember that there were far more streams leading into the renewal in South Africa than there were in England. the UK renewal was largely based on what happened in the US with Bennett, Fulham, Pulkingham etc, and latterly John Wimber. South Africa had a much bigger influence from American pentecostalism both black and white in the early 20th century, and later from the neo-Pentecostalism of Swaggart, Roberts etc which was almost unknown in England but massive in SA in the 60’s and 70’s.

    Perhaps something even more worthy of research, and treated with equal disdain by the lefty academic fraternity, is the effect of the charismatic renewal on the independent black churches. My understanding is that one of the most important figures in South African Christianity, black or white, is Nicholas Bhengu the Assemblies of God evangelist who operated from his East London base from the mid 50’s to the mid 80’s. Literally hundreds, maybe thousands of churches in the Eastern Cape, and I’m sure in wider SA, are offshoots of this amazing movement which saw many thousands converted and hundreds of powerful pastors trained. Allan Anderson the main academic chronicler of SA pentecostalism has written about Bhengu but generally he has been written off as a sell-out because he would not wholeheartedly embrace the spirituality of struggle politics. From my experience working with many of his spiritual children and grandchildren who are now pastors etc, I know that their bitter experience of oppression during those years did not diminish their desire to be free, or stop them supporting the ANC – its just that their genuine radical Christianity (as opposed to Afro-Marxism with a veneer of Christian language that we find in most black mainline churches) gave them a different world view. Sadly Bhengu didn’t have much influence among black Anglicans, except in parts of Zululand.

    It could well be that when we see the definitive history written in heaven, we’ll see that for all the crass excesses and right-wing supremacism and other worldly pietism of much of the SA charismatic movement, actually there was a genuine move of God in there, which led to many turning to the Lord Jesus across all the races, and provided many of the roots of the swift and relatively peaceful transition to non-racial democracy that SA has experienced. In heaven we won’t see near the throne many liberal theologians writing interminably about the politics of the struggle, but we will see many unknowns, mostly black women from shack churches with long and colourful names who prayed for revival during those dark days.

  6. 5 February 2008 9:23 am


    Thank you for a very interesting and informative comment.

    I’m not sure about Bhengu. He is generally seen as part of the classical Pentecostal movement, but with some influence on neoPentecostals. I’d be interested in hearing more from you on that, and on other things.

    One of the things not mentioned much by Villa-Vicencio et al is SACLA in 1979 (where I first encountered David MacGregor, who has also commented). It brought many different strands of South African Christianity together, though some of them hastily withdrew afterwards.

    I think it had an incalculable effect on Soputh African Christianity and society, though perhaps part of the problem is that nobody has ever really tried to calculate it. Perhaps there is a doctoral thesis in that for someone — in church history, missiology, sociology or something!

  7. 5 February 2008 9:25 am


    Thank you for a very interesting and informative comment.

    I’m not sure about Bhengu. He is generally seen as part of the classical Pentecostal movement, but with some influence on neoPentecostals. I’d be interested in hearing more from you on that, and on other things.

    One of the things not mentioned much by Villa-Vicencio et al is SACLA in 1979 (where I first encountered David MacGregor, who has also commented). It brought many different strands of South African Christianity together, though some of them hastily withdrew afterwards.

    I think it had an incalculable effect on South African Christianity and society, though perhaps part of the problem is that nobody has ever really tried to calculate it. Perhaps there is a doctoral thesis in that for someone — in church history, missiology, sociology or something!

  8. 12 February 2008 12:29 am


    My folks were thick in the Charismatic movement through the seventies and into the early eighties. There were some charismatics even in the Dutch Reformed Church – they eventually left the DRC because of their affinity for the Charismatic movement – although they had been DRC missionaries in Zambia in the 60’s. From what I’ve heard, what pushed them out, and also caused the death of much of what was good in the Charismatic movement were the proliferation of charlatans etc – miracle workers and their kin. In one of the services – the kind where people fall over in ecstacy because of the “baptism of the Spirit”, my parents, who went forward, disticntly felt that they were physically pushed – ie, the whole thing was manufactured.

    This eventually degenrated into the Toronto Blessing and all that nonsense.

    It appears that although the movement may have started as a true search for God’s presence, it became a multiply-split, individualistic feel-good religion – a sort worst case scenario protestantism. Today’s phenomena like Osteen and all that are the natural outgrowth/result of all of this.

  9. 12 February 2008 7:52 am


    Yes, I’m sure you are right. There was a time when the fashionable healing ministry was lengthening legs. I was at one meeting where someone who was deaf asked for prayer, and was told in effect, “We’re lengthening legs today, so don’t waste our time.”

    But there have been genuine instances of people falling over. I was at a youth camp where a guy prayed for another guy, who fell over, and neither of them was expecting it. Both were genuinely surprised, and I knew them both well.

    But of course the showmen do cash in on such things.

  10. Errol Narain permalink
    17 May 2010 6:23 am


    In my experience that charismatic movement was mainly a movement of subjective experience rather than an intellectual, academic movement. This may explain why there is not much written material about.

    Much of the movement was seen as a threat to the dominant structured worship style of the institutional church.

    The charismatic movement was primarily a worship experience. When this worship experience added strengths of fellowship and hospitality in the SA context, it contributed to real positive practical change in the hearts of the prejudiced and fearful. People opened their homes, shared meals and stayed overnight.

    The sensitizing group dynamic and challenge programs I think laid a foundation that helped the charismatic movement.

    Today I believe that the charismatic movement has been hijacked by a conservative brand of evangelicalism.
    The phenomenon is a charismatic worship experience combined with conservative modern evangelical theology.

