Nicholas Bhengu was one of the most successful twentieth-century Pentecostal church leaders in South Africa. He was born on 5 September 1909 at Entumeni, KwaZulu-Natal, where his father was a pastor of the American Lutheran Mission. He received his early education at the mission school but later attended two Roman Catholic schools, at Inkumama and Mariannhill respectively (Dubb 1976, 9). When Bhengu completed his schooling he was employed in various capacities – as a clerk, a teacher, a health inspector and a court interpreter. For a while he involved himself in the struggle for African advancement when he became a member of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union and worked in their Durban offices. He later moved to Kimberley where he joined the Communist Party.
Bhengu tried various denominations without feeling at home in any of them until, when he was about 21 years old, he was converted at a Full Gospel revival in Kimberley (Dubb 1976, 9). He was convinced that he had found his own salvation and felt called to reach his fellow his Africans. Soon after his conversion Bhengu returned to Natal where from 1931 he worked under the auspices of the Full Gospel Church.
From 1934 to 1936 he attended the South African General Mission Bible School at Dumisa (today, the Union Bible Institute, Sweetwaters). During these years he became friendly with two other preachers, Albert Gumede and Gideon Buthelezi.
By 1936 a church called the Assemblies of God in South Africa had come into being. This was a predominantly black church with only a few white members (Watt 1991, 15). Bhengu became a leader in this denomination.
In 1937 Bhengu, who was at that time a court interpreter, answered an advertisement in a Zulu magazine Ubaqa for a teacher at Emmanuel Mission near Nelspruit. He was ordained into the ministry at the Emmanuel Mission (Anderson 1992, 45). A number of people from the mission, among them Bhengu, later joined the Assemblies of God. Bhengu’s two friends joined him at the mission and the men had a fruitful ministry at Nelspruit, not as helpers of the missionary H.C. Phillips, but as ministers in their own branch of the work. Their ministry was characterized by an ‘independence of mind, a sense of dignity and self-confidence’ (Watt 1991, 28).
Because of Bhengu’s challenge the Assemblies of God did not become a segregated church like some of the other Pentecostal churches. In 1940 Bhengu became a member of the first multi-racial executive council. From 1945 he worked in the Eastern Cape, mainly in Port Elizabeth and East London. He opened the Pilgrim Bible School in Port Elizabeth in 1950 and held revival meetings in various Eastern Cape towns. However, it is for his ‘Back to God Crusades’ that he is best remembered.
In October 1950 Bhengu launched his first crusade in Duncan Village, East London. With its highly organized publicity, its equipment and highly trained personnel, the ‘tent ministry’ was a new experience for the African populace (Dubb 1976, 4). Thousands of people attended the services, some to hear the preacher, some in search of healing and many out of curiosity. Bhengu was a successful evangelist and thousands of people were converted. Lives were changed and by May 1951 there was a clearly defined congregation. From 1952 Bhengu decided to concentrate on the congregation in East London. On Sunday 27 October 1957 a church, built with the sacrificial contributions of thousands of African people, was opened in East London.
By 1959 there were 50 assemblies that had been started through the ministry of Bhengu. He himself retained some control over the new churches and continued to work as an evangelist in the expanding work until his death in 1985. According to Anderson (1992, 87) these wholly Black churches were ‘autonomous, self-governing, self-supporting and especially self-propagating’. In 1990 the churches which had been under Bhengu’s leadership were renamed the Assemblies of God Movement.
J. A. Millard
Anderson, A. Bazalwane: African Pentecostals in South Africa. Pretoria: Unisa (Manualia Didactica), 1992.
Dubb, A. Community of The Saved. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1976.
Watt, P. The Assemblies of God: A Missiological Evaluation. MTh thesis, Unisa, Pretoria, 1991.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Malihambe - Let the Word Spread, copyright © 1999, by J. A. Millard, Unisa Press, Pretoria, South Africa. All rights reserved.