Joseph Doke was born at Chudleigh, Devonshire, on November 5, 1861. In 1886, he married Agnes H. Biggs, a granddaughter of 1820 British settler, David Hobson, nephew of William Carey of India. They had three sons, Willy, who trained as a medical missionary, Clement Martyn Doke, who became a missionary and who made a contribution to the study of African languages, Comber, and Olive, who worked and died among the Lamba People.
J. J. Doke, can be described as a generous and natural giver, who in the trials of others, showed sympathy, that prompted him to serve. J. J. Doke, was sympathetic to the desire of the Indians for improved civil rights. Gandhi was invited to recuperate at Doke’s house after Gandhi clashed with fellow Indians and was left for dead in the streets of Johannesburg. Gandhi confessed that if all Christians were like the Doke family, who took him in, wounded and weary, and nursed him back to life, he might have become a committed Christian himself. When fanatical support for the British in the Boer war broke out, he insisted that there was another side to the conflict which showed the Boers as the oppressed and not the oppressors. Mr. Doke’s loving nature was proof of his perfect interpretation of God’s love, as he reflected that love to others around him.
To be a missionary had been his first ambition, but this ambition was not to be fulfilled due to debilitating asthma and palpitations. In spite of his sense of obligation for reaching the heathen, he faithfully accepted his second choice, the Christian ministry.
He accepted, without reserve, the deity of Christ, preached His vicarious sacrifice for sinners, believed the hereafter of the impenitent to be dreadful. For him, the Gospel was the power of God unto salvation and he rejoiced in hope of the return of our Lord.
His preaching was often eloquent, sympathetic and heart-searching. For conversions he had an apostolic passion. One of the most impressive sermons was his Union sermon in Grahamstown in 1884. His text was, “I will bring the blind by a way that they know not.” (Isaiah 42:16) His freedom of speech, his intense fervour, his deeply interested and thrilled hearers, are memories that survive the passing years.
Mr. Doke had a vision of Baptist work stretching from Cape Town to the Congo. Because neither his church nor the Transvaal council could help him, he turned to writing as an extra source of income. Six years passed during which he wrote Gandhi, An Indian Patriot in South Africa and his romances, The Secret City *and *The Queen of the Secret City, the latter of which was published posthumously. The income from the first romance was devoted to a journey of inquiry to ascertain whether the South African Baptist missionary society should take over the Kafulafuta Mission from the Nyasa Industrial Mission.
In regards to the evangelization of Central Africa, J. J. Doke was influenced by his conviction that Central Africa called more loudly for missionaries than South Africa and the decided preference for Central Africa of two of his sons, who were preparing to be missionaries. He was also influenced by a conversation with the veteran missionary, Frederik Stanley Arnot, who told him that Kafulafuta, run by two Baptists, Phillips and Wildey, was the only mission station, in a district of 30 000 square miles, and also by the discovery that, for financial reasons, the Nyasa Industrial Mission was preparing to withdraw from the field.
He went to Cape Town in 1881 and preached in the Union Church where he was very well received. At the Union meetings in Port Elizabeth in 1882, it was decided that he should attempt to gather together a congregation in Graaff-Reinet. There, his gracious personality and charm as a preacher rapidly drew hearers. Spiritual results followed and a church was formed.
In 1885, he succeeded his father as pastor of Chudleigh Church in Devonshire. Then he accepted the call of the large church in City Road, Bristol, a call which came as a welcome surprise. He was probably the youngest minister in the city, but he held his place worthily, as he drew large congregations, baptized many young people, and saw missionary interest grow.
To quote his own words, it was “amid a perfect storm of sorrow” that, for the sake of his eldest son’s health, he had to move to New Zealand, where he settled as the pastor of the church in Christchurch. Seven happy years he ministered there, during which time he was honoured by being elected president of the New Zealand Baptist Union. While living in New Zealand, he heard about the plight of the Chinese and, driven by a heart of compassion, he journeyed to the magistrate’s court in Christchurch, to defend Chinese immigrants who had done no wrong, putting himself at great personal risk.
In 1903, the Grahamstown Church sent him an invitation, which he accepted. Four years of devoted service followed. During that time, he was chosen to be president of the South African Baptist Union. In 1907 he became the pastor of the Central Church, Johannesburg, which was in serious difficulty. He gave himself to the work with the enthusiasm of his younger days. “The venture,” he wrote, “is a great one. It may be that experience, which I have bought in different markets, will fit in here.” To prevent the church’s property from being seized in a foreclosure by the mortgage bondholder, he went to America and England to raise funds.
In 1913, Doke with his son, Clement, undertook a journey of 1475 miles to Northern Rhodesia. The work of the two missionaries, Phillips and Wildey, at the Kafulafuta mission station was, he wrote, “an object lesson in Christian devotion, worth going so far to see.” To him it was a call to our churches to seize the opportunity of evangelizing the very heart of Africa. On his way home, Clement left him in Buluwayo, and he went on to Umtali in East Rhodesia by request of the Missionary Committee of the Baptist Union to interview Rev. R. Wodehouse, who wished to transfer his mission to the South Africa Baptist Missionary Society.
There on the August 15, 1913, in the hospital, a stranger in a strange land, he died of enteric fever that he contracted on the journey. His death deeply touched the heart of his denomination, as well as native, Chinese, and Indian friends throughout South Africa.
In the weekly newspaper Indian Opinion, a memoir was written about him which said: “He claimed no exclusive relationship with anybody. To him every human being was truly a friend and brother.” It went on to say, “Mr Doke was among the few who knew no distinction of race, colour or creed.” It also said that, “Mr Doke came to the Indian cause uninvited. He was ever a seeker, ever a friend of the weak and oppressed.”
It was seen that there was no other honourable course than to fulfil the wish of this valiant knight of Christ by assuming the responsibility of the Lambaland Mission.
*Thou hast made him most blessed forever, Thou hast made him exceedingly glad with thy countenance. *
Sybrand de Swardt
S. Hudson-Reed, Clement Martyn Doke: Man of Two Missions (The South African Baptist Historical Society, 1998).
S. Hudson-Reed, *By Taking Heed * (The South African Baptist Historical Society, 1983).
Indian Opinion (No. 33, v. 11. August 23, 1913).
This article, received in 2004, was written by Sybrand de Swardt, a student at Capetown Baptist Seminary, South Africa, a DACB participating institution, under the supervision of Dr. Kevin Roy, liaison coordinator.