    I did write an article for the Grapevine during the height of the charismatic movement in SA looking for a way forward in our experience at St. Gabriel’s in Durban. If I find a copy, I will send it to you.

    In 1984/5 I wrote and article entitled: Is God the Holy Spirit Racist. The motivation for this was my experience of how the spirit in the church still supported racism in clergy appointments, committee chair appointments, etc.

    In the SA situation we prayed during the height of apartheid that God will put the horse before the cart. The cart was social activism. The horse was the Holy Spirit. When the charismatic gifts were experienced in the late 60s and early 70s, we believed the horse was in place. Unfortunately it pulled no cart. Social activism did not follow, It remained a pietist movement.

    At St. Gabriels’ even today. it is by and large a pietist movement. With my involvement in in the 90s, I managed to involve a few in community organizing.

    • 17 May 2010 10:59 am


      Thanks very much for those comments. I hope you won’t mind if I follow up some of the points you raise by e-mail. Some of the things you mention confirm what I have found in my research so far, and so it would be useful to go deeper into it.

      John de Gruchy has now sent me his original rejected MS, and I’m hopic to combine material from that together with my own research, and see if we can find a publisher.

  11. Errol Narain permalink
    19 May 2010 5:15 am

    I am surprised that the flagstaff church, St. Gabriel’s in Wentworth does not get a mention. In the late 60s and early 70s, the experience of speaking in tongues by Ross Cuthbertson , the then Rector, catapulted the hierarchical, high Anglo-Catholic style of worship church , into the experience of what was then understood by the the members as the baptism of the Holy Spirit, later known as renewal, etc.
    The experience began in weekly Monday prayer meetings. The Spirit was initially experiencedd through the performance of an exorcism on one of the church members. Tongue- speaking/ singing in tongues was a regular occurrence during the prayer meetings. These meetings included much music from the Baptist (Sankey) hymns, reading the scriptures, and laityled sharing of understandings from these scriptures. A central emphasis in these meetings were prayers with laying on of hands for healing.
    At a Diocesan synod, under the presidency of the Bishop Inman, a resolution was passed, accepting speaking in tongues as a valid expression of the presence of the Spirit . The local newspaper, the Natal Mercury, had a field day in reporting that during the deliberations, Ross Cuthbertson spoke in tongues, in earshot distance of Antony Perry (SSM).
    The historical context of this experience in a minority Coloured congregation must be noted. In the broader context, this was at the height of apartheid. St. Gabriel’s was mainly blue collared artisans.
    The need to be recognized and empowerment to play a part in an institution that preached equality was important. The institution by its organization as hierarchy did not help in these aspirations for self-esteem.
    The way the church was organized compounded the situation. Indigenous clergy not in abundance, mainly because of church policy. The liturgy and worship only included a few lay participants in the congregation. The greater number of the congregation was treated as cryogenic embryos. Lay people were not allowed to be creative fully participate in preaching, etc.
    The experience of the Spirit satisfied and fulfilled longings for immediate experience of the divine and participation more fully in the life of the church.
    The neighbor Pentecostal churches. smaller that St Gabriel’s, were thrilled and even began to welcome those who experienced the Spirit at St. Gabriel’s, as brothers and sisters. Very soon afterwards , the issue of water baptism reared it ugly head and the fellowship ties were quickly broken.
    St. Gabriel’s also collected various individuals from other places which included Northern Natal, Kloof, Bluff and many other Anglican churches in Natal. Roman Catholics, Baptists , Methodists and Congregationals, saw St. Gabriel’s as as oasis of refreshment and their churches as deserts. They visited regularly the Monday prayer meetings.
    These visitors kept their membership in their respective churches because they understood the experience of the Spirit as empowerment for their personal life and living, as well as apostolic witnesses to their churches.
    St. Gabriel’s led the way of Renewal in Natal, influencing Anglican churches as a whole or in part( individual members).
    The young adults and youth were a strong movement at St. Gabriel’s and the Diocese, shaping program and experience of the Spirit in the Diocese. The Renewal challenged the Sensitivity (Education) and Challenge programs in the Diocese, accusing them of putting horse before cart. Horse in this sense meant Spirit and cart meant human program. The Spirit, it was believed for transforming persons for the purpose transforming the world.
    Those involved in the Sensitivity and Challenge programs were seen as untransformed persons, prophets without spirit.
    I was one of the leaders among the young adult movement.
    Out of this movement, the Diocese since the Renewal has gained many clergy. St. Gabriel’s continues to produce clergy, local community priests or stipendiary ministers in the Diocese. These still believe that they are experiencing the Spirit.
    The Spirit in the Charismatic Movement has been merely an experience for worship. People’s lives were changed. This testimony of change gave rational for converting others to one’s doctrinal beliefs. This laid the foundation for the movement towards evangelical fundamentalism which puts belief before faith in the way of Jesus- compassion and love.
    Charismatics can be mean. The fruit of the Spirit since the movements beginning has not been lived out. This does not mean that it was not preached.
    Charismatics are mission minded. As such they aim to convert the minds of people to beliefs that often are aligned to modern conservative politics, materialism, disregard for the environment, etc.
    Charismatics are not missional. Those that are hurting and hoping in the world are not responded to in a timely fashion.
    These may be extreme comments but I believe the basic dichotomy between world and Spirit leads to a pious spirituality, divorced from reality. We need a prophetic spirituality in this postmodern era.
    In 1984/5 I wrote an article for the Natal Witness, entitled: Is God the Holy Spirit Racist.
    This is where I believed that movement in the institution had gone. The spirit or spirit experience was complacent and aligned itself with the center of power. The church resembled the State of Apartheid, especially when it came down to the question of leadership. The charismatic movement did now see this as a problem in the church.
    Ross’s telephone number is: 331-421409

    Keep well.


